Thyra Karlstrom is a senior planner for Marquette County, Michigan located in the Upper Peninsula (UP) near Lake Superior. Food systems planning has not always been part of her work, but in recent years she has been able to focus some of her time to work on food systems issues. Recently, she led the development of a comprehensive local food supply plan for the county, and is currently working on a meat processing feasibility assessment for the UP.
Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, conducted this interview via email in October 2015.
- What is your first and last name? Thyra Karlstrom
- What is your current position? Senior Planner, Marquette County, Michigan
- How long have you held this position? I have worked for Marquette County for 8 years, and as Senior Planner for 1.5 years.
- What do you enjoy about your work? The diversity of projects, all of which share a common element- improving community. In addition to traditional county-level planning, the Marquette County Planning Division is also charged with managing a community development program, county forest and recreation facilities.
- Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? The same thing I enjoy about work can also be a challenge. Having to shift in and out of topics that range from plan writing to managing a forest to balancing a recreation budget is a challenge.
- What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? Mostly policy and education. My position as a county planner presents opportunities to share information and raise awareness of food systems with local municipalities. It is unusual for rural municipalities to have planning staff. It is common for a township supervisor to also serve as the zoning administrator, code official, etc. leaving no time to research and develop food systems policy.
- In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Addressing food systems issues fits into the traditional county-level planning work that I do. In 2013, a local food supply plan was adopted by the County’s planning commission and later by the county board. The Plan is a guiding document for our planning commission and planners to use and enables us to be active participants in addressing our community food system issues. On a routine basis, the county planning commission reviews proposed plans and regulations from local units within the county. One thing we look for is whether or not they are “local food friendly” and we offer suggestions for improvement. Over time, I believe our county government has taken a stronger role in addressing food systems issues. For example, the County is the lead applicant for a grant to study the feasibility of a USDA multiple species processing center(s) across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
- Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? I consider part of me a food systems planner, but that does not mean that this region is absent a food systems planner. A great characteristic about where I live, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is the community’s ability to work in partnership – across municipalities, agencies, and sectors. Together, we combine our resources and achieve great things!
- What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? Navigating the Michigan Right to Farm Act (MRTFA) is a significant and on-going challenge as we try to strengthen our food systems. The MRTFA preempts local zoning regulation, but not always and there have been many court cases addressing this topic. It is hard for municipalities to create “local food friendly” regulations when there is a threat of litigation. We continue to monitor court cases, research what other municipalities are doing, and work on model zoning language for agriculture.
- How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? When I first entered the planning field well over 10 years ago, the term “food systems” was not on my radar. Through participation in Transition Marquette County and hearing Will Allen speak at the 2009 APA conference in Minneapolis, I was inspired to make “food systems” a common term in Marquette County. Components of a food system have always had a presence in planning activities, but today there is an increased awareness of how all of the components fit together and that now has an identity – “community food system”.
- Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? My planning advisor and professor during college, Steve DeGoosh. He is really a professor of community and has a talent to lead the community through discussion of tough subjects. My children motivate me to continue in the planning field, especially food systems planning. I want them to experience how food is grown and where it comes from and a strong community.
- Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? The best advice that I can offer, and this extends beyond food systems planning, is to know your audience. A great idea can be snuffed out quickly if your audience feels alienated. It is also important to trust your ideas and to just go for it sometimes. Be a student and a team member-learn from others and provide support where you can.
Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.