Entrepreneurs Put Down Roots at Farmers Markets
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Over the past quarter century, the number of farmers markets – both in the Mahoning Valley and across the country – has taken off. Consumers have turned away from produce grown on the opposite side of the country or in foreign soil to food grown right down the road.
The reasons buyers and farmers cite for this shift are simple. People want fresher foods. They want to know who’s growing what they put in their mouths. They want to support the local economy.
“Some of it’s philosophical,” says Steve Gyomber, owner of Ginger Gorge Organics in Greene Township.
“We’ve lost the local farmer who grows all your vegetables. We all want to know where it’s coming from and how it’s grown,” Gyomber says.
Farmers markets have sprung up in almost every municipality in the Mahoning Valley, from Austintown to Warren. With the surge of opportunities, more and more growers are finding their way into the circuit, selling everything from traditional produce such as lettuce, tomatoes and corn to foodstuffs less commonly found at farmers markets, such as mushrooms and homemade candies.
For some, traveling to these markets is a hobby. For others, it’s a full-time job.
Either way, almost all farmers say that there’s nothing they’d rather do than sell what they plant, tend and pluck from the vine.
“We grow what we’d want to eat,” says Brooke Lancey, co-owner of 3 Maples on Market in North Lima. “Every year it got bigger. Just sharing it with our families blew up into trying out these markets.”
Along with Lancey and Gyomber, The Business Journal talked to six other farmers, bakers and confectioners to assemble a collage of who’s manning the booths at the farmers markets held daily throughout the region.
They come from all walks of life, from students to teachers, from former factory workers to lifelong farmers.
All have one thing in common: They love what they do.
Spencer Meats, Beloit
Brian and Laura Spencer have raised cattle more than a decade, but it wasn’t until last year that the couple ventured into farmers markets. They raised cattle for 4-H shows, Laura says, and sold wholes and halves of beef. The problem they encountered, she says, is that it was becoming too costly.
“Those cows are more expensive and the market just wasn’t there,” Laura says. “I saw the demand from farmers markets and told my husband that we had to do something with it.”
The cows and pigs are raised by Spencer Cattle, a separate company that the couple started and Brian manages, and grass-fed with grain supplements from hay grown on their 100-acre farm in Beloit.
While many customers are looking for meat from 100% grass-fed cattle, Spencer says she keeps the grain in the cows’ diet during the winter to add marbling and improve the flavor.
“We’ve done research on our own and we see that it’s better to get that fat in there,” she says. “But everyone has a different take on it. That’s our take and that’s how we raise our cattle.”
Spencer Meats started selling its products at the Alliance Farmer’s Market and this year expanded to the Magic Market, hosted at Magic Tree Pub & Eatery in Boardman. Spencer says she sees no letup in people’s desire for fresh food from local growers.
“In the past 10 years, everyone’s gotten to know their food,” she says. “Everyone wants to keep growing their own or buying local.”
Ginger Gorge Organics, Greene Township
The first things Steve Gyomber planted in his garden were six heads of garlic his father-in-law gave him. In the two decades since, Gyomber and his wife, Kathy, have expanded from six plants on Youngstown’s west side to a three-quarter-acre farm in Greene Township.
It was about 15 years ago that he first got into selling what he grew – after Kathy pointed out they couldn’t eat everything they had grown.
“She’d yell at me for wasting vegetables. ‘They’re out there rotting in the field! We have to do something with these!’ ” he says with a laugh. “I have no idea how I first connected with them, but I found some vegetarians on the North Side and sold the extra produce for $1 a pound.”
In 2014, he incorporated Ginger Gorge Organics at their home in northern Trumbull County. The farm is certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
“Although this is my second year certified, I’ve always used organic methods,” he says. “I never felt I needed to be certified when I was just making a little money.”
Even though Ginger Gorge is now his full-time job, Gyomber says one of the biggest reasons he remains a farmer is so he can eat the food.
