There is no "off season" for farmers. That's the verdict from garlic grower and farm market advocate Jesse Davis. Jesse and his husband Warren planted over 30,000 garlic cloves last fall at their farm, Trout Lake Garlic. That's less than the 50,000 they had planned, but with last fall's rain and humidity some of the seed they were hoping to grow rotted. This winter there was record warm weather in January, and more freeze-thaw cycles are predicted. Jesse explained that garlic put down their roots in the fall but shouldn't sprout too soon in the spring or they could be hurt by a late cold spell. It's too soon to tell if last year's planting has been affected by weather. Nevertheless, Jesse is planning to be part of the Grand Rapids Farmers Market again this year.
The Grand Rapids Farmers Market is in its 31st year. It has 32 vendors. Some show up early in the season with starts and flower baskets and maple syrup. Some, like Jesse and Warren, set up shop later when the harvest begins. The market is holding a meeting for aspiring vendors on Monday, March 6th at 6 p.m. at Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids.
There are many different products and business models at the market. Some vendors are garden growers; some make pickled fish, grow mushrooms. or make soaps. The market includes meat, eggs, honey, wild rice, and maple syrup. Some people are in it as a business, and others as a hobby.
All market vendors pay a member fee. The fee prevents the casual gardener with a bumper crop from coming to the market and undercutting prices of a regular members who have made a long-term commitment. It also allows the market to advertise, do printing, support the Snap/EBT program, and operate the credit card machine.
Jesse Davis remembers 2016 as a year with a long growing season. The Grand Rapids Farmers Market had a good year with its food assistance program, and was able to match food assistance funds 2:1. As Jesse said, "Food access is embedded in farmers' market DNA."
Jesse and Warren have plans for Trout Lake Garlic this summer. They're evaluating whether to buy a modified potato digger for their garlic harvest. It's a big investment but Jesse says "Hand harvesting 30,000 heads of garlic is not much fun." They are looking at planting some Zone 2-hardy dwarf sweet cherries, and Jesse always has an eye out for something special. "It's nice to have something at your market stand where people say, 'What's that?'" Last year it was foot-long Daikon radishes (used at Trout Lake for making kimchi) and Cabbage Patch-style savoy cabbages.