Tricia Phelps’ relationship with local food began the first time she tasted a butternut squash. It was the fall of 2009—harvest season—and she was a junior at Michigan State University (MSU). A co-worker at MSU’s Residential Hospitality Services’ sustainability office had left town and offered Phelps her weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share from the MSU Student Organic Farm.
“I had never been to a working farm before, and I had no idea what a CSA was,” said Phelps. “But being a poor college student, I wasn’t going to turn down free food. I was curious. I got to pick up all these strange vegetables I’d never heard of.”
The thing was, Phelps didn’t know how to cut up or prepare a butternut squash. She had grown up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by freeways, big box stores, hay and cornfields, and she had zero relationship to local food. The majority of her meals growing up were frozen pizza or packaged foods like macaroni & cheese and Hamburger Helper. She knew she wanted to start fresh after high school, and chose to matriculate in East Lansing (both of her parents were MSU alumni), though she had no idea where that path would lead.
Ultimately, it led her to Taste the Local Difference (TLD), Michigan’s local food marketing agency and a social enterprise of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. TLD was launched by the Groundwork Center (then called the Michigan Land Use Institute) in 2004 as a print and online guide that helped match farmers with customers and was an early promoter of consuming locally grown food. Phelps became CEO on Oct. 1 2017 and is leading the thriving business forward as TLD expands to impact local food economies statewide.
Back in East Lansing in 2009 after her trip to the farm, Phelps and her college roommate were ambitious and decided to make a labor-intensive risotto with that first butternut squash. Many more home-cooked meals would follow, with friends and family at the table including Alex, Phelps’ partner whom she had met during her freshman year.
That first experience with local food was formative. Phelps’ bond with local produce, and her relationship with Alex, would lead her after graduation from MSU to his native Traverse City, home to a budding local food movement. Phelps worked initially for the nonprofit SEEDS as a manager at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market, then as a project assistant and communications manager for The Minervini Group (Redevelopers of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons) where she also managed their indoor market in the Mercado.
“What I love most about farmers markets is connecting and talking with people who grow your food, understanding the farmers as people and knowing their stories,” said Phelps. “I’m very curious about the farmers, themselves, and how they came into the work they’re doing now.”
Though she was already working 6 days a week, Phelps felt the itch to write about local food and farming, so in 2014 she contacted then CEO of Taste the Local Difference Bill Palladino and offered to help as an unpaid intern. Phelps was later hired in 2015 as TLD’s first employee over 75 other applicants. Her job as Project Coordinator was to connect farmers with new markets, sign them up for TLD partnerships, and promote them in the annual guide. Her passion for food and farming continued to germinate at TLD, and this fall Phelps took over the reigns.
“I find Tricia to be one of the most thoughtful people I’ve met,” said Diane Conners, Groundwork’s senior food and farming policy specialist who led TLD when it launched in 2004. “She is passionate about building local food systems in ways that benefit the bottom line of farms and other local food businesses and at the same time increases the quality of life for people in their communities. She is ever-sensitive to wanting to serve farmers and other local food businesses and at the same time keep TLD sustainable so that it can serve them.”
From grant-funded guide to sustainable social enterprise
Groundwork (then MLUI) first launched TLD as a print and online guide in 2004, said Conners, with a goal of making the entrepreneurial farms in northwest Michigan more visible to a wide variety of potential buyers, whether they were families who buy directly, or wholesale buyers such as schools and grocery stores. Groundwork recognized local farmers as an important, though underappreciated, economic opportunity and even produced a report in 2002 to that effect, called The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture, written by Jim Lively and Patty Cantrell.
In those days, the Grand Traverse region didn’t yet have the local food infrastructure that we have now, including the food distributor Cherry Capital Foods.
“We often played matchmaker between wholesale buyers and farmers because we knew the different capacities of farmers to meet the needs of different buyers—for example, small restaurants versus large schools,” said Conners. “I still remember Cook’s House Chef Eric Patterson calling Janice Benson, who took over Taste the Local Difference after me, frantically asking if she knew where he could buy local quail’s eggs.”
TLD was popular, and surveys of growers indicated that the guide was helping them find new markets, said Conners. However, Groundwork needed to find a way to make the venture sustainable over the long haul, and grant funders were not going to support the guide and marketing services indefinitely. In the fall of 2012 Bill Palladino brought his business-oriented background and took over TLD, with the goal of turning it into a social enterprise—social in that it would meet Groundwork’s overall mission of building a diverse local food economy, but also an enterprise that would be financially sustainable.
