Farmers market season is just weeks away here in northeastern Ohio, and local growers have worked long days to get their crops planted after a slow start to spring. Behind the scenes at Local Roots, the we've put in long hours, too, planting our own seeds for a year-round farmers market in Wooster.
We've met weekly since late February, and since my first report on our progress at the end of March, more items have been checked off our collective "to-do" list — and many, many more have been added. To start with, we have formed a legal entity: the Wooster Local Foods Cooperative, doing business as Local Roots Market and Cafe. We still have some details to iron out before the business is solid and we can raise funds, but we have a slate of officers to run the meetings, an official website (still under development), and email contacts to make our correspondence more professional.
The Wayne County Commissioners responded favorably to our proposal to use the vacant county-owned "Corning" building in downtown Wooster for the market (pictured above). Though we have yet to sign a contract, we are working on the details of renovation and development (as well as of financial matters such as rent) with them. The location is ideal: across the street from the public library, one block from the square where the Saturday morning farmers market sets up shop, and close to a host of other community organizations and businesses.
The name and the idea are sinking into local consciousness — and interest is growing. Reaching out
Much effort has gone into working with local farmers. Half of the members of the cooperative's steering committee also attend meetings of the local chapter of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), including the past and current chapter presidents. The March and April meetings of this group featured discussions of the market proposal and its impact on local producers. Farmers, naturally, want to know how this additional outlet for selling their products will affect their own bottom lines, and we have had fruitful discussions about guidelines for growing and selling products for market, health codes, membership and rental fees, and marketing.
So far the general tone is one of cautious optimism: they are understandably wary about a new business but hopeful that by being able to sell in the store or even online, they can leave the marketing to someone else and get back to farming. The producers on the steering committee, especially Dave Benchoff and Monica Bongue, have devoted a great deal of time to talking with and listening to other farmers, and their own initial questions about the project have helped them explain the benefits of the business in a no-nonsense, practical way to their colleagues. (A pie-in-the-sky customer like me would have nowhere near the credibility that Dave and Monica do, thanks to their roles in OEFFA.)
Potential customers, on the other hand, have seemed considerably easier to reach and persuade. We developed information brochures that outlined (briefly!) the ideas behind the project, the plans for Local Roots, and how people can become members. Beautifully designed by our talented graphic designer, Jennifer Hugon, these brochures (along with posters) caught many people’s eyes at Earth Day celebrations both at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the College of Wooster. And as potential members picked up brochures, we had them fill out contact forms so that we can build a membership database.
While the visual appeal of both food and the market brochures played a key factor in inspiring people, we couldn't leave out the power of the written word. We sent press releases to local newspapers in Wayne and surrounding counties to sketch out our mission and goals, and a couple of enthusiastic reporters followed up with interviews to get our ideas out to a broader audience. (The reporter at Farm and Dairy expressed particular interest in spreading the word among food producers in northern Ohio.)
We wanted all of this publicity to generate excitement about our community information meeting on May 4 at the local public library. Members of the steering committee spoke to a standing-room only crowd about the cooperative's mission and goals, development phases, and financial structure, then took questions from the floor to clarify some of the points we had made or to assuage concerns. Though most of the crowd represented the consumer side of the membership equation, we did welcome several producers we had not met at other meetings, and two of the committee officers spoke with potential financial advisers after the meeting.
After speaking with a few of the people in attendance, and hearing similar responses that other committee members received, I'd say that people are both impressed with all the work that has gone into the planning so far and excited (even a little wonderstruck) that this can actually happen in our community. They want to see it happen, and now they want to help make it happen, too.
Granted, we have a tremendous amount of work to do if we want to open the doors, at least on the first phase of the market, by early August. We need to begin work on the building, starting with floor plans (which we're discussing in this group photo) and infrastructure changes. We need to kick off a membership drive and to begin bringing local producers into the market, with all the paperwork that will entail. We need to get an online ordering system up and running smoothly before the doors open. We need to develop our website and find ways to keep in touch with people (newsletter, blog, press coverage) so that we can keep building their enthusiasm and interest in the market. And did I mention we need money to do all this?
Still, we keep reminding ourselves: look how far we've come and how much we've done. We can do this! We're even going to celebrate our progress to date with a committee potluck this weekend, spending time together socially with our families and — you guessed it — a table loaded with good local food.
And next week, we'll get back down to work, planting more of those Local Roots.
(Group photo by John Anderson; all others by the author.)