Leelanau County growers There’s an old adage in business: Meet the customer where they are.
But if you’re a Leelanau County grower in autumn—peak harvest and planting season for most; winter-prep time for all—getting out of your field, orchard, beehives, or flower garden to get to customers is tough.
But when thousands of local kiddos, age 3 to 18, make up an untapped portion of your prospective yet picky-eater customer base … ? You rise to the challenge and make an exception.
That’s why—in between planting and prepping; picking, washing, and bundling; making, packaging, and labeling; and loading, lugging, and selling home-grown-and made goodies at the last of the County’s weekly farm markets—dozens of area growers and makers add Leelanau school farm markets to their autumn must-do list.
Or, as farmer Nic Welty puts it: “There’s so much to be done to build our food system and food education in our community, and so little time.”
Nic and his wife, Jen Welty, co-own 9 Bean Rows farm and bakery in Suttons Bay. They’ve been sending their goods to school since the first at-school farm market began 15 years ago. Ironically, the person tending the 9 Bean Rows booth this fall is the very woman that many in Leelanau say made the at-school market idea a reality: Maureen “Mo” Earl.
Rather than pushing parents to buy local or simply hoping they’d bring their kids to an area farmers market, Earl envisioned bringing a market to the kids, allowing them to touch, taste, and learn about County-grown fruits and veggies from the farmers who raised them; and outfitting students with the means to purchase produce for themselves.
With funding from the County’s MSU Extension, Earl made the first school market happen in 2007 at Leland Public School, where she worked at the time. That first market was such a hit among students, teachers, and participating farmers that Northport, St. Mary’s, Glen Lake, Pathfinder, and Suttons Bay schools (as well as Grand Traverse County’s Courtade and Buckley Elementary schools) have since hosted markets too.
Despite its popularity and spread, the at-school farm market experiment still has no official name, blueprint, or consistent funding source. Rather, it plays out like a beloved passion project, uniquely tailored to each school and different funding requirements, and made possible simply because of so many community donors and organizations, such as the local MSU Extension, 4-H, and Northwest Education Service (formerly TBAISD), believe in it.
Some schools link their market to related lessons—in nutrition and wellness, personal finance, economics, the environment, etc.—and activities like measuring ingredients and making applesauce.
Suttons Bay Schools’ elementary and middle school principal, Shelagh Fehrenbach, says SBS’ PTO usually funds one $2 voucher per student so every kid can buy something, and many parents send additional cash for their students to shop for their family, too.
“It's a pretty inexpensive learning experience,” she says. “The farmers are so good about coming with items that can cost as little as 25 cents, so everyone gets to make purchases.”
This year, SBS kids got to choose from a host of veggies like radishes, eggplants, pea shoots, and kohlrabi, as well as maple syrup from Maple Sugar Bush, honey sticks from Bee Joyful, cheese wedges—shaped and decorated to look like mice—from Leelanau Cheese, plus apples (fresh and caramel-covered), eggs, baked goods, dried lavender, fresh flowers, watermelons, gourds, and pumpkins.
Thanks to participation with a local 4-H, kids at some of this year’s markets got up close with baby goats. Some had the option to meet chickens. One hit among all the kids: a stationary bike they can pedal to power a smoothie blender.
As much as SBS students love their school’s annual market day, Fehrenbach says there’s another group who tell her it's their favorite day of the school year: the teachers.
“Teachers love to shop with students and watch the new foods the kids are excited to try,” she says, adding, “We would host the market every week if we could!”