The air was nippy for a June evening. We were outdoors at 9 Bean Rows in Leelanau County for a celebration of the release of the book, “Shared Abundance, Lessons in Building Community around Locally Grown Food.”
The fields beyond the boisterous crowd were an artist’s palette of shades of green, punctuated by a few rectangles of burgundy. The renovated main building now houses a massive wood fired oven and more retail space; the outdoor pizza oven cranks out perfect lightly charred disks with mouthwatering toppings. Smiling faces were milling about, happily enjoying warm pizza, fresh veggies and dips, cheese and charcuterie.
I remember the Wagon Wheel Farm that was here before: “Mikowski corn” was known as the best in the county, and equally popular were the pumpkins at Halloween and Christmas trees in December. Linda made great fruit pies and delicious donuts. I wasn’t sure what to expect when they decided to retire from farming.
I met Nic and Jen Welty of 9 Bean Rows when they started at the infamous incubator restaurant space on Front Street many years ago. Jen was clearly an accomplished pastry chef and we learned then about Nic’s burgeoning farm in Omena. They built their business slowly and deftly, still tweaking and planning today. Coming full circle, Nic grows pumpkins on the current farm, famous for the outrageously large ones.
I moved to Leelanau County in 1989, spoiled by the breadth of food choices the San Francisco Bay Area offered. Chez Panisse had revolutionized the restaurant industry and fresh seasonal food was the buzz. I arrived here in May and considered my new surroundings: lots of local fruit, a farmers’ market, a food co-op. Pretty good. I was surprised by the incredibly beautiful landscape of orchards, fields, forests, and bodies of water. But I wished there were more local food choices. And I was afraid that the development pressures I was reading about could take that landscape away.
Instead, I happily watched northern Michigan farms change for the better. More small farms sprouted, run by young people moving to the area. Hoop houses began to dot the landscape, expanding the seasonal offerings. Oryana food co-op moved, expanded, and added another location, becoming a market force with increasing selections of locally grown food and products. More farmers markets opened, and farm to table restaurants moved from fad to the norm, a list of local purveyors a common sight on menus.
The boisterous crowd settled in to listen to author Diane Connors describe the genesis of the 20-plus year journey of farming and food in northern Michigan she explores in the book, “Shared Abundance.” Published by Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, fellow employee Jeff Smith tasked Diane to use her formidable writing skills to document that journey. As she spoke, I was struck by how much of that story had been invisible to me.
Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Groundwork and the people highlighted in this book, our farmers found creative ways to expand their markets and move away from “the roller coaster of commodity pricing.” They had to battle against the prevailing sentiment espoused by the Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, that farms should “get big or get out,” holding on to their belief that small farms create a better lifestyle for themselves and their families.
Jim Bardenhagen, a former Michigan State extension officer, was an early advocate for small farms. He was a commodity farmer himself upon returning to the region in 1982 to work on his family farm. In his work as an extension officer, he took the time to listen to organic farmers. He used his skills in marketing, infrastructure, and business to help them and is quoted as saying to the USDA chief economist, “Don’t rule out the small farms.”
The book covers the beginnings of our local food movement, and credits Taste the Local Difference, a brochure first published in 2004, for its success in educating and encouraging people to buy local food and why.
The innovative “10 Cents a Meal,” a state program championed by Diane Connors and others, helps schools buy locally grown food, giving farmers a substantial market and providing much needed healthier food to our children. We learn that food pantries formed a coalition to increase their buying power to purchase local produce and now offer more fresh food to the people they serve.
Thanks to champions like dietitian Laura McCain and others in the industry, health care institutions and providers are recognizing the superior nutrition found in locally grown food. There are now programs to educate patients and employees, providing classes and incentives to purchase locally.
There are also stories in the book that show an appreciation for the role learning about Indigenous foods can play in building community pride.
It took some great minds and ingenuity to achieve the successful local food movement we have here today.
In the book, Diane profiles 56 people instrumental to that success and divides their stories into seven major themes.
At the end of each chapter is a recipe and a “playbook” with “advice, tips and pointers” synthesized from the stories told. This clever device emerged as Diane was writing the book, wanting to fulfill Jeff Smith’s vision that the book could be a model for other communities.
The book is an engaging read, and worthy of your coffee table too, thanks to the stunningly beautiful photographs. Beth Price spoke that evening of the thousands of photos she took to highlight the people and the farms. She shows farms in all seasons and commented that she could “watch the wheels turning” when people she was photographing who were not farmers were in that space.
Beth said working on this book changed her; she is choosing local “more than ever” (and is also obsessed with Lakeview Hill Farm’s salad mix.)
We are indeed lucky to live in northern Michigan. I felt it so strongly that night at 9 Bean Rows. I was at a farm that generously opened its space to help us celebrate the hard work of those to keep this precious part of the region’s soul. In sharing the abundance: food, knowledge, ideas, and a love for the land, we created an enviable community that takes care of one another.
Thank you, Groundwork Center, Diane Connors, Beth Price, and Jeff Smith, for your work in telling this story.
The book may be ordered online by visiting the Groundwork Center’s website: www.groundworkcenter.org, or in the following stores: Fustinis (Traverse City and Petoskey), Brilliant Books (Traverse City), Oryana (two Traverse City locations), 9 Bean Rows (Suttons Bay).