Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Let’s Bring On an Expanded Farmers Market Complex--Downtown





It is exciting to see talk about expanding the Bank Street Farmers Market, as reported in the January 18 and 22 editions of the Kalamazoo Gazette.  We surely do need it! 

With all the interest in local and organic food in Kalamazoo, I’m certain the city could raise the money for these changes, which is estimated to be between $1.4 and $1.5 million.  In fact, with a more comprehensive plan for the market and a focus on agriculture and food-related businesses, I’ll bet much more money could be raised. 

Therefore, I would like to advocate for a market complex modeled after the Santa Fe Farmers Market, considered one of the most distinguished and successful markets in the country. 

The Santa Fe Farmers Market began in the late 1960's with only a few farmers selling off the backs of their trucks. Today, over 170 vendors participate to meet the city's demand for fresh, local produce.  The market moved from various locations until it came to the Railyard in 1986 and to its present location in the renovated and restored Railyard complex in 1999.  In 2002 it began operating year-round as farmers learned and used extended-season growing techniques.  (Note that Santa Fe is located in a desert climate with temperatures ranging between 18 and 86 degrees F.)

Festive white tents shade the outdoor vendors who have just about everything imaginable to sell.  The range of what grows is truly remarkable and market rules require that it’s all locally grown.  Farmers produce many fruit and vegetable crops like beautiful purple Vidalia onions, tomatoes, greens, beans, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, sunflowers and apples and a lot of it is organic.  Also on sale were a variety of ornamental flowers, chile pepper bouquets, herbs and herb products and a bread stand offered delicious combinations of foccacio such as olive, rhubarb-apple, chocolate nut, apricot peach.  There was even a vendor who sold composting worms. 

The market also has a good-sized permanent pavilion that features a deli counter that had a variety of baked goods (including gluten free), omelets, burritos and sandwiches.  A bean vendor offered a mix of peas, mung beans, lentils and garbanzo beans, which I found to make delicious salad.  Then there was the pasta lady who makes her own whole-grain pasta and tops it off with a homemade curry.  Certified organic meat (lamb, beef and yak) was available as well as churro yarn and homemade soaps. 

Besides the farmers market the Railyard hosts a bevy of restaurants, specialty shops, biking and walking trails, artist studios, space for warehouses and light industrial firms, furniture showrooms, offices, and other locally-owned businesses.  People also have a variety of entertainment venues from which to choose including live performances, exhibitions, films, music, community dances, walkathons and flower shows.

As I wandered around the market pavilion I noticed six different publications on the subjects of healthy food and sustainable living available for distribution.  The Santa Fe Permaculture Institute, founded in 1996 as the sister organization to the Permaculture Institute of Australia, promotes sustainable living skills through education, networking and demonstration projects in New Mexico/Southwestern region. 

So a market complex in downtown Kalamazoo is not a dream out of reach because the historic, economic and social elements between our city and Santa Fe are remarkably comparable.

Santa Fe has a population of 67,947 with 145,000 in the county, according to the 2010 census while Kalamazoo has a population is 74,262 and 326,589 in the metro area.

Like Kalamazoo, which benefited from its location halfway between Detroit and Chicago, Santa Fe has a history as a center for trade and commerce since the Pueblo people lived there almost a thousand years ago.  It continued with the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s and then became a center of rail commerce in 1880.  New neighborhoods developed around the train station and the depot became a center of activity where people met and politicians and celebrities held public forums until the 1960s and 70s when cars, freeways and suburbanization shifted the population away from the downtown.  The Railyard became an area of blight that was resurrected in the late 1980s.

Kalamazoo has a fine tradition of art, music, dance, theatre and crafts and so does Santa Fe.  Native American and Mexican artisans have marketed their pottery, textiles, jewelry and baskets.  New building materials were created such as galvanized tin, metal roofs and Victorian bricks were added to the city's unique adobe style of architecture, which became a part of a building code in 1957 and is still in effect today.

Like Kalamazooans, many people in Santa Fe are health conscious and the area specializes in alternative medicine, which also complements organic meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy, poultry and herbs that farmers in this area could produce at a profit. 

Kalamazoo is still an agricultural center in a state that produces over 150 different crops, the second most diverse agriculture next to California.  We also have greenhouses, many of which are already producing vegetables and herbs, and a bevy of wonderful restaurants with ace chefs.  In other words, the expansion of food-related products and services are yet another economic opportunity waiting to be tapped.

The essence of Santa Fe’s master plan was to make the Railyard the hub of city life it once was, to preserve its historic buildings and to emphasize the Railyard's importance as a center of transportation, economics, and culture and to enhance the integrity of the adjacent neighborhoods.  Kalamazoo is already well-positioned to do this, too, and a downtown farmers market complex would create innumerable opportunities for economic, social and cultural development.

The best location for the Kalamazoo farmers market would be on the old Gilmore car dealership on W. Kalamazoo Ave. near Westnedge.  It would bring more traffic downtown, open opportunities for more housing, celebrate our agricultural history and provide another cultural amenity to complement the many good things already going on downtown.