Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 16, 2014

Innovation hub an effort to boost food production, cooperation

By MARY BEVANS GILLET Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY -- Craft breweries are becoming wildly popular throughout Michigan and, with success, there is high demand for hops. Thanks to shared productions facilities through the new Grand Traverse Regional Foodshed Alliance, the Michigan Hop Alliance is growing its capacity to serve a greater portion of the market with locally grown hops.

More value-added food businesses are expected to follow suit during the next several months.

The Michigan Hop Alliance is the first of what may grow to eight to 10 tenants at the Foodshed Alliance’s new 12,000-square-foot food innovation hub located in the former Glacier Dome at 1610 Barlow Street in Traverse City.

The hub shares space with Cherry Capital Foods, which runs its operations in the remaining portion of the 48,000-square-foot facility.

The Grand Traverse Regional Foodshed Alliance grew from the Food and Farm Network and was formed as a nonprofit to manage its portion of the space.

Local value-added businesses will have access to flexible space, shared production equipment, conference rooms and like-minded agricultural entrepreneurs. Leases are still be negotiated, but leaders are excited about the collaboration, as well as the potential for a successful operation.

“There is nothing like this in northern Michigan,” said Rob Sirrine, a Michigan State University community food systems educator, who added tenants could include charcuterie, bakers, canning lab testing and various other value-added endeavors.

The level of collaboration will be determined by the needs and shared interests of those involved.

“It will be up to the tenants on how to organize … but they are able to co-locate and reap the benefits of shared storage, supplies and equipment … and it all benefits the local agricultural economy,” Sirrine said.

‘A blessing’

The venture brings far broader and more cost-effective processing resources to the region’s smaller farmers and food businesses than most would be able to access on their own.

“It was a blessing for us,” said Michigan Hop Alliance managing director Joel Mulder, who said market demand is for hop pellets that are processed hops compressed to pea size and used by commercial and home beer makers.

Hop plants are considered agricultural while they are grown and harvested, but they become a food product when transformed into pellet form and require processing in a facility with all food safety regulations in place.

“We needed to find a solution … and were looking at the costs in equipment when we saw the work that MSU and the Foodshed Alliance were doing,” Mulder said. “It’s community-based and all here.”

“We realized we could do the pelletizing (at the Alliance) and the harvesting, growing and picking at the farms,” he said. “We can also set up a picking center, so further away growers can come together to pelletize in Traverse City.”

The Hop Alliance team also looks forward to building relationships with other tenants as well as Cherry Capital Foods.

“One thing that is exciting is how many people are coming in. It opens up lines of communication, new ideas and flexibility,” Mulder said. “With so many, we can all flex and share.”

The Glacier Dome originally was an indoor ice rink and concert venue. Local food distributor Cherry Capital Foods, which was outgrowing its leased space off Parsons Road, purchased the property in July 2013 and agreed to partner with the Foodshed Alliance.

“As a company, it is in our best interests to help this system develop,” said Cherry Capital Foods Senior Operations Manager Evan Smith. He said the company is committed to building a resilient and socially just food system, which made the partnership very appropriate.

“In order to build a regional food structure, much infrastructure must be put in place,” he said. “It’s not a return to what was, but how do we localize a food system with demand that is far out from supply?”

“We were already designated as a food hub (by the USDA),” Smith said. “We had space and interest ... and were willing to make it available to others.”

Infrastructure key

Sirrine agreed that infrastructure was key to growing the food system. He said the Foodshed Alliance’s portion of the space is being ‘white-boxed’ so that spaces can be easily configured and tenants can immediately hook into the infrastructure needed. Renovations include a trench running east to west across the building where all IT, phone lines, electrical and related systems will be located.

Grants from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development funded a feasibility study and up-front investments into renovations, facilities for shared services and equipment including new equipment for washing, chopping and grading farm produce.

Additional work has been done to develop a good business model and to reach out to prospective tenants and those in the local agricultural economy.

Sirrine sees many benefits as the Alliance moves ahead and predicts working together in a hybrid competition and competition atmosphere will be key to future agricultural success.

Smith agreed.

“I think the really beautiful thing is that we are re-imagining relationships,” he said, “Our region, as a whole, is based on cooperation across many lines. Looking at a world of diminished resources, we are all doing more with less. If everyone does that they do best, we can leapfrog the process and not only be resilient but grow.”