CARROLLTON, Ohio – Long before the concept was trendy, a farmers’ market was growing in Carroll County.
In the parking lot of a downtown hardware store, Extension educator Mike Hogan gathered a handful of farmer-vendors: some gardeners, a baker and a fellow with sweet corn.
The vendors hung out on tailgates of pickup trucks and under canopies every Saturday from the end of July through late September, watching their customer base grow slowly.
And today, 19 years later, the Carrollton Farmers’ Market is booming and thriving beyond all their expectations.
Resurgence. In the late 1980s, before farmers’ markets sprang up across the region, Hogan says it was uncommon and unheard of for Carrollton, or almost any rural town, to have its own farmers’ market.
But this small town of 2,500 did, and in the classic chicken-and-egg situation, the market expanded: More people planted crops or raised meat animals or made cheese to sell at the market, and they came and sold, and the market kept growing.
The Ohio State University Extension office also got more involved, offering alternative enterprise seminars on things like growing berries. It all dovetailed, Hogan said, seeing the market and producers coming together.
“Before the big resurgence we’ve seen today, without the right mix, our market wouldn’t have been nearly as successful,” Hogan said.
Self-rule. As the Carroll County Farm Marketing Association’s membership list grew – all vendors are members – the market diversified.
Instead of having to wait until July when sweet corn was ready or until garden produce was at its peak, vendors with other products pushed the group to open earlier. And earlier.
The 2007 market opened May 5 and runs through Nov. 17, dates driven by producer and consumer demand.
The 40 to 50 vendors also make their own rules and police the group themselves. For instance, a grower suspected of buying tomatoes, lettuce or potatoes at another market and trying to pass it off as his own at Carrollton can get into trouble. The growers wrote it into the rules: You must sell only your own product. No re-sales here.
And if the association thinks you’re abusing the policy, they’ll make a farm visit to inspect, just to be sure.
“The farmers’ market offers a different kind of product than you can buy [in stores]. Anyone caught buying and bringing [products to sell], that’s not what we’re after,” Hogan said.
Variety. The farmers’ market, held in the Ponderosa restaurant parking lot off Route 43, offers a variety of items.
Hogan said there are farmers from Carroll and surrounding counties who bring the bounty from their sweet corn patches, Mennonite ladies with fresh-baked goodies, market gardeners with tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, and a whole slew of greens.
There are hanging baskets overflowing with flowers, trees and shrubs, plus a rainbow of berries, and farmers who bring cheese, pastured poultry and fresh lamb.
Later in the season, look for everything from pumpkins and gourds to fall decorations, he said.
Springboard. Over the years, there have been a number of farmers who have found markets – and their confidence – in the Carrollton market parking lot. They’ve ‘graduated’ from the market here and gone on to bigger, more urban markets, in Canton and at Shaker Square in Cleveland, Hogan said.
“The first time someone left here to go to Cleveland, I took it as a bad thing. But really, when you think about it, it’s great,” he said.
“This market can only get so big. We’re sort of like an incubator for farmers’ markets, and when they outgrow us, that’s a sign we’ve done our job.”
Not about price. When it comes to consumers at the farmers’ market, you’ll see it all: children, young mothers, elderly couples.
They’re all after the same things: locally produced food, and knowing that it comes straight from real farmers and locals who they may know outside their market connection.
And surprisingly, market surveys have always ranked those two factors above price, Hogan said.
“Our customers aren’t affluent, yet price is never higher than third on their list. That says they’re looking for something else,” Hogan said.
“The people who say you can get it cheaper in the grocery store? Those people shop at the grocery store, not here.”
Getting around. Besides the Saturday gatherings, the farmers’ market association does more to help get consumers to all the roadside stands in the county, even if they’re operated by nonmembers.
Hogan said he’s currently updating the group’s local buying guide, which maps all the farm stands in Carroll County and lists what they’re selling.
“It’s just something to let them know where to shop the other six days of the week.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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