At seven o’clock on Saturday morning, the Bloomington Farmers Market is a quiet place. Some trucks are pulling up, some of the growers talk to each other, and some birds chirp in the trees, but mostly, everyone is working. There are virtually no customers. Many vendors are still setting up tents or arranging produce. The market isn’t supposed to open until eight, but there are some early risers beating the crowds. The farmers are happy to accommodate them.
Dan McCullough, an amiable man with a short grey beard, takes a break from unloading his truck of corn and sweet potatoes to sell some corn to a woman at his stand, even though it isn’t nearly time to “open” yet. I ask Dan if people always came to his stand this early. He tells me that they do, but it doesn’t matter. As long as he’s here – which can be as early as 5:30 – and he has corn – which can sell out as early as 9:30 – and there’re people who want to buy it, he’ll sell it to them. Of all of those things, he said it’s the supply of corn that has been the issue this year. “It’s been a tough year to get enough,” he tells me.
Of course, Dan is talking about the drought. As I walk around the market, watching dawn break over downtown Bloomington and listening to the local growers chat and mingle, “drought” is a word that I hear from several directions. You wouldn’t guess at any trouble, though. Everyone seems happy and food is abundant. It better be. At 7:45, Dan has a line already.
Before long the whole place is filling up. Food, naturally, is everywhere. I walk by Brown County Meats where they are grilling brats and the smell is sweet and smoky. There is the chatter of regular patrons catching up with each other and with the growers. Everyone seems to know everyone else.
And no one seems to be in much of a hurry. People wander, up and down the rows of booths. They peruse, fond and smell their way around. They pick up squash, buy tomatoes, chat, buy coffee, eat pastries, buy okra, chat, and smell basil.
For lunch, it’s a tough choice, but I decide on a tamale from Harvest Lodge Catering: black bean with goat cheese – mild, flavorful and pleasantly sweet. I sit on the steps of the City Hall, eating it while watching the shoppers mill about. The sky is overcast and there is the threat of rain, even occasional sprinkles, but that doesn’t seem to keep people way. The Showers Common near Seventh and Morton Streets where all of this is going on is teeming with activity. A low background noise comes from everywhere: people talk, a band plays, kids laugh. Young people, old people, foreign people, local people. Gregg “Rags” Rago, a chef at Nick’s English Hut, go walking by. And it looks like you can buy anything here too. Produce, of course, but artisan cheeses too. And BBQ sauce. Hand crafted jewelry (sold by the lady who made it). Honey. Baskets. Soap. Potted Plants. Plates. You name it.
Near me, a woman sits on the steps and munches on crackers while a girl plays at her feet. This is Kim Meyer and her daughter Chloe. I asked her if they come here often. You could say so. In three years, Kim estimates, they’ve only missed four or five Saturday markets. I ask her why. “We eat so much healthier,” she says. When they shop here they just buy food that looks good, then they have to find something to do with it. Her stuffed eggplant is something she’s particularly fond of.
Chloe runs off and Kim watches for a moment, calls after her, and then finally decides to get up and chase her. In no particular hurry, she follows her daughter through the crowd. I ask her husband, Brandon, if he thought it was odd that she seemed so unconcerned. He is amused by my question. “Well, this obviously isn’t downtown Detroit,” he says. True. This is far from it. There is a family atmosphere here. There is a sense of community that makes them feel comfortable and safe. When she gets back, she apologizes for leaving the conversation so abruptly. “The music’s great,” she continues, “the company’s great…we just love it.”
The music is coming from the live band. Five middle aged men, also known as Fortunate Son, play on a stage at the edge of the commons. They are playing the brand of roots rock their name implies. An homage to The Stones, Dylan, CCR, and something else. Something a little folksier. Something reminiscent of a different time. A crowd has gathered to watch and a boy, maybe three or four years old, wriggles to his own version of the beat and everyone around seems transported.
I don’t realize just how transported I am until I leave. My idea is, go to Marsh to compare prices. First I walk around the Farmers Market and take notes: carrots, $2/bunch; honey, $2.75/8oz; tomatoes, $3/pint; sage, $1 for a handful. Then I head out.
At Marsh, there is no live music, of course. No one is talking, except through cell phones to people who are nowhere around. No one seems happy to be here. This is just another errand in their daily grind.
The only sage I find at Marsh to compare is pressed into small rectangular packaging and costs over $3. I have no idea how many handfuls this is. Then I can’t find the honey. This is pointless. I give up. But when I go to leave, I can’t. When I approach the automatic door, it doesn’t open. So I just stand there, my face two inches from the glass, hoping it will open for me. I step back and try again. Nothing. This time, I shove the door, stiff with inactive hydraulics, and break myself free.
Adam Mitschelen can be reached at .