*This column originally appeared in the Oct. 5 edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine our Great Lakes state, from Detroit to the Sault, and across the U.P. to Ironwood. We’re a big, proud, two-handed state. For an entire century we’ve been known for greatness, and the one proud thing to rule them all is the great American automobile. It started here, innovated here, and is still struggling to reemerge here. Remember Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad, “I got a question for you, what does this city know about Luxury?”
As you stroll through your own town each day, look at the streets. If they’re like mine they’re lined one upon another with big, glorious, American steel beasts, pickup trucks, SUVs, and big old sedans. Sure, there’s a growing infestation of smaller, more svelte Asian and European invaders, but Michigan lives by its“Big Three,” and for these we’ll fight to the death. Just up the block from me is Hagerty Insurance, where there’s always a brightly polished reminder of better days on display. These Fords and Chryslers and GMs all harken back to a time when tires came from rubber trees and steel was hacked from the Earth by Yoopers singing Woody Guthrie songs. We’re proud of this heritage. Our fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers labored to provide Michigan this great story. Are you singing “This Land is Our Land” yet?
Now, imagine if you will a time when we walk down these same streets and the tables are turned. Instead of mostly American made cars, the parking lots are filled with 95 percent imports, with only a small smattering here and there of the American breeds. For whatever reason, Michiganders are happy to ignore our homegrown brands. How might it make you feel that all this great American genius was pushed to the wayside? How would it effect the emotional state of that relative of yours who once worked for GM? How would our economy be impacted? Are you angry yet? O.K., now take a breath.
What if this economic and social catastrophe had already occurred but in another sector of the economy? What if we as consumers had already turned our backs? Well we have, and I’m talking about our local food economy. The story’s the same , and so is the cast of characters: hard-working, values-based, dirt-under-the-fingernails pioneers. But there are no rock stars pumping their fists to regenerate the lost economy of locally grown food. Neither Kid Rock, nor Clint Eastwood, has ever pitched ads for Bardenhagen apples or American Spoon jam.
Go to your favorite grocery store and look at the shelves. Where is the locally grown food? Oh, it’s there, but it’s buried behind an insipid blur of commodity-scaled products with glitzy labels and expensive ad campaigns. Why is it so difficult to find local produce here during the first week of October, when bin-fuls from Washington, California, New York, and Mexico are plentiful? Why, when we live in the second most diverse agricultural state in the U.S., do we struggle to buy the very products that are grown virtually in our own backyards? The answer of course is a complex one.
Many of us in northwest Michigan are tired of waiting for the right answer. We’re about to go out on a limb and try something on our own, something new. Over the next few months we’ll be testing a series of marketing strategies to help sell more locally grown food from Manistee to the straights of Mackinac. You’ll be seeing a new brand emerge in your local grocery stores, starting with Tom’s Food Markets and then spreading outward. The Taste the Local Difference (TLD) name and logo will soon begin to appear on your grocer’s shelves to help differentiate local products from the mass of others crowding them out.
Imagine a day when you look down the aisles at your neighborhood grocery store, and at a glance know which products were grown or made here. This vision is part of our strategy to get northwest Michigan farms to provide 20% of all the region’s food by the year 2020. I can see the TV ad now. It’s being voiced-over by Eminem. As the camera moves in slowly filling the screen with images of swaying green fields and orchards, you can hear the proud angst in his voice as he says, “This is northwest Michigan, and this is what we do.”