‘Buy Local’ movement gains momentum

TRAVERSE CITY – On a typical summer night, Randy Sharp invites about 4,000 folks over for food and drink – most of it bought locally.

No, Sharp doesn't own the biggest beach house on Lake Michigan. He's the concessions manager at Wuerfel Park, home of the Traverse City Beach Bums and an avid practitioner of the "buy local" movement that is gaining momentum among businesses throughout the region.

"When the Wuerfels and I got involved in setting up the concessions, we wanted to do as much local as possible," said Sharp. "We wanted to utilize products that we know and believe in."

That resulted in contracts with such well-known Traverse City area names as Moomers Ice Cream, the Grand Traverse Pie Company, Mancino's Pizza, and the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company.

"Moomers Ice Cream is an unbelievably good product; it's been a huge, huge success," said Sharp. "And Grand Traverse Pie products are all first-rate. We looked at a lot of different pizzas, but Mancino's was a step above all the others and they work hard to provide fresh pizzas to us at each game-sometimes making up to six or seven runs from their store, which is five minutes away from the park, to make sure the pizzas are oven-fresh. Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company provides a great coffee-we use their breakfast blend-and when it gets chilly we sell a lot of coffee."

While the Beach Bums try to buy local as often as possible, not all local products are suitable for Wuerfel Park.

"We have fielded numerous requests from people who would like their products sold at the park," said Sharp. "But we evaluate each request separately to make sure it's a good fit for us."

The burgeoning "buy local" effort comes as no surprise to the Michigan Land Use Institute, which has seen steady growth in its campaign to encourage local food purchases.

"The effort is growing," said MLUI spokeswoman Diane Conners. "This is the third year of our campaign. Our first guide listed 120 farms, the second 160. This year we have more than 200. The first year we printed 10,000 copies, the second year 25,000 copies, this year 40,000 copies. We find people love the taste of fresh food and they like knowing the story of the person who grew it or the place where it came from."

The MLUI guide is at www.LocalDifference.org and many farms say the guide has increased their customer contacts.

"We had about 100 farms and restaurant, grocer, schools, and other local buyers come to each of three forums at the Hagerty Center and the Perry Hotel over the winter excited about strategizing ways to build this local market," said Conners. "Farms and other businesses see and are experiencing the potential in building these local markets."

But it's not just farmers who benefit. The tourism economy is enhanced by the farmers markets, farm stands, wineries and other facets of the region's agricultural econom, says Conners.

"People are drawn to the region because they can have these experiences," noted Conners. "We see wonderful spin-off businesses that are built on a local farm economy, such as Leelanau Cheese, Food for Thought jams and other products-even local chocolates that feature dried cherries, cherry concentrate, local wines, and brandies."

MLUI found many restaurants, stores, and others who see the benefit in featuring local foods for their customers. Research conducted last winter shows that the region's restaurants and grocery owners place a high value on the freshness and quality of local farm products. They also believe their customers share that appreciation for fresh local flavors and that they like buying from farms because it invests in the local economy.

One new Traverse City eatery is emphasizing its use of local products. The Blue Tractor Cook Shop, located in the historic Old Town building that once housed Antoine Novotny's Saloon and later Dill's, has developed a tasty comfort-food menu that includes several items made from locally-grown products and produce. Grand Traverse area farmers interested in selling their produce to Blue Tractor are encouraged to email the eatery at localproduct@2mission.com.

But it's not always easy buying local, as Blue Tractor management has discovered. The restaurant is able to buy less than one third of the amount of cheese it needs on a daily basis from a local cheese company, because the cheese company can't make enough.

Another barrier is lack of a distribution company that specifically picks up and delivers local farm products, according to the MLUI survey that asked participants about barriers to purchasing more local products. Currently, a produce distribution company based in Detroit-but with ties in this region-is working to fill that gap.

"We have a goal of opening up a new $45 million market for farms and other foods businesses," said Conners. "Which is what would happen if households, chefs, specialty food producers, and others spent just 5 percent of their annual food and beverage purchases on local products."

With sinking bulk commodity prices, many farmers find it difficult to stay in business (according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, the region lost 35 percent of its medium-sized farms from 1997-2002) and have good financial reasons to sell to developers.

Nonetheless, local farms that focused on selling directly to consumers instead of to big processors and bulk commodity markets increased that part of their annual sales by 18 percent, according to the MLUI.

The MLUI guide lists 200 farms who sell more than 120 different products, from strawberries and asparagus to mushrooms, honey, maple syrup, eggs, milk and meat.

The buy local campaign has touched businesses of all kinds. Although they are competitors, three Traverse City printing companies are so adamant about buying local products that they are combining their efforts to promote the campaign.

Beginning later this month or early in September, Dave Moore, president of Village Press, Sandy Henschell, owner of Johnson Clark Printers, and Jim Novak, owner of Progress Printers, plan to mail a series of three postcards to area businesses explaining the benefits of buying local. Their reasoning: buying local means more dollars stay in the local market.

The Downtown Traverse City Association offers a Downtown Gift Certificate program that encourages local spending. Last year the DTCA sold over $125,000 worth, which stays in Downtown Traverse City, said Colleen Paveglio, Marketing Director at the DDA/DTCA.

And if you've ever gotten a gift basket from Baskets Full of Gifts, you're witnessing the campaign in action. Owner Candie Conat uses Brownwood Farms, Food For Thought, Pop-Kies popcorn, Charles Layton Chocolates and Brimmer Honey Farms, just to name a few.

"We love to support local businesses whenever possible; it benefits us in so many ways!" Conat said.

But not everyone is a believer in the 'buy local' concept.

John Hull, zoning administrator for Acme Township and an observer of economics, feels it's "mathematically, analytically, and factually unsound."

"The buy-local movement may bring temporary 'benefits' because it is preventing non-local goods from coming in, without seeing a reduction in local exports. Once other communities realize that the region is engaged in a predatory policy, they'll retaliate…and they'll probably hit harder because of it… Essentially, the idea is to get everybody in the GT region to boycott the downstate region, simply because they're downstate." BN