Farm to Institution Marketing: 2012 Survey Shows Interest from Michigan Vegetable Farmers


February 1, 2013 - <> & Caitlin Fisher

In February and March 2012, researchers from the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems surveyed Michigan vegetable farmers regarding their interest in and willingness to sell their products to institutional markets (K-12 schools, hospitals and colleges/universities), and motivators and barriers associated with this type of marketing. The survey was conducted in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agriculture Statistics Service Michigan Field Office (MI NASS). This is the first supply-side Farm to Institution (FTI) survey conducted by CRFS, though the center has conducted surveys of institutional buyers’ food purchasing and serving practices and their perspectives about and use of local foods.

A 25-question paper survey, along with a cover letter and consent information, was mailed to a representative sample (825) of Michigan vegetable farmers with farms of varying sizes (one to 500 and more acres), as determined by MI NASS. Question topics included vegetable production and management practices; marketing, including to institutions; and demographics. The majority of FTI questions were based on a 5-point Likert-type scale. After two survey mailings, MI NASS staff made follow-up phone calls to farmers who had not yet responded to the paper survey. Surveys were returned by 311 farmers with active farms for an overall response rate of 38%.

Eighty-five percent of the respondents were male, 15% were female, and 28% were 65 years old or older. Respondents’ mean years farming was 33 years, ranging from one to 80 years. The majority had small- to mediumsized farms: the mean number of acres in production in 2011 was 96 acres, but the median and mode were 18 and two acres, respectively. Farms in the sample larger than 25 acres tended to have more certifications and verifications than smaller farms; about 68% of respondents with USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audits and 59% with Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) verification were larger than 25 acres. More farms smaller than 25 acres were reported as synthetic pesticide- and fertilizer-free (72% each) compared to farms larger than 25 acres (26% and 23%, respectively). When asked which fresh market vegetables were grown in the past two years, responses illustrated the diversity of Michigan’s crops. Each of the 32 crop types listed on the survey was represented by at least three respondents. The top vegetables grown were tomatoes (58%), sweet corn (53%), winter squash (51%), peppers (48%) and cucumbers (47%).

Fair prices (89%), reliable payment (87%), and market’s value of local food and farming (80%) were factors of greatest influence in farmers’ selection of markets. Almost 61% of respondents indicated that they sold their fresh market vegetables through a farm store/stand. Of those who had a farm store/stand, 59% also sold at farmers markets. Only 7% of respondents sold their produce to any institutions. Of those who had not yet sold directly to an institution, 47% reported interest in selling to K-12 schools, 41% to hospitals and 40% to colleges and/or universities. Overall, 50% of farmers were interested in selling to at least one of these institution types.

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