Diverse local agriculture can advance Michigan Good Food Charter’s goal

Small-scale, pasture-based livestock systems are gaining in popularity with farmers and chefs.

The Michigan Good Food Charter has set several ambitious goals. One such goal is: “By 2020, Michigan farmers will profitably supply 20 percent of all Michigan institutional, retailer and consumer food purchases and be able to pay fair wages to their workers.” While the west Michigan fruit belt is blessed with an abundance of fruit, one person can only eat so many honeycrisp apples. Believe me, I’ve tried. In order to make progress toward and move beyond the 20 percent goal, Michigan agriculture will have to expand the production and consumption of other agricultural products as well.

One sector of the agri-food system that is gaining popularity and may help Michigan achieve its 20 percent goal is locally raised pasture-based livestock systems or “animal proteins.” The Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network, a working group of the Grand Vision, set a goal of sourcing 20 percent of the food for the region from farms within 100 miles of Traverse City by the year 2020. The goal states that the meat portion of the plan should be pasture-based if possible.

In setting this goal, the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network recognized several benefits to investing in local pasture-based systems. Pasture-based livestock systems can provide the consumer with an up-close and personal connection with the farmer. With what seems like food-borne illnesses occurring every week at the national scale, many local farmers encourage customers to visit their farms, see their operations first-hand, and even take place in the harvesting process. Cities such as Traverse City and Grand Rapids are increasingly being recognized for their local food scene, award-winning restaurants and demand for locally grown proteins.

Finally, purchasing from a local farmer helps keep dollars circulating throughout the regional economy, increasing the economic resilience of our region. For example, based on 2012 U.S. per capita meat consumption and the 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics prices for proteins, annual retail sales for proteins are roughly $57 million for Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie and Kalkaska Counties combined. Increasing current local production and consumption by 20 percent would inject at least $11 million to the regional economy.

For those with an interest, several educational opportunities are underway to help develop this growing sector. Michigan State University Assistant Professor, Dr. Jason Rowntree, who works at the Michigan State University Lake City Ag BioReasearch Center, is leading a team that recently received a USDA SARE grant to develop low-cost, pasture-based beef production systems in northwest Michigan. The grant seeks to improve the economics of small and medium size beef producers and works with chefs to increase carcass utilization.

Rowntree and his team aren’t alone in this endeavor. Recently, Cherry Capital Foods, a Michigan-based regional foods distributor, hosted its annual PigstockTC 3-day course in Traverse City, where attendees learned about the Mangalitsa pig, from raising to processing, cooking and curing from Chef Brian Polcyn (charcuterie expert) and Christoph Wiesner, president of Austria’s Mangalitsa Pig Breeder’s Union.

With innovative farmers and pioneering chefs, consumers increasingly interested in purchasing food raised locally, more frequent educational opportunities, and the research-based information and programming offered by Michigan State University Extension, Michigan is well on our way to achieving and moving beyond our 20 percent by 2020 goal.

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