Love Agriculturally: Notes from the 2017 Pure Michigan Agribusiness Summit

by Jessy J. Sielski, Deputy Public Information Officer, MDARD

As a relative newbie to the world of Michigan agribusiness, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the Suburban Collection Showcase in Novi for the 2017 Pure Michigan Agribusiness Summit. I imagined it would be just like any other professional or industry event. Guest speakers would share some wisdom and anecdotes, some kind of chicken would be served for lunch, attendees would mingle with friends and colleagues, and then everybody would leave with a nice bag of SWAG.

I should have suspected this event would be different when people jokingly described it to me as “speed dating for food people.” Turns out, they weren’t too far off. Part of the event is, in fact, a rapid-fire meet-and-greet between food growers, processors and buyers trying to find out if there is a connection. However, what I learned is that there is one thing you’re more likely to find at the Agribusiness Summit than you are at your typical speed dating event: love.

I know…I know…but bear with me.

Michigan Ag Summit 2017 attendees

The event was kicked off with Trevor Pawl from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation exploding onto stage, preceded by a round of high-fives with everybody seated at the front tables (including this lucky writer). After Pawl settled in and the crowd looked on a bit nervously, he had three words for us: “I love you.”

No joke.

Of course, I was flattered. I’ve never participated in a speed dating event, but I was sure they couldn’t be this easy. But then I quickly realized that the “you” Pawl was referring to were the entrepreneurial men and women in the crowd who had taken an idea, a hobby, or a passion, nurtured it, refined it, poured their lives into to it, and are now trying to share it with as many others as they can, in the hopes that consumers will love it as much as they do.

As Pawl said, “Growing a business is more heart work than head work…. You guys work not only to survive, but to demonstrate your love for others.” Pawl illustrated what he meant by telling the story of Sue Kurta, a successful New York banker who quit her job and moved back to Northern Michigan to pursue her love of making artisan cheese. Today, Kurta works to grow Boss Mouse Cheese, literally one wheel at a time, on a historic 1867 Michigan Centennial farm, using pasteurized, grass-fed cow’s milk.

Also that morning, we had the privilege of hearing keynote speaker Dave Engbers, co-founder of Founder’s Brewing Company in Grand Rapids. If ever there was a story of two friends driving their love of a company to the absolute brink, it is the story of Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens. Once on the verge of bankruptcy, the two brewers broke through with their infamous Scotch Ale, Dirty Bastard, and eventually became one of the top breweries in the world for the past five years according to Ratebeer.com

Dave Engbers - Founders Brewing Company

Engbers’ talk was funny, insightful, entertaining, and inspirational—and definitely generated a lot of buzz in the hallways afterward. When a company owner has a difficult time talking about the road to success without tearing up, it tends to have that effect on people.

Kurta’s and Engbers’ stories maybe be unique, but the love they have for their products, their creations, and their companies is not, as I saw that afternoon when food growers and processors met one-on-one with grocers and institutional buyers from around the state. As I lurked around the booths, taking photos and trying to eavesdrop on conversations between buyers, sellers, lenders, business development groups, and other agribusiness groups, it was clear that—even though there was serious business taking place—deals were not being struck devoid of pride and personal investment.

Watching owners and representatives from Mama Russo’s homemade Italian products, La Frontera Mexican products, Olympus Fare Salsa, and Indian Brook Trout Farm interact with potential partners, the pride—and yes, love—was obvious.Michigan Ag Summit 2017 attendees

Michigan Ag Summit 2017 attendees

Despite all this talk about love, it needs to be said: this event is for those who are ready to play in the big leagues. With the likes of Meijer, Gordon Food Service, Harding’s Friendly Markets, Whole Foods, Kroger, the University of Michigan, and a host of other heavy hitters represented, there was no doubt that if you were looking to grow your food and agriculture business, this was the place to be.

“Trust me, the people that you need to talk to grow your business in the state of Michigan are here, and you need to be here,” said “Tex Wild” of Sauce Gone Wild in Portland, Michigan, who joined us for a Facebook Live broadcast during the event. “You can get [our sauce] at hundreds of bars and restaurants and locations all over the state of Michigan and beyond now thanks to the help that we’ve gotten from Pure Michigan and the Ag Summit here.”

Owen Ballow, president of Indian Brook Trout Farm in Jackson, Michigan, who also joined us for a Facebook Live broadcast, added “Much of our success has to do with meetings like this. This agribusiness meeting has allowed us to meet with larger buyers that give us a lot of information on what we need to do to meet their needs. More importantly, this group that attends these meetings are decision-makers, so we’re very productive within just a matter of hours. We can go through a list of people that specifically want to buy your product and [they] make a decision right away.”

I’ve never started my own food business. I’ve certainly never had to rest my livelihood on my ability to weigh personal tastes against consumer behaviors and trends. And I can’t even begin to imagine the excitement and anxiety and fear and joy that these people experience as they work tirelessly to grow their businesses. But I do know this: as I walked out of the Suburban Showcase that day, I couldn’t wait to see these products on my grocery store shelves, to eat some delicious wings at my local bar, courtesy of our new friend “Tex Wild,” and to see what else Michigan’s inventive food producers bring to us next year.

Visit www.michiganbusiness.org/summits to watch for updates about the 2018 Pure Michigan Agribusiness Summit!