Farmers markets don’t just magically appear. There’s much that goes into putting together these outdoor shopping centers of delicious locally grown foods. Obviously, there is all the toil that the farmers do in their fields and gardens to stock their booths. But there is also meticulous planning, connection making and organizing that goes into ensuring that the booths are all in the right places, that shoppers know about the markets and that the markets are a great experience for all. That is where Gaby Gerken, the manager of the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, comes in.
The People’s Food Co-op of Kalamazoo has been running the market since 2013, and Gerken was hired in 2016 to run the farmers market, which is three days a week and includes a monthly night market. It’s in her blood, she says. She grew up on a small farm and always wanted “to work around the food system.”
This is Gerken’s last season running the market. She is planning to move to Cincinnati in August to pursue a master’s degree in city planning.
What do farmers market managers do?
I wear a lot of hats. I organize the vendors, any events that happen. I do our marketing, social media stuff. Some days I’m the janitor, cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash. It’s really quite a lot of different things, (with) every day sort of different.
How did you become manager of the market?
I am from Minnesota, so I moved here after doing a term with AmeriCorps working in conservation. During that time, my husband had moved to Kalamazoo to go to graduate school, and when I moved here in early 2016 I took some time to figure things out. I had worked at a (food) co-op before, the Mississippi Market in Saint Paul. I was paying attention to the People’s Food Co-op of Kalamazoo website, and the job came up. It just fit really perfectly, and I magically got it. I started off as assistant manager.
The previous manager was thinking about taking off in a year or two. So, the idea was to hire someone and get them trained. It happened a little bit quicker than I thought it would. But just after my first season in 2016, he transitioned out and I turned into the manager.
Is it hard to find vendors?
Our market is actually quite old. You can trace it back to 1913, and we’ve been here on Bank Street since ‘47. There’s a lot of history involved, and it’s already a well-established market. There are a lot of families who sell their wares at the market who have been around for a long time. I don’t want to say it’s easy, but sellers know where to go and how to get their booths in the market.
What is your favorite part of the market?
I like connecting with the vendors, and I love knowing their stories. As the market manager, I get to visit the farms. I’d never seen a cherry tree until I moved here. And that was pretty funny when I went on that farm visit — I was just exclaiming and being so excited over these peach trees and cherries and stuff. And I think the farmers thought I was ridiculous.
So, I’ve been to a lot of those places, and it’s pretty cool that I have that opportunity to literally see where everything is grown, hear the farmers’ stories, learn everything about them. I then get to come on Saturday and just watch them be happy and succeed in their life and live their dreams.
Why do you think people like farmers markets?
It’s a community gathering space. I don’t want to call it a special event. I kind of don’t like it when people do that because I think it’s more than that. It’s a place where, like, literally a lot of people, including me, can come and do their entire grocery shopping. Everyone can shop here.
We do surveys at the end of the year, kind of asking for shoppers’ ages, incomes, things like that, and when you look at, like, the income pie chart (from those surveys), it’s, like, so dead-even between people making $10,000-$15,000 and people making well over $100,000. This is just a diverse space, and I think people enjoy that. It’s also outdoors. … Who would not like to go grocery shopping outside?
What do you buy from the market?
I literally do most of my shopping here during the summer. I can buy my coffee here, I can buy wine, I can even find oils like sunflower oil — anything that’s in season. Michigan is just so unique for its growing climate.
What is your schedule like?
Farmers market is every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. I get there at 5:30 a.m. Some people get there at, like, 4 a.m. I think a lot of people think that everyone just shows up at 7 a.m. and it’s done. But there’s so much work that goes on in the back end.
(Starting) in June, we are also open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Weekday markets are smaller, but they’re a really awesome time to get to meet people, because it’s just a slower pace. There are night markets, too, on every third Thursday from June to September, and those are so popular.
It’s a lot of people, and, as an introvert, it’s kind of difficult for me, but I can understand the appeal.