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Wired For Success

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

New and growing demand for fresh, local, Michigan foods means that the state’s fruit and vegetable growers need to make some changes if they want to get into that market.

Most have traditionally sold into canned, frozen, and dried foods markets, but fresh markets are 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, a food business incubator 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 Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market 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.

Selling Wholesale: A new resource is now available for farms entering the wholesale market arena. Wholesale Success: A Farmer’s Guide to Selling, Post-Harvest Handling, and Packing Produce is available for $80 ($50 in quantity) at http://www.familyfarmed.org/.
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