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How to Make Local Food Work for Michigan

New report on economic bright spot can guide local, state officials

March 31, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  See the Local Difference reports on ways officials can help growers, distributors, and retailers accelerate Michigan’s budding local-food economy both rural and urban areas.
Michigan may be the single best-situated state in the nation when it comes to growing its economy with green jobs.

The Auto State’s extensive manufacturing expertise and capacity make it a natural choice for building the new economy’s green energy machines, like wind turbines, solar semiconductors, and hybrid vehicle batteries.

But the state has another, perhaps less-appreciated ability for going green—its agriculture. In fact, Michigan is a state rich in all the things needed to feed the Midwest’s growing hunger for tasty, healthy, trustworthy food from nearby farms.

It adds up to another burgeoning green-jobs sector, one that produces the nation’s second-widest variety of crops after California. The state also has big food processing and greenhouse capacity.

But seeing a new direction and taking it are two different things.

Just as Michigan must change its Rust Belt mind about green energy in order to generate its big benefits, like jobs, energy cost savings, and natural resource protection, the state must also change its mind about the prospects of little local-food producers. That is what our leaders must do before we can leverage the state’s great farm diversity to grow jobs, build health, and strengthen regional economies.

Now there’s a new report on the emerging regional-food sector that can help local and state leaders do just that, entitled See the Local Difference.

Produced by the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, See the Local Difference looks at the emergence of a new economic sector in Michigan: regional food. The report, researched and written by this reporter, describes how that new sector is taking shape, what it contributes to local and state economies, and how local and state leaders can accelerate and make the most of it.

From Skepticism to Enthusiasm
Like a subtle spice that makes a dish great, the new community and business connections forming around tasty, healthy, trustworthy local food are becoming an essential ingredient for the state’s future success.

Indeed, both the beauty and necessity of growing, eating, and sharing good food is now surfacing as a strategy that 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,” Mr. Anastor said. “If you want people to live there, you have to have some place for them to do their grocery shopping.”

It all starts with investment in Michigan’s food and farm entrepreneurs, said David Armstrong, senior vice president of Greenstone Farm Credit Services, Michigan’s largest agricultural lender.

“I was probably a little skeptical a few years ago,” Mr. Armstrong said. “But now there’s very clearly demand in the marketplace by people who want locally grown food. I think it can be a rallying opportunity for entrepreneurs who want to take some business risk and come up with a plan to serve that emerging need.”

That opportunity is now, according to Denis Jennisch, produce-category manager for Sysco Grand Rapids, the $38 billion distribution company’s hub for serving western Lower Michigan and northern Indiana.

Sales have soared on Michigan items since Sysco Grand Rapids last year began segregating Michigan apples, carrots, alfalfa sprouts, and other produce from non-Michigan sources. Sysco also created an entirely new product code for Michigan produce so that university, restaurant, and other buyers could select it easily.

Sysco Grand Rapids’ initial 2008 effort tapped larger scale Michigan producers already accustomed to wholesale marketing. The trial effort moved 56,000 cases of Michigan-grown produce and kept $1 million in the state’s economy, Mr. Jennisch said.

This year, the project will dig deeper to fill orders with produce from farms that have yet to try fresh produce or wholesale marketing.

“We’re going beyond the normal base, reaching out to small and medium growers that haven’t been comfortable with this market in the past,” he said. “We’re willing to work with them if they want to grow in that direction.”

“Sysco Chicago is next,” Mr. Jennisch said of that hub’s plan for the 2009 growing season to offer its customers a way to buy produce that specifically comes from nearby producers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

A Practical Guide
See the Local Difference offers a menu of steps local and state leaders can take to help more farms succeed in the good-food business, from the very local level to the much wider Midwest wholesale arena.

A 2006 study by the Michigan Land Use Institute and Michigan State University, entitled Eat Fresh, Grow Jobs, quantified the kind of results the state could expect: If Michigan farms tripled the relatively low volumes of their fruits and vegetables now going to higher-value fresh markets in Michigan, the state’s net farm income could increase by 14 percent, or $164 million annually. As farms spent that new income at local stores, restaurants, and the like, they would stimulate nearly 1,900 new jobs.

The move toward local food and farming also has another payoff: It builds more attractive places, which Michigan desperately needs to attract talented workers and business investment.

Dr. Soji 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 Michigan’s future success.

“Michigan’s historical lock on prosperity—its industrial infrastructure of capital, auto plants, skilled labor, and so forth—counts for less in the new, global economy,” Dr. Adelaja said. “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—as See the Local Difference explains—regional food systems are an important part of that.

Patty Cantrell is program director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, where she built northwest Lower Michigan’s nationally recognized Taste the Local Difference program. Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow focused on promoting local food and farming as a New Economy strategy. Reach her at pattycATmlui.org.

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