Nine months doesn't really seem like a very long time: over the span of a lifetime, just a mere hiccup on a long journey. But when you're in the midst of those nine months (ask any expectant mother), you find yourself amazed at how much goes on in that time frame — and how it can seem to pass so slowly, and yet so quickly.
That's how long (or how short) it's been since the steering committee of the Wooster Local Foods Cooperative, Inc., came together and began meeting regularly. And now another newborn has entered the world, and its proud parents' dreams have come true: Local Roots Market opened its doors on Saturday, October 31.
As you might expect, enormous amounts of hard work went into bringing our plans to fruition. When I last updated you on the cooperative's progress, we still had hopes of opening in September, but the bureaucratic pitfalls and obstacles kept stalling us as we tried to reach that goal:
Red tape challenges: It took us a while to figure out how the business should be classified for licensing. We viewed ourselves as a farmers market, except that the producer members paid a "retainage fee" that covered the market representing them in sales, but that didn't fit the Ohio Department of Agriculture's definition of a farmers market. And though we had serious initial concerns about being classed as a "retail food establishment" (RFE), worrying that this would cause undue hardship on producers, we asked questions and got reassuring answers from the ODA and from the Wayne County Board of Health.
Cash flow crunch: Thanks to that delay, as well as to the as-yet non-receipt of our grant funds (now due to arrive in December or January), we found ourselves stalled on purchasing the initial equipment — sinks and coolers, primarily — for the indoor market. As a result, our RFE license has been postponed until December 1. On the upside, waiting until then will give us a longer term on that license, but in the meantime, we still applied for a farmers market license and will have our producers sell at an indoor farmers' market (where they staff their own booths) during November. (And we've been given yet more display units and equipment by our local grocery chain, Buehler's.)
Techno hurdles: The online order system had some major snags along the way, but with the help of an outside database programmer, we managed to work out the bugs and get the system ready for our producer members to enter their information. This delay eventually worked in our favor, too, since we will not be able to have pick-up days until we have the RFE license in December.
Anchors a ways away: We have not made as much progress in working out details for our proposed "anchor" vendors as we had hoped, but we decided to get started on our own, anyway, and hope to bring in a coffee kiosk in the near future as well as to develop an in-house butcher shop when we create our commercial kitchen. Both of those anchors will be responsible for funding their own ventures, which will also affect the timetable for each to begin business, but we believe that they will add a great deal of value to the market.
Is your head spinning yet? Then you have an idea of what the past few months have been like for us. The stress of working through these major issues has caused many an argument in our meetings, but since everyone involved genuinely likes, respects, and appreciates one another and keeps the cooperative in mind in making all decisions, we have been able to work through conflicts and find a way forward — even finding creative new solutions along the way.
• Along with a phone line, we now have Internet service in the building as well as a computer set-up for a market office.
• On another work day in October, members of the steering committee sealed the cracks in the concrete floor in one quadrant of the building, bringing it up to the standards required by the Health Department for food-handling areas.
• The steering committee decided to have another work evening in lieu of its usual meeting this week and spent the time vacuuming and then steam-cleaning the carpet; patching, sanding, and painting walls; and getting things tidied up.
• Volunteers, including students from the Organic Farming Program House at The College of Wooster, have helped to spread the word and to distribute flyers around town.
• The fantastic website continues to win fans, and our column in the Wooster Weekly News has helped to spread the information about the market and give readers more ideas for appreciating seasonal, local produce.
• The monthly newsletter has begun to expand as other members contribute articles and recipes, and we've come up with a list of monthly themes to give ideas to other contributors and to add to our educational mission. (For November, American Diabetes Month, we've had a pair of articles that emphasize eating whole foods — easily made part of a locavore diet — in dealing with this lifestyle disease.)
All of this work has finally brought us around to Opening Day. On Saturday, October 31, we opened the doors to the community on the final day of the Downtown Farmers' Market and welcomed everyone in for an open house. Members of the steering committee offered home-baked cookies (using local ingredients, of course), coffee, and good local cider to guests as people wandered through the building and learned more about what they will see in coming weeks.
• On Saturdays in November, Local Roots will be open from 10 AM to 3 PM for the indoor farmers market, featuring many of our 20+ producer members who have signed up to date.
• On November 7 and 21, Local Roots will host a film series ("Fresh Food, Fresh Ideas") to offer an entertaining and educational look at the American food system and at how we can do better. The first film, "Food, Inc.," will be shown at The Big Picture, our downtown movie theatre, with a discussion afterward in the Local Roots building. On November 21, the Local Roots building will be the site of the screening of "PolyCultures," a local documentary that shows how organizations across northeast Ohio are taking back control of their food supply. The filmmakers, Tom Kondilas and Brad Masi, will be on hand to share their thoughts on what they've seen since the film wrapped up production.
• On November 20, from 7 to 9:30 PM, Local Roots will hold a holiday open house during downtown Wooster's annual Window Wonderland event (when families take a stroll around town as businesses unveil their holiday-decorated window fronts).
• On November 21, the indoor farmers market will expand into the first annual Holiday Market, where shoppers can find not only good local produce for the Thanksgiving feast but also delicious baked goods (yes, the Baklava Queen, yours truly, will even bake baklava for the event) and gift items by local artists and crafters. Best of all, we will have a very special guest on hand: Ohio farmer and author Gene Logsdon will sell and sign several of his books, including "All Flesh Is Grass" and "Small-Scale Grain Raising."
Yes, that's a lot of activity in the first month of business, and it has meant a great deal of work for the past few weeks to spread the word and get everything prepared for all of these events. Since we recognize we’re going to have a slightly slower start than we had hoped for, we want to find other ways to bring more people into the market and to get them used to being involved in Local Roots. We still need to increase our membership — and to bring in more membership fees to keep running the market — so every chance we get to talk to potential members and to welcome new faces to the crowd, we'll take it.
And while we take a moment here and there to celebrate the sheer joy in knowing that we did it, we also know we have a lot more work ahead — and that it's the kind of work that is truly worth doing.
Photo of garage door painting by Gretchen Tefs; all others by the author.