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Taste the Local Difference!

In second year, Institute's 'buy local’ campaign adds 55 retail partners, expands Web site

June 13, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Taste the Local Difference aims to boost the local farm economy and preserve farmland by helping growers sell direct to local shoppers, stores, restaurants, caterers, and hotels.

BEULAH — Intent on converting increased interest in the taste and nutritional value of locally grown food into economic gains for farmers in northwest Lower Michigan, the Michigan Land Use Institute launched its expanded Taste the Local Difference campaign today at a press conference at a Traverse City grocery store.

The Institute’s campaign, like last year’s, includes widespread distribution of a free, pocket-sized guide listing about 160 farms in the region that sell their products directly to shoppers and retailers. But the non-profit organization is ramping up its effort by including about 55 food retailers from northwest Lower Michigan. The partners — grocers, restauranteurs, caterers, and hoteliers that feature locally produced food — should add marketing clout to the year-old program, which now also includes posters, price and menu cards, and a new Web site that, among other things,  helps the new partners promote the campaign.

The “buy local” push is part of the Beulah-based non-profit organization’s ongoing work to save farmland by building new economic opportunities for farms and food entrepreneurs. The project’s Web site, www.LocalDifference.org, features a searchable version of the pocket-sized guide, news about local farmers and food policy issues, a seasonal harvesting guide, recipe tips, application forms for farmers and retailers who want to join the campaign, a calendar of local food and farm events, and links to dozens of the program’s retail partners and sponsors.

The farms listed in the expanded guide represent a significant chunk of the eight-county region’s agricultural economy — approximately $5 million in annual sales, about 320 full- and part-time jobs, and nearly 23,000 acres of farmland. Those big numbers caught the attention of other local businesses that, while not food retailers, see the economic value of the program and now sponsor the project, adding their dollars to a major grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

Taste the Local Difference at a Glance:

•  Look for Taste the Local Difference logo at participating grocery stores and restaurants. A complete list of retail partners is at www.LocalDifference.org .

•  Pocketsize Taste the Local Difference guides are available at libraries, visitor centers, farmers markets, and other popular spots. They are available by mail by calling 231-882-4723.

•  The Michigan Land Use Institute more than doubled its Taste the Local Difference print run to 25,000 this year and expanded from five to eight counties: Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee.

•  The Web site www.LocalDifference.org allows specialized searches, and can even find farms that take the kids for “u-pick” activities or use certain techniques such as certified organic practices and hormone-free beef and dairy products.

•  Other www.LocalDifference.org features include a calendar of food- and farm-related events, updates on local products when they come into season, and news of other Taste the Local Difference program activities in farm business development and farm-to-cafeteria sales.

‘Building Our Economic Future’
Topping the list of nearly 40 financial supporters of Taste the Local Difference are Traverse City State Bank and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Spokesmen for both groups said they invested in the campaign because it made good business sense to them: They believe that it benefits the regional economy.

“As a locally owned community bank, we appreciate the efforts of those working to promote and sustain Northern Michigan businesses,” said Pete Correia, the president of Traverse City State Bank.

“This helps us build our economic future,” added Robert Kewaygoshkum, the chairman of the Grand Traverse Band, which operates two local casinos and counts 28 families in its membership who jointly own or work on four of the five commercial fishing operations listed in the pocket guide. Together, the four family-owned businesses chalked up $224,000 in fish sales last year.

“The tourists come up not just for our casinos but for the beauty we have to offer,” Chairman Kewaygoshkum said. Speaking of the campaign, he added: “It helps two dying enterprises that are close to Mother Earth. One is farming and one is fishing. They both offer good foods. And this helps us educate our young about how to eat good foods and have good health.”

Valuable support for the project also comes from the Charlevoix County Community Foundation and the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation.

Several of the campaign’s sponsors have also signed on as retail partners, including Oleson Food Stores, which has five groceries in the region. Co-owner Brad Oleson said his business supports Taste the Local Difference because it can help local farms, stores, and restaurants call consumer attention to local foods. “I’d like to see people be more aware of the importance of locally grown foods and the value it has for the economy,” he said.

That is why Mr. Oleson hosted today's press conference launching Taste the Local Difference at the family’s Long Lake Rd. store in Traverse City.

Making a Difference
Institute staff point to recent farm-related developments in northwest Lower Michigan to explain why the Institute is investing its own resources so heavily in Taste the Local Difference.  According to agriculture census statistics, the eight-county region the program serves — from Manistee to the Mackinac Bridge — lost nearly 35 percent of its medium-size farms, operations that gross more than $50,000 a year, between 1997 and 2002. Yet farms in the region that focused more on selling directly to consumers instead of to big processors and bulk commodity markets increased that part of their annual sales by 18 percent.

The Institute’s Taste the Local Difference program aims to help farms expand and capitalize on that trend by increasing their connections to local shoppers, restaurants, and other food buyers. Besides the marketing campaign, Taste the Local Difference works with several university departments and non-profit organizations to build a business support network that will assist farmers in shifting from commodity markets to local, “fresh” markets.

