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Local Food Means Local Infrastructure

Year-round Michigan produce requires new equipment, fresh thinking

December 11, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Whole Foods Market
  The Whole Foods Market chain is one of several national firms that have recently increased their commitment to buying fresh food from local growers.
Part Six of a six-part series

When most people hear the word “infrastructure,” they think of roads and bridges or water systems and communications towers.

But infrastructure is important in the food business, too. Barns, refrigeration, warehouses, loading docks, retail locations, distribution companies—all are part of the food system’s infrastructure.

As our food system became global in scale over the last 50 years, however, the reach of its infrastructure began to exceed the grasp of smaller-scale farms and their great diversity of products.

Now, as more schools look for fresh local foods, and shoppers look for homegrown produce, they are encountering, perhaps without even knowing it, a very large gap in market infrastructure. Even though apples might be hanging on trees at a farm across the road from a school, the current industrial food infrastructure cannot deliver them those few hundred yards; schools might buy the apples directly from the farm, but they can’t get them through the mainline food distributors they use daily.

Building a “regional food system” is all about filling that gap. It’s about reinventing and building food system infrastructure that allows for smaller farms and their wider array of products, from heritage-breed poultry to tree ripened, locally raised fruit.

The biggest needs are equipment and facilities that fit small and mid-scale producers, and building the capacity of smaller farms to meet bigger orders. That includes, particularly in Michigan, ways to extend short growing seasons and new methods for helping growers, distributors, and buyers to find each other.

New Channels
The Starting Block business incubator in the west Michigan community of Hart offers one way of solving such problems. It gives food entrepreneurs access to commercial equipment without making them buy it all themselves. At The Starting Block, entrepreneurs rent office space, store ingredients and products, use a wide range of available equipment, and get expert help developing their products.

A major redevelopment plan for Detroit’s Eastern Market offers another example. It shows how building a hub for local food retailing and processing can benefit both the local food economy and surrounding neighborhoods.

The plan aims to make the Eastern Market and nearby areas more successful by providing new local food retailing, processing, and distribution options. As a hub for a complete local food system, the market will even include an urban agriculture center with a model market garden and classes in urban food production.

Distribution is always a challenge. Farmers interested in going wholesale need to get up to speed quickly in order to serve local markets; distributors themselves must re-think systems that have shut out smaller farms for years.

Any number of companies, from the Sysco Corporation to Michigan-based distributors like Heeron Brothers Produce and the new Cherry Capital Foods L.L.C. in Traverse City, are looking for more local farmers to help them meet demand for local and specialty products. Even the natural food chain Whole Foods Market is redoubling efforts to buy from local farms after customers complained the company didn’t do enough.

“We’re putting a lot more energy into outreach and seeking farmers and other food producers through channels we may not have really focused on before,” said Adam Mitchel, a Midwest division produce coordinator.

Joe Colyn, a Michigan-based consultant for companies that are trying to diversify their supply chains and include more food from more local farms, says there is a growing appreciation among mainline buyers for the benefits that consumers find in local foods, from freshness to community connection.

“There’s also some awareness that our growers can provide unique flavors in fruits and vegetables, deliver them fresh and in good shape, and really satisfy consumers with stuff they used to eat, like great-tasting produce and fresh Michigan peaches,” Mr. Colyn said.

Hooping It Up
But what happens when winter returns to Michigan?

It’s a recurring question, but researchers at Michigan State University have found an effective, affordable answer: a new, badly needed piece of infrastructure that is perfect for helping smaller farms get more products to more markets.

It’s called a passive solar greenhouse, or “hoophouse.” Made of double-layered plastic stretched over a metal framework, hoophouses allow farmers to grow as many as 30 different cold-tolerant crops, from spinach to pak choi, through the dead of winter. Hoophouses also can provide restaurants, farmers markets, and other venues with ripe tomatoes and other high-demand vegetables as early as June—a real feat in Michigan.

“For Michigan farmers, it’s really important to get in early and to be able to stay in late,” said Adam Mitchel, a produce coordinator with the Midwest division of Whole Foods Market.

He’s referring to the fact that everybody from California to Georgia has tomatoes to sell in August. Targeting times when their local foods are especially precious, like vine-ripened tomatoes in June, is just one of the ways Michigan farms can make hoophouses pay.

Passive solar hoophouses cost a lot less to build and operate than other types of greenhouses, which generally require a heat source, like propane or wood. That means farmers can get started making money for much less upfront investment. A standard 30 by 96-ft. hoophouse can cost $8,000 to $15,000, depending on its bells and whistles. With 60 percent of its area used for crops, it can bring in as much as $26,000 in gross sales in one year, said Jeremy Moghtader, a manager of MSU’s Student Organic Farm.

