Globalization is becoming as much a challenge for the agriculture industry as it is for manufacturing. China is now the world's largest apple producer, accounting for about 45% of the world's apples, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service. At the same time, U.S. apple production has fallen to its lowest point since 1988. Many see the rise in China's apple industry as being a threat to growers, including those in Ohio. But what some people see as a threat, others see as an opportunity. As part of Making Change: Reinventing our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman explores some of the core opportunities that could help Ohio's apple growers branch out.
Winter at the Coit Road Farmer's Market in East Cleveland is not the best season for selling apples. Yet two area apple growers have tables loaded with the tasty fruit.
Bob Schuppe: Today I have northern spy, that's an old fashioned one. I have golden delicious, damon winesap, red delicious, jonathon, hozart gold, empire. That's a new macintosh, much better than the regular macintosh.
Bob Schuppe's apples sell for about 43 cents a pound - try finding that price in the supermarket. Schuppe and his competitor at the market, Evan Riggen, both come from families that have been growing apples for generations; both have been coming to the Coit Road market since they were boys; and neither man will be handing their businesses on to their children. Evan Riggen.
Evan Riggen: As the older generation has retired, there hasn't been enough money for the younger generation to go into it, including my own family. So my own family, they have good education and much better jobs 'cause there really isn't much money - net profit - in farming, at least on a small scale.
But it doesn't have to be that way, says Kari Moore, program director for the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network, a group that works to increase the sale and consumption of local foods. People haven't lost their taste for apples. On average, Americans eat 18 pounds per capita a year. Maybe what's needed, Moore suggests, is some creativity and good old-fashioned American Entrepreneurship.
Kari Moore: Wonderful products that really represent the communities and the regions and really adds to a sense of place. I mean, food is one of those things that really speaks to people.
Moore says it doesn't matter what the product is, but it does matter what that kind of cottage industry could do for the economy.
Kari Moore: Jobs are like number one, right? We need more jobs in Northeast Ohio. So, how can the food industry help? There are a lot of these opportunities that are glaring. I mean, truckloads of apples are going back to the farm, why can't someone capitalize on that?
Another approach to boosting apple sales might be finding more venues for selling apples. All the children in Cleveland's schools eat apples, wouldn't it be logical for local growers to sell to Cleveland Schools? It might be logical, says Judy Kaplan of the Cleveland Municipal School district, but it's not exactly easy. As supervisor of procurement, nutrition and marketing for food and child services, Kaplan says Cleveland schools use federal funds to buy all their produce, which means they must buy from distributors and farmers who offer the lowest price and are approved by the Department of Defense. That's right, the Department of Defense.
Judy Kaplan: In Ohio, the local farmer contacts DOD Nashville and then they send them a contact list of local people that are handling DOD produce who have completed the necessary paperwork to do business with the Department of Defense and they can sell to that particular person.
Kaplan says for smaller growers it's not worth the effort, unless the farmers had some kind of cooperative arrangement to consolidate their goods. A collaborative group might also have an easier time selling to more retailers. It's been successful in other cities. In Boston, a seven-year-old group called Red Tomato serves as a broker for farmers and stores, helping with logistics, promotion and marketing. Red Tomato Founder and Managing Director Michael Rozyne says it's easy to convince consumers of the value of local produce by simply exposing them to the region's goods.
Michael Rozyne: The products really speak for themselves. I think that when you get that combination of giving somebody a piece of fruit or vegetable and they love the taste and then letting them know it was raised nearby, it's kind of a one-two punch that's hard to match.
Kari Moore of the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network says there is no infrastructure in place to connect growers to consumers, although the Network is hoping to create one.
Still, some farmers aren't interested in having any kind of middleman sell their apples. Some opt to open roadside markets or let customers pick their own in the orchards. Bob Schuppe at the Coit Road Farmer's Market says farmers are stereotypical entrepreneurs: they don't want to rely on anyone.
Bob Schuppe: You can develop your own clientele. If you treat people right, they'll come back. People can complain and you try to stand behind your product.
Schuppe says there will always be people who enjoy buying directly from farmers, it just might take more creative efforts to ensure that small growers can survive and profit. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.