There must be something in the Ethicurean (tap) waters. As much as we love to eat and write about SOLE food, more and more of us are finding ways to put not just our money, but our time and energy, where our mouths are.
From our die-hard community gardeners Peter and Elanor to our CSA-pork-packin' mama Bonnie, from Ali's serving at a local soup kitchen to Stephanie's immersion in agricultural education, our Ethicurean team is getting beyond research and writing and actually doing something to change our food system.
And darn it, I might be slow, but I'm finally finding a way that I can contribute to my own community: participating in the creation of a local foods market that will supplement and support the weekly downtown farmers market in Wooster, Ohio. If all goes well, we should be opening at the end of this year.
Back in the fall, hints of a year-round farmers market in Wooster bubbled their way to my ears. In my heart of hearts, I've wanted to find a way to parlay my food preservation skills into teaching others, but I'm also a starry-eyed fan of my local farmers and knew that this market could be a way to encourage local food production and consumption to the benefit of our whole local economy. I attended the Northeast Ohio Food Congress and connected with other local foods advocates, including two of the four people I later discovered to be the ringleaders of this agricultural plot.
Around the same time, I joined the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) and started attending meetings of the local chapter (which turned out to be a great way to meet other local farmers and to learn more about agriculture from their perspective). The farmers themselves were excited about the potential for a year-round market, but they had no idea who might be involved in the plans. Still, by asking around and dropping hints about how much I'd love to work on such an effort, I eventually found my way to the first organizational meeting.
Over the past two months, our group has met almost every week, gathering a core "steering committee" of a dozen enthusiastic and multi-talented persons. The team includes local farmers, teachers, researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, a bank president, a former store manager, an architect, a graphic designer, cooks and bakers, members of the local sustainable energy group, and a writer. (We probably couldn't have chosen a better mix of talents if we tried!)
Two couples, John and Betsy Anderson and Bill and Marlene Boyer, laid the groundwork for our plans. Cousins and friends, they confessed to talking about the idea of a year-round market for years before finally taking the first steps last fall. They set their sights on using a vacant brick building just off the main street in town. Despite the building's need for retrofitting (for energy efficiency) and renovation, it struck the Andersons and the Boyers as a good choice due to its proximity to the farmers market location on the town square and its open, flexible interior space that could be used for cold storage, produce deliveries, bakery and cafe conversion, and meeting space as well as a retail floor.
They began a round of meetings with city and county officials, members of the Wayne Economic Development Council, builders, and an attorney to gather information as to what the possibility would be of renting the building from the county (the current owner) and what would need to be done to start the market. They also researched other markets and businesses in the state to get more ideas. By the time they called the first organizational meeting at the beginning of February, they had drawn up a rough draft of a business proposal and pulled together so much information that those of us who were new to the project became even more excited about the potential market.
The defined mission of the market is simple: Connect consumers and producers of locally grown foods and other agricultural products. Though we have yet to define our guidelines of what is "local" (recognizing that the definition may vary according to type of product), we all agree that the products to be sold should be grown or made locally, made with local ingredients, or given locally-added value. And don't think that just because we're in northeastern Ohio our shelves will be bare in the winter: our region produces meat and poultry, dairy products, eggs, lots of produce that will keep in cold storage, grains, honey, maple syrup, mushrooms, wine, and many more products beyond perishable produce.
So far our steering committee has accomplished a great deal. To begin with, we've decided to set up the market as a cooperative for both producers and consumers. Our banker member, Marlene Barkheimer, has a gift for crunching the numbers, and she and her equally creative daughter Jessica keep coming up with ideas for drawing in co-op members and for developing an online ordering system that would help farmers know how much produce they can count on selling in a given week. Our local architect, Keith Speirs, has worked with students from the local career center to draw up floor plans for the building and has investigated potential retrofit needs. He and local electrician John Drouhard have coordinated efforts with the Wayne County Sustainable Energy Network (WCSEN) to propose an energy audit, weatherization, and the addition of a solar array to bring the building as close to carbon neutral as possible.
We've begun to explore start-up funding options, including grant proposals and a fundraising "edible landscape" dinner to be held at Muddy Fork Farm, hosted by farmer Monica Bongue. Another local farmer, Dave Benchoff, keeps us informed about licensing considerations and other details we'll have to work out as we go along. (Both Monica and Dave connect us back to OEFFA and other local farmers through their roles as current and past presidents of the local chapter.) Betsy, Marlene Boyer, and I have begun to sort through details of the bakery and café we'd like to set up within the market as a way to showcase local produce (as well as to use and preserve some of what doesn't get sold to the public), and we'd all like to see the development of a demonstration kitchen where we could hold cooking classes. (Maybe I'll get to teach more people about food preservation after all!)
We've tossed around names for the market, finally to settle on Local Roots as a way to evoke our grassroots effort to connect the community back to its agricultural roots. (Who doesn't love to root for the home team?) Jennifer Hugon has put her graphic design skills to work on our behalf and has come up with initial logos and designs (as shown here) to illustrate our ideal of connecting people to the land and to good local food. As co-founder Marlene Boyer describes it, we're trying to create "an amazing place in downtown Wooster where people can come to get wonderful foods that nourish both body and soul."
The goals we've set to meet our market's mission include encouraging healthy eating through the availability of fresh local foods, the creation of wholesome dishes in the cafe, and the education of consumers; expanding local economic development by creating jobs and increasing the market for producers; promoting community development by networking with other organizations and businesses; and promoting sustainable living by featuring small farms using sustainable agricultural practices, emphasizing the environmental benefits of supporting local agriculture, demonstrating the feasibility of alternative energy technologies, and creating a community lending library (partnered with WCSEN) to educate our neighbors.
We've recently met with the county commissioners to review our proposed business plan and model and to obtain their permission and support to use the building we've chosen. Though the commissioners need a week or two to review and discuss the details of our proposal, we know we need to move ahead with other aspects of the project: formalizing our business structure, defining our producer guidelines, writing grant proposals and press releases, arranging a more detailed building review in order to pin down renovation costs, exploring additional funding streams, and getting ready to sign up farmers and other members.
Are you exhausted by all that? So are we!
But the more we meet, the more we realize we have to do to pull this market together. Our dream is to open, at least partially, by the beginning of November, in time to provide an indoor space where local farmers market vendors can extend the market season. We will likely have to phase the development of the market, depending on the fundraising and the length of time needed for renovations, but we want to draw in farmers and customers as soon as possible in order to establish ourselves in conjunction with the farmers market.
The response we've had so far to our plans has been gratifyingly enthusiastic. More people in the area are interested in eating local food and supporting local farmers but have stumbled across the same obstacle that brought Marlene and Jessica Barkheimer to the table: with no central place to find a wide variety of local foods, they ended up driving all over northeastern Ohio to source their food, some of which turned out to be grown in their own neighborhood. We know the market is there, and we know that people are hungry not only for good local food but for ways to invest in Main Street when Wall Street has lost its appeal. No wonder we're constantly being met with the question, "How soon will this market open?"
It's still early in the planning stage yet, and we know we have a long way to go with a lot of work ahead. (I'll be sure to report back periodically on our progress.) But just as our local farmers are starting this year's crops, so, too, do we begin to set some roots of our own in our local area. We're ready to go — and to grow!