The farm has several hoophouses; students and faculty use them not only to gather valuable information for farmers but also to grow food for sale. The Student Organic Farm is truly hands-on, with a year-round Community Supported Agriculture operation giving students the chance to learn every aspect of organic growing and business management, including hoophouse growing.

And now, MSU’s Division of Housing and Food Services has partnered with the Student Organic Farm and MSU’s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems to construct the Farm’s largest hoophouse yet. With it, the Student Organic Farm will sell greens year-round to campus dorms.

The goal is not just to produce more fresh food for campus; it is also to demonstrate how more farms could do it, too.

“We want to help pave the way for other farms to sell to bigger buyers, like institutional food services,” said Mr. Moghtader.

It takes some planning and preparation to use hoophouses. Farmers must think about solar gain from all angles when deciding where to put them. They also have to plan their planting to allow for slower growth during the coldest, darkest times.

But the modest build-out cost is proving to be worth it for farms that are expanding markets for fresh and local foods. Communities that help local farms take advantage of this and other season- extending technologies will benefit both from the farms’ business success…and from their year-round food.

Local Orbits
Building a brand-new market for a local food, whether it’s July strawberries or January spinach, takes some effort. And, given the size of that market, at least initially, getting the word out to consumers has to be both effective and inexpensive. That is why so many entrepreneurs are trying to find a way around the big-box, mass-market model that has produced tons of cheap food but shuts out many smaller farms.

One of them is Local Orbit. This online market place—part eBay, part Amazon, part Craigslist—is still in its pilot stages. But it could revolutionize how farmers sell, and how consumers shop for, local food.

That’s because it has something for everyone, says co-developer Erika Block:

“Local Orbit makes it easier for farmers, other food producers, and independent retailers to do what they need to do (compete in a big-box, global food world) while at the same time providing the convenience, information, and all-in-one service that the typical consumer wants.”

Here’s how it works:

  • Retailers: A local independent retailer, like a family-owned grocery store, signs up to be the place where the farms and food businesses drop off their local food orders. The retailer then gains a group of potentially regular customers who may buy other things at the store, such as non-local pineapples and peanuts.

  • Sellers: Farms and food businesses promote their wares at the local online Local Orbit site; every site is regionally based and managed. They also use a bunch of Local Orbit’s back-office, online services, such as built-in databases that help them manage inventory, gather helpful market statistics, and export data for accounting purposes.

  • Buyers: Consumers place orders weekly through the site, which provides information about each participating farm’s products. The site has many of the features online shoppers expect, like a shopping cart, payment and order processing, product reviews, and buying preferences. “If a customer has said they prefer only Michigan tomatoes, then the Michigan tomato will come up first, ahead of the Indiana tomato,” Block said.

Local Orbit starts its pilot run in the spring of 2009.

Package Deal
But even after a grower has managed to extend her growing season and locate a buyer via cyberspace, most still have some more work to do. That is because they have traditionally sold into canned, frozen, and dried foods markets, and fresh markets are quite different.

For example, selling fresh means being able to cool produce as quickly as possible to maintain its taste as it heads to the supermarket. Packing produce to fit how restaurants and schools use it, such as in boxes containing a certain number and size of apples, suddenly becomes important.

That’s why WIRED West Michigan, a regional workforce development initiative, is using some of its $15 million, three-year U.S. Department of Labor grant to train farmers in the ways and needs of supermarkets and other larger buyers.

“It’s about learning how to work in the realm of delivering to food service companies and larger retailers,” said David Bisbee, assistant project manager with WIRED West Michigan, a project of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance.

The project involves some classroom training, along with field trips to see how other farms are successfully using hydro-cooling equipment and passive solar greenhouses, for example, to get buyers what they want, when they want it.

WIRED West Michigan has teamed up with The Starting Block, in Hart, and with the statewide Michigan Food and Farming Systems, to make the training happen.

The team is also simply putting Michigan growers together in the same room with buyers at “Meet the Buyer” receptions. Two have been held at the annual Great Lakes Expo in Grand Rapids.

“When a farmer and a buyer from (the wholesale company) Spartan have looked each other in the eye, met in person, the whole process is dramatically easier,” Mr. Bisbee said.

A printed version of this six-part online series, See the Local Difference, will be published by the Michigan Land Use Institute in January 2009. Patty Cantrell, an economist and veteran journalist, founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project and is now its consulting director. Reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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