West Michigan’s small-scale alternative food systems — and the future of such endeavors

Even though Grand Rapids is a mid-size city, it does have a small-town feel — once you’ve been here a while you start to realize everybody pretty much knows everybody else. When I first moved here and asked people who I should talk to about the food system, I heard two names over and over: Tom Cary and Gail Philbin.

Tom is a lifelong resident of Grand Rapids, and Gail has also lived here for many years, although I recently learned that we’ll be losing her to Chicago very soon. Tom was instrumental in starting the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council in 2001, when there were just a couple CSAs and three or four farmers markets in the area. Today there are at least 12 CSAs and a profusion of farmers markets. The council has been involved in myriad food projects in the region, from working in some of Grand Rapids’ more distressed neighborhoods to build access to healthy food, to launching the Beginning Farmers Training Program that helps connect the know-how of people who’ve been farming for a while to young upstarts who want to learn.

Farms Without HarmAnd Gail started Farms Without Harm in 2005, a local nonprofit that opposes factory farming and has brought together farmers with interested people and organizations to raise the profile of sustainable agriculture in the region, through activities such as farm tours and public presentations. She was also a board member for a time of the Food Systems Council.

West Michigan Co-op When I spoke to Tom and Gail, they both agreed that since the early 2000s, there has been an explosion of interest in local food in the area. Betting that interest would only increase and looking to find a way to supply people with locally grown food in the winter when the farmers markets close, in October 2006 the Food Systems Council, Farms Without Harm, and other partners created the West Michigan Coop, an online cooperative that members order from once a month.

It launched with 35 families, and about a year and half later has 255 members supplied by 28 vendors and growing. Tom’s vision for the Coop is to have 5,000 members in five years; he wonders if the management can take the Coop beyond breaking even, to become a capital source for new farmers or food entrepreneurs. One thing there’s no shortage of in West Michigan are great ideas for the future.

And now for a “but”… like Bonnie and Elanor, I too was at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Society conference last week in Arizona. My nagging concern after returning is this: What will happen to the big dreams for small-scale, local and regional efforts in this city and others like it across the country?

During one reporting session, participants questioned what it meant to grow the food movement; as one person put it, should this movement be about scaling up, or spreading out? It seems like many of the sustainable-food goals for which advocates have been fighting for the last decade or so are starting to take root, and with that mainstreaming of the idea comes the urge to “take things to scale.” I just hope that we don’t lose sight of the promise that small-scale, diversified efforts will make good on if they’re given the chance. I hope sustainable food actors in Grand Rapids and other areas don’t get left behind in a new wave of “get big or get out” — ironically, the same mentality that has delivered to us this monolithic, runaway food system in the first place.

Guest contributor Stephanie Pierce lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she writes, dreams, and plans at Fourth Sector Consulting, a for-benefit company that works only with mission-driven organizations. Her unofficial title is Practical Wonderer. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stephanie can tell you why Lake Superior is better than Lake Michigan and how to correctly pronounce “sauna.”

11 Responsesto “West Michigan’s small-scale alternative food systems — and the future of such endeavors”

  1. Tara Petty says:

    One of the aspects of the food movement that I find attractive is the emphasis on small scale.  To scale up would, in my opinion, be to tarnish the movement.
    I am excited to learn more about the ways the community that I live in is working toward changing the options available for growing, purchasing, and consuming food.

  2. azurite says:

    How large could a farm be before it was no longer “small scale” farming?  Wouldn’t it depend partly on the climate & soil?   Whether it’s a cattle ranch in southern ID or Wyoming or a produce farm in the northeast w/perhaps some goats for milk & cheese production too?   If you have a “family farm” & several adult children are farming (& wanting their kids to be able to continue to farm/ranch) they might require lots of acreage to have what would be essentially a family enterprise.
    If it hasn’t already been done, perhaps it’s time to begin thinking about the definition of “small scale” & how that definition can be drafted or phrased to include farming/ranching in different climates & different lifestyles (one person growing produce on a small plot, a family ranching on a 5,000 acre ranch in the arid west, perhaps growing 102 crops seasonally, etc.).  If a farmer grew, say, soybeans for the conventional market, but also had a small orchard, a few cows, maybe one of the kids wanted to grow produce for the local farmers’ market–would that still be small scale farming?

