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Growers Taste Success with Farm Guide

Little booklet powers big push for local food economy

June 18, 2006 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Brian Confer

The cover of this year’s 10-county farm and food guide reflects the beauty of locally grown products.

When early spring turned unseasonably warm this year, Kingsley area greenhouse farmer Richard Zenner found himself with thousands of pounds of tomatoes growing faster than weeds after rain. Faster, he feared, than he’d be able to find buyers to purchase them on such unexpected short notice.

Mr. Zenner, though, is one of 200 farms now listed in the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute’s expanded and updated Taste the Local Difference food guide, which will be unveiled at a gala reception Monday evening along with other exciting, new elements of the Institute’s 2006 local foods campaign.

Because Mr. Zenner’s business is in the guide, he had already learned first hand that the Institute’s popular annual publication isn’t just a pretty face, but the heart of a deeper effort to help farms and a wide range of local buyers find each other and make more local sales happen. So he called for help from the Institute, which, in addition to producing the guide and the marketing campaign that accompanies it, conducts market research and makes connections with food distributors and buyers.

Sure enough, the Institute hooked him up with Leonardo’s Produce, a third-generation, Detroit-based produce distributor eager to satisfy increasing demand from area restaurants for locally grown foods. With this referral, Mr. Zenner was able to sell about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes to a dozen local restaurants and launch a new business relationship for reaching more customers. In turn, Leonardo’s Produce owner Sam Maniaci is glad to have a quality local product to showcase to the restaurants he serves.

And chefs that Leonardo’s supplies are “jumping up and down” at the prospect of receiving more local produce, said Eric Hahn, Leonardo’s northern Michigan marketing associate, who grew up and lives in Charlevoix.

“The reason why they like it is that they know they are getting a fresh local product and that it is helping the local economy and keeping the money in northern Michigan,” Mr. Hahn said.

Taste the Local Difference at a Glance

Making it visible: Look for the Taste the Local Difference logo, menu icon, and posters at participating grocery stores, bed and breakfasts, resorts, and restaurants. And find places to shop, dine, and stay that feature tasty local farm foods on the “Who’s Servin’ link at www.LocalDifference.org.

Answering demand: The Michigan Land Use Institute increased its Taste the Local Difference print run from 25,000 last year to 40,000 this year and expanded the farms listed from eight to 10 counties: Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee, and Wexford.

More to choose: The number of farms listed in the Taste the Local Difference guide has grown from 160 last year to 200. They grow everything from asparagus and strawberries to eggs, milk, and meat, to Christmas trees, wool, nursery plants, and flowers, too.

New this year: Food lovers can find specialty food producers who showcase local farm products, including cheese made with local milk, jams, jellies, salsas, teas, breads, and even chocolates made with local fruit.

Bottle and basket: The guide lists 17 community farmers markets and 18 wineries; and when and where to find them.

Ways to pay: Some farms accept Project FRESH or Senior Project FRESH coupons. Also, some farms accept Bay Bucks, a local currency. The guide lists them.

Handy size: Pocketsize Taste the Local Difference guides are available at libraries, visitor centers, farmers markets, and other popular spots. Call 231-882-4723 if you can’t find a copy.

Dandy site: The Web site www.LocalDifference.org allows specialized searches, and can even find farms that take the kids for “u-pick” activities or use certain techniques such as certified organic practices and hormone-free beef and dairy products.

Lots of news: Other www.LocalDifference.org features include a calendar of food- and farm-related events, updates on local products when they come into season, and news of other Taste the Local Difference program activities in farm business development and farm-to-cafeteria sales.

Growing community support: More than 70 local businesses, farms, and organizations lent their financial support to help make Taste the Local Difference happen. That’s up from 40 last year.

Top of the Crop: Traverse City State Bank, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippawa Indians are the Taste the Local Difference campaign's lead sponsors. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided lead grant support.

Determined to help more farms and buyers connect, the Institute has planned Monday’s reception at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay—and another at Stafford’s Bay View Inn in Petoskey on Wednesday—so that they are not only celebrations of the new campaign, but also “business after hours” mixers for local food buyers and sellers. Farmers will wear nametags with the phrase “I have” followed by products they want to sell, while chefs, grocery owners, caterers, and other food buyers will wear tags announcing what they want.

Monday’s reception will celebrate Taste the Local Difference’s almost 80 restaurant, grocery, and other retail partners who feature locally produced food and will use specially designed, stand-out “Local” menu icons and bright store price cards to call attention to items such as local strawberries, beans, and greens. The gatherings will also showcase the Institute’s popular local foods Web site, www.LocalDifference.org, which drew an impressive 30,000 distinct visits during its inaugural summer, last year.

And, of course, it will applaud the 200 farms listed in a guide that will be distributed widely—40,000 copies—from Manistee to Mackinac. These farms—up from 160 last year—represent about 400 full- and part-time jobs, and more than 28,000 acres of farmland.

