Relationship building in regional food systems is key to successful and sustainable food business

11/3/2015

 (view larger image)

By Bill Palladino, The Groundwork Center

Timothy Young, founder and chef of Food for Thought in Honor, has the same responsibilities and worries as most business leaders. But when it comes to managing relationships in his organic and wild-harvested specialty food company, Young has strong feelings about the food distribution system he relies on.

“In most industries, buying and selling is an anonymous task, done through email or with middle representatives that present barriers to human interactions. I can’t imagine not doing business across the dining room table with farmers that I work with,” Young said.

With the fast growth of northern Michigan’s food industry over the past decade, you might think this is a new trend. Tim Young suggests otherwise. “Those relationships have lasted the 20 years we’ve been in business. Many others that didn’t provide that sort of relationship have come and gone. Mostly gone,” he said.  “To this day, most of my farmer-supplier relationships are as old as our company, and agreements are made with a handshake.“

That may seem nostalgic but in the world of regional agriculture businesses. like Young’s, this type of relationship is key. For northern Michigan to continue its climb on the foodie “it-place” ladder of economic success, consumers will need to learn this lesson as well.

When we look at traditional models of measuring the value of local food, they are executed with geographic precision; miles are tabulated and zip codes quantified. But today, the term “local food” carries with it much more meaning—or it should. The definition of local food needs to include a valuation for the relationships it demands. It’s not enough now to simply say, “my food was grown within 150 miles.” We should also be able to say, “…and I know the name of the farmer.” Farmers and food producers seem to agree.

Brian Bates, of Bear Creek Organic Farm just north of Petoskey, says he knows his customers and they know him.

“To us, the relationship with a buyer matters as much, if not more, than the proximity to a customer/buyer,” Bates said. “When a market customer has feedback on a product, we listen to them. When a retailer or chef has some feedback on a product, we listen to them. It’s a feedback loop. Relationships and trust matter. “

Stuart Kunkle, owner of Morganic Farm in Fife Lake makes the same point while driving home another reason relationships are critical.

“We are orchestrating organisms—both large and microscopic, climate conditions, soils, dynamic energetic inputs and outputs into an ideally cohesive, resilient and bountiful model.  Committed relationships are crucial to support this.”

If Michigan is to realize the full potential of its food economy, farmers have to work this formula and consumers need to own their side of the equation too. For farmers it can make the difference between just getting by and creating a thriving existence. Morganic Farm’s Kunkle is familiar with this concept,

“Ultimately the quality and stability of your relationships (as well as your own resilience) dictates the endurance of your farming career and the vibrancy of our local economy.

As technology takes us further away from real in-person relationships, with tweets, Snapchats, and terse Facebook posts, we must hold those who provide our sustenance to a higher standard. 

The feedback loop mentioned by Brian Bates is something we should expect from farmers and suppliers, and we must be ready to demand it from stores.

We can accomplish this by building and maintaining relationships with the food we eat. Know the people behind the label. Ask hard questions and expect direct answers. It is with these relationships of respect and trust that Michigan will build its next success stories of agricultural economy.

 

Bill Palladino is director of Taste the Local Difference, a social enterprise of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

For more information on the Groundwork Center please visit http://www.groundworkcenter.org/

For more information on Taste the Local Difference please visit www.localdifference.org