Ohio veg growers weathering recession

06/05/2009 11:00:11 AM
Andy Nelson

The recession isn’t hitting Ohio vegetable growers as hard as it is other sectors of the economy.

In addition to growing vegetables in Ohio, Don Bettinger, president of Swanton, Ohio-based Bettinger Farms Inc., also grows greenhouse flowers.

Heading into the 2009 flower season, the question of how the recession would affect consumers’ appetites for sweet, pretty things in their houses and gardens was never far from Bettinger’s mind.

Then the season started.

“We were leery about that whole deal, but now we’re about to sell it,” Bettinger said in mid-May.

Bettinger is optimistic that same demand for flowers will carry over to the company’s vegetable sales as well. Bettinger Farms expects to begin shipping sweet corn in the second half of July.

With the recession, fewer people are eating out and more are eating at home, a trend that benefits Ohio shippers like Bettinger.

From what Mark Guess, president of GroCo Farms Inc., Jamestown, Ohio, has heard, summer vegetable production could be largely unchanged in 2009 — in Ohio and in other growing regions.

The recession likely has a lot to do with that.

“The people we buy seed from say acreage is pretty steady,” Guess said. “With the uncertainty about the economy, I doubt if many people are expanding acreage.”

Ken Holthouse, general manager of Doug Walcher Farms, North Fairfield, Ohio, agreed.

“It used to be that if you had a good year, the next year you’d plant 15% extra,” Holthouse said. “Now, with the economy the way it is, we plant what we can sell. It’s too expensive to gamble — I save that for Vegas.”

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism, Holthouse said. Fresh vegetables still sell, bad economy or not.

“We’ve been surveying our customers, and they say that while produce isn’t recession-proof, it is recession-resistant,” he said.

Other signs, however, point toward the recession taking it a bit easier on the fresh produce industry, Guess said.

“You never know where people are going to cut back, but the recession has really been pretty kind to agriculture,” he said.

“Pretty good” prices for grain thus far in 2009 could be a good omen for Ohio fruit and vegetable producers, Guess said.

Agriculture may not be as hard-hit by the downturn as other sectors of the economy.
 
But it’s not immune, said Loren Buurma, co-owner of Buurma Farms Inc., Willard, Ohio.

“You’d like to think food is recession-proof, but it’s not,” he said.

Yes, there are a lot of vegetable staples that are important enough to people’s everyday diets — and cheap enough — to withstand recession pressures, Buurma said, but a lot of produce also can be filed under “impulse buys.”

Consumers may not be as likely to stray from their grocery lists and act on those impulses.

Radishes are one commodity whose fate this season worries Buurma somewhat.

“People are asking, ‘Do I have to have radishes in my salad?’” he said.
 
But the concern is not just limited to individual commodities, Buurma. Across the board, retailers are seeing declines.

Recent signs, though, could be pointing up.

“Customers I’ve talked to have said demand is down 5% to 25%, depending on what items and what time of year it is,” he said. “But there are signs of life. Hopefully the economy will continue to get stronger.”

Even with the recession, which has hit the housing industry particularly hard and stopped many green-lighted commercial and retail projects in their tracks, growers in Ohio continue to be wooed by developers, Buurma said.

Not that he’s one of them.

“We’re 65 miles from Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland, so we don’t have that problem,” he said. “But there are a number of growers who are getting pressure and have sold out.”



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