‘A Taste of Michigan’
State program helps farmers promote homegrown products
April 4, 2003 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Curtis Remington, MDA
|Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (right) talks with reporters after launching the state’s “Select a Taste of Michigan” campaign.|
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Calling on “citizen patriots” to vote for Michigan farmers, farmland, and food businesses with their grocery dollars, Governor Jennifer Granholm formally launched the state’s “Select a Taste of Michigan” campaign. Speaking at a conference here late last month, the governor renewed her longstanding call for state policymakers to roll up their sleeves and build a new and prosperous future for the “Michigan family.” A good place to start, she seemed to suggest, was around dinner tables laden with good, homegrown food.
The campaign is a partnership between the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the non-profit Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems. Ms. Granholm said it is a first step to establish a “Buy Michigan” program designed to encourage citizens to purchase more Michigan products — and produce more Michigan jobs — something she promised to do during her gubernatorial campaign last fall.
The program also goes hand-in-hand with the work of Ms. Granholm’s new Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which she charged with developing a plan for growing the state’s economy by containing sprawl, revitalizing inner cities and building farm economies. In a recent survey, the council’s members ranked farmland preservation and increasing farm profitability alongside urban redevelopment as the best way to both stop sprawl and jump start the state’s economy.
New Entrepreneurial Agriculture
The governor’s campaign to encourage more use of Michigan-grown farm products is part of a larger movement to help farmers become more entrepreneurial. Currently most farmers literally hand over raw materials to companies that pay very little for them. Economists say the future of farming is in giving farmers more options for making money, such as taking real advantage of the state’s diversity of farm products and the fact that half of the population of North America lives within 500 miles of the state.
But convincing Michigan agriculture to be more entrepreneurial, say farm leaders, is a terrific challenge because new markets need to be developed and farmers have already invested their fortunes and lives in equipment and established farming practices. The change, though, could reverse the direction of hundreds of millions of consumer dollars now flowing out of the state, generate Michigan jobs, strengthen Michigan’s 52,000 farms, and save millions of acres of farmland now threatened by development.
Buy Local Campaign
The Grand Rapids conference, dubbed “Local Connections,” punctuated the governor’s kick-off speech with dishes featuring sauces and meats served up by the local farmers who produced them. It gathered together state officials and citizen leaders who are convinced that overcoming the sizeable barriers between local farmers’ good food and Michigan grocery stores’ shelves is critical for keeping Michigan farmers on the land.
“I think there are two important potential benefits of this program,” said Dianne Novak, an economic development agent for Kent County, where both Grand Rapids and a particularly productive swath of farmland known as “The Ridge” are located. “One is consumer education, which could result in more farm-stand sales for growers on ‘The Ridge.’ Two, it will open retail doors for growers with higher volumes of products so they can get them into grocery stores.”
Demand for local and organic food is strong, according to an EPIC-MRA study conducted in 2000. The survey found that 75 percent of Michigan consumers would choose Michigan foods, such as a strawberry grown in Clare County, over the well-traveled California variety commonly found in stores. But local farmers must first persuade stores to buy Michigan products, and consumers must be able to identify them as such on store shelves.
The “Select a Taste of Michigan” campaign comes to Grand Rapids as a pilot program. It will link retailers with producers who agree to stock store shelves throughout the 2003 growing season with Michigan local and organic products. The campaign, which will later expand statewide, will identify and promote such locally grown and organic food products with two new labels: “Select Michigan Fresh” and “Select Michigan Organic.”
D&W Food Stores, G.B. Russo & Son, Harvest Health, Meijers, and Spartan Stores have already signed up for the program, which will feature different Michigan food selections each month. “Select a Taste of Michigan” will also sponsor “meet the farmer” days at stores and use culinary arts students from Grand Rapids Community College as taste-testing chefs.
The campaign’s work to advertise the state’s high-quality food products and place them in stores where people can find them easily — and get to know the “Taste of Michigan” difference — has significant potential to create jobs and save farmland, according to preliminary research by the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute.
If local farms and related businesses were to gain a 5 percent share of meat, poultry, fish, and egg sales in Kent County alone, for example, they would capture $9.3 million retail dollars per year, according to the analysis. This 5 percent share would generate 70 new farm jobs and 60 other kinds of jobs in the local economy as farmers spend their new income on clothing, housing, education and other goods and services. The analysis does not yet include all the other jobs that go into getting those same products from the farm to the store, including food processing, transportation, distribution, and merchandising.
While it may sound like a small number, establishing a 5 percent market share is a challenge. Researchers estimate that, typically, local farmers have only about a 1 percent local market share. A major barrier to larger market share is that the vast majority of farmers, processors, wholesalers, distributors, merchandisers and others involved in food markets — middleman businesses — are geared to a national and global market system, not a local one. Food originating in Michigan that is eventually also sold there is usually trucked 1,000 to 3,000 miles back and forth between buyers and sellers before arriving at a Grand Rapids supermarket.
The “Select A Taste of Michigan” campaign points to another way, one that, for example, some of the state’s asparagus growers, concentrated in two counties north and east of Grand Rapids, are already exploring. Facing plummeting prices due to new competition from growers in Peru and China, they formed the Michigan Asparagus Growers, Inc., and, aided by the new campaign, are working to boost their in-state marketing share by marketing a ready-to-cook, all-green spear to area consumers.
“I think this buy local program can rejuvenate the state’s asparagus industry,” said Tom Kalchik, a value-added agent for Michigan State University Extension. The 12 members of the co-op represent 75 percent of Michigan asparagus production; the new market has the potential to help keep 12,500 acres of asparagus farming in business.
Another speaker at the “Local Connections” conference, Kevin Edberg, said that growing a new crop of Michigan-oriented middleman businesses is the key to establishing a market share sufficient to make a difference in saving farmland, slowing sprawl, and strengthening local economies.
Mr. Edberg works for Cooperative Development Services, a Minnesota-based group that helps farmers organize and market their production. He also has worked with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which in recent years has actively helped farmers and processors increase direct sales to the state’s consumers. His state spurred the creation of more than 250 farm-to-consumer meat businesses since 1999 by helping smaller-scale processors, which are spread throughout the state, serve the middleman role between farmers and consumers.
Other states have found that local food marketing and middleman development are also powerful tools for slowing sprawl, which experts say will claim another 17 percent of Michigan’s agricultural land by 2040 if current development patterns continue.
One example is Massachusetts. It successfully linked farmland preservation and economic development goals with its innovative Farm Viability Enhancement Program. In recent years Massachusetts has protected 26,568 acres of agricultural land at a cost of only $266 per acre as a result of this program, which helps family farms develop and invest in diversification plans.
Easements that the program puts on farmland are temporary — up to 10 years — but the state’s investment in the farms’ long-term business future also has the power to keep the land in agriculture. Through the program, Massachusetts has added an average $19,000 profit to the bottom lines of approximately 139 family farms, or 2 percent of the state’s total.
One of the “Select a Taste of Michigan” program’s greatest strengths is its broad appeal. Tom Cary, chair of the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, which is a project of the Western Michigan Environmental Action Council, says the program also has a strong educational component to it.
“I think it will help people look upon agriculture as a critical element for surviving and thriving as a region,” he said.
Patty Cantrell, an economist and journalist, manages the New Entrepreneurial Agriculture project at the Michigan Land Use Institute. To reach her, write email@example.com. For more information on New Entrepreneurial Agriculture see the Farmland Protection section of the Institute's Web site at www.mlui.org.