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Up North, It’s Local Food Time

Farm guide expands, gains strong business support

June 4, 2007 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The Institute’s latest edition of Taste the Local Difference lists more than 230 farms in northwest Lower Michigan that sell their products directly to consumers.

TRAVERSE CITY—Emmy award-winning food show host Eric Villegas spent a lot of time in northwest Lower Michigan this spring.

First it was the Morel Festival in Boyne City. Then, an interview in Frankfort with a public school cafeteria cook for his popular, soon-to-be-national PBS show, Fork in the Road. And, finally, a trip to Trattoria Stella, in Traverse City, where the head chef whipped up fine dishes full of cream, sausage, honey, asparagus, kale, and other products purchased from 10 local farmers.

Whether it’s schools serving up nutritious, farm fresh fare to students; restaurants featuring local cuisine; or the Empire Asparagus Festival, which Mr. Villegas had to miss, the local foods scene in this tourism- and agriculture-dominated region has spread like the scent of a fresh sliced tomato. One nonprofit organization is buying local farm foods for area food pantries, and there’s even a farmers market inside this town’s hospital.

But perhaps the clearest harbinger of this region’s burgeoning local food movement is the latest edition of the Taste the Local Difference farm food guide, published in print and online by the Michigan Land Use Institute. In its fourth year, the guide has grown from listing 140 farms and farm stands to more than 230. It lists 20 wineries, 18 farmers markets (including two brand-new ones), and 17 specialty food producers who feature local farm ingredients in everything from jams to salsas to chocolates. The guide’s online version, at http://www.localdifference.org/, also lists nearly 100 restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, and other businesses that joined the nonprofit Institute’s regional farm-fresh campaign.

Now the site is assembling the nuts and bolts of a local, self-sustaining food distribution system. Its new service, called TLD Wholesale, connects local growers with schools, restaurants, and grocery stores and arranges direct sales. A local businessman is wrenching those nuts and bolts, too; his new produce distribution company buys product from local farmers and delivers it to local restaurants and stores.

No wonder that Mr. Villegas, who features Michigan foods at his upscale Restaurant Villegas in Okemos, compared northwest Michigan—home to more than 120 farm products—to other great food regions, such as Italy’s Tuscany and California’s Napa Valley.

"The food gig that’s happening in this part of the state—it’s like, if it grows together it goes together," he said. "We’ve got wine. We’ve got agriculture. We’ve got the fruit belt. We’ve got the artisans that gravitate toward that, so you find incredible bakeries and breads and pastries. So, I think we’ve got this wonderful dynamic in this part of the state. I just see it getting bigger."

So do many farmers, who say the surge of interest in local foods is boosting their sales at a time when global, bulk commodity markets undercut their prices and make it hard to earn a living.

Rise of the Lunch Ladies
While visiting the Frankfort-Elberta High School, Chef Villegas donned a colorful green asparagus hat—on loan from the Empire Asparagus Festival—along with food service director Renee DeWindt, and videotaped her dishing up banter and local roasted asparagus to her students. The experience surprised him.

"This is the first time in the history of my life that I’ve ever interviewed a lunch lady!" Mr. Villegas said.

There are other lunch ladies in the region he could talk to. Ms. DeWindt and food service directors from three other public schools and one private school, assisted by the Institute’s "Farm to Cafeteria" program, are serving fresh, local fare. The schools are inspiring children to eat healthier food by showing them how much better it tastes, how strong the community connection is, and how much they are helping the local economy.

Traverse City Area Public Schools pioneered the effort in 2004 at one elementary school. Now the school system is purchasing local apples, potatoes, asparagus, pears, winter squash, and frozen cherries. Ms. DeWindt started her farm-to-cafeteria program this year and found that her kids  boosted their apple consumption from one bushel to five bushels a week after she replaced the bland, out-of-state ones that were stored for long periods and shipped long distances.

"They can really taste the difference!" she said.

Ms. DeWindt puts Taste the Local Difference product signs on the walls of her cafeteria; they list the farmers and their products that she’s been serving throughout the year: asparagus from Walt Harris, honey from Brown’s Honey, apples from Russell Ridge Farms, grapes from Jim Bardenhagen, eggs from The May Farm, hydroponic tomatoes from Zenner Farms.

