Molly Notarianni fancies farmers markets. She fancies farmers markets not just because she likes vegetables, but because, to her, they represent something even more fundamental: the magic of community.
While earning a BS in environmental policy and behavior from the University of Michigan, Molly set her sights on starting a small farm in Detroit. Instead of rooting, she spent the next five years in motion, teaching kids about bikes, adults about canning, and working on commercial organic farms from Colorado to Italy to New York. She was surprised to find that selling the fruits of her labors at bustling local farmers' markets was her favorite part.
After spending a season managing several farmers markets in Portland, Oregon, Molly returned to the Midwest in 2008. She has been the manager of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market
for the past three years. When she's not wrangling farmers, you may find Molly on an adventure outdoors, or perched in a pear tree, or creating magic in public spaces with her secret brass band. Molly loves meeting her neighbors, sharing her backyard with chickens, and waking up to see that it has snowed.
Apple vendor Alex Nemeth is somewhat of a legend at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. He started coming to the market when he was only one year old, and some of his earliest memories involve taking naps in bushel baskets as his parents sold fruit. Last Saturday Alex turned 80, and the only reason he wasn't at market was because he had already sold out of all of his apples for the season. Alex has seen a lot happen at market over the last 79 years. He speaks of a time when each vendor was limited to one stall (today many vendors have three), and every single one of the 144 stalls in the market were full.
The Ann Arbor Farmers Market is open year-round on Saturdays, and has been for the last 91 years. Despite this, nearly every Saturday I receive phone calls asking when the market season starts up again. It is understandable – after all, what is available in the middle of winter? Last Saturday, I found eggs, meat, bread and baked goods, cheese and yogurt, honey, maple syrup, apples, storage crops (think potatoes and winter squash), fall's cabbage preserved as sauerkraut, and even a selection of greens, from sturdier chard to delicate salad mix (for an up-to-the-minute look at what's at market each week, check out the awesome website Real Time Farms!). Perhaps not as flashy as tomatoes or strawberries, but these are the sorts of things that are available if we really want to eat with the seasons.
Braving Midwestern winters is not for everyone, but to me, being at market in winter feels like a wonderful celebration of being a Michigander. Everything is a little less crowded and a little less hectic. I am surrounded by the folks that comprise my community, I'm outside enjoying the season, and I'm buying food directly from those who have produced it; what could be more meaningful?
There are so many special and exciting things happening these days in the world of food in Washtenaw County. Countless new farms are springing up, restaurants have turned their focus towards local producers, food entrepreneurs start creative new businesses, and soon even students in the Ann Arbor Public Schools will be able to enjoy food from school gardens in their cafeterias!
Alex tells stories of blizzards and ice storms when he was the only vendor who was able to make it to market. He tells me of a time when vendors would bring ice fishing shanties to market and set up inside of them, for protection from the elements. People have always needed to buy food, and the Ann Arbor Farmers Market has always been the heart of the community. It takes talking to people like Alex to remind me of the implicit meaning of the word "relocalization". A sustainable food future involves both the history and knowledge preserved in root cellars and the new technology that provides us with hoophouse greens 52 weeks of the year. While there is something adorable and quaint about being handed eggs through a tiny window of an ice shanty, the best solutions will come from building on the strong foundation of Washtenaw County's agricultural heritage, while discarding the things that no longer work. It is an exciting and dynamic time. Get to know your food producers. Listen to their stories. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
PS: If you are interested in hearing more fantastic stories from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, please keep in touch with our ongoing Oral History Project. Interviews completed to date can be found here, and we are always looking for volunteers who are interested in conducting interviews of vendors, shoppers, and other folks who have a connection to the Market!
Yesterday I suggested farmers markets fill an important role as a center of community life. Perhaps more obvious is the role they play as an economic hub. You probably already know that reinvigorating local economies is essential if we want to create sustainable communities. I believe that successful farmers markets can be a key component to relocalizing our food system while ensuring a vibrant local economy that is both diverse and resilient.
Vendors, customers, and nearby local businesses benefit from thriving markets. On a busy Saturday in late summer, over 10,000 shoppers visit the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, spending upwards of $175,000 with market vendors. This is an amazing influx of activity to the neighborhood!!
