Phil Britton: Stepping into the Unknown Together

Phil Britton, Fresh Systems LLC


It all started with "How can I help?"

I was a few years out of college, working in quality systems for a medical device manufacturer, starving my soul in cubicle land, when my wife and I became members of our local food coop. I happened to notice a blurb in a newsletter about an agriculture conference in Escanaba, about an hour south of Marquette, where I’m from, and decided, on a whim, to go. A step into the unknown, it seemed interesting and it gave me an excuse to take a day off.

While there I listened to Natasha Lantz and Abbey Palmer discuss the findings of a recent U.P. wide agriculture assessment. I’m sure it comes to no surprise to you that the trends were troubling, but it was all news to me. That was also when I first heard the term Food Hub. Taking a second step into the unknown, I approached Natasha afterwards and simply said, “How can I help?” A series of emails later and I find myself in the coops boardroom with a handful of farmers talking about the hurdles to food safety certification.

During this time, the U.P. Food Exchange was born, the U.P.’s online marketplace style of food hub. Relationships continued to grow, and networks continued to form. While we didn’t get very far in developing an alternative food safety standard, word got out that this little group way up north had a Quality Systems guy working on food safety stuff. I was learning a lot about local food systems and I even joined the coop’s board of directors.

Then I got a call from Steve Warshawer, informing me of a USDA Pilot Project that was about to get started around food safety, that they were tentatively calling GroupGap, and asked if I was interested. Another yes, another step into the unknown, but this time it wasn’t just me. A collaboration had begun to form between U.P. Food Exchange, MSU Extension, Michigan Food and Farming Systems and others, and together we took that step and embarked into the unknown, learning and figuring it out as we went. We didn’t know what we would come up with, but we trusted each other and knew that we all had a stake in the outcome.

At the end of that season, we had 10 certified farms and a publication showing how even small farms are able to make food safety work. Food safety certification is one of the many checkboxes that need to be crossed off in that path from Farm to Institution. Put simply, increased volume of product create increased risk in an outbreak, hence the need for increased verification, which means that those trying

to develop the sales channels, mainly food hubs, were paying attention. I got another call from Steve, saying they had worked out a way for this guy at a food hub to take me on and continue the USDA Pilot Project. A few weeks later I see someone with a white beard and Hawaiian shirt and say, “You must be Evan!” Together we take another step into the unknown. Me, into a new career, and he, by hiring someone he hadn’t even met to build a program hardly anyone had heard about.

The USDA officially launched the GroupGap program in 2016 after a successful 2-year pilot. Just yesterday, I sat through my sixth USDA audit of our GroupGap network, who since it’s humble beginnings in the U.P. has now grown statewide. Michigan continues to be an industry leader in many things, and GroupGap is one of them. And, it’s because we have this secret sauce, this willingness to step into the unknown together. Not with closed fists or under agenda, but with linked arms and open hands working towards common goals.

What unknown are we about to step into next, together? I can’t wait to find out.

Food Safety event (Photo provided by Phil Britton)