Michigan programs aim to help growers get ahead

An Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses employee examines organic vegetable starts.

Greenhouse production is key for many commercial growers, especially those in cold climates. With consumers’ growing demand for fresh produce year-round, they are becoming more and more essential. But, undercover crops sap a lot of energy, draining both growers’ pocketbooks and the environment. In addition, fertilizers, pesticides, petroleum and waste products are potential water pollutants. Today, some state programs and innovative farmers are finding ways to build better greenhouses and develop strategies for production that is both environmentally sensitive and profitable.

Supporting environmentally sound methods

One effort designed to aid agricultural pursuits in using environmentally sustainable methods is the voluntary Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP; www.maeap.org). Program Manager Janice Wilford says MAEAP was developed by a coalition of farmers, commodity groups, academics, state and federal agencies, and conservation and environmental groups. Although her agency, the Michigan Department of Agriculture, serves as the compliance verifier, MAEAP is a partnership effort rather than a government or regulatory program. About one decade old, the group helps Michigan farmers identify environmental risks and develop coping strategies that are both effective and practical for implementation. Over the years, specific guidelines for various agricultural endeavors have been created.

Signage promotes an operation’s compliance with voluntary environmental quality assurance efforts.

Growers earning the MAEAP seal of approval have a marketing and funding advantage. The logo, recently made available for promotional use by verified farms, demonstrates good environmental stewardship to consumers, and the designation can bring cost-share incentives, tax credits, low-cost lending and reduced liability insurance premiums from participating companies. It also certifies that applicable Michigan Right-to-Farm practices are in place, providing nuisance liability protection.

MAEAP verification involves an educational workshop and a confidential on-farm risk assessment by a groundwater technician, which identifies potential problems and customized, economically viable solutions. Lastly, a third-party verification confirms that risks have been appropriately addressed. Verification is repeated every three years.

Wilford says some growers are reluctant to participate because the needed modifications can be expensive, costs that may take an extended period to recoup.

“[I wish we could provide more financial] incentives for farms,” she adds. “[MAEAP] works well for greenhouses because of the consumer connection.” Some cost-share and rebate incentives are offered. In addition, some growers reduce their overall expenses because program participation sometimes demonstrates that inputs can be reduced or altered.

Greenhouse*A*Syst helps identify risks

Greenhouse production is the latest sector for which MAEAP and the Michigan Groundwater Stewardship Program (MGSP; www.michigan.gov/mda), in conjunction with Michigan State University (www.msu.edu), have developed a risk assessment tool, referred to as Greenhouse*A*Syst (www.maeap.org/maeap/greenhouse/greenhouseasyst ). Introduced about two years ago, it reviews all aspects of protecting groundwater and surface water from potential pollutants. Components assessed include, among others, greenhouse site and soil; pesticide, fertilizer and petroleum storage and handling; and management of waste, septic systems and nutrients. Risks may be rated at low, medium or high levels. All high and some medium-risk concerns that involve MAEAP standards must be addressed prior to seeking verification. A specific improvement plan is developed, which may include structural, management practices or record-keeping changes. The plan may be implemented over a period of years if sophisticated or costly remedies are required.

“Greenhouse*A*Syst was initially implemented in pilot locations to test the assessments in the real world and to check doability,” Wilford says, a procedure that allowed the team to modify it before program introduction.

Putting it to work

One operation that has embraced MAEAP and Greenhouse*A*Syst is Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses (www.elzingagreenhouses.com) in Portage. The nearly 50-year-old company is now owned by Mark Elzinga, the son of one of its founders, Jake Elzinga. Producing bedding plants and vegetable starts in 30 acres of greenhouses, Elzinga is clear about the impetus for his latest endeavor, a 4-acre organic house.

“We went to organic for the higher selling price for those starts,” he says. “We had been growing sustainably and were happy with that, but moved to organic [to earn greater profits].”

What caught him off guard was the increased environmental consciousness that came with the move. “This represented a big change in the company,” he adds.

Following a two-year planning period and seven-month construction phase, production began in late 2007. The new facility, unveiled with an open house event on March 12, 2008, is primarily heated with a geothermal heat pump system. Well water is pumped into a 65,000-gallon tank and heated to 120 degrees. Supplemental heat is provided with high-efficiency gas boilers, with an additional large boiler available for extremely cold temperatures. The entire heating system is computer-controlled to be activated as necessary. Water is heated for storage with 200 4-by-8-foot solar panels. Add it all up and 80 percent of the heating needs are met through alternative methods.

Two wind turbines generate a small portion of the operation’s electricity needs and all forms of recycling are maximized. In addition to putting water and paper to reuse, Elzinga harvests its plastic flats from customers. They are returned to East Jordan Plastics (www.eastjordanplastics.com) in East Jordan, Mich., where they are reground to produce the next batch of containers. Elzinga finds this approach more workable than alternative flat materials such as rice because the required recycling and/or composting facilities aren’t well-established.

He says that the most challenging aspect of transitioning to organic production was in developing living soil. Unable to source truly organic soil that meets national organic standards, the greenhouse created its own, using yucca extract as a wetting agent and tweaking the formula with Sun Gro Horticulture’s (www.sungro.com) Quincy, Mich., operation. Sun Gro is a large Canadian peat producer headquartered in Vancouver, B.C.

“We now have beautiful soil,” Elzinga says.

In addition to earning certification for organic production of vegetables and herbs in the entire 4-acre greenhouse, Elzinga & Hoeksema’s facility is the inaugural greenhouse to receive MAEAP approval. State-of-the-art features include mobile worker friendly benches that slide on tubular rails, automatic irrigation with no runoff, automatic compost tea (vermicompost with fish emulsion and sea salts used in lieu of traditional fertilizers) applicators and brushes that rub tomatoes, stiffening their stems. The house is closed to pests with containment berms and outside barriers that also serve to welcome beneficial insects. The structure offers two loading areas, packaging, earthworm production and seed-sowing stations, as well as 500 high-pressure sodium grow lights.

Elzinga says consumers’ desire for organically and locally grown food has made the new house a big success. In the winter, lettuce and other vegetables are produced for an area hospital. Next up may be an expansion into Asian vegetables for that niche market.

“I’m very happy with the facility and what’s happening,” Elzinga says. “The most important thing to being sustainable is to be profitable; think about reducing shrink. Reduced shrink equals reduced cost.”

Check with your state department of agriculture for environmental assistance programs in your area. More information is available online at www.ers.usda.gov, www.nal.usda.gov and www.epa.gov/agriculture.

The author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.