Published August 1, 2019
Where does your farm to institution journey start?
Culinary school. None of the food we were using had any specific origin in the state of Michigan much less a farm, there was no focus on seasonality, etc., and the concept of sustainability never crossed the consciousness of any of my chef instructors.
In 2008, I started a culinary associate’s degree program in order to redirect my supply chain management experience away from manufacturing towards food. It was there, during my operations/procurement class, where I learned how institutional food was purchased. In 2008-2010, no farms were coming to our receiving dock door. The concept of cooking “seasonally” was never taught – and why would it when we had the purchasing power to order figs from Israel?! The disconnect of the use of local seasonal produce at the institutional level was immediately obvious, and it’s from there my inspiration to change the local food system began.
What is your role in farm to institution work?
My role has changed and evolved towards a focus on supply viability (i.e. access to new markets and farmer business training).
Are there barriers to viability for Michigan farmers? What is most difficult?
Most barriers to farm viability vary by farm size, but there are some shared issues that permeate to most farms/farmers across the country, including physical and mental health care, the rising cost and unavailability of farm labor, the rising cost of farm inputs, downward price pressure on produce, access to markets, retirement planning, and climate change.
Due to the statewide efforts and partnerships of MSU, nonprofits, food hubs, processors, institutions, food policy councils, and others, the demand train for local food has left the tracks. Our challenge now is to get our farms into supply chains to meet the new demand. To do this means dealing with the issues of food safety, scale, and logistics. This is the focus of my work now.
Attending a farm viability conference in Albany in 2018 was an eye opener and inspiration, but also a humbling experience. What was incredibly eye-opening was learning the various legislative and/or state appropriations that support farm viability. For example, in the state of Vermont, a portion of the real estate transfer tax goes towards low income housing and farm viability. That translates to about $800,000 annually that is divvied between a handful of NGOs that provide various kitchen table on-farm consulting. The Intervale Center, for example, uses state funding to support Farm Viability Programming. It’s painfully obvious that no one entity in the state of Michigan is leading farm viability. It would be assumed that MSU, our land grant institution, would be not only a leader in this area for our state, but for the country. Sadly, that is not the case. MSU does not have their fingers on the pulse, and, consequently, there is not a single farm that I have stepped foot on that is not in trouble of some sort.
Describe your farm to institution work.
According to the last farm census, the only area showing agricultural growth is in beginning and small farms. These farmers are typically not hailing from agriculture families, and they have not inherited land, equipment, infrastructure or generational knowledge. They have mixed educational and cultural backgrounds and have various levels of business acumen and farming acumen. These farmers are the next generation of wholesale farmers, and my goal is to coordinate the partners, the resources, and the funding in order to create programming that helps prepare them to be competitive, profitable, and thus sustainable.
What is the impact of your work?
I am working with 30-40 small farms currently. Eastern Market has approximately 20-25 large wholesale growers that participate in our Wholesale Night Market. There are approximately eight small farms that participate in our Mighty Micros small farm retail program at the market. I have had approximately 20 farms go through the Baskets to Pallets program, and there are about 20 – 25 small farms that participate in GEM. In addition, there are about 50 or so farms of various size that sell retail at our market.
What is most exciting to you about your work?
There are many common mistakes: underestimating or not estimating a salary for the farmer, not knowing production costs per crop, bookkeeping, crop planning, you name it.. If I can help coordinate resources to help farms overcome any of these common mistakes and barriers to success – well, that feels pretty darn good.
Can you share a story that illustrates why your work is important?
What tips or advice would you tell someone who is just getting started with a similar project?
Always look for gaps and breaks in the system.
As I mentioned before, there are many gaps in business and production acumen. Farms are understaffed, underequipped, and underfinanced. Directing supports at critical failure points is where we all should be focusing our attention.
What is the call to action?
The challenge is communicating the value to all the different audiences.
How can others get involved or support this work?
MSU College of Agriculture and MSU Extension need to invest in and be the leader of farm viability in the state of Michigan. Groups like MDARD, Farm Bureau, MIFFS (Michigan Food And Farming Systems), CRFS, Eastern Market, and food hubs need to help inform and partner in the work, but ultimately, the MSU College of Ag should take the lead.
What is your favorite recipe using local foods?
I love to buy a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, cut them up, drizzle high quality olive oil on them, sprinkle truffle salt on top, and eat them until I get a canker sore. True story.