2024 Michigan Family Farms Conference Brings Farmers Together

Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) convened over 300 farmers, producers, and representatives from food systems organizations at their 20th annual Michigan Family Farms Conference at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC).

On March 9, 2024, Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) convened over 300 farmers, producers, and representatives from food systems organizations at their 20th annual Michigan Family Farms Conference at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and inclement weather, this was the first time in three years that this conference returned to its in-person format.  

“The Conference is a joyous opportunity for people to learn together, share wisdom, make connections, and to gather resources to bring back to communities all across the state,” Lauren Marquardt, co-executive director of MIFFS, said. “The goal of MIFFS and the planning team every year is to cultivate a community-centric and equity-driven space for celebration, networking, and for digging in with peers about all things food and farming!” 

For over 25 years, MIFFS has provided entrepreneurial support to farmers and producers in Michigan, with an emphasis on social justice, environmental stewardship, and profitability. This organization focuses on connecting beginning and historically underserved farmers to each other and making funding opportunities accessible. 

Throughout the conference, there were seven tracks that underscored MIFFS’ mission. Over 22 individual sessions, information was provided on generating more income through farming, sustainable production methods, and community building opportunities. Sessions covered various topics, such as Grant Brainstorming & Collaboration, Global Majority (BIPOC) Farmers Gathering, Agritourism: Hosting People on your Farm, and more. Workshop recordings from the 20th annual Michigan Family Farms Conference are available for those interested to stream from home.

Exploring how to sell to schools 

One of the day’s tracks supported farmers who were interested in selling to schools. There were three sessions covering how to sell to school markets, growing food specifically for schools, and a run-down for of resources paired with a discussion with Farmer Devon Wilson of Sunlight Gardens in Battle Creek. Representatives from the Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN), a network committed to supporting strong local and regional food systems, supported these sessions: Mariel Borgman, Kelly McClelland, and Garrett Zeigler of Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) Community Food Systems, and Megan McManus, the Farm to Institution Specialist of MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. Additionally, Wendy Crowley and Cheyenne Liberti with the farm to program team at the Michigan Department of Education helped support the track.  

“It’s all about working with the schools to figure out what works best for you both,” McClelland said. “Relationships are really important. Connections with food service directors are key with selling to schools.”  

Compared to direct market sales, selling to schools requires a range of special considerations and requirements. Schools typically require a consistent quality and volume for their school menus that not all small farms can accommodate. Although schools can be reliable, long-term customers for farmers, they often have limited budgets with a rigid billing system that suppliers need to adhere to. On the food service director's side, there are other aspects to consider.  

“It’s all about balancing what’s seasonally available, what’s easy to prepare, and what kids will eat.” McClelland said. “Some schools only have reheating capacity.” 

Due to limited time and space, processing can be a barrier to sourcing and serving local produce in schools. According to Borgman, farmers can prioritize growing items that can easily be used in raw form or that only need light processing.  

“Another great way to add value without processing produce is to offer to visit the school and provide tastings to the students,” Borgman said. “This offers a great educational value to the school.”  

Educating students about the food they eat is a positive outcome for many farm to institution programs. As one example, 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids and Farms is a state funded program that offers matching funds of up to ten cents per meal for schools and other non-school sponsors to use towards locally produced fruits, vegetables, and dry beans. This program incentivizes increased local sourcing and encourages student education related to where their food comes from.  

“Michigan is leading in farm to school work,” Cheyenne Liberti, Farm to Program Consultant of the Michigan Department of Education, said. “In the past few years, the USDA has invested a lot in farm to school. In Michigan, we’re lucky to grow so many different products that we’re able to sell to schools that they actually want.”  

Through outreach and networking opportunities, MFIN supports farmers looking to connect with institutions, such as schools or hospitals, and institutions who want to connect with local food sources. Additionally, MFIN provides connections to funding opportunities, institution-scaled recipes, and more. 

“In Michigan, we have seen tremendous growth in school food purchasing of local foods and this is a big deal for farmers wanting to diversify sales,” McManus said. “In the 2022-2023 school year, 79% of school food service directors reported purchasing local foods in a survey, the highest number reported to date.” 

About Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) 

MIFFS’ work supports entrepreneurial farm business development and resilient food systems by serving as the bridge between the resources of USDA service providers, knowledge of subject matter experts, and wisdom from diverse farming communities throughout Michigan. 

Learn more at miffs.org  

About Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN) 

The Michigan Farm to Institution Network (MFIN) helps people across the farm to institution supply chain learn, connect, and collaborate.  

Learn more at mifarmtoinstitution.org  

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