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Michigan Tastes Local Food's Potential

Farmers, retailers offer new ingredients to boost state, regional economy

November 16, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Local food pioneers Lee Arboreal and his wife, Laurie, are part of a growing movement that is reshaping Michigan’s economy, region by region.
Part One of a six-part series

Lee Arboreal’s family and farm are growing.

Comfortably profitable now in their fifth growing season, Lee and wife Laurie are adding blueberries, blackberries, cows, turkeys, and goats to their 40-acre place, just outside of Bangor in southwest Michigan’s famous fruit region. That’s a major milestone for a young farm family that started out with crops like lettuce and carrots, which produce quick cash in just one year.

The Arboreals reached this milestone not by trying to compete with lettuce from California or strawberries from Chile. They did it by selling to Michigan’s burgeoning market for food that is grown for its flavor rather than for its ability to survive cross-country shipping.

The two currently have 250 subscribers to a season’s worth of food through their Community Supported Agriculture operation. They sell at three farmers markets. And they drop off thousands of dollars worth of produce every week at another farm’s nearby loading dock for pickup by trucks serving Whole Foods Markets in Michigan.

And their little toddler Iris, just out of diapers when they started farming in 2004? She’s now kicking around in cowboy boots at age seven, taking horse riding lessons from a neighbor and soaking up the abundant life of a farm kid, surrounded by mother hens, baby goats, and verdant gardens.

The most powerful part of this new farm family’s success, however, is the fact that Lee, Laurie, and Iris are far from being alone in some pastoral dream. Growing all around them is a broad base of customers who are bypassing mainline markets and instead buying from a small but growing crop of neighborly operations like theirs.

Indeed, across Michigan and the nation, more farmers, food businesses, and families are going out of their way to grow, sell, and buy food that has more taste and nutrition when it reaches the plate—and fewer environmental and social costs along the way.

In the process, these farms, food businesses, and families—and others, from doctors to school cooks—are literally reinventing our systems for producing, processing, and marketing food.

This six-part special Great Lakes Bulletin News Service series, entitled See the Local Difference, provides a tour of the emerging local food system in Michigan: How it is taking shape, what it contributes, and how local and state leaders can pitch in to both accelerate and make the most of it. The series covers the economic opportunities that flow from supporting and advancing local and regional food systems and provides a map of the programs and policies Michigan needs to stay on the pathway to good food and a more durable prosperity.

A Hidden Gem Rises
New food system innovations are coming from all across Michigan, even from its least agricultural areas: Urban gardeners in Detroit, for example, are meeting that city’s terrible lack of quality grocery stores head-on by growing and selling fresh local produce.

Innovations also are coming from small, medium, and large farms that are growing for and selling to local markets, including more getting involved in larger wholesale opportunities. Those opportunities are coming as both Michigan-based and larger, global food distributors like SYSCO International adjust their purchasing practices. Faced with a broader range of tastes and concerns in the market, SYSCO is looking to put more food produced locally and sustainably—in harmony with nature and communities—onto restaurant menus and school and hospital trays.

Hidden inside this budding, dynamic movement is a precious gem for Michigan. Like a subtle spice that makes a dish great, the new community and business connections forming around tasty, healthy, trustworthy food are becoming an essential ingredient for the state’s future success.

Indeed, the beauty and necessity of growing, eating, and sharing good food is rising to the surface of strategies Michigan leaders are working on in their bid to build competitive places.

There’s something powerful, for example, about the new, three-acre “D-Town” urban farm on the western edge of Detroit’s Rouge Park. It’s one of many community-based food initiatives that Peter Anastor, manager of community and urban development at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, says the agency is starting to appreciate.

“Our organization is just recognizing that food and farming is a piece of urban revitalization that ranges from the vibrancy of urban gardens and farmers markets to the basic services aspect of having grocery stores in the city. If you want people to live there, you have to have some place for them to do their grocery shopping.”

Attracting the next software company is not the purpose of D-Town, which Malik Yakini, head of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, recently told The Michigan Citizen is about increasing access to quality, local food and building educational and economic opportunity. “This is also healing work,” he said. “In addition to healing ourselves, we’re also healing the eco-system.”

Neither is it the primary intent of school districts across Michigan, many of which are now sourcing or searching for local farm foods, to make their towns more competitive.

