Locally-grown food for longer is goal of efforts

Editor’s note: With better access to local food and increased awareness of its health benefits, everyday people are jumping on the local food bandwagon. But a few organizations across the Upper Peninsula aren’t content with providing local food on a small scale and banded together to create the U.P. Food Exchange. This four-part series focuses on the efforts to bring local food to a broader audience. This final installment looks at the concept of extending the area’s short growing season, and how local institutions can benefit from local food.

MARQUETTE – The Upper Peninsula is well-known for its harsh winters and high annual snowfall totals.

But it’s also starting to emerge as a place that is increasingly investing in local food, even with the short growing season that accompanies those long, cold winters.

A big component of that is the use of hoop houses, which can offer farmers a warm, dry place to grow their products even as the snow begins to fall.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers financial assistance through its Natural Resource Conservation District to local farmers looking to invest in a hoop house of their own.

Called seasonal high tunnels, these large hoop houses typically run 30 by 72 feet. They can now be found on at least 17 farms in Marquette and Alger counties, placed there with the help of the NRCS.

Misa Cady, NRCS district conservationist for Marquette and Alger counties, said the seasonal high tunnels were “very effective” in extending the local growing season, typically adding between two to four weeks.

“But people can be very creative, and depending on where they’re located they could get an extra month out of that, another four to six weeks,” Cady said.

And that can mean a lot of extra produce for farms to sell.

“I think it’s priceless,” Cady said. “This type of being able to produce food and extending that season … gives farmers more productivity and then there’s more food in the market.”

More food in the market is a great thing for the U.P. Food Exchange, as it works to continue expanding its online marketplace.

The marketplace attempts to bridge the gap between local farms and local institutions with the need for larger orders, like school districts, hospitals, or even restaurants, such as The Wild Rover in downtown Marquette.

The restaurant made the move to offering local food last year, when general manager Lorne Washburn and chef Andrew Sears – who is also a culinary professor at Northern Michigan University – were brought in.

Sears said a longer growing season would help the restaurant offer local food longer, something his customers would like.

During the summer months this year, Sears said the Rover was buying 80 percent of its produce from up to five different local farms.

“It’s never really a big hassle for someone who cares about the product,” Sears said. “The hassle tends to be more on the side of timing, when it comes to, OK, Sunday I need to order for a Tuesday delivery … but all in all it’s actually fairly easy to access it.”

Sears added the food exchange’s online marketplace was helping to simplify that process.

Navigating between at least two different menus this summer, Sears and Washburn said patrons of the restaurant were appreciative of the fact the restaurant bought locally, and that interest in local food is definitely increasing.

The restaurant, along with offering seasonal menus during the growing season, has been hosting private dinners that showcase local food and Michigan brewed beers, teaching people not only how to pair beer with food but also how to think seasonally when cooking.

“A lot of people think of dinner as that stop between what you were doing before and what you’re doing after, like driving your car and stopping to get gas,” Washburn said. “We want it to be more of an experience for people.”

The next dinner will be scheduled for mid-December and Washburn said tickets typically cost between $35 and $40.

Educating the public is also one of the main missions of the U.P. Food Exchange. It’s hosting a series of local food summits entitled “Together at the Table.” Marquette will host a summit Nov. 6 at NMU.

The summit will be the first of its kind on the central U.P. and is open to anyone interested in food, though local institutions such as schools or medical facilities are highly encouraged to attend.

For more information, see www.upfoodexchange.com.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.