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This is part one of a two-part series.

How does local go mainstream?

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“While some thought it was passing fancy, this movement is clearly not just for hipster foodies desiring an authentic experience.”

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farmers-1311017_1920“Growing Community,” “Know Your Farmer,” “Taste the Local Difference” and many other tag lines are helping build public awareness by highlighting opportunity to make a positive personal impact through buying locally grown and made food products. While some thought it was passing fancy, this movement is clearly not just for hipster foodies desiring an authentic experience. After more than a decade of data tracking, the results speak for themselves. Today, the USDA estimates that local food sales from farmers markets, food hubs, community-supported agriculture, farm stands and farm to school programs have more than doubled – growing from about $5 billion in sales in 2008 to $11.7 billion in 2014. This growth is in part due to an informed consumer base that actively researches and seeks certain products. Equally important, community support of increased access, such as that of non-profit collaboration, educational outreach and funding opportunity, have made it possible to expand clientele and experience.

The local food movement has typically implied literal physical movement to personally bring farmers and consumers together in direct sales transaction. Today, such inefficiency can prohibit Michigan business from expanding. In some ways this is an outlier in the Mitten’s otherwise growing agricultural industry. The supply and demand are documented, but connecting the two can be a challenge.  “Cultivate Michigan,” the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food SystemsFarm to Institution Network’s campaign to help organizations source 20% of their food from Michigan by 2020 has been working to track Michigan institution’s local buying habits throughout the state.  Across its 51 participating organizations, it is estimated that about 127,500 locally grown meals are served per day. For example, more than half of school food service member directors now report purchasing local foods – with more signing up every season – and nearly half of Michigan vegetable farmers indicate interest in selling produce to institutions.

Typically, the market economy would naturally help ramp this up….however, as small to mid-sized businesses attempt to scale, gaps in supply chain are prohibitive. Just think, how many eggs are daily necessary to feed one college cafeteria? How do those eggs get from many area farms to processing, storage and refrigeration into the chef’s hands? Getting “local” into everyone’s hands requires a supply chain to the mainstream.

Through the lens of a farmer…

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“Due to this, farmers must determine how volume, risk, when and where they sell impacts overall profit.”

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Often times the challenges of regional local food supply chain development affects the farmer more than consumers may realize. Produce will not wait to be harvested, talent shortages, transportation barriers, storage and a host of other challenges, including quality, freshness and appearance of product may be affected. Due to this, farmers must determine how volume, risk, when and where they sell impacts overall profit. St. John’s grower and CEO of the Learning Connection, Kristine Ranger, speaks to seasonality challenges: 

tuscany-428041_1280“The summer months are an extremely busy time period for growers and producers of all types. If vegetable growers sell at farmers markets, for example, these vendors most likely sell at several different locations each week. For many, the majority of their business income is generated from June through August revenues, so their main focus during that time is to sell, sell and sell some more!”

While small to mid-sized farmers are willing to expand, additional car time, staff time and day jobs typically hamper customer face time. Historically, those personal relationships have been critical to direct transactions. Today, in many cases, there is simply no return on additional production when it may rot on the limb with no guarantee of sale at the market. Yet consumer demand continues to rise…So who connects the dots providing necessary marketing, pick-up and delivery? It may just be that the non-profit sector can leverage strategies from supply chain development as a business crossover tool to kick start new community planning, placemaking and economic development.

For more information on Farm to Institution, please contact MSU Center for Regional Food Systems specialist, Colleen Matts at matts@msu.edu. For more information on local, healthy food access, please contact Jessica AcMoody, CEDAM senior policy specialist at acmoody@cedamichigan.org.

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Glasses2About the author: Mary ZumBrunnen is the CEO of One-Community Consulting, a social enterprise connecting business, non-profit, academic and philanthropic organizations to empower vibrant community. She holds multiple degrees in agriculture and community development and is currently pursuing an MBA. Mary’s passion is fostering sustainable development through citizen engagement. Follow Mary on Twitter @Mary_ZumBrunnen. Learn more at one-communityconsulting.com.

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