“Being a bit of foodie and wanting the best and freshest plays a role,” he says. “There’s nothing better than pulling a carrot out of the ground and eating it or plucking a pea off the vine.”
3 Maples on Market, North Lima
Heirloom tomatoes are a staple at farmers markets across the country as consumers continue their quests for the perfect tomato to go with whatever they’re cooking.
The first heirloom that Brook Lancey, co-founder of 3 Maples on Market, grew was like nothing she had found before: a deep purple color with a rich, fruity flavor.
“Once we got our first plant, we were excited,” Lancey says. “That sparked an interest and we found a website where we could get seeds from anywhere in the world.”
Today the farm in North Lima yields more than 300 varieties of tomatoes that range from pink and purple Ozark Sunsets to green and pink Tlacalulas originally grown in Mexico to yellow Hssiao His Hung Shihs brought from China.
“We will usually sell out before the end of most of the markets. We grow what we’d want to eat,” she says. “The heirloom tomatoes have been a great seller because we can bring a great mix. We can offer a little bit of everything.”
Lancey, also an art teacher in the West Branch School District, and co-founder Todd Klenke also grow garlic, lettuce, squash – even hops – at the farm. With so many varieties of so many vegetables available, Lancey tries to make sure people find exactly what they’re looking for.
“On our website, there’s a tab that brings up all the kinds we grow so you can look into the history a little bit and know what you’re going to be buying,” she says. “It’s definitely not a hobby. It is a job.”
Avant Gardens Farm & Mushroomery, Youngstown
At farmers markets throughout the area, the booth for Avant Gardens Farm & Mushroomery is adorned with strange looking fungi in colors that cross the spectrum.
It can be hard for buyers to take the plunge, Nicholas Avila says, so he and founders Corey and Bethany Maizel came up with an idea: put up a chalkboard with recipes that call for mushrooms.
“A lot of people are intimidated by these because they’re not familiar with these kinds of mushrooms. It’s understandable,” Avila says. “We want to try to help them along a little and tell them how they need to treat their food.”
One Saturday at the Howland Farmers Market, Avila is selling yellow and pink oyster mushrooms grown in Common Wealth Inc.’s Kitchen Incubator. The indoor farm is also growing shiitake, king oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms, he adds.
“There are more coming down the line,” he says. “We’re experimenting with some different kinds like portobellos – which have some different growing principles – and pioppino.”
Avant Gardens also grows more standard produce such as lettuce, peppers and radishes. The Maizels originally added mushrooms as a promotional tool for the farm after they visited a farm in Colorado that did the same thing, Avila says, and they quickly became an important part of the crop.
“It’s blown me away,” he says, noting that the fungi aren’t the first thing that pops into someone’s mind when you talk about farmers markets. “A lot of people eat them, but they’re used to Giant Eagle. But these are so much fresher than what you’d ever find there. I picked these this morning.”
Natural Excellence Farm & Gardens, Orwell
After being laid off from her factory job in 2009, Rosemary Taipale decided to put her hobby to use. She already had a garden where she grew whatever she needed to cook for her family’s meals. It was just a matter of increasing the scale of the farm.
“It’s something I always wanted do, so I figured this was my chance,” she says. “We already had 60-some acres, so we thought we’d do something with it. It’s been very enjoyable so far.”
With baskets filled with lettuce, turnips, tomatoes and a table of baked goods, Natural Excellence Farm & Gardens is among the more popular booths at markets in the area.
“This crowd is pretty typical. It’s fun. We all enjoy it,” Taipale says as customers line up three or four deep to browse Taipale’s produce. “Now with my sister out here with her baked goods, we’re collaborating. She’s helping herself and she’s selling for us.”
Part of the popularity, she suggests, is the variety of what’s offered.
“It’s everything from asparagus to zucchini. We do Asian greens, lots of lettuce, radishes, turnips, corn and peppers,” she says. “I could go on and on and on.”