A successful campaign could make a substantial difference to the local economy. Sales and Marketing Management, a retail industry journal, says consumers in the Manistee-to-Mackinac region spend more than $853 million on food and beverages annually. Institute staff say that if they reach their goal — helping local growers capture an additional five percent share of that spending — it would translate into an $8.6 million increase in sales by local farms.

A survey conducted by the Institute early in the spring indicated that the organization’s first “buy local” campaign, known last year as Select a Taste of Traverse Bay, did help area growers. A majority of the farmers in last year’s pocket guide reported that the listing increased their business. Because all the copies of last year’s guide were snapped up so quickly, the Institute more than doubled this year’s press run, to 25,000 copies, and is distributing them to its retail partners and sponsors, as well as libraries, visitor centers, farmers markets, and other high-traffic spots.

Going Local, Staying in Business
Empire farmer Harry Norconk is a local farmer listed in last year’s guide who is steadily retooling to tap the local market more effectively. Mr. Norconk used to sell 90 percent of his 40-acre asparagus crop wholesale to canneries. But then canned imports from Peru and Brazil flooded the American market and so lowered prices that it made growing asparagus as a commodity crop a money-losing proposition.

“It was extremely bleak,” recalled Mr. Norconk.

He switched to selling fresh asparagus to local stores and restaurants and now counts two local grocery chains, four smaller independent stores, and about 25 restaurants as steady customers. In late May and June, he is busy from dawn to midnight plunging asparagus picked by his employees into icy-cold water to wash it and maintain freshness during delivery. Mr. Norconk said that he hopes to sell about 55 percent of his crop to fresh local markets this year, at 90 cents to $1.25 a pound. The processed asparagus market, in contrast, is paying just 45 to 50 cents a pound this year — about half as much and barely enough to cover the costs of growing and picking it.

“At this point, now that we’ve somewhat established ourselves in the fresh market, I think we are going to survive it,” Mr. Norconk said. “I feel like we can.” 

And if he does, he will keep his 80-acre farm in business.

Growing Retail Interest
Local grocery stores, restaurants and catering businesses are also looking to local foods as a new way to gain market share and boost profits.

Mr. Oleson, the Traverse-area grocer, said he values freshness so much that he bases many of his local food purchases on how close farms are located to each of his stores. Along with siblings and cousins, he owns two stores in Traverse City and one each in Manistee, Charlevoix and Petoskey. Recently, he took over the job that his late grandfather, Gerald Oleson, treasured: Buying products from local farmers. According to Mr. Oleson, his grandfather, a much-loved community patriarch, often bought some local farmers’ entire crops.

But, he said, those were the days when stores sold fruits and vegetables by the bushel to women who canned them for a winter’s worth of food. Now, he said, the stores buy in smaller, steadier quantities that enable customers to shop a few times a week and get the freshest produce. To manage that new kind of demand, Mr. Oleson frequently talks to about a dozen local farmers who, armed with his cell phone number, keep him abreast of their daily harvests.

Mr. Oleson said consumer interest in local fresh food is so strong that shoppers are willing to pay a bit more for it. He said he sees shoppers pass up California strawberries for local ones, even when the nearby berries cost 50 cents a quart more; he said customers know that the local berries will be sweeter, juicier, and more nutritious because they were picked ripe, rather than green.

“I’ll probably get yelled at by my suppliers in California, but over time food loses its nutrition,” Mr. Oleson said. “Strawberries might be three days old before they get here — two days by truck and then turnover in the warehouse. Locally, I’ve had them as close as five hours off the field.”

Small Can Be Beautiful
Other smaller, long-time, family grocers are also participating in the Taste the Local Difference campaign — offering an important market for smaller farms that cannot meet the larger demands of a chain store like Oleson’s.

Dave and Leslie Hansen of Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay sell everything from apples grown at a large and well-established operation, to salad greens from a small farm, to rhubarb from 100-year-old rootstock from a neighbors garden. The approach has helped them build the reputation of the food they sell.

“It is always fresher, and the farmers know it better be good because everyone knows who they are,” Mr. Hansen said with a chuckle.

Dale Schneider, a partner in the relatively small Honor and Copemish Family Markets, gives local products first priority for his limited shelf space, and he’s pleased to see the farmers also shopping in his store: “I thought, ‘Did I need a maple syrup from Vermont if I had one local and fresh? Did I need a honey from out East if I already had honey locally?’”

Retail partner Oryana Natural Foods Market, in Traverse City, a longtime champion of local foods, provides a specialized market for farms that are certified organic or use other ecologically oriented growing practices. Crystal Mountain Resort, in Thompsonville, another of the Institute’s new retail partners, will use more local foods on its restaurant menus and offer local, in-season fruit during conference breakfasts and breaks.

Proprietors of several restaurants are also forging relationships with farmers large and small.

“If a farmer has two dozen free-range chickens, we’ll put them on the menu until they are gone,” said Paul Danielson, co-owner of the year-old Stella Trattoria in Traverse City. “We change our menu every day. We wanted to open a restaurant that would allow us to eat real food, as opposed to manufactured, processed food, so we’ve been very happy to find local farmers.”

Diane Conners coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference campaign. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. In addition to a searchable guide to 160 farms and the products they sell, the campaign’s Web site, www.LocalDifference.org, lists the program’s sponsors, retail partners, local wineries, and farmers markets.

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