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The Next Economy
New Book Serves Up Case Studies for Cultivating Local Food Economies

Centered around a rural region of lower Michigan, ‘Shared Abundance’ highlights the power of stakeholder collaboration in building more resilient communities.

In a distinctive area of northwest lower Michigan — towards the top of the state’s famous “glove” layout — a group of farmers, artisans, activists and local officials have created a small but bustling example of a business-sustainable, self-serving food economy.

“This little region really appreciates food on the whole,” local farmer David Coveyou, whose family farm and lineage date back more than 140 years in the area, told Sustainable Brands® (SB).

Coveyou’s story is one of many examples within Shared Abundance: Lessons in building community around locally grown food — a new book published by Michigan-based nonprofit Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities that focuses on ground-level innovation in food, economy and the environment.

Part story-filled coffee-table book and part local-food-economy strategy manual, the 190-page spread is a self-described “playbook” for other rural communities looking to build a more self-sustaining agricultural model that supports everyone along the way, while restoring the environment and local ties.

“We thought our region was small enough that we could tell this story in a way not wrapped up into a larger-city economy,” Jeff Smith, Groundwork’s communications director and editor/producer of the book, told SB. “It’s kind of a terrarium in a way.”

If nothing else, the book is an inspiring look at how the various stakeholders within a rural area can come together to create a sustainable, resilient culture that would be the envy of any community looking to create a better way of life for its residents.

The ideal place for such a movement

It’s not a coincidence that this part of the country is able to showcase such a movement.

While across the US, there’s been a worrying trend in recent years of farmers aging out of farmwork and not enough young farmers in line to replace them (according to the most recent USDA census, only 9 percent of farmers nationally are under 35); Shared Abundance notes in a 10-county area surrounding Grand Traverse County, there has been a 235 percent increase in farmers under the age of 35 — mainly focused on agricultural entrepreneurship — showing that southern Michigan is primed for an agricultural renaissance of sorts.

“There’s an interest in this on the whole,” Coveyou says.

The book details no less than a dozen examples of on-the-ground agricultural/commercial partnerships broken down into areas such as “marketing & connecting,” “building economy” and “infrastructure.” Each section concludes with a running list of potential action items.

Perhaps the most notable example is the development of a “farm-to-school” program, where Coveyou worked with a local school district to slowly transition the district’s food purchasing from big companies to hyper-local outlets — including Coveyou’s family farm and other places with a considerably more nutritious standard of food. Today, the school district purchases more than 90 percent of its produce from local suppliers.

“It was all about persistence in wanting to bring about change in our food system, and using that as a message,” he says.

Connecting to real results

What’s even more interesting than the work itself is where it leads. Keeping with the farm to school example, it’s literally changing how students think about food. The author details multiple examples where kids now reach for a healthy snack or lunch option — such as kale off the cafeteria line — due to the time spent getting to know locally grown options and why they can be better compared to other foods.

Seven districts in three Michigan counties tested a similar idea in a local pilot project, which inspired legislators to pass the state’s lauded 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms grant initiative that incentivizes schools to purchase state-grown produce — an unfortunately revolutionary concept in a country that heavily subsidizes large, factory and monoculture farming.

The examples include insights into how everyone from educators and immigrants to co-op facilitators and even legislative officials stand to benefit from the positive impacts of this relatively small, local-food economy.

A scalable model?

At times the book feels too rosy — given the ultimately small footprint within this specific portion of this specific state, the results found in Grand Traverse likely aren’t easily translatable to other states, especially those with tougher agricultural climates. These types of relationships and partnerships can take years to build; and buy-in from all of the necessary stakeholders isn’t guaranteed.

When asked about this, Smith says he thinks that many communities could use the blueprint laid out within these pages.

“When you see the people looking back at you from those pages, they’re just everyday people and everyday people are everywhere,” he says.

And the work to replicate Grand Traverse’s success is already underway: As Smith recently told Traverse City’s The Ticker, late last year Groundwork received a nearly-$900,000 grant from the USDA to expand its work in building local-food economies to 16 counties along the Lake Michigan coast. Over the next few years, the nonprofit will work with “36 different stakeholder partners” — including food producers, distributors, processors, schools and food pantries — to apply the strategies that worked in Grand Traverse to build similar food-economy networks, marketing systems, distribution channels and infrastructure on a greater scale.