Northern Michigan Local Foods All-Stars

Luckily for America—and more important, for Americans—there’s a movement afoot to reconnect local farmers and local eaters, and Northwest Michigan is at the leading edge of the wave nationally, earning accolades in such publications as Bon Appétit, New York Times and Gourmet magazine. Yes, our people are setting the example, proving what it takes to make local foods a real and permanent part of the food supply.

But guess what, changing that vast and efficient and profitable American food system is neither easy nor simple, and the change takes many more players than just growers and eaters. Local foods momentum needs food processors and business consultants and chefs and school lunch ladies and distributors and … Here we introduce you to 11 people—from those pushing seeds into the soil to those pushing computer keys—who have made Northern Michigan’s local foods scene the envy of taste buds nationwide.

1.  Justin Rashid, American Spoon Foods

It was early May 1980, and a 28-year-old Justin Rashid was about to do something momentous, though he didn’t know it at the time. He took a small Styrofoam cooler and filled it with several pounds of morchella angusticeps (black morels), which he’d foraged in the Wildwood Hills, near Petoskey. He stuffed wet paper towels in with the morels to keep them moist and cushioned. He taped a blue ice pack to the underside of the cooler lid. Rashid added a note: “These are Michigan black morels. I hope you like them.” Then he taped it all shut and shipped it to Larry Forgione, a chef at The River Café in New York City. 

If Rashid saw anything at all important in this event, it was that he was actually making a little money off of something he had loved to do since childhood, roam the forest in search of wild-growing food. “My mother thought I was going to be a monk because of my solitary ways as a kid. I could spend hours—lots of hours—out in the country looking for things,” Rashid says.

But the much bigger outcome of this shipping transaction is that it led to a partnership between Rashid and Forgione, a partnership that helped reshape how foods are consumed in America. The most visible result is that in 1982 the two co-founded the now iconic American Spoon Foods, which put top-quality, locally sourced foods into gourmet preserves for the general consumer. In so doing, American Spoon helped create a new business model based on boutique local foods that has since spawned a small world of likeminded entrepreneurs.

Somewhat forgotten to history, though, is another outcome of the Rashid-Forgione partnership that was also key to setting the local foods movement in motion. Rashid helped supply Forgione in a restaurant venture called An American Place, also in the early ’80s, which inserted the concept of local foods into the nation’s top food city and into the minds of America’s top food writers. Quoting from The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best book: “An American Place was the first restaurant in New York [City] that applied the notion of buying seasonal foods from local farmers and using those ingredients to update and improve American classics.” Back then, the idea was called New American Cuisine.

“When I started, nobody was going to get fresh local raised buffalo meat through the American food system. There was no place for it,” Rashid says. “Nobody was going to get fresh, local wild blackberries through that system, either.”

Today, American Spoon Foods generates millions of dollars a year, and Rashid and Forgione are wise men of the movement. “You can’t do this in isolation,” Rashid says. “If I didn’t have Jerry Olson to go to and ask about the buffalo and all these wonderful fruit growers to go back to, we wouldn’t have made it.”

2. J. Robert Sirrine, Michigan State University Extension

Though he didn’t grow up on a farm, Traverse City native Rob Sirrine began his agriculture career about 8th grade, shaking cherry trees at harvest time, his mom driving him to Denny Hoxie’s farm near Acme in her nightgown at 5 a.m. Twelve years of schooling later, Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture in hand, Sirrine returned to the area to work with Leelanau County MSU Extension, official title these days, Extension Educator, Community Food Systems.

Sirrine’s dream project No. 1 is establishing a food hub—essentially a multi-use local foods processing/packaging/distribution/teaching facility—at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. 

If the project comes to fruition, it would be housed in Building 58, the commissary for the former state hospital. Truly a dream building for the dream project, the commissary, at 55,000 square feet(!), is scaled to feed what was once a 3,000-patient hospital: three kitchens, a couple dozen walk-in coolers and freezers, commercial grade construction, shipping bays. “We could turn one kitchen into a teaching kitchen, another could be an incubator kitchen. One is so big you could bring an entire cow in there to process for charcuterie,” he says. Multi-use is key to the vision. “That’s one of the reasons we have such broad buy-in,” Sirrine says. 

For local food entrepreneurs, a key benefit would be access to a commercial-sized FDA-approved kitchen where they could bottle up their own food products for commercial sale. “The nice thing about that location too is that you already have a food business cluster developing there, so you have the synergistic effect of those minds working together,” Sirrine says. 

Such a perfect idea seems like it should happen tomorrow. But Sirrine says if all goes well, the food hub is still two years away, depending on funding and getting the vision dialed in just right.

