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Here's what success in building local food systems looks like



A customer shops Photo by Tom Buchkoe

The Maquette Food Co-op   Photo by Tom Buchkoe

This article is part of Michigan's Agricultural Future, a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Read more stories in the series here.

Ten small Upper Peninsula farms are U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety certified. About $250,000 in local food products are purchased by U.P. schools, hospitals, and restaurants. Hundreds of individuals educated on the benefits of local food, and a strong, growing distribution network to connect local farms with local buyers. 

These successes are all the work of the Upper Peninsula Food Exchange, an effort spearheaded by the Marquette Food Co-op with grant backing from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).

The co-op applied for and received, grant funds totaling $165,000 through the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University in November 2012. The goal was to put the money to the best uses possible, building and strengthening the U.P.'s local food systems and networks. And that's just what they did. 

Along with the co-op, two other main partners, MSU Extension in Sault Ste. Marie and the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department in the five westernmost U.P. counties, Marquette Food Co-op began work to connect local food systems, from farms to restaurants, all across the U.P.

Matt Gougeon, general manager of the Marquette Food Co-op, says as soon as the co-op started looking at ways to bring local food initiatives together, they linked up with Michelle Walk at MSU Extension in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

"We realized a lot of what she was doing and what we were doing dovetailed nicely," he says.

There were still major challenges. The U.P.'s harsh climate limits food production, geographic differences between the ends of the peninsula are large, and then there's the lack of connection to lower Michigan food distribution networks. The grant allowed the partners to zero in on those problems and take steps to address them.

Their work started with education. To increase awareness of local and regional food, the partners conducted a series of local food summits out of which came the idea to create three regional cold storage siteseast, central and westto make distribution easier to commercial and institutional buyers such as hospitals, schools, universities, and restaurants. 

The cold storage, or aggregation sites, as they're called in food network terms, allow small farmers to deliver their products to one site. Large clients can pick up an order from several different small farms at once, rather than arrange for separate transport and delivery from each individual farm to each client.

The next step was to create the online U.P. Food Exchange websitea virtual ordering system and marketplace for the sale of all those local farm products. Once the infrastructure was in place, the online market made food distribution even easier by overcoming obstacles for small farms and automating the invoicing system across the board.

"Small farmers put their available inventory up for sale to institutional clients," Gougeon says. "A hospital or university can go to the site and place orders, then farmers see these orders, can fill them, and deliver them to physical food exchange aggregation sites." 

The U.P. Food Exchange website is not set up for sales to individuals, but local farmer's markets in cities and towns across the U.P. are already filling that market need well.

To learn about transport issues, the co-op conducted a study of existing distribution channels and trucking routes so they could develop a workable plan to connect with companies that already distribute food throughout the U.P. The goal was to create a self-sustaining local food network for the region.

"It would have been cost-prohibitive for just the co-op or MSU to do any of this by themselves," Gougeon says. "What we have now are lots of people talking to each other, trying to pull the oars in the same direction."

The results have been positive. In 2015, upwards of $250,000 in food moved through the online U.P. Food Exchange. To increase that number, getting more institutional and commercial food buyers trained and educated on how to access and use local food is essential. There's a continuing need for farmers to list inventory and for online buyers to use the marketplace, Gougeon says.

"There's a lot of interest in local and regional food, but part of this work is helping purchasers understand it's not just clicking a button and the food appears," says Gougeon. Seasonal, or a limited supply of specific foods, and the possibility of changing costs from month-to-month, can present obstacles to institutional markets. But, Gougeon says, education on how money spent locally improves the economic conditions of the region and other benefits of buying local and regional food products, has helped convince big clients to buy in. 

"Sometimes, it's just getting them to use some local foods, instead of looking for everything locally," Gougeon says. "If they can get just a few, like local potatoes, that's still good."  

Another major part of the grant went to educating farmers about food safety, which was an important step toward getting U.S. Department of Agriculture certification, called Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP. 

The MDARD grant funding allowed the co-op to connect with the USDA and the education-focused Wallace Foundation to organize funding for an ambitious new pilot project called Group GAP, which would make it easier for small farms to achieve food safety certification.

"One of the barriers to small farmers entering institutional markets is getting food safety certifications," says Gougeon. "We worked on this concept called Group GAP. It was hard for small, multiple-product farms to get certified." The GAP program generally is designed for larger, one-crop farms.

Using the Group GAP, farmers shared resources and management systems. The group of small farmers also shared the costs of the required federal audits. In 2015, 16 small U.P. farms signed on as pilot project participants to test the guidelines and process for Group GAP certification that the co-op and its partners had hammered out. 

During the pilot, the farmers got assistance with audits, record-keeping, and formal food safety training. At the end of the pilot, 10 of the 16 farms were GAP certified, a big step in their ability to sell their food products. 

"Once the farm attains that certification, they're good to go to sell their products pretty much anywhere," says Gougeon.

The Michigan Group GAP Network is now working on extending the process developed in the pilot program to more Michigan small farms. 

Phil Britton, a former Marquette Co-op staffer now working at Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, was instrumental in writing those Group GAP guidelines, and now works with the Michigan-wide network. "He's taken what was learned and the whole system we developed and is applying it to groups of small farms in lower Michigan," says Gougeon. 

The goal is to eventually get all small Michigan farms Group GAP certified, perhaps audited by random selection each year, with all the farms sharing the cost of the audit, something that's typically a major burden for a small farm on its own. If that can be accomplished, Gougeon says, "it would be a tremendous boon to getting food into regional markets. That barrier would then be gone for everyone."

Overall, the MDARD grant was used to remove obstacles at the local, regional and state levels, obstacles like certification processes, lack of infrastructure, and lack of knowledge. In the case of the U.P. Food Exchange, removing the obstacle of the need for ongoing funding has been key. The end goal is to make the network self-sustaining.

"The food exchange was set up for anyone to use it," says Gougeon. "It's a shared structure, not owned by the co-op. That's why we brought in all our partners and created it as a resource for anyone to be able to find small farmers in the U.P."

Other funding is, in fact, now carrying the exchange, including a grant from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians that connects the Marquette Food Co-op and MSU Extension resources to tribal members and their greater communities through classes on working with local food and connections with tribal food networks.

Gougeon says there have been "huge gains" since the food exchange came into existence and the network is setting the stage for further food systems development. 

There's also been an impact on local policy and planning. A new committee, the Central U.P. Food Policy Committee, was formed as part of the grant work and it has developed an educational document for municipalities to use in infrastructure, policy, and zoning and planning decisions. They hope the result will be more informed decisions regarding local food networks and lowering obstacles to farmers and buyers.

In the meantime, the Marquette Food Co-op, MSU Extension, small farms, the Western U.P. Health Department all can be tapped for their expertise through their connections with the U.P. Food Exchange, which in turn helps the exchange become a self-sustaining resource. 

"There's been significant development in a network of agencies, growers, businesses, all connected in a way they weren't before the grant took place," Gougeon says

The exchange and its related networks have grown and strengthened local food systems. The impact is one that should improve the future of the Upper Peninsula for years to come.

Kim Eggleston is a Marquette, Michigan-based freelance writer and editor.
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