By Luke Theaker, Executive Chef
Originally published in June 2021
Updated in March 2023
“In honor and celebration of Michigan’s farmers, the diversity of products grown and processed in our state and the partnerships that keep our food and agriculture industry thriving, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has proclaimed March as Michigan Food and Agriculture Month.
Michigan has a proud heritage of making things and providing for its communities, and that sustenance comes from the state’s robust agriculture industry. Farms and food-processing companies throughout the state generate and grow essential products, creating tens of thousands of jobs. Production agriculture, food processing and related businesses comprise a large portion of the state’s workforce, employing 805,000 people or 17.2% of our population, and contributing $104.7 billion to our state’s economy each year. Michigan also offers access to a vast and efficient supply chain and logistics system, providing a cost-effective distribution throughout the Midwest, country and across the globe.” – Stefanie Pohl, in Michigan: The Hands that Feed You
Like those around me at Beacon Hill, the quality of food that we serve to those in the community is one of my top priorities. We are blessed to live in such a bountiful state that provides a plethora of fruits and vegetables, along with sustainably-raised animals to satisfy our diverse palates. Farmers’ markets are important to our community to teach generations to appreciate the value of natural and productive food systems, and this appreciation was instilled in me from a very young age.
A Family Tradition
One of my earliest memories involves going with my mom to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. We went from vendor to vendor, picking up some delicious vegetables and various homemade treats. I begged my mom every week to buy me some Hungarian poppyseed bread from one of the booths; I would be rewarded with that treat if I behaved and did not run away, as I was quite the troublemaker. Initially I only loved the sweet treats that I would beg for, but I eventually began to snack on the delicious vegetables and fruits that my mom would get for the family for the week. This tradition started a love and appreciation for farm-fresh produce that I still have to this day.
Fast forward thirty years. I am trying to instill the same love of the earth’s bounties to my kids that my mother did for me. I remember working at a farm-to-table restaurant when my kids were younger. Every Saturday I would visit the farmers’ market and proceeded to pile crates upon crates of produce on top of the stroller in which my young children rode. It would always cause quite a scene and inevitably the crates would reach taller than I was. This was time I cherished. It was special to teach my kids the joy of fresh produce and commodities that has been responsibly grown and cared for. I feel it is important for them to know that vegetables come from the soil and are harvested. They are not just bought from a neatly displayed case at a local grocery store.
The Value of Seasonal Bounty
The farmers’ market teaches us seasonality. It is rare that you will find vegetables or produce outside of the “season” when they grow. You will not find any stalks of asparagus displayed at any of the booths in late August. Nor will you be able to buy beautiful peaches in May. Everything that you buy from the market is grown in its season. This means that the vegetable or produce that you buy is at peak flavor and in its most natural state. It has not been forced up; it has been nurtured to maturity. Vegetables and fruits ripen more completely when they are in season.
Corn when in season, has a completely different flavor and texture complexion than corn that you buy in the freezer section. You can eat it raw, right off the cob and each kernel bursts with intense flavor that screams of the summer heat. Melon, which has a season in late summer, is not hard, but soft, all the while holding tightly to every drop of sweet juice waiting to be devoured. Melon acts as if it were to have one more drop of juice it would explode. However, if you were to buy a melon in the wintertime, it would be unpleasantly hard, flavorless, and parched. If we are to derive pleasure from our dining experience, valuing seasonality matters.
A Farmer’s Passion
I shop the market for the residents of Beacon Hill every week. I stop by Case Visser at Visser Farms and select from their bounties. They have beautiful greens, flowers, and vegetables to choose from. Just down the aisle is Pierre from S&S Lamb. He responsibly raises lamb, chickens, and cows. His lamb continues to this day to be the most decadent lamb I have ever tasted. Mary from Country Winds Creamery has names for all her over 100 goats that supply her milk for delicious cheeses. Vendor to vendor, booth to booth, everyone has a story that should be explored and invested in.
Farms are businesses. Some try to be a one stop shop for all your produce needs while others specialize in items that they are passionate about. When I stroll through the market, I will often spread my time and money to a variety of farms based on what they are passionate about. Crisp Country Acres Farm has an expansive farm that strives to use their expertise to grow a multitude of produce throughout the growing season. Bob Alt farms has amazing fruits, rarely do we see massive amount of vegetables spring up out of their farms, but I will always be first in line to enjoy their strawberries, raspberries, and peaches. There is a farmer that has a small stand that sells English peas in season that have been shucked from their pods, pints at a time. It is a painstaking process that demands a lot of time and care. I will be first in line to buy these delicious treats from someone who cares that much for them. Prioritizing our purchasing directly from the farmers allows us to tap into their years, and in many times generations, of experience and passion for dynamic and sustainable food systems. Knowing their care and passion for their products motivates me to be as passionate about showcasing their harvest every night with the residents of Beacon Hill with as much care and intentionality.
A recent and wonderful trend that has changed the landscape of the farmers market is that of the craftsman wholesaler. Many people who have wonderful and creative trades have found a way to sell their products directly at the market. From jams, salsas, and flavored popcorn to jewelry and pottery, there is unique treasure to be found at every booth. Patrons are now able to use the farmers market as a one-stop-shop for local artisan goods.
Farmers’ markets are a crucial part of our enjoyment of culinary delights. We need farmers’ markets to remind us what food is supposed to look, feel, and taste like when it is not coated in wax or spray, and arranged under fluorescent lighting at a grocery store. We need to let the experts tell us when a vegetable is at its best. Most of all, the market keeps us mindful of the fact that fruits, vegetables, and grains come from the soil. They are sowed and reaped by people deeply passionate about their trade. I am lucky to have my trade directly influenced by their art.
“Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.” -Daniel Webster