Local Roots: A Community Co-op

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“Many of our customers are looking for non-GMO products, when they come into the store,” Eikleberry said.
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With a lot of hard work, community support, grant funding, donations, and volunteer efforts, Local Roots community co-op officially opened its doors for business in January, 2010.

Buying fresh, local, and regionally produced products has gotten a whole lot easier for consumers in Wooster, Ohio. Finding ways to market their products, including the growing demand for heirloom varieties, to eager consumers has also gotten easier for growers and producers in the area. Bridging the often difficult to connect route, between the two groups, is the Local Roots Market & Café.

“Several years ago we (a group of food-conscious local residents) began talking about ways to make it easier to purchase locally grown and produced products. We knew we had lots of growers and producers in our area but we didn’t have a good way to connect them,” Jessica Eikleberry said, a founding member of Local Roots and the former general manager of the café and market. 

 Like many areas across the country, the local farmers markets were seasonal and only available one or two days a week. “We wanted something more, something available all year, not only for ourselves as health-conscious consumers, but a way for local producers to market their goods, and make it financially viable for them to continue to produce the healthy foods we as consumers were demanding,” Eikleberry said. 

As the group started brainstorming ways to bring consumers and producers together, the idea of a cooperative was born. “We didn’t really have any good guidelines, or examples to go by, so we developed our own goals and mission statements,” Eikleberry said. In 2009, the group formed the Wooster Local Foods Cooperative, Inc. and began work on making things happen. When the group presented their co-op idea to the community, they found overwhelming support.

“We liked the idea of a producer-consumer co-op because both sides need and depend on each other to be successful. Knowing producers can’t spend a lot of time away from their farms and gardens, we decided the idea of a store, where producers stock the shelves with their goods, but the market does the selling for them, would work best. For consumers, having a year-round location to buy local, made it a win-win situation,” Eikleberry said.

With a lot of hard work, community support, grant funding, donations and volunteer efforts, in January of 2010, the market officially opened its doors for business. By 2011, a small commercially licensed kitchen was opened which allowed the market to operate the café. And, just this past year, the cooperatives final vision was realized with the opening of the full commercial processing kitchen. The kitchen provides entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop new products, producers to process and store product for later use, creates added value and product lines to add to the market shelves, and delivers local food year-round to market customers.

Now, five years later, the market is open six days a week year-round, has over 1,000 members (customers do not have to be members to shop), and has found great success. About a quarter of members are producers and the remainders are dedicated customers. The store has brought in over 2 million dollars in total sales since it opened in 2010. The Local Roots producer-consumer co-op model has been so successful a second market store has opened in Ashland, Ohio.

“Most of our producers find us in the process of looking for a market for their products,” Eikleberry said. Producers must fill out an application form and must read the Producer Guidelines & Policies prior to submitting an application. Once submitted, producer applications are reviewed by the market management, and producers are accepted or denied based on the criteria established by the co-op.

Producers must be members of the co-op, and must meet criteria such as: locally sourced Ohio products only, no reselling or repackaging, full compliance with health and safety laws, no GMO products, and no concentrated animal feeding operations products, to list a few of the guidelines. “Many of our customers are looking for non-GMO products, when they come into the store,” Eikleberry said.

Although organic growing practices are encouraged for market growers and organic certification is welcome, it does not exclude producers without the certification. If producers use the term “organic,” they must submit a copy of their certification with their application. Producers must, however, disclose their growing practices by displaying information about their products on their grocery store shelves, so customers know what they’re purchasing.

For producers Marion Yoder and Mary Gnizak, the Local Roots Market has been a great opportunity for them to market their products. “The Local Roots Market has put us in touch with a huge knowledge base of other growers, helping us learn more about growing and marketing our products,” Yoder said.

