Slow but steady growth: Building the Local Roots market in Ohio
This summer has been a cool one so far here in northeastern Ohio. The sweltering heat and humidity has so far failed to materialize, and while I personally am not complaining about being less uncomfortable, I do sometimes worry about the gardens.
The mild days and cool nights are keeping tomatoes from ripening, for one thing. Late-summer crops are definitely taking their sweet time in growing. And the dearth of rain in our neighborhood until just recently has also slowed things down.
I'm an optimist, though, and since the growing season is nowhere near done, I'm going to wait and see if these plants will only grow stronger and more prolific due to the slight hardships they've faced so far.
I believe that, you see, because I've already seen it happen, and not just in the garden. The same thing is happening as we work to make the new Local Roots Market a reality.
When I last posted an update on the progress we had made in planning this new year-round farmers' market, we had the ideas down pat, we announced them to the public, and we received a reassuringly favorable response. We soon had a building lined up and local support, and we were ready to move ahead.
Life rarely lets you take the straight and easy path, though. A few setbacks, while not life-threatening to the project, caused us to slow down for a bit. The biggest challenge was to go back and reassess all the legal paperwork we had pulled together to form the market as a cooperative. We had not filed the papers exactly as needed, so our business-savvy treasurer, Marlene Barkheimer, consulted an attorney with experience in helping cooperatives, and he got us on the right track. A month or more later, we had clear-cut by-laws, appropriate forms for taking memberships (and investors' money), and an official board of directors. By July 1, we could start our official membership drive and move forward.
Legal paperwork also slowed us down in settling the lease contract with the Wayne County Commissioners, the owners of our proposed site. While they fully support our plans and have worked out a favorable agreement with us, the contract still requires a thorough vetting by the commissioners' attorney before we sign it and take on more responsibility for the building. In the meantime, the county has cleared the first floor of its stored items, leaving us space to bring in equipment and display cases as we acquire them, and the county also responded promptly to our request to have the plumbing checked and fixed. (There's nothing worse than having a three-hour steering committee meeting in a building with no functional restroom!) Steering committee member Bill Boyer set us up with a phone line and is investigating wireless service for the building, so we're a step closer on that part of our business needs.
Between these two legal setbacks, then, it became clear that we could no longer meet our target opening date of August 1, so we have tentatively set our opening for sometime in September (and hope to pinpoint a date soon). We've kept busy on other aspects of the business, though, and can report many small successes:
- Though it seems a very small detail, we finally have an official address as well as a post office box and phone number for correspondence.
- The first members have signed up and paid their annual fees, and the first investors have also sent money (ranging from $1,000 to a generous $5,000). While the numbers may seem small, we want the cooperative to be a community-supported business, and the response so far indicates that our members want to have that say in our business, too.
- The logo has undergone a small transformation to its final, letterhead- and sign-ready appearance. The new logo now graces our newsletter and other literature, our informative and beautiful website (all designed by our superb graphic designer and board member, Jennifer Hugon), and will soon appear on the building itself.
- We've started a monthly newsletter to keep the members and interested friends informed of our progress. I've taken on the work of writing updates, features, information on seasonal produce, and other good things for the newsletter, though I'm hoping to find other people willing to contribute ideas and articles soon.
- The online ordering system is in progress, thanks to the efforts of Jessica Barkheimer and Bill Boyer, and we plan to present a demo to prospective producer members on August 10 as a way to entice them into doing business through the market. Based on the excellent online system of the Oklahoma Food Co-op, it looks to be a straightforward way for people to streamline their local food shopping.
- We've settled on the details of phase one of the business, located in the southwest quadrant of the building, and are beginning to collect the pieces of equipment we'll need. Our locally-owned grocery chain (Buehler's) has not only very generously given us some bakery and other display cases they no longer need, but they have also requested a "wish list" from us and have invited members of the steering committee to browse their storage areas to see what else we might be able to use. It's gratifying to get their support, instead of resistance to the idea of competition: they understand the need to support local foods and are happy we can fill in the gaps they cannot (due to their size and demand).
- We've also talked to a couple of "anchor" vendors who are interested in setting up shop within the market, and while we don't have plans finalized yet, we are excited about the additional business and the unique character they will bring.
- One of our local newspapers has offered us weekly space for advertising our business, whether through explaining the mission of Local Roots, profiling producer members, or sharing recipes and tips on seasonal produce. We look forward to having this free space in which to share information about upcoming events, too.
The biggest news to date, though, comes from our recent efforts to bring some grant money into the treasury. Board member Betsy Anderson, with help from other steering committee members and OARDC colleagues, spent hours researching and writing a proposal for a Specialty Crops Promotion grant through the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, emphasizing our innovative approach to running a farmers market with both in-market and online sales. In early July, she received word from the Ohio Department of Agriculture (responsible for allocating the grant funds) that we had received our full request of funding — nearly $60,000! — in order to purchase the equipment we need to set up Phase One of the market (including refrigeration and freezer units, tables and sorting bins, commercial sinks) and to have access to the online ordering system on site (computer, cash register), as well as to hire a part-time market manager. The grant gives us an enormous boost financially, and we have a local restaurateur willing to help us spend the grant money in the most effective way, using his contacts to help us find the best prices.
It seems there's never an end to our ongoing to-do lists, and some meetings leave us feeling like we haven't moved too much further ahead. Right around the time we feel like we can raise a glass in celebration over some achievement, we realize how much more we have yet to accomplish. Looking back, though, it's pretty clear that we've grown slowly, steadily, and solidly — much like this summer's produce — and these strong Local Roots are bound to have a bountiful harvest soon.
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