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Welcoming Local Food Businesses

To rebuild old regional distribution systems, Michigan needs new rules

December 2, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Ever-stricter federal regulations make firms like L&J Meat Market in Lake City, which is willing to service Randy Rice’s small Benzie County beef farm, hard to find.
Part Five of a six-part series

TRAVERSE CITY—In early 2008, schools all across the country were throwing away hamburger patties, burrito filling, and other beef products after a federal recall of millions of pounds of beef from a California meat processing plant.

But, in this northern Michigan city, the Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools served sloppy joes just like normal. That’s because their beef came directly from a fourth-generation farm just 35 miles from here.

“We didn't have to worry about the recall at all,” dining services administrator Michael Bauer told the Traverse City Record Eagle that week. “We're trying to use that whole mentality of locally grown products. It hasn't been stored in a warehouse in California.”

But, surprisingly, Benzie County beef farmer Randy Rice, who supplies the Catholic schools, does have to worry about the recall. Each time the big companies have a problem, federal regulations get stricter, and smaller companies have to bear the same compliance cost even though their operations, serving a smaller territory, do not pose as much risk to as many people.

That means more stress, for example, on the already tiny number of meat processors in Michigan that are still in business and able to serve Mr. Rice’s growing operation. It also means more stress on Mr. Rice himself, and his cattle.

“I have to drive an hour farther to get my beef slaughtered now that the closest plant, 30 minutes away, stopped doing it,” he said. Even though the closer plant, in Manistee, is still in business, it is no longer slaughtering animals from local producers because of the additional paperwork and procedures that came out of an earlier nationwide recall.

Mr. Rice’s meat-processing dilemma is just one example of a big, thorny thicket of regulatory issues involved in the expansion of local food markets. It’s a hot regional food system topic; after all, regulations are a key part of generating a business climate that either attracts or discourages entrepreneurs—both in rural and urban settings.

Wanted: New Rules
When it comes to food safety, smaller, local-market producers expect to be held to the highest standards. Yet the rules that apply are generally written for large-scale factories, not small-scale farmsteads. This “scale neutrality” in regulations can create many unnecessary costs barriers. It’s like requiring a bicyclist to have a commercial drivers license to pedal on a public road.

Another major barrier in the local farming and food production business environment in Michigan is the welter of different township, village, and county zoning regulations.

Most zoning ordinances define farms as food producers only: For example, farmers may produce milk produced by cows on their farmland, but they may not make cheese with it. As more farms take on cottage-scale processing, like artisan cheese making, they run into zoning regulations that either prohibit such activities or make it very difficult and costly to get approval.

Fortunately, some communities are thinking ahead.

For example, 14 years ago residents of Peninsula Township, just outside of Traverse City, were the first in the state to tax themselves to save farmland by purchasing farmland development rights. But even before that historic initiative, the area’s residents and leaders knew that such a program, known as purchase of development rights, was not by itself enough to support the local farming culture that protects the breathtaking landscape.

“We recognized we need to preserve an industry,” said Gordon Hayward, Peninsula Township planner.

So, in August 2002, the township board took another major step forward. It adopted Farm Processing Amendment 139, making it the first township in Michigan to move a set of processing and retail activities from “special uses” on farms to “uses by right.”

The township long had allowed processing, such as canning or freezing cherries, in agricultural zones. The amendment went further; it defined retail sales and processing as part of the farm operation itself. This eliminated the long and often contentious process farmers faced when they applied for special use zoning permits to develop new businesses.

It also reflected a growing recognition among community leaders that a new brand of entrepreneurial agriculture not only can fit well with the rural landscape, but also is vital for providing the new sources of income farm families need to keep working their land.

A New Kind of Green Space
Then there are those who believe that the need for more local-food friendly zoning ordinances can extend well beyond the borders of rural townships.

For example, if you were to look around your community through the eyes of someone like Andy Bowman or Cynthia Price, you would see some interesting activities popping up in city parks and even suburban neighborhoods.

Through the eyes of these Grand Rapids-area visionaries, you would see parks where fruit trees and vegetables mingle among the tulips and the swing sets. You might see fruit from those trees picked for a neighborhood school’s snack selection.

And you would even see subdivisions’ green spaces suddenly busy with people tending market gardens and small chicken coops.

Take off your new lenses, however, and it all disappears. One big reason: Local zoning ordinances governing what you can do in your backyard, or even on your farm, either prohibit or ignore such local food opportunities.

That is why Mr. Bowman, Ms. Price and a host of other people in Michigan and around the country are working to clear away the cobwebs in old zoning approaches and make way for a new, local-food day in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Andy works for the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, the regional body that brings together local leaders from Grand Rapids and its surrounding townships and villages to address how the region works as a whole. Cynthia is a founding leader of the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, people who come from agriculture, health care, business development and elsewhere to make good food available and affordable to all.

The two have launched an effort to show metro Grand Rapids how land use rules can allow for more local food production, processing, and retailing.

Their guide, New Approaches for Growing In Our Communities, shows how agriculture can fit into our daily lives and local government thinking—from city streets to rural communities.

“It has to do primarily with how you establish agricultural uses on green spaces and open lands or vacant lots within the city,” Mr. Bowman said. “In many cases, it involves the city not only agreeing to but also sponsoring the concept.”

For example, a neighborhood association might want to buy some vacant lots and turn them into a community garden growing food for families and businesses, he said. At present, there is nary a mention in the city or township’s regulations about that kind of use, let alone a way for the group to approach the local zoning board and explain how it would manage the garden responsibly.

That is why Andy and Cynthia produced the guide: They want to clarify how such things can happen and how local governments and residents can work out the details.

And it looks like Grand Rapids is ready for it, Mr. Bowman said. The city is opening doors for new local food activity in town with its Green Grand Rapids initiative and a new citywide zoning ordinance that allows for a greater mix of uses in every zoning district.

Part Six of See the Local Difference will report on the big boost modest investments in infrastructure can provide to a local food economy. Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program; reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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