Michigan farmers sell direct to Japan
Over the last four years, two brothers and a loose affiliation of independent growers have sold most of their organic food grade soybeans directly to buyers in Japan.

By Pat Michalak

Spelt Gelt: The Vollmar brothers standing in a field of spelt that will be sold in the US and Germany.

Farm At A Glance



Farm name:
Vollmar Family Farms, Inc.
Related business: Organic Bean & Grain, which markets organic soybeans and grains internationally
Location: Caro, MI, in Southeast Michigan's thumb region
Important people: Mark and Steven Vollmar
Years farming: the family has been farming in Michigan since 1910
Tillable acres: 1,502
Soil type: loam
Crops: soybeans, wheat, spelt, corn, dry beans; cover crops include Mammoth clover, alfalfa, oats and rye
Livestock: none
Regenerataive farming practices: intensively managed crop rotations that include cover crops
Marketing: market directly to customers in Japan, Korea and Germany

Michigan Resources

Michigan Department of Agriculture
Use this link to check out their home page.

Select Michigan Global Newsletter
Find trade leads, consult with international and domestic marketing specialists at the Michigan Department of Agriculture website.

International and New Market Development
This Michigan Department of Ag program provides services and implements activities that help Michigan food and agricultural firms initiate or expand their international and domestic markets. The Web Site provides a brief explanation of services provided by INMDP. For information or greater detail, call (517) 241-2178. Or, contact the following:

Christine E. Lietzau
Sustainable Organic Agriculture Coordinator
(517) 373-9800
lietzauc@michigan.gov

Paul Burke
International Program Manager
(517) 373-9710
burkep@michigan.gov

 

In the “thumb” region of Michigan’s mitten shape, sugar beets and soybeans grow on fine-textured soils in lush fields that seem to stretch all the way to the Great Lakes. Like most farmers, Michigan growers are reaching out for new markets beyond their state line—in Europe, South America, and Asia. In the past four years, a group of organic grain producers in Michigan’s thumb, Organic Bean and Grain (OBNG), have successfully marketed their soybeans direct to Japan.

Together, Mark Vollmar, president of OBNG, and Steve Vollmar, president of Vollmar Family Farms, produce soybeans, corn, wheat and spelt on a 1,000-acre family farm. Mark’s responsibilities lie in marketing organic grains for the family farm. In addition, as president of OBNG, Mark buys organic soybeans from individuals in a loosely organized group of independent Michigan growers, selling the beans to customers in Japan and elsewhere. In four years, the group has swelled from three to ten growers. As the middleman, Mark saves OBNG customers the trouble of working with ten different farms. “Our largest Japanese customer wants to retain his privacy, so we have a confidential contract and I take care of communications”, says Mark.

Mark began by selling his family’s organic grains to US brokers who sold to Japan. Four years ago, a representative from a large Japanese company contacted Mark, offering a confidential contract to purchase organic food grade soybeans for soymilk and tofu. Things took off from there. “About 80% of our soybeans are now sold, processed and consumed as soymilk and tofu in Japan”, says Mark. Currently, OBNG has several Japanese customers, as well as business in Korea, Germany, and North America. In July 2000, the Vollmars took advantage of assistance from a local marketing program and traveled to Japan in order to represent their products in person. “I wanted to visit our existing customer, and develop new customers in Japan. I hope to do business with those new companies in the future”, Mark said.

Vollmar Family Farms was an established organic producer, certified by OCIA and QAI, before they began selling on the international market. So, USDA’s recent Federal Organic Program and Federal Rule haven’t changed the way the Vollmars farm. However, OBNG had to become certified by Japan, too. According to Mark, “Down the road, the USDA organic standard will be accepted by Japan, but that isn’t the case now. It will be easier to sell to Japan when that happens.”

The Vollmars' Crop Rotation
Their three-year rotation starts with soybeans, as follows:

  1. soybeans
  2. winter wheat, spelt or rye cover with spring Mammoth clover
  3. grain corn or soybeans

The Vollmars sow ‘Michigan’ Mammoth clover into grains in the spring, plowing it down in the fall after grain harvest. After a quick pass with a chisel plow or moldboard plow, some trash will remain on the surface. According to Mark, “The clover starts growing again in the spring, but it will be much thinner. In the spring, we start again with corn or soybeans. After the row crops, it’s back into winter grains or a cover crop. Any bare ground goes to a cover crop grain like rye or leftover wheat or grain cleanings. We get most of our bean ground back into winter grain. After corn, we like to plant the rye cover. Then, it’s back to soybeans. When soybean harvest is late, like this year, we hire a plane to sow the rye.”

The Vollmar family farm is a good example of other farms in the group. Mark and Steve are fourth generation farmers. Their family has farmed at the same location in Michigan’s thumb region since 1910. In order to produce their high-quality grains, the Vollmars renovated the barn their great-grandfather built in 1920, adding grain-cleaning equipment and a warehouse. Soybeans, corn, wheat and spelt are the focus, along with some dry beans, a little oats, and assorted cover crops.

Organic farmers in the OBNG group grow food-grade soybeans and expect yields lower than standard beans. For tofu, ‘Vinton’ is the choice. For soymilk, the Vollmars produce their own organic Syngenta ‘2020’. “We license ‘2020’ from Syngenta. Syngenta was going to phase it out, since they are replacing it with a new organic variety that has improved agronomic traits. But our contractor wants the old variety”, Mark said. “We had to start producing our own organic seed, in this case, and we sell it to other organic growers. In the future, additional organic varieties should become readily available on the market.”

Of course, any market can be unpredictable. Mark related, “Now, our Japanese customers are telling us that their economy is poor, and so their prices have gone down in the last year. For a while, there was such a strong demand. Our production has increased here, but their economy may not be able to absorb all of the beans produced here.”

Paul Burke, Manager of the Market Development Program, Michigan Department of Agriculture, adds: “Japan is still a strong market for Michigan organic soybeans. Besides OBNG, there are many other groups in Michigan and the US that sell to Japan. The market is becoming more competitive in Europe, too. Taiwan and Korea are also opening up. All of the organic grains—wheat, spelt, dry edible beans—are big on the international market now. And, there’s a growing export market for processed products,” says Burke, who works with Michigan growers.