Talk about entrepreneurial spirit! Northwest Michigan’s great creativity and resourcefulness around healthy food and profitable farming shone brightly last Friday at the second annual Farm Route to Prosperity summit.
Sponsored by USDA-Rural Development, the gathering brought together a broad range of people and organizations involved in the region’s Food and Farming Network, which launched after last year’s summit. Young and older farmers were there. So were chamber of commerce representatives, food distributors, chefs, and farmland preservation groups. Rounding out the many voices involved were health professionals, educators, and childcare leaders.
The main business of the day was to continue building momentum toward the Food and Farming Network’s BHAG or “big hairy audacious goal.” Set at last year’s inaugural summit, the Network’s ambition is to increase the resilience and double the value of the region’s food and agriculture system by 2019.
How are we going to reach this big, hairy, audacious goal? We certainly do not have it all figured out. But if anybody can do it, the group of more than 100 that attended the event at Black Star Farms—and hundreds more they’re connected with—can!
The day was lighthearted, energizing, and productive. Master of ceremonies (and MLUI board member) Bill Palladino, of Krios Consulting, kept everyone smiling with his wry humor. The meeting room literally buzzed with ideas and interaction (Check out videos and blog entries from the event courtesy of the Grand Vision.) At the end of the day, this regional network of food and farm innovators committed to a number of powerful next steps, including:
- Taking cooking classes to the people with a mobile teaching kitchen and volunteer chef corps that would make the rounds of farmers markets, community events, and schools. Chef Eric Patterson of Cooks House and Wellington Market is the ringleader of this new project.
- Exploring how area farms might build sales potential by putting some of their products together under a regional brand. An advisory group of producers, buyers, and distributors, which started taking shape over the past year in conjunction with the Food and Farming Network, will guide the effort. Nikki Rothwel of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station and I will coordinate.
- Bringing the region’s many farmers markets together to share ideas and resources and build capacity and coordination. Farmer Brenin Wertzroth and Rob Baciagalupi, of Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority, which hosts the city’s Sarah Hardy Farmers Market, will head up that one.
- Establishing a formal sustainable agriculture training and apprenticeship program in the region. Rob Sirrine of Leelanau County Extension, Marguerite Cotto of Northwestern Michigan College, and Tom Emling of Michigan State University will work together on the higher-education setup for the program. Janie McNabb, of Michigan Works!, and Susan Cocciarelli, of MSU, will pursue the corresponding apprenticeship component. At the same time, farmer Marty Heller and a number of colleagues also discussed steps for building a farmer residency program in the region to help new farmers get their business chops down before having to buy land.
And that’s not all! Also in the works are a seed saver’s directory, a storytelling project, and ideas for mending fences between bigger conventional farms and smaller, organic farms. As Patty Wheeler, leader of the fence-mending conversation, said: “Conventional and organic farms have to get away from being mean to each other.”
Call me Pollyanna, but I really do think northwest Michigan can build the community and market bridges that will produce the healthy food, profitable farms, and enduring agricultural landscape we all want.
The ideas that took shape and got underway last week come on top of so many accomplishments in the past year. At the summit we also celebrated two national accolades for this region, which show how much traction northwest Michigan already has.
One is the news last week that Livability magazine put Traverse City at the top of its list of the 10 best small-town finds for great foodie culture. The other is American Farmland Trust’s recent recognition of Peninsula Township’s pioneering work to protect Old Mission Peninsula’s world-class farmland as one of 10 trailblazers profiled in AFT’s national magazine.
At MLUI we’re committed to building the Food and Farming Network, which can keep everyone connected and moving forward. We’ll be ramping up communications coming your way about the Network. We’re also hosting a follow-up meeting to last week’s summit. Join us Tuesday, April 27, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at MLUI if you want to get involved in next steps.
For more photos, videos, and a real-time blog from the event, visit The Grand Vision Web site. Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Food & Farming program and serves as its senior policy specialist. Reach her at [email protected]