ModeChat: Jeremy Brown on growing the Oakland County Farmers’ Market into a community asset

Jeremy Brown is the man with the plan at the Oakland County Farmers’ Market.

He’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility, as well as special event planning and educational programming. He also makes sure vendors are in compliance with health regulations, and assists with marketing and promotions. The market is open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 7:00 am until 1:30 pm.

The Oakland County Farmers’ Market was born in Pontiac in 1922. In 1953, it moved to its current location in Waterford on Elizabeth Lake Rd., right next to the Oakland County Executive Building. 

 
Brown says several longtime vendors have been coming to the market since the Pontiac days.

“We have a lot of vendors that have been coming since the 50s, 60s, and the 70s,” he says. “This is my fifth season here, and I’m still considered very new here at the market.”

CHECK OUT OUR MAP OF FARMERS’ MARKETS ACROSS METRO DETROIT>>>

The market is “producer-only,” which means products sold at the facility must be grown or made by the vendors selling them. Approximately 120 vendors from 17 counties across Michigan use the market throughout the year, and nearly 300,000 visitors come to buy their products here annually.

In 2012, management of the market was transferred from Oakland County to Oakland County Parks and Recreation, a separate entity. Brown came on board at that time and has been working to build up the reputation of the market as more than just a place to buy vegetables and flowers.

Metromode caught up with Brown just as the Tuesday market was closing to find out more.

Metromode: What has changed at the Oakland County Farmers’ Market in the last four years?

Brown: When Oakland County Parks and Recreation assumed management in 2012, we really saw it as a destination within the community. 

 
At the time, it was a very old-school market. By old school, I mean it was a place for vendors to come sell their stuff. That was it.

The old mentality was to get them in and get them out. Our mentality now is to get them in and get them to stay. We do that by providing educational programming.

We partner with Michigan State University Extension Health and nutrition educators to do cooking demonstrations. MSUE master gardeners are here on an everyday basis June through October, providing gardening advice. They also do children’s activities twice a month.

We have the Oakland Conservation District here doing soil and water conservation education. We also have the Oakland County Health Department doing health awareness events. They alternate educational days with days where they’ll do blood pressure and BMI tests.

We also have the 4H club come out, and they’ll bring out different clubs to educate the public on what’s available. A lot of people don’t know that we have almost 50 4H Clubs in Oakland County. When I first got started I really thought it was just pigs and cows, but there’s so much more to 4H. They have science clubs, rocket clubs, knitting clubs, dog clubs, you name it.

Mode: How has Oakland County Parks and Recreation changed the operation of the market since assuming management?

Historically, the vendors did a 50/50 raffle and that’s how they paid for their advertising. Now with Oakland County Parks taking over, we having a marketing budget, we have the Facebook page, we’re doing an E-blast at least monthly. We have a new digital sign out front. We are just trying to create awareness.

People come and they’re like, “Wow, this place is great. How long has it been here?” And you’re like, “It’s been here since 1953,” and they’ll say, “We’ve lived in this area for 20 years and we never knew it was here.”

Metromode: What does having all of these extra events do for the market?

People are coming for these different events and they’re discovering the market. Farmers’ markets have evolved a lot—they’re more than just a place for a vendor to come sell. It’s a whole experience.

We feel if people have a reason to come, they’re going to find out about the vendors and spend money with them. 

 
One of my favorite stories is our first year we did a Fall Family Festival. Somebody posted on Facebook, “I came for the Fall Festival. I stayed and spent 50 bucks.”

I would hate to say it’s “not just a farmers’ market,” because the farmers are the foundation. They’re the reason people come for the most part, but you are also going to find all these different things. You’re going to find soaps and lotions and photographers. You’ll find people that put together floral arrangements, but you’ll also find your annuals and perennials.

You can find a bouquet that’s normally $18 at a regular market, but it’s only $8 here. You’re going to find great deals here, effectively cutting out the middle man, and I always like to stress that you’re supporting local businesses and families when you shop here at the Farmers’ Market.

Mode: Plenty of local communities now have their own farmers’ markets. Does the Oakland County Farmers’ Market play any kind of coordinating role with local communities?

We often get contacted by communities that are thinking about starting a market, or if they’re going through a market manager change, or if they want to help with their rules and regulations. We sit down with different communities to talk about those things.

We also work with the Healthy Oakland Partnership on their farm market team. We put on a Family Market Day. This year it’s August 13th here at our market. This year we’ll have yoga demonstrations, and we’ll have karate demonstrations. There’s also a healthy cooking demonstration and kids’ activities.

Also through the Healthy Oakland Partnership, we run a food safety handling class for any farm market manager or vendor that wants to participate. We talk about what it means to handle food safely. We talk about licensing requirements; for example if something can be covered under the Cottage Food Law, which means you can make things in your own home. 

 
We also have helped other markets on how to accept food assistance benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Systems Program, Double Up Food Bucks, and the coupon programs like Market Fresh for seniors and Project Fresh Program for WIC (Women Infants and Children).

Mode: Tell us a little bit about the future. What kind of programs or projects are you working on this year?

We have huge garage sales. We have a car show coming up in August. We’re also doing a Mom-to-Mom sale. 

 
We’re going to be doing a corn roast where vendors will be donating corn and then we’ll provide it to the public for free. We have Vanhoutte Farms and Prielipp Farms, both of which have been attending since the 70s, donate corn, and this year we’re going to do a People’s Choice Award.  Just to have a little friendly rivalry amongst the farmers.

We’ll do a trick-or-treating at the Market where the kids get dressed up and go trick-or-treating with the vendors. We’ve also institute a holiday shopping night as well. We’ll do s’mores and have some snacks.

Last year we tried a food truck rally. It was very, very successful, and brought in about an additional thousand people on that day, so this year we’ll be doing three different food truck rallies. We’ve got them scheduled for July 2nd, August 6th, and September 17th.

We have a barbecue vendor that’s here every day that we’re open, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and he provides breakfast and lunch. We now have picnic tables with umbrellas. We have benches out. We decorate with flowers donated by the vendors. 

Mode: What else should people know about visiting the Oakland County Farmers’ Market?

Again, the old mentality was get them in and get them out. Our mentality is get them in and get them to stay. They may come for an education program. They may come for a special event experience, but the end goal of all of that is to get people to discover the market and the vendors.

When you eat some carrots from Brian Penzeen of Penzeen’s Produce, I don’t know if it really tastes better, or if it’s just because you know the guy that grew it. But there is something to be said about knowing the people that grow your food.

CHECK OUT OUR MAP OF FARMERS’ MARKETS ACROSS METRO DETROIT>>>