Michigan’s Unlikely Food Revolution

You don’t have to be in California to see a local-food movement flourishing—try the Great Lake State.

My favorite farmers market is the one held on Thursday mornings in Elberta, Michigan. Though it’s open from May to October, I’ve only been there in the summer, during family vacations; and just a couple of weeks ago, I made my last visit of the season. Compared with, say, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, or the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, the market in Elberta might strike you as awfully small and not very exotic—some two dozen or so vendors, that’s all, most of them offering the same beautifully grown onions and corn and carrots and beans that you can find in farmers markets all over the country in August. Of course, there are specialty items, too—perfect cherry pies, tender bulbs of baby ginger on long green stems, tiny dark-chocolate-covered clusters of pumpkin seeds with cumin. Even the wheat-free cookies are good, and when was the last time you praised a wheat-free cookie? But the produce and the pies aren’t the only reasons I’m going to miss this place. What’s really important about the Elberta market is the backstory. Hence my new, end-of-summer vow: For the next ten months, every time I read something about how impeccably produced food is just a plaything of the rich and pretentious, I’m going to turn the page with admirable calm and think about Michigan.

If there’s anyplace that ought to be immune from a California-style food revolution, it’s Michigan. Long winters, high unemployment, an economy that’s been staggering for years, no instantly recognizable culinary culture—Berkeley it ain’t. But the truth is, Michigan farmers raise the second-greatest variety of agricultural products in the country, after California. Traditionally most of the fruits and vegetables grown there have gone straight to giant food processors, but that system isn’t working the way it used to, now that processors have access to cheap produce from across the globe. So farmers are turning to what’s called the fresh market—selling directly to grocers, restaurateurs, and the public. The amounts sold locally are still small, but the potential is immense. “We found that if Michigan tripled the amounts sold in the fresh market, it could increase net farm income by $164 million,” says Patty Cantrell, a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, who built a ten-county program in northwest Michigan called Taste the Local Difference (TLD) to help farmers reach consumers and vice versa.

TLD has been remarkably successful, not only out front where the summer people are benefiting along with everyone else—as with the Elberta market—but deep in the community. An online wholesale marketplace, for instance, connects farmers with schools, stores, and restaurants. The school effort has been especially successful: 30 schools in this area now have farm-to-school programs, and cafeterias are showcasing local asparagus, honey, grapes, apples, pears, squash, and more. In Traverse City, known as the Cherry Capital for the fruit that takes pride across the region, there’s a cherry icon on the school-lunch menu next to each local item. When the Frankfort-Elberta public schools introduced local apples, the kids increased their consumption of the fruit from a single bushel a week to five bushels. It turns out that huge, imported apples with a hard, glossy veneer didn’t appeal to children any more than they appeal to us pretentious food lovers.

Other initiatives in local production and marketing are underway as well. “We need smaller-scale processing and transportation—it’s all been scaled huge,” says Cantrell. “Farmers have to be able to differentiate their lettuce from the huge mass of lettuce.” She likes to tell the story of Shetler Dairy, a longtime farm that was about to go out of business until it located some 1920s-era bottling equipment in a barn and started selling its non-homogenized, antibiotic-and-hormone-free milk under the dairy’s own label. (Tagline: “Our cows aren’t on Drugs, But they are on Grass!”) “Now they’re flourishing, and the family’s kids are all working in the business,” Cantrell says.

Elitist? Well, a half-gallon of Shetler milk costs $3.79 at the Honor Family Market in Honor, Michigan (population 299 as of the 2000 census). A half-gallon of regular milk is $2.59. If the only shoppers interested in Shetler’s milk are the elitists of Honor—okay, throw in the elitists of nearby Beulah, population 363—the dairy would not appear to have a bright future. But according to Cantrell, “everyday people” are buying it—as well as the cream, the chocolate and strawberry milk, and the yogurt smoothies. I tasted a rich, tangy peach yogurt smoothie (lowfat yogurt mixed with an organic peach purée) from Shetler; and as far as I’m concerned, $3.59 for a pint of this amazing substance is a bargain. It’s also a luxury, of course. But if you have $3.59 in disposable income on hand at lunchtime, it’s hard to think of a happier or more productive way to spend it. This region lost more than a third of its medium-size farms in recent years, and small farms are even more vulnerable. “Farmers are trying to make a profit,” Cantrell points out. “And an organically grown carrot is a relatively scarce item. We have to increase the supply, and increase the avenues to market.”

Right around this time a year ago, several zillion food lovers gathered in San Francisco for Slow Food Nation, an extravaganza of bliss-heavy eating, talking, and celebrating around all the good things represented by California farmers markets. I wasn’t there, but I’ve long wondered if anyone lucky enough to attend actually learned anything he or she didn’t already know by heart. This year, admiring the baskets of plums and pickling cucumbers at the Elberta market, I found myself wishing that Slow Food Nation could have taken place here, in this quiet corner of town off highway M-22. San Francisco is more glamorous, it’s true. And Elberta probably couldn’t have produced 65 different tomato varieties or a flock of hand-raised ducks poised to surrender their livers. But there’s a lot to learn in Michigan about the way organizing and politicking and activism on food issues can successfully stir up a region that’s never been famous for setting culinary fashion. The food revolution had a splendid Bay Area birth—in fact, the parties are still going on—but it is growing up in places like this.

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