Even with a busy booth and operating the farm as a full-time job, Taipale says she still has as much fun growing the vegetables as she did when it was just a hobby.
“We had been growing for ourselves and then growing some extra for family. It was so much fun to grow a nice basket for someone,” she says. “Now we’re involved in [community- supported agriculture] and making those baskets again.”
Maple Leaf Acres, North Jackson
For the past four years, Maple Leaf Acres’ approach to preparing for the Austintown Farmers Market has been a simple one.
“Divide and conquer,” Bridget Herker says.
She puts her years of experience as a pastry chef to use in making baked goods for the market, while her son, Edward Keich, takes care of growing the produce.
“I got to the point where I was burned out working in restaurants. And then Edward got into growing produce, so we started collaborating and here we are,” she says. “I prefer doing it this way because I can use local ingredients. There’s a lot less pressure because I can do what I want, how I want.”
Keich’s reasons for taking up gardening were simple: He likes being outdoors.
“I’ve always been a hands-on guy and I like growing things,” he says. “It’s great being outside.”
Everything picked from the Maple Leaf Acres garden is organic, the duo say, which can make it hard to grow fruits such as berries. As a result, not everything Herker makes – from pies to jams and jellies – is from their own garden. But it is from the Mahoning Valley.
“I’d love to tell you that we grow everything we use in what we make, but we can only do so much,” she says. “We try to do as much as we can. It’s hard to do berries organically, but we do source locally.”
Hilltop Honey Farm, East Palestine
For the Davis family, the expansion of Hilltop Honey Farm into farmers markets was the opposite of the typical process. Rather than start at the markets throughout the area and expand into stores, they started in stores and went to markets with their extra supply.
“One of the ladies we sell to mentioned that she knew a market that was looking for honey sellers,” Steve Davis says. “My daughter Kelsey thought it was a great idea, so she’s the one who runs the market stands.”
The honey, collected from 60 hives, is also sold at both Rulli Brothers stores and the East Palestine Sparkle. The amount sold there, Davis says, far outweighs how much they sell at farmers markets. Even so, the family enjoys the markets because it gives them a chance to discuss beekeeping with their customers. In addition to honey, Hilltop Honey Farm sells apiaries – the wooden boxes beekeepers use to house hives.
“Just like plants, you have to go out and tend to them every week,” Davis says. “There are a few different ways to harvest them. I do it different from other keepers and use two 30-frame extractors to spin it out.”
As for the quality of the honey produced, Davis points to the recent construction of oil and gas pipelines through East Palestine. One day, a worker stopped by to buy some honey.
“He was from Rhode Island and after he left, he got a hold of us and asked us to mail him more,” Davis says. “It must be pretty good if people want us to do that.”
Truffle Laboratory, Hubbard
With a table full of brightly colored candies, Sam Schultz is a bit of an anomaly at farmers markets. Just under a year ago, he began selling his truffles at markets throughout the region, offering flavors such as raspberry cheesecake, orange creamsicle and crispy s’more.
“I did some Oreo cheesecake truffles last year and as I was looking through the recipe, I realized I could do just about anything with it,” Schultz says of how he came to establish Truffle Laboratory. And so far, he says, they’ve been a hit.
“It’s something that’s a bit unexpected,” Schultz explains. “They’ve seen cookies and cakes and other baked goods, but this is something that’s colorful that not many people have seen before. It stands out.”
A regular at several farmers markets in the area, including the Idora Farmers Market and the Fowler Open Air Market, Schultz sees expanding into online ordering and local supermarkets as his business’ next step.
Right now, not all of the Truffle Laboratory’s ingredients are local. Flour and sugar have to be bought at a store, Schultz says, as do the flavorings, such as orange or coconut.
But once the local crops of fruits are ripe, customers can expect a plentiful supply of local products to be used in his truffles.
“I’ll be doing that pretty soon. I’ve talked to a few farmers already,” he says. “There will be things like strawberries and raspberries once everything’s in season.”
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.