It’s the time of year when the farmers and their customers strike up a conversation that will go on for months.

From established institutions like the Meridian Township Farmers Market to youngsters like the Allen Street Market (which opens today), opportunities to buy fresh produce directly from growers seem to be sprouting up all over the greater Lansing area.

Organizers like Grand Ledge Farmers Market committee member Terrance Augustine want people to understand the markets can be more than a place where goods are bought and sold.

“By facilitating a place where buyers and growers can talk, we hope we make shoppers feel like they’re part of the growing process,” Augustine says.

Proponents claim farmers markets stimulate local economies, provide consumers with fresher, healthier food and encourage a personal relationship between farmers and buyers that is important to economic development.

Studies have confirmed many of the positive effects. The University of Guelph in Ontario and Iowa State University have both shown that farmers markets are effective at creating jobs and keeping money in local economies.

All farmers markets are meant to do these things, but the parts that individual markets choose to emphasize vary across the board. Although the shopping experiences may not be terribly different, the things that go on behind the scenes can be.

The Capital City area is home to several farmers markets and a city market that is working to model itself after one. Each of the markets were founded for different reasons and at different times to meet the needs of their specific communities. They have all faced unique challenges and aim to do something a little bit different.

What many of the markets do have in common is that they’re only open one or two days a week May through October, some or all of what is sold must be produced locally and communities are happy to have them. In their own way, each of the Lansing-area markets are working to bring healthier foods, a healthier economy and healthier communities to Mid-Michigan.

New in town

The organizers of Williamston’s farmers market are on a mission to improve the city’s downtown by boosting the number of people who walk through it. Alison Alfredson, Williamston’s director of community development, hopes the increased traffic will improve business and create a social gathering place. The market has been in a different location every year since its inception in 2004, but the emphasis on the downtown area has remained the same.

Alfredson explains that through a few restrictions placed on farmers, the Williamston market aims to support only local growers and locally produced goods.

“Everything must come from Michigan, and it must be produced by the farmers themselves,” Alfredson says.

Ninety percent of the goods farmers sell must be grown on their own farms, which means only a small amount of what is sold can be goods purchased and resold by the farmers. Produce must be labeled as locally grown or organic, and farmers are encouraged not to price goods lower than Felpausch Food Center, Williamston’s local grocery store.

“We don’t go around policing the farmers,” Alfredson says. “It’s a trust thing, and they respect it.”

The farmers adhere to the rules because the market was designed to cater to their needs and wishes. Alfredson circulated a questionnaire to local farmers when the market was still in the planning stages to find out if there was interest in the idea and when and if farmers could participate. Responses were positive and it was determined that Thursday was the best market day.

Despite the optimistic responses, Alfredson says the market has faced a rocky first few years, and attracting and maintaining both vendors and shoppers has proved to be a delicate balancing act.

“Farmers don’t want to come unless there will be buyers, and shoppers won’t come unless there will be farmers,” she says.

Shoppers have also had to familiarize themselves with the different growing seasons and the fact that they can’t get certain items year round like they could in a grocery store.

“It’s taken some time for shoppers to understand that some things only grow during specific seasons,” Alfredson says. “People show up looking for one thing, and when it’s not there they get upset, but it’s also an opportunity for people to discover new things, like leeks.” (The mild member of the onion family is one of many items farmers markets offer that may not be commonly available elsewhere in addition to the same produce items available in a grocery store, such as carrots, potatoes, squash, apples, berries and tomatoes.)

As a result of the unstable success, the market has moved every year, but Williamston isn’t giving up on the concept. “Every year we try to understand our customers a little better,” Alfredson says.

The veteran

Meridian Township opened its farmers market in a parking lot in 1974 and has never looked back. After a successful first season, the township received a grant to build a multi-use pavilion in 1975 that would house the market in the summer and be available for other activities throughout the rest of the year.

Meridian Township Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Eckhart Dersch says although the first season went very well it was uncertain if the market would be able to keep it up, so the pavilion was designed so that it could be used for other events if the market fell through.

More than 30 years later, the pavilion, located behind the Meridian Township Hall, is too small to contain the township’s growing market.

“We’ve never had a down time, Dersch says. “Every year has been better than the last.” Dersch estimates about $20,000 worth of produce is sold every week the market is open and about $500,000 worth is sold over the course of the season.

Each of the 45 available stalls is consistently filled, and LuAnn Maisner, parks and recreation director for Meridian Township, says the market has had to turn away vendors due to a lack of space.

The market was started in response to a community survey that the Parks and Recreation Department carried out in 1973. The goal was to identify what the public wanted most from the department.

