Traverse City News and Events

Farmers Markets Come Back To Life; Traverse City's Has Big Plans For The Future

By Craig Manning | June 12, 2021

The Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market won’t be making a move to the Open Space this year, despite discussion that a relocation might be imminent. While the market will remain in Parking Lot B for the foreseeable future, the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is still considering new locations and eyeing growth in other ways – from sustained success with online markets to the prospect of a year-round market.

According to DDA CEO Jean Derenzy, the farmers market “will be part of the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan,” which means any big changes likely won’t happen until the Unified Plan is officially finalized. In 2017, the DDA worked with designers to put together plans for a $3 million farmers market expansion project, including an open-air pavilion structure with covered spaces for vendors, a 10-foot covered aisleway for customers to shop from vendor to vendor, and additional pop-up tent space for other vendors. Derenzy says the DDA will likely start by reviewing those designs, meeting with vendors, and updating accordingly based on broader plans for the Lower Boardman.

“As the market is on the banks of the Boardman, it is important that [these plans] be incorporated into the overall design of the Lower Boardman instead of a piecemeal approach,” Derenzy explains. “This design would incorporate year-round market opportunities.”

Success for the online version of the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market over the past year may point to the feasibility of a year-round market in Traverse City, though the actual in-person version of the market has yet to rebound fully to its pre-COVID scope.

The online market debuted last May and ran through October 2020, before restarting again in January. For its first full year, from May 2020 to April 2021, Derenzy says the online market netted nearly $225,000 in sales, with 1,350 customers placing a total of 4,266 orders. Fifty-four vendors participated in the online market in that time, though Derenzy notes that only about 20 are currently selling products online, “with more expected as the growing season progresses.”

As for the live market, Derenzy says “approximately 65 vendors” sold goods in person during 2020’s market days, with 80 or so vendors projected for 2021. Those numbers are down significantly from the pre-pandemic days of 2019, when approximately 110 vendors passed through the downtown farmers market at some point during the season.

Derenzy thinks there could be a variety of reasons why numbers haven’t totally bounced back yet, noting that “some vendors are selling exclusively online, some are making the personal health choice to stay home, and some are waiting until they can offer samples again.” However, she expects that activity at the market will only increase throughout the summer as remaining restrictions and COVID-19 anxieties fade away and as more farmers come into their prime growing seasons.

“We are still expecting a full market come July, and are offering more walking room for customers,” Derenzy tells The Ticker. “The market is utilizing the entire parking lot, rather than the sidewalk along the river, as one big loop to provide more space for shopping and strolling.” She adds that vendors will once again be able to offer samples to customers beginning today (Saturday).

Other northern Michigan farmers markets are seeing their numbers creep back up, too. According to Laura Minervini O’Brien, the outdoor farmers market at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons has so far seen a much healthier season in 2021 than it did last year. That market, which runs 2-6pm every Monday from May to October, “had just three vendors” in 2020, due to pandemic factors. “This year, we currently have between 10 and 14 vendors at our Monday markets,” O’Brien says. “We’re getting requests to join the market, and we’ve added new vendors almost every week since we’ve started.”

Linda Szarkowski, market coordinator for the Leelanau Farmers Markets Association (LFMA), also expects a busier season. The association – which runs markets in Suttons Bay, Northport, Glen Arbor, Leland, and Empire – has more than 120 vendor slots across all markets, most of which are claimed for the 2021 season. Last year, the LFMA had fewer vendors, smaller crowd sizes, and all-around slower traffic. Szarkowski says she almost called off the Empire market entirely in 2020, as it struggled to hit five vendors; now, that market has eight vendors and is continuing to grow as the season moves forward.

As for customer numbers, those were down across the LFMA by 30 percent during 2020 – though Szarkowski notes that online and curbside pickup orders (both offered for the first time last year) weren’t tabulated in those totals. The LFMA still finished the 2020 season with total sales up 1.3 percent from the year before, which Szarkowski says helped offset the “huge expense” of setting up the online system and keeping it running.

Hannelore Frederick, market manager for the Interlochen Farmers Market, expects about 60 vendors for the upcoming season, “with about half being food vendors and half craft vendors.” The market’s diverse range of products – which includes seasonal produce, fabric arts, metal arts, bath and body products, baked goods, meat, cheese, eggs, jams and jellies, sauces, syrups, honey, plants, and seedlings – has helped keep traffic relatively stable throughout the pandemic, as has the market’s social-distance-ready setup.

“We know that our market is easily accessible,” Frederick says of the Interlochen Farmers Market, which sets up shop in the parking lot behind Blue Vase Bookstore on Sunday mornings. “It offers a huge parking lot and wide aisles within the market, so you won't feel like you're in a crowd.”

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