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Food Charter: Growing Success for Small Farms

25-step plan points way to more jobs, better health, stronger state economy

September 30, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Nels Veliquette and T.J. Keyes, partners in Triple D Orchards, a local cherry processing plant, converted some of their space from bulk to custom, small-batch processing of local products.

BEAR LAKE—Peach season and pickle season coincide, making for a busy time of year at Calvin Lutz Farms, near Bear Lake, just north of Manistee on the Lake Michigan coastline.

On a sunny August day, people, paychecks, and products are flying in all directions. Two neighbor women stop by with a load of pinecones for another of this diversified, second-generation farm's enterprises: Christmas wreaths, which the farm sells in metro Detroit. 

"The weather's been great this year," observed farm manager Mark Coe between shuttling boxes of peaches to the farm’s roadside market and lining up a driver to deliver cucumbers.  "We're running two semi-loads of pickles a day when we usually run one."

But Mr. Coe and his farm neighbors also chatted about the difficulty of marketing their fruits and vegetables to local customers, like schools, in frozen, canned, dried and other processed forms.

"There aren't any little processing plants around anymore," said Dennis Mackey, Calvin Lutz's cousin and co-owner of Northern Natural Organics, a fresh fruit and juice company in nearby Kaleva. "The processors want enough volume to run an eight-hour shift. But an eight-hour shift gets me 3,000 to 4,000 cases. I can't sell all that. I lose money holding that inventory."

In fact, after 50 years of consolidation, companies that slice, dice, pickle, freeze, and otherwise process produce are both fewer and much larger. They are unable or unwilling to handle smaller farms' limited volumes and special requests.

That presents a real problem for area farms as they eye new opportunities for local and specialty products, particularly with schools in surrounding Manistee County and nearby Benzie County placing their fall orders with them. Mr. Coe and his neighbors want to have their seasonal bounty processed so that schools can use them year-round.

That is why Mr. Mackey and some partners are looking into buying and reviving a nearby defunct plant to freeze local produce. But financing is a big challenge.

That is exactly the kind of challenge a new statewide policy guide, the Michigan Good Food Charter takes on.

It spells out 25 steps local and state leaders can take to not only help Michigan seize new food and farm opportunities, but also make healthy food conveniently available to many more people by strengthening the state’s farms and local food markets.

That, the Charter says, would significantly improve public health, the environment, and the state economy.

Planning for Success
The Charter came together over the last year through a statewide series of discussions sponsored by the Michigan Food Policy Council, Michigan Food Bank Council, and C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU. It envisions a time 10 years from now when state residents get 20 percent of their food from Michigan farms, and twice as many people—80 percent versus today’s 40 percent—can access affordable, fresh, healthy food

According to a Michigan State University study, food and farm business development support could help Michigan generate 23,000 new jobs in the state's $71 billion food and agriculture economy each year, mostly in smaller food and farm-related businesses.

A good chunk of the Charter addresses the lack of small and mid-scale services that Mr. Coe and Mr. Mackey talked about. It urges the state to help regions wrap their economic development arms around local businesses that can create badly needed small and mid-scale infrastructure. It also suggests that Michigan invest a relatively small $10 million in regional development funding to help entrepreneurs like Mr. Mackey leverage the money they need to provide freezing, packaging, and other food system services.

The Charter also encourages communities to establish food business districts that would work much like Michigan's popular and effective Main Street program, which has helped redevelop downtown retail areas.

Food business districts can provide low-cost space for, and foster more collaboration among, businesses developing new products and services. They can also serve as regional food hubs, where growers can aggregate their products and get it out to bigger buyers, like schools and hospitals. Detroit's historic Eastern Market is, in fact, is a food business district from way back; it is now connecting local suppliers and buyers of fresh and processed foods.

Taking Off in Grand Traverse
The Charger’s recommendation to help regions invest in smaller and mid-scale infrastructure companies could result in more entrepreneurs taking the leap that Triple D Orchards, in Empire, 30 miles west of Traverse City, recently took.

Long involved in pitting and packing cherries, the owners of the small fruit processing plant saw its old-line bulk or commodity business declining. But it also saw a new business opening up, in custom processing. So Triple D converted some of its space to serving smaller entrepreneurs trying to develop specialty, branded products, including many intent on using and marketing locally grown ingredients.

"We can take those ideas from the ground up," said plant manager and part owner T.J. Keyes. "We've got the forklifts, loading docks, and other processing infrastructure that the undercapitalized idea guys don't have," he said. "We can do the work and let them do the marketing."

The Charter’s recommendation for establishing food business districts could also help make a new, big project take off in Traverse City proper. The town has its own regional food business district in the making, with a growing collection of entrepreneurs taking up wholesale and retail residence at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

The Village is a major residential and commercial redevelopment project on the grounds of a former, Victorian-era mental hospital that is now a very large condominium and retail development. A bakery, a winery, a coffee roaster, summer and winter farmers markets, and more have already gravitated to the Village. Together, they are becoming a shopping destination—and a community of collaborating businesses.

"The Village is sort of becoming another neighborhood in Traverse City," said Ray Minervini of the Minervini Group, developers of the Village. Businesses there also have significant sales opportunity nearby, including the 4,000 employees of Munson Medical Center, right next door, he said.

Today local economic development leaders are eyeing Building 58 at the Village, the former food storage and processing site for the historic asylum, which once fed 5,000 patients and staff every day from its own farmland. Building 58 offers built-in assets, such as large coolers and warehouse spaces. The Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation is currently seeking funding for a coordinator to pursue a plan that could include three types of food business incubators there: One for meat, fish, and poultry; another for baking and dairy; and one for preserves and sauces.  

Leelanau County vintner Don Coe is the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation board member leading the charge. It's part of the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network's focus on doubling the value of the region's food and agriculture system in 10 years.

Coe and other Network members envision food and farm enterprises getting started in low-cost incubator space and then setting up shop in the Commons' food business district once they are able to go it alone.

The region's economic development agencies also will accompany those entrepreneurs all along their business development path, he said: "We can provide linkages to existing grant and loan funds and various economic development funds, for example."

It's all part of keeping farming communities like the one around Bear Lake intact and in the business of providing Michigan with local commerce, green space, and quality food. As the Michigan Good Food Charter argues, it is these built-in food and farming businesses, dotting the state from coast to coast and through urban and rural areas, which offer Michigan one of its most potent opportunities for economic recovery and growth.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food and Farm Program. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.
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