Farmers markets have been around as long as there have been people living in groups. In North America, while large urban centers like Los Angeles, New York and Toronto have always supported—and been supported by—markets, they haven't always been a prioritized part of small- or medium-sized town life—goodbye, Farmer Jack and hello Farmer Jack's!
That is all changing—nationally, statewide and locally.
Across the country, thanks to visionaries like Alice Waters and successful grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's people are starting to think locally and seasonally about their food.
Plus, admit it, is that tomato you slice up in February even all that good? If you are fooled in to thinking so, when you finally taste one in June, you probably say, "Ahhh…tomato! This is what they are supposed to taste like!"
Best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver tackles the of-the-moment issue in her latest book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," in which she and her family live one year from food produced near their southwest Virginia farm. In a recent interview with Salon.com, she sums up what many people are talking about.
"Food is the one consumer choice we have to make every day. We can use that buying power in a transaction that burns excessive fossil fuels, erodes topsoil, supports multinationals that pay their workers just a few bucks a day -- or the same money could strengthen neighborhood food economies, keep green spaces alive around our towns, and compensate farmers for applying humane values. Every purchase weighs in on one side or the other."
Up in northern Michigan, the fine folks at the Michigan Land Use Institute are spearheading a campaign called Taste the Local Difference that connects individuals, restaurants and institutions to locally-grown food. Their reasoning is economic as well as anti-sprawl: strengthening Michigan farms in turn strengthens urban areas. Kind of like "the enemy of your enemy is your friend" line of reasoning…
In Southeastern Michigan, the Food System Economic Partnership is doing much the same thing—linking local community-supported agriculture farms like Maple Creek Farm to institutions like The Henry Ford.
So what about the average Joe or Jolene who wants to stock their shelves and fridges with goodies that are shipped over less mileage, support the local economy and frankly, taste a hell of a lot better than your average supermarket mango? This area offers a wide range of farmers markets, from those serving just a neighborhood up through smaller suburbs and cities to those serving a region.
A bountiful harvest
Southeastern Michigan's two largest cities are well-served by markets. Ann Arbor's, located in quaint Kerrytown, is open year-round on Saturdays and adds Wednesdays beginning in May. It boasts over 150 stalls with not just locally-grown fruits and vegetables, but plants and bulbs and baked goods and homemade jams, salsas, honey, and the like. The market is a "third place" of sorts for Ann Arborites—a place in the community, for the community, open to all.
Detroit's Eastern Market is truly one of the gems of the state. It has operated since 1891 in its current location, anchored by several historic sheds and surrounded by specialty shops, tasty restaurants and produce wholesalers. Increasingly a mixed-use district, Eastern Market is a sure bet not just for an aspiring Naked Chef, but for any resident of Michigan who wants to show a guest just how much we really do have going on around here.
Over 40,000 people visit Eastern Market on a peak Saturday from all over Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. Locally-grown delicacies like morels and organic spinach and crisp Michigan apples are sold just stalls away from exotic vegetables that may require an American native to reference a cook book or dictionary for identification.
The outdoor market stalls are surrounded by lofts, art galleries, antique shops, restaurants and specialty markets with amazing cheese, spice, olive and wine selections, to name just a few. Eastern Market is a market that acts symbiotically with the neighborhood around it—more than a market, it is a micro-economy that runs 24 hours, from slaughterhouse operations that begin in the wee hours of the morning to omelets with spicy bloody Marys to fat corned beef sandwiches or spicy Thai noodles to late-night art gallery dance parties that wrap up well, in the wee hours of the morning.
For detailed information on Eastern Market's special events, shops and other amenities, check out Model D's Visit Guide.
Little cities big on vegetables
Many of Southeastern Michigan's more vibrant small cities and towns offer their residents a seasonal downtown farmers market. Most function only through warmer months, so are thus open at least from May through October. They tend to carry not just produce, but locally-produced goods like honey, maple syrup and jams.
These smaller-scale farmers markets can be found in:
Perhaps not even qualifying as "little," Royal Oak's Farmers Market is open year-round on Saturdays and houses a complementary flea market on Sundays. It's been around for over 80 years, and is one of the few markets at which Maple Creek Farm's organic produce is available.
Urban farming and neighborhood markets
Some local farmers markets exist for reasons much more basic than as a place to shop for white asparagus and bouquets of flowers. The Garden Resource Program Collaborative—a joint project of Greening of Detroit, Detroit Agriculture Network, Earth Works Urban Garden and Michigan State University Extension—works to promote urban farming and community gardening in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck. Their motivation? Food security, both for individuals and the community-at-large. One has only to look at last year's E. coli-laden spinach scare to witness the effects of mass contamination.
As their network of urban gardeners expands and grows ever more sophisticated, GRP has formed a Market Workgroup that teaches marketing, packing and other skills to families looking to take in some extra income in exchange for their extra produce.
GRP runs markets in Highland Park and Detroit neighborhoods Corktown and Rosedale Park. Wayne State University urban planning professor Kami Pothukucki has logged years of research around the concept of food security in urban areas, particularly Detroit. She explains what is so important about the concept, and why farmers markets are one way of meeting that mark.
"From a food security perspective, food needs to be fresh and healthy and these food needs are to be met in ways that are affordable, convenient and in ways that meet cultural preferences. Farmers can provide that readily and from the other side, small farmers, small growers can make cash. People who grow in cities, in city lots, can produce enough produce to sell, which can be a fairly substantial supplement to your income if you are willing to put in the labor."
Another benefit to locally-grown produce is the distance, or lack thereof, that food travels to reach its end consumer. Pothukuchi says, "This is a very important aspect because it brings food not transported over long distances, it reduces the amount food has to travel and allows consumers to see how it is grown. There's income support, then there's this whole aspect of people knowing where their food comes from. It's hard to care very much when we don't know where it comes from."
Economic benefits are another farmers market positive that Pothukcuchi has studied. "Farmers markets are important as they are for the market environment they create and the buzz they create for places. They are tools for much larger objectives, regional objectives in terms of economic benefits."
She cites a study that shows that money spent at markets stays in the community. "Ten dollars spent in the market can result in $20 worth of business in the surrounding area."
Kelli B. Kavanaugh is metromode's innovation news editor and Model D's development news editor. Her last article for metromode was From Rust Belt To Green Belt.
Photos:Fresh produce in the open air market - Eastern MarketExterior of the Eastern MarketEastern MarketChestnutsAnn Arbor Farmer's Market features artisan goods
Photographs © Dave Krieger
Dave Krieger is managing photographer for Model D and a major Metromode contributor