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Mary Ida Compton

June Profile

Mary Ida founded the Hyde Park Farmers' Market for the same reason most of us shop local and organic: Because she "wanted to eat good food."

She started the market with friend Judy Williams in 2005. Mary Ida is the "grower" and Judy is the "gatherer." As the grower, Mary Ida gets to know farmers in the area and recruits them for the market. She also maintains the balance and variety of items for sale (growers must apply for admittance to the market). Judy, the gatherer, works toward getting the community to the market – and they come by the hundreds.

There are now around 30 growers that pack the U.S. Bank parking lot at Hyde Park Square in Cincinnati. Growers must go through an online application process and prove that they use organic, or at least sustainable, growing methods. Their products must be more unique than what you find in the Kroger produce aisle.

Many organic farmers sell at the market, including Turner Farms, of which Mary Ida is a member. However, many fruit producers have found organic methods challenging because pests are rampant in this north-south transition zone. Mary Ida just asks the non-certified farmers to keep their operations as pesticide-free as possible.

Vendors pay a monthly rent and if they come to market all summer, they get one month free. The rent is invested in making improvements to the market as well as in buying signage, liability insurance, and paying the market manager's salary. (The other market organizers are volunteers.) 

The market is almost overwhelming when you first step into it – the smells and the colors of fresh food, young families bunched together, pushing strollers haphazardly stuffed with children and overflowing bags, long lines waiting patiently (or so it seems) in the hot summer morning for their turn at the front of the stands.

Mary Ida did not know just how much Cincinnati needed a farmers' market until she moved back to the city of her childhood after some years living on the East and West coasts.  In Cincinnati she immediately went through "culinary withdrawal." She remembers, "I had just taken all these wonderful ingredients for granted when I lived on both coasts, but when I got back here I realized it’s not (the same) here. In California I would take a recipe and then go find the ingredients; in Ohio I find the ingredients and then make the recipe. It turned around the whole way I have to shop."

Mary Ida became so devoted to improving Cincinnati's culinary offerings that she began sourcing food for her two sons' pre-K through 12 school. She brought organic lettuce, pastured beef and pastured eggs directly to the school kitchen. Her zeal caught on and the school hired a chef to teach the kitchen staff to cook fresh meals and to source as many organic and local ingredients as possible.

And, though Mary Ida doesn't come from a farming background, she grew golden beets, carrots and baby patty pan squash for the first year of the market with some farming expertise she picked up at Turner Farms.

Mary Ida says that her biggest challenge in founding the market was not finding farmers to sell at the market, but finding a location for it. She thought shopkeepers would be thrilled to have a happy crowd gathered nearby every weekend. But, she faced a combination of zoning restrictions, parking worries, and "resistance to the unknown" by shopkeepers. Finally, Mary Ida convinced the president of the Hyde Park U.S. Bank to let the market use the parking lot on Sundays, when the bank is closed. Now, of course, nearby shopkeepers "love (the market) because it brings pedestrian traffic." Sunday mornings present a barrier to participation to farmers who attend religious services. However, Mary Ida says there is a silver lining in every challenge, because “having some constraints is a good thing because it keeps you focused. There are fewer things you have to consider when you have limitations."

From every angle, Hyde Park appears to be a bustling, energetic farmers' market. The market is crowded with customers, but it has reached a good size. It is "small enough to be personal, but large enough to have a good selection to draw people here to do the bulk of their shopping; this is not just a corn and tomato market." There are fruit growers, vegetable and mushroom growers, a dog-biscuit booth, flower growers, prepared food vendors, booksellers and some who sell a combination of these.

The other Comptons can be found shopping the market and Mary Ida's husband, Marshal, enjoys brainstorming new ideas. Once, he envisioned that the parking lot should have trees. Through donations and rent revenues, the market invested around $4,000 to line the parking lot with four large trees and a park bench – now being enjoyed by customers and bank employees.

The day I visit the market, Mary Ida is working behind the table at OEFFA's "Taste of Summer" booth, handing out samples of grilled veggies on toasted bread. She calls OEFFA, "a wonderful networking opportunity and a place to learn from other people." It is a place where she can get new ideas and "bounce (her) ideas off other people." Mary Ida attends every conference and brings her family along for the experience.

It is hard work running a farmers' market; it requires a huge amount of time, energy and perseverance that does not usually result in monetary compensation. For Mary Ida, the perks are payment enough.  Aside from getting to buy good food, she enjoys seeing the excitement of other shoppers and knowing that she is helping local growers make a living. Surely, bringing a thousand enthusiastic shoppers to a local farmer brings that farmer more profit than her purchases alone could. "There’s a lot of satisfaction that goes into it," she says.

She advises other community organizers to "know your community." For example, she knew that residents of this young, funky Cincinnati neighborhood would be willing to buy unique foods if she brought them to market. And, she knew that Hyde Park is pedestrian-friendly, a place where residents constantly cruise past U.S. Bank on their way to and from church, or brunch. Just like organic farms, farmers' markets should be unique and tailored to suit the surrounding (social) environment.

Mary Ida has certainly taken her own advice. The market has a friendly esprit de corps and it seems that every shopper stops to tell Mary Ida hello. Though Mary Ida is busy on this morning, at the height of peach and berry season, she still finds time to appreciate the small stuff.  In her hand she holds a creamy yellow okra blossom, which she shows me before writing out a notecard labeled OKRA FLOWER to display on the OEFFA table. "Most people have probably never seen an okra blossom," she says, as passersby pause to look over the specimen. Without a doubt, it is the appreciation for the small things that makes farmers' markets a far cry from an ordinary stroll down the produce aisle.

About the writer: Danielle Deemer is working on her master's degree in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. Danielle, through her OEFFA internship, profiled some of the organization's most accomplished members and their successes, creating OEFFA’s Profiles of Success series. Lauren Ketcham has updated and edited content. This series is being unveiled throughout OEFFA's 30th anniversary celebration year.