|Smarter Food: A farmers market with a difference
WOOSTER, OHIO — Martha Gaffney had high hopes five years ago when she
arrived in Ohio and began farming. She had grown up in the Ecuadorean
Andes, where the only way to farm, she says, is what we Americans call
“organic.” With local foods booming, Gaffney thought it would be easy to
grow and market vegetables and pastured meat from her six acres in the
small city of Ashland.
Except it wasn’t easy. Gaffney was able to
sell some of the crops at farmers markets. But that required long hours
away from Martha’s Farm during the height of the growing season. The
rest she hawked at the local produce auction, where the going rate often
was barely high enough for her to break even.
Then in 2010, Gaffney found Local Roots,
a market in nearby Wooster that saved the farm. The local-foods co-op
allows as many as 150 producers to stock its shelves six days a week,
year-round. Customers can buy milk, cheese, meat and produce from any
combination of producers and pay at a central checkout. And the farmers
receive 90 percent of the purchase price, nearly three times what they
would get if they sold it to a wholesaler. “We were so happy,” says
Gaffney, who now sells almost all of her meat and produce through Local
Roots. “We won’t be slaves. We will be able to make a business.”
Roots is a new kind of co-op. It helps small farmers such as Gaffney
make ends meet. It also caters to customers who like the idea of buying
local but find visits to farmers markets and weekly buying clubs, such
as community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, inconvenient.
two years ago in a renovated warehouse off Wooster’s main drag, the
market is thriving. On a recent visit, the shelves were stocked with
potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, arugula, nine varieties of apples,
grass-fed milk, jam, maple syrup and locally milled flour. And this is
the slow season.
To date, the co-op has grossed about $750,000 and
is making a profit. The founders have added a small cafe and soon will
build a community kitchen, where producers and entrepreneurs can
preserve and can seasonal foods. This month, Local Roots helped to open a
second market — what it calls a “sprout” — in Ashland, about 25 miles
Wooster is not an obvious place for a local-foods co-op. The
city is home to just 26,000 people. And this is not, say, Vermont or
Northern California, where local food has become a cause. But Wooster
does have two big advantages. The rolling hills that surround it are
dotted with small farms; the county is home to one of the largest Amish
populations in the country. And it has a small, dedicated group of
residents who wanted a different kind of place to shop.
Roots’ founders are a diverse group, including farmers, agricultural
researchers, teachers, a banker and an architect. In 2009, the group
began meeting weekly to figure out how to build a co-op without a lot of
capital — which, co-founder Betsy Anderson says, “none of us had.” That
ruled out traditional retail models, where the store sources and buys
all of the food up front — and loses money on whatever goes to waste.
“From the beginning, we were looking at how this would all fit together
so it was environmentally and economically sustainable,” Anderson says.
Roots’ solution was to develop a hybrid grocery store-farmers market.
There are sections for meat, dairy products, bread, produce and
specialty items such as gourmet popcorn and sorghum syrup. Each
department carries offerings from a variety of producers, who come each
week and stock the shelves themselves. That allows customers to buy
grass-fed milk from Hartzler’s Dairy, eggs from the Shepherd’s Market,
walnut bread from the Grain Maker bakery and turnips from Martha’s Farm
but still check out at a single cash register, using a check, a credit
card, even food stamps as well as cash.
For tracking sales, each
product in the store has a bar code, created with free, open-source
software. Every week, each farmer gets an inventory report of what sold
and when. Every two weeks, each farmer gets a check for 90 percent of
his or her total gross sales. The other 10 percent goes toward
operational expenses: rent, utilities and the salary of the co-op’s
market manager, its only full-time staffer.
Farmers also sell to
the co-op’s cafe. On most days, the three chefs buy food just like any
other customer and turn it into homey, delicious dishes such as
leek-and-feta quiche or a curried cauliflower, apple and arugula pesto
sandwich on locally made bread. Producers also sell the cafe their
excess produce, the stuff that won’t sit another week on the shelves.
The cooks prep and freeze it or use it for soups and sauces.
setup has been a boon to farmers. Marion Yoder, who sells pastured
meats, cheese and homemade bagels, says the co-op helps keep her
business running all year, with no need for customers to drive out to
the farm after the farmers markets close for the season. (She is now
selling about half of her meat through Local Roots.) Shoppers benefit,
too, because the co-op makes it convenient to source most of their food
locally. “It’s as easy as the grocery store,” says Trevor Dunlap, the
head of a local nonprofit group, who stopped in to pick up some
grass-fed milk and butter on his lunch hour.
There has been much
to learn, of course. Jessica Eikleberry, the co-op’s market manager, has
had to coach producers about what they can reasonably expect to sell in
a given week. Last summer, she remembers, “every single grower in the
tri-county area brought in tomatoes, until half the building was full of
them.” The next week, the co-op printed tomato recipe cards and
organized cooking demonstrations. But most farmers didn’t bother to
bring any. Farmers are now required to rent shelf space for a month at a
time, so the co-op knows how much produce to expect each week.
Roots’ success has garnered the group much attention locally.
Co-founder Betsy Anderson says she is consulting with five groups from
other parts of Ohio about how to get similar co-ops up and running.
the idea is spreading. Bob Filbrun, an agricultural extension agent in
Edgecombe County, N.C., about an hour east of Raleigh, visited Local
Roots for inspiration on how to re-energize his own community’s
struggling market. Its model addressed many of the challenges he’d been
hearing about from customers and producers in his area. But just as
important was the market’s vibe: “It was such a nice mix of products and
presentation and atmosphere,” he said. “I don’t mean to get too
philosophical about it. But if a farmers market is done right, it can be
the heartbeat of the community.”
Indeed, that is the aim of Local
Roots. Each month, the co-op puts on special events, such as December’s
artisan crafts day and a knitting circle. But at its core is a new way
of buying and selling food. Or as Marlene Barkheimer, Local Roots’
treasurer, says with a laugh, “finding a way to make it work for the
farmer and the lazy shopper — like me.”
Black, a former Food section staffer now based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.
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