Michigan farmers grow the most diverse crops of any state besides California. Agriculture is Michigan’s 2nd largest industry and it’s growing.
But Lindsey Smith reports many Michigan farms aren’t big enough to distribute through grocery stores:
Barbara Jenness owns Dancing Goat Creamery in a small town in West Michigan.
“I was asked by Meijer to have my cheese, which is a joke. He asked me, ‘How much can you give me?’ And I said, ‘Five pounds a week.’” (laughs)
Jenness only has 28 goats…definitely not enough to supply all the Meijer stores.
Distribution is sort of a nightmare for small and medium sized producers. Jenness sells most of her cheese directly to restaurants around Grand Rapids. Her husband spends hours each week delivering it all. Then he helps her haul the rest to farmers’ markets.
Jerry Adams figured there had to be a better way.
“So much stuff is created here but because there aren’t easy distribution systems to get it into the hand of people that can use it, a lot of our food just goes bad.”
Last spring Adams created FarmLink… a virtual farmers’ market. It’s specifically aimed at chefs in schools, restaurants and hospitals. Farmers list all of the produce they have on the virtual store shelves. Chefs login to FarmLink and build a virtual shopping cart with the local food that’s available.
A couple days later, the virtual FarmLink store becomes a brick and mortar one.
(sound of people gathering)
Chefs and farmers meet up at Adams’ office…an old furniture factory turned into an office space. People casually come and go…grabbing a pint of locally-brewed beer before loading up plastic bins full of produce.
“The real jist of this all is that we are too removed from our food. I want you to talk to the guy growing your green beans or the woman making your goat cheese.”
I meet Steve Vanhaitsma, the guy growing your lettuce. Today he brought 57 pounds from his farm 20 miles west of here.
“All this lettuce was picked this morning. And they have it today so it’s incredibly fresh. Whereas if I’m buying from a normal wholesaler it’s coming from California, it’s already been in transit for over a week. And you can ask any of the chefs here, there’s just no comparison.”
Chef Chris Perkey picks up pork belly, leeks and 20 pounds of Vanhaitsma’s lettuce. Perkey is executive chef at the Kent County Country Club. Perkey adjusts his menu to reflect what’s in season.
But he’s also got farmers adjusting to his menu. One farmer starting raising ducks this year knowing Perkey will buy at least six a week.
“Our trouble’s going to be – we’re going to have to overcome and see what happens in the fall and the winter. January is not exactly the greatest time of the year for Michigan produce.”
Chefs will still be able to get lettuce in January because Steve Vanhaitsma’s greenhouse produces it year-round.
But Barbara Jenness’ goat cheese will be gone in the fall.
“As a mother of three boys I can tell you nothing was meant to lactate their whole life and so my girls all get the winter off.”
FarmLink is still working through kinks like this as the seasons change.
Other than that the business model is pretty simple – FarmLink takes a 5-percent cut of farmer’s sales and chefs’ orders. Sales are still pretty small – $2,000 on a good week, but the business is growing almost every week.
For the Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.
Jerry Adams wants the Farmlink idea to catch on throughout the state, so he’s giving away his software to anyone who wants to start a Farmlink in their town.
That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.