Argus Farm Stop introduces a new model for farmers markets in a professional environment designed to help grow Ann Arbor’s local food ecosystem by connecting producers with consumers through a year-round neighborhood farmers market.
Perched on the edge of Ann Arbor’s Old West Side neighborhood and downtown, Argus Farm Stop has quickly become a magnet for the community. When you first step inside, you may be greeted by a smiling barista. You instantly feel welcomed, and the whimsical look and feel might bring you a tinge of nostalgia. This is a locavore’s paradise. Formerly a gas station (and most recently a medical marijuana dispensary), it takes a few moments to take in all that this repurposed store has to offer. And the more you look, the more you discover. It is a local food paradise all wrapped up into one small dynamic package.
With a life-long interest in local food, aided by a background in marketing and business planning, Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample were able to turn their vision into reality. They created their own year-round market, which allows local farmers to drop off their products once a week and not have to be present to sell their food. The producers receive 80 percent of gross sales. They can control their own display and signage, just as if they were selling at a traditional farmers market. It is a way to connect the producer and the buyer. Their social mission is to provide an attractive outlet for producers where they can keep more of the margin. Their inspiration came from Local Roots in Wooster, Ohio, a similar model that connects the consumer with seasonal and sustainable foods and crafts from a considerable number of Ohio farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, fermenters, and artists.
Argus Farm Stop currently has over 140 producers selling produce, dairy products, meats, grocery items, and artisanal foods. But there is so much more than what meets the eye. It has a small coffee shop with an offering of local coffees, teas and sweets, with seating inside and out. Throughout the warmer months, there is usually a parade of baby strollers and bicycles parked in front of the store. While children play, their parents sit at the picnic tables enjoying their coffee and the camaraderie of other adults. In addition, they host school groups from the Ann Arbor Public Schools as well as from the University of Michigan. Once the expansion is completed, they will have room for farmer talks and programs around local produce.
Extensive research and on-the-ground work in the community is a must. The owners shared their farm market concept and sought feedback by reaching out to over 200 people in the community, as well as to the University of Michigan and the Slow Food movement. Their ideas began to crystallize and by the time they opened, they had already built a foundation of customer support throughout the community and region.
To help them along in starting their business, the owners sought guidance and direction from the Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC), whose mission is to enhance Michigan’s economic well-being by providing counseling, training, and research for new ventures and existing small businesses.
Sample and Brinkerhoff were able to purchase the former gas station outright from the owner, who was building a small condominium unit across the street. He was holding on to this old gas station property until he found the right buyer. Once a brownfield, he had six tanks removed, and the land received a clean bill of health from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The first year, the store grossed over a million dollars from the local farmers’ products which included produce, dairy, meat, and prepared foods.
The store employs 16 people – this includes 7 full-time and 9 part-time. They are all paid above minimum wage, with starting salaries at $10/hour. Full-time employees also receive health benefits.
The farmers price their own goods. The producers receive 80 percent of gross sales. They stop by to deliver food at least once a week and have input on how their products are displayed.
Personal engagement on all levels is critical to the success of this business. All staff are required to get to know the farmers personally, and given the opportunity to visit their farms and become very familiar with their products and practices. Connecting with the community and clientele on a personal level is also very important. One endearing example is how they occasionally get a call from a parent in the neighborhood who is sending their kids to the store to pick up something, and asking that the staff watch out for them. Staff is only too happy to oblige!
Argus Farm Stop became a success story in a very short time. Now, less than a year after opening, the owners are already expanding their footprint, which should be completed in time for the summer season. The expansion includes a 16X35 foot greenhouse to allow for an increase in café seating as well as more space for educational programs.
The store was named Retail winner at the 2014 Deals of the Year – Hosted by the Ann Arbor News.
Sample and Brinkerhoff have a goal to help replicate this model, not franchise it. Currently, they are advising seven groups around the country. Two of these groups are in southeast Michigan – one in Corktown (The Farmer’s Hand) in Detroit and the other in Ypsilanti. They would like to better facilitate the help they offer to others interested in opening a similar business. With this in mind, they are working with the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) to qualify for a grant of $100,000 through the United States Department of Agriculture to fund the development of a “duplication model” for the Argus Food Stop concept. The LFPP grants focus on helping to grow the local food economy around the country, especially as it affects farms.
- Exponential growth in farmers markets: 2008 – 5,000 farmers markets; 2015 – 8,411 farmers markets
- 7 percent of food in the U.S. is purchased indirectly from producers:
- Farmers receive about 17 cents on the dollar; middlemen and distributors take the remaining 83percent.
- Food travels long distances from farm to table – on average 1,500 miles
- Only 0.3 percent of food is purchased directly from producers through channels such as farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). These traditional models have their limitations (seasonality and one day/week) while farms can produce year round in Michigan, but need additional outlets.
- 61 percent of farms with direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales in 2007 were in business under the same operator in 2012, compared with 55 percent of farms without DTC sales.
Contact the Experts
Local Food Promotion Program, United States Department of Agriculture
The Farmer’s Hand Pantry, Market & Kitchen, Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood
Selling directly to consumers helps farms stay in business – Fruit Growers News, April 28, 2016