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Downtowns Harvest Farmers Markets’ Growing Success

Farm-fresh foods build commerce, culture, community

July 24, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Wendy Wieland

At the Downtown Petoskey Farmers Market, Julie Adams of Julienne’s Tomatoes buys produce grown by Dan Berg of Charlevoix.

Julie Adams has a new Friday morning ritual, now that Petoskey has launched a downtown farmers market that’s meant to help growers and local merchants alike.

The chef and co-owner of Julienne’s Tomatoes café walks out her door and across the street to the market as soon as it opens at 9 a.m. By noon, she’ll be serving eager customers scrumptious, fresh dishes based not on a preplanned menu but on what local farmers brought from their fields to the market that morning.

There might be salad with lettuce purchased from Bill’s Farm Market in Petoskey, green beans from the Berg farm in Charlevoix, cherries from the Royal Farm in Atwood, smoked chicken from the Fleming Feirm in Levering, and savory dishes with basil from Real Food Blackbird Garden in Petoskey.

And it’s not just the farmers who are making money. The Petoskey market brings customers to downtown businesses like Ms. Adams’ eatery, too. In fact, the spin-off business and social buzz that farmers markets bring to downtowns threatened by suburbanization and big box malls is spurring municipalities, chambers of commerce, and downtown groups to sponsor a growing number of farmers markets across the country. There’s a growing movement, too, among farmers market advocates to share ideas and lobby for public policy to strengthen both markets and the communities that host them.

Hot Markets
The number of farmers markets nationwide more than doubled between 1994 and 2004 — from 1,755 to 3,700. And while national figures aren’t available, in Michigan in 2004 nearly two-thirds of the state’s 120 farmers markets were sponsored by governmental groups, chambers of commerce, or downtown groups like city-created downtown development authorities.

Travel to any professional conference for municipal and downtown officials, such as the Michigan Downtown Association or the National Main Street Organization, and you’ll see seminars on farmers markets, said Becky Goodman, Petoskey’s downtown director for the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the market there.

“It is an extremely hot topic right now,” she said. “They’re trying to attract people to downtown. The hope is someone will say, ‘Oh my, I’ve never been in that shop before. Let’s have a cup of coffee here.’ It is an economic development tool.”

And for Julienne’s Tomatoes, it’s working.

“One of our regular customers even commented a couple days ago about the traffic that came in the door on Friday, compared to the next day here,” Ms. Adams said. "The customer’s comment: 'Man, you ought to have a farmers market every day.'”

Ms. Adams’ experience squares with a 2003 study by the nonprofit organization Project for Public Places. A full 60 percent of farmers market customers surveyed in eight very different markets across the country said they had visited or planned to visit other stores in the neighborhood the same day, and of that group 60 percent said they only visited those stores on market days.

Boosting Downtown Businesses
In Traverse City, which is south of Petoskey, crowds of farmers market customers rub shoulders and greet friends as they choose the ripest tomatoes and most succulent sweet corn. Rob Bacigalupi, the city’s downtown director, said the city’s market significantly increases downtown business. In a 2000 survey of customers at the Traverse City farmers market, 39 percent of the respondents said they typically shop downtown before or after visiting the farmers market; 24 percent said their visits to the market influence them to shop downtown on non-market days; and  a whopping 77 percent said they would not be downtown at all if it were not for the market.

For Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority, which organizes the twice-a-week market, those percentages are important because, “you could surmise that these are folks who wouldn’t be here in the first place,” Mr. Bacigalupi said.

In fact, the “number-one benefit” of the market is that it “reconnects” people to downtown, Mr. Bacigalupi said. Many local residents, in particular, have come to believe downtown is just a haven for gift and t-shirt shops, he said. Once lured downtown by the farmers market, they see new restaurants, car repair shops, and places to buy groceries, moderately priced clothing, tires, and travel services.

“It is a nice tie-in with local merchants,” he said.

Recipe for Success
It is a nice tie, but farmers market advocates across the country say this wave of popularity can fool too many communities into thinking that launching successful markets is as easy as choosing a time and place. 

Too many markets founder if they rely excessively on volunteers — who can burn out —or because they don’t have enough steady funding for costs such as site rentals, weather-protecting canopies, bathrooms, liability insurance, a paid and trained manager, highly visible signs, widespread publicity, and electronic devices to accept the cards that have replaced food stamps, said Chris Heitmann, project manager for Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit, community-building organization based in New York City.

“There are now 3,700 farmers markets across the country, and they are sort of exercises in passion,” Mr. Heitmann said. “There is no system that is holding them together.”

To thrive past that first flush of infatuation, Mr. Heitmann and other advocates say, communities and markets across regions, states, and the nation need to share ideas, plan for financial stability, and build political clout for policies that strengthen market vitality.

Project for Public Spaces, for example, recommends market organizers bring a wide variety of leaders to the table to discuss ways to promote and invest in a community’s market, including officials in chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, farm groups, neighborhood groups, transit agencies, arts organizations, and health care institutions.

Similar strategic planning should take place statewide, said Jim Bingen, professor of community, food, and agriculture at Michigan State University. State agriculture departments, for example, could document and track the economic impact and potential of farmers markets, he said, which could help more farmers decide whether to invest in direct marketing to consumers in addition to or instead of bulk commodity farming that currently pays farmers low prices. Agriculture and state tourism officials could coordinate efforts to promote farmers markets as vibrant parts of state economies. And they could explore regulatory issues, such as whether vintners should be allowed to sell bottles of wine at markets.

Currently, though, there is no unified voice calling on state officials to step up their efforts regarding farmers markets. This is so even with a recently released Iowa State University study about the economic boost farmers markets provide. The study charted $20.8 million in sales to farmers at 180 markets statewide, plus an additional $12.2 million in spin-off economic activity. Professor Bingen hopes to see a Michigan farmers market coalition in the future that can share good ideas and policy concerns.

It’s More Than Money
Farmers market advocates also urge communities to recognize that markets have the potential to be both economic powerhouses and important cultural gathering spots that knit a community together. In fact, another key finding of the Project for Public Spaces study was that consumers said that, although they go to farmers markets to buy food, the biggest benefit is that such markets “bring people together.” Most customers said that they shopped at farmers markets because of “place” and “people” rather than prices.

That’s a critical lesson for village-, city-, or county-sponsored farmers markets, said Mr. Bingen. Often, a local government will put a farmers market under the supervision of the parks and recreation department because it manages the land where the market will be held. But those departments don’t always think about programs that could help markets become places of community leisure activity, as well as commerce, Mr. Bingen said.

For example, many farmers markets are adding musical entertainment to draw people in, and the Zeeland Farmers Market in southwest Michigan even added a children’s story time to entertain kids while their parents shop. Other markets are hosting chef tastings to teach people how to use vegetables that might not be familiar, like rutabagas or Chinese cabbage. And others hold events like pig roasts or corn roasts that draw people with their festival-like atmosphere.

“Farmers markets are becoming a place for people to go and stay and meet with people,” Mr. Bingen said.

And that includes family-owned restaurant owners who are too busy with their own business to drive to individual farms to buy fresh products.

“There is a real sense of community,” Ms. Adams of Julienne Tomatoes said about the market. “You need to buy from your neighbors. But with produce, none of the farmers has a delivery system. With the farmers market, it gives me the chance to get in touch with people who I otherwise might not know are there.”

Diane Conners, a journalist and former farmers market master, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference campaign. Reach her at diane@mlui.org; visit www.LocalDifference.org for more information on the Institute’s local food campaign.

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