BERRIEN SPRINGS — This year the fair’s historical building took a different route in honoring the rich farming history in Berrien County.
One of the displays in the building features information on the ways that produce travels from farm to plate, through personal stories and photos.
Linda Shinsky, chair of the historical committee, said they began working on this year’s theme toward the end of last year’s fair. It began after brainstorming sessions that involved suggestions from the public on what they would like to see displayed in the building.
“Berrien County has many different types of produce and fruit,” Shinsky said. “We wanted to celebrate that, what with how many people are craving farm-to-plate options in restaurants now.”
Committee members began driving around in search of farm stands to include in the display.
One of the first stands that was found belongs to John Vergot. He’s lived on the Stevensville property on John Beers Road near his stand for more than 90 years.
A display dedicated to an interview with Vergot shows the experiences and changes in farming over the years.
According to Vergot, one of the biggest attractions long ago was the Lincoln Farmer’s Exchange in Stevensville. The exchange, which was open for most of the year, featured items such as coal, fertilizer, hay and fruit.
Vergot referred to farming in the 1960s and ’70s as “rough.”
Vergot also described the Benton Harbor Farmer’s Market from a several decades ago, which drew buyers from as far away as Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Vergot sold strawberries at the market.
He recounted how buyers would come with open trucks and haul their produce away. In addition to trucks, boats were used to transport Berrien County produce to wholesale houses, where it was sold on consignment.
Vergot’s parents would sign over 10 flats and 24 pints of raspberries and receive $10 for the effort.
Vergot said the Benton Harbor market began to change when the number of small grocery stores started to decrease. Chains like Piggly Wiggly, Nash and Kroger were mainstays at the market.
As times changed, store buyers were replaced by brokers who would buy produce for several large chain supermarkets.
It reduced the amount of competition and lowered the prices for produce.
According to Vergot, brokers would dictate when farmers would plant crops in northern and southern states in an attempt to stagger the harvest to keep a constant supply at a consistent price.
Vergot said his stand, which remains in place near Lakeshore Middle School, has enjoyed a varied customer base over the years. Tourists would stop by the stand to and from their weekend homes. He also saw an influx of stops following a Sunday service.
Now the harvest period takes place over a six-month period, from selling strawberries and asparagus early in the season, to pumpkins in late October.
When asked to compare the difficulty of making a go of farming between today and when he first began, Vergot said it’s become harder in 2019.
“Everything costs more,” he said. “Fertilizer can be expensive. But another large problem is finding help.”
The historical building also features photos from different farming families, along with different produce that is grown in Southwest Michigan.
“I thought it was an interesting topic and I thought it would be interesting to our residents and foodies as well,” Shinsky said.
The building is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on a daily basis.
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