The East Lansing Farmers Market has an estimated 1000 visitors each Sunday during its operating months.
Phil Throop, owner of Wildflower Eco Farm, has been a vendor for the East Lansing Farmers Market since its opening, 11 years ago, but he has been farming for market much longer, close to 16 years.
One thing Throop has found after over a decade of farming for market: “You don’t get into this unless you’re obsessed… it’s more of an addition in any case.”
Another thing Throop has found: “It’s not a very profitable business.”
New technology regarding various types of greenhouses and sources of heating make it possible to grow year-round. However, his ability to produce 12 months a year has little impact on the ability to turn a profit during all those months. Instead, the root of the problem is something else entirely.
“Marketing is just as important as knowing how to grow,” said Throop, and is something that he has found increasingly difficult over time, as markets change and become more corporatized. “I used to sell to locally owned businesses… they’ve all been pushed out by corporates.”
Thus, an already seasonal business is becoming increasingly periodic, as Throop relies on farmers markets for profit. The only downside: they are almost exclusively during warmer months.
The East Lansing Farmers Market opened for season on June 2, for example, and is open every Sunday through October. With this also becomes the challenge of scheduling vendors. Not every vendor in the community can sell at any given farmers market. There is not only the space available to take into consideration, but the amount of potential customers in the community as well as a push for variety.
Market manager Karla Forrest-Hewitt discussed this selection process, stating that an expansion of the farmers market is not possible, as there is a limit of 27 vendors. However, she feels this is “large enough for our community. If it were to be larger, I don’t know how it would work.”
While neighboring townships have larger communities, such as Meridian Charter Township, for example, which has a farmers market boasting upwards of 50 vendors, the East Lansing community is smaller.
The 27 vendors, comprised of both old and new businesses, has served well for East Lansing.
“Each year we have one or two new vendors,” says Forrest-Hewitt. “We’ve also had some of the same vendors for several years. Like (Phil Throop), he was here since the opening of the market eleven years ago.”
Though Throop is grateful for the opportunities provided by the East Lansing Farmers Market, his business is still a difficult one. There are several other markets he has not been able to get into, forcing him to find a particular niche to stand out. In his case, it is heirloom tomatoes.
“The good part is we can provide for the community,” says Throop, “and become a part of it.”
Furthermore, the reopening of the nearby East Lansing Food Co-op “would make it worthwhile to grow in the winter.”
Throop noted two unfortunate factors that forced the food co-op to originally close its doors: its inability to put signage on Grand River, and a Whole Foods that opened nearby. Large corporations such as Whole Foods “don’t want to deal with small farmers,” Throop attests. Thus, the reopening of the East Lansing Food Co-op (ELFCO) would be immensely beneficial to his business.
“ELFCO has worked with local food producers… to provide a venue for their products,” said ELFCO board member Chris Bardenhagen. “To me there is a sort of synergy between ELFCO and other long-standing food establishments in the area.”
The reopening of the store is intended to directly focus on this connection and synergy between the co-op, local farmers as well as the community. The advantages for the community are greatly beneficial, as it will expose otherwise unaware members of locally produced and organic foods, which could also make a difference in their eating habits.
Bardenhagen is excited to be able to provide “another consistent place to sell, similar to a farmers market, but one that goes all week long and does not need to be staffed by the farmer.”
For farmers such as Throop, this is when their “obsession” finally turns into a profitable addiction.
Even through the difficulties faced by farmers like Throop, what is at its core is what remains important: the community, the impact and the enjoyment of the craft.
Through events such as the East Lansing Farmers Market, and the reopening of the ELFCO, the local community is able to come together in unprecedented and meaningful ways.