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‘Green Plate Challenge’ Brings Business to Local Emu Farm

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Sales at Irv and Patty Petitt’s Wallin Emu Ranch jumped when the Coho Café featured the bird on its Green Plate Challenge menu.

The Coho Café, in Frankfort, really stepped up to the plate this summer when it joined the Green Plate Challenge. Along with four other Benzie County restaurants, the Coho committed to serving a daily “green plate” special that used food grown or processed within a 100 miles of their restaurant for 90 percent of the meal.

Jim Barnes, owner of The Crystal Lake Catering CompanyEco-Building Products, and Wild Leek Productions, produced and promoted the Green Plate Challenge this summer in order to connect local restaurants with local farmers. Jim encouraged the restaurants to have fun with it, but he also wanted to entice them to try doing things a little differently.

“I wanted to challenge the chefs to break away from the standard practice of picking up the phone and ordering from a supplier that has no connection to our land, our environment, or our community,” he said. “I wanted them to develop relationships with local farmers and try out the fresh, healthy products they have to offer.”

It turned out that Becky DeVries, then the brand-new owner of The Coho Café, was planning to incorporate more local ingredients onto her menu; she already served fresh whitefish and other local catch. The Green Plate Challenge offered an opportunity to jump headfirst into her local food plan. She and her chefs soon were serving locally raised rabbit, venison, and even emu. Emu? Yes, local emu.

Becky says there were a few skeptical customers, but “95 percent of the people who tried it loved it!” The most popular recipe served it with blackberry or cherry compote. Whenever it was on the menu, it sold out.

Becky wasn’t surprised. It turns out that Jim had got her to try emu years ago, after he brought some home from the farmers market.

“Jim and I got together for dinner,” she recalled, “and took a shot at preparing it and we were amazed at how good it was. It was so meaty, not like chicken, like you might expect, but it was really, really good!”

Now, after just one summer season, the Coho will make emu a regular entrée starting next spring.

Irv and Patty Pettit, of Wallin Emu Ranch, who raised the emu on their farm north of Thompsonville, are thrilled.

“We were excited when Becky called us and said she wanted to give it a try this summer, but we really didn’t know what the response would be,” Patty said.

And when Becky called to tell them she was selling out of emu every weekend and wanted more, they were very pleased: “We didn’t expect that!”

Even better, the Pettits gained new customers, too.

“We had folks come to the farm because they wanted to try it at home,” Patty said. “Once they tasted it at the Coho, they looked us up so they could buy more.”

Irv said that, beyond taste, there are other reasons to try emu.

“It tastes like beef, but it’s a lean meat, so it’s healthier than beef,” he said. “It’s a great option for people who are trying to eat healthy.”

Irv and Patty have been raising emu on their 220-acre Benzie farm for years.

“We always wanted to raise a clean, simple animal,” Patty said, “one we could raise sustainably-the way nature intended.”

After doing a lot of research, they settled on Australian-native emu. These amazing birds stand close to 6 ft. tall and certainly aren’t typical farm animals for Benzie County. But it turns out that the climate is just right and they are thriving there. The Pettits are committed to treating the birds well, giving them plenty of room to run freely, and fresh grass and alfalfa grown right on the farm.

“We even give them swimming pools to keep them cool on hot summer days,” she said.

Surprisingly, emu is the Pettits’ principal livelihood. They grow their own food, live simply, and barter with friends and neighbors for things they need. They sell their meat primarily at farmers markets or by special orders, and have their own USDA processing facility on the farm.

They sell the birds’ big eggs to local chefs for incredible quiches and soufflés, and they also sell emu oil, which has been their most profitable product. Recently, medical researchers have created a high demand for the oil, so they sell some of it for that purpose, and also donate some to the National Cancer Society. Locally, they sell it at farmers markets.

“It’s a wonderful skin ointment,” Patty said. “We’ve had so many customers tell us how helpful the oil has been in soothing psoriasis, burns, and other skin conditions.”

They two also sell emu-oil-based lotions and shampoo.

The Pettits are slowly increasing their herd every year.

“We’ve sold out every single year for the last 10 years,” Patty said. “And just in the past year, we’ve had a large enough herd to be able to begin supplying restaurants.”

That is one reason they are excited about their new partnership with the Coho Café and hope to expand their business to meet the growing demand.

That is exactly what Jim Barnes envisioned.

“Sometimes all it takes is getting people to try some of our local products for them to realize what we have,” he said, “and then they later realize the connection to the local economy. They realize that they don’t have to go very far to find incredible products, right here in our own backyard.

“And once they have that connection to the farmer,” he observed, “it all comes together. It just makes sense to buy good products from people right here in our own community.”

According to noted author Michael Shuman, who wrote The Small Mart Revolution, buying local makes the best economic sense. Mr. Shuman, who spoke recently in Traverse City, shared his research that leads him to believe that “buying local is the only economic development policy that is working.”

By that he means that it’s the one thing that’s dependably bringing money, jobs, and prosperity to local communities across the nation.

“Growing evidence suggests that every dollar spent at a locally owned business generates two to four times more economic benefit-measured in income, wealth, jobs, and tax revenue-than a dollar spent at a globally owned business,” Mr. Schulman said.

And one more reason to put local emu on the menu!

Though the Coho is closed for the winter, Becky is excited about next summer and the potential to continue to support more local farms. It’s impressive to see her putting her vision into action, a little at a time.

Jim is excited, too and plans to grow the Green Plate Challenge next summer. He wants to include seven Benzie restaurants and add Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. The “winner” from each county would compete in another Challenge in the fall.

“And my hope is that, just like The Coho, it will inspire other restaurants to continue serving local items on their menu long after the Challenge is over,” he said.

Jim’s vision is inspiring and contagious.

“This summer was a breakthrough,” he said. “It was a really great start. Getting restaurants to invest more of their valuable time to forge long lasting, mutually prosperous relationships that result in preparation of the finest, freshest, most nutritious, most delicious food around is our goal. It’s a win-win for all of us!”

Janice Benson leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference program. Reach her atjanice@mlui.org. Contact Jim Barnes about the Green Plate Challenge at wildleek.org.

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