University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Year in Cooperation: A Cooperative Development Magazine
Published by the Minnesota Association of Cooperatives
Spring 1996 -- Vol. 2 No. 2

Nothing Tastes So Sweet
Can Northern Farmers Market A Better Carrot?

By Myron Just, Researcher For Red River Trade
Corridor Project And Agriculture & Agribusiness Consultant

It may not appear in your favorite recipe but it may effect the taste of your next meal. Diurnal is a scientific description catching the fancy of farmers in Northern Minnesota and the Red River Valley.

Diurnal effect refers to the variation between day and night temperatures and its effect on a plant's root development. Sugar beets grown in the northern Red River Valley, for instance, will contain from one to two percent more sugar than beets grown farther south in years when there is comparable weather.

Now, farmers are wondering if the diurnal affect will allow them to produce superior carrots, onions, rutabaga, parsnip, red beets and other root crops. Further research is needed to prove it, but the northern farmers are hoping that this quality feature will allow them to grow and market sweeter and tastier carrots.

To diversify their farm income, and to capitalize on what may well be a special resource endowment of their soils and climate, farmers are starting new vegetable cooperatives and forming joint venture business ties with vegetable marketers.

In the past couple of years, carrot and onion production has moved from the research plot to commercial farm fields in the region. More than a thousand acres each of carrots and onions were harvested this past year in Minnesota, North Dakota and nearby areas of Manitoba.

As a Brooten, Minn., farmer describes it, "We need to produce crops that gross $5,000 per acre instead of $200 per acre to sustain our farmers and rural communities." If farmers in the Upper Midwest can effectively market a quality, consistent and more flavorful vegetable product, they may indeed turn their tundra into gold.

Here come the veggies

Northern Produce, Snowflake and Glacier are among new organizations of growers that have entered the vegetable market. Northern Lights Cooperative, in central Minnesota, broke ground near Brooten, in 1995 on a $10 million pea and sweet corn processing plant. It is a joint venture of 65 grower-members of Northern Lights and Patterson Foods of San Francisco.

The Northern Lights Cooperative is the result of six vegetable groups that formed earlier to seek alternatives to corn and soybean production. Its 65 members have contracted production from 9,000 irrigated acres of peas and sweet corn with the venture formed with Patterson. The venture is called Northern Lights Frozen Foods.

Modern transportation systems and food technology make it possible for farmers to produce vegetables almost anywhere, and for consumers everywhere to enjoy the harvest. California farmers produce about 55 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States. Market research estimates that 70 percent of the California produce is consumed east of the Mississippi River. This fact obviously provides centrally located producers of vegetables with favorable transportation economics to reach convenient markets, providing the farmers can match the high quality, well packaged and consistently supplied products from the Western producers.

Farmers and food companies in the central states have shown over time they can match quality and convenience with anyone. Vegetable production for the canned and frozen industry has a long history in southern Minnesota and the central sands region of Wisconsin. The Minnesota River Valley is home to "The Jolly Green Giant," the vegetable products unit of Pillsbury and its parent company, Grand Metropolitan Plc. Pillsbury has sold most of its canning and freezing plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and now secures products made to specifications from Seneca Foods under a long-term strategic alliance arrangement that is becoming popular throughout the world's food system.

Why now?

The expanding produce section in supermarkets is ample evidence of consumers' desire to eat healthier food and more fruits and vegetables. Walk into almost any modern supermarket and you will find the produce section has become the largest and most attractive part of the store. The stores are responding to a health conscious, fast-paced, convenience oriented consumer. Even fast food restaurants are featuring a variety of salads for square meal deal.

While this is occurring, farmers who raise corn, soybeans and wheat are looking longingly at the higher income and more stable production offered farmers of higher valued crops such as sweet corn, peas, sugar beets, potatoes and dry edible beans. They have also seen how farmers have enhanced their own economics by being equity owners in processing and marketing companies such as American Crystal, Minn-Dak, Southern Minnesota Sugar Beet Cooperatives and Minnesota Corn Processors Inc.

