Then in 2010, Gaffney found Local Roots, a market in nearby Wooster that saved the farm. The local-foods co-op allows as many as 150 producers to stock its shelves six days a week, year-round. Customers can buy milk, cheese, meat and produce from any combination of producers and pay at a central checkout. And the farmers receive 90 percent of the purchase price, nearly three times what they would get if they sold it to a wholesaler. “We were so happy,” says Gaffney, who now sells almost all of her meat and produce through Local Roots. “We won’t be slaves. We will be able to make a business.”
Local Roots is a new kind of co-op. It helps small farmers such as Gaffney make ends meet. It also caters to customers who like the idea of buying local but find visits to farmers markets and weekly buying clubs, such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, inconvenient.
Launched two years ago in a renovated warehouse off Wooster’s main drag, the market is thriving. On a recent visit, the shelves were stocked with potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, arugula, nine varieties of apples, grass-fed milk, jam, maple syrup and locally milled flour. And this is the slow season.
To date, the co-op has grossed about $750,000 and is making a profit. The founders have added a small cafe and soon will build a community kitchen, where producers and entrepreneurs can preserve and can seasonal foods. This month, Local Roots helped to open a second market — what it calls a “sprout” — in Ashland, about 25 miles away.
Wooster is not an obvious place for a local-foods co-op. The city is home to just 26,000 people. And this is not, say, Vermont or Northern California, where local food has become a cause. But Wooster does have two big advantages. The rolling hills that surround it are dotted with small farms; the county is home to one of the largest Amish populations in the country. And it has a small, dedicated group of residents who wanted a different kind of place to shop.
Local Roots’ founders are a diverse group, including farmers, agricultural researchers, teachers, a banker and an architect. In 2009, the group began meeting weekly to figure out how to build a co-op without a lot of capital — which, co-founder Betsy Anderson says, “none of us had.” That ruled out traditional retail models, where the store sources and buys all of the food up front — and loses money on whatever goes to waste. “From the beginning, we were looking at how this would all fit together so it was environmentally and economically sustainable,” Anderson says.