Leelanau News and Events

A New Kind Of Farmers Market

By Craig Manning | April 1, 2024

Jim and Kelly Lively are ready for their second act, and they want to spend it redefining the local food economy in Leelanau County.

Late last month, the husband-and-wife duo launched a $25,000 GoFundMe campaign that invited prospective donors to “imagine a place where farmers and families can mingle amid shelves of delicious, plentiful, locally grown food.” The idea, Jim explains, is to take the concept of a farmers market – where growers and makers travel from far and wide to sell their wares at a single central location – and put it into a grocery store format, complete with an indoor setting and regular business hours. If all goes according to plan, the Livelys will open their Empire-based shop, called Lively NeighborFood Market, by Memorial Day.

The Livelys have called Empire Township home for more than 30 years, but their jobs were mostly outside of Leelanau County. Jim was a 22-year player at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities – known as the Michigan Land Use Institute when he came aboard in 2000 – and played a key role in numerous Groundwork initiatives, from the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign to the launch of Taste the Local Difference. Kelly, meanwhile, spent nearly a decade working at the recently-shuttered food distribution company Cherry Capital Foods.

“Because of our jobs, we really paid a lot of attention to food distribution and food hubs,” Jim tells the Leelanau Ticker. “Often, we would speculate about the idea of a local market where you worked with just local farms. That way, you could mostly remove the need for distribution, because you’d just be having farmers drop off food on their way to the farmers market.”

Eventually, Jim and Kelly found precisely that type of place.

“We saw a model of this idea in Ann Arbor, at a place called Argus Farm Stop, which has been going for about 10 years now,” Lively explains. With three locations around Ann Arbor, Argus offers precisely the type of “farmers market in a grocery store setting” that the Livelys had in mind. All three stores are open seven days a week, and Argus works with more than 200 farms to stock “a great year-round offering” of produce, meat, and more. Beyond just selling locally-farmed foods, Argus also works closely with the individual farmers, allowing them to set the prices on their goods and keep 70 percent of each sale.

“Part of their mission [at Argus] is to help start other businesses like theirs,” Lively notes. “So, they’ve not only done a good model, but they’ve also been very helpful in encouraging others – like myself – to get something like this going.”

The idea of building an Argus-like farmer’s market in northern Michigan has been percolating in Lively’s head for years. When he left Groundwork in March of 2022, he decided to give it a shot. “I knew I wanted to leave Groundwork before I was fully ready to retire, because I wanted to do one more career move working in the community,” he says. The Lively NeighborFood Market is that career move.

The market space is currently under construction on a 19-acre commercial parcel six miles east of Empire. In the months to come, the Livelys will fill the facility with refrigerators, freezers, shelf space, and point-of-sale systems. outfit it with solar panels, incorporate commercial kitchen equipment, and more. Money raised through the GoFundMe campaign will help cover the costs of those steps.

Perhaps most importantly, Lively plans to spend the spring connecting with local farmers and (hopefully) winning them over to the NeighborFood Market cause. From vegetable growers to meat farmers to cheesemakers, Lively’s hope is to bring together as many of Leelanau’s agricultural players as possible.

“At Argus, they typically have 3-5 different producers selling the same variety of product on the shelf, and each product is very clearly labeled by the farm that it came from,” Lively explains “So, there may be 3-4 farms’ carrots all next to each other, and they may or may not be the same price, and the customer has the choice of which farm they want to buy from. It’s very farmer-forward. And that’s perfect for here, where we’re so fortunate to have a lot of produce farms within 10 miles of our market, and where we have no shortage of beautiful farms producing meat, too.”

Just like Argus Farm Stop, Lively NeighborFood Market will operate on a consignment model. Partner farms will drop off their products and set their prices, and the market will manage the transactions. In addition to offering a new and mostly-passive source of revenue for farms, Lively is hoping the market will also help create more of a connection between local residents or Leelanau visitors and the farms that dot the peninsula.

“We plan on featuring the farms heavily and telling people, ‘Hey, you can go see this farm if you'd like; it's just right over there,’” Lively says. “I even plan to have a map on the wall that shows you where the farms are. And if you want to meet the farmer, well, they’ll be coming into the store on a regular basis to drop off food, or you can drive over to their farm and see what they’re doing. It’s all about trying to bring that local farmer a little bit closer.”

 

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