Industry statistics show that over time, producers of raw products earn an average of from three to five percent return on their investments while processors earn in the range of 15 to 20 percent returns on investment. Farmers are determined to not only produce more vegetables in the Northern climate zones, but to participate as owners and equity partners in the processing and marketing of their production.

Research for the future

Extensive research is underway in the region, and the results are heartening.

Field and laboratory research continues at Crookston and Staples, in Minnesota, and at Oakes and Fargo, in North Dakota. Research covers planting, weed control, harvesting, storage, quality, costs, returns, labor requirements, soil types, moisture, climate and day length for both dryland and irrigated farming.

Dr. Richard Greenland has grown more than 30 varieties of vegetables successfully in his field trials at the Garrison Conservancy District - NDSU Irrigation Experiment Station in Oakes. In the Assiniboine River Valley west of Winnipeg, Manitoba, farmers have grown vegetables commercially for 30 years and offer the benefits of past research. Dr. Gary McVey has long-running laboratory and field tests on vegetables at the University of Minnesota at Crookston. And Dr. Chiwon Lee, at North Dakota State University at Fargo, has found sun and air temperature conditions more favorable for greenhouse farming in southwestern North Dakota than in a commercial region of Pennsylvania. Moreover, potential North Dakota greenhouses could utilize waste heat from coal fired electric generating plants in their area.

There is need for more research in some production areas, and primarily on ways to assure the market of a superior quality Northern-grown vegetable. But it is obvious that vegetables can be successfully grown commercially in the Northern climate zones, that farmers have the interest and management skills to do so, and that technology exists to harvest, store, process and transport top quality products to markets anywhere.

Models for cooperatives

The big challenge is in successfully marketing the vegetable crop. Models for forming cooperatives and joint ventures to market successfully are available.

Farmers from the Red River Valley have visited Brittany province in France to study how production and processing of high value crops and livestock products can bring an economic rebound to rural areas. The Brittany model may or may not be applicable to this region, but it does show what people can achieve when they develop and set goals and work together to reach them.

Michigan apple growers and California avocado growers also offer examples for developing a vegetable industry in the Upper Midwest. The Michigan apple industry has enjoyed significant processing growth after a 750-member marketing association unified to stabilize prices for themselves and the processors. Calavo, a 2,000-member avocado producer cooperative, has enjoyed phenomenal growth in processing and marketing avocados.

Sunkist, Welches and Ocean Spray are also household names in fruit and vegetable processing. They, too, are grower-owned cooperatives. They have become big, well-established and diversified with a broad product portfolio made from their members crops. Their history, development and organizational structures will be worth studying by vegetable growers in the Upper Midwest who seek to unify their marketing and processing efforts.

Marketing is Key

The big challenge is in successfully marketing the vegetable crop. Heaven knows farmers can overproduce almost anything. The refrain I hear from farmers again and again is, why produce something if we can't market it? Farmers are farmers because they want to somewhat independent. Farmers have come to realize the price of this independence. Potato farming in the Red River Valley is a good example. Over the years, there have been hundreds of independent wash plants. The brokers allow individual growers to undercut each other in the market. Peak Market Sales in Manitoba was organized by farmers to prevent that from happening. Sugar beet and durum growers organized to do the same. After twenty years of competing with each other in the sugar market, the regional growers cooperatives merged their marketing efforts to form United Sugar. Now they are uniting and diversifying further to build a corn sweetener plant called Pro Gold.

A new crop of vegetables has the potential to offer regional farmers and rural communities a big increase in income and economic activity. Vegetable production has tremendous potential in the area-- from root crops to greenhouse production. The key will be successful market development to avoid over-production, economic losses and chaotic marketing.

Myron Just served in the North Dakota Senate from 1971 to 1973, and was North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture from 1973 to 1981. Just is currently working with developing economic opportunities with the Red River Trade Corridor Project and continues to farm near Berlin, North Dakota. His recent report from an ACDI/USAID project in Kvasnodar Kray, Russia can be read in the November/December issue of Agri-Visions. He has served on the board of Harvest States for twelve years.

This material has been reproduced in electronic format with the permission of Year in Cooperation.

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