Michigan farmers markets: Come for the farm-fresh produce, leave with a stronger community

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Read more in the series here.

Where can you go to buy carrots and a cupcake and leave with a good dose of community? A Michigan farmers market, of course. A local farmers market is where many Michiganders and tourists are headed this summer, many open year-round, whether it’s a rural market with a handful of merchants peddling farm-fresh produce under simple pop-up tents or a permanent city structure with dozens of vendors and a broad variety of offerings.

While a farmers market used to be a place to buy some quality local produce and flowers from the people who grow them, today’s Michigan farmers markets are all that and more. And while fruits and vegetables might be what draw people in, it’s the experience that brings them back. 

Flint Farmers’ Market contributes to community placemaking
At the Flint Farmers’ Market, a visitor might pick out produce and specialty products, ponder which vendor makes the best homemade cinnamon roll, smell handcrafted soaps, savor a full lunch, partake in a cooking demonstration or attend a meeting. At what is one of the largest indoor farmers markets in the United States, that customer might, unknowingly or not, be part of something bigger — injecting money into the local economy, helping revitalize Flint’s downtown, supporting longstanding or fledgling businesses, and creating a sense of place.

Karianne Martus, market manager at Flint Farmers’ Market, says how people choose to use the market is evidence of its importance in the community. “We have space in our market also that’s community space,” she says. In a one-year period, Martus says it hosted 504 indoor or outdoor events. “Memorial services, quinceañera, weddings, community fundraising events. You name it, we’ve rented it.”

“We feel honored that they chose the market for something that’s so important in their lives,” she says.

The Flint Farmers’ Market houses two incubator kitchens for use by startup businesses until they can afford their own commercial kitchens. “Right now we have between 15 and 20 incubator kitchen users,” Martus says. “Some are caterers, some are market vendors, and others are selling another product.” A third kitchen is used for everything from public cooking demonstrations to Michigan State University Extension nutrition lessons.

Three years ago the Flint market moved less than a mile to a new location that better suits its needs and that’s more squarely seated in the red-brick-street downtown area. The expansion has seen twice as many people flocking to Flint from near and far. “The last two years we’ve had over 500,000 visitors a year,” Martus says. “We never anticipated that it would be this huge.”

Martus sounds wistful as she describes a feature of the Flint Farmers’ Market that can’t be measured. “There’s so much love in here for each other and for the community,” she says. “It’s a safe place for people. There’s like a little magical spirit or something. I don’t know how to describe it. We’re lucky we have it.”

“I really think a lot of it is the vendors,” Martus explains. “They’ve been with us a long time, they know everybody in the community, they love people in the community. It would be unusual to walk down an aisle and not hear somebody saying ‘I love you’ to someone. What kind of place can you work where that’s the case?”

That friendly farmers market vibe may be difficult to describe — Martus says “it’s sort of just something you just have to stand in the middle of the aisle and soak up” — but something she contends is a crucial part of her community. 

Downtown Traverse City market focuses on fresh, local agriculture
Traveling nearly 200 miles to the northeast takes a visitor to an attractive spot between downtown Traverse City and the bay where the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market entices customers with its own special appeal. The tent-based market, named after a local philanthropist, only accepts farm products that are 100 percent produced within seven adjoining counties, plus value-added agricultural items made from those products.

Nick Viox of Downtown Traverse City exudes enthusiasm for the market he manages. “I think the agriculture scene and agritourism have really grown in the region and I think our market has been a part of that.”

“The most important thing that I think we do for community building is the food-assistance programs,” Viox says. While some upscale farmers market offerings may appeal to higher-income consumers, he feels strongly that lower-income earners should also have access to fresh and local foods. “We know that our region grows about 75 percent of the variety of Michigan products, so we want to make sure everybody has access to that at our market,” he insists.

A focus on getting fresh produce to those who need it most a common feature of Michigan farmers markets. The Sara Hardy market accepts five forms of food assistance. Markets commonly help low-income families access the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) with Double Up Food Bucks, Farmers Market Nutrition Program/WIC Project FRESH and Market FRESH. The Traverse City market also participates in Hoophouses for Health, an initiative that helps families purchase hoop house-grown produce through a voucher system.

“I’m really passionate about our market,” Viox says of the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market. “I think our farmers are some of the most passionate, creative and generally interested individuals that I’ve ever met. They have so much passion for what they’re creating and it really shows. I encourage anybody to check out a market.”

State association runs Capitol farmers market
Those in the Lansing area can check out a special Farmers Market at the Capitol hosted by the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA) on three Thursdays throughout the summer, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 27, Aug.24, and Sept. 21. Like the markets MIFMA represents, the Capitol markets feature Michigan products from fruit to flowers and prepared foods, along with a helping of community spirit. That spirit comes in the form of yoga classes and cooking demonstrations on the Capitol’s east lawn.

“The mission of the Farmers Markets at the Capitol,” says MIFMA executive director Dru Montri, “is to provide a thriving marketplace that showcases Michigan food and agricultural products in an effort to educate our state decision makers on the importance of supporting farmers, ag-based businesses, and farmers markets.”

Farmers markets doubled in a decade
Montri says the number of markets in the state has doubled over the last decade, from 150 when Michigan Farmers Market Association was formed in 2006 to more than 300 in 2016.

The National Farmers Market Directory,  maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pegs the precise number at 341 farmers markets in Michigan, making it the state with the third highest number of markets in the nation. That puts the Great Lakes State behind California and New York and slightly ahead of Ohio and Illinois.

Aficionados pin the growing interest in farmers markets, in part, on consumers who want to connect more closely with their food. A sense of ownership in a farmers market and an interesting destination add to the interest. Farmers-market-friendly legislation has also played a role in the growth. The Michigan Cottage Food Law of 2010 allows residents to produce and sell low-risk foods that can be safely made in a home kitchen directly to customers, including through farmers markets. This has led to a boom in farmers market offerings such as breads and fruit jellies. In 2013, new legislation allowed small wineries the chance to apply for permits to offer wine tastings and sell wines at farmers markets. Now, Michigan craft distillers are seeking the same system to be able to sell local spirits at farmers markets.

“Whatever the mission of the farmers market, it is often a part of strengthening the local community,” Montri says, “and I think that’s why so often you can feel that sense of community when you’re in a farmers market setting.”

To find a farmers market near you, check this Michigan Farmers Market Association map. Those seeking to start or grow farmers markets will find help through Montri’s staff at MIFMA. Michigan State University Extension offers expertise through its Community Food Systems team, contact co-leader Julia Darnton.

Sue Stuever Battel is a homeschooling mother of four, a commercial maple syrup maker, daughter of dairy and sugarbeet farmers, and a freelance agricultural writer born and raised in the Thumb of Michigan. She holds a bachelor of science in Agriculture and Natural Resources Communication from Michigan State University.
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