To share your good idea for the food hub, contact Sirrine. [email protected]

3. Renee DeWindt, Food Services – Director, Frankfort-Elberta Schools

A 47-year-old Benzie lady loses her job and has to reinvent her career; a high school student body in the same county boycotts their school food, refusing to eat it because it tastes so bad, and the food director resigns. Oddly enough, these events, happening within a few months of each other back in 2005, could eventually result in schools across Michigan serving fresher, healthier, farm-direct food to their students.

Renee DeWindt is the lady who was looking to reinvent her career when saw a posting for a food program director’s position in Frankfort-Elberta Schools. “When I got hired, the superintendent told me he wanted me to look into the farm to school idea,” DeWindt says. “Farm to school” refers to dealing directly with farmers to supply the school cafeteria.

Showing a keen understanding of student culture, DeWindt began with a scheme based on the TV show Survivor, which allowed students to vote one food item off the menu each week. GENIUS!

As for the dreaded Bosco Stick—the breaded mozzarella stalwart of school lunch menus everywhere—“That went bye-bye right away.” As for shrimp poppers: big wad of deep-fried breading, miniscule bit of shrimp—GONE! Pop Tarts? IXNAYED! Also, FYI, tomato paste on pizza might count as the daily vegetable in the eyes of the federal government, but not at DeWindt’s schools, uh-uh.

DeWindt brought in local potatoes, hot dogs from local meats (no nitrates), farm-fresh eggs, spaghetti sauce from local tomatoes. She turned to the power of purple. Purple peppers, purple broccoli, purple cauliflower. “Kids love that. They think it’s amazing!”

Word of DeWindt’s tasty, healthy success traveled. The larger adjacent Benzie Central School District contracted to use her services. Next, Onekama Schools, just to the south, became a client. This winter she was sworn in as a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council representing K–12 schools, allowing her to share her scrappy savvy statewide. 

One thing to know, a school food director needs to be ready to fight big food suppliers, DeWindt says. “Did my main food supplier bully me? You bet I got bullied. The brass came up here and they said they couldn’t guarantee Michigan supply. I said give me a Michigan list, that’s all I need. Pushing Washington apples cheap in Michigan rather than selling Michigan apples, that is wrong.” She found a new supplier, Michigan farm list at the ready.

4. Evan Smith, Senior Operations – Manager, Cherry Capital Foods

Evan Smith started his career 30 years ago at a very non-local point in the food system. Working for an international food importer-exporter, he’d ship in foods from around the planet and ship out commodities, like cherries, to distant realms. 

But near the turn of the millennium, Smith signed on with the local foods specialty company Food for Thought. “That was the first time I was working with individual farms and farmers, and that is when the light started to go on about the value of local foods in terms of preserving farms and other local economic value beyond that,” he says.

In late 2009, Smith took over as senior operations manager at Cherry Capital Foods, a food distribution company devoted to providing local foods to commercial users, like restaurants and schools. For food buyers, Cherry Capital’s extensive network of farmers allows large clients to buy from small farmers while still being assured of a large and steady supply. For small farmers, the access to larger customers enables them to expand production and count on steady markets. 

Only a handful of similar operations exist in the nation, and Cherry Capital is viewed as one of the early leaders. Smith was at a conference recently when an agent from the USDA in Washington approached him. The man said he’d heard of Smith and wanted to discuss the local foods distribution concept. “I said, ‘What, you’ve heard of me? You want to talk to me?’”

Smith, like others in the local foods movement, is excited about the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce endorsement of the Good Food Charter, a goal for companies to use 20 percent local foods by 2020 (current guesstimates say we’re at 3 to 5 percent). “If you think about how many millions of dollars that translates to, it will help reverse the trend of the disappearing farms and we’ll see a decrease in the average age of farmers as young people see a future there,” Smith says.

5. Wendy Wieland, Northern Lakes Economic Alliance

So, somebody has an idea about making money by growing a crop, or making money by putting a food concoction in a jar, or making money by selling what other people grow and put in jars … but the person doesn’t really know how to do the making-money part or maybe even the other parts either. This is where Wendy Wieland, a foods entrepreneur business counselor with the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance comes in.

“For us it’s about how to go about validating your dream. We try to move it from ‘let’s talk about it’ to planning it and then to a go/no-go decision. We peel away the onion, build a business model that has the best chance of succeeding,” Wieland says. She calls the local foods sector “arguably one of the strongest growing business clusters in the whole state.”

To her, the new local foods system is about applying 21st-century business savvy to the best of 19th-century agriculture, helping reclaim the valuable parts that vanished as gigantic food companies dictated today’s food system. “We have a long way to go,” she says. “We need entrepreneurs at every level.”

