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