Cultivating a Fresh Food Hub in Washtenaw County

Twenty years ago, Richard Andres envisioned that Washtenaw County could become a sustainable, protected urban farm region like Burlington, Vermont. In 1986, the East Coast community converted its polluted, industrial landscape into a national model for community agriculture through the Intervale Center.

Last year, Andres purchased a 16-acre historic farm with several buildings on Whitmore Lake Road where he plans to develop a food hub with a farm market and other commercial development related to the food industry. Promoted by the USDA, food hubs coordinate food production, farmer services, food distribution, agricultural training, and community engagement to foster a favorable environment for local farming.  

Andres, an entrepreneurial farmer in the Chelsea area, was intrigued when the Ann Arbor Township farm went on sale last year. Owned by people who weren't interested in changing its function as a farm, and surrounded by a greenbelt, Andres saw it as a "rare" opportunity. "You don't really see any other town or city doing that, in terms of preserving open space for agriculture."

Washtenaw County, a productive agricultural region and also an attractive commercial development zone, has become ground zero for the clash of new and old economies, explains Jane Bush, farmer and agribusiness consultant. The county is ranked in the top 10 in Michigan for agricultural categories such as organic farming, direct to consumer sales, sheep, goat, horse, and pony operations, and aquaculture.

"This is where the two worlds collide -- the emergent economy and the old economy," explains Bush, owner of Apple Schram Organic Orchard near Lansing and business development specialist with the Food System Economic Partnership in Ann Arbor. "This is the spot where they're colliding big time. All communities need to protect their master plan, but we have to figure out ways that this emerging economy can expand in a thoughtful way."

Unlike other areas of Southeast Michigan, the citizens of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Township and other bordering communities voted to establish millages enabling the acquisition of land conservation easements and development rights in a green belt roughly surrounding Ann Arbor. Over a decade, once prime development land has lost value for builders and gained value for farmers and naturalists.

Barry Lonik, a planning consultant working with Ann Arbor Township and three other communities who advocated for the millages, says "We've been talking about this for a long time and it really set the stage for the success that we've been reaping over the last two or three years. It's quite extraordinary. In the past four years we've (assembled) well over 1,000 combined acres with our various programs. It's the maturation and the familiarity we've gained with the owners who now understand it. People were reluctant at first but now people understand it."

Land owners are offered market value for the development rights to their land. They can continue to farm the land as long as they like, but they can't subdivide it for development. "For a lot of people that I've dealt with, the land has been in their ownership for quite some time -- sometimes more than 150 years -- they have an affinity to it and don't want to see it change," Andres says.

The food hub is like opening a farm franchise, he explains. For the past 12 years, Andres has used the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model to diversify the purchaser base for his Tantre Farm. CSA members invest in the farm's operations through a membership fee and receive a regular share of the farm's yield. Andres has 350 CSA members and believes the model has applicability in the Ann Arbor area through the food hub. He also sells to six to eight restaurants and several stores.

"I have an entrepreneurial edge to my thinking," he says, reasoning that Ann Arbor's population, consumer consciousness, and green civic policies make it ripe for a food hub. "I see this as my next ambition."

The Whitmore Lake Road site, surrounded by protected farmland, with multiple farm buildings, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, and parking lends itself to commercial development. "I'm interested in seeing a continued vertical integration of what it is that we grow and partnering with other small farms to add value to our crops and make them more accessible to the Ann Arbor market -- whether it's families, retail customers, wholesale customers, and potentially institutional buyers such as school systems, hospitals, universities."

The institutional market is expressing demand for local produce, but meeting the demand "with what we have in raw, organic vegetables and asking those institutions to cook them and present them to their lunchrooms is another problem." In the long run, as the food hub matures, the situation will resolve itself, he believes.

Kim Bayer, a writer, advocate in the regional fresh food movement, and member of the Tantre Farm CSA, visited the Whitmore Lake Road property with Andres before the purchase. "I could see immediately what he was thinking about," Bayer recalls, "a location for shared infrastructure, shared resources, shared services that could take the things that are already happening in our area to another level and to another set of people who could use healthy food."

Creating demand, then matching it with supply, will be critical to the evolving food hub. While globalization provides all-season produce any time at low prices, local farmers have been ramping up their four-season growing capacity through techniques like passive solar hoop houses, but are still not as cost competitive or as productive as they need to be.
Through research conducted for the "Making Good Food Work" conference last April, Bayer interviewed farmers and institutional buyers about issues affecting the flow of local food into institutions and schools. Cost is an issue, she learned, but there's also a lack of farms able to create a sufficient yield for institutional need.  

Another issue is meeting the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards, which hospitals and schools are increasingly requiring.

There are indications that the institutional market is beginning to integrate locally-grown produce. however. Allegiance Health, in Jackson, last year began purchasing spinach from the Four Seasons Produce Co-op created by Bush. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, in October announced that the university would purchase 20 percent of its food from local growers.

The Washtenaw County food hub is in a position to develop agricultural capacity and match demand, as well as become an economic catalyst, Bayer believes. She expects that as many as 20 businesses could be located in the complex. "Right now we're trying to figure out what the anchors will be and the right mix that can have some synergy among them. There've been a dozen people who have contacted us about locating their business there."

There's a good future for the small farmer if they know where their market is, adds Bush. "The food hub can be a support in a lot of different ways in reaching markets but also as a business incubator for folks wanting to get into production or processing."

Bayer and Bush are confident that attitudes have shifted sufficiently to begin creating demand for locally grown fresh produce. "People are already starting to choose this for a wide range of reasons -- from health, to connection with farms, to taste, to perceived nutritional benefits, to a sense of well-being for their community," says Bayer.  

"Because we don't have the infrastructure to know what food we're getting and where it comes from, people who do want to buy from farms in the area have to work with individual farmers and cultivate a dozen or more different relationships with each of them," Bayer explains. "There's no single point of contact either for the farms to aggregate their supplies or a hospital or a school to say, 'This is what we're going to need over the next year.' That is where something like a food hub can be of value."

Will the Ann Arbor consumer pay $1.50 per pound of locally grown carrots when cheaper options are available? Maybe, says Bush. The market may be changing but it's going to take a long time, maybe 20 years, she says. And Andres, the entrepreneurial visionary, admits the potential of the food hub may not be realized in his lifetime. But it is happening.

Dennis Archambault is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode.and Concentrate

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