MIAMI COUNTY — Jennifer Ruff liked the idea of supporting one’s community by offering fresh, high-quality produce in unique varieties, but with three young children — and a fourth due any day now — running a traditional farmer’s market just wasn’t in the cards.
So, following the example of another virtual market, she recently began Miami County Locally Grown, a year-round online farmer’s market. Virtual markets can open the door for smaller, niche and seasonal producers, or those for whom a set-up and tear-down market is not possible, she explained.
“I could not set up a traditional market, stay there with the kids for several hours, and tear down … I’d anticipate that would be a disaster,” Ruff said, with a laugh. “But I can haul the three of them with all the customer orders, and in less than 10 minutes, deliver 100 pounds of potatoes and other produce by myself without losing my sanity!”
Ruff’s professional background is in education; she taught middle and high school in Dayton and Huber Heights before becoming a stay-at-home mom and helping her husband, Lee, farm full-time, fulfilling her dream of “building a sustainable homestead,” she said.
“I’m lucky to have found the perfect man who thankfully had always shared that same dream,” said Ruff, a native Michigander married to a Kentuckian — “we met in the middle,” she said, jokingly.
Both of them grew up in the suburbs, but enjoyed spending time on their grandparents’ hobby farms.
“(Now) we own a 21-acre farmstead where we work hard to be as sustainable as possible – growing our own food, the feed for our animals, saving the seed from our 50-plus crop varieties, and breeding our replacement livestock.”
Ruff and her husband are experienced virtual farmers, having been involved in a successful market in Champaign County that uses the same Locally Grown software used by the Miami County Food Council.
“My husband and I have been vendors there for almost four years now, and the support of the market managers, the convenience of drop-off and pick-up, and knowing exactly what customers have ordered prior to harvest make that market structure the best in which we’ve ever participated” she said.
Ruff explained that, at a traditional market — that is, one requiring in-person shopping — customers can’t be sure on any given day what produce or which vendors will be present. Likewise, the vendors aren’t certain how many customers will show up and therefore, don’t know how much produce they should take to market.
“We personally would either take way too much, and end up feeding our hard, perishable work to the livestock that we couldn’t preserve or eat ourselves, or we would not take enough and lose out on what could have been additional sales,” she said.
Miami County Locally Grown eliminates such “feast or famine” scenarios, as farmers, artisans and producers list all their products on the website each week, and a list of available products is sent by email each Tuesday at 8 p.m. to customers with free account on the site. Orders are placed via the website, complete with confirmation receipts, and payment is made upon pickup.
Vendors drop off customer orders on Tuesdays from 3-4:45 p.m., and customers pick up their orders between 5 and 7 p.m. at First Place Christian Center, 16 W. Franklin St. in Troy, just one block from the downtown Square.
“Small producers can offer a completely different variety of crops because the plants are cared for more closely and the fruits are harvested by hand as they ripen and are needed,” Ruff said. “That TLC does wonders for the quality of product a home garden can produce.”
Available products vary weekly depending on the time of year, but Miami County Locally Grown offers a wide variety of items, including vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, baked goods, desserts, dairy products, fresh flowers, live plants, jams, jellies, fruit butters, dried herbs and mixes, teas, soaps, body care products, artisan crafts for the kitchen and home, and sugar alternatives such as maple syrup, honey and sorghum.
All of Miami County Locally Grown’s producers come from within a 30-mile radius of downtown Troy, Ruff noted, making this truly a community market.
“The idea of a year-round market that supplies only truly local food is progressive, necessary and thrilling,” she said. “We currently have 18 active vendors on our website, and I’ve contacted almost 40 vendors who are interested in participating. I have new, potential vendors who are curious and interested in the market calling every week! Our waiting list at the moment is lengthy, as a good balance of product is critical for the success of both the market and our vendors.
Also, because this is not a traditional direct-sales farmer’s market, we are pursuing a retail food license, and that changes some of the products we’re able to offer.”
Customers also come from a broad area as well, ranging from everywhere in Miami County to Shelby, Montgomery and Clark counties. “We’ve gotten a great response from folks who, because of work, time constraints, and various activities, would love to support local farmer’s but are unable to visit the wonderful traditional farmer’s markets we’re lucky to have in the area,” Ruff said.
Support and publicity from local businesses and media has also been a godsend, she said, as well as the vendors’ self-promotion and customers’ word-of-mouth skills.
For more information about Miami County Locally Grown, as well as to sign up for a free account, visit the website at miamicounty.locallygrown.net. If you have additional questions, feel free to email Ruff at email@example.com or call her at (937) 903-5249.
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at (937) 451-3341