On a beautiful summer Saturday morning, Felix Warneken walks around the Ann Arbor Farmers Market with a paper coffee cup in hand and a seemingly constant smile. “I love it here,” he says. “Everything is fresh–I do my grocery shopping while I decide what will be my second breakfast.” The German native, who came to the University of Michigan’s psychology department from Boston two years ago, admires the range of colorful root vegetables and freshly prepared specialties. “In Germany, we are obsessed with good bread, and what I find here–like the White Lotus country levain and French batard–is truly world-class.”
Stopping at the Sweet Dirt ice cream cart, he surveys market-sourced flavors like strawberry, parsley, and rose. He settles on a cup of custard-rich fall-flower honey flavor, balances it alongside his coffee, and sets off for more shopping.
Sweet Dirt’s Melissa Richards, who has been bringing her confections to market for six years, enjoys being able to buy ingredients “right from the people who grow them.” But the workdays are long, she notes, and the market’s not as busy as it was. It helps that her “other” job is dessert chef at the Grange Kitchen, and she can count on the Argus Farm Stop stores for supplemental sales.
Market manager Stephanie Willette confirms there’s been “some shrinking” recently in terms of the number of vendors and the number of stalls rented. She takes the long view that shows big peaks, such as early in the 2000s when the market overflowed to the sidewalks, and big dips, as in the 1970s-1980s when only the main aisle along Detroit St. was occupied. “This is nothing like that,” Willette says. Generally at least three aisles are filled on Saturdays, she notes, and more people are selling prepared foods–she is particularly excited about Mediterranean, Polish, and other international cuisine newcomers. Ginger Deli, for example, now has a bright-orange-canopied stall selling banh mi sandwiches.
Ann Arbor’s market is being affected by both macro and micro factors. Like farmers everywhere, growers are at the mercy of the weather–Kapnick Orchards’ Scott Robertello says the very wet and chilly spring all but killed this year’s peach crop. The long construction project on Fifth Ave. didn’t help, and some sellers are disappointed that a long-anticipated but unexpectedly expensive heated building has not materialized.
Longtime vendors like Jan Upston bemoan the lifestyle changes that have cut into Wasem Fruit Farm’s market sales. “We sold a lot more years ago, but now there’s many places like Whole Foods and Plum Market with good-looking produce and prepared food people can just pick up,” she says. And Ann Arborites “don’t can and freeze like they used to. They ask what’s a good variety for applesauce, and then they buy a quart. Who makes sauce with a quart of apples?”
Upston thinks a lack of drive-up parking at the Kerrytown-area market hurts sales. Flower grower Dennis Sparr agrees–and also points to competition from newer farmers markets nearby. “Every town has a market now,” he says. Jae Gerhart, MSU Extension’s local foods coordinator for Washtenaw County, says there are twelve different farmers market sites in the county, giving shoppers sixteen different options each week for times and places to visit one.
Ralph and Pat DeVulder, set up next to Dennis Sparr’s sprawling presence at the southwest corner of the market, face the very real possibility of “aging out.” Ralph learned farming from his parents and has been coming to the Ann Arbor market for thirty-nine years–but no succession plan has yet emerged for the eleven acres of rhubarb, herbs, and vegetables that he and Pat farm in Grass Lake. “None of our kids want to take it over,” he says. “I don’t blame them–they have good jobs. Farming can kick your butt. You have a bad year, and you need to have something in reserve to live on.”
Getting established with such a reserve is just one of the things first-generation farmers struggle with. Nate Lada of Green Things Farm says he and wife Jill are putting a “high value on diversification, trying to figure out what we’re good at.”
They bought sixty-four acres in Ann Arbor Township in 2012, where they raise vegetables, flowers, and cattle. The land is in the Ann Arbor greenbelt, which, Nate says, “made it affordable instead of unaffordable.” He says they’ve benefitted from “hard work and a network of like-minded new farmers” who work together to expand opportunities. They now sell a lot through the St. Joe’s Farm Share.
While the Ann Arbor market “is still one of our largest sources of income,” Lada says, “it has some serious challenges. Despite having accumulated nine years of seniority as a “daily vendor,” he has not yet qualified for an annual permit. The “seniority-based system unduly affects the people most challenged,” he says, and has complexity and nuances he still doesn’t understand.
Ann Arbor’s market also is unique statewide in requiring that everything sold there be locally produced by the vendors. That means no asparagus from Peru like you’ll find at Detroit’s Eastern Market, or even the “can’t be produced in Michigan” crops sold at the Chelsea market, which Willette also manages.
With many sources for fresh food, “the number of farmers markets nationwide has peaked,” says Kathy Sample, cofounder of the Argus Farm Stops (which celebrate their fifth anniversary August 17 at the Liberty St. store). But Sample says Willette is “doing a great job of being aware of the transitions and is adding new farms.”
As the market prepares to celebrate its “100th Birthday Bash” on August 17 (see Events), it’s interesting to note that controversy and change have been part of the enterprise since before day one. The market was started in May 1919 by women’s organizations that wanted to cut food costs by eliminating the middleman. Though grocers fought the idea, the city allowed farmers to sell from their horse-drawn wagons at Huron and Main. In the 1930s, the current site–a former lumberyard–was donated to the city. The sheds were designed and built by the WPA from 1938 to1940.
MSU’s Gerhart sees southeast Michigan as “a current hotbed for local food outlets, with educated consumers and new farmers.” She says succession planning for older farmers is a problem that is being worked on, and she is encouraged for the future and “an industry stronger for its diversity.”
Meanwhile, seventy-one-year-old Ralph DeVulder, despite a lack of firm plans for his own land, seems optimistic about the future of collaborations between generations. “I am always interested in how new and old ways can be incorporated. They’ll learn like I did to crawl before you walk, and to walk before you run.”
Ann Arbor Farmers Market, 315 Detroit St. Sat. 7 a.m.-3 p.m. year-round, Wed. 7 a.m.-3 p.m. May-Dec.