Saturday, March 27, 2010

City Bans Informal Winter Market

Customers of an “informal Bank Street winter farmers market” will have to look elsewhere for the five vendors who have been selling grass-fed meat and organic produce on Saturday mornings.

Mark Polega, parks manager of the Kalamazoo Department of Parks, who happened to drive by the market on Saturday, noticed some market activity that he said wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I was just driving by and was surprised to see them here when the market is closed,” he said.

He said no one in the city had talked to him about the Saturday market and he was unaware that farm vendors have been doing business there over the past five years.

He told the farmers they could not return next week.

The Bank Street Farmers Market operates May through November.

One of the farmers who has a stall during the summer market, Sandy McNees of Bear-Foot Farm, sells organic eggs and produce. She said that she and her husband, Kim, asked permission from the city last year, got the go-ahead, and assumed that it would be all right again this year.

“This is our only source of income for the winter,” said McNees who sells pork and produce out of the back of their truck.

She said they got the idea to use Bank Street as a meeting point for customers who made regular orders rather than have them go out to their Paw Paw farm. Other people passing by the market noticed activity and indicated their desire for Bear-Foot’s products so the couple stocked extras for them.

Bonnie Bartholomew of Bar-Land Farm in Scotts has been selling grass-fed meat and eggs at Bank Street during the winter for the past five years and no one from the city has approached her before. Like the McNees, she was there for the convenience of her customers.

“I think he should have went to the city, have a meeting and then told us what to do,” said Bartholomew who mentioned that Polega was talking with vendors and their customers for about 45 minutes.

“People are willing to shop [for these products] in 24-degree weather,” said McNees, whose husband set up a ramp so their customers could walk into their truck, which they heat.

“People want our products,” said McNees. “We provide a service [by being here] so that our customers don’t have to run around to find us.”

“We want to make this place better,” said Polega, who said he shops at farmers markets as well as local grocery stores.

“My concern is if this just happens like this, can anyone set up? We need some structure to it. When you run a public facility, you have to be fair,” he said.

The farmers were not as miffed as they were perplexed by Polega’s objection, especially since the entire facility was vacant and they only occupy a small section of the north parking lot. They plan to locate their trucks on the public street across from the Bank Street Market next week.

Customers, however, were livid at the news.

One unidentified woman spoke about the difficulty of finding local, organic products, which she depends on for her health.

Another woman said she depends on the farmers’ products so much, she offered to let the farmers use her driveway to sell their wares.

“You gotta support the local farmers,” said Beth Albee, another customer. “We’ve all got to struggle to save our farms. The local farmer is precious.”

Mayor Bobby Hopewell and Frances Jewell, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, were unavailable for comment at the time of this writing.

The popularity of farmers markets has led many Kalamazoo residents to demand a year-round market so a few venues have become available during the winter months but they are scattered.

Bronson Hospital has been holding a winter market near its food court, on the lower level of the hospital on alternate Fridays, December 11 through April 30 from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. It features meats without antibiotics, vegetables grown without insecticides, and pastries made with Michigan products. Officials said they are trying to help local growers who had few warm places to go to sell their wares.

Vandersalms Flower Shop downtown has been hosting Otto’s Chickens for the past couple years every other Saturday. April 3 will be the next market day.

Kalamazoo County Expo Center & Fairground started an indoor farmers market in October, which is open on Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. through April 28 and on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Oct. 31, Dec. 19, March 13 and April 3.)

Some cities see farmers markets and local food as an economic development tool. Grand Rapids announced last week that it plans to build a year-round market building that will house fresh food from local agriculture as well as small artisan food and craft businesses starting in 2012. The project, costing $27 million, is expected to generate 1,200 jobs and $775 million over 10 years, according to Grand Action, the city’s economic development organization.

A similar concept operates in Milwaukee and cost about $11 million to build.

Chris Dilly, general manager of the People’s Food Co-Op, said that he’s heard rumblings about a year-round market in Kalamazoo but he is not a part of any conversation for this prospect. His sales of local and organic produce and meat have been increasing, however. The Co-Op has a presence at the Bank Street Farmers Market during the summer months.

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