Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 6, 2013

Ag Forum: Local food and the economy

BY BILL PALLADINO
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — It’s time to stop being apologetic about public support of local agriculture.

For decades, we in the ag community presented our case in quiet tones, asking consumers and retailers alike to give a gracious, if tentative, nod to locally-grown food. This soft-sell philosophy reflected the pastoral and diligent nature of the farmers and producers themselves. And, for a time, it worked.

Our local food system, and the mechanisms that surround and support it, have changed much over the past few years. Where there once were a small handful of organizations working to increase the impacts of small-scale agriculture, today there are many.

Taste the Local Difference (TLD) is one of the initiatives at the center of this discussion. It has had a decade of success connecting farmers with consumers. The TLD Food & Farm Guide is the iconic symbol of our small-farm community in northwest Michigan. In annual, pocket-sized, editions, it has listed a growing number of farms and food system partners. This year, we’re taking the successes of TLD and giving them an upgrade.

A year ago, with a cue from our food system partners, we took a step back to reexamine our view of how TLD serves the region. Today, with this new perspective, what we see is a strong agricultural community — one that’s getting a lot of attention. Yet there is still a missing piece, and that’s where we’ve decided to refocus our energies.

TLD is about to launch an aggressive local food marketing campaign. Our goal, along with the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, is that “by 2020, the region’s food and farming systems are more resilient and provide at least 20% of our region’s food.” This is ambitious by any measure.

Marketing guru Paul Gillen says to market you must “…think like the customer.” Unapologetically, this is how TLD plans to reach this goal. To this end you’ll be seeing some major changes to the TLD program this year. There’s a new philosophy, a new look, a new logo, and an expansion of our most successful product, the TLD Food & Farm Guide—all of it designed from the point of view of you, the consumer.

This year, the familiar TLD guide will be reborn as a series of six regional map-based guides. These visual guides will make it much easier to find local food where you live. The guides will be available from participating TLD partners throughout northwest Michigan. The guide will also have a new more dynamic look on the web where you’ll be able to find more details on each listing. Finally, the guide will be available as a smartphone app for iPhone and Android devices. With GPS, you’ll be able to find local food specific to your needs faster and more accurately, with turn-by-turn driving directions to farms and retailers across the region. All of this will be wrapped in a TLD marketing campaign designed simply to sell more local food.

Let’s face it, local food is hip, and what’s hip sells! If you’re a store or restaurant and you’re not prioritizing local food sales, you’re behind the times and you’re losing money. If you’re a consumer choosing not to purchase local food, you’re missing out on the best resource northwest Michigan has to offer—next to our beaches. Local food is good food, miles better, and it helps preserve our beautiful land and create jobs.

To get our maps, download the new smartphone apps, or find more information, visit www.localdifference.org.

Bill Palladino is senior policy specialist with the Michigan Land Use Institute.