by Angela Madaras
When my friends told me about a Sunday Winter Farmers Market, my husband and I jumped in the van and headed to Webster Township. It was a particularly cold day. Thankfully, aromatic hot coffee greeted us at the door. Violet Raterman, one of the market managers, helped us navigate the market for our first visit. The entire experience was moving for some reason, but I could not put my finger on it. I had to find out more about the people behind this market and the space in which it thrived.
In the spring, I attended the same market in their outdoor space. The location is in the historic village of Webster Corners and well preserved by the Webster Township Historic Preservation Society (WTHPS). The community was alive and active in 1750-1850. In between drops of spring rain I was able to sit down with two of the market’s key characters, sisters Violet Raterman and Malaika Whitney.
Malaika Whitney is a visionary, farmer, artist, historic society board member, and generations old community member who sat down with me to discuss the background and goals of WTHS and the market. Us kindred spirits gathered around a picnic table outside of the corncrib and shared our mutual love of historic preservation through a community of farming, culture, food and architecture. I was grateful that Violet and Malaika were generous with their time, considering how busy they are with farming, running the market, tending to their businesses, attending other markets, and all that goes along with youthful-active lives.
Angela Madaras: Please tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you came to form the market.
Malaika Whitney: The Webster Farmers Market began as a little tinkering of an idea in mid-September 2017. My brother-in-law, Peter, has been working as a blacksmith in the historical Wheeler Blacksmith Shop. As Peter spent time amidst this beautiful village, he started to talk about how neat it would be to have a farmers market in this place. Working with the Historical Society, a market team of me, Violet, and brother-in-law Nick formed, and a few months later the market began. Throughout the winter months the market was held in the Crossroads Community Center, (a historic restored building which was once a cidery and apple barn, and later a community grange), which offered a warm and welcoming indoor space for the market. In May the market moved outdoors to the northern end of the historical grounds, to be held in the Dieterle Corncrib, a music stage built as a memorial in honor of Dick Dieterle, founder of the RFD Boys.
AM: What made you as a group decide to have a Sunday afternoon market as opposed to Saturday like most other markets?
MW: Well, both Violet and I do other farmers markets on Saturdays... so that was out of the question. Besides we thought it would be nice for people to be able to stop by on their way home from church, or a relaxing Sunday morning.
AM: I love the “pop-up” market format. Please explain how it works.
Violet Raterman: Farmers markets are a huge commitment of time, and sometimes you just can’t be at market every week of the year. The single checkout system allows vendors to take weeks off and still be able to sell their goods, by dropping off and picking up. Also, from a customer standpoint it can be overwhelming to be faced with ten people hoping you will buy something from them. This model creates a more welcoming, communal offering of goods.
AM: Do the vendors and customers enjoy this set up?
VR: Yes, we have received a lot of positive feedback about the set up. Many new customers are surprised by the ease of checking out and are always happy when we bag up their goods for them. The fact that vendors aren’t managing purchases means they are able to focus on talking with customers.
AM: How many vendors do you have for the summer season?
VM: We currently have a total of 18 vendors for the outdoor market. Since we are a new market and always looking to increase our variety of goods, we may be adding on a few more vendors throughout the season.
AM: What makes your market unique and different from all others?
VM: We put a lot of thought into this market. We combined everything we loved about farmers markets, local stores, and pop-up shops to create a model that shared some of our favorite aspects of each of these venues.
We also wanted to support farmers and producers within the same community as the market and customers. We decided to create a vendor preference of a 20 mile radius. We have one or two outside of this radius, but most of our vendors are actually within five miles of the market. We were able to accomplish this by working with smaller farmers and producers within our area.
Our next task was to choose a day and time for the market. Since a few of our vendors also do Saturday markets, we decided Sunday afternoon would be a nice time. This also allows customers two options for weekend farmers markets, since Saturdays can become quite busy in the summer.
The most unique aspect of our market is definitely our single checkout system. Since many of our vendors are physically running the market and a few drop-off items, some tables have vendors behind them and others are on shared tables against a wall. Customers can then shop around in a pressure free environment and checkout with cash, card, or checks at our single register at the entrance of the market. It allows customers to take their time while shopping and easily try out smaller items from different vendors.
AM: Tell me about Whitney Farmstead and how the farm comes into play with the market?
