Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Seeking Inspiration Abroad: Palm Springs and Wooster

On December 4 when winter kicked into extreme gear in Cleveland, me and the missus took off like the rest of the snowbirds to the sunny desert of Palm Springs, California, where a much welcomed vacation was enjoyed with cactus-scape and oasis hiking, margarita poolside sipping, tarantula encountering, mid-century furniture window shopping, and old friend hanging (thanks for making the drive, Scot, Todd, and Anya).

Though I didn't want to do anything farm related, I managed to knock out two blogs and made a visit to the Palm Springs "Certified" Farmer's Market, where I became even further impressed with my Cleveland farmer brethren. In California, the Land of Ag, I expected to find crazy-colored tomatoes, Asian greens, and even some new peppers. But what I found instead were pretty much standard veggie crops with two yellow exceptions: a carrot and a slicing tomato. Granted Palm Springs is not the cultural capital of California, but given all the mid-century furniture and propensity towards food trends, I expected a lot more in every way, shape, and form from the Palm Springs "Certified" Farmer's Market.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is way off this blog's beaten path, but it should be noted that every time something in our food distribution chain gets "certified" that it adds costs in terms of time and money to the farmer. One of the beauties about micro-scale farming is that the consumer can literally get to know their farmer and often the farm itself. This is me definitely being an idealist, but I feel a personal relationship/connection is worth more than any certification when it comes to our food chain.

Now don't get me wrong. There were some awesome sights. Oranges, lemons, and avocados were stacked high and were visually intriguing because we can't grow those fruits in Ohio.

My favorite stand sold nothing but value-added products. Bella Vado Splendid Oils are the end products of a family avocado farm east of San Diego. Homegrown and home-squeezed, Bella Vado offers bottled avocado oil, avocado, soap, and the avocado stick (lip balm). I've been showering with the unscented soap this week, and it's been nothing short of luxurious. I love the tiny bubbles. I also brought back a bottle of the oil, but have yet to open it. Regretfully, I didn't get the avocado stick, which would be really useful this time o' year in Cleveland.

In hindsight, what I liked about the Bella Vado operation beyond the ultra-personable-ness of family member/salesperson, Charissa, is that their products are probably the furthest thing than what anybody is doing here. It may exist, but I don't know anybody in NE Ohio that is micro-pressing any kind of oil at all, and definitely not to the point of creating value-added products. In that sense, Bella Vado was completely eye opening.

When I got back to snowy, blustery Cleveland, my attention quickly turned to the distribution bottleneck that so many of us urban farmers are presently facing. That attention traversed me to the furthest corners of southwestern NE Ohio to a big town called Wooster, Ohio in order to visit, shop, and get inspired at their working food co-op, Local Roots.

Upon entering Local Roots, it all seemed too easy. There was the value-added to the left and left-back of the store, starting with soaps and balms and changing to dried beans, canned salsas, and sorghum and maple syrups. In the center, there was the fresh produce with husk cherries, every color of potato, apples, chestnuts and so forth. The right-back of the store was a coffee stand, serving small batch roasted cups of coffee. The right wall was lined with freezers and coolers, full of meats, cheeses, milks, and eggs. I bought some thick-cut bologna and Hartzler's Egg Nog. Then the right-front not on the wall was an assortment of fresh baked goods from vegan what-nots to gluten-free whatevers to Christmas cookies to kolachis. Let me emphasize that none of these products came from more than 50 miles away!

In order to shop at Local Roots, you need not be a member. However, in order to sell, membership is required at a cost of $50 or five labor volunteer hours. Producers set their own prices with Local Roots getting a flat 10% of sales. Sales are tracked with a semi-elaborate UPC code system that purportedly costs about $400. Shoppers tag their own produce with the correct UPC code sticker so that sales are rung up accordingly. Now getting back to membership, a shopper may also become a member for $50 a year or $1,000 for a lifetime. This entitles the member to a proceed of the profits, if and when there are profits.

It should also be mentioned that the visible walls were plastered with one page farm bios of all the participating producers. This created a familiar atmosphere that really drove the "local" home. Again, Local Roots made it seem all too easy, and way too organized. I wondered, could Clevelanders cooperatively do anything? Furthermore, could we replicate something like Local Roots in Cleveland?

When making my pilgrimage down to Wooster, I specifically had two storefronts on my mind as potential Cleveland Co-op candidates. Coincidentally and independently of my pro co-op consultation, one of these storefront owners came to the same conclusion about starting a local food co-op in Cleveland with their storefront after visiting Local Roots a week prior to my visit. No convincing was needed. As for the other storefront, that's a big fat "we'll see." I believe Cleveland could support multiple local food co-ops, but it always takes that initial risk taker to first dip their toes in the freezing water of Lake Erie.

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