When I began working at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, I hadn't considered business incubation a part of my job, but it has become one of the most gratifying things I do. Farmers markets are the ideal location for fledgling businesses. Without having to invest in a storefront, overhead is low. Foot traffic is high, and the constant feedback from customers allows producers to quickly react to consumer demand. If we want to encourage innovation and entrepreneurialism in our community, it is essential that we continue to create space for new vendors at farmers markets.
In order to have a truly sustainable food system, purchasing of local food must happen on many different scales. Chefs strolling through the market are a frequent sight, but the amount of food consumed in a restaurant pales in comparison to that consumed in larger institutions such as hospitals and schools. Because they consistently draw a dense cluster of growers and food producers to one urban location, farmers markets create a forum which makes it easy for large institutions to buy local. Once institutional food buyers form personal relationships with growers and producers, they can work more closely with them to make purchases, and contract the growing of specific items which meet their needs.
A sustainable food system is also a just food system. Farmers markets can play a key role in ensuring that fresh, healthy food is available to all, regardless of income or proximity to traditional brick and mortar grocery stores. The Ann Arbor Farmers Market is working to ensure that all members of our community are able to buy fresh food, through acceptance of SNAP benefits and participation in programs such as Double Up Food Bucks. Our efforts are inspired in large part by other markets, such as the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, which pioneered such programs in the area.
Preservation of farmland is obviously essential to the long term sustainability of our local food system. Flourishing farmers markets provide a reliable sales outlet for local growers, which in turn further ensures the viability of small-scale agriculture.
Finally, there are many other amazing and innovative examples of ways that farmers markets can further facilitate the relocalization of our food system. The inclusion of buildings with food processing facilities could help foster new food businesses, as well as provide farmers with a means to process extra produce into value-added products like jam or tomato sauce. Cold storage facilities would allow growers to store unsold produce at the end of the market day, which could then be donated to local food pantries or purchased by area stores and restaurants. The possibilities are endless!
Nearly three years ago, I packed all of my belongings into boxes and brought them to Portland's giant train station. As I handed them across a huge wooden counter to the porter, I was assured that they would be waiting for me when I arrived in Toledo. It was so warm the day I left that I forgot to pack my winter coat.
The long train ride gave me a lot of time to think about what I was doing. I thought of all that I had loved about living in Portland: going by bike, streets lined with fig trees, visiting a different farmers market each day of the week, and being surrounded by music and art. Snowy mountains gave way to snowy flatlands. I started to really wish I had remembered my winter coat. As the train rolled through tiny rusty town after tiny town, I felt odd stirrings in my heart. It was then that it hit me: I was really excited to be returning to the Midwest.
During those first few months back in Michigan, I had the same conversation with strangers more times than I can count. "Oh, you used to live in Portland?" was followed quickly by "Why on earth would you move to Ann Arbor?" At first I would explain the obvious: I wanted to be closer to my family, I was not a fan of the rainy Northwest winters, and it was pretty darn difficult to find full-time work in Portland. But there was also something more subtle pulling me back to the Midwest that was harder to define: a certain grit, a sincerity that was lost in the bravado of the coasts. In Michigan, life felt grounded and real. I found myself surrounded by farmers who had been growing food in the region for nearly a century. I was humbled to be in the presence of so much knowledge and experience. These people are unsung heros!
I believe farmers markets hold a similar space in many of our hearts, adding an intangible richness and sweetness to our lives. It certainly would be easier to go to the grocery store, yet we find ourselves waking up early on Saturday morning in January to wait in a line to buy fresh greens. Shopping at farmers markets fulfills one of our most basic human needs: the need for public engagement. Ever since humans created cities, the marketplace has been the heart of the community. As we live increasingly isolated lives, it is especially important to have reasons to come together to interact and share ideas with a diverse group of people. Shopping at farmers markets helps us stay connected to something larger than ourselves. Their value is equal parts social and commercial.
There are so many things we do every day because they feel like the "right" thing to do, not because they bring us pleasure. I adore farmers markets because they are the proverbial "win-win" situation: we are doing something with so many benefits, and having a delightful time doing so.