Apr 7, 2007
Market Strives To Focus On Local Food

Being manager of a farmers’ market isn’t easy. Combine that with studying for a master’s degree in business, helping out at the family farm on weekends and selling produce at other markets, and you have the ingredients for a busy life.

Zach Koan, 21, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m not happy unless I’m working hard and learning new things,” he said. “The harder I work, the farther ahead I’ll be.”

Koan manages the new open-air market in Grand Blanc, Mich. It’s a stressful job. He’s constantly wrangling with vendors about what they can and can’t sell, when they should show up, where they can set up, what they can charge and whether or not they’re growing what they say they’re growing.

“I consider myself a strict manager,” he said. “You have to be. Markets can gain a bad reputation quickly.”

So far, the farmers’ market in Grand Blanc seems to have earned a reputation as a grower-friendly venue. Bill Hoffman, a farmer in nearby Birch Run, brought 87 dozen sweet corn to the market’s first day last July. The corn sold out in 47 minutes.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “Business is phenomenal.”

Not only that, but the customers are friendly, educated and extremely inquisitive about the food they’re buying.

“It was a great experience,” Hoffman said. “At some markets, people aren’t as friendly.”

Endorsements like that are music to Keith Leonard’s ears. Grand Blanc’s community and economic development director wants the market to strengthen community ties, and judging by the feedback he’s heard from residents, it’s working.

Plans for the market started last January, when the mayor approached Leonard and asked him to look into starting a farmers’ market in the city. Soon enough, Leonard was advertising in local newspapers, seeking growers and potential market managers. That’s how Hoffman and Koan learned about the market.

Leonard started studying area farmers’ markets to learn how they worked. The market in Frankenmuth was especially instructive.

“We modeled our market after theirs,” he said. “A lot of vendors from Frankenmuth came to our market.”

That includes Hoffman. He sells vegetables at a handful of area markets, and has his own roadside stand. Business has been good lately, thanks in part to his Grand Blanc customers.

“I’m really passionate about farmers’ markets,” he said. “That’s the way to re-establish a connection between rural and urban communities.”

Koan shares that belief. He’s a fourth-generation farmer who grew up on his father’s orchard. He started selling produce at farmers’ markets to help pay for college. He was disappointed with some of the markets because they didn’t support local growers. It’s not right for a Michigan market to sell bananas from Florida, he said. That’s what grocery stores do. Koan was considering starting his own market when he read about the opportunity in Grand Blanc.

Even though Koan had never managed a market before, Leonard was impressed with his background in farming and marketing and appreciated his passion for local food.

“Zach was the only person (who) had hands-on experience with farming,” Leonard said. “He could talk the lingo.”

The market started last July and ran through October. It was open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday. Leonard had some doubts about holding a market on Sunday, but those doubts went away after the first day.

“By 1 p.m., most growers were out of stuff,” he said. “After the first week, word got around.”

Whole families would show up after church. The local media were all over the story for weeks. There was a lot of publicity, Leonard said.

There were about 10 vendors the first week, according to Hoffman. By the third week, that number had more than doubled.

The market’s location might have had something to do with its popularity. Grand Boulevard is a new, empty street near the intersection of two busy roads. Thousands of people drive by every day, Koan said.

Hoffman said the site is picturesque, almost like a European street market. It also has other amenities like good parking. He plans to return this year.

Besides being manager, Koan sells certified organic fruit and vegetables at Grand Blanc’s market. The ratio of organic to conventional growers there is higher than usual. Five vendors (including Koan) are certified – almost half the dozen or so growers who sell at the market, he said.

Ideally, Koan would like all his vendors to be local growers, but there aren’t enough to go around. Other farmers’ markets or roadside stands keep them busy, he said.

About half of Grand Blanc’s vendors are local growers. The other half consists of artists, crafters and foodservice providers like bakeries and pie makers. There are limits on the number of non-growers who can sell goods and how long they can stay there. Leonard doesn’t want the market to become dominated by crafts the way other markets have. The whole point is supporting local food.

The market is not a revenue generator, Leonard said. The fees are pretty cheap. Any money made goes back into the community.

Koan (who isn’t paid for his management duties) does the farm inspections, with help from Leonard. Inspections eat up gas money and time, and he’s hoping to assemble some kind of board to help him in the future. He does inspections before the season starts and follows through during the season.

“Prior to their attendance, I’ve gone through and asked them to tell me exactly what they were growing,” he said. “If I see a guy who has watermelons and it’s not on his sheet, I’m going to question him.”

The market has major growth potential. It had a lot of local support last year, but Koan wants to tap into more. He’d hate to see another market go the wrong way.

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