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Making It Special

Caterers, events planners freshen menus with local food

May 16, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Practical Farmers of Iowa

Chef Don Sturtz prepares an "All-Iowa Meal," including honey-dilled carrots and glazed butternut squash, for the annual conference of the Iowa State University Extension.

THOMPSONVILLE — For years, Chris Petritz MacInnes relied on the beauty of the rolling hills surrounding her luxury resort to help lure thousands of vacationers and conference-goers to her splendid neck of northwest Lower Michigan’s woods. But these days Ms. MacInnes is working up a new angle beyond the golfing, skiing, hiking, and business networking her company — Crystal Mountain Resort — facilitates so well. The Benzie County native is sprucing up her conference and special events menus with some of the region’s own locally grown foods.

For Ms. MacInnes, that new angle is a natural one: Her family’s deep roots here include grandparents who planted fruit orchards near the small neighboring villages of Beulah and Benzonia in the 1920s, as well as parents who started Pet-Ritz, a food company.

But the co-owner of Benzie County’s largest private employer is hardly alone in her new dedication to the local farm economy and the freshness and good taste it can bring to special events. A number of enterprising caterers in the region now lay out spreads of local foods for weddings, family reunions, and anniversaries. More civic and community organizations are catching on, too, and serving up local brats, chili, and gourmet delicacies at their annual picnics, banquets, and other gatherings.

Enabling this growing trend is the region’s cornucopia of homegrown products, which include the ever-present cherry and everything from premium heavy cream and grass-fed beef to all sorts of vegetables and fruits. But actually driving the trend are all sorts of people: Farmers who want to escape the commodity market’s bankrupting prices by selling direct to better-paying local markets; civic leaders who want to foster pride in their communities by saluting their agricultural heritage, boosting their economy, and protecting their landscape; and resort owners and caterers who, like Ms. MacInnes, want to carve out niche markets and a competitive advantage.

Indeed, Ms. MacInnes sees the local food celebration she’s staging in two weeks as a source of superior flavors for her resort and its guests. But she also views the survival of local growers as essential to the region’s tourism economy, which she and so many others in northwest Michigan depend on.

“It is critical,” she said recently, as newly blossoming orchards sparkled in the Benzie County sun, an annual rite of spring that stuns visitors and residents alike. “People come up here for the rural character. A precious part of that rural character is the farms. I can’t think of a better time than right now to drive around the county. It is just magic.”

And so, on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Crystal Mountain will launch its first annual “Spring into Summer” celebration. The event will introduce locals and vacationers alike to area farmers and offer them a chance to buy homegrown products to take home or prepare in their kitchen-equipped suites. Crystal Mountain Executive Chef Kristin Kitely will hold hourly cooking demonstrations about local food, including a main course that the resort’s restaurant, The Thistle, will serve that evening.

A Growing List
Ms. MacInnes’s Memorial Day weekend venture is part of a trend that now stretches across half of every year in these parts. For example:

  • The Leelanau County Women’s Foundation organizes annual luncheons that depend solely on products grown in that county.
  • A new, local chapter of the “slow food movement” is holding its first-ever Big Slow Picnic on Father’s Day in Traverse City. The chapter is part of an international movement that rejects ubiquitous “fast food” and encourages people to take time to eat together and enjoy fresh local food grown with care for the land.
  • The Leelanau Conservancy plans an all-local foods menu for its annual picnic in August.
  • Oryana Natural Foods Market in Traverse City will hold its third local foods celebration in association with Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute in September. Students will prepare organic and other farm foods raised using sustainable agricultural practices.
  • NMC will also host the second annual Traverse Epicurean Classic, launched by two area food aficionados to celebrate local and artisan foods, in October.
  • The Great Lakes Bioneers Conference, which promotes practical and innovative solutions to environmental and social problems in community settings, will again feature three days of meals made with locally grown food, also during October.

Susan Price, associate director of the Leelanau Conservancy, sees her organization’s move toward local food as a logical next step. One way the conservancy preserves land is by raising money, matching it with federal dollars, and using it to purchase development rights from farmers so that they don’t have to sell out to developers. The organization’s annual picnic, now 15 years old, typically draws 500 donors.

