Kent’s producers-only Haymaker Farmers’ Market is now in its 24th year on Franklin Avenue, between Main Street and Summit Street under the Haymaker overpass. Started by Fritz Seefeldt in 1992 with just a few dedicated seasonal vendors, the market now operates year-round with nearly 50 vendors who offer produce, meat, cheese, prepared foods, baked goods, and crafts.
While northeast Ohio enjoyed a zenith in interest in farmers’ markets more recently than other parts of the country, like other regions, this area is also currently experiencing a lag. Unfortunately, Haymaker is also undergoing a downturn. “Weekly traffic has been down, and individual vendors have told me that sales are down 15% or more over last year,” says Market Manager J. Andrew Rome. “It’s a serious issue that the board and I are actively seeking ways to address.”
According to Rome, there are several reasons for the downturn, but the most significant is the increasing availability of organic produce at grocery stores and specialty shops. However, according to Rome and Haymaker vendors and customers, food from brick-and-mortar stores, even labeled as organic, cannot compete with the food found at Haymaker Farmers’ Market.
“What you’re getting at a grocery store just isn’t as fresh,” says Fred Maier, owner of Paradaze Farm in Atwater, which offers wool for hand spinners and yarn workers from his flock of Shetland sheep. “They may say it is; but because it isn’t grown locally, the produce isn’t picked that morning or within the last couple days, as it is the case at the farmers’ market.”
That freshness can make food purchased at the Haymaker more economical than a similar product from a grocery store, according to Jeff Crowe of Kent, a regular customer. “The produce lasts way longer than store-bought if we don’t get to it right away,” says Crowe.
In addition to appreciating much fresher products offered by local growers, many customers also enjoy the interaction with the food producers. Regular customer Valerie Henry says that she shops at Haymaker because she is able to build a relationship with the growers and can talk with them and learn more about their practices; something that isn’t possible when she makes purchases in a grocery store. “I love the sense of community and knowing and having direct access to the person who is growing my food,” says Henry. “The more I learn, the more it motivates me to make healthy choices about the food I eat.”
Crowe agrees, and says that he has even visited several of the businesses at Haymaker that also have on-farm sales. “I have been to the farm where I buy my meat and I have seen how the pigs, chickens, and beef are raised and treated,” says Crowe. “They do it the way we used to do it when I was a kid; it’s better for you and tastes better.”
Local food producers also enjoy interacting with customers and explaining their products and processes, an interaction that could never happen in a grocery store setting. Lizette Royer-Barton, Haymaker Farmers’ Market Board President and owner of Barton Gardens in Randolph recalls a recent conversation with a customer. “She had seen a Facebook post about a new batch of bourbon peach jam I had at the market that week,” says Royer-Barton. “We had an interesting conversation about canning methods, and she said that she was glad that an old-fashioned art that she could remember her grandma practicing was so important to me, too.”
In addition to the positive relationships formed between consumers and food producers, Haymaker also benefits the local economy. Most vendors are set up as small businesses, paying taxes back into the community. Several farms support multi-generational families. And many vendors engage in a support network, supplying each other with services and ingredients, which keeps money in the community.
“I love to see the interconnectedness between vendors,” says Rome. “You realize just how deeply local the food here really is—and what a robust community of producers we have— when you learn that this farmer buys her feed from that one; the bread at this bakery was made with flour produced at that farm; the breakfast burrito you bought from the food truck was made with eggs from the farmer over there.”
Matt Herbruck, owner of Birdsong Farm, a certified organic farm in Hiram, points out several other ways that customers who shop at his booth at Haymaker also help the community. “I employ five local people, four of whom live in Kent,” says Herbruck. He also notes the important role farms play in the environmental health of the community. “My farm preserves greenspace; it’s in a high-value area that could easily be developed,” says Herbruck. “But instead, it’s protected land on which my workers and I are able to make a living.”
Rome adds that locally sourced food is also more environmental, because it doesn’t have to be trucked from far distances. “All our vendors are from Portage or surrounding counties,” says Rome. “No one travels more than 30 miles, whereas most grocery stores rely on farms as far away as California.”
For Rome, all of these factors come together to make Haymaker Farmers’ Market a value-added source for food and one that cannot be replaced by grocery stores, even those that offer organic products. “The market is about relationships as much as it is about food,” says Rome. “When you buy a tomato or strawberries, you can talk with the farmer who grew them and learn the story behind your food. When it comes to finding a sense of connection with the food you eat, the farmers’ market is the only game in town.”
Market Flourishes Despite Trend Of Market Slowdowns