North Union History
It's Growing on Us!
Video: Our Mission
Early American farmers markets were fashioned after traditional European markets; farmers hauled their produce by horse-drawn carriages to the center of town allowing them to sell large quantities of their products to the town’s people.1 In some form or another, this market day practice is thriving throughout Europe today, particularly in smaller towns.
Quietly, in the late 60’s and early 70’s the ‘local foods’ movement began taking hold. A society of consumers long disconnected from the origins of food on their plates, were now considering the implications of the agri-food business. Awareness and support for family farmers, their farmland, personal health and the environment were pushing local foods to the forefront. Food co-ops, dedicated to consumer education, community participation and nutrition were sprouting up in communities across the nation.
One of those food-coop enthusiasts was biologist and trained chef, Donita Anderson. In 1985, Donita moved from Traverse City MI, where she was VP of Leasing for KEP Energy Resources Via Detroit to Shaker Heights, Ohio with her family. She was an active member of the Traverse City food co-op worked to start a farmer’s market there in 1980 and thus, immediately set out to find sources of local, healthy, foods in Cleveland. This search took her to farms and farmers well east of Shaker Heights, in order to buy locally grown produce. Soon, these weekly treks had her loading her car full of fresh products and produce, not just for her family, but for her neighbors as well.
It would turn out to be ten years worth of produce-buying, farm-stand stopping, farmer-wooing travails throughout Northeast Ohio, in search of this meat or that produce, to set the wheels in motion for what we now enjoy as North Union Farmers Market. Ms. Anderson set about learning from ‘local food’ activists like, Ben Benepe of New York’s now, 30-year-old Greenmarket system, which brought produce-laden local farmers from the country to sell in the boroughs of NYC.
Donita’s vision laid out a tie to northeast Ohio’s history of North Union Shakers an agricultural people became incorporated in the name and logo designed by Barbara Chin. Donita envisioned a busy urban square filled with farms and shoppers. After many years or research and developing farm relationships she created a core group of like-minded neighbors and citizens, who met regularly, giving way to a formalized vision of how to bring local farmers to sell their produce, directly to consumers. The collective efforts of founding board president, Mary Holmes, Donita Anderson and founding board members such as Tom and Chris Stevens, Lou and Savery Rorimer, Peter Katz, Sheri Edison and others, saw the launching of the first Saturday farmers market at Shaker Square, in 1995.
The first summer North Union contracted with 15 skeptical farmers, yet only six of those showed up for the first day at market. With 500 market shoppers rounded up to buy fresh local produce, those six farmers sold out of their produce within an hour of the market opening.
The first years at market proved to be slow – operating budgets barely covering the cost of insurance for the market. Still, not without vision and purpose, North Union’s trustees knew about the successes in NY and in California: where farmers markets operated, farms flourished, urban blight faded and elements of regentrification were set in motion. North Union was in a constant state of learning; understanding seasonal product availability, balancing customer needs with a variety of diverse vendor products supplies, dealing with the weather!
Three years later in 1998 the Lakewood market opened at the behest of a number of board members and local farmers. North Union worked diligently with various municipal entities, from the Legal and Health departments, to the Mayor’s office, and Food and Safety Department. The Lakewood market opened after 1 ½ years of painstaking, careful planning. This market satisfied a local demand and offered a mid-week selling opportunity at the height of the growing season to North Union farmers. This market continues to be a mid-week favorite.
1998 also saw the creation of the first of many farmer-training conferences, post market season. The first conference, at Dunham tavern, provided a wealth of knowledge allowing farmers to invest in the marketing and business aspects of their farming business. As it formalized over the years, moving from the Tavern to Fairmount Presbyterian Church, to its current location at Cleveland Botanical Gardens, the conference now draws over 100 farmers to listen to national speakers. The conference has hosted Neil Kinsey, world renown agronomist; Ed King, small business specialist; Gail Hayden, CA Certified Farmers Market Association and many more. A highlight of the conference is always the Pot Luck luncheon provided by the farmers attending the conference. The quality and array of these foods reinforces why North Union Farmers Market does what it does!
Soon after Lakewood, the Thursday Taylor Road market opened with 25 eager participating farms. The demand for the Cleveland Heights market was keen; however, a series of municipal circumstances caused logistical problems. The market opening coincided with a long road construction project, so the market location transitioned to Coventry Road near the heart of the Coventry neighborhood. Soon afterward North Union divested of the Thursday evening market, and the City of Cleveland Heights began running it, themselves.
During this time, Ms. Anderson began attending a national conference sponsored by NAFDMA, the Networking Association for Farm Direct Marketing and Agritourism in California, supporting the farmers’ markets movement. She also began studying the California market systems. Studying these successful markets was teaching her techniques and tools for running successful markets in Cleveland. She took courses to learn about governmental agricultural regulations, gaining insight into what farmers were facing on regulatory and legislative levels. She had the opportunity to learn from marketing guru, John Stanley of the Disney Company and sought out the best trainers, to learn how to market ‘The Market’ so that North Union farmers could achieve “Selling the Whole Truckload.”
By 2001 the Shaker Square and Lakewood markets were virtually institutions, and word was spreading quickly about these vibrant open air markets! North Union Farmers Market was quickly evolving into a premier market, with articles appearing in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Plain Dealer and more. It was at this time that a Parma council woman Michelle Stys working with 28 other community members approached North Union about hosting a market. By 2002, the Parma market at historic Stearns Farm, opened.
Simultaneously, the head of economic development for Olmsted Falls pursued the desire to host a market as well. This market was open from 2002 through the 2005 market season. While farmers had troubling achieving their goal of “selling the whole truckload” at the Olmsted Falls location, North Union forged excellent relationships with the producers thereby gaining many excellent vendors, who continue to sell their truckloads at other North Union markets.
October 25th 2004 – Opening Day for Crocker Park in Westlake also boasted the opening of the newest market for North Union! The economic times and a partnership with Stark Enterprises sponsorship spelled virtual success for both ventures. All details were in place for a spectacular opening save for an unplanned appearance by President Bush, and his entourage. Roads and freeways were subsequently closed for his visit for miles around the Crocker Park market; thus opening day, was the only “underperforming” market day to this day! Crocker Park market ran through November that year and the following year the completion of the pilot market for 12 weeks, July through September, set the stage for one of the strongest North Union markets.
The tremendous success of Crocker Park, lead to more partnerships with Stark Enterprises. We opened a market at Eton, Chagrin Blvd and Bath at Montrose – both became our minor league in that we funneled farms attracted to these markets to our larger markets.
In 2008 we were approached by Christina Ayers, Director of Healthy Environment at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Under Dr. Roizen’s direction Christina had to produce a farmer’s market on their campus this season. North Union ran a very successful pilot market in late summer during the abundance of northeast Ohio’s farming season. 2009 we ran our first full market season at the Cleveland Clinic on Crile Mall.
We have also instituted two highly successful benefits that had brought in over half a million dollars over ten years. Farm to Table and Le'ts Get Fresh brought together talented local chefs, farm fresh produce, educational programming and eager supporters. In 2010, we successfully operated the first Cleveland Garlic Festival which will be an annual event celebrating local foods, local chefs, music and more.
Creating the infrastructure of North Union has taken many years and diligent volunteers and management, but we are now a leader in the Midwest with a 2009 and 2010 award from American Farmland Trust’s top 20 large farmer’s markets in the United States!