ALMA – Fred Monroe grew up in the countryside near Alma. He became interested in gardening at a young age. At 16, he started selling the vegetables from his garden at the farmers’ market — and he found his calling. Now, Monroe is part of a nationwide movement that is creating a new market for organic produce in Michigan.
Monroe Family Organics sells about 40 percent of its produce through a “market-style” Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Customers buy a share of his crop at the beginning of the season and order what fruits and vegetables they want to receive. The customer can pay the full price of their order upfront or make an initial payment when they order. Monroe then plants and cultivates the produce and delivers it to the customers after harvest.
Community Supported Agriculture started on the east coast and has spread all over the country, Monroe said. It’s commonplace in bigger cities, where urban residents don’t have access to farms. Monroe’s program is unique because he launched it in a rural setting, and it will be a test of whether national tastes for organic products has spread to smaller places.
Monroe Family Organic’s CSA runs from June to October, with pick-up locations in Alma, Mount Pleasant, Lansing, and Midland. Over the 20-week season, Monroe deals with private customers as well as local restaurants and cooperative grocery stores.
One of the earliest and most enthusiastic customers of Monroe’s CSA program is Emma Currie. She is the chef and co-owner of The Brass Rail Café and The Market on Main in downtown Mount Pleasant. All of her produce is supplied by Monroe Family Organics.
“Fred was one of the few farmers I have dealt with that could actually produce the volume I needed as a restaurant,” Currie said. “It is a little more expensive. However, the quality and freshness makes it all worthwhile.”
It isn’t only chefs who are interested in CSAs. “It seems to be an increasing trend over the last 10 to 15 years,” Monroe said. “Most small farms have some CSA program going, whether it’s a small part of what they do or everything.”
CSA provides a number of benefits to both the farmer and the consumer. The farmer receives money at the beginning of the season instead of waiting until after harvest. The consumer gets fresh, locally grown produce as well as the opportunity to personally interact with the person who grew it. It also gives customers more say in how their food is produced.
Monroe’s operation is also one hundred percent organic. That means no synthetic chemicals are used in the growing process. Monroe Family Organics uses natural, environmentally-friendly alternatives to promote the growth of crops and to ward off harmful pests and weeds. He said that organic farming sometimes requires more physical labor than commercial farming, but he believes it leads to higher quality products.
Despite the effects of the 2008 recession on other industries in Michigan, agriculture has remained strong. According to a 2012 study, profits from agriculture and food industries in Michigan totaled $91.4 billion, which is about 50 percent more than in 2004.
That’s one reason why Monroe can afford to make this gamble, After discovering his passion for farming in high school, Fred went to Michigan State University to study horticulture where he met his wife, Michele. While in college, Monroe did an internship at Angelic Organics, a large-scale CSA farm in Illinois. After that, Fred and his wife moved to Ohio where he managed a small farm for five years.
The couple returned to Michigan in 2010 to be close to their friends and family. They began Monroe Family Organics on a small tract of land a mere three miles from where Monroe was raised. They currently lease the land from another organic farmer in order to avoid taking on debt from a loan. The Monroes plan to save up their money and buy the land themselves in the future.
Currie described Monroe as a man who is passionate about his profession. She said he is always open to feedback and suggestions from his customers. Each season, Monroe brings Currie seed catalogs, and she places orders based on the dishes she plans to concoct from the ingredients he provides.
During its first season in 2011, Monroe Family Organics cultivated five acres and they used seven acres last season. Monroe plans on renting eight acres for this season, saying that he wants to improve the efficiency and yield with the land he has before expanding further.
Monroe grows a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables. Among their crops are various kinds of sweet corn, radishes, broccoli, peppers, bok choy, and tomatoes. One of their best-selling products is baby leaf lettuce, which is available through most of their season.
The Monroes also have a “hoop house” that allows them to grow vegetables that aren’t in season.
Similar to a greenhouse, it is a long, cylindrical building covered in transparent plastic sheets that trap heat. Their hoop house was funded by an investment from East Lansing Food Co-op.
Though he doubts CSA will replace traditional farming, Monroe said that there is a definite demand for CSA farms in Michigan.
“It will always be a bit of a niche market, mostly because of the convenience factor of stores,” Monroe said, “but I think it is a growing market.”