June 15 2011 12:00 AM

Lansing’s farmers markets are about more than just food — they connect communities as well


Bunches of fresh-picked Michigan asparagus banded together
into little battalions stand at attention on a vendor’s table, sent
straight from the farm with marching orders to be cooked by the end of
the day. Next to them are carrots so fat they’re fit for a horse. The
scent of dill pulls noses toward baskets of herbs wrapped neatly into
green beds underneath a neighboring tent. 

Farmers markets are a tradition as wide as the world, as
old as history and more prevalent than you might think in the Lansing
area. Not that that should come as much of a surprise: Michigan boasts
approximately 10 million acres of farmland — roughly the size of
Switzerland — and we sit squarely in the middle of it.

The Allen Street Farmers Market, on Lansing’s east end,
opened for the season a month ago. The market, in its eighth year, began
modestly with five vendors that first season; now close to two dozen
farmers and gardeners with locally grown produce pack into a parking lot
bazaar every Wednesday throughout the growing season.

Market manager Hollie Hammel says the primary charge of
the Allen Street market is to bring fresh, local food to area residents,
to "level the playing field for access." The effort also promotes
sustainability; priority is given to vendors who produce their own food,
and only Michigan grown produce is acceptable.

"We have built a program that connects those dots," Hammel says.

The Allen Street market hums rain or shine with shoppers
seeking produce, vendors restocking tables and laughing children darting
here and there, creating their own fun with sidewalk chalk or a game of

"It’s like putting up a little street theater every week," Hammel says.  It
doesn’t happen, though, without the dedication of a corps of
volunteers. Hammel says the market averages 14 to 20 volunteers a week,
assisting in setup, operations and teardown.  

Joe Dziubam, 50, lives a couple of blocks from the market’s location at East Kalamazoo and Shepard streets.  He’s a volunteer who logs five to six hours every Wednesday, and says he’s closer to his neighbors because of it. 

"It seems like everyone in a two-block area knows my name," Dziubam says.    

The Lansing area now supports over a dozen seasonal
markets, but the landscape looked much different just a few years ago,
Hammel says.

"In 2004, when we started, I think it was only the city market and Meridian Farmers Market that were around," she says. 

Things have changed. 

On Thursdays, in the center of Michigan State University’s
campus, a small white canopy sprouts up on the lawn in front of the
Auditorium Building to shelter produce from MSU’s Student Organic Farm.
The non-degree program produces a bounty of over 80 certified organic
crops cultivated by students.  

Farm stand manager Kate Rotblat-Whitacre says some shoppers associate farmers markets with pricey produce.  Perception, though, does not always match reality.

"If you shop around farmers markets, you’ll find even better deals than supermarkets," she says.

The organic herbs you’ll find at the MSU farm stand are
not only fresher than what you’ll typically see at a supermarket,
they’re much less expensive, too. The students, who also join the
once-a-month Old Town Farmers Market, display wicker baskets filled with
bunches of organic herbs that max out at $1.50. At the grocery store,
expect to pay at least $2 for less than an ounce of organic herbs that
hang in the produce cooler, sealed in plastic rectangular boxes like
little green corpses. 

The Old Town market convenes once a month on Sundays.  The
Fresh Lake Whitefish Co., based in Sault Ste. Marie, loads up a
half-dozen species of Great Lakes fish and travels to Old Town and other
market venues around town. Owner  Mark
Ebener, a fish biologist for 30 years who can tell you everything you
ever wanted to know about fresh water marine life, recognizes farmers
markets as a shared human experience.

"What’s more traditional than selling fresh fish in an
open-air market?" he says. "They do it in Turkey, in Israel, all over
the world — this is keeping with a long tradition."

Ben Tirrell is the kind of vendor market managers love. A
third-generation farmer from Charlotte who’s become a regular at the Old
Town market, Tirrell sees farmers markets as an opportunity to connect.

"There’s an increasing gap of understanding between people
producing food and consumers," he says. Markets have allowed Tirrell to
bring visibility to his livestock farm and Charlotte storefront.  Tirrell’s
family farm has diversified in recent years from raising just cattle
and lamb for meat to producing cow, sheep and goat milk cheeses, an
economic decision necessitated by the squeeze of industrial scale

The Old Town market is about a quarter the size of the  Meridian
Township Farmers Market. By opening time at 9 a.m. every Sunday, car
doors slam intermittently and a stream of eager shoppers makes its way
from a parking lot into a maze of tents and stalls behind township
office buildings. It’s the area’s largest seasonal market and perhaps
the most diverse.  

Locally farmed shrimp, award-winning pies, kettle corn,
produce, handmade soaps, lamb pelts, maple syrup, organic ice cream and
even eggrolls are to be discovered underneath and beyond a pavilion
stationed near the township municipal complex.

Michigan native Tiffany Threadgould now lives in New York City.  When
she’s back in town, she helps her mother sell produce and flowers at
the Meridian market, grown from land the family owns in Mason.

Even in one of the world’s densest urban settings,
Threadgould is able to buy three-quarters of what she eats from farmers

"It’s about getting to know where your vegetables come from," Threadgould says.  "We’ve become so far removed from nature."   

Farmers markets are about getting in touch with nature,
and, like the South Lansing Community Farmers Market, most emphasize
community, too.

Like the Allen Street market, Rita O’Brien says the South
Lansing market works to connect residents to healthy food. O’Brien, in
her first year as market manager after a stint in AmeriCorps the year
before, says attracting families — especially in underserved communities
like her own — is important.

"We go for the picnic feel," she says, motioning to the
swath of green grass that serves as a backdrop to the market at Benjamin
Davis park.

To promote healthy eating, the South Lansing market
provides nutrition information and, along with four other markets (Bath,
East Lansing, Allen Street and the City Market), participates in Double
Up Food Bucks, a project of the Fair Food Network. Shoppers with Bridge
Cards may receive up to $20 in matching tokens per day for purchasing
Michigan-made produce through the program. 

Daedre Craig, 25, sells produce, flowers and seedlings at
the market, cultivated in her own backyard garden in south Lansing.
She’s a horticultural graduate student at MSU and insists growing her
own food isn’t that difficult.

"This is what I do instead of watch TV," Craig says.

Farming and food production might not make for riveting
prime-time television, but unlike much of what we’re surrounded with,
it’s absolutely essential.

"We are partners with these farmers," says Allen Street’s
Hollie Hammel. She speaks for her market, but she might as well be
speaking for us all. "We couldn’t do it without them."