It’s not your grandma’s market: Kalamazoo Farmers Market offers fresh, fermented and foraged foods

The Kalamazoo Farmers Market has operated at its location on the 1200 block of Bank Street since 1947.  
But this isn’t your grandma’s farm market. 

Yes, growers still bring their locally grown fruits and vegetables, meat and eggs, traditionally the backbone of farmers markets. 

But today those commodities make up only about half of the markets’ more than 100 offerings

Fermented kombucha, flavored sauerkrauts and kimchi, and foraged mushrooms are among the more exotic items shoppers will find alongside traditional farm fare this season.

The market director, 26-year-old Gaby Gerken, says she does her best every year to make sure the market features a diversity of locally grown or produced products, a task made easier In 2013, when operation of the Kalamazoo and Portage markets was taken over by the PFC Natural Grocery and Deli and a pedestrian courtyard allowed addition of 40 vendor spaces in Kalamazoo.

Even with that additional space, "vendors come to us and we have more interest than we can accommodate," Gerken says. Those who get a spot at the market can count on getting plenty of exposure for their goods.

What's new?
On opening day, Physic Kombucha sold out its entire stock of 140 bottles of the locally brewed naturally carbonated beverage, says Danielle Fiskars-Byers, who co-owns the business with Meredith Ganton. 

The next week they brought 200 bottles from the supply bottled in a commercial kitchen in Portage.  

The business began just a year ago, when the women decided the area needed a healthy, refreshing beverage alternative to the beer and coffee that are already popular locally brewed and roasted  products, Fiskars-Byers says.

Kombucha fans value the drink not only for its tangy flavor but even more for its probiotics -- beneficial intestinal bacteria -- as well as its antioxidants, amino acids, and acetic acid.

Proponents say regular kombucha consumption can aid digestion, boost the immune system, and may even help regulate blood sugar. 

"I am a registered dietician, and Meredith is an exercise specialist and health coach," Fiskars-Byers says. "We started to brainstorm what would fit into the Kalamazoo scene. I had been brewing kombucha, and Meredith had been exploring cold pressed juices."

Combining their interests and aiming for a tasty beverage with no added sugar, they began flavoring kombucha with cold pressed juices. 

The result— a mellower drink with fewer carbs.

"If you are not a kombucha drinker it’s a nice entry into it," Fiskars-Byers says.

Even first-time kombucha drinkers like the Physic flavors, she adds.

"We were really surprised at the diversity of people willing to try it," she says. "We are handing out samples, and they’d take a sip and were surprised (to discover) it's good."

Each bottle contains three to four servings.

Because kombucha is a fermented drink, the business underwent the strict inspection and licensing process required by Michigan’s food safety regulations. 

"We are both certified for food safety, and we measure the PH throughout the brewing process," Fiskars-Byers says.

Similar license and food safety inspections were required for the sauerkraut and fermented vegetables produced by Cultured Love, another new food offered at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market this year. Jodie Krumpe, founder of Cultured Love, says the company is four years old. 

In addition to the familiar cabbage sauerkraut with caraway, fermented flavors include dill, hot and spicy purple cabbage, curry and kimchi, a plant-based takeoff on the Korean vegetable dish, absent fish sauce in the seasonings.

Krumpe says she began exploring the benefits of fermented foods and beneficial intestinal bacteria when she and her daughter fell ill with Lyme disease several years ago.

The lengthy antibiotic treatment left them exhausted, depressed, and in a mental fog, she says. After trying several alternative treatments, they finally turned to a nutritionist for help.

The antibiotics had annihilated her daughter’s gut microbiome, she says, so they went about rebuilding it with a healing diet, including the introduction of bacteria found in naturally fermented foods.

As their health improved, Krumpe says she felt the need to do something to help other people with similar struggles.

"We landed on sauerkraut," she says. "There’s a hole in the market.  The American diet is not rich in fermented foods."
These days "we have fewer and fewer people asking ‘why sauerkraut?’ and more people saying their doctors have recommended they eat more fermented foods.

"Each year we have grown," she says. "More and more people are finding that diet makes a huge difference in health."
It’s not just processed foods that must be produced in accordance with state food safety rules. 

Foods that do not require time and temperature controls and can be prepared in a home kitchen are allowed by Michigan's Cottage Food Law, PA 113 of 2010 for direct sale to customers at farmers markets, farm markets, roadside stands or other direct markets. But even those foods must comply with labeling and other provisions of the Michigan Food Law.

Assuring all licenses and food safety requirements are in order is part of Gerken’s job, a necessity if a farmers market hopes to offer a diversity of vendors, she says. Even vendors of foraged foods, such as mushrooms, need to have certification.
Shoppers can ask to check any vendors' licenses, Gerken says. Most display them on their booths. 

In addition to the vendors who come every week all season, Gerken maintains a list of 50 to 60 extras who are called in to fill spots for vendors who drop out or take a break from the weekly routine. 

That means every week has a slightly different mix of products for sale — another bonus for shoppers and vendors alike.

"The Kalamazoo Farmers Market is awesome," Krumpe says. "They are really excited to have good food," and shoppers "are more conscious of food, sustainability, social mission, all of that," she says. "It's a great farmers market."

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.