If you’re reading this blog, you probably already have an understanding of some of the
interconnections, barriers, and opportunities faced by local food producers. MSU grad
student Cassi Meitl didn’t understand any of these things when she was tasked with assessing the farm and food system in Benzie and Manistee counties during her 2014 summer internship with planning consultants Beckett & Raeder. But upon completion of the Lakes to Land Farm and Food System Assessment, she and regional leaders are much closer to understanding food production, processing, distribution, and consumption in the region.
A regional food system assessment explores the current condition of all aspects of the local farm and food system in order to identify opportunities for enhancing the agricultural economy. The assessment’s methodology was developed and implemented in the field, literally stemming from interviews in cherry orchards, market gardens, and pastures.
Meitl visited farmers markets, food processors, restaurants, organizations, agencies, incubator kitchens, and food banks. Her barn-door-to-barn-door interview experiences ranged from being warmly welcomed inside for a glass of homemade cherry juice, to being signaled that the interview was over when the farmer started backing up his tractor in the direction of her parked car!
The Lakes to Land Farm and Food System Assessment was developed using the Food Innovation District Guidebook by Networks Northwest. Three main organizations worked collaboratively to implement the project: Beckett and Raeder (BRI), the Alliance for Economic Success (AES), and a leadership team of farm and food system stakeholders.
The project emerged as a collective priority of a grassroots regional planning initiative. The project team was led by Sharron May, an active member of the local food system who was dedicated to seeing the project through to completion. Most of the data was obtained from those actively involved in the local food system. Feedback loops were implemented at each stage of the project’s development. Care was taken to integrate or avoid duplicating research from other organizations. The results were intended for use by a future leadership team that would identify and implement projects.
At their annual conference, October 7, 2015, the Michigan Association of Planning honored the assessment with an award for Excellence in Planning and Economic Development. Approximately 50 professional planners attended a corresponding workshop session entitled, “The Producers: Planning from a Different Perspective.” After recognizing the foundational work that preceded the assessment (including the Food and Farming Network’s efforts) the presentation closed with a challenge: to feature 20% local food at next year’s conference.
An overview of the assessment and project update will be the subject of a Food & Farm Network study session on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. The project, which was featured in the Food and Farm Network 2015 Report to the Community, can be found at http://www.lakestoland.org/farm-and-food-system/. To schedule a presentation, contact Sharron May at firstname.lastname@example.org or Betsy Evans at email@example.com.