Farmers markets are blooming and booming
by Sally Mitani
Not so long ago, farmers markets looked like an endangered species. "Sales are down and fewer farmers are coming to Ann Arbor," the Ann Arbor Observer wrote in 1988. "Will the market survive to the year 2000?"
Twenty-five years later, markets are not only surviving, but thriving. The "locavore" movement has restaurants and home cooks celebrating and reestablishing local and traditional foodways--and a new generation of markets have sprung up to feed their hunger. Chelsea's farmers market is twenty years old this year. Saline's market is thirteen, and Dexter's is entering its eighth season. Even Pittsfield Township is launching its own market this summer (see list below).
Nothing seems to spell "local institution" like the people flocking to the city parking lot next to Chelsea's old stone First United Methodist Church, laughing with vendors and filling up their shopping baskets. The Chelsea Farmers Market moved repeatedly before landing here four years ago.
Farmer Bill Stech says it started out down by the railroad tracks, but nearby merchants objected. "Then we moved up to the bowling alley--we roasted up there" in the large, unshaded asphalt lot in front of Chelsea Lanes. Next, the city put the market in the parking lot behind the Purple Rose theater--down in a valley and invisible from Main Street. "Then we were up on the sidewalk"--the stretch of Park Street between Main and the Purple Rose--"but we got a new police chief, and he freaked. Thought some car would jump the curb and take out a stall and maybe a kid or two." (It happened in Santa Monica in 2003.)
Everyone seems happy with its present location. This year, the market has a new manager, Ashley Miller Helmholdt, a savvy young urban planner whose salary is paid by the Chelsea Area Wellness Foundation, a multifaceted organization whose grand mission is to fix the area's health by integrating medical services, fitness, and nutrition. One of her jobs is to make sure the farmers market isn't just a
Saturday fun fair for wealthy food snobs--among other things, she makes it easy to trade Bridge Card dollars for double their value in fresh produce. She also runs the Wednesday market at Chelsea Community Hospital.
Stech, from Merkel Gardens (wife Margaret is a distant cousin to the owners of the nearby Merkel Furniture store), explains the annual cycle that a lot of farmers follow, including him and Kevin Heim, the second-generation farmer at the next stall. He starts with asparagus and bedding plants, "then by June or July we're picking" vegetables, which lasts for several months, then on to winter evergreens. "Then we rest in January and February" before cranking up the greenhouse in March. Stech grows "everything but corn" and lately has been specializing in Asian veggies like bitter melon and bok choy.
In May, Michigan's climate still doesn't offer much that's ripe, so farmers without greenhouses often skip this early season. This leaves vacancies for more prepared foods and crafts. Chelsea's market in late May had soap, gluten-free pastries, hummus, coffee, and knit goods.
Like many farmers, Stech's family goes to multiple markets, and sees them from a grower's point of view. He grouses about the "price pressure" at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market--which gets especially cutthroat with hanging baskets. "We don't even bother selling them in Ann Arbor. The guys there are just giving them away. Oh, come on, don't write that!" he says, eyeing the colorful baskets of trailing flowers at his feet, $13 or two for $25. "These are premium hanging baskets!" he adds.
Like Chelsea, Saline is a pickup affair. The city simply gives a downtown parking lot to farmers on Saturday mornings, and the vendors decide whether to brave the elements or set up canopies for shelter.
May 25 was Barbara Dial's very first day at any farmers market, selling her labor-intensive end-grain cutting boards that go for as much as $150. Also a nature photographer, she couldn't believe the bargain farmers markets offer to a small-time vendor: "it costs nothing!" Well, not literally nothing--it costs $15 a day, and "even Ann Arbor is only $25 a day," she notes. "I've paid as much as $1,500 for a booth at a high-end art fair with my photography."
Another vendor in good spirits was maple syrup maker David Natzke of aptly named Cheer-Up Farms in Pittsford. The reason for his high spirits was this year's cold, slow spring. "If people love the weather in March, it's killing me, and vice versa. A lot of freeze-thaw and not too warm: that's a good year." Bingo for 2013.
On Memorial Day weekend, three or four farmers were selling their early-season produce. Mike Prochaska, one of the longer-tenured vendors at Saline, already had large heads of romaine grown in his hoop houses, as well as swags of asparagus. He also sells all types of bedding plants--flower, vegetable, and herb. His brother-in-law, John Aylward, who shares the large stall, sells cheese from his Four Corners Creamery in Tecumseh.