  3. Adina Levin says:

    Huh? If local organic food maintains a low overall market share, and industrial farming has a high market share, then our society will never get sustainable. We won’t be able to afford the energy to continue the factory system, and the industrial fertilizer / pesticide / cafo regime will kill the soil and water. The unsustainable practices will take down our civilisation over time. Sustainability needs to get mainstream. there aren’t other good choices.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Hey there – I agree that sustainability needs to go mainstream. I just want that to happen, and I think it can happen and needs to happen, in a different way than by repeating the model that got us to the industrial fertilizer/pesticide/CAFO regime in the first place.  I’d rather sustainable practice mainstream by spreading out, not by getting big (e.g., think huge factory organic farms. Better than your run-of-the-mill CAFO? Maybe – but just by a step or two in the right direction.) I’d rather see the small and mid-size producer not get squeezed out and told to “get to scale” in a play to outdo industrial ag at its own game. I don’t have all the answers, but I firmly believe that we can move sustainable food into the mainstream with creative models for distribution that can get food into the hands of people and/or institutions that want to buy it.

    As for the definitions of when small becomes big, I haven’t come across it, but it does seem like somebody must have written about that somewhere…interesting question.

  5. Sara says:

    Does anyone know of a good, well-supported report on whether we can replace industrial agriculture and still produce enough food?  What about the effects on the cost of food?  These are issues I struggle with as I try to understand the place of the production systems I am embracing in a larger context.  Please, if you know of good resources, post them here.

  6. azurite says:

    I think BBC news ran an article on a report on food production rates of organic growing methods.  Result of report was that crop production was as good or better especially when lower inputs–including less water required for same crops.   Can’t remember if it was a UN organization that did the report or who funded it.  Sorry, I don’t have a cite.

  7. azurite says:

    Excuse me, my post was incomplete, “especially when lower inputs . . .  were taken into account. “

  8. Adina Levin says:

    Here’s an article showing organic yields as good or better than industrial farming.

  9. Robyn M. says:

    @ Sara:
    Besides the links references provided by others above, there’s also the problem detailed by Frances Moore Lappe in “Diet for a Small Planet” and “Hope’s Edge” that our perceived food shortage is a myth.  Almost half of our grain production goes to the growing of animals for meat production (and, these days, to ethanol for our cars).  Without these sinks on our food production, we could feed every person on this planet with approx. 3,900 calories per day, just in grains.  Even if our ag. production were to drop massively due to changes in method, if our meat consumption habits would change, this wouldn’t be a problem.
    And, as the references above show, there’s good reason to think that organic production methods can match or even exceed industrial methods.  What it can’t do is produce those yields in a country that has a farmer population of under 2%.  We need more farmers, and fast, or we’re in big, big, big trouble.  The two big paradigm shifts our country is going to have to face (I think) are (1) that meat cannot be, and should not be, a major part of our diets; and (2) that we need to return to a substantial number of farmers in our population–maybe as high as 30% (which is where we were at the turn of the 20th Century).

  10. Sara says:

    Robyn et al.:
    thanks for the help (and more is welcome).  Your comment about needing more farmers is why I am a support of the American Farmlan Trust.  My biggest barrier to being a profitable small farmer is having had to pay development price for my agricultural land.    I will follow up on the links and further research.

  11. Matt says:

    Tom Philpott over at Grist.org has various posts that tackle both the question of scaling up sustainable agriculture (http://www.grist.org/comments/food/2008/04/18/index.html – the title is “Hole in the Middle,” so if the link doesn’t work, you can search for that) and organic production levels (http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2008/4/10/10042/8081), and he usually includes links to relevant studies and data. I’ve found his pieces very helpful places to start more in-depth research.

    On another note: great to see some posts from West Michigan! Head about 50 miles south from Grand Rapids on US131 and you’ll find a good and growing local food scene in Kalamazoo too.