Art for foods’ sake
Well-planned activities at a farmers’
markets help to draw new crops of customers. North
Union markets have chess tournaments, chefs preparing
foods, food samplings and youth events. Says Donita
Anderson, market director, “Art shows bring
kids, and kids bring parents, grandparents and
Putting his food where his mouth
Sure, farmers’ market uber-advocate Parker
Bosley talks a good fight about the supremacy
of local food to keep farming alive in Ohio and
across the US, staving off the onslaughts of industrial
food and keeping families farming well. But does
his nationally ranked restaurant live up to the
How about 90 percent local food, much of it seasonal,
mostly purchased from farmers he knows personally.
Parker talks about “voting with our fork”
for great food, and believes that the marketplace
is the best place to preserve sustainable farms.
His restaurant fare testifies to the savor and
promise of food raised well by farm families who
know quality, prepared with affection and passion.
One recent reviewer said of her experience at
New American Bistro, “Who knew that
celery root was so good or that beets could be
so fine? For that matter, who knew that braised
beef shin, in a dark, mild onion broth, would
literally melt in the mouth, or that a slaw of
shredded kohlrabi, fennel, cabbage, and apple
could leave one dizzy with its fragrance?”
(Elaine T. Cicora, Cleveland Scene, March
If seasonal food in Cleveland—in March—can
win those kind of raves, keep talking, Parker.
And keep cooking.
you ask farmers to your market
So you want to help out farmers in your area
by starting a farmers’ market? Consider
these words from Donita Anderson, a non-farmer,
professional market manager, who’s walked
through the “to market or not to market”
decision with scores of farmers.
“If you are planning on starting a farmers
market, you have to understand the farmer’s
point of view.
“To come to market is at least an 18-hour
work day before market day, with picking, cleaning,
sorting, packing and driving to be done before
you get to market, then you stand in the wind,
rain, heat for five or more hours trying to keep
up a pleasant countenance and a full table, then
you drive the hour and a half home, unload, water
crops and feed animals.
“If you don’t plan on creating the
best venue for them to sell their products direct,
if you haven’t done your marketing, or picked
out the most advantageous market site, and created
the right structure, don’t ask them out
to your market. What’s the right structure?
You have to assure them they will be surrounded
by their peers, “producers” not cheap
competition brokered from Mexico or California,
or product purchased at a local farm auction house
on the cheap.”
March 9, 2006: Some farmers’ markets are meant
to bring back life for a blighted neighborhood, while others
grow out of farmers needing to sell their crops to stay on
the land they love.
Farmers in northern Ohio ready to become serious marketers
can partner with an organization that grew out of one woman’s
quest for nutrient-dense food from Ohio’s mineral-rich
soils. The fact that she wanted farmers to “come to
the city” in the early ‘90s and sell where there
were no markets gave her a tough sell job—which forced
her to more clearly define what she really wanted: success
for everybody involved.
The story of Cleveland’s North Union Farmers’
is what happens when many other people—chefs, politicians,
homemakers, community groups, artisans and even farmers—began
to see what’s possible when food that matters meets
people who care in venues exquisitely designed for the moment.
Fresh from winter trips to gather more clues from thriving
markets across the US, NUFM director Donita Anderson is talking
up this year’s “Let’s Get Fresh” market-buzz
event. Volunteers are pairing 30 farmers who produce high-quality
heritage breeds of livestock with celebrity chefs in a meat-fest
for the April 24 fund-raiser. Helping with the event is the
American Livestock Breed Conservancy (www.albc-usa.org),
a group dedicated to preserving heritage genetics through
research, promotion and sustainable agricultural production.
North Union has 130 farmers under contract to bring their
wares to six certified producer-only farmers’ markets
throughout the Cleveland area. (Last year NUFM had 15 bakers
and 82 artisans to round out the ambiance of the markets.)
Some farmers came only a few weeks with ramps or asparagus,
some came most of the season. All of them were advised to
shoot for $1,000 of business—minimum—per sale
day. Those selling heirloom turkeys just before Thanksgiving
did many times that amount, for weeks in a row.
The flagship market at Shaker Square—started in 1995
in what was then a blighted area within the Cleveland city
limits—will have receipts of well over $1 million this
year from a clientele of mostly medical and academic professionals.
Pursuing the hope of providing year-round income for their
farmers, NUFM initiated winter sales in January at Shaker
The newest market at Crocker Park was founded last year in
Westlake, a suburb of newer homes and lots of new arrivals
to the metro area. Anderson estimates it will gross upwards
of $900,000 in its second season from shoppers that include
business persons, players from the Browns and Indians franchises
and people who grew up on farms long ago and crave the connection
they can have at market. Other North Union markets are in
Olmstead Falls, Parma and Lakewood.
Most of the farmers are within an hour of their markets –
keeping the food as local and as fresh as possible. Up to
a third of the farmers are Ivy League grads, but the most
successful producers are the Amish families “because
of their diligence at recordkeeping,” Anderson claims.
