Apr 7, 2007
Farmers’ Market Braces for Rush of Produce, Customers

It was May 27, a Friday, and things were fairly slow at the Fulton Street Farmers’ Market. Many stalls were empty, and produce items were few and far between. Some of the vendors had put up tarps to block the sun. A handful of potential customers eyed what flowers and crafts were available.

Vendors and visitors agreed that the next day, a Saturday, would be busier. Saturdays are always busier, especially when strawberries and other local fruits start showing up about mid-June.

The market is a long strip of concrete sidewalk and metal archway, bisecting a piece of parkland that sits near the intersection of Fulton and Fuller streets in the city of Grand Rapids, Mich. According to the city’s Web site, the market has been a Grand Rapids institution since 1922.

No one there could remember that far back, but some came pretty close.

“I’ve been selling here since 1953,” said John Geukes, a vendor. “Too long, really. I can still remember when three-pound bunches of asparagus sold for $1.”

Geukes used to put a lot of hours in at the market selling berries and corn from his 80-acre farm in Byron Center, Mich., but he’s getting too old for that now. He sells two days a week until strawberries start, then he comes four days a week.

On May 27, he was selling asparagus and rhubarb, his only in-season crops. The rhubarb was selling well, but it would sell even better once the strawberries arrived. People like to make strawberry-rhubarb pie, Geukes said.

Mary Ann Sabo bought a bundle of rhubarb to make rhubarb crisp for a friend who was flying in from Atlanta. The Grand Rapids resident has been visiting the market for 10 years, ever since she moved to the city. She said she likes to be outside, shopping for fresh vegetables, and likes that she can ask questions about the food she buys.

Vivian Lobdell was browsing the stalls during her lunch hour. She’s been visiting the market for 40 years and can remember when there were two other markets in the city. Now, there’s only one left, she said.

Food is generally better at the market than at grocery stores, Lobdell said.

The Fulton Street Farmers’ Market is open from early May until Christmas. It runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It’s managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Jayson Otto is the market manager.

Otto, 29, lives near the market. He’s new to the job. The city appointed him this year. He bid for the position with help from two groups: The Midtown Neighborhood Association and the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council. Members of both groups and neighborhood volunteers will assist him in getting the ball rolling. It’s not going to be easy.

“There’s no way to be prepared for it,” he said. “It’s trial by fire. We’ll try to make it as painless as possible.”

The ambition of Otto and his colleagues might add to the difficulty. They envision a more integrated community that supports and sustains fresh, local food. The farmers’ market is a key part of that.

Otto has plans to clean the small brick building next to the market and turn it into an information area. He also plans to hold fundraisers to put more money into improvements. The market is lucky because it’s located next to a vital business district. Shoppers flock there, looking for antiques and other items, Otto said.

Tom Cary, a consultant with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, is helping Otto manage the market. He lives nearby and shops there, as well.

“I like the diversity,” he said.

Cary works to build bridges between local farmers and local markets. He wants more people to be aware of the market on Fulton Street, especially local restaurant chefs. The more people learn about the market, the more they will buy there, which will increase the demand for local food and enhance the economic standing of area growers. The increased interaction will strengthen the community, he said.

“People want fresh food,” Otto said. “Local food is a new trend. People are becoming more conscious of where their food comes from.”

Otto has a personal interest in food. He worked at a farm market in high school and studied food systems in college. One of his goals is to seek alternatives to the industrial food stream.

“We’re not a very healthy nation,” he said.

Stephanie Timmerman seemed to share that philosophy. She shops at the market about once a week, buying flowers, produce and anything else that catches her eye. She wants to support local farmers and environmentally friendly growing practices, and she likes communicating directly with growers so she knows more about what’s in her food.

The market has 122 stalls, which are open to any vendor who shows up. There’s usually enough room for everybody, except on Saturdays. When it’s crowded, local growers are given first priority.

Heli Christensen sells soap and other crafts at the market. Finding a booth is usually not a problem during the week, but it’s tough to do on Saturdays, she said.

There’s no special qualification to be a vendor, Otto said.

“I could pull radishes out of my yard and sell them here, but that’s not what we want,” he said.

Jeff Dykstra might represent the typical producer the market is looking for. He owns J. Dykstra Produce in Byron Center. Most of his produce is sold at the market.

Dykstra’s first day selling produce this year was May 27. Up until then, he was selling bedding plants. He grows sweet corn, pumpkins, squash and some fruit in a greenhouse, but much of his produce is purchased from other growers. He buys locally when he can, but buys from outside the state when in-state crops aren’t available. His produce that day – which included cantaloupes, watermelons, strawberries, tomatoes and corn – was from California, Texas and Florida, he said.

Dykstra was the market manager for 15 years before Otto took over. The market was on its way out in the late 1970s, but a combination of more money and better management improved its situation, Dykstra said.

“Farmers’ markets are more popular than they used to be,” he said. “People like to buy local produce.”

Dykstra has been a vendor at the market for a long time. His parents first brought him out decades ago.

“We wanted to keep the kids out of trouble and let them make some money,” said Dykstra’s mother, Betty, who still helps him sell produce. “We didn’t know we’d be here this long.”

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