*This column originally appeared in the Oct. 24, 2015, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Timothy Young, founder and chef of Food for Thought in Honor, has the same responsibilities and worries as most business leaders.
But Young has strong feelings about the food distribution system he relies on when it comes to managing relationships in his organic and wild-harvested specialty food company.
“In most industries, buying and selling is an anonymous task, done through email or with middle representatives that present barriers to human interactions,” Young said. "I can’t imagine not doing business across the dining room table with farmers that I work with."
With the fast growth of northern Michigan’s food industry over the past decade, you might think this is a new trend. Young suggests otherwise.
“Those relationships have lasted the 20 years we’ve been in business. Many others that didn’t provide that sort of relationship have come and gone. Mostly gone,” he said. “To this day, most of my farmer-supplier relationships are as old as our company, and agreements are made with a handshake.“
That may seem nostalgic, but in the world of regional agriculture businesses like Young’s, this type of relationship is key. For northern Michigan to continue its climb on the foodie “it-place” ladder of economic success, consumers will need to learn this lesson as well.
When we look at traditional models of measuring the value of local food, they are executed with geographic precision. Miles are tabulated and zip codes quantified. But today, the term “local food” carries with it much more meaning — or it should.
The definition of local food needs to include a valuation for the relationships it demands. It’s not enough now to simply say, “my food was grown within 150 miles.”
We should also be able to say, “…and I know the name of the farmer.” Farmers and food producers seem to agree.
Brian Bates of Bear Creek Organic Farm, just north of Petoskey, says he knows his customers and they know him.
“To us, the relationship with a buyer matters as much, if not more, than the proximity to a customer/buyer,” Bates said. “When a market customer has feedback on a product, we listen to them. When a retailer or chef has some feedback on a product, we listen to them. It's a feedback loop. Relationships and trust matter."
Consumers need to step up and own part of this equation for northern Michigan to realize the full potential of its food economy. We must learn to expect that feedback loop from farmers and suppliers, and we must be ready to demand it from stores.
We must hold those who provide our sustenance to a higher standard as technology takes us further away from real relationships with tweets, Snapchats and terse Facebook posts. We can do this by building and maintaining relationships with the food we eat.
Know the people behind the label. Ask hard questions and expect direct answers. It is with these relationships of respect and trust that northern Michigan will build its next success stories of agricultural economy.