Resources connect food growers to local retail, restaurant opportunities

Often times restaurants and other food businesses want more local foods but can't find those important local connections.

Cconference participants networkingThe All About Food Conference held Feb. 14 in Clinton Township stirred up a lot of discussion on the topic of local food and economic development around food businesses.  Nearly 250 people – farmers, food entrepreneurs, restaurants, gardeners, school food service staff, healthcare professionals and the public attended.

There was a variety of informational sessions, such as food safety on the farm, how to start a community garden, and there were also food demonstrations by local chefs.  Many attended to learn how they could help improve their local food system.  It was agreed that farmers, restaurants, and the community all benefit when businesses support each other by purchasing local food from local farmers.  The program was sponsored by the Macomb Food Collaborative.

A question I heard a lot at the conference, and one I hear a lot in my work for Michigan State University Extension, was, “How do I find farmers that will sell to me?”

The truth is that what may seem simple can be challenging to figure out if you don’t know where to look. So finding those connections is important.  

During the conference day, I had an opportunity to connect Blake Farms with Waterford Schools.  Waterford Schools received a USDA grant this year to develop a plan to implement Farm to School – a plan that would help identify products they could purchase from local farmers.  Andrew Blake of Blake Farms came to the conference looking for new markets for his orchards’ products. 

I was able to introduce Blake to the food service director of Waterford Schools, Doreen Simonds, so they could talk about what they wanted and needed in apple products.  They planned to follow up after the conference to talk about farm field trips for students and how to purchase local apple juice products for school use.

If you are a local food entrepreneur who would like to include more local food in your business there are resources to help.  While there isn’t something akin to the Yellow Pages, with listings of local farmers and their products, there are several websites that you can search for farmers in our area that sell locally.

For example, Michigan Market Maker connects willing markets and quality sources of food from farm and fisheries to fork in Michigan. At Michigan Market Maker you can register your business, do market research, find a business, and see what’s happening in Michigan.  The site tells you what is available or in season in Michigan – currently honey, maple syrup, mushrooms and sprouts are fresh.  But you might find a farmer that is using a hoop house or green house to grow greens that you could use in salads.

Another resource is Local Harvest, which lists many farms in Michigan and allows you to do a variety of searches. 

Look for local crops you could consider using in food products you make or how might you consider using seasonal winter products like maple syrup and honey in your current menu options?

Another way to connect with farmers is to visit the local farmers market and see what they are selling.  Talk to the farmers at the local farmers market to learn what they are growing.

This is a great time to explore what options there are for businesses to support local growers. 

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