Canal Market could be game changer for county farmers

By Anna Jeffries, 5/24/16, The Newark Advocate

NEWARK – The last few weeks have been busy on Janell Baran’s farm.

She’s working to get hundreds of logs ready for mushroom season while also harvesting new crops of shiitakes. As she prepares to plant her next crop of herbs, she’s also working on drying plants and organizing her inventory.

She loves what she does. But there’s nothing cute or whimsical about it. It’s hard work, and it’s how she makes her living.

A regular vendor at the Granville and Worthington farmers markets, she’ll start selling her herbs, teas and mushrooms at the Canal Market District in a few weeks.

She’s hoping new clients will increase her bottom line. If the market is a success, it can make a big difference for her business, Blue Owl Garden Emporium, and many other small businesses in the area.

“Licking County is one of the largest agriculture counties in the state, and we have a lot of small farmers, especially in the eastern part of the county,” she said. “I see small farmers (at the market) having the opportunity to get their foot in the door.”

An opportunity for smaller farms

Licking County has strong roots in agriculture, which is a major driver in the local economy. But in a more urban area such as downtown Newark, that isn’t always clear, said Jeremy King, sustainability coordinator for Denison University and a board member for the Canal Market District and Enterprise Hub.

“It’s a huge industry here, and I don’t think people always fully comprehend that,” he said.

But the current economic system focuses on large farms growing commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans.

Smaller farms have to diversify their crops to stay afloat. And the Canal Market gives those businesses a chance to get their products directly to consumers, said Carol Goland, executive director of Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and a member of the Canal Market board.

“Farmers markets are a great outlet for small scale farmers who have relatively small volumes of produce, compared to an enormous distributor,” she said.  “I think it potentially helps people stay in farming. But the economic benefit goes beyond the farms and farmers themselves.”

There’s a perception out there that farmers markets are quaint experiences or tourist attractions. But Bryn Bird, director of the Canal Market, said the vendors at the market have a different perspective.

“(Farming) is our lives, and with this market, Newark is putting local food as a leader of economic development,” she said. “We want people to see us as small businesses.  A lot of citizens act like farm markets are ‘cute.’ We are saying this is going to revitalize Newark.”

Benefits beyond the market

The success of the Canal Market will do much more than just increase the availability of fresh food, Bird said.

Permanent markets have many “spinoff benefits” for their communities, including job creation and increased revenue.

A 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture study on local food marketing channels found that farms that sell some of their produce locally offer more full time jobs than farms with no local sales.

Another study by Arizona found that farmers markets and other forms of “agricultural tourism” generate $1 million a year, which lead to additional economic activity of $900,000 in each county studied.

And those positives don’t include the benefits to other downtown businesses near the Canal Market.

Goland cited a 2003 study from the Project for Public Spaces, which surveyed 800 farmers market shoppers across the country

About 60 percent of the people surveyed said they visited nearby stores the same day they visited the farmers market. Those shoppers said they visited those stores only on the days they went to the market.

Harder to measure, but equally as important, is the ability for small farmers and businesses to come together at the market, Goland said.

“A farmers market is low risk, almost like an incubator for an entrepreneur or farmer to grow their business and test out new products,” she said. “They learn from their customers and they get feedback.”

When Baran was just starting out, going to farmers markets helped her realize she wanted to continue to grow her business.

“It’s a tough economic decision to decide to expand,” she said. “(A market is) a great place to figure out if they want to do that. They can make connections and figure out what’s involved and see if they want to do this for a living.”

Focus on the future

Another reason Baran was drawn to the Canal Market was its board’s commitment to thinking about the future.

“They are thinking the right way of making it a local food economy, not just a tourism economy. The tourism economy is going to come if they do it right,” she said. “They are making it about people.”

The first priority is to get the Canal Market up and running. But the district also is focused on long-term planning through its enterprise hub, Bird said.

She’s hoping to add a bulk market for people looking for large quantities of produce. She also is working toward starting a wholesale market so local restaurants can do their shopping downtown.

The board is working on a feasibility study to try to open a food processing facility in Newark that would include cold storage and equipment to package and process produce, King said.

That would be a game changer for local farmers in many ways, he said.

Large buyers, such as schools or hospitals, need lots of produce every day to meet their needs. Most small farmers don’t grow enough on their own to fulfill those requests.

But if 10 farmers each sell 100 pounds of potatoes to the processing hub, they could be combined there and made in to hash browns to sell to a larger business.

That’s just one example of how the hub could be a win for the farmers and local businesses, King said.

“You can set up relationships with other farmers or a large entity,” he said. “You can set up a business relationship between farms.”

Access to a processing facility would help Baran expand her inventory. She could start making new dehydrated items, mustards, oils, vinegars and other items that her customers would be excited to buy.

“Right now I can either build my own (facility) or go to one in Columbus, and for me that’s too far,” she said. “It’s not really cost effective, and I can’t make forward progress.”

But first, she’s looking forward to setting up her booth at this year’s market and seeing how things progress through the season.

“They are focused on evolution, on innovation and change,” she said. “That’s what our markets nowadays need to be doing.”