"To see the signs on the cafeteria wall about the farms—the same thing I do in my restaurant—and to see the kids getting excited about it and Renee’s ability to bring her infectious excitement into the food—it’s really something," Mr. Villegas said. "This should be happening everywhere in our country. This is how kids should eat. This is how people should eat."

Taking Care of Business
But building a community where people can eat that way is also about rebuilding a once-prosperous and connected rural economy. The Institute co-authored a study last year that showed net annual farm income in Michigan could increase by $164 million with modest investments in strengthening local markets, such as the state’s Select Michigan campaign.

Policymakers and business groups in northwest Lower Michigan already have that message. The lead sponsors of the Taste the Local Difference guide are among the region’s bedrock community organizations: the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, Traverse City State Bank, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, plus food businesses Cherry Republic and Northpointe Food Ventures. Seventy-six organizations, businesses, and local farms are sponsors, with initial funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

The sponsors are investing in a high-profile local-foods marketing program that is tied to behind-the-scenes economic development efforts by the Institute, farmers, buyers, and others, including Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, Michigan State University Extension, the regional Small Business and Technology Development Center, and the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners.

These groups intend to facilitate the kinds of processing, distribution, and networking that can make the region’s local food efforts self-sustaining. For example, chefs, schools, and grocery stores must find those farms in the TLD guide that can sell in large quantities—far beyond a farm stand’s capacity—and figure out who can travel the backcountry roads from family farms to retail outlets for pickups or deliveries.

Supplying the Missing Pieces
Enter TLD Wholesale—the Institute’s new online buyer-seller marketplace—and the new Cherry Capital Foods, an entrepreneurial start-up by restaurant industry veteran Eric Hahn. He decided this year to build a niche business—delivering from local farms to local buyers.

"Almost immediately the response has been tremendous," said Mr. Hahn, who said he has at least 70 stores and restaurants that he’s selling local asparagus, rhubarb, bibb lettuce, hydroponic tomatoes, and apples that made it through a winter’s cold storage.

Jim Morse, chef for the new Northpointe Food Ventures (the parent company of three local restaurants and three soon-to-open delis and wine bars in Traverse City and Charlevoix) says TLD Wholesale and Cherry Capital Foods answer a real need in the region. Mr. Hahn says he’ll use TLD Wholesale, too, both to source products and to alert his chefs about what local produce is almost ready to pick.

"If the chefs have time to plan for it, they will write a whole menu around it," he said.

Laura McCain, a dietician and chef at Munson Medical Center’s cafeteria—the region’s largest employer—will use TLD Wholesale to find products for special lunches and to expand a local mini-farmers market she started last year. Back then, she featured only one product at a time, but this year she’s making room for lots more.

"I hope to sell items from a very small farm up to a large production farm," Ms. McCain said. "If you have 50 pounds of green onions, bring them in and we’ll sell them for a couple days. When we’re out, we’re out. It’s very popular with the employees. We bought Asian pears at a premium price last year. They sold out—poof!"

Jim Bardenhagen, a former MSU Extension director who now grows fruits and potatoes, said he plans on using both the new wholesale and distribution options.

"I think it will be great," Mr. Bardenhagen said. "I think these are the missing pieces we need to really tap into these local markets."

Just in Time
Local farmers, who have so shaped the region’s landscape and economy, say the growing interest in local farm products is arriving just in time. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, the region recently lost 35 percent of its medium-size farms, thanks to low commodity prices and the high prices developers are eager to pay for land.

Walt Harris, the Honor area farmer who grew the asparagus that Frankfort students gobbled up during Mr. Villegas’ visit, showed the TV host his crop of green and purple asparagus on camera. But he also pondered family farming’s future if it must compete with imported farm products produced by workers earning much lower wages.

"The land is more valuable than the crops now-a-days," he told Mr. Villegas. "We will lose the farms. We need the people to stand behind us."

And that seems to be happening, with customers looking for Taste the Local Difference signs in grocery stores and schools buying local, Mr. Harris said. He added that children and their families will "learn to enjoy fresh vegetables and eat a little healthier."

"I think it’s going to be a real good deal as time goes on," he predicted. "It is all working out for the good of the farmers. I think we will see the effects of that for years to come."

Diane Conners coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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