Growing the local economy with locally grown food

On the last day of the season at Texas Township Farmers Market on 7110 West Q Street, Donna McClurkan, founding force, organizer and heart behind the market, is being tugged and pulled in every direction. Every tug, every pull has not just a dollar sign, but also a heartstring attached to it.

The tuggers and pullers are a mix of farmers market customers and vendors, volunteers and township committee members. Everyone wants to say thank you. Many want to stay in touch over the coming winter months. And every single vendor is making sure McClurkan knows -- they intend to come back next spring.

"We started this market in the fall of 2008 with the target goal of 16 vendors and 400 customers," McClurkan says. "We ended up with 24 vendors, and 1,200 people coming through that first fall." This year the market was at capacity with 60 vendors and an estimated 3,000 customers. A survey going out to vendors this winter will gather actual numbers and dollars made.

The steeply upward trend is no fluke. It's also happening at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market on Bank Street, established in 1947. Chris Dilley, general manager of People's Food Co-op and treasurer of Fair Food Matters, has been participating in that market for 10 years. The Rapid Market Assessment the market conducted in 2009 listed 64 vendors, up from 44 in 2001. It had 5,358 customers spending $82,275.

"Our growth has been consistent," Dilley says. "We've always been busy, and we keep getting busier. In 2008, in addition to cash customers, we began to accept the Bridge Card. The Bridge Card is used by people receiving what we used to call food stamps. That first year, the market took in $6,000 in sales from the card. This year -- $25,000."

Say "Michigan," and most people think auto industry; but now a longtime contender in the Michigan economy has taken on a much greater role.

"Agriculture is the state's second largest industry, pulling in $63.7 billion annually compared to $68.4 billion from manufacturing," says Olga Bonfiglio, a Kalamazoo College professor who has been studying statewide and local food economics. She cites the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as her sources.

Bonfiglio's been keeping a close eye on the local organic food movement as one of her areas of expertise. She's heard the same comment from food shoppers as most anyone else that walks into a farmer's market or health food store: It's too expensive! Shoppers want to buy local but are put off by what appear to be higher prices.

"Local organic food is admittedly more expensive than food from large, industrialized farms," Bonfiglio says, "but organic advocates claim that prices in the industrialized food system are cheap because their true costs omits governmental price supports, direct payments or tax breaks and road infrastructure."

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the number of farmers markets in Michigan tripled from about 70 in the early 1990s to about 250 by 2009.

Agricultural census data indicate that approximately 6,300 Michigan farmers are selling directly to consumers. Farmers markets have the lowest barrier to market entry for the farmer -- no middleman, no overhead costs beyond a booth fee and local transportation that usually ranges around 15 miles (as opposed to the average of 1,300 miles for industrial farm food transportation).

McClurkan adds: "When I first became interested in the local food movement, my family of three experimented with eating almost entirely locally grown, raised and/or processed foods. Michigan has a tremendous diversity of commercial commodities -- about 200 different kinds of crops. Instead of our food budget going up, it actually went down. Our monthly average of $692.55 went down to $500.03 when we stopped going to restaurants, but $669.17 when we did on occasion eat at a restaurant."

Dilley agrees with McClurkan. "Eating local" doesn't have to be more expensive. It does, however, mean eating differently. "You can buy an Egg McMuffin for 99 cents and think you're getting a deal," he says. "But consider buying a pound of oats for the same price, and you have breakfast for a month. We have to learn how to cook again."

What does that mean for the local economy?

"That dollar spent at your local retailer or farmer adds up to about $2.5 million to support our local economy," says McClurkan. "If every Michigan household spent just $10 a week on local food, we would be generating $40 million weekly in our state economy."

While that figure sounds incredible, the power of buying local comes from money staying in the area and multiplying in the local economy.

Add to that Michigan wines, says McClurkan, with about 800,000 tourists visiting Michigan wineries annually, and another $10 million in tourist dollars is brought into the Michigan economy.

And the beer industry, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association and Beer Institute, contributed $4.9 billion to the state's economy, making Michigan 13th in the nation for economic impact of local breweries, distributors and retailers.

"We are second only to California in agricultural diversity," McClurkan says. "The impact of Michigan agriculture on our state's economy is $63.7 billion and growing. When $1 is spent locally, that $1 impacts three to seven different local businesses before leaving the local economy."

As people gather around McClurkan at the end of market day, however, it's clear that an exchange of dollars isn't all that grows there.

"There is a powerful sense of community here," she says, between handshakes and hugs. "For all our technology and being 'plugged in,' we live in an isolated world. People come to the farmers market not just to buy fresh food, but to meet with neighbors and friends. Customers build relationships with the farmers from whom they buy their vegetables and meat. It's not just business. There's a lot of friendship here."

As vendors clear their tables at the market and customers disperse, another truck pulls up. Much of the food left over after the Texas Township Farmer's Market is donated to the Ministry with Community at 440 N. Church Street, to be fed to the poor.

What's one to do when the markets close? The end of the season does not have to be the end of eating well. Take a look at the following and post it on your virtual fridge:

Chris Dilley is breaking ground to build the new and expanded People's Food Co-op while the current co-op remains open for business at 436 S. Burdick Street. Other locally owned organic food markets include Sawall's Health Foods at 2965 Oakland Drive and Natural Health Center at 4610 West Main. CSA (community supported agriculture) programs offer monthly and annual fees for locally grown and produced food. Indoor farmers markets will take place through the winter at Bronson Methodist Hospital and the Kalamazoo County Expo Center and Fairgrounds. An online search at Local Harvest can inform a customer of what is available in your area at any time of year. The Michigan Farmers Market Association is another excellent source for information about local farmers markets and CSAs with a calendar of events throughout the year.

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Portage and editor of literary ezine, The Smoking Poet.

Photos by Erik Holladay

The City of Kalamazoo's Farmers Market bustles with activity as vendors sell fruits and vegetables. The market is open through Nov. 20.

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