Now, in addition to food business consulting, Wieland co-chairs the Michigan Small Farm Conference, where small food entrepreneurs gather each winter to discuss possibilities. “It’s one of the most exciting parts of my job,” she says. Next year is the 14th annual. (Wieland grew up on a dairy farm and says she has been going to farm conferences since before she was born, schlepping around in her mother’s womb when her mom attended those conferences.)

In consulting and at conferences, Wieland is continually amazed by the number of young people who are excited about a different kind of food system. “Everything we can do to support them will translate and make a difference,” she says. “Because as ourselves, as a community, as an economy, we are what we eat on so many levels.”

For a schedule of Wieland’s business classes and information about business consulting services, northernlakes.net.

6. Mark Coe, Calvin Lutz Farms

The term local foods tends to conjure images of small farms growing a wide variety of crops, and that is certainly an important part of the movement, but experts in the business say another size farm is needed if the local foods movement is really going to have staying power. That farm size people call the mid-size farm, and while several have long been a part of the Northern Michigan farming fabric, they are finding new profits by reshaping their business to focus on local markets. And local foods insiders say we need more of them.

Mark Coe at Calvin Lutz Farm, near Manistee, is a prime example of someone bringing local foods ideas and, profit potential to a traditional farming operation. Coe, for years, ran a photo shop in Mt. Pleasant, but photo technology changes left him high and dry, and he wanted to be back north near Manistee, where he grew up. His friend Calvin Lutz hired him on to help with the farm, and Coe put his business mind to work. 

Coe zeroed in right away on pricing structure. Farmers doing commodity seemed to only know commodity price. Farmers doing retail only knew retail price. Coe worked with the Lutz farm to establish four price tiers, expanding market possibilities and profitability. “I call us a small medium to large farm. We deal on all different levels. Small because we have a market at the farm. Medium because we sell to small grocery stores. And large in the commodity sense, because we sell cherries and pickles to that market.” In good years, the farm grows a couple million pounds of cherries, harvests up to 35,000 pounds a day of pickle cukes, sells thousands of Christmas trees.

Coe applied number savvy to the buyer side too. He noticed that institutional food directors, say at hospitals and schools, didn’t have a good handle on weights and measures for fresh produce because they’d come to rely so much on frozen and packaged. How much does a case of peppers weigh? How many pounds of broccoli in a box? If you don’t know that, it’s hard to plan and order, so you do something else. Coe made conversion charts to make the calculation easy. 

One nice side effect of selling to schools, Coe says, is that federal tax dollars pay for many of those meals, so it’s a nice way to bring tax dollars back home.

“Local foods has caught fire,” Coe says. “Look at it, every community has a farmers market now. And you know how a fire goes, you fan the flames and it burns hotter.”

7 & 8.  Jim Schwantes, Judy Reinhardt, Sweeter Song Farms

The CSA farm—stands for Community Supported Agriculture—is perhaps the most local of all local foods transactions. It works like this. The customer pays the farmer a fixed amount, say $475, for an agreed upon amount of food (typically vegetables and eggs) delivered each week throughout the roughly 18-week growing season. But the arrangement has the idea of shared risk built into it. If the season is poor and the harvest is thin, the customer might receive less food. But the upside is that the farmer is supported either way and will be there next year to grow again.

CSA’s have caught on in Northwest Michigan—about 30 farms today—many supporting dozens of families, and Sweeter Song Farm, near Cedar, was one of the first and is today one of the most respected, serving 168 families, and serving as a model for farmers considering the CSA journey.

Like so many people in the local foods movement, farm owners Jim Schwantes and Judy Reinhardt were not farmers when they decided to join the farming ranks. “On a scale of one to 10, we were probably a seven or eight as gardeners, but on a farming scale we were a zero,” Jim says. “Sure, the plants grow the same way, but the scale is so different that gardening and farming don’t really relate.”

When they started their CSA about 10 years ago with 10 families, they were so afraid they’d not grow an adequate harvest that they just put all the money in the bank in case they had to refund it. They were both still working their day jobs—Jim an occupational therapist and Judy a school counselor—so they could afford to do that. Yes, they concede, the CSA model does carry shared risk, but that applies more to things like killer hail storms and freak freezes, not just if you happen to be a crappy farmer. Eventually Jim quit his OT gig and Judy kept on at the school until retiring a few years ago.

When they started out, they planted the basics. But in the past decade they expanded the repertoire to include nearly 150 varieties of produce—eight tomato varieties, four broccoli varieties, greens like you can’t believe—the planting schedule is mind-boggling. 

What’s it been like to see the world come around to their local foods vision? “It’s been exciting, it’s been fun,” Judy says. “I was a school counselor for 38 years, and I think of all the students and families I touched, and that has been very rich and important. But I really think that if you grow a really, really wonderful tomato, the person eating it thinks you walk on water. It feels good.” 

