Where seller and buyer meet: Summit extends the reach of made-in-Michigan foods

A little over three years ago, Isaiah Wunsch and his family had nearly maxed out the market for the cherries they grow on the Old Mission Peninsula, 12 miles north of Traverse City. They thought they had exhausted all their avenues for expanding their reach.

But then Wunsch attended an event that puts Michigan food growers and producers in meetings together with a wide range of purchasers. Wunsch's meetings were the start of a 25- to 30-percent increase in sales and contracts of $100,000 to $150,000 each year. Through those contracts, the reach of Wunsch Farms products has now extended into southern Michigan as well as northern Indiana and Ohio. 

The potential for more growth in the future is great enough that the Wunsches are seeking a state grant to purchase cherries from other farms and get them to market. That would help other northern Michigan cherry farms remain viable and help them gain contracts with large retailers.  

This business growth is a near-textbook example of the development that organizers of the Pure Michigan Agribusiness Summit intended when they created the event. 

Now in its fourth year, the event is co-sponsored by Pure Michigan Business Connect and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The event is intended to capitalize on increasing consumer demand to buy local and Michigan-made products by connecting Michigan producers with the people who can expand the reach of their products. It is also aimed at getting Michigan-made products featured prominently in other Midwestern states through chains like Kroger and Meijer. 

Buyers include institutional players, such as Beaumont Hospital and the Kalamazoo County Sheriff's Department, and large restaurant operations, like MotorCity Casino-Hotel. Distributors Sysco and Gordon Food Service are on board and so is Cherry Capital Foods. Meijer, Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets and Harding's Friendly Markets are among the retailers. You'll even find Food Bank Council of Michigan, which supplies food pantries statewide with Michigan products. 

Extending Michigan's global reach

The Pure Michigan Business Connect program was started 2011 as a division of the Michigan Economic Development Council to help the extend the reach of Michigan products to span the globe, says Bobby Chasnis, development and operations manager for Pure Michigan Business Connect. To get the word out to producers, Pure Michigan Business Connect partnered with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. 

"It is a challenge to get growers and suppliers together, so we organized this free event," Chasnis says. "We comb the state for anyone looking for more made-in-Michigan products and we help them find them. We get them there because we can save them time and resources in getting products they know their customers want." 

Chasnis insists the event is not a trade show. Instead, it's the buyers who have tables set up. Buyers also submit their needs ahead of time so producers can choose who they want to meet. Chasnis coordinates 20-minute meetings between growers and buyers that are set up in advance. 

There's no sure way to measure the impact of the summit, but the sellers who have voluntarily disclosed information on surveys after the event reported gaining over $1 million in contracts last year. That is up from the estimated $500,000 in contracts each of the first two years of the event, Chasnis says. 

Most of the sellers who attend are connected with agriculture production because they either grow food or produce it in the form of cheeses and baked goods. The suppliers even include novelty food producers like Michigan's Greatest Fudge & More and gluten-free bakery Ethel's Edibles. 

This is the first time the event has taken place in southeast Michigan and Wunsch is hopeful the new location will open up as yet untapped markets in the region.

Jodi Gruner, economic development specialist with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says the potential is enormous for Michigan's highly diverse food and agriculture industry. 

"Consumers are demanding it," she says. "We all like food and we all like supporting local companies. The buy-local demand is the number one trend that we see driving people's decisions."

Fresh and local

One area of significant potential growth is among producers of protein. The demand for Michigan grown meats and fish exceeds what area growers can provide for retailers, Gruner says.

Owen Ballow, owner of Indian Brook Trout Farm in Jackson, has largely gotten his fish to market through restaurants. For his business, the summit's impact hasn't been so much in contracts as in learning the rules and policies that retail buyers follow. Ballow has applied what he's learned at the summit, and it has opened the door to working with two smaller grocery store chainskey information in helping him plan a major expansion of his operations from one farm to four. 

Ballow also has used the meetings to lobby against policies that keep his trout out of some stores. Meijer, for instance, will only enter contracts with companies that can supply the entire chain, putting growers like him out the running. He uses the meetings to try to persuade Meijer to buy from growers that can only supply stores in one region. That way he could get locally grown trout into Meijer stores in the Jackson area within 24 hours of harvest. 

He has consumer demand on his side: People want fresh and local, he says. 

The summit has been where Barlow got direction from the industry "in terms of volume and the certifications we need to acquire," Ballow says. "That can help a lot because it can give you the information you need to plan for how to grow and improve." 

Michigan food producers can register for the Pure Michigan Agribusiness Summit at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi on March 9 to meet face-to-face with prospective purchasers. Contact Bobby Chasnis at [email protected] to register. 

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.

Anne Hamming is a freelance writer in the greater Grand Rapids area. 
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