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Forget cars and trucks. Michigan's food economy is on a tear.

Growing food locally, processing it and selling it are mushrooming into a $100 billion business for a state second only to California in its diversity of crops and building reputation as a food powerhouse.

From fruits, vegetables and craft beer to salsa, pickles, sausage and artisan bread, Michigan entrepreneurs are leveraging the state's unique geography, central proximity and temperate micro-climates to build an industry that accounts for one of every four jobs in the state.

Consumer demand helps, too. Increasingly, industry players say, consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, whether the products they're buying are local and what's the story behind them.

"Market forces are clearly moving in the right direction for food production," says Dave Zilko, vice chairman of Garden Fresh Gourmet Inc. The Ferndale-based salsa, chips and guac maker started in the back room of a Detroit bar and now supplies major retailers nationwide.

"People want authentic, genuine products. They read labels. I don't see this changing. People are more passionate about food, more knowledgeable about food. It's only going to continue."

That's great news in a state whose agricultural endowment and strengthening entrepreneurialism cannot be outsourced to China or produced in India. And it's huge for a Detroit whose food scene — be it in production, urban farming or cool restaurants — is only beginning to gain traction amid the rebuilding of downtown, Midtown and key neighborhoods.

To the extent any of this is a secret in the state that put America on wheels, it shouldn't be. The state's "agri-food" economy — an amalgam of growers, producers, processors and upstart entrepreneurs — is as much as part of Michigan's economic spine as the auto industry, its advanced engineering know-how and the high-tech sector expanding in pockets across the state.

That's why U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, urged the Detroit Regional Chamber to hold a session on the food economy at its annual Mackinac Policy Conference, beginning Wednesday at the Grand Hotel.

"You don't have an economy unless you grow things and make things," Stabenow says. "We grow more than we process. There's a lot of room to add to our value chain.

"This is not a little sidelight. This is a big deal. It's a big deal for Detroit; it's a big deal for the state. I see this very much as supporting small business entrepreneurs and creating opportunities."

Anecdotal evidence and the hard numbers back her up. In 2004, the state's food economy totaled $61 billion. Last year, according to estimates by Michigan State University's Product Center, the total broke a psychological barrier and hit $101.2 billion — 13.4 percent of which can be directly attributed to agricultural production.

No wonder Gov. Rick Snyder touts the state's growing food economy. It's Michiganders, to borrow his preferred locution, investing in their state. The virtuous circle expands a self-generating market even as it creates new opportunities for exports nationwide and around the world.

That's why Snyder talks up the food biz around the state, why he marketed cherries and blueberries to the Chinese on a recent trade mission. It's why the intensely local "farm-to-table" movement is just good business around a state whose culture still values supporting its own.

A food desert this isn't. Hot new Detroit chefs such as Andy Hollyday at Selden Standard and the soon-to-depart Kate Williams at Republic build small, changing menus around products sourced locally because they're produced locally.

Major retailers such as Whole Foods, Hiller's, Kroger and Meijer Inc., with more than 200 stores across the Midwest, feature Michigan-sourced products because customers want them and because it's smart business.

"The idea of buying local has been around since the beginning," says Mark Murray, Co-CEO and vice chairman of the Walker-based retailer. "There's no question customers are more interested in local."

Meijer obliges. It sources over 1 million pounds of Michigan asparagus annually, and roughly 4 million pints of Michigan blueberries. It offers more than 75 types of local produce harvested each season and works with some 70 growers, including the Mastronardi Produce greenhouse in Coldwater that supplies tomatoes to Meijer year-round.

Meijer also works with MSU's Product Center to source locally made oils, salad dressings, salsas, cheeses, baking goods, sauces and other products. The net result, Murray says, is an estimated $100 million economic impact from the company's patronage of growers and producers across the Midwest.

The small stuff matters, too. Zilko's Garden Fresh Gourmet is working with aspiring food entrepreneurs to build fledgling businesses, including throwing its support behind the effort to open commercial kitchen as part of Eastern Market's new Detroit Kitchen Connect.

It's a smart, opportunistic idea. Keep the momentum going, and leverage an agricultural heritage turbo-charged by local demand and enthusiasm for a turnaround only just getting started.

Those are investments in Detroit and Michigan worth continuing.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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