Cultivating community in Ohio: Local Roots crops get sweeter in winter
Three months have passed since my last update on Local Roots Market in Wooster, Ohio. Back then, were on the cusp of opening at last. What's happened in the meantime? A lot.
Following the close of the Downtown Farmers Market at the end of October, Local Roots Market opened as an indoor farmers market on November 7 with a roomful of tables for local produce and baked goods as well as individual freezers for producers' meats. Customers kept the market humming with enthusiasm and good energy as they visited with farmers and bought their weekly supplies of food. Each week we had more people express interest in becoming members, and each week we found more producers setting up shop.
Our film series in November brought out a number of new faces, people we hadn't yet seen in the market but who seemed very interested in learning more about local foods as well as about our current food system. We had a discussion after "Food, Inc." that allowed people to reflect on what they learned from the movie and to raise questions about how the system might be changed. A different crowd joined us for the showing of "PolyCultures," but engaged in a similarly thoughtful examination of the issues surrounding our food. Encouraged by the response, we hope to organize another film series for this year.
By Thanksgiving, we had switched over to "holiday" market mode, with complimentary coffee and cider for shoppers, local musicians providing sweet sounds, and even activities for kids, such as balloon sculptures and butter churning demos. On November 21, our original holiday market, we welcomed Gene and Carol Logsdon as our special guests, and Gene sold a number of his books while talking with local farmers and other fans of his writing. (Gene went on to spread the word about Local Roots on his own blog — a nice bit of PR we really appreciated!) We also made room for our "crafty" producers, including the local Fiber Arts Guild, a professional photographer who has volunteered her time to photograph our producers' farms, and other artists selling food-themed note cards, hand-crafted wooden gifts, and much more.
The holiday market turned out to be such a success that we decided to make the remaining market days for the year (Saturdays from after Thanksgiving to December 19) holiday markets as well. We averaged well over 40 producers participating each week, which meant that we expanded the market space into our meeting room and into the lower "garage" bay area. We put out new advertising flyers to spread the word, and people kept coming through the doors, looking for their holiday gifts and enjoying good food.
Knowing that we would need to close over the holidays for renovations, we encouraged producer members to bring even more samples of their items for a tasting market on December 19, dubbed "A Taste of Local Roots." Customers had the chance to sample products such as maple cream, an herb dipping mix, orange chocolate baklava, German cheesecake, locally-roasted coffee, grass-fed burgers, artisan cheeses, honey jams, goat- and sheep-milk fudges, popcorn, eggnog, and much more. No one needed to pack a lunch that day!
By the time we closed our doors (temporarily), we had nearly achieved our initial goals of 300 members and 50 producer members, at 270 and 55 respectively. Over the course of seven Saturdays, the gross sales at the market topped $35,000, 10% of which remained at the market to cover operations, mainly utilities. As you might guess, it was a very happy holiday season for Local Roots!
Floored by success
After Christmas, though, we had to get down to work. Our grant money from the Ohio Department of Agriculture had finally been freed for us to purchase equipment, and we needed to make certain renovations to the building in order to receive our Retail Food Establishment (RFE) license from the Wayne County Board of Health. So we made a list of projects, checked it twice, and called on volunteers both naughty and nice to help. Electrical and plumbing work had to be handled by contractors, of course, but we started off with a post-holiday crew gathered to rip up the old carpet in the retail space and meeting room and to scrape down, grind, and refinish the concrete floor.
If you've ever done any kind of renovation project, you know that things never go quite as smoothly as planned. Such was the case at Local Roots: the concrete directly underneath the carpet was so webbed with cracks that it could not be refinished. So the work crew jackhammered through that layer to discover a lower level of concrete. Not only was that concrete solid, needing only patching and sealing, it revealed a dusky red flooring that gave the room a warmer look.
Around the same time, one wall of the retail space had to be torn down in order for new wiring to be installed to accommodate our new freezer and coolers, which had been purchased with grant money. A local producer member came in with his son to replace the wall with new drywall, but that then prompted board members to ponder painting the whole room, only two months after the first paint job, and to decorate with a color scheme that coordinated with our now-locally-famous carrot logo. (One customer has said it feels like we're inside the logo.)
