The rites of spring … pumping the bike tires, clearing away those clumps of brown, brittle leaves from under the hedges, and making trips to the farmers market (on said bike, perhaps) to score the season’s early crops: asparagus, rhubarb, leafy greens. This year, though, maybe not so much. 

Sure, you can still ride the bike, and putter around the yard, but those market trips might be a challenge what with social distancing rules in place. And that’s a shame. After all, the markets are more than places to find the perfect tomato or fresh strawberry jam. Indeed, these are places of community … in every sense of the word. We could sure use places like that today. 

With that in mind, organizers of the Birmingham, Michigan, Farmers Market knew canceling the market this season wasn’t an option. Not only did they craft a plan with the community in mind, the economics of farming, too, motivated their decision to plan the weekly event meeting needs of multiple audiences. And early results indicate they’re on to something successful.  

Typical market day in Birmingham, MIA typical weekend day at the Farmers Market in Birmingham, MI. 

A Market with a Vision

Eighteen years ago, when a group of Birmingham residents convened to start a farmers market, farm-to-table eating was just making its way into our vernacular and dinner plates, so their idea was focused more on creating a space where citizens would come together … shop, mingle, eat, enjoy a blues guitarist and let the kids stay occupied with pint-sized activities.

The market, held Sundays between May and October on a large parking lot on North Old Woodward just north of the main shopping district, quickly spilled over to an adjacent lot. Along with local farmers, vendors include butchers and bakers and, on occasion, candlestick makers, plus knife sharpeners and fresh lemonade squeezers. As attendance grew, the importance of the market as an anchor for the community became unmatched. Neighboring merchants, long eschewing Sunday openings, gladly opened their doors to the crowds. And, of course, the farmers, many of whom have been there since day one, have another outlet to sell their goods. Everyone wins. This year, however it seemed like everyone was going to lose. But, planners rolled the dice and, for now, their strategy appears to be paying off. 

A Vision with the Market in Mind

Ingrid Tighe is executive director of the Birmingham Shopping District, the entity charged with marketing downtown Birmingham and planning events, including the market. She explained that at the onset of community closures, a priority of her office was to find a way to support the farmers and keep this civic asset in place, while maintaining safety for all involved. 

This season at BrmIngrid Tighe, left, and Jaimi Brook, Events and Operations Manager for the Birmingham Shopping District.

While the streets are virtually devoid of vehicular traffic, every now and again you might spy a cluster of cars idling in front of a restaurant. Take-out at some establishments is driving enough business to help pay the bills, and give weary home cooks a break. It also served as inspiration for Ingrid and her event team.

“Social Kitchen in downtown Birmingham inspired us,” she said, explaining that the restaurant implemented drive-up service daily. At 1:00 each afternoon customers pull up to the restaurant’s front door to purchase $10 bags of fresh fruits and vegetables, or $5 bags of bread and eggs. “We saw the demand was great and it was way to keep farmers from dumping produce,” Ingrid said. 

Farmers have two supply routes: to restaurants, schools and other institutions, or to major grocers. Farmers supplying restaurants and schools are basically stuck with mountains of perishable goods and fewer outlets in which to sell. Ingrid said her intention was to help farmers avoid this. The line for Birmingham Farmers Market goods

So, with the Social Kitchen model in mind, the market kept to its opening day (May 3) and was drive-thru only. Working with the farmers, the coordinators displayed produce and flowers on tables. “We had a $10 package and one for $20,”she explained, adding, “We created a touch-free experience. Visitors drove in, told volunteers what they wanted to buy, placed their money in a basket and farmers loaded packages in their trunks.” 

The drive-thru rule, however, is strictly enforced. According to Ingrid, “We had several people walking by, they wanted to enter but we had to turn them away.” 

Despite the unorthodox format, though, the feedback from the key constituents was upbeat. “We had only seven vendors, hours were limited … but it worked well, we had a line of cars on North Old Woodward,” and the farmers, she said, appreciated the efforts. More farmers are scheduled for the coming weeks — as is a purveyor of jam and a knife sharpener — and will increase as the growing season progresses; more flowers and early spring crops now, greater assortments in the months ahead. 

The public, too, was supportive, commenting and sharing on social media: “So, it’s a drive thru farmers market — good for you guys for making it work!” and “Wish you well. Kudos for trying.” 

Beyond trying, Ingrid and her team, as well as the farmers, are doing. So, too, is the community. Ingrid admitted the opening was bittersweet. But, as so many of us are discovering these days, we’re becoming adept at turning even the most acerb-seeming situation into something delightfully palatable. 



Edward Nakfoor is a Birmingham, Michigan-based freelance writer and marketer for small businesses. How is your organization adapting to protect and support its multiple audiences? Contact Ed at edwardnakfoor@gmail.com.

Connect with Ingrid at @itighe@bhamgov.org. 

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