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Big announcements at Farm Summit

Agriculture is integral part of region’s economy

Policy | April 4, 2013 | By Bill Palladino

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Bill Palladino is MLUI's senior policy specialist focusing on the Taste the Local Difference marketing program. 

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The summit featured a morning of speakers telling their success stories, with key updates from important sectors in local agriculture. 

There's a business in town that recently signed a lucrative contract with a multinational French corporation to produce a line of products. The contract is creating a huge buzz in the manufacturing community in northern Michigan. It's expected to create 94 sustainable jobs, utilize the skills of our region’s workforce, and tap other plentiful economic resources, such as the raw materials that make up the product.

You probably haven’t heard about this huge local success story. Who do you think it is?  It's not Hagerty Insurance, though they are a fine example of a growing business here. It's not Cone Drive, or Lear, or connected in any way to Munson Medical Center. It’s not the airport or the Grand Traverse Resort. In fact, it’s not any of the well-known businesses that come to mind when considering economic growth.

The story is about, of all things, a cherry cooperative: Cherry Growers, Inc.

Traverse City and the surrounding region have histories rich with industrial prowess: Hannah and Lay's lumber business; iron foundries along the Boardman River; Parsons and Stulen inventing numerical controls as we entered the computer age in 1950s. These are the stories we remember when it comes to any discussion of business success in our community. So the idea of agriculture as a solid, sustainable piece of our economy has not always been the first thing that comes to mind.

Over the last decade, though, through the relentless and often creative efforts of organizations and entrepreneurs, a now burgeoning food and farming sector is evident at every turn. On Tuesday, March 12, the fruits of this work were celebrated during the fifth annual Farm Route to Prosperity Summit at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City. It’s there that you would’ve heard the success story of Cherry Growers, Inc. and similar stories from many other businesses in our region—including farms.

The event, a centerpiece for the Grand Vision’s Food & Farming Network, featured a morning of speakers telling their success stories, with key updates from important sectors in this dynamic entrepreneurial space. Speakers on the dais included co-chairs of the Food and Farming Network, Rob Sirrine (MSU Extension), and Jim Sluyter (MLUI), along with other members of the network—farmers, school food service directors, even artisan cheese makers.

Sue Kurta, of Kingsley, is producing one of the region’s first commercially available, cultured, ripened cheeses. She skipped a traditional speech and played a delightful video telling the story of her passion for her cheese-making business, Boss Mouse Cheese, and wrapped it up with an elegant 60-second treatise on how cheese is made.

Farmer and entrepreneur Nic Welty told his story of collaborating with other farmers in a consortium that will allow them to provide schools with a steady volume of colorful local produce. He also explained, with the help of Rob Sirrine, how a food hub works. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) selected Traverse City as one of only six communities in Michigan for a Food Hub grant. A local food hub will help anchor more food system entrepreneurs in Traverse City.

Steve Nance, Oryana’s general manager, spoke of the business’s role in creating new economic opportunities for local investment. Annie Shetler, of the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC) and Baker College, told the crowd about their efforts to provide business support and education to the agriculture community.

The traditional business community also presented its case for agriculture as a flourishing economic engine in northwest Michigan.

Laura Galbraith, of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, wowed the audience with an announcement of the Chamber’s participation in a consortium of lenders making more than $4.5 million available to local businesses.

“We’re trying to be creative in aggregating new sources of business financing, especially for businesses that can’t get or qualify for traditional funding. And many agricultural businesses would fit this funding criteria,” Galbraith said.

The Chamber’s participation as compiler of these funds is designed to keep more of money circulating locally, while building the businesses that could be the future of the community’s economic base.

Susan Vigland, health and wellness manager for Hagerty Insurance, explained her company’s efforts to engage employees in healthy eating. Among a long list of tactics they have employed is a micro farmers market just for Hagerty employees, an online ordering system for employees to buy products from local growers who deliver right to their workplace, and Hagerty-funded deliveries to every desk of at least one local farm-fresh item each month as an introduction to healthy local food.

“It just makes good financial sense to keep your employees healthy,” Vigland said.  

The last speaker of the morning was Brian Mitchell, COO of Cherry Growers, Inc., the aforementioned cherry cooperative based in Grawn. He told the audience about landing the contract with Materne North America to manufacture the first squeezable, re-sealable, 100 percent fruit applesauce. You may recognize the product as GoGo squeeze. The deal created 94 new food manufacturing jobs.

These were just a few of the featured speakers at the summit. The goal was to celebrate the successes of the northwest Michigan food and farming network over the past year, and provide context for taking next steps for the region’s food system.

A full report detailing all the speakers, with video clips of many, can be found at foodandfarmingnetwork.org.

Bill Palladino is MLUI's senior policy specialist focusing on the Taste the Local Difference marketing program. 

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