Prochaska, twenty-seven, is a third-generation farmer, but while his father produces agricultural commodities--corn and soybeans--Mike is tuned into growing food that can go straight from garden to table.
Next to Prochaska is Jeff Nemeth, also selling bedding plants and, later in the season, vegetables, though mainly he's a fruit man: peaches, apples, and in the fall cider and donuts. Nemeth, a fourth-generation farmer ("my kids, they're little now, will be fifth-generation," he says confidently). He also sells at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the big granddaddy of them all, Detroit's Eastern Market. Nemeth says this new fascination with local farming has paradoxically cut some of the old-timers out of the game. "It's getting hard now--all the little farmers coming in and getting government assistance," he said, a little grimly.
Saline has something other farmers markets don't have--a couple of master gardeners standing by to answer your questions. "Mostly we get 'What is this?' Like, what is this weed/disease/pest?" says Deanna Searls, parked in comfortable chairs with fellow MG Mel Armbruster. (Master gardeners are volunteers, certified by MSU Extension after a thirteen-week training program.)
Saline also holds a farmers market in the district library lot on Tuesdays.
Dexter's market, on Alpine Street near the library, is the youngest and prettiest of the three. Instead of just plopping itself down in a parking lot, it has a dedicated spot: a shaded pavilion with "Dexter Farmers Market" stamped into its metal awning.
Because it's the smallest of the three communities and a relative newcomer to the market scene, Dexter has more trouble attracting farmers early in the season. There just aren't enough early-season producers to go around, so in late May, it relies more on crafts and specialty items to take up the slack, says market manager Brenda Tuscano.
The only real farmer with a large inventory of asparagus, rhubarb, flowers, herbs, and garden plants was Glenn Heim. And Heim was, to be frank, a bit of a grouch on the Saturday before Memorial Day. How's the farming business these days? "Sucks!" was his unembroidered reply. From a customer's point of view, it was a gloriously sunny, if chilly, morning, but Heim was pretty sore about the previous night's frost, which took out some of his asparagus. And market day is a long one: "we get up at two a.m. to load the trucks, and we're not finished until nine at night." While he's in Dexter, his wife, Mary, is at the Plymouth market, and son Kevin, mentioned above, in Chelsea. Glenn softens a bit at the mention of Kevin: "He's the only reason I stay in it. I'm ready to retire."
He softens again at the mention of rhubarb, agreeing that it's pretty rare. "It used to be like a weed. Now hardly anyone grows it." He does and is able to get $3 for a bunch of the tart red stalks.
While the growing season guarantees a certain similarity in what's available at local markets at any given moment, each has its own clientele. "I've done all three markets," says one crafts vendor who asked not to be named. "Chelsea people are ready to pull out their wallets and buy what pleases them. In Saline, I also sell very well. There seems to be money there. In Dexter they're a little more reticent."
Dexter also seems like the most locally rooted market--a couple of the vendors live just blocks away, like the Mindo Chocolate Makers and bread vendor Nino Buzzelli. By day, Buzzelli is a food importer, but by night (literally--he gets up at 3 a.m. to make his baguettes) he's a maker of bread, granola, and fettucine.
Michigan's 2010 cottage food law is what made Buzzelli's goods, produced in his own home kitchen, legal fodder at the Dexter Farmers Market. Food laws have tended to work against small producers, with requirements for commercial kitchens and expensive inspections, but the cottage food law rolls that trend back a little. Buzzelli's home-baked bread, granola, and pasta are legal as long as he sells only in farmers markets and farm markets and labels them accordingly. Buzzelli was almost dancing around his stall offering free samples.
The Dexter Farmers Market also repeats on Tuesdays.
Finding the Markets
Chelsea Farmers Market
120 Park St.
Sat. 8 a.m.-noon
Chelsea Bushel Basket Market
Chelsea Community Hospital (south entrance)
Wed. 2:30-6 p.m.
Saline Farmers Market
Parking Lot #4
Sat. 8 a.m.-noon
District Library parking lot
Tues. 3-7 p.m.
Dexter Farmers Market
Sat. 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Tues. 3-7 p.m.
Manchester Farmers Market
Thurs. 4-8 p.m. with live entertainment
Pittsfield Farmers Market
6201 W. Michigan Ave.
Thurs. 2-7 p.m. (starting June 13)
[Originally published in July, 2013.]