Diane Conners shares abundance of local food


Photo by Beth Price

By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

Twenty-plus years ago, Diane Conners saw an opportunity to trade her work in journalism for a more diverse career. She began working with farmers, conservationists, policy makers and others committed to protecting the land, the environment and a way of life she’d come to treasure in Leelanau County.

“I had left the Traverse City Record-Eagle and was trying to figure out” what was next, she says.

Turned out, it was turning to the land. She shifted gears and began working for the Michigan Land Use Institute, an organization dedicated to combating sprawl and environmental degradation while touting healthy food and promoting clean energy. The organization eventually found that name too limiting, however, and subsequently moved to Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. Though its work definitely involved (and still involves) work and boots on the ground, perhaps the key word in its name is “resilient.” As in not only resilient communities, but resilient industries and resilient people.

Today the Groundwork Center continues on that path, providing consulting services, working with policymakers at the local, state and national levels, and engaging with the community. It does so primarily in three program areas: Climate and Environment, Transportation and Community Design, and Food and Farming.

“I love Groundwork. It has been a tremendous place to work. All of the people at Groundwork have been fabulous,” Conners says. “It’s been very rewarding.” She is speaking in the past tense because she recently retired from her role as Senior Policy Specialist, Food & Farming.

Conners believed it was important to raise public awareness about local farms. “You connect people to the land and food and help to build local business for farms,” she says.

That was a challenge. For years, local, small farms had been looked down upon or looked past, even—perhaps especially—by the likes of the government. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously advised farmers to “Get big or get out.”

“They deserved choices,” says Conners of those who wanted to farm but were not interested in huge corporate operations. “Groundwork wanted to promote diversity.”

That was showcased in two programs Conners was instrumental in, Taste the Local Difference and 10 Cents a Meal. TLD, as the former is known, was eventually spun off from Groundwork and is today headed by Tricia Phelps. TLD publishes an annual Local Food Guide, which highlights the state’s various local food offerings from farms, farm markets and food producers to restaurants, retailers, wineries, breweries and beyond. TLD calls it “the ultimate guide to eating locally anywhere in Michigan.” It also provides marketing and business to business services for small food and farm businesses throughout the state.

The 10 Cents A Meal program provides schools and early childhood education centers with up to 10 cents per meal in match funding to purchase and serve Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and legumes. What started as a pilot program locally is now supported at the state level. Governor Gretchen Whitmer increased funding from $4.5 million in 2022 to $9.3 million in the 2023 budget, thanks to bipartisan support and the support of various state organizations, including the School Nutrition Association of Michigan and Michigan Farm Bureau.

Conners is quick to credit those who came before her and those with whom she worked for their efforts. “When I started, Patty Cantrell started the Food and Farming program,” Conners says. “In 2012, she wrote a report titled ‘The New Entrepreneurial Agriculture.’ That’s what prompted the book.”

Ah yes, the book. As a sort of parting gift, Conners authored the book Shared Abundance: Lessons in Building Community Around Locally Grown Food just prior to her retirement. Groundwork Center dubs it “Part gorgeous, story-filled coffee-table book and part local food economy strategy manual.”

Shared Abundance tells stories about local farmers, people like Harry and Barbara Norconk, who retooled their asparagus operation to sell more fresh asparagus to local grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and food pantries. People like John Dindia and Bailey Samp of Lakeview Hill Farm who decided to focus on local retail markets due to their relative stability. Chefs like Jen Blakeslee of The Cooks’ House restaurant who change their menu based on which fruits and vegetables are in season and available.

While it is a treatise on what has happened in this region, Conners says the efforts can easily translate to other communities. “It shows how local communities can come together with local food,” she says. As Groundwork has demonstrated, entities from schools, food pantries, restaurants as well as those in the health and wellness industry and individuals all benefit from the region’s farmers – and vice versa.

It may not be fair to cherry-pick chapters from a book to stand on their own, but if you were to do so, the “Farm to School” and “10 Cents a Meal” chapters might be those ones to select. Not only were they programs in which Conners was a driving force, but they offer huge lessons in how to build a local food economy that benefits everyone. As the description for the former says, “Schools offer a reliable and sizable market for local food growers and can be a strong pillar for expanding the local food economy.” And the 10 Cents a Meal program spread from a local pilot program to schools and early education sites across Michigan, thanks to Groundworks’ work with the state legislature.

And yes, the book easily sits alongside other gorgeous coffee table tomes. The photos in the book showcase farmers and foods from the region, courtesy of Beth Price Photography, whose enthusiasm for the results is palpable. “This has been an incredible project,” Price says. “When I decided I wanted to be a photographer and went to school, this was the type of job I was looking for. It was an honor.”

Her portraits of the subjects range from farmers like Jim Bardenhagen and Nic and Sarah Theisen and chefs such as Ken Willoughby and Tony Vu to food entrepreneurs like Heather Ratliff, Chip Hoaglund and Michael Lahti of Cherry Capital Foods, and others, such as Brad and Amanda Kik of Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology. Interspersed among the photos of people in the seven chapters are those showcasing foods, ingredients, crops, and finished foodstuffs like the New Mexico-Style Potato Green Chile from the recipe section.

Price says utilizing farms for the backgrounds of the portraits gave them both commonality and diversity. “Farms, produce, growing things—there’s seasons that are always changing,” she notes.

True to her nature, Conners shifts the focus from any emphasis on her accomplishments to those whose stories she tells and the relationships that develop among the people and the various entities. Most important, she says, it the fact the efforts can be duplicated almost anywhere. “Each profile shows how it can be done elsewhere. The lessons (are) on how they make it work and how relationships with others make it work.”

Shared Abundance is now available. To learn more about the book or order it, click here.