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Visser Farms 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.

Homegrown goodness
More than 200 vendors bring homegrown
food and homemade crafts to the Fulton Street
Farmers Market, attracting customers who are
increasingly interested in buying local.

By Marty Primeau
Photography by Johnny Quirin

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.

“My grandfather 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.



Katie Brandt 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.”

Going 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 they sell.

Jill Johnson, 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 of Animals.

“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 dog biscuits.

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 said.

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 are grown.”

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.”

 

Karen and 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.

   
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