Making it a true farmer’s market: Institute expands outreach of food made here, sold here

Chris Halpin remembers the day a woman showed up at his Kaleva farm with a guide in her hand listing farmers who sold directly to consumers. Her summer home was only a couple of miles away, but she had never known the farm was there.

Now in its second year, the "Taste the Local Difference" food guide has expanded by nearly 25 percent to include 160 regional farms, including Halpin Highlands Family Farm, that sell their products directly to shoppers and retailers.

New to the guide this year is a list of some 55 food retailers, grocers, restauranteurs, caterers, and hoteliers, that feature locally-produced food. The Taste campaign promotes the bounty of local foods available from the eight-county northwestern Michigan region. A project of the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), a Beulah-based non-profit organization, the goal of the campaign is to preserve Michigan farmland by creating new economic opportunities for farms and food entrepreneurs and is part of a larger agricultural project started in 2002 to increase farm profitability.

Chris Halpin, his wife Pennie, and their children work the 80-acre, organic farm growing vegetables and raising chicken, sheep, pigs, cows, and goats and are committed to serving the local Kaleva community and surrounding counties. Chris says the guide has brought some new customers to the farm and he hears similar things from his colleagues who are also in the guide.

"Most of our customers are local," he says, adding that the farm's CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, farm markets, and individuals stopping by account for 70 percent of sales. Commercial accounts (restaurants and grocery stores) across the region make up the remaining 30 percent. Together, the farms in the pocket-sized guide represent approximately 23,000 acres of farmland, 320 full and part-time jobs, and some $5 million in sales. The food guide and the promotional materials used by the retail partners give more muscle to the Institute's efforts to save farmland by building local food market connections. Patty Cantrell, director of Entrepreneurial Agriculture for the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), describes the guide as "an essential piece of what we're trying to do." She says news about local food availability usually spreads by word of mouth but it's critical that more people hear about it. "So often with local foods it's someone who knows someone who knows someone. Let's expand that so everyone knows."

Working with several local and state organizations, including MSU Extension, northwest Michigan's Small Business and Technology Development Center, and NMC among others, the Institute is creating a local farm-and-food business network that will help farms, big and small, develop new business avenues, such as marketing local foods to local schools.

Originally funded by a major grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the local food campaign is garnering support from area businesses and organizations.

"It's about connecting the dots between producer and consumer," says Cantrell. While some farmers, like the Halpins, are working with other farms and networking to make their operations more profitable, Cantrell says the MLUI is intent on supporting those efforts and functioning as a facilitator for a widespread networking community.

"The demand for taste, place, and nutrition is growing," adds Cantrell, noting that if people want to have strong rural communities, these types of connections for sustainable economic development of the state's farmland are imperative.

In addition to the guide, the Institute recently launched a Web site,, which features a searchable version of the printed guide. Whether you're looking for organic peaches in Manistee County, or blueberries in Benzie County, or grass-fed beef in Kalkaska, you can enter specific search criteria and find which farms sell what you're looking for.

Oleson's Food Stores, which has five locations in the region, is a campaign sponsor, as well as a retail partner of Taste the Local Difference. Co-owner Brad Oleson supports the project because he understands the importance local food has on the area and its economy.

"With local foods, it's 100 percent local economy," says Oleson. "It's a win-win for us and the farmers."

Oleson says he values the freshness of local produce, the taste and nutrition (vitamins leech out of produce as it travels and sits in coolers), and, from a personal standpoint, holds the farming profession in very high esteem. He says his customers frequently ask about local produce.

Many area restaurants are also using local ingredients in increasing quantities, including Trattoria Stella in Traverse City. According to executive chef Myles Anton, Stella uses local produce, dairy, meat, and fish from Halpin Farms, Marek Farms (Kalkaska), Provemont Farms (Lake Leelanau), Werp Farms (Buckley), Glacier Springs (Bellaire), and Shetler Dairy (Kalkaska). "We're all part of one community and we support each other," says Anton, who used the guide to find many of his local food purveyors.

He got his first taste of local and seasonal foods while working as a chef in Maine. "I played around with it there, but this is on a much larger scale," he says.

How does Halpin feel about his and other farmers' foods in area restaurants?

"It's a benefit to everybody," he says. "You buy local, it stays local. I think people need to be more discriminate about their buying."

As for what Cantrell sees next as part of this farm preservation effort, she discusses the need for a central processing and distribution facility. "A lot of the routes for getting local goods to consumers don't exist," she said. "The major distribution system doesn't accommodate local buying and selling."

Halpin agrees that such a facility would be instrumental for continued farm profitability and adds that another good thing for the local farm economy would be local livestock feed. He gets some of his feed from a farmer three miles down the road, but would like to see more commercial farms get into that business.

"I pay a premium for feed," says Halpin. "I just as soon pay it to a local farmer than someone else. The market is there."

And the market for local foods across the region is building. With mid-August fast approaching, now is the season for peaches and blueberries, peppers, and cucumbers. You just might want to stop by your local farm and pick some up.

The Taste the Local Difference food guide can be downloaded at or call 231.882.4723. BN