“We are trying to bring the local foods element in so we can put our money where our mouth is,” Ms. Price explained. “There are several keys to farmland preservation, and one is a healthy farm economy. We are more heavily involved in protecting the underlying land so that the land is there for the next generation of farmers. But we also believe protecting the economy of the agriculture industry here in the north is incredibly important.”

So, a local grocer will make brats from pigs raised in Cedar; chefs will prepare appetizers with local, in-season produce; and guests will receive recipes that include the names of the farms where the ingredients came from.

“We can demonstrate that we can all buy locally,” Ms. Price said.

In fact, demonstrating the abundance of a community’s local foods to its residents is the biggest benefit of such events, most organizers say.

It Ain’t Easy
But generating large-scale economic impact on local farms by buying local foods is somewhat more difficult. Individual events, like those coming to the region over the next half-year, are not enough to put individual local farmers in the black. And doing it more consistently, for conventions and conferences, involves a good amount of logistical management. An example from the nation’s heartland demonstrates the challenge.

Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit organization, worked from 1998 to 2002, mostly in the Ames and Des Moines areas, helping various colleges, hotels, and conference centers offer their customers the choice of an “All-Iowa Meal.” The effort confirmed that support for the idea was widespread and enthusiastic, but the group learned some hard lessons.

On one hand, conference organizers loved having the option to choose local foods for their meals. In all, 360 people ate All-Iowa Meals at the program’s start in 1998. Working with farmers and conference centers, PFI developed a seasonal menu that featured the state’s abundant beef and pork along with side dishes of asparagus and peas in the early summer, tomatoes and corn mid-to-late summer, and carrots and winter squash in the fall. Over three years the program grew rapidly, to include nearly 17,000 people by the time funding for the project ended.

PFI’s phones began ringing with requests from people who’d attended those conferences and who wanted help organizing similar events in their own hometowns. The farmers enjoyed the boost the conferences gave to their incomes, but praised it even more for its great marketing, which introduced thousands of consumers to their products.

But the large amount of work involved in coordinating orders, assuring a consistent supply, and storing and delivering the local food was not something PFI could take past its pilot stage, said Gary Huber, a senior staff member. Although the organization charged — and farmers and conference centers paid — fees for the innovative program, All-Iowa Meals did not become cost efficient quickly enough to sustain itself, even though it had PFI staffers working overtime.  

“There is an irony there,” Mr. Huber said.

Today, with some lessons learned, PFI is working with farmers, distributors, and others to slowly build supply, trucking, and other “infrastructure” that will allow local supply and demand to come together on its own. Meanwhile, the organization still gets two or three calls a month from businesses and organizations eager to “go local” with their menus.

Easy Does It
Perhaps because Ms. MacInnes and her partners are experienced business people, Crystal Mountain resort is taking a go-slow approach to embracing local food.

For example, the resort offers three fruits to its conference attendees at breakfast and during breaks — usually apples, bananas, and oranges grown thousands of miles away. Yet apple, cherry, peach, pear, and plum orchards dot northwest Lower Michigan. So Chef Kiteley will switch to local fruits across the summer and fall, when they are abundant. And she’ll serve free-range eggs from nearby Halpin Highland Family Farms for her daily breakfast buffet.

“We will start where we can and grow it from there,” the chef said.

Cammie Buehler, co-owner of Epicure Catering, in nearby Leelanau County, sees strong growth potential for local farm foods. She started her business three years ago specifically to feature such items. Now, in a four-month summer catering season, she buys $4,000 in local eggs, maple syrup, herbs, meats, shiitake mushrooms, milk, cream, cheese, fish, salad greens, fruit, and other local, in-season produce.

Ms. Buehler mostly caters family celebrations such as weddings, rehearsal dinners, and family reunions in a community whose population swells with “summer people” who’ve returned to their cottages each year for decades. She said that such rooted families, along with “foodies” who appreciate quality, respond strongly to local food.

“We are doing a wedding in September where that is the sole reason they hired us,” she said.

Crystal Mountain Marketing Director Fame Royer, a self-described gourmet cooking “foodie,” added that vacationers frequently seek foods that not only tastes fresh, but also holds memories of the place they are visiting.

“We are looking for something that will allow us to embrace a very local story,” she said.

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former farmers-market master, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s farms-to-schools program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. For more information on purchasing local food in northwest Lower Michigan, visit the Institute’s new Web site,  www.LocalDifference.org.

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