UPDATED Thursday October 20th
During the twentieth-century the scale of food production in the United States went big. Farms became vast corporations and food is sold today in huge volumes. That's why it's hard for small farmers to expand business far beyond the local farmers market. But northern Michigan keeps adding to the number of people trying. A new effort to help them recently won support from economic development officials in Lansing.
Start-up food businesses face obstacles
Raymond Minervini is on the board of a school in Traverse City that was closed for a few years recently. During that time a number of people approached the school wanting to rent the commercial kitchen. For instance, some people making chocolates and other candies needed more space.
"We had another woman who was interested in various sauces and salsa and preserves," says Minervini. "That also takes up another good amount of space."
The school rented out the kitchen some but now is back in operation as a school. But Raymond Minervini is working on a solution that could help many new food businesses in the region. The Minervini Group is redeveloping the former State Hospital in Traverse City. Building 58 is more than 55,000 square feet of old kitchens and storage. Hospital staff produced food for thousands of people in the building, back when food was always produced locally.
Minervini is working with an array of local officials and business groups to turn this kitchen into a regional food hub. It would offer commercial kitchen space for vendors to make food and teach classes. There would also be storage and a year-round market.
Rob Sirrine, with the Michigan State University Extension service in Leelanau County, is directing the project. Sirrine says the food system that's emerging in northern Michigan looks a bit like the one at the old state hospital.
"They used to grow and make all the food for 35 hundred people, the patients and the staff," says Sirrine. "It's kind of interesting how many years later we're trying to move back to that kind of concept locally."
Not much is left of that old infrastructure. There's a 50 gallon pot for soup and an old bread maker that you could climb into. But these are rusted antiques and the building will need remediation work for asbestos and other hazards.
The kitchen floors do have the traditional red quarry tile. That's in good shape and the old smokehouse could be brought back into use. Sirrine says by working with many of small businesses, the food hub will allow them to share costs of new equipment. For instance he says there might be enough farmers with crops of sunflowers who want an oil press.
Small step forward
The idea has been in the works for years. The regional food hub just got its first large infusion of cash earlier this month. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation awarded 50,000 dollars to keep studying and planning. It's a drop in the bucket of the millions that will be needed to put this project together. But it is unusual, since the state's economic development arm has almost no history of funding projects related to agriculture.