Questions & Answers with Community Faces
With artisan, organic, and wild-harvested gourmet specialty foods – think Autumn Berry Jam and Pickled Wild Leeks – Food For Thought, Inc. has played a critical role in the local foods movement here in Northern Michigan. But when he started the business out of his house in 1995, Timothy Young was one of just a handful of pioneers in this niche market. The demand for local foods has exploded over the last decade, and Young’s business has expanded to 10 full-time, year-round employees and a spattering of part-time year-round and part-time seasonal employees. They grow and harvest many of their ingredients on Young’s 10-acre plot, nestled in the backyard of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and Young’s commute to work is a 50-yard walk from his front door to FFT’s headquarters next door.
But Young’s mission is not just local. Long preceding his creation of FFT, Young has an extensive background in travel and humanitarian activism. Thus joining the board of On The Ground – a Traverse City-based nonprofit that supports sustainable community development in farming regions across the world – was a natural fit. He participated in OTG’s Run Across Ethiopia in 2011 to raise funds to build schools for the children of coffee farmers and the Run Across Palestine in 2012 to plant olive trees in the West Bank. Now he has signed on for the Run Across Congo, a seven-day ultramarathon that begins on Sunday, May 24.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Young while he was picking wild leeks on the day before he was to get on a plane for the Congo.
The Betsie Current: Is there a busy season for your or is it pretty constant year-round?
Timothy Young: Summer is definitely our crazy time. We are harvesting leeks and planting crops in the spring. Production really picks up heavily, and it lasts until late fall. Things begin to slow down through the winter. It’s a challenge because of the seasonal fluctuations for us, making it hard to keep all our staff employed full-time year-round.
Current: How has the ‘local foods’ movement helped to advance your work?
Young: The local foods movement has been great. It didn’t really exist when I started. I’ve never seen such a huge change in consumer orientation that I have in the last 10 years. It’s amazing!
Current: How have you seen FFT grow? And how do you hope it will continue to grow? What’s next?
Young: There’s always fast growth in the early years, and we had our period of relatively flat growth [during] years 12-18. We’re now seeing some growth again, though nothing too aggressive. But it’s more motivated by the desire to be a better business, providing better jobs and improving the value of our products.
Current: What are the favorite products, the year-after-year stand-by products that everyone loves? And what products are new this year that we should be looking out for?
Young: We’re playing with a number of new products all the time. They take time. Our salsa took five years to get right. This year, we’ll be seeing some new mustards, a reformulation of our Wild Leek Marinara, and some new pepper jellies and hot sauces. We just put in 200 habanero plants in our hoop house to move some of this product development along.
Current: Where can people buy your products?
Young: We see ourselves as a Great Lakes Watershed brand. So we’ll sell in any state attached to the Great Lakes. Our distribution is heavily focused on Michigan and Illinois, however, if someone calls us for Idaho and wants to carry our line, we’ll accommodate them – you just won’t find us spending time marketing outside the region. [Editor’s Note: Find FFT products at the new Lynn & Perin Mercantile Co. on Main Street in Frankfort, also highlighted in this edition of The Betsie Current.]
Current: You’ve been a business owner in Benzie for two decades – what are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living here? What’s the best, or most rewarding, part of your job? What’s the toughest part?
Young: Toughest part has been finding enough workers. Being a farm-based business can mean a limited access to the workforce. The tradeoff is that we live in paradise. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are outside our back door, and this region is a serious culinary Mecca.
Current: What are some ways that you and/or FFT give back to the community?
Young: Our forms of giving are always changing. It can span from cash contribution to like-minded organizations to organizing Green Cuisine. Green Cuisine was designed to bring locals in contact with the wide range of beverage and culinary artists in the area. It takes a lot of money, staff time, and volunteers to make it happen, but we’re very proud that after 10 years we can say it’s Michigan first zero-waste event and it’s still free to the public. We get over 1,000 people every year. Sad news is that we’re taking a year off and will resume in 2016. Beyond that, Food For Thought allows me to volunteer for a number of good causes, including the boards of the NMC Foundation and On the Grond. With On the Ground, I’ve been able to link my passion for fair trade with global action. I’ve been the in-country logistics coordinator for our Run Across Ethiopia, Run Across Palestine, and in a few more days I’ll be leaving for Run Across Congo, a seven-day, seven-marathon run across Eastern Congo to raise funds for women’s empowerment.
Current: Are you scared to be going to the Congo or do you feel it should be relatively safe? How can people follow your journey while you are there? How can they contribute?
Young: The Congo has been one of the most violent places on the planet for 20 years. However, things have really settled down since 2012, and most of the militia groups have disarmed or are contained by the United Nations and the Congolese Army. We are working very closely with partner organizations in the country and the governor of the province. They keep us updated daily on any security concerns. There aren’t any at this time, but we remain open to changing our route or pulling the plug should that change. People can contribute easily by going to www.onthegroundglobal.org or if they want to go to Razoo, they can sponsor any one of our running team members. All the runners have their own individual fundraising targets. [Editor’s Note: Fellow Benzie County resident Randi Lyn Stoltz is also taking part in the Run.]
Current: What’s your perfect spring day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Young: I gotta say, it’s mushrooming. And that’s because I rarely get much in. Spring is so crazy on the farm and in production that I rarely get out with the kids. We’ve had a great spring, however, walking the beaches of Sleeping Bear. We’re planning to hike every mile of shoreline this summer, and we’re already nearly half done.