Nourishing local economies

August 13, 2011
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Crop diversity and presence in foreign markets has contributed to the continuing growth of Michigan’s agricultural industry. But increasing demand for “grown here” foods has given rise to a number of local initiatives leading to a new and enthusiastic customer base for farmers.

Ingraberg Farm has seen firsthand the changing climate of the agricultural industry. The third-generation farm got its start as “community-supported agriculture” with a stand at the local market, its main source of revenue coming from individual sales.

With Bistro Bella Vita as its first buyer in 1997, Ingraberg Farm helped pioneer the practice of supplying Grand Rapids’ restaurants with local food. The downtown restaurant has since formed partnerships with more than 20 farms, accounting for about half of its ingredients. Many other establishments have followed suit.

Ingraberg Farm’s latest endeavor has been a partnership with a company called Doorganics: a door-to-door service focused on bringing local, responsibly grown food to a busy but community-conscious demographic. In its short period of existence, Doorganics has contracted with 115 West Michigan households that have signed up to receive weekly bins of fruits and vegetables from Ingraberg Farm. The company uses social media to connect customers, farms and community through cooking events, recipe sharing and local initiatives.

“Ultimately, it creates a new market of people who want to support local farms but need the convenience because they don’t have time to make it to the farmers market,” said Mike Hughes, Doorganics founder. “What we don’t want to do is change the current relationship between the farmer, the farmers market and the consumer. We want to open up a new customer base to the local food system.”

Agriculture is Michigan’s second largest industry, representing more than $71.3 billion to the state economy and accounting for one out of every four jobs. Doorganics and similar initiatives in other cities have helped create new avenues for farmers to sell their products. Besides a wave of new farmers markets — more than 1,000 new markets in Michigan last year — schools and big box grocery stores also are embracing the demand for buying local.

The industry’s growth also includes consumers on the lower end of the economic scale. Minority-owned farmers’ cooperative City Market recognized the importance of bringing the farm to the inner city. Produce that may have been inaccessible or unaffordable in the past is now available at five city lots where farmers sell their produce.

City Market President F. “Slacks” Springer hopes the farmers eventually can get their products into lunches at local schools. Farm-to-school efforts may soon be seen on a statewide basis through a pilot program that would involve registering farms with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to provide produce to local schools.

Buy-local initiatives are not only environmentally responsible and healthy, they’re also stimulating the growth of local economies. “Buying from local farmers is the right thing to do,” said Brad Teachout, general manager at Bistro Bella Vita.

From the days of roadside stands to a period of depersonalization in big box stores, farming has come full circle. “People like to know who’s pulling their carrots out of the soil,” said Mike Lundberg, whose family owns Ingraberg Farm.

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