“I joined Groundwork—our parent organization—with the instruction to ‘see where you can take TLD’,” said Palladino. “With an ear to the local food & farming community that birthed the organization, and with a focus on creating real economic value for the food system, I helped create a new vision for TLD. That vision was to allow our little local food marketing operation to spread its wings, become its own business, and extend itself beyond its comfortable niche in northwest Michigan.”
Spreading its wings statewide
Last year TLD expanded into three other regions of the state: southeast Michigan, northeast Michigan, and the Upper Peninsula. A local food coordinator was also hired to focus on northwest Michigan, where the organization already has a strong foothold, so that Phelps could focus on statewide operations. Recognizing that Palladino and Phelps couldn’t manage TLD’s activities in each new region from their Traverse City headquarters, in late January 2017 they hired three more local food coordinators: Molly Stepanski based in Posen in northeast Michigan; Melissa Orzechowski in Marquette to cover the entire UP, and Kelly Wilson in Ortonville to serve southeast Michigan.
“I was initially trying to manage things via phone and email from my desk in Traverse City, and I knew that personal connection was missing,” said Phelps. “I spearheaded the effort to get local food coordinators in these communities because I knew that we needed people on the ground. The local food coordinator lives in the region they serve, they listen and participate in the local food system and act as voice for the community. We have a lot of tools and experience at TLD that these coordinators have at their disposal, using them to create solutions when it fits the community need.”
Each region is distinct and in a different stage of their local food evolution, said Phelps. Northeast Michigan doesn’t yet have many small farmers or great access to local food, but people are starting to ask for it and infrastructure is developing. “It’s exciting to be there and tell that story and grow with that region. They are really embracing TLD.”
The Upper Peninsula, which borders Wisconsin, and southeast Michigan, with its proximity to Ontario, are challenging TLD to reexamine what gets classified as local food beyond state lines. Phelps noted the different challenges presented by urban areas vs. rural areas.
She also stressed the importance of collaborating, rather than competing, with existing local food champions already on the ground such as the Marquette Food Co-op and UP Food Exchange, which once printed their own guide to Upper Peninsula farms before inviting TLD to the region in 2016 to help create a more sustainable solution. Another existing local food food champion is Edible WOW magazine, which serves Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne counties in southeast Michigan, and is now a strong ally of TLD working to better serve the local food community of the region together.
“We intentionally focus on relationships,” said Phelps. “By having an open dialogue, we can show why we’re the perfect compliments to each other and identify ways to collaborate.”
New markets, new services
Beyond expanding its footprint throughout the state, TLD is finding new markets for local farm products and opportunities to generate revenue. These include customized marketing solutions, certified local food events (the Traverse City Film Festival is aboard), TLD’s local food demo program, and building relationships with employers interested in CSA drop-offs.
“Tricia has been a bright light in building both the social and entrepreneurial spirit of TLD at the same time,” said Conners. “She has developed tailor-made marketing products to meet the needs of specific retailers willing to pay for the service, instead of providing the one-size fits all marketing materials that we provided in the early days.”
“She also is matchmaking on a whole new level. One of the most exciting examples is matching CSA farms to employers and employees for worksite wellness benefits.”
The Traverse City-based innovative and high-tech pop-up tent maker TentCraft is the perfect example of a company that has embraced Taste the Local Difference. This spring, TentCraft adopted a CSA Employee Wellness Program created by TLD, which gave its workers the opportunity to buy fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables directly from a farmer. Based on the company’s size, employee interest, and employee feedback surveys, TLD paired TentCraft with Loma Farm, a 13-acre farm eight miles outside of Traverse City, which produces flowers and “extra fancy vegetables,” and hosts specialty events and happy hour soirees for its members. “If there’s such a thing as farm soul mates, Loma Farm is definitely ours,” TentCraft wrote on its blog.
TentCraft photo courtesy of Joey DiFranco
This year, between June and October, Loma Farm delivered boxes of fresh vegetables for TentCraft employees to take home to their families. In addition, Loma Farm owner Nic Theisen wrote a weekly newsletter featuring recipes, culinary discussions, and farm updates that accompanied each share. “So when obscure veggies like sorrel and Romanesco broccoli show up in our boxes,” TentCraft told its staff, “farmer Nic will provide some tips on how to cook or sauté or roast or do whatever it is you’re supposed to do with sorrel and Romanesco broccoli.”
Theisen—considered the “poet vegetable farmer” in local circles—uses agricultural similes to describe Phelps’ impact at Taste the Local Difference.