Chef and restaurant founder turned sustainable agriculture
promoter Parker Bosley recruits farmers with top-quality farms
that will complement other vendors at the markets. He works
with them in crop selection to tune their offerings to what
the customers seem to be asking for, and in many aspects of
building their long-term business potential.
Anderson and co-founder Mary Holmes established NUFM on the
conviction that producer-only markets would bring a unique
integrity and market demand. Anderson looks to the models
of the Green Markets in New York, the amazingly successful
Dane County Market in Wisconsin and, more recently, the California
Farmers’ Market Association—the best in the country
at present, Anderson says. She’s learning a lot from
Gail Hayden (www.cafarmersmkts.com/gail.html),
nationally recognized for her role in developing 12 producer-only
farmers’ markets in the San Francisco area grossing
more than $10 million annually.
Growing market appeal
Leading a workshop at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable
Agriculture (PASA) conference this winter, Bosley and Anderson
outlined some of the ways they help farmers “to sell
the whole truckload” each week:
- Eye-height, intensely-packed displays throughout the
market to evoke the “Hong Kong effect” of bustling
- Farm signs with home town and photos.
- Flowers at the corners and other visual centers.
- Two-tier, stepped shelves for maximum visual display.
- Nothing on the ground.
- “Not all green” in the offerings – or
any other single color.
- Engagment with customers to build trust.
- Interaction to find customer interests.
- Persistent relationship building to find allies.
- Season extension with hoophouses and other techniques
to coax production from early and late growing times.
Each fall, NUFM offers business training for its farmer members
by expert farmers and marketers. This winter, the group sponsored
a trip by several farm families to visit a successful Midwestern
farm operator who will lead a session in Cleveland this fall.
The focus is on helping farmers to sell more, so they can
bring more, so more farmer-centric markets can develop across
Bosley thinks big picture and micro-enterprise—and
several more layers—all at the same time.
Macro: He helps participants in the market
see the different, but intersecting, roles of the farmers
and the customers. Farmers combine their fertile Ohio mineral
soils, skills and time to produce food that they pick, pack,
transport, present at market then sell to customers. Farmers
go home with empty trucks, full pocketbooks, a sense of
satisfaction and a willingness to do it all gain.
Customers combine their food memories, nutritional needs,
parental desires and yearning for community into a set of
farmers’ market expectations that they bring with
their dollars. They interact with fellow shoppers and the
farmers and buy food. They go home with arms full of food
to plan menus, prepare the food, eat, talk and enjoy what
they have purchased, eager to do it all again next week.
Micro: The “Bean Queen” focused
on bringing green string beans to market because she had
perfected growing them. People waited in line to buy them,
and she was happy. Bosley suggested she grow “shell
beans”—eaten for the fresh bean, and not the
pod. She was skeptical, but she tried. She learned how to
grow them, and found that her bean-o-phile followers dearly
loved her small bags of shelled beans ready to cook. They’ll
buy all she cares to shell.
As it supports current farmers, the organization also wants
to win the hearts of the next generation of Ohio agriculturists.
The children of the marketing farmers are the focus of the
market planners, and receive chocolate milk and doughnuts
to help make the hours of selling, re-stocking the baskets
and waiting more memorable.
In the post 9/11 era, “local has surpassed organic”
in defining what customers across the US are hungry for, Anderson
has found. “People want more direct connections and
relationships in their food lives,” she says. She identifies
three leading groups of customers at their markets: people
interested in healthy food, the “stroller crowd”
of young families and the “double-degree” professionals
with income in excess of $75,000 per year.
This kind of multi-sector support, visible positive impact
on the market locations and benefit to the participating farmers
and other vendors helps NUFM raise about $250,000 for its
annual budget. It has four full-time staff, lots of part-timers,
and casual workers during the season to manage site locations.
Volunteers help to mount the high-profile education and fund-raising
dinners, which complement grant funding.
As an educational non-profit organization, North Union collaborates
with many groups and institutions throughout the city and
region, from The Cleveland Clinic to Slow Food to the Ohio
State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Yet much of the success for the six sites operated by NUFM,
Anderson says, comes from the scores of unofficial “advocates”
who make it their nearly daily practice to talk up the benefits
of their farmers’ markets. These are the people, of
modest or generous incomes, who decide to devote a greater
portion of their income to buy local food—for whatever
These are the people who talk about their market when they
go out to lunch, when they talk to friends on the phone, when
they see you in the store. “’Customers’
come and go, but advocates are there every week—buying,
canning, freezing…and talking about their market,”
North Union’s rise is built around a new generation
of the region’s farmers and their healthy, seasonal
foods marketed with relationships to their customers. This
contradicts the simultaneous rise of big box grocery outlets
featuring imported, relatively inexpensive and ever-more marginally
nutritious food. But North Union has also built a community
of networked relationships throughout the metro area that
have created a clear set of opportunities for the region’s
farmers ready to head to the city with trucks full of food.