9. Craig Schaaf, Golden Rule Farm

Craig Schaaf didn’t plant his first garden until he was 30 years old, and yet, today, barely 12 years later, he’s viewed as one of the region’s most successful wholistic farmers and is especially renowned as an eloquent and passionate teacher of the organic and local foods ethos. One of Schaaf’s particular passions is working in the area of season extension—using things like hoophouses (solar heated only—no CO2 from combusted fuels) to harvest vegetables year round. Season extension is key to broadening the financial base of cold-region farmers, he says.

Schaaf was drawn to farming not as a way to join the local foods movement, but as a way to nurture things much more personal: family and faith. “My desire was to be at home with my family and to work with my children,” he says.

Back in 2006, he was praying, and he felt the Lord wanted him to build four hoop houses and fill them with tomatoes. He didn’t know how to grow tomatoes at a commercial scale and he didn’t have a market for them. “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, and I never do things without a plan,” he says. But he followed the directive of his faith nonetheless and grew the tomatoes, focusing on oddball heirloom varieties that looked unusual but were loaded with flavor.

When Schaaf’s tomatoes reached maturity, he still didn’t know what to do with them, but his farmer neighbor did. Unbeknownst to Schaaf, she called Myles Anton, chef at Trattoria Stella, who was known for his focus on foods from local farms. She described the tomato bounty in Schaaf’s hoophouse. Anton has since purchased most of what Schaaf can raise.

Schaaf has since expanded his crop repertoire and even opened a farm store (open Saturdays only, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for organic farmers. He also offers farm class tours each Saturday from March thru October at 1 p.m.

10. Myles Anton, Trattoria Stella

When it comes to the power of  “sell it, don’t preach it,” Northern Michigan’s local foods movement is lucky to have Myles Anton on the sales force. Anton was the first chef here to leverage the marketing power of local foods by listing on his menu the names of specific farms Stella’s relies on, starting when the restaurant opened eight years ago. Land of Goshen Farm eggs, goat cheese, whole Duroc-Yorkshire pig; Majszak Farm maple syrup; Middle Branch Farm onions; Monroe Farm carrots, field greens.

For most restaurant customers, it’s safe to say they’d never considered the connection to who actually grew the food, or precisely which piece of ground in the world it came from. That shift in mindset to “oh, so the farmer matters” is one of the most important goals of the local foods movement, and the menu listing at one of the North’s most respected restaurants is a brilliant, simple and elegant way to help achieve it. The fact that the food is so good gives the cred to the claim. Other chefs have since borrowed the idea and it’s spreading throughout Northwest Michigan restaurants, lending more and more momentum to the local foods push.

11. Diane Conners, Michigan Land Use Institute

Diane Conners is one of the region’s most ardent, effective and widely known local foods advocates, but she’s involved in so many ways that it’s difficult to say succinctly what she does. At the broadest level, you could say she specializes in leveraging government and foundation dollars to stimulate local foods markets and to get locally grown foods into the bodies of Northern Michigan people.

Example No. 1: When she began working at Michigan Land Use Institute, where she still works today, she decided her first big project would be a straightforward but complete directory of farms in Northwest Michigan where everyday consumers could buy food. “I was just surprised how many people didn’t know of farms, so I thought this would help,” she says. Ten years later, the directory is still going strong and updated every year, now by Conners’s colleagues. “At first we called it Buy Fresh, Buy Local, but then we decided we didn’t want it to be a demanding thing, so we changed it to Taste the Local Difference,” Conners says.

Example No. 2: Conners saw that institutional buyers, like hospitals and schools, could become large and steady users of local foods, making them a solid economic foundation for farmers, if barriers to purchasing could be overcome. She started small with Traverse City Area Public Schools: one school, one month, one day a week. She brought in a potato farmer on the day the school served his potatoes. An apple farmer the next week. The kids could taste the difference. Some kids told their moms to come the next week to meet a farmer. 

The farm to school movement has grown dramatically from that humble start, and Conners has been nurturing it the whole way through—writing grants, making connections, encouraging, cajoling, being a sounding board. A key kickstarter: a farm to school conference she holds each year.

Example No. 3: Conners works to get local foods onto the plates of low-income families by coordinating a program called Double Up Food Bucks. Now in its third year, the program doubles the value of Bridge Cards when spent at farm markets. Conners boosts the value by providing families with easy simple recipes for using fresh foods.

That’s just a sip from the firehose of Conners’ local foods efforts. Got an idea for furthering local foods? Give her a call at the Michigan Land Use Institute, she might find some money to make it real. mlui.org. 

"Read Traverse Magazine editor Jeff Smith's behind-the-scenes experience writing this article!" 

This article was first featured in the May 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.  Click here to order your copy!

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