Farmers and gardeners all know that the most powerful thing they can do to grow healthy plants is to invest in soil. Rich soil is the key to vibrant, resilient plants; it’s the basic building block of life.
Now take that truth and apply it to your local economy. What is the most powerful thing we can do to grow strong businesses and lasting jobs? Again, rich soil is essential. The “soil,” in this case, is the business environment: How well set up we are to support local businesses and encourage entrepreneurs.
The soil metaphor is apropos for a new “economic gardening” idea that the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments is working to develop with Michigan State University and Regional Food Solutions LLC. To help communities nurture their local food and farming sector, the NWMCOG and partners are preparing a toolkit for establishing “food innovation districts;” that is, places where food and farm entrepreneurs can find the facilities, services, and peers they need to succeed.“Agriculture is an important industry in our region, and communities consistently rank it highly as something they want to support and grow,” said Matt McCauley, NWMCOG Director of Regional Planning and Community Development.
One of agriculture’s growth areas is local food, including many food and farm entrepreneurs in NWMCOG’s 10-county region starting to sell locally to schools and restaurants and developing specialty products for residents and visitors alike.
It’s an emerging sector that can produce needed jobs, farmland protection, and healthy food for the region, according to a number of leading organizations that have targeted it. The five-county Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce, for example, recently committed to sourcing 20 percent of food served at its events from local sources, and to encouraging the region’s event planners, with more than $1 billion on the table, to do the same.
Making the most of this and other opportunities will require support for farms and others forging these new markets. For example, many smaller farms marketing locally find themselves spending too much time on the road delivering products and calling on customers. The reason is there is no place (yet) for them to bring their products together for more efficient marketing and distribution. One solution springing up across Michigan and the nation is the “regional food hub,” which can help with storage, processing, marketing, distribution and other needs.
“Food hubs are the types of developments that can grow once a community begins to focus on the needs of those food and farm entrepreneurs, small and large, that are going after increasing demand for healthy, local, and sustainably produced foods,” said Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions LLC, a consultancy based in Beulah. Food innovation districts are one way that villages, townships, cities and counties can prepare the business environment ground for food hubs and other developments, like food- and agri-tourism destinations, to emerge, she said.
The NWMCOG’s Food Innovation District toolkit will include planning, zoning, and economic development guidance for communities interested in the approach. Research and outreach is now underway, with a final product slated for the end of 2012.