Local food is thriving in northern Michigan. Restaurants are highlighting local ingredients—and filling their dining rooms with customers. Farmers markets are busier than ever—and direct sales between farmers and consumers have nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Schools are bringing more local fruits and vegetables into their cafeterias, teaching kids that eating healthy food can be delicious—and providing local farmers with a new revenue source. And grocery stores are dedicating more and more shelf space to local produce and products, and seeing their profits increase.
Fifteen years ago, when we launched our entrepreneurial agriculture program, the traditional agricultural establishment didn’t have much interest in promoting local food. We realized there was important work to do to prove that local food makes economic sense and should be taken seriously.
We started making the case that local food offers a big opportunity for northwest Michigan and the state by telling stories of small farmers and their successes. In 2002, we published “The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture,” a report highlighting the economic opportunities offered by local food and farming.
Senior policy specialist Diane Conners launching the second year of Taste the Local Difference in 2005.
Groundwork realized we could play a big role in supporting local agriculture. In 2004, we launched our Taste the Local Difference program to offer something of tangible value to the network of growers and retailers: to make the connections with consumers that weren’t previously available. There was a niche to fill, and Groundwork stepped in to fill it.
We started publishing guides to all the local farms and farmers willing to sell directly to consumers. Within a few years, we were printing 30,000 of these publications and it was clear consumers were clamoring for ways to find local food.
In 2013, we changed formats and began publishing maps, along with a smartphone app, to make it even easier for people to connect with farmers. And last year, TLD published its first magazine, with 50 pages of farm listings and maps, plus articles highlighting some success stories in the region.
TLD’s success prompted a question—there’s a clear demand in the region for a marketing agency to promote local food, but is Groundwork the right place for such commercial work? Could TLD be viable as a self-sustaining business?
Now, after two years of intense planning and collaboration with partners, it’s clear the answer is a resounding YES. TLD is now a for-profit company acting as a social enterprise under Groundwork’s umbrella. It’s a unique arrangement that will allow TLD to grow and expand as a business, while still supporting Groundwork’s mission to promote the economic and social value of local food.
Now TLD is expanding statewide. The magazine will be twice the size in 2016, with more maps and listings than ever, distributing 55,000 copies. The website and smartphone app are gaining more users every day. And grocery stores are coming on board, purchasing TLD licenses to market and promote local food on their shelves and in their produce departments.
Groundwork incubates innovative programs, building models of resilience here in northwest Michigan that can be replicated statewide. Taste the Local Difference is an outstanding example of that model, and as it embarks on its new path in the private sector, it’s a successful demonstration of resilience in action.