July 21 2010 12:00 AM

But owner Kevin Nichols insists quality produce is worth the extra effort



Sometimes you don’t know what you got until it’s stuck under your fingernails.

As the summer growing season progresses, Bella Harvest at the City Market accumulates more and more organic produce, and this year owner Kevin Nichols has a little insight into what it takes to bring vegetables to market.

“This is the first year I’ve planted some of my own produce,” Nichols says. “I have a lot more respect for farmers.” In addition to the extra greens on his shelves, Nichols says getting his hands dirty on the farm has been fruitful in other ways.

“Growing has been cool,” he says. “I can relate to my customers better.”

Kale and sugar snap peas are crops he’s grown himself: “I can tell them I planted it, I weeded it.”

Nichols likes to maintain a stock of organic goods, but local is important, too. He works with three local farmers to stock his space at the market.

On any given day, Bella Harvest offers 20 to 25 varieties of produce. In the winter, very little is organic, and that disappoints customers. As the growing season matures, though, organic options proliferate until they peak in late July and early August, when nearly 100 percent of his produce is organic. Nichols says he maintains that level through October.

But maintaining quality sometimes means making difficult decisions.

“I had to throw away 25 pounds of cherries the other day because of mold,” he says. “Other people might pick through them, looking for good ones, but I won’t take the risk of having bad produce on the shelf. You almost want to cry in the morning when you have to throw something away.”

Sweet cherries ($3.50 a bag) are a refreshing and popular item now that the city feels like it’s been wrapped in a thermal blanket. Nichols’ wife, Karen — co-owner of Bella Harvest, defacto head of merchandising, and glass artist in her spare time — brings creativity to the enterprise. Kevin says she makes the most out of the little space they have and comes up with ideas like cherries in a cup ($2), a hit with customers looking for natural fast food.

“I have to give her a lot of credit,” Nichols says. “She really pushes me to see things I might not otherwise notice.”

Snack on a raw sugar snap pea ($4.50 lb.) and taste summer. Large, swollen pods — still attached to the stem — crunch with each bite, exposing a moist, refreshing interior crammed with little round peas. The snap peas have been an enormous hit when Nichols sets up a temporary stall for the Thursday evening Blues on the Grand series (“Karen’s idea, not mine,” he says) at Shiawassee Street and Grand Avenue.

“I sold out of everything the first time I set up for it,” Nichols says.

Kohlrabi, a vegetable your grandparents may remember may remember better than you, sells for 75 cents each. The dense, fist-sized vegetables have a cabbage-like flavor and can be used in stir-frys, slaws or just eaten raw.

Organic basil goes for $2 a bunch, organic rainbow Swiss chard for $4 a bunch, and cage-free, local, organic eggs sell for $4 a dozen.

“I can see why more is charged for organic,” Nichols says, referring to his first-hand experience in the fields. “We don’t spray, so we go out and pull weeds every day. We just lost a whole row of kale because of bugs.”

Soon, Nichols will be stocking fruit preserves that nail the trifecta of conscious eating: They’re local, organic and fair trade. He has stocked local, organic meat in the past and hopes to carry it again soon. Organic fair trade coffee and bulk herbs and spices are in future plans as well.

Organic and local produce has not always been important to Nichols, who previously owned and operated a flooring store. In the two years he’s been at City Market, he’s come to see first-hand how important quality local food is for the community. And with his own sweat in the fields, Nichols understands the precious link between soil and life.

“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors,” notes a sign above the fruits and vegetables at Bella Harvest, “we borrow it from our children.”

Bella Harvest

11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday Lansing City Market 325 City Market Drive, Lansing (517) 303-1333