July 15 2009 12:00 AM

Farmers market returns to E.L. after 10-year drought


Under the warm, velvety embrace of a blue midsummer sky, the snip of scissors broke ceremonial twine, officially opening the inaugural East Lansing Farmer’s Market last Sunday morning. The market will open every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Oct. 25.

Welcoming back a farmers market was a special treat for East Lansing Mayor Vic Loomis, who joined civic leaders, vendors and a gaggle of children with parents in cutting the twine. Ten years ago, farmers set up shop in the colorful parking ramp downtown, but challenging logistics were a major reason for the demise of that market. Loomis doesn’t think that will be a problem this time around. “We didn’t have the green space that we have now,” Loomis said, emphasizing the importance of establishing an experience friendly to families. “Valley Court is really the gem of downtown; it’s convenient for the whole city.”

As early as 7 a.m. on a small patch of weathered parking lot adjacent Valley Court Park, organizers and about a dozen vendors began chalking stall lines, pitching tents and unloading produce, cheesecake and honey, among other sundries.

Matt Wrzesinski recently graduated from Michigan State University’s intensive, one-year organic farming program. He has been farming for a couple years on borrowed land in Leslie, but he is new to hawking his own goods. “This is my first day,” he said. “Ever.”

From a small wooden bowl under Wrzesinski’s tent, the piquant aroma of fresh basil leaves mingled with the crowd. Wrzesinski also grows Roma tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots and peppers, all organically. “I find it very satisfying,” Wrzesinski said of his farming methods.

A startup company named Nibble, inspired and spurred to action by the market’s inception, specializes in cheesecake and offers catering services. El Azteco Mexican restaurant has a stall, its tables lined with bags of locally made tortilla chips. Another vendor lined flats of flowers and plants around a particularly popular stall. Live music strummed from a guitar and laughing children competed for the ear’s attention.

Salomon Jost and son Thomas scurried to assist customers and offer free samples of their delicious homemade slushi. An apprentice farmer looking for work in the spring, Jost grabbed an opportunity to be his own boss. But it’s not easy. “I never had to run my own operation,” Jost said. “It’s a whole different story when you walk into something that’s not already set up. It’s like I’ve got six fires, with 20 irons in each; everything’s a priority, but you still have to sleep.”

Partnered with A l m a r Orchards, a mixed organic and conventional p r o d u c e and lives t o c k farm in Flushing, the allorganic Salomon Gardens specializes in leafy greens, the perfect ingredient of a tasty slushi. Really. Jost mixes organic cider from Almar with ice and a handful of leaves, such as lettuce, chard and broccoli greens. The mixture tumbles in a clear box dispenser and, as easy as it goes down, the sweet concoction is liable to produce brain freeze.

Next to Salomon Gardens, golden honey bears smile at passersby. Dale Woods maintains small apiaries in Fowlerville, Webberville, Williamston and Howell. He’s only a moment away from chatting about anything bee- or honey-related, from the benefits of the raw honey he sells to the mysterious colony-collapse phenomenon. Woods said he was surprised East Lansing had gone so long without its own farmers market. “It’s an ecologically conscious community,” he said. “The farm market is all about our carbon footprint.”

Woods, who sells his honey at several local markets, was impressed with the turnout and organization of the event. “Of all the markets I’ve gone to, this is the nicest first market I’ve been to,” he said.

Strict parameters helped guide a yearlong process that developed from a focus group into the incarnation of the market, organizer Ami Van Antwerp said. The planning committee focused on convenient parking for customers and vendors as well as site location.

Many vendors applied, and many were cut from the committee’s list, due to a stringent set of criteria. Only Michigan grown food is allowed. Only a quarter of any vendor’s goods may be farm direct — that is, not sold by the farmer who actually grew the products. And non-produce items, such as flats of flowers or homespun crafts, are required to be produced or created in Michigan, with as many Michigan-made components as possible.

The flow of visitors remained steady an hour after the market opened. Couples strolled, hand-in-hand. Parents steered strollers in and out of foot traffic. Shoppers filled their East Lansing Farmer’s Market cloth tote bags (made in America) with fruits and vegetables for picnics, snacks and meals.

“There’s a lot of nice produce here,” Loomis said. “I’ve got my eye on some cherries and blueberries.”