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Local farmers markets build community around Metro Detroit

Chelsea Neblett

The Warren Farmer's Market in Warren's City Square

Chickens at the Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market

The Warren Farmer's Market

Harry Bowman

A decade ago, Henry Bowman opened doors for the first summer season of the Warren Farmer's Market. It wasn't his idea; public demand was high, and he was just giving people what they wanted.

For the majority of the community, that meant access to local, organic food. 

"The produce could have been picked the same day. You're getting the freshest and healthiest food there is," Bowman says. Harry Bowman

Growers, obviously, get something out of it too.

"I love utilizing people from our community," says Bowman. "There are people here in our community working, bringing in produce or selling new products. It's small-business Sunday every week because we give people around the area an opportunity."

The Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market, located at the North Rosedale Park Community House, started a year before Bowman kicked off Warren's market. At that time, says market manager Chelsea Neblett, it was the only option for people in the neighborhood who wanted fresh, local, organically grown produce. The Northwest Detroit Market, along with the 11 other city-based produce markets that make up the Detroit Community Markets collective, built a customer base around that idea.

Like most farmer's markets, a dedicated portion of the table space is reserved for local vendors—Healthy Living Raw, Sweet Potato Sensations, and Five Star Cake Company, to name a few—eager to get their products to nearby residents.

But with the rise of grocers like Whole Foods, and a general increase in the awareness and popularity of organic food, local produce markets are far from the lone option for health-conscious buyers.

"We have a Meijer on Grand River, and you can now go in there and buy local now," Neblett says. "In terms of food access, the grocery store scene has changed drastically in the last 10 years."

And yet, Detroiters are still packing markets every week throughout the summer. Small neighborhood markets can average up to 1,000 customers weekly. Eastern Market can have as many as 45,000 shoppers on a Saturday.

Northwest Detroit Farmer's Market

With easier and—frankly, as Bowman points out—cheaper options for local or organic food, Detroiters still seem eager to spend money at local markets.

The answer: community.

"You see the same people week after week," Bowman says. "People build relationships with our farmers, across the board."

Ann Carter helps run the Bayport Fishing Co. booth at Eastern Market, as well as markets in Ann Arbor and Port Austin. "A few weeks ago, I had pneumonia and had to miss a week," Carter says. "It was miserable. I told them to tell everyone I was sorry I couldn't be there and I'll see them next week. We have customers that are like old friends. It's extended family, is what it is. We look forward to coming down here, because we've made so many friends."

Local vendors see the same faces every weekloyalty develops between buyer and seller. Dennis Hyatt, co-owner of Hyatt Black Angus Beef Farms in Snover, Michigan, noticed this immediately.

"When I first came down here," he says, "I heard the clientele are loyal right away. And that's true. If they like what you're selling, they're going to stick with you, even if another beef guy comes through."

Karl Baer, owner of Baer Poultry Farms based in Adrian, MI

It's easy to spot community at a farmer's market, even between sellers.

Grown In Detroit is a project run through Keep Growing Detroit aimed at helping local farmers get to market—anyone from a hobbyist with a backyard garden to a professional farmer looking to supplement his or her income.

"Urban agriculture has been a part of Detroit since the 1890s. We have a very rich history of farming in this city," Keeping Growing Detroit spokesperson Ashley Atkinson says. "In the 1980s, there was some selling from community gardens and farms, but 2006 was when we started to do it together."

There's numerous benefits for small-scale farmers to participate in Grown in Detroit. In its first season in 2006, the program enlisted eight growers who earned about $800. Last season, 45 locals sold products at local farmers markets, clearing about $80,000, all of which goes back to the growers.

"It has been really important to sustain urban gardens over time. We have some families who are struggling to pay their bills, and it helps them stretch their budget."

Many of the farmers in the program have teamed up, doing marketing projects or borrowing and sharing tillers, greenhouse space or other assets and equipment.

"There is a lot of that happening in the community now, and we'd like to think we played a role in helping to facilitate not only the connection between farmers, but the trusted relationships in order to truly collaborate," Atkinson said.

Local markets also help build community by planning both educational and entertainment activities. The Northwest Detroit Market alone holds free health screenings, canning and food-preservation demonstrations, healthy-living workshops, and birdhouse-building instructions by the local Home Depot for kids. 

Back Alley Bikes offering a bike maintenance class at the Northwest Detroit Farmers' Market

In Warren, Bowman enlists musical artists, clowns, and a fountain that kids can play in. He also booked a weekly cooking show-seminar called From Farm To Fork With The Able Chef. Chuck Sansone, who was paralyzed in a car accident last year, teaches market-goers cooking tips.

"He is such an inspiration. What we're going to see from this cooking show will be amazing," Bowman says.

The market scene in the city isn't done growing, yet.

In April, The Knight Foundation awarded a $135,665 grant to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy in order to build a new market on the Dequindre Cut in the Wilkins Street Plaza. Planning is in the early stages, but the group is pairing with Eastern Market and the Build Institute, shooting for an opening in the summer of 2017.

In an homage to the Dequindre Cut's origins as part of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad line, the market will repurpose old shipping containers, converting them into shop spaces for local vendors, entrepreneurs, and artists.

"We're always brainstorming ideas to get more people to come down to the riverfront or the Dequindre Cut and offer more surprise and delight for people who visit," Riverfront Conservancy director of communications Marc Pasco says. "We thought, 'How cool would it be to take advantage of this and and so something with the entrepreneurial spirit that so many people have throughout this city? Do something cool and funky that would fit in really well with the history of the Dequindre Cut.'"

To an even greater degree than most farmer's markets in Metro Detroit, the Cut's market will showcase local businesses. All, in fact, will be from Detroit.

All photos by Nick Hagen.

Support for this series on food and agriculture in Southeast Michigan is provided in part by the Detroit Food and Agriculture Network. See other stories in this series here.

Check out our map of markets in Detroit. Is there a market missing? Let us know at [email protected]

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