The plumber came in to install new pipes and such for the commercial sinks we needed for our RFE license. When he jackhammered a trench in the floor for the plumbing, though, he found a gaping hole beneath the concrete. After a bit of excavation, the architect on our board climbed down to discover a brick archway leading to a space under the retail room. He said he felt like Indiana Jones looking for treasure; alas, none could be found. County records are sketchy on details of the building, but we assume we discovered a long-forgotten basement…perhaps a Roots cellar? After determining that there would not be a problem with subsidence, the hole was filled back in, and the plumbing work proceeded as planned. The episode did open up questions about the building's history, though, and we hope to look into that in more detail soon.
Among our many volunteers, we were fortunate to find a couple of experienced carpenters who had the time to build a new coffee bar at the back of the retail space, using door panels and assorted cabinetry. One of our members has decided to scale up his home coffee-roasting equipment in order to sell coffee at the market, both by the cup and in bulk, so we will have one of our "anchor" vendors sooner than we had dreamed possible. Though we are unable yet to have a cafe, since we have no commercial kitchen, the coffee bar includes a donated glass pastry case where bakers can feature weekly specials.
The same carpentry volunteers also built two checkout lines for the lower bay, and our grant funds allowed us to purchase the needed computers and cash registers for our point-of-sale system. While these items were not fully finished by re-opening day, they definitely provided a step up from folding tables and a cash box.
During this time, we knew we needed to keep people thinking about Local Roots so that they would be ready to return to the store once we re-opened. Problems with renovations kept making our set dates look a little dicey. We had scheduled an old-time dance in the market for January 23, and up until hours before the event, we were short a working restroom. Happily, that was corrected in time, and our dance turned out to be a huge success, drawing in nearly 100 people to "break in" our refinished floor with called square, circle, and contra dances for all ages — an event that many hope will be repeated again yet this year.
We set our re-opening day as January 30, and after our marketing committed us to that date, many of us on the board fretted that renovation obstacles would keep us from passing health inspection. Volunteers stepped up their efforts in the week leading up to re-opening, and thanks to them, we managed to get everything done to the health inspector's approval two days shy of our target date. More volunteers came in the day before re-opening and scrubbed, washed, wiped, and generally spruced up the market from top to bottom. Producers started bringing in their goods to sell on Friday night, with the rest trickling in on Saturday.
Re-opening day brought the level of energy back up among everyone there: new producers brought new items — our local dairy has signed up to sell their milk and butter — the new arrangement put similar items together, and the online order system is up and running for the first order cycle. While the crowd of shoppers stayed at a lower level than at our holiday markets, a steady stream of customers came in for the fresh winter produce of roots (those delicious and sweet Hakurei turnips!) and hearty greens, meats and cheeses, and their daily breads. Many lingered over their coffee samples and selections from the pastry case, enjoying the community spirit that has carried over from our earlier market design.
Our schedule of events continued with a discussion of community gardens held in our meeting room and led by representatives from a few area gardens. Those who attended expressed interest in developing new gardens and asked many insightful questions so as to learn from others' experience. Since Local Roots will host a number of gardening workshops this winter and spring, this discussion gave people plenty to consider before they get down to the details of doing the work.
A few days after our re-opening, we had the thrill of holding a members-only reception for special guest Deborah Madison, who had come to talk as part of The College of Wooster's Wellness Series. Steering committee members gave her the full tour of the market, and she expressed her delight with and support for what we have accomplished thus far. (She even bought a few things to take home on the plane, and we know that made the producers happy.) Her visit fit perfectly with the topic of her talk on campus, which emphasized the connections between food and culture — and the pleasures of reconnecting with our food.
As our official t-shirt logo says, Local Roots is all about "cultivating community." We're finding many different ways to do that, even beyond the obvious goal of bringing together farmers and shoppers. The response thus far has been sweet music to our ears, and we're excited about the new growth that springtime will bring at the market.
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