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 Food and Farms » Smarter Food: A farmers market with a difference

Smarter Food: A farmers market with a difference

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.”

Local 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.

Launched 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 away.

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.

Local 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.

Local 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.

The 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.

Local 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.

And 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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