Romancing the food system by serving farmers
Cleveland group supports agriculture by creating markets where people love to be, and by gracing them with food they love to eat.

By Greg Bowman

photo courtesy of North Union Farmer's Market

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 cameras.”

– G.B.

Farmers’ market resources

The Farmers’ Market Coalition
Links to regional workshops, talk forum opportunities and a market locator among resources at the site.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service

ATTRA’s marketing and business guide

Putting his food where his mouth is

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 hype?

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 Parker’s 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 7, 2006)

If seasonal food in Cleveland—in March—can win those kind of raves, keep talking, Parker. And keep cooking.

– G.B.

Get serious...before 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.”

Quote from Donita Anderson, North Union Farmers’ Market tour for the Western Reserve Studies Symposium, 2002.

Posted 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’ Market (NUFM) 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 (, 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 Square.

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.

photo courtesy of North Union Farmer's Market

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 (, 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 abundance.
  • 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 Northeast Ohio.

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.

photo courtesy of North Union Farmer's Market

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.

Enlisting allies

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 reason.

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,” Anderson says.

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.