Making 'Local' into 'Normal'
For the Institute, it’s all about making sales of local farm products a normal part of everyday business in northwest Michigan—and a means to invigorate the local economy, preserve farmland, and highlight the region’s bounty. So the Institute will also proudly celebrate the fact that 71 local businesses, farms, and organizations turned Taste the Local Difference into a true community effort by sponsoring the campaign with their own hard-earned dollars.

New elements in the guide—along with a year of local market research and collaboration with economic development and agriculture partners—point to significant promise in the Institute’s goal to open up a new $45 million market for farms and other food businesses. That’s not just some pie-in-the-sky number: It is what would happen if households, chefs, specialty food producers, and others spent just 5 percent of their annual food and beverage purchases on local products.

In addition to listing farms, for example, this year’s Taste the Local Difference guide points shoppers to specialty food producers who offer products made with local-grown ingredients. Everyone from household cooks to restaurant chefs can buy award-winning cheeses made with milk from a farm near Cedar; breads made with local honey and dried cherries; and jams, honey spreads, salsas, and even teas made with fruit from the region’s farms. Two chocolatiers even use local cherries, cherry concentrate, wines, and brandies in their delectable products.

Such spin-off business from local agriculture shows the pivotal role farms play in the region’s larger economy, said Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, which is one of three lead “Top of the Crop” sponsors of this year’s guide. The others are Traverse City State Bank and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, along with a lead grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Taste the Local Difference goes to the Chamber’s basic purpose, which is to grow business and build community,” Mr. Luciani said. “Agriculture is an important part of our economy. With value-added products like baked goods and cheese, we see the link to manufacturers. It links to tourism. It links to our quality of life. It links to our sense of place.”

On the Right Track
Taste the Local Difference research conducted over the winter strongly indicated that the campaign is on the right track. It showed the region’s restaurant and grocery owners place a high value on the freshness and quality of local farm products, that they believe their customers share their appreciation for fresh local flavors, and that they like buying from farms because it invests in the local economy. Farmers, meanwhile, said in surveys that they are eager for help tapping into more local markets. Forty-one percent of respondents said they could use help connecting with new buyers.

And farmers and buyers made their interest in local food sales abundantly clear when100 growers and restaurant, grocery, school, and hospital food purchasers attended each of three packed events the Institute held with its farm and business development partners over the winter to strategize ways to build more sales.

Surveys and special events aside, however, Mr. Luciani thinks Taste the Local Difference’s market-based approach to preserving farmland is necessary for the region’s continued prosperity.

“You can’t have farms without the farmers,” he said. “Without farms, we put the land at risk of being a park or development.”

And either of those two options would leave a vacuum in the local economy and the region’s quality of life, he added: “It is too big a portion of our economy and too much a part of what we are to ignore it. You can’t be the Cherry Capital of the World without farms.”

Cherries, and a Lot More
The Traverse City region’s claim to fame, by the way, is that its rolling acres of cherry orchards make it the premiere spot for growing and celebrating that juicy, jewel-like red fruit. You’ll find plenty of cherry farms in the Taste the Local Difference guide, but also much more. The guide shows the region’s great farm diversity, with everything from asparagus to strawberries and eggs, milk, and meat.

The list includes “Community Supported Agriculture” farms, which sell a season’s worth of vegetables and other products to families that pay a full season’s fee in advance. It also includes farms that sell at farm stands, from the simple honor-system table to full-blown, store-like markets. There are farms that specialize in selling to restaurants only, and farms interested in selling to schools.

The guide also points to the region’s successful wine industry, its 17 community farmers markets, and opportunities to help link truly farm-fresh foods to families in need.

Those taking steps to buy from local farmers in the last year included not only restaurants, grocers, caterers, and specialty food producers. The Munson Medical Center cafeteria, Traverse City Area Public Schools, and schools in Antrim, Benzie, and Leelanau Counties all featured local farm foods and used Taste the Local Difference and the Institute as a resource.

Mr. Zenner, who’s specialized in growing greenhouse tomatoes for 15 years, believes the Taste the Local Difference effort is helping to build sales. That was true even before he linked with the Institute and figured out what to do with this spring’s overwhelming surplus: At one of the Institute’s winter events, where buyers and farms helped the Institute strategize a positive future, farmers and retailers alike stood up to briefly introduce themselves. When Mr. Zenner’s wife, Gaynell, announced Zenner Farms hydroponic tomatoes, Paul Danielson, co-owner of Trattoria Stella restaurant in Traverse City, made a beeline for their table. He’d been searching for tomatoes for his restaurant and is a big supporter of Taste the Local Difference.

“He came right over and said, ‘I want to buy your tomatoes,’ Mr. Zenner recalled. ‘He gave us his card and I said, ‘We will get with you.’”

The result? Sales, plus a local flavor difference: Bruschetta with basil and garlic-infused tomatoes from a neighbor’s farm.

Diane Conners coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference campaign. You can reach the veteran journalist and former farmers market master at diane@mlui.org. Click here to visit the Taste the Local Difference Web site.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
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