Food Tour of Southwest Michigan - Part I

After a whirlwind visit to the beautiful fruit-growing southwest corner of this Great Lake State, I predict that we will soon be seeing this headline in the news: "Michigan is for Foodies."  We stayed in an old Grand Haven boarding house, but also drove out to the countryside in Fennville about 45 minutes away. The highways and byways outside the cities on the lake are gorgeous here - tree-lined roads with orchards, vineyards, blueberry plantations, and pumpkin patches everywhere. My brief Saturday tour included 2 farmers' markets, an organic apple U-pick and goat farm, a vineyard, a pie place and the finale, finally - Fennville's Journeyman Cafe.  All I can say is - watch out California. 

Grand Haven Farmers' Market

Except for purply Stanley plums, most of the stone fruits of summer are gone (I did get a last basket of nectarines!), but apples and grapes are coming on strong. It seems like almost everyone at the Grand Haven Farmers' Market is selling the popular red and yellow HoneyCrisp apples.  And plenty of Concord grapes too. 

It was busy and crowded under the tarp-roofed Grand Haven market structure at the Chinook Pier's overlook on the Grand River's outlet into Lake Michigan.  Seems like a beautiful day brings out lots of young families with little kids. And why not? Miles of sidewalk along the lakeshore and river lead joggers, cyclists, and walkers right past the market. I saw one man ferrying his elderly wife in a bike trailer with her market basket. 

As I was taking a photo of some canning tomatoes, a nice lady came up to me and advised that I pass by those "Mountain Spring" tomatoes (too watery) and head over to her favorite vendor who was offering the "Celebrity" variety together with a handsome basket.  

There was lots of pretty produce and fruit at the Grand Haven market - really beautiful stuff, even if none was organic. A couple of young fiddlers played Celtic tunes for the crowd with a massive antique steam engine backdrop and the Municipal Power plant across the river. And it seemed for a moment like maybe not everyone does all their shopping at Wal-Mart. 

Sweetwater Local Food Market - in Muskegon

Just 10 miles or so up the road from Grand Haven is the Sweetwater Local Foods Market outside of Muskegon. It's Michigan's first "local, organic and humane" farmers' market.  Held in the parking lot of the Hackley Health Center, everything at the market seems to come from about a 25 mile radius.  Supported in part by the health center (yes, food and health are related!), this is a market with a mission to improve the lives of both farmers and eaters. 

"The Sweetwater Market is an affirmation that consumers and farmers together can do something to promote a healthy, sustainable economy in West Michigan. The key is to rediscover the resources that come from our sense of community, of our believing in each other and working together.  Food is a place to begin the reinvention of our economy and community." 

Even though it's held in a place that could have been more appealing (though parking sure was easy), it seemed like the 20 or so vendors who were there all knew each other; friends who loved this weekly gathering.  And the produce was gorgeous, but there was also honey, maple syrup, meat, bread, cheese, some fantastic granola breakfast cookies (from Earthly Kneads), and even homemade soap and pretty jewelry.  One of the farmers I talked to (Jim Olson) said he grinds his wheat into flour when they go inside the health center for the winter months. Grinding one pound takes him about 15 minutes with his hand grinder.  I would love to shop at a market where I knew every local farm and business was operating using organic principles and treating animals humanely. 

Their Pledge:

"The Sweetwater Local Foods Market pledges that the animal and vegetable products sold in this market were grown and raised locally – within the State of Michigan –  in a manner that: builds a living soil that enhances biological diversity as the critical component for growing healthy food; promotes animal welfare by respecting animal nature and recognizing the role that animals play in the soil-food-web; and fosters human and environmental health as a result."

Ann Arbor thinks it's the most progressive place in the state, but in terms of food it's pretty far behind some of our other communities.  How does it come about that the local, organic and humane Sweetwater market is in economically depressed Muskegon?  And that this year, according to my friend Ruth, the former furniture capital of the world, Grand Rapids,  celebrated its 6th local food festival?  That Kalamazoo has a city-wide month-long Eat Local Kalamazoo challenge? And that Detroit's amazing network of community gardens and urban farms is gaining nationwide acclaim? I'm guessing that it takes a group of people who care enough to make something good happen. If Ann Arbor is not quite on the map yet, I think it's getting there. 

The Sweetwater Market's website includes this quote by Wendell Berry:

"We now have a clear, inescapable choice that we must make. We can continue to promote a global economic system of unlimited free trade by corporations, held together by long and highly vulnerable lines of communication and supply, but now recognizing that such a system will have to be protected by a hugely expensive police force that will be world wide – and that such a police force will be effective precisely to the extent it over sways the freedom and privacy of citizens of every nation. 

Or we can promote a decentralized world economy which would have the aim of assuring to every nation and every region, a local self-sufficiency in life supporting goods.” 

– Wendell Berry (from “A Writer Responds to Crisis” in ORION Magazine)

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