MW: My husband, Matthew, and I have been farming my family’s farm now for almost four years. We raise grass-fed and pastured cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, as well as produce maple syrup and hay.
After selling at various markets around Ann Arbor for the past couple of years, we really wanted a place where our neighbors, many who pass by our cows on a daily basis, could come learn about what we do and have a place to buy food produced in their neighborhood.
Our farm is just a stone's throw away from the Historical Society village, where the market takes place. My family has been a part of this small rural community since 1900 and for five generations the Whitney’s have been ingrained in nearly every aspect of this special place. Most of the people, who were a part of my childhood, can be found sitting in the pews of the Webster Church on Sunday mornings, or buried in the Cemetery outside the church. Webster has always been the kind of place where even if you don’t someone directly, you know about them and they know about you, and if you were to find yourself in conversation, you could talk for a very long time about all the ways your families’ paths have crisscrossed in the past and present.
AM: What are your top three priorities or goals for the market?
MW: Celebrating our rural heritage and creating community was our first priority.
Having a weekly community event that is centered on food, farming, and local craftsmanship, located in Webster’s own beautiful historical village, seemed like a good way to celebrate and preserve our rural heritage.
Already in the short time the farmers market has been up and going, we have met dozens of neighbors for the first time. We have seen people multiple times who we usually only see once a year at the Webster Fall Festival. It is our hope that the farmers market continues to bring people together, to build community, and to remind us that Webster is a special and beautiful rural place and if we want it to stay this way, we have to keep working on it.
Lastly, we wanted to offer a sustainable outlet for farmers, producers, and artisans to sell their goods, and in turn, a place for people who want to buy local and know the producers, to do so.
AM: What has been the most surprising outcome of the market?
VR: We have been overwhelmingly surprised and thankful for the amount of community support. We knew we lived in a wonderful and involved community, but did not expect the amount of excitement and enthusiasm we have received toward the market! We have grown as a market a good amount through word of mouth. Everyone seems to be enjoying the location and time of the market, our market model, and the accessibility.
We have also been very surprised by the involvement of our wonderful vendors. It is very rare for one vendor to carry all of their items from their car and set up their tent without help from several other vendors. Everyone pitches in to ensure all areas of the market are set up by noon and continue to help each other out during market. We would not be able to have a single checkout area without the involvement of the vendors. This is not something we asked of them, or prepared them for, this was solely all of our vendors coming together and filling in the gaps as needed. Our vendors generally don’t leave until everyone is packed up, the building has been swept and mopped, supplies have been put away and all doors are locked. We hoped to form a community environment for both customers and vendors, and have been so thankful that our vendors understand our vision and help us to achieve it.
AM: What is the take away you wish for your customers?
VR: We really just want to remind everyone what it is like to be a part of your community. Whether you are a customer, vendor, or just stopping by, you have a place at the market. Every market we have folks reconnect or discover connections they have with another customer or vendor. We love when customers feel the community atmosphere and slow down long enough to have real and meaningful conversation. Grocery shopping doesn’t need to be a quick in and out experience that takes up part of your busy day. It can be a highlight in your day and a chance for you to meet new people or connect with local producers, neighbors, and old friends.
AM: Most memorable market moment?
VR: During a market this past winter, we had a conversation with an elderly gentleman that lives near the market and has been very involved in the Webster Township community for many years. He and his wife come every Sunday and often sit down with a cup of coffee after shopping to talk with neighbors and old friends. On this particular Sunday he thanked us for creating the market and told us the community had dreamed of starting something like this for 50 years or so.
I encourage you to visit this lovely market where you will find a wide variety of locally sourced plants, produce, hand-crafted items, and ready to eat goods. All of the vendors were wonderful and offered quality products. The market is open on Sundays from 12—3 and located at 5665 Webster Church Road in Dexter.
You can learn more about the market by visiting their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/websterfarmersmarket/. And don’t miss their annual Fall Festival which takes place on September 22, 2018from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. On this note I leave you with their mission found on the society’s web site “to foster community appreciation for that which shaped the character of Webster, and discover and preserve significant artifacts and information illustrative of life in Webster.” It is the hope that by supporting the market, through patronage and in sharing their story, I do my part in helping them accomplish this mission. Hopefully, readers will join in the fun.