It was 1993 when Walt Gajewski first moved from Plymouth to Farmington, the first year of the Farmington Farmers Market.
The market was, as he attests, kind of tiny. It was small enough that when Gajewski drove down Grand River Avenue and past the market, he made a mental note to stop and check it out on his way back. He promptly forgot.
Now, some 27 years later, the Farmington Farmers Market has grown to become something altogether different, celebrating milestone after milestone. This season, on Saturday, Sept. 26, the market welcomed its one millionth customer.
It’s an odd year to be celebrating one million customers, says Gajewski. The COVID-19 pandemic put the entire season into question before it even started. But thanks to the hard work of Gajewski, the market manager, and his dedicated team of volunteers, farmers, and vendors, 2020 would not only become the year the market welcomed its one millionth customer but also, should the current trends continue, its busiest year ever.
“Who would’ve thought that this year in the middle of a pandemic we would celebrate one million customers. The word ‘celebrate’ didn’t even seem appropriate,” Gajewski says.
“We were on the fence about doing anything but it’s such a significant milestone. Do we have to yield to everything the pandemic has thrown our way or can we acknowledge this moment?
“So instead of celebrating one person we celebrated everyone, handing out bags of apples and pins that said, ‘I’m the millionth customer.’ It wasn’t so much a celebration but a ‘thank you’ to recognize the support of the community.”
Walt Gajewski, manager of the Farmington Farmers Market
If there’s anyone to recount the near-three decades of growth of the Farmington Farmers Market, it’s Walt Gajewski. Having seen the market at its smallest — “That’s how all farmers markets start,” he says — Gajewski first started volunteering at the market in 2004. He would become market manager in 2011.
Gajewski credits the construction of Sundquist Pavilion as the key turning point for the market, which first opened in 2005. Sundquist gave downtown a monument to anchor its growth, he says, an idea that first came out of a downtown visioning project with Wayne State University in the late 1990s.
“I’d say that the bulk of our one million customers, about 700,000, have come since 2005. Before that we weren’t really on people’s radars,” Gajewski says.
As the amount of farmers and vendors have increased over the years, so too has the market’s programming, drawing even more guests to downtown Farmington. What started as a couple of farmers selling sweet corn has blossomed into a weekly event with cooking demonstrations, workshops, community partnerships, and fundraisers for the library and schools.
That is, at least, in a typical year. The COVID-19 pandemic altered the look of this season’s farmers market
, with social distancing and no-touching-the-produce rules applied. Some of the extracurricular activities were cancelled because of COVID-related restrictions, too.
Gajewski wasn’t even sure they would have a farmers market, but after following state rules and guidelines set by the Michigan Farmers Market Association, the season went even better than could have been hoped. Customers have turned out in droves, be it for the opportunity to safely shop outdoors or having a weekly event to look forward to when so many other activities have been canceled.
The Farmington Farmers Market is on track to break last year’s average attendance record of 3,266 visitors per week to nearly 3,500 visitors per week. And that’s even with a relatively sparse opening day of only 500 visitors, 70 or 80 percent less than a typical opening day.
“What’s especially heartwarming about this year is the support we’ve received from our sponsors and volunteers,” Gajewski says.
“If not for the volunteers, it wouldn’t be the market it is today.”
There are only a few markets left in the season. Saturday, Oct. 31 — Halloween — is officially the last day, though Gajewski says the season could extend one more weekend into November, should the weather cooperate and the farmers are on board. The market will also participate in downtown’s Small Business Saturday event for Holly Days.
As for after that?
“No one knows what’s going to happen next year with the pandemic but I can confidently say, with the hard work put in and support we’ve received this year, I can say with 100 percent certainty that there will be a market downtown next year,” Gajewski says.
“You can count on it.”