This is the 82nd year of the Royal Oak Farmers Market. Over the years the market has evolved into one of the area's premier venues of its kind, a vibrant, bustling center of community activity. As "market master" for the last eight years, Gwen Ross oversees the operation, directing the day-to-day activities that make it so popular. The building is self-sufficient, relying on the rents that are generated by the farmers and vendors at the flea market.
Metro Times: What does running a market like this entail?
Gwen Ross: I sometimes think I have to have four or five degrees. I should be a psychologist. I should be a business person. I should be a financial director, that sort of thing. I schedule people, collect the rents and open the doors. That means I get here at 2:30 in the morning on a Saturday to let the trucks come in. I'm here till probably 5:30 in the afternoon because once we finish the farmers market we have a couple of hours to get it cleaned up and set up for the next day for the flea market.
In the flea market I have more than 100 dealers. On any given week I have about 85 to 90 here and I have a 100 to 150 that want to be here. So I try to rotate the spots and to get everyone in and keep everyone happy. It's like putting on a ballet. As long as everybody keeps in step, it all works. When someone gets out of step, you have to try to get them in line again. You come in and open the door and you do what has to be done.
MT: How do you decide which vendors and farmers make the cut?
Ross: The rules do it for me. There are strict criteria to be at this market. Number one, you have to grow what you sell. Number two, it has to be grown in Michigan. That already eliminates a lot of people who would like to come in. We have people who would like to go to Eastern Market and buy all the stuff and bring it here and broker it. We're not looking to do that. We are Michigan's farm fresh produce. If you don't have a farm in Michigan, you can't be here.
MT: Is there anyone here on a regular basis who can answer questions about the foods sold here? You know, like cooking ideas or the best ways to store produce?
Ross: We have a master gardener here. Michigan Extension Services comes more about the plants than about food. But, any one of our farmers can tell you whatever you want to know about their produce. Many of them have recipes. They'll tell you how to cook it. There's a lot of information that goes on. The lady who sells shiitake mushrooms and the morels has recipes out to do different sauces and stuff with them.
MT: What about sustainable agriculture and organic products?
Ross: All the new farmers that I've added are either organic already or are in the process of becoming certified. It's quite a long process to get your land certified organic. Because we've had so many of the same farmers for generations, we don't have many new spaces available. The hog farmer we have here processes his own sausages. He never gives his hogs antibiotics or steroids. And he'll tell you right out, "If I have a hog in my herd that needs antibiotics, she's going elsewhere. I don't want her in my herd." We don't have a rule that you have to be organic. You just have to grow in Michigan. One thing about shopping at a farmers market that you don't realize is the farmer can tell you everything about what you are purchasing from the time it was a seed, including what he put in the ground before he planted, how many times he sprayed and what he sprayed it with, how many days before he picked it did he spray. Did he wash it? What did he wash it in? Some get a cold wash. Some use a special product designed for washing produce. They can tell you all of that. We have one particular farmer who has some orchards. He says, "Whatever God does to it, that's what gets done." He doesn't spray. He doesn't do anything. One year he brought me some pears to can. They were so tasty. They didn't look good, but I'm standing there going, "Oh, my God, it's goooood."
MT: What makes this market unique?
Ross: I don't know if it's unique to farmers markets, but the farmers bring in food that has just been picked. I remember getting some corn one morning that still had the heat of yesterday's sun in it. We have live music every Saturday. Different musicians play for free, maybe leave an open guitar case or a dish and everybody throws in a buck.
MT: Are there special events?
Ross: We have a big corn roast here every year. The Historical Society puts on a pancake breakfast on Memorial Day. The Royal Oak Restaurant Association holds a big event here. When the All-Star game was here, they roasted a 140-foot-long hot dog. They were trying to get in the Guinness Book of Records, but they found out they had to bake the bun too. So the next year they cooked the bun in a pizza conveyor oven. Now it's an annual thing. They got the record. I think it was only 67 feet because the bun broke.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]