“Since Tricia has joined TLD, its presence in the region has grown like a corn stalk on the Fourth of July,” said Theisen. “Years back I was vaguely aware of TLD’s existence and goals. Tricia has focused its raison d’etre and we as farmers are directly reaping the benefits of this focus and effort. The local food guide, the workplace CSA, and Certified Local Food Events are all programs that Tricia has helped to improve and expand or altogether create.”
“Tricia’s professionalism and tact combined with her welcoming and approachable nature act as a catalyst to community. She brings people together and mixes them up and out comes new relationships, enterprises and micro economies.”
Connecting people to food, preserving farmland
Phelps finds joy in the relationships, and how they help build sustainable food systems.
“My favorite part of the job is knowing that I personally, and TLD in general, connect people to local food,” said Phelps. “If they ask ‘where can I find butternut squash in Traverse City?’ [or any other town for that matter] I know I can connect that person to a specific farmer, and that’s exciting to me. It gives them that connection to local food that I didn’t have when I was younger.”
“I also want the farmland in this region and throughout the state to be preserved, and the only way that can happen is if farming becomes a sustainable career. The more people I can get to understand the benefit of buying and eating local food, the more sustainable that becomes.”
Phelps has also strengthened TLD’s bond with Oryana Natural Foods Market, which has been at the center of northern Michigan’s fresh and wholesome food community since it opened in 1973.
“Tricia has been instrumental in advancing TLD with her passion and creativity as exhibited by the enhancements and new programs that provide for a more resilient food system in our region and Michigan,” said Steve Nance, general manager at Oryana. “Tricia has grown and learned in the job and become a valued collaborator with the co-op. We have had great partnerships like the Local Food Sponsorships for the Film Festival and holding pop-up farmers markets at this year’s Great Lakes Equestrian Festival.”
“Oryana and our team appreciate that Tricia is so committed to local food. She exhibits a motivation that can only come from being truly passionate about what she does—and that supports the many owners and staff at Oryana who are committed and passionate about food that is cleaner, closer and allows farmers and producers to have a sustainable and fair wage.”
Conners sings praise for Phelps and her ability to build relationships.
“I hear her ask farmers, retailers, employers and event planners these types of questions: ‘Would this be of value to you? Is it valuable enough that you could and would pay for it? Would this be a fair price?’ The answer she usually receives is: ‘Heck, yes!’ And whenever she hears this, she beams. It’s an affirmation that, yes, it is possible to keep serving local food systems and be sustainable in doing it.”
“So many projects get started and then fall away over time. I think that Tricia, with her dedication, capacity to plan carefully, and her quiet diligence is going to make sure that Taste the Local Difference lasts long into the future.”
Last year Phelps and her partner, Alex Adams, whom she met as a freshman at Michigan State, took advantage of a beginning farmer-rancher loan from the USDA to purchase land and build a 10-acre hops farm near Cedar in Leelanau County, where they grow a Japanese variety called Sorachi Ace. Adams and Phelps planted their first hops in the fall of 2016, and had their first harvest this year.
Alex, who studied plant biology at MSU, also works for MI Local Hops, based in Williamsburg. He started at MSU’s Horticulture Station in Suttons Bay right after college, managing hop variety trials when this growing statewide hops industry was just beginning.
Phelps and Adams, both in their late twenties, are all-too-rare examples of millennials who have thrown caution to the wind and forsook easier jobs in big cities to pursue their dream of farming in beautiful Leelanau County. They are the antidotes to an exodus of young professionals and recent college graduates forsaking Michigan for thriving big cities and the East and West Coast. Their story gives us hope.
Phelps cherishes her 15-minute drive between the farm and Traverse City. She drinks coffee on the way in, and decompresses on the way home. “When you get out there, it feels like you’re 100 miles away,” she said. “It’s so quiet, and you can see the stars at night.” By summer, she treks to Good Harbor Beach on Lake Michigan every chance she gets. But jumping in West Bay in Traverse City after the work day suffices as well.
Many of her college friends landed jobs in cool cities like Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. But her friends marvel at the outsized role Phelps plays as a changemaker in her small community. “They’re always telling me how proud they are of me being involved in the community.”
Nevertheless, the drawback that Phelps notices every time she travels for TLD is the lack of good statewide transit—passenger rail, in particular. She estimates that she drives at least once a month to southeast Michigan, and five times a year to the Upper Peninsula.
“What’s missing for me here is a train,” she said. “Growing up, I lived 40 minutes outside Chicago, but I could hop on the Metra and get downtown real easily. If I could go from Traverse City to Ann Arbor by train, it would be a real advantage.”
Read more here about our Passenger Rail to Ann Arbor project.