Northwest Michigan’s Food Economy Leads Way

MLUI 2012 AnnualTwo years ago Mark Abbott envisioned FarmRaiser, a company that would take a new approach to school fundraisers by giving kids the chance to sell locally grown food. Buying local had become a major economic driver in just about every corner of the country. People seemed fatigued by the same old fundraisers that feature chocolate bars, wrapping paper, and coupon books for national chains. Abbott knew it was a winning idea – and potentially big business – but he needed to test his business model first.

“Northern Michigan was the perfect place to create and test FarmRaiser,” said Abbott, who was living in Flint at the time. “We found willing farmers and food artisans, school leaders who were dialed in to the importance of supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and the socioeconomic diversity of students and customers that showed our model can work anywhere.”

Northwest Michigan has emerged as a dynamic hub of innovation in the local food economy over the last decade. Our region’s proud agricultural heritage and diverse crop base, combined with a new generation of young farmers and food entrepreneurs, has earned our region a national reputation as leaders in the local food movement. Increasingly, other communities in Michigan and beyond are looking to the Traverse City area for what’s next in local food.

Taste the Local Difference (TLD), for example, is a successful local food marketing campaign created in 2002 by the Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI), now known as the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. TLD began publishing an annual guide to local food that was used by restaurants looking to source locally and by people who wanted to buy direct from farmers. Today the guide lists nearly 700 farms, restaurants, wineries, breweries, grocery stores and food businesses. To bring local food to a broader audience, TLD has also partnered with Tom’s and Oleson’s to promote local food in grocery stores.

From the beginning, the idea was to create a model for marketing local food that could be replicated in other communities. This year, it happened. TLD is partnering with Think Local First in Ann Arbor to launch a new marketing campaign in Washtenaw County. It’s the first step in a plan to expand TLD throughout Michigan – and ultimately to the rest of the nation.

Northwest Michigan’s farm to school movement also stands out as a model for the rest of the state. In the fall of 2013, MLUI and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District launched a program to support schools in buying locally grown fruits and vegetables. Schools typically only have 20 to 30 cents/pound to spend on produce; the “10 Cents a Meal” program provides an extra dime per meal to buy local fruits and vegetables up to three times a week.

With pilot projects in Traverse City, Suttons Bay and Glen Lake schools, community members, foundations, and local businesses pooled money to establish a “10 Cent” fund that was matched by the three school districts and resulted in $84,621 spent on 27 different local fruits and vegetables grown by 17 area farmers.
The program’s success is now driving a state-level policy discussion about increasing funding to school lunch budgets while also supporting the state’s economy.

State Senator Darwin Booher, a Republican from Evart whose district ranges from Leelanau to Mason to Ogemaw counties, is working now to see how the 10 Cent program could expand in Michigan. If fully funded, a statewide 10 Cents a Meal program could put $28 million into Michigan’s agriculture-based economy.

It’s this kind of entrepreneurial spirit and the sense that northwest Michigan is indeed a “proving ground” for new ideas in sustainable food systems that attracted Mark Abbott to the region – and his business model appears to be working. In 2014, FarmRaiser-supported school fundraisers sold $100,000 of local products ranging from fresh produce from Second Spring Farm in Cedar, to preserves from Food For Thought in Honor, to honey from Sleeping Bear Farms.

This year, FarmRaiser is on track to triple its sales. They’ve spread throughout Michigan, and developed new markets in Seattle and Washington, D.C. Abbott envisions $10 million in sales in 2016 and sees no reason why FarmRaiser can’t be a $100 million company within the decade.

The future is bright for Taste the Local Difference, 10 Cents a Meal and FarmRaiser. It’s a story our region should be proud of because the outcomes include healthier kids, resilient farmers and strong local economies.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, formerly known as the Michigan Land Use Institute. He filed this column from Minneapolis where his daughter’s North Star soccer team is competing in the USA Cup, thanks to a successful FarmRaiser fundraiser.