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On the Road to Farm Prosperity in N.W. Michigan

Summit sees signs of success for nascent local food economy

February 16, 2011 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Rob Sirrine, MSUE
  More than 100 people attended the Farm Routes of Prosperity Summit, and broke up into small groups to map out new action plans.

When Rob Sirrine, chairman of the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, clicked on his favorite slide during his presentation to the third annual Farm Routes to Prosperity Summit, the audience responded with an appreciative “oooh!”

More than 100 people were there on Feb. 4, gathered in Traverse City to chart and plan for making more progress in the eat-local, buy-local food movement that is slowly but surely changing northwestern Lower Michigan’s farm and food economy.

The region is home to a unique, Lake Michigan-powered microclimate that supports a beautiful landscape of fruit orchards; tourism-related farm stands, wineries and breweries; and nearby fields of vegetables, livestock, and small dairies. Members of the Food & Farming Network—a diverse group of farm, nonprofit, health, community garden, land preservation, business, school, and economic development professionals—want to not just preserve it, but grow it.

Why did Dr. Sirrine’s slide show take their breath away? Because one of this MSU Extension educator’s slides showed a map with just one dot on it, marking the location of Central Grade School in the Traverse City Area Public Schools District. In 2004, that school launched the region’s first “farm to school” program, serving fresh, locally grown produce from area farmers in school lunches.  

Then, a fast-forward to 2011—and to Dr. Sirrine’s second slide: A map with more than 40 dots, representing 40 school buildings in northwest Michigan, from the Lake Michigan coast to I-75, all serving locally grown food to kids, at least sometimes.

Maybe you’ve heard of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s new dashboard to chart the state’s progress toward more economic prosperity and higher quality of life. Northwest Lower Michigan is creating something like that, too, to chart the progress of the Food & Farming Network’s ambitious goal: increasing the resilience and doubling the value of the region’s local food and agricultural economy by 2019.

Progress Report
Farm to school efforts are just one way in which Network individuals, organizations, and businesses collaborate to strengthen local food efforts for community health and economic prosperity—with real, measureable results.  They’re determined to persuade policymakers to get involved, too, through the regional Grand Vision, of which they are a part; the upcoming federal Farm Bill; and the Michigan Good Food Charter, a set of 25 recommendations for state and local leaders.

At last year’s summit, participants mapped out action-oriented projects they wanted to advance, from building communitywide interest in buying local food to developing processing facilities for small and medium-sized farms.

This year, the Networkers had plenty of progress to report on, including:

Grand Traverse Regional Food Hub: MSU Extension is leading an effort to develop a regional food hub, as recommended in the Michigan Good Food Charter, in partnership with the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, Michigan Land Use Institute, and others. There’s a strong buzz about developing fish, meat, dairy, brewery, fruit, and vegetable processing; an incubator kitchen for local food entrepreneurs; a teaching kitchen; cold storage; greenhouses; and an indoor farmers market. The project would be located in Building 58, the old commissary building at Grand Traverse Commons, which is redeveloping the former Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital into restaurants, residences, and food-growing facilities.

Sustainable Agriculture Education, Apprenticeships, and Jobs Creation: The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, Northwestern Michigan College, Michigan State University, MSU Extension, the MSU C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, and Michigan Land Use Institute will be carrying out a major four-year grant to develop a sustainable agriculture certificate program at NMC, a farmer apprentice program, and a regional farmer/employer alliance for workforce development.

Ten Local Dollars Campaign:  The Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference program, which publishes an annual directory of local farms and the diverse food they sell, has launched a new effort to encourage area households to spend $10 a week on locally grown food, even in the winter.  Janice Benson, the project’s director, said it could pump $5 million into the region’s local food economy.

Green Plate Challenge: Wild Leek Productions launched the Green Plate Challenge last year to inspire and support local restaurants in a challenge to themselves to improve their skills in preparing and showcasing locally grown food. The fun initiative, which engages the public in “rating the plate,” started in Benzie County and will expand to Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties this year.

Families on the Edge: The Michigan Land Use Institute launched an online journalism series this winter, entitled Families on the Edge: Designing Communities that Work. It urges civic leaders and others involved in the region’s Grand Vision initiative to make sure that their priorities and investments, including those boosting the local food movement, consider the needs of financially vulnerable families.

Grow Benzie: This nonprofit community garden on M-115 between Benzonia and Frankfort is collecting food waste from the Frankfort-Elberta schools and turning it into compost. It also plans to grow food for the school food service and engage students in educational programming.

Zoning Support for Community Gardens: The nonprofit Little Artshram and its Traverse City Community Gardens project convinced Traverse City to make zoning changes that could serve as a model for community gardens region-wide. The city now allows community gardens, with permission of the landowner, in every single zoning category, whether it’s downtown, on church grounds, or on city property.

Healthy Food for All at Farmers Markets: At least five area farmers markets are gearing up to accept food stamp Bridge Cards so that financially struggling families can buy fresh and local too, using their food assistance instead of cash, which they need to spend on other bills. The health and youth networking group of the Food & Farming Network is now raising dollars to bring the Double Up Food Bucks program to the region, which doubles any Bridge Card money users spend on fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

Healthy Food for All in Schools: While farm to school programs have expanded to many locations region wide, they have also deepened, and often to the benefit of vulnerable children. Renee Dewindt, food service director of both Benzie County school districts and consultant to a third, in Onekama, reports buying 150 cases of local apples for two school buildings four years ago. This year, she purchased 1,825 cases for seven buildings—and those apples go fastest at schools with high percentages of low-income kids, whose families often can’t afford to buy lots of fresh produce to serve at home.

The Real Deal
Mark Coe, a farmer at Calvin Lutz Farms in Manistee County, was one of the speakers at the summit who had success stories to share. Four years ago, he said, his farm partners never considered making schools into markets for their produce. This year, thanks to the growing farm to school movement, the farm sold fruits and vegetables to five area school districts.

Mr. Coe has been at the table with other Network partners to strategize ways to develop more “infrastructure” options, like processing and distribution for small and medium-sized farms, including sales destined for school children’s plates.

“The opportunities, in our minds, are endless,” he said of his farm partners. “I can see this escalating to colleges, hospitals, nursing homes—on and on.”

And then he said something that reminded his fellow Network members what their work really is all about: the power of a local food economy to not only build business opportunity, but also to nurture community, local relationships, and children.

 “Am I a farmer promoting sales?” he asked. “Well, a little bit. But I also have a vested interest. I have a 13-year-old eighth-grader in Onekama schools and he’s my real interest. So, I just say join the farm to school movement. It is a movement. It’s rolling. Jump on board and help the children out.”

And watch that map grow.

Diane Conners is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior policy advisor for its Healthy Food for All project. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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