is a huge farming operation in Zeeland
offering year-round produce. “We’re
trying to break people away from the
idea that they can only buy local produce
in the summer,” said Case Visser,
who works on the family farm with his
dad, uncles and cousins. “We grow
produce in our greenhouse all winter,
so we have lettuce and tomatoes all year.
We also harvest carrots, potatoes and
beets in October and November, so we
have a nice supply.” In addition
to selling at 20 farmers markets in West
Michigan, Visser Farms sells to restaurants
and offers CSA shares.
More than 200 vendors
food and homemade crafts to the Fulton Street
Farmers Market, attracting customers who
increasingly interested in buying local.
Visser Farms “was
country when country wasn’t cool.”
At least that’s
how 23-year-old Case Visser likes to refer
to the 225-acre Zeeland farm that has been
a family operation for several generations.
worked on the farm when he was a kid,” said
Visser, who shares farming duties with his
father, uncle, brothers and cousins.
And now that
country is cool as the demand for locally
grown products is booming, the Vissers stay
busy, selling to 20 area markets, offering
CSA shares, supplying area restaurants — even
welcoming the public to pick strawberries.
A few miles away, Groundswell
Community Farm also is taking advantage of the “buy
local” movement. Katie Brandt started the
farm six years ago and grows 150 varieties of
30 different crops on four acres of land in Zeeland.
Unlike Visser, Brandt, 33, didn’t
grow up on a farm and hadn’t planned on
becoming a farmer. “I always thought I’d
go into something academic,” she said.
But her interest in organic farming
grew when she worked at Trillium Haven Farm in
Jenison while attending college. “Later
I realized it was what I wanted to do as a profession.”
Both Visser Farms and Groundswell
sell their produce at the Fulton Street Farmers
Market, along with more than 200 other vendors
who offer everything from homemade fudge to heirloom
tomatoes during the May to December season.
worked at other organic farms in West Michigan
before starting seven-acre Groundswell Farm
with Anna Hoekstra in 2006. When Hoekstra left
to travel, Tom Cary, one of the founders of
the West Michigan Cooperative, joined the farm. “I
think our diversity is what draws people to
our stall at the farmers market,” she
said. “We have about 40 varieties of
tomatoes. We also have about 10 different salad
mix ingredients and set them out in baskets.
Plus, we have interesting stuff, like weird
white salad turnips.” Brandt, who is
pursuing a master’s degree in biology,
has no plans to be a year-round farmer. “One
of the things I love about farming is that
we’re busy all summer and have down time
in the winter.”
into its 89th year, the Grand Rapids farmers
market, operated by the Midtown Neighborhood
Association, is flourishing, said Melissa Harrington,
the market’s manager since 2007.
“During the recession, there
was a growing awareness that the more money you
keep locally, the better it is for the community,” she
said. Recent food safety recalls also inspired
folks to buy from farmers, she said. “People
want to know how and where their food is grown.”
To accommodate the demand, the
market is planning a major expansion
project — including an indoor vendor area
to allow selling year-round — with a grand
opening in 2012. “The public phase of the
fundraising campaign will launch in June,” Harrington
said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
But right now, she’s concentrating
on keeping things rolling smoothly during the
2011 season. Starting May 7, the market will
be open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays
and Saturdays. During the first few weeks, perennial
plants, asparagus and rhubarb are the first offerings;
a plethora of crops start arriving late May to
early June. “Including strawberries, if
we’re lucky,” Harrington said.
Some of the larger farms — like
Visser — will set up shop the entire time,
while vendors selling one specialized crop, such
as cherries or gladiola bouquets, may only need
a space for a short period.
By the rules, farmers get first
dibs and vendors must grow the majority of what
right, discovered agriculture while
studying at Western Michigan University. “And
what I learned made me want to grow
my own food.” Sixteen years later,
she did just that. Johnson founded
Crane Dance Farm in 1996 with a goal
of running a sustainable farm that
emphasized the humane treatment of
animals. Co-owned by retired teacher
Mary Wills, the farm provides chemical-free
pork, beef, lamb, poultry and eggs.
Crane Dance Farm is the first Michigan
farm certified “Animal Welfare
Approved” for pigs and chicken
eggs by the World Society for the Protection
“I think a lot of people
are surprised to discover that the farmers market
isn’t just produce,” Harrington said. “We
have a lot more, including five vendors who sell
locally grown meat.” Visitors can also
find coffee, breads, cheeses, maple syrup, honey,
cut flowers, kettle corn, cider and homemade
Farmers say they’re pleased
that consumers are seeking out local goods.
“The market just continues
to grow,” said Sharon Schierbeek of S&S
Lamb in McBain. She and her husband make the
trek to Grand Rapids Fridays and Saturdays to
sell lamb and eggs. “We see new faces every
week,” she said. “And more and more
people ask us about healthfully raised meats.”
Consumers also seem to be better
educated about produce, said Jeri Kiel of Blueberry
Heritage Farms in Grand Haven. “They really
seem concerned about how the food is handled,” she
By far the greatest demand at
Fulton Street is for organic products, said Harrington.
“The majority of our farms
aren’t certified organic,” she said. “Getting
the certification can be pretty expensive. But
we have several who farm organically without
chemicals or pesticides.”
More importantly, she said, “Shoppers
can talk directly to the farmer and ask how things
John Platte, a longtime farmer
who sells mostly apples and sweet corn, remembers
when the market was in a slump back in the 1980s.
“There was a lack of interest,” he
said. “Jeff Dykstra, a local farmer, took
over and ran the market for a dozen years and
saved it. Midtown has helped further his efforts.”
Jeff Lubbers have been farming sustainably
since 1995, soon after their youngest
daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Concerned about what was in the nation’s
food supply, the Lubbers decided to
raise their own, including beef, pork,
lamb, eggs and veggies. In recent years,
they’ve added bread — baked
the old-fashioned way by son, Casey,
pictured at left. “It’s
how bread was made before the 1940s,
without chemicals and high-speed mixers.” Cheese
is made on the farm at Cowslip Creamery.
In 2009, the Fulton Street Farmers
Market started participating in the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program, with help from
a grant from the Dyer-Ives Foundation. Electronic
benefit cards can be swiped at the office for
FSFM wooden tokens that can be redeemed for produce
and foods. Customers can also use credit cards
to buy the tokens, making it easier for those
who arrive without cash.
Anticipating the switch to a year-round
market, the market stayed open on Saturdays throughout
the winter months. Half a dozen vendors set up
every week, Harrington said.
“For us, the new market
will be very important,” said Visser, who
never missed a Saturday. “We have produce
we can grow in our green house so lettuce and
tomatoes are available all year. And after we
harvest in October and November, we can supply
things like carrots, potatoes, beets and more.
We want people to understand they can buy from
local farmers all year.”GR
For more info on the Fulton
Street Farmers Market, including a list of
all vendors, go to www.fultonstreetmarket.org.