“We thought people would want hiking trails or picnic pavilions,” Dersch says. “We were really surprised to find out that what people wanted was a farmers market.”

So the local government acted to meet the community’s demand.

Like Williamston’s market there are a few restrictions in place on sellers in Meridian. All new vendors must grow all of their own produce and vendors must label everything they sell as organic, homegrown or otherwise, so buyers know exactly where their purchases are coming from.

Maisner and Dersch see the market a great community gathering spot that has helped put the local government in a positive light.

“Most people associate Town Hall with taxes,” Dersch says. “But when they go to the farmers market right behind it, they can associate Town Hall with something positive.”

Young and successful

In the 1990s there was a wave of research conducted surrounding “food deserts,” a name given to areas where there is limited access to healthy foods. Around that same time the Allen Street Neighborhood recruited Brian Thomas, then a graduate student at Michigan State University, to look into the phenomenon in their area.

The Lansing neighborhood, located southeast of Sparrow Hospital, had conducted a hunger survey and found nearly 30 percent of neighborhood residents didn’t have enough to eat. Thomas combined that data with a map detailing the distribution of places residents could buy fresh produce and found that there was nowhere to shop within a one-to-two mile radius of the neighborhood. Making that distance even more problematic was the fact that many residents didn’t own a car, which made getting to the produce difficult. It seemed like Allen Street was in a food desert of its own, Thomas says.

One way the neighborhood responded to the problem was with a farmers market.

A pilot program for the market was run from August through October 2004 and was deemed a success, says market manager Kate Nault. The number of shoppers increased throughout the summer and vendors were selling the produce they brought.

The next year the market was open for a full season, May to October, and there was an average of five to seven vendors and 200 shoppers at every market. The following year, the number of vendors and buyers doubled, and the success is expected to continue this season, Nault says.

The Allen Street market is meant not only to provide fresh produce to its residents, but also help area farmers. The market is limited exclusively to Michigan vendors, many of whom come directly from the tri-county area. The farmers are only allowed to sell goods they produce themselves. The goal is to feed as many people in the neighborhood as possible while supporting the local economy. Farmer Jane Bush of AppleSchram Organic Orchard has been attending the Allen Street market from the start. She says the decision to sell there just made sense.

Bush, a farmer for 20 years, originally tried to sell her apples and cider from an on-farm market but wasn’t entirely happy with the routine.

“People want entertainment when they visit a farm,” Bush says. “It’s not in my personality to do that. I just wanted to grow apples and I didn’t want to present a facade to my customers for what a farm really is.”

When Allen Street decided to open its market, Bush says they aggressively recruited her and other farmers, and she liked what the organizers had to offer.

“The move made sense economically and ecologically,” Bush says. “Instead of 75 cars driving out to my farm once a week, I drive my one truck to the market.”

Making a Comeback

Lansing City Market is one of the city’s oldest establishments. Located on the corner of Cedar and Shiawassee streets, the market isn’t a technically a farmers market, but market supervisor Nick Hughes would like it to be modeled after one.

Established in 1909, the market is coming up on a century of business and just recently started to show its age. Unlike a traditional farmers market that typically operates one or two days each week for five or six months out of the year, the City Market is open year-round for four days a week. The market faces some unique challenges that most farmers markets do not.

“We’re open 40 hours a week, and it’s impossible to get a farmer to come for that long,” Hughes says. “That makes recruiting growers really hard.”

As a result of the difficulty maintaining vendors and declining sales numbers, the market has been on the city’s chopping block for the past 10 years, Hughes says.

“There were even customers who came in and were surprised to find out we were still open,” he says.

Fortunately the outlook is starting to improve. Despite the rough times, things have gotten better for the City Market in the past year and a half.

“We have twice as many growers coming this year, and we’re going to offer some new things this summer,” Hughes says.

This summer the market will have a vendor who sells seafood and another that sells all-natural, Michigan-raised meats – meat from animals that were not given growth hormones or steroids.

The vendors have also been reorganized. The market has been divided into seasonal and permanent vendors, with seasonal vendors on the east side of the market and permanent vendors on the west. The east side now closes for part of the year, shutting down in January and opening again in April, similar to a true farmers market.

The west side will stay open all year, and house retailers such as Hill’s Home Cured Cheese and Otto’s Chicken. The goal of these changes is to make the east side of the market feel more like a farmers market, Hughes says.

Even though the market has faced troubles in the past, Hughes is confident about its future.
“We offer things that no farmers market can,” he says. “We have more space and we’re open year round.”

