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Virtual Model Expands The Concept Of Farmers' Markets

Pam Bowsheir and Mike Runyan run Champaign Locally Grown.
Renee Wilde
Pam Bowsheir and Mike Runyan run Champaign Locally Grown.

The first American farmers' market opened in Boston in 1634. They were the center of many communities until advances in modern refrigeration spawned the birth of the supermarket. In the 1970’s, Americans became more health conscious and the concept of buying fresh, locally grown produce straight from the farm caused a renaissance for farmers' markets.

Today, farmer’s markets are everywhere - even online.

Dawn Butcher is loading small bags of lettuce, tomatoes, squash, beef, shrimp, crab meat cakes, and fresh blackberries into brown paper bags. Dawn exclaims that the plump, blackberries “look so good! It was so hard not to pop one in my mouth. In fact in the car on the way home I may do just that!”

Dawn’s not at the grocery store, she’s in the lobby of the Urbana YMCA picking up her weekly order from the county's virtual farmers market.  Champaign Locally Grown was created in 2011 with a grant from Activate Champaign County and the YMCA and is the first virtual farmers' market in Ohio. 

Customers pick up produce, bread, and other farmers' market goods at the Champaign County YMCA
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO
Customers pick up produce, bread, and other farmers' market goods at the Champaign County YMCA.

Market Manager Pam Bowsheir says “It took about a year to get the whole entire market up and running. It was very intimidating, there was a lot of negativity in the beginning.”

Pam is also a vendor, selling baked goods called Cosmic Charlie's Bread. She got her start at the local outdoor markets, which saw the idea of an online market as a threat to the many outdoor farmers' markets already in the area. But for some vendors, like Pam, it was a great alternative. Customers order off a website that lists local vendors, with photos of their products. The order is relayed to the vendors, who drop the items off on Thursday afternoons at the Urbana YMCA. Customers like Dawn, pick up their orders between 4:30 and 6:00 that night.

Pam searches the contents of two refrigerators filled with fresh produce from area farmers and fish from the Urbana’s Freshwater Farm, filling orders for market customers coming into the Y tonight. 

“A lot of my vendors, they don’t enjoy [being] out there with the public, or they don’t have time,” says Pam. “Like I have a pie baker on there which, going to farmers markets with a bunch of pies is iffy.” 

That pie baker is Ruthie Runyan who make pies and jams. At 84, Ruthie is the oldest vendor on the virtual market. She was raised on a farm and has spent her whole life on that farm, where she learned jam making from her grandmother and mother. Even if you don’t live in the area, you may have had Ruthie’s jam yourself. She created the jam for Rothschild's Berry Farm, formerly located in Urbana, putting up 3,500 jars by herself in her kitchen the first year.

Ruthie tells me that after years of declining interest in family farms, she’s happy to see that people are buying locally raised products again.

“People at least used to have grandparents living on the farm, and now they have no connection with the farm,” says Ruthie. “And kids think everything comes from the grocery store - and really some adults do [too]  in these large cities. They don’t know what we have farmers for, because the grocery store has it. I don’t know how they think it gets there,” she adds chuckling.

Ruthie started as a customer of the online market buying products from neighbors and friends. She wanted to become a part of the market, so she looked at what products weren’t being offered that she could fill. Ruthie says the online method was intriguing for her because she doesn’t have to go stand some place and make a lot of stuff that may not sell. There is nothing left over because she only makes what’s ordered, “ which I defintely like.” 

Ruthie’s son, Mark Runyan, is also a vendor.  “I had no interest in going and sitting in a farmers market trying to see if anyone shows up to buy meat,”  Mark explains, sitting at the table with his mom, “And we’ve done that before, too, because we also raise produce. The most discouraging thing ever is to have a lot of produce that you just picked, and basically take it home and throw it away.”

Mark now runs the market with Pam, which has grown from 10 vendors to 30 seasonal and year-round local vendors. Pam says it was the most opposed market and now it’s the strongest.

“We are really particular who we let on,” Mark adds, “Because people aren’t looking at what they get. They’re basically trusting us that it’s a good quality product. That’s where Pam and I have to be tougher than any regular farmers' market. There’s a lot of farmers' markets where there is a lot of auction produce and all sorts of things going on, and we won’t allow any of it.”

“It’s the market way or you’re out,” chimes in Pam.

As customers stream in, Pam and Mark pack up their orders.  Long time customer Linda says “ I love the virtual market. I always forget on Saturday mornings to go to the outdoor farmers market, and this is so much easier because you can just order online and I get what I want. I don’t have to hope that it’s still there.”

“I got eggs. I got ground beef. I got some of this bread for breakfast because I have company coming,” says another long time customer Valerie,  “What I like about this is, I can do it in the comfort of my own home, and take my time on it.  Sometimes when I’m at the [outdoor] farmers' market, I don’t do as well making a decision right at the farmer's table.”

I ask her if she feels pressured at the traditional markets in front of the vendors. “Yeah, I do,” says Valerie, “So I like it. I like to make my decisions ahead of time and just pick it up. If I can’t get here Thursday night, they leave it for me in the fridge and I just pick it up when I come to the Y.”

The market relies heavily on its partnership with the YMCA. The Y has given the market a free designated space for customers to pick up their products, and the staff handle all money transactions and accounting.

Paul Waldsmith, CEO of the YMCA says, “The virtual market really fits in with our YMCA’s vision to create a healthier community. It’s a neat way for people who feel like they want to be an entrepreneur to get a start. We had a young lady who used the virtual market to raise money for college, and she’s off at Perdue now.”

“If you support locality in general,” he adds. “If you would rather buy from somebody who grew up, or lives, or works, five miles from you, instead of Argentina, then support the things like the virtual market.”

Only residents of Champaign County can be vendors, but anyone can purchase from their online market.

County Lines is WYSO's series on rural life, made possible by a grant from the Ohio Humanities.

Renee Wilde is an award-winning independent public radio producer, podcast host, and hobby farmer living in the hinterlands of southwestern Ohio.
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