What are the economic drivers behind so much local food demand and business growth? My answer in a presentation earlier this year is that it is a highly entrepreneurial spirit inside all of us that is breaking down major barriers and opening new opportunity. The secret to further growth and development of local and regional food systems is to drop our conventional economic expectations and get on with it!
Here’s a copy of those remarks at the 2014 Northwest Michigan Food and Farming summit: A sunny, snowy, and joyful Friday afternoon reconnecting with friends and colleagues “up north.”
Remarks by Patty Cantrell, principal, Regional Food Solutions LLC at the 2014 Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network summit. http://www.foodandfarmingnetwork.org/
Today I’d like to take the opportunity to declare to you, my closest friends and colleagues in local and regional food systems … today I declare to you: This local food business doesn’t make economic sense.
I know, I know … I have made a bit of a career talking about “local food as economic development,” and about the “Seeds of Prosperity” that grow when investing in farmers who are building businesses around new demand for food with real people and places behind it.
I’ve looked farmers and Good Food* entrepreneurs in the eye as they’ve struggled with the financial bottom line, and I’ve struggled with my answer: That I honor their sacrifices, while I continue writing about this new and promising direction for farmers, consumers, and communities.
But I can no longer dance around the fact that local food will never meet global economy conditions, the way we mean local food to work – food from community-based systems, with neighborliness and knowledge growing like watermelon on the vine, and mutual risk and reward holding people tight together through the thickest storms. This local food will never fit the low-price, low-wage, low-responsibility business model.
It just doesn’t make economic sense to put more resources into something than you can get out in the foreseeable future.
So why do we do it? Why are we here? Why are we growing in number, gaining in influence, growing jobs and yummy food, and putting local food in schools here in northwest Michigan like nobody’s business?
Because we want to! That’s why.
Why do we pick, pack, and pickle cucumbers ourselves when we can buy the finished thing for half the price? Because we want to!
Why do farmers sweat their way through unpredictable weather and crops? Because they want to farm!
Why do we go out of our way to get food produced on land we love by people we love? Because we want to!
Everybody now! Why do we choose this labor of love called local Good Food? Because we want to!
Thank you! I feel so free!
Now we can get down to business.
There are hurdles before us, yes. There are mountains of bills to climb, and rivers of doubt to cross. Today I’m talking about one of the biggest, that nagging expectation that we must make our Good Food endeavors fit the current economic model. That somehow good soil, great neighbors, and fantastic wholesome food is not enough.
Forget it! Let’s drop that economic-justification hammer hanging over our Good Food heads and get on with it. When we do that, when we move forward with confidence in the gut feeling that says this is important, this is fun … look out!
There’s no stopping an entrepreneur who’s jazzed about what they have to offer, because there is no stopping customers and investors who are jazzed about it too. That’s why we see so much economic activity and economic opportunity in the emerging Good Food sector. We’re jazzed about it! And that’s breaking down economic barriers to the Good Food system we are building, because we want to.
Now let’s look at the incredible economic activity underway in Good Food, the powerful economic opportunity we sense, and the new food reality we’re building by pursuing it.
We have Good Food economic activity at every level:
- In homes and neighborhoods we are building community gardens that supply restaurants, and we’re raising backyard chickens that create more demand for businesses that sell organic feed and make funky chicken tractors.
- In local markets, we see farmers buying from and working with each other to offer greater and greater selection.
- In regional markets bigger buyers are reaching out to companies, like northwest Michigan’s Cherry Capital Foods, that know how to find and work with local food producers. Sales and markets are growing as a result of this new intermediary, the regional food hub.
- In national and global markets other entrepreneurs are designing smaller scale equipment and high-tech data management solutions for smaller farms and food businesses, growing even more jobs.
As this economic activity increases, we are waking up to the economic opportunity involved in building Good Food systems, which we are pursuing, even though they don’t always pencil out, because we want to! Like parents who sometimes wonder why they signed up for all the work and cost involved in raising children, we do it for current and future generations who are part of us, who are connected to our hearts, even when we’re not physically here.
Good Food economic opportunities include:
- The children who do better in school because they’re eating better at school and at home.
- The communities that are able to keep and attract young people because you just want to live in a place, like Traverse City, MI! that appreciates and shares Good Food.
- The ability for people to start small businesses and make decent local livelihoods because the community supports them.
- The soil, water, and air that is clean and secure for the next generation’s food, farming, and fun.
Where is all this “because we want to!” taking us? What will all this activity toward opportunity that doesn’t make a lot of current economic sense create?
A new world where food is no longer confined almost exclusively to packages in stores or exchanges at cash registers. A world where food prices, quantities, and quality are not determined by just a few big market players. A new world where Good Food is all around us; yummy and easy to find, afford, and use because growing, harvesting, making and enjoying it is integrated into our neighborhoods, workplaces, family lives, and local commerce.
Orchards in every park! Bakers in every neighborhood! Scratch cooking in every day care!
We have economic activity. We have economic opportunity. And we have economic vision. But it still doesn’t make current economic sense to take such risk without ready reward.
We have to face that fact, and free ourselves from false constraint. We have to understand that we can’t break through to our new Good Food reality if we keep reinforcing the current system by apologizing for not fitting into it!
We have to become perfectly comfortable, even brazen about the fact that it is love guiding us, and love that will find the way.
I truly believe if we do this, if we walk forward with open hearts and without apology, we shall not want.
*The term “local food” label is a proxy for many more attributes that consumers and communities are demanding. A more encompassing term increasingly in use is “Good Food,” defined as food that is healthy, green, fair, and affordable. See more on that perspective and recommendations for Michigan policymakers at michiganfood.org.
Patty Cantrell, Bio
Patty Cantrell, principal of Regional Food Solutions LLC, recently returned to the Missouri Ozarks from northwest Michigan where she worked for many years in local and regional food system development.
At the Michigan Land Use Institute she founded and directed the successful Taste the Local Difference marketing initiative, now in its tenth year. She designed associated efforts that are permanent and powerful parts of northwest Michigan’s growing local food scene, such as Get Farming! business classes and the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network. She was a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council, chaired the Michigan Good Food Charter’s “food system infrastructure” task force, and was a national Food and Society Policy Fellow (2007-2009).
Recent projects include authorship of the national Food Innovation District development guide with the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments and Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems. She is co-author of Solving Local, a 2014 report for the Wallace Center/National Good Food Network on regional food hubs partnering with larger buyers to scale up local food. In 2012, Patty brought her passion for regional food system development to the TEDx Manhattan stage in New York City with her presentation “New Roads to New Markets.”
Patty holds a masters degree in business administration from Drury University and was a 1987-88 Fulbright Scholar in Germany after completing bachelors degrees in economics and political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.