Hughes also notes that as more farmers start using cold weather growing technology, the market could be the place to sell in the winter.

“People shouldn’t eat healthy for only four to five months a year,” he says.

Testing the waters

Wes Clark, of Clark Sugarbush Farm, has been selling his produce in Old Town for a while, but this year things are a little bit different. Earlier this month, Clark was joined by four other farmers for the grand opening of Old Town’s first official farmers market.

Old Town Commercial Association executive director Jamie Schriner-Hooper says she hopes the market will expand throughout the summer and that more growers will participate. The farmers markets will be held on the first Sunday of every month to coincide with the already popular First Sunday Gallery Walk. The pairing will hopefully lead to greater numbers of shoppers at each market since people already in the neighborhood for art can now stop and pick up some fresh produce.

But the organizers aren’t rushing into anything yet. By holding the market once a month, the association hopes to maximize the number of people at each market and to expand as the demand grows.

The demand already exists among the storeowners in Old Town. Schriner-Hooper says they have been asking for a regular market for years. Since the shops in the area all sell and emphasize unique, local products they want to add food to the list of things residents can find in the neighborhood, she says.

The association has been looking to start the market for some time, but with Allen Street and other popular markets nearby it was difficult finding a time when farmers and shoppers would come, Schriner-Hooper says.

“We don’t want to take up too much of the farmers’ time,” Schriner-Hooper says. “They need to be out in the fields growing.”

Under new management

The DeWitt farmers market’s Web site boasts the organizers’ intentions for this season with the slogan of “Building a bigger Market for DeWitt.”

This is the fifth season DeWitt has held a farmers market, and the first that it will be open every week Last year there were a few more Saturdays included in the season, and this summer the market will step it up weekly markets. New market manager Leanne Roman hopes other improvements will soon follow.

The increase in market days has been accompanied by an increase in vendors as well; the first market of the season hosted 17 vendors, selling everything from arts and crafts to fresh produce.

There is only one restriction placed on vendors in DeWitt: They must produce at least 10 percent of what they sell. Roman believes that for most farmers the actual percentage is closer to 90.

“We let the farmers sell things they didn’t grow, because they bring in things that you can’t find seasonally in Michigan, like peaches,” Roman says.

Although there isn’t a restriction placed on where the farmers can come from, they are still all local. Roman says the vendor who travels the farthest comes from Flint to sell cut flowers.

The market is also self-sustaining. Originally subsidized by the DeWitt Downtown Development Authority, it is now able to run completely off of the fees vendors pay to participate. Although the market began on somewhat shaky ground, shoppers have responded very positively, and Romany says it is the highest rated event the city sponsors. With live musical acts and a magician scheduled to perform throughout the summer, the market also doubles as a social center.


Grand Ledge has goals in mind for its farmers market and its mission this summer is to is to get the food off of the road and onto the table.

Augustine emphasizes the importance of buying and eating locally to the city of Grand Ledge.

“People think a lot about the high gas prices,” Augustine says. “But do people think about the cost of shipping a tomato to Michigan from California? We have some of the greatest soil in the country here, and buying food that has been grown locally keeps that money in the community.”

The market has a new slogan this year to help drive the point home: “Food Less Traveled.”

Grand Ledge’s market has been in operation for years, Augustine says, and it has seen a lot of ups and downs, even closing during a particularly bad summer. At the beginning of last year’s season, Roxanne Mills took over the farmers market, and with the help of half a dozen other people, including Augustine, the market has seen a lot of improvements, including more vendors and a steady return of shoppers.

Six farmers are signed up for every market this summer, and Augustine expects between six and 12 vendors each week.

Augustine says another goal of the committee is to make the market an event the whole family can enjoy. There will be t-shirts on sale this summer, along with live entertainment and a couple of informational demonstrations, including one on how to make wine. There is even talk of local chefs stopping by to do some cooking.

The committee is looking to expand the market, Augustine says, but a limited budget is making things difficult. All of the funding for the market comes from the fees vendors pay to attend and without more vendors there won’t be a bigger budget.

“It’s a Catch 22,” Augustine says. “We can’t get more customers without more vendors, and we can’t get more vendors without more customers.”

Augustine hopes some of the new features offered at the market will help to draw a larger shopping crowd and that the philosophy of buying locally will stimulate interest.

“We’re hoping people will realize that by taking away the distance food travels and the middlemen who sell it, we’re saving money,” Augustine says.

In the end, the goals that Augustine and other market organizers in Grand Ledge are working toward are the goals of every farmers market in the area. The desire to bring fresh produce to local communities and support local growers is what keeps every market alive.