Farmington Farmers Market officially opens 26th season

Last Friday, one day before the Farmington Farmers Market officially opened its 26th season, FFM manager Walt Gajewski needed to have his car towed from the parking lot.


“I called, and I gave the guy the address, and he says, ‘Oh, you’re at the Farmers Market. I love that market!’” says Gajewski with a chuckle.


The tow truck driver is hardly alone. Throughout the summer, many Farmington locals bike, walk, and pull their kids in wagons to Riley Park every Saturday, while attendees from neighboring towns (and beyond) nab a nearby parking spot – all to spend an hour (or three) listening to live music; tasting vendors’ samples; chatting with farmers, artists, and friends; browsing fresh produce (or fish or meat); and enjoying the ridiculously irresistible smell of Petey’s Donuts.


All these sensory treats combine to make the Farmington Farmers Market part of many locals’ weekend routine.


And that’s not by coincidence. Years ago, Gajewski, who took the reins in 2011, enrolled in the State of Michigan’s Market Manager Certificate Program – Michigan was the first state in the country to offer such a program – and learned a crucial lesson at the outset.


“On the first day of class, they told us, ‘If you’re here because you think it’s all about food, you’re wrong. It’s about people having an experience. And if you don’t understand that, you’re going to struggle,’” Gajewski explained.


Growing the market


Gajewski took this idea to heart and set out to both grow and diversify Farmington’s market.


“When I started in 2011, there were people opposed to growing the market,” says Gajewski. “We had maybe twenty vendors then, and I wanted to grow (FFM) significantly. A few of the farmers’ response to that was, ‘What do you want? You want cherries? We can bring cherries. You want apples? We can bring those, too.’ But it wasn’t just about increasing the variety of product available at our market. It was also about the variety of farms.”


Why? Because while harsh weather conditions in Metamora may ruin or severely curtail one farmer’s particular crop, another farmer in Chelsea may have fared better with Mother Nature and could possibly fill that gap with his/her harvest. Plus, because customers have come to care more and more about how and where their food is grown, having more farmers with different approaches to farming has been another key to FFM’s success.


“I had people telling me back then, ‘You’re killing the market,’” says Gajewski. “And it’s always a risky proposition. What if you grow, and more people don’t come? But fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Farmington Farmers' Market. Photo by David Lewinski.


Indeed, though FFM lost about six vendors (for various personal reasons) since last year, it’s added a whopping nineteen new ones for 2019 – a growth rate of twenty-three percent. Plus, inspired by the Farmington Civic Theater’s recent successful campaigns to have customers support them (via voting) in WDIV’s annual Best of Detroit contest, Gajewski put some effort into doing the same for FFM.


Farmington has won WDIV’s Detroit’s Best Farmers Market distinction for two years running.


“There’s value in bragging rights,” says Gajewski. And that value extends not just to attendees, but to vendors – offering everything from tamales (Evie’s Tamales) and chicken pot pies (Great Lakes Pot Pies) to granola made with teff, an ancient Ethiopian grain (Tenera Grains) – who appreciate the friendly, charming small town intimacy of FFM.


What makes Farmington’s market unique?


“I heard about the FFM from someone who’s been in the market loop for years and years,” says Claire Smith, whose Tenera Grains is based in Plymouth (while the seven-generation family farm is located in Addison). “She says it’s just the best vibe, people, and atmosphere.”


“The consistent high attendance is definitely unique at a time when markets across the board are experiencing lower numbers of visitors and sales,” says Brittney Rooney of Brightmoor Farms, a collective of no-spray growers who farm four vacant acres in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. (Brightmoor and Tenera are both new additions to FFM.)

Farmington Farmers' Market. Photo by David Lewinski.


Yes, though FFM has had to temporarily move and adapt in recent years while big changes were underway downtown – like the expansion of Orchard Street, to name one example – it’s nonetheless flourished. Having a beloved local deli (Dagwood’s), a Starbucks, and a Coldstone Creamery within a few steps certainly helps, but the market’s varied territorial footprint is also part of its appeal.


“We’re fortunate here, in that we’re kind of a hybrid,” says Gajewski. “We have a section of the parking lot we close off and use; we have the pavilion, with electricity and bathrooms, and which is covered; and our pavilion opens up into green space – into this wonderful park.”


FFM had far more humble beginnings, of course. “At first, when it started in 1993, it was in the Village Commons Mall parking lot,” says Gajewski, referring to the commercial center that now houses Sidecar Slider Bar. “It began with a loose alliance of local farmers who just showed up in their trucks and circled up around the lot and sold produce directly from their tailgates. … It was small, it wasn’t advertised, and there was no management structure.”

Calder Dairy at Farmington Farmers' Market. Photo by David Lewinski.


Gajewski notes that now, the market is probably at 85 percent capacity (with some room for additional growth in the park); and FFM has had visitors from as far as Colorado, and even Egypt, because when locals have friends and family in town for a visit, FFM is a can’t-miss attraction.


“People always want to bring their family members and friends out to the market to experience what life is like in our community,” says Gajewski. “These are the streets and towns where we live every day.”


“Even if someone comes and can’t buy anything, they can still just listen to live music and take a breath after a long week of work, or take a moment to enjoy their family,” says Alexander Steward, a FFM volunteer and the organizer for Swing Farmington, a public swing dance program that happens on Thursday nights.


Making it last


How did Steward and Gajewski join forces? A few years ago, both had events pending approval by the Farmington City Council, so after getting acquainted at a meeting, they realized they might be able to help each other out.


“I said something about how we’d like to get more young people out to the market, and (Steward) says he wanted to get some older people to come to swing night,” recalls Gajewski. “It was late winter at the time, so that’s when we did some brainstorming and came up with Swing into Spring,” says Gajewski, referring to the market’s now-annual opening day program that gives some of Steward’s swing dancers the chance to both perform and teach.


But what brings people back again and again, in addition to the atmosphere, is the fresh-picked (and freshly-made) food available for sale.


“The trend here in Farmington, from the customers’ standpoint, is that they really, really like the food,” says Gajewski. “ … They get to talk to the farmers who grew the food, so they can buy local, and buy it fresh. And if something’s not available that day, you’ve got this specialty market, Fresh Thyme, not even 150 feet away. … You’d be hard pressed to find another place that could replicate that. … Detroit may be Hockey Town, but I tell people that Farmington is Market Town.”

Farmington Farmers' Market. Photo by David Lewinski.


And with widespread concern about the grip companies like Monsanto have on the agricultural industry in America, Gajewski likes to remind marketgoers, “These are not wholesalers. They’re not shipping what’s leftover to a grocery chain. They’re growing and picking this produce specifically to bring it to our market and sell it.”


In some cases, the small family farmers featured at FFM have been in the business for many generations. “Some of the farmers we got early on, you see that their children are now farmers,” says Gajewski. “ … And they rely on this community, and depend on it, to help support and raise their families, and our customers understand that. So there’s a special relationship, and deep respect, that’s grown over time between our vendors and our customers.”


More generally, though, Gajewski acknowledges that FFM offers, above all else, a chance for attendees to “experience life in a friendly Michigan small town for a Saturday. That’s what it’s about.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.