But the combined and cumulative effect of these and other regional food initiatives is to build that sense of place – rural to urban – that Michigan must strengthen. They’re doing it through new local commerce and community connections; they’re doing it by transforming diets, neighborhoods, and markets. And they are creating new opportunities for every corner of the state.

Everybody Wins
The opportunities presented here are not aimed at promoting one particular approach to farming, but at building new, more regional food systems that can benefit all of Michigan.

Local, sustainably raised food can reconnect cities with their surrounding farmland, attract children to healthy diets, and build new markets for farms and food entrepreneurs. It can produce new jobs, build public health, and attract more family and business investment to Michigan as the state’s regions become better places to live and work.

According to experts like Dr. Soji Adelaja, director of Michigan State University’s Land Policy Institute, the new good-food system—growing like grass through cracks in our industrial and suburban pavement—is a strategic economic asset for the state. Michigan becomes stronger on the national and world stage as its individual communities and regions embrace this emerging economic opportunity as part of their overall strategy to build healthy, happening places.

Dr. Adelaja, one of Michigan’s economic revitalization gurus, says that building more cohesive and vibrant regions—made of downtown cultural centers that are well connected to suburbs surrounded by rural areas that provide food, recreation, and nature—is fundamental to assuring Michigan’s future success.

“Michigan’s historical lock on prosperity—through its industrial infrastructure of capital, auto plants, skilled labor, and so forth—counts for less in the new, global economy,” says Dr. Adelaja. “The rules of success have changed.”

In this new era, success is much more about becoming a place where young people want to live, because their presence in turn makes it a place where companies looking for the best young employees will want to go. That means offering a great quality of life for everyone, and regional food systems can and should be an important part of that.

The time is right for Michigan to act on the economic development potential of building more regional food systems. Demand is strong. Supply is growing. New market infrastructure, such as distribution, is emerging. And support is coming from many directions.

How Did We Get Here?
The first step, however, is to examine how we came to ship so much food produced in Michigan to places so far from home—and what it could mean if we again produced more for ourselves and our Midwest neighbors.

After all, even though Michigan is second only to California in its great diversity of crops, finding fresh Michigan strawberries in season at your nearest grocery store is a chore. That’s because big grocery retailers, which have consolidated into a few national and international concerns, buy only large volumes of fruit tough enough to be moved cross-country.

It wasn’t always like that, says Lee LeVanway, manager of the wholesale, farmer-owned Benton Harbor Fruit Market. Recently he compared the volume of Michigan and northern Indiana strawberries that moved through that market in 1952 with the amount that moved through it in 2008.

“More than 350,000 16-quart crates of strawberries were delivered to the market on one day in 1952—350 semi-loads,” Mr. LeVanway said. “This year, we’ve had less than 3,000 crates. We’ve lost 99 percent of our strawberry production not because we don’t grow good strawberries but because the chain stores won’t buy them anymore.”

Since 1952, the total number of Michigan farms dropped by two-thirds, from 151,000 to nearly 53,000. Most that survived adjusted to the food industry’s drive for large quantities of low-cost food by getting bigger so they could fit into a mass-production system. The best bet for Michigan’s fruit and vegetable producers was to grow crops for processing companies that freeze, dry, can, and make juice from produce.

That’s a big reason why most of the $1.9 billion of higher-value fresh fruits and vegetables we eat in Michigan comes from other states and countries. Michigan produces premier fruits and vegetables, but our climate’s tender peaches and juicy apples, for example, are less able to stand up to thousands of miles of travel like fruit from drier climates like Washington and California. Michigan produce, therefore, shows up in potato chips and apple juice, not in fresh market aisles. Fully 74 percent of Michigan’s fruits and 44 percent of its vegetables go into processed products.

That’s not bad: Food processing has kept many thousands of acres of farmland in business and helped keep Michigan agriculture a driving economic force in the state, neck and neck with tourism as the state’s second-largest industries. In total, the state’s farm and food sector has an annual economic impact of nearly $64 billion.

But industrial agriculture forces are still pushing Michigan farmers, most at retirement age, off their land. Meanwhile, Michigan and other Midwest consumers are looking for tasty tree-ripened peaches, and for beef and pork raised on nearby farms but having a difficult time finding these products.

In Part Two of See the Local Difference, Patty Cantrell looks at the opportunities and challenges of building a local food economy, and some of the successes that several initial steps are generating. Patty directs the Michigan Land Use Institute Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program. Reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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