Article and photos by Noah Essenmacher

Although the Downtown Saginaw Farmers' Market has been open for several weeks already, July 5th marks 100 years of market history. The market is home to a variety of seasonal and daily vendors. Customers will find everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to seasonal plants and perennials. Starting in July, the Saturday markets will add to this variety by welcoming pottery, jewelry and art vendors. "I couldn't wait until they opened up again," says Sally LeClair, who makes the market her regular stop. "I don't even plant stuff anymore. I just come here once a week, sometimes twice. There is always a good atmosphere. It's a wonderful place to be."

From Memorial Day until the October 30th, organizers and vendors welcome customers at 507 S. Washington Avenue. The market is open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Starting on July 5th, the market will also be open for business on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Credit and debit cards as well as Bridge Card benefits are accepted.

The Farmers' Market is part of Saginaw history. "We have vendors who are third generation here," says executive director Shelley McGreathy. "Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were at the market a long, long time ago. It's a tradition."

Even so, McGreathy wants to maintain and grow that tradition by welcoming new vendors and engaging young market goers. "We're thankful for these people, but we're thankful for the new vendors," she says. "We've got a lot of really good new vendors and young vendors. That is important because we have to keep it going." One such first-time vendor is vegan baker Kerry Pastein. As the owner of Pastein's Pantry, she sells 100 percent vegan foods, including cinnamon rolls, cupcakes, fruit bars, and muffins. "I've been getting great customer response," she says. "A lot of vegans have been coming out, and even non-vegans are enjoying the selection."

Pastein joins regular market vendors, among them James Dewyse and Gregg Briggs. Dewyse, who started at the market in 1975, encourages customers to "come out and get some good, fresh produce." Briggs of Briggs' Orchard says that the Saginaw Farmers' Market has been a family tradition for over 40 years. "We're the last orchard left of any size," he says, adding, "We grow 200 varieties of apples. Where do you know that you can find 200 varieties of apples?"

At Briggs' booth customers will find not only apples, but an array of goods, including honey from the family orchard, as well as wholesale fruits and vegetables. "We're one of the last beekeepers in the area," he says. "We have honey that is local, and ... that is a big deal."

Many people in downtown Saginaw cannot get this fresh and local produce in the store because as the population of Saginaw has dropped, so has business. "Here in Saginaw, this is our only farm market, the only one left," says Briggs. "Thirty years ago, there were three markets. Now there is just one."

Briggs suggests that the Downtown Saginaw Farmers' Market would benefit from being located in a permanent structure that would allow for even more variety in the kinds of goods for sale. This issue is on others' minds as well. "We're after a permanent site so we can put up a permanent structure," says market board member and vendor Aileen Cowan. "That's our biggest goal. We're trying to grow the market and keep it going year after year."

According to Cowan, several market surveys done in conjunction with Michigan State University have found that the average customer age is over 50. Because of this demographic, she says market organizers are reaching out to younger generations."Get your kids interested in what they eat and where it comes from," she suggests.

The market welcomes new entertainment and family fun to draw this younger customer base. Music, dancing, and prize contests will be part of the lineup. For example, the Downtown Saginaw Farmers' Market recently held a poster contest for children in grades K-5 in the Saginaw County schools, and the winner will receive a $100 gift certificate to Toys R Us at the July 5th grand opening. "We're going to display all the posters," says McGreathy. "We've got 657 entries. The next thing is to figure out how we're going to display them all."

A July raffle will also offer prizes to market customers. The first-place winner will receive a handmade porch swing, while the second-place winner will enjoy a $100 dinner for four at Savoy Bar and Grill. The third-place winner will receive a $50 Visa card compliments of Family First Credit Union, and the fourth-place winner a hand-carved birdhouse. Tickets are $5 each or three for $10.

Cowan says the combination of fresh foods, specialty vendors, and entertainment make the market an ideal family destination. "Meet your farmers," she says. "Come out and meet your crafts people [and] your local artisans. Come out and meet your community. There is lots of stuff to discover while you are here."

© Noah Essenmacher, 2010