By Ally Hamzey
The Meridian Times Staff Reporter
On an unusually sunny, warm day in mid-February, the Meridian Township Farmers’ Market inside the Meridian Mall could have comfortably taken place its usual outdoor location. The pleasant weather, however, did not stop many shoppers from stopping in the mall to partake in the Winter Farmers’ Market Feb. 20.
The Meridian Township Farmers’ Market has been around for over 40 years and is offered throughout all four seasons annually. In the other three seasons, the market takes place at the Central Park Pavilion on Marsh Road.
Even with Michigan’s harsh winters limiting produce options in the wintertime, the number of Michigan farmers’ markets is increasing as well as the attendance.
Michigan State University Horticulture Professor Dr. John Biernbaum said that to his knowledge, shopping locally at farmers’ market is increasing in popularity in this area.
“Many times people are looking for organic food and people understand that [farmers’ markets] are very helpful to the economy,” Biernbaum said.
The MSU professor said there are certain keys to guarantee success in farmers’ markets like the success Meridian Township Farmers’ Market is continuing to see.
“A key is whether the market requires only local food from local farms or whether they allow reselling of produce,” Biernbaum said.
Christine Miller, Market Manager, said one primary distinctions between the Winter Farmers’ Market from the other seasons is the vendor selection.
“We have some vendors at the summer market that go south for the winter,” Miller said. “It allows new people to come try our winter market and it gives a little bit of a different variety of product to our regular customers.”
Although the harsh winter conditions prohibit farmers from making most produce, the market still presents numerous options for shoppers. Sisters Linda Puckey and Lisa Fletcher said they have been taking on farmers’ markets as a family event since they were young. The sisters, Puckey from Williamston and Fletcher from Haslett, are primarily drawn to the Spartan Country Meats vendor at the Meridian Township Farmers’ Market.
“There’s a lot of baked goods here, and if you’re looking for that, that’s great— they look yummy,” Puckey said.
The veteran farmers’ market shoppers attend the market more during the warmer seasons because of the wider array of produce.
“Well, it’s a little out of season, so you’re not getting all the fresh vegetables or fruits that you would in the summer,” Fletcher said. “You can still get potatoes, onions, carrots, and some of that stuff, so that’s great.”
The slimmer availability of produce doesn’t hinder the sisters’ enjoyment, however.
“You feel a community here,” Fletcher said. “I think supporting the local farmers is another reason why we go.”
“It’s fresh, it’s local, it’s good,” Puckey said.
The Winter Market has an abundance of variety from produce, to meats, crafted soaps, baked goods, candles, and many more. Miller believes the Meridian Township Farmers’ Market has something special that is bringing the influx of customers in, even the colder months.
“You get to meet the farmer that is growing it, build that relationship. You’re getting it even fresher, it has typically been picked that day before or the morning of. You’re getting the longest lifespan of the produce,” Miller said. “[You’re] being educated on how those things are grown or raised. You don’t necessarily get that at the grocery store.”
Frigid weather and low temperatures limit farmers’ options for growing crops but Miller said that there are different methods to growing the few crops available in the winter, as long as the weather isn’t too frigid and that the plants have some sunshine and warmth.
“We have a variety of produce vendors. Some of them [have] storage crops, things that they grew in the summer like potatoes or cabbages,” Miller said. “We also have a few vendors that have hoop houses, or greenhouses that allow them to extend their growing season. So, we have fresh greens at the market too, like spinach, kale, and others that grow well in the winter.”
Sharon Kyser of Winkler’s Kolache Kitchen, a Czech pastry vendor, agrees that the Winters’ Farmers Market has vast choices of products.
“It’s nice to have a broad variety. Some people do the same things, but they have little, different twists,” Kyser said.
Kyser said she enjoys the atmosphere of the market and the interactions customers have with vendors or each other.
“I like shopping local and knowing where my food is coming from. Shopping at farmers’ markets brings the community together and helps the economy,” the Czech pastry vendor said.
Glen Brittingham, Vice President of vendor Jar Head Salsa, LLC., believes there is more of a demand for the market in the summer primarily because of the greater selection of produce.
“Farmers’ markets tend to fall off after the kids go back to school in September. I think there is a shift in the focus of the family,” Brittingham said. “Mom has to make dinner at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., the kids have band practice or football or they might need to spend money on school supplies.”
The salsa vendor sells at 30-35 farmers markets a year and he said the Meridian Winter Farmers’ market is one of the best.
“It’s all about traffic. The mall has its built in traffic. We’ve got some loyal farmers market customers that come all year long,” Brittingham said.
He said half of the demand comes from loyal customers and the other half of the demand comes from mall shoppers who stumble upon the market. The vendor said he believes farmers’ markets have a positive impact on the local economy.
“Think about a company like Walmart, where a large percentage of the money ends up in China, versus the money that is made here and stays here [like a farmers’ market] that improves the economy greatly,” the salsa vendor said.
Brittingham says farmers’ markets have put people in his company to work and given many others job opportunities that would not have otherwise existed.
“This offers people an opportunity. It makes me feel good to think that the American dream is still attainable and that you can still make it on your own,” Brittingham said.