Marion and Joseph Yoder operate the Shepherd’s Market on their 190-acre farm in Big Prairie, Ohio. The Yoders grow pasture raised and non-GMO fed chicken, lamb, beef, pork and eggs, hair sheep for wool, and heirloom vegetables. In addition to non-GMO soybeans, the Yoder’s grow Wapsie Valley field corn, an open-pollinated heirloom dating back to the mid 1800s. Wapsie Valley tests at 10-12 percent protein, making it higher in protein than most hybrid field corns. “We make sure our corn doesn’t tassel the same time as the other corn growing in the area,” Yoder said. For pest control the Yoder’s use soap sprays.

The Yoder’s also grow several heirloom varieties of vegetables. One especially unusual variety is their Ikie tomato. According to Yoder, several years ago, an elderly lady came into their store on the farm, slapped an envelope with seeds down on the counter, and said they needed to grow these. In the envelope were about a dozen tomato seeds. She related to the Yoder’s that her grandfather used to grow these tomatoes and they were the best tomatoes she’d ever eaten.

“We didn’t know what they’d turn out to be, but they are wonderful, sweet, low-acid, huge, red tomatoes that taste great,” Yoder said. “I save seed from about 30 different plants to keep a good diversity of genetics.” Currently, the seeds are only available to Seed Saver’s Exchange members.   

For Mary Gnizak of Adonai Acres in Lakeville, Ohio, who has been selling her locally grown and produced products for almost 20 years, the Local Roots Market has opened-up a whole new outlet for her products. “When I first started selling my produce, there were no networks, and places like the Senior Centers weren’t allowed to buy fresh produce,” she said.

Mary keeps one acre in production using several high-tunnels and raised beds to extend her growing season. She grows many heirloom varieties to sell. “I buy a lot of my heirloom seeds from Baker Creek and I save some of my own seed. I try to deal only with companies that take the Safe Seed Pledge. People are starting to think about how to eat healthier, and want to know how and where their food is grown, that’s a very good thing.”

The Local Roots Market & Café is more than just a local grocery store for consumers; it’s also a place for learning and community activities. The Local Roots building has extra space where many community activities take place. The store has regular classes and seminars such as growing with cold frames, fermenting, home canning, chickens 101 and medicinal herbs, to name a few. Groups can also meet here for yoga, knitting, papermaking, Zumba and massage. A separate area in the store is dedicated to local artisans who can display and sell their creations.

Members in the co-op pay $50.00 in annual dues. The co-op also has an option for volunteer members. A member can donate 10 hours of volunteer time working in the market in lieu of the annual dues. The majority of store and café help are volunteers with only one or two paid positions in the co-op. The co-op’s source of revenues comes from membership fees, café income, commercial kitchen fees, and from a 15 percent commission from producers, with the remaining 85 percent going back in the producer’s pockets. “We wanted to keep as much money going back to the producers as we could,” Eikleberry said. Also helping to keep operating costs down, all display shelves and cases are on wheels. Refrigerator display cases and coolers can be turned off and moved into storage depending on the season. 

The market’s café has been a bonus for the co-op not only because they can serve customers great locally sourced food but also excess produce and food items from vendors can be utilized in the café and not wasted. “If growers have carrots that maybe aren’t nice enough to go on the store shelves they can put them to use in the café when making soups.” The café chefs change the menu to suit the seasonal abundance coming in from producers.

The Local Roots co-op model has been so successful in Wooster that the co-op management has provided consultation to groups from several other states as well as around Ohio, interested in starting a similar producer-consumer connection in their area. While Wooster is a college town and home to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), which no doubt this location has helped in the co-op’s success, customer after customer entering the store expressed their gratitude and appreciation for having a year-round market where they can buy local, healthy and non-GMO food items for their families. It seems the desire for the producer-consumer connection to be more accessible is in great demand and growing. For more on Local Roots Wooster visit: www.LocalRootsWooster.com

Hazel Freemanwrites and gardens from rural southeast Ohio. For more of her garden and nature writing, you can visit her website and blog at: www.HazelFreeman.com

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