It’s been seven long years in the making.
And while Saturday is the culmination of wishing and hoping and planning and dreaming by Danny Swan, Ken Peralta and their team, it’s just the beginning. Fueled by passion and dedication, the Public Market opens its doors tomorrow in downtown Wheeling.
At 8 a.m. sharp, you can feast your eyes on products from over 50 local vendors in the 2,500-square-foot market space in the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Center at 14th and Main.
You can purchase everything from goat cheese and granola to sweet jams and jellies. There is organic flour, oats, dried beans … Indian spice blends … chicken and lamb … homemade ice cream and baked goods … dog treats and duck eggs … pickles, produce and popcorn.
You’ll recognize some of the hyper-local vendors — Eric Freeland, the Blended Homestead, Carrie Eller of Under the Elder Tree, Elizabeth Vdovjak and Zeb’s Barky Bites. You’ll also meet new ones — Emerald Valley Cheese, Ross Farm, Nana’s Ice Cream and Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective.
Eventually, a deli will be open where you can enjoy chef Melissa Rebholz’ made-to-order breakfast and lunch offerings, featuring the market’s locally sourced products — like a breakfast burrito made with local eggs, a salad with fresh greens.
Along with local products (local, as in the tri-state area), you’ll find nationally produced natural products as well — toothpaste, toilet paper, tamale kits and fruit juices, to name but a few — in order to offer healthier and more responsible options while also providing staple shopping for downtown residents.
Local artists and artisans, such as East Wheeling Clayworks and Logan Schmitt, will have their creations for sale. A wall behind the cash register is resplendent with colorful artwork. Artists will rotate on a monthly basis; Wheeling’s Robert Villamagna has the initial slot.
PLANTING THE SEED
Since that first conversation about the market seven years ago, Swan said he has been motivated by three things: locally grown food, ethically sourced food and “a place for everyone in Wheeling.”
“As a farmer myself, I’ve been eager for a way to share my crops with Wheeling, especially year-round. And I’ve gotten to know so many other farmers in the valley, many of whom are mentors and friends. We’ve envisioned a community space where we can all share our products with our community,” he said.
“Much of the food we eat isn’t local, and never will be. With two little kids in my house, we go through a LOT of bananas. I’m very excited to have bananas (and coffee, chocolate and other tropical fruits) where I trust safety and humanity of the source. There’s a lot of suffering embodied in our foods, people mistreated around the world to produce food for us, with harsh impacts on worker health and ecosystems,” Swan said.
“This market will be a forum for foods that can be openly traced back to farms where the farmers have adequate housing, health care, worker safety and education for their children,” he added.
Peralta noted that their goal has always been to create a resource for community health and opportunities for local farmers.
“We’ve remained committed to this and believe this market realizes a giant first step toward this. We expect the market will improve and evolve much as it dials into needs of our community,” he noted.
CULTIVATING THE VISION
Eleanor Marshall, special projects director, has been an integral part of bringing the market to fruition, working on the vision and business plan, and forging relationships with farmers.
Marshall, who hails from America’s breadbasket, Iowa City, Iowa, came to Grow OV as a VISTA volunteer two years ago. Her passion is good food and farming.
A graduate of Yale University (she studied creative writing and anthropology), she was involved in legal solidarity work in Palestine when she realized that “what I had loved about so many places I had been, including Palestine, was farming and growing food and being connected to how food grows and how its shared … and thinking about health, and I really wanted to farm. I really wanted to farm.”
From an internship with the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Defender’s Office, she moved to Georgia to work on an organic produce farm. “And loved it.” At the end of her stint in Georgia, she discovered Grow OV through Good Food Jobs, an online forum.
Now, here in Wheeling at the Public Market, she’s excited to celebrate “high-quality food” that “pays a living wage” to producers.
The Public Market is a non-profit consignment market — each producer will get a percentage of sales. For example, for perishable products, such as dairy and meat, the farmers will receive 80 percent (15 percent is the norm in traditional grocery stores, Marshall said). Shelf-stable products will garner 75 percent for the seller, while makers of art, pottery and crafts will get 70 percent.
“The goal is really to be able to provide an outlet in which farmers can get a living wage for their products, but also where there’s not a lot of time commitment, so farmers can drop off their stuff just like they do in a wholesale relationship, and their products are displayed in downtown Wheeling. … Then farmers can focus on what they do best — which is farming,” Marshall said.
In 2017, Local Roots paid their top-selling producers $50,000 a year — a middle-class income, Marshall noted. And, the Wild Ramp, open since 2014, has returned over $1.2 million to farmers.
The challenge is paying producers a living wage and offering affordable products. “We’re trying, and we will keep trying,” Marshall said. It’s a constant balance, she added.
Swan emphasizes that there will be something for all citizens of Wheeling. “There will be top-quality gourmet products from local producers, but also affordable, simple foods, plus all fruits and veggies are half off for people with SNAP (food stamps). It is hard to eat healthy on a budget. My own family struggles with it, as do many of our neighbors in East Wheeling. The Public Market will help remove obstacles to healthy food for Wheeling’s urban neighborhoods.”
While Marshall — and her friends, too — live on a tight budget, they believe that “having delicious quality food in our lives … is such a rich experience — being able to know your farmer and being able to participate in growing your food, being able to eat quality food. … The more people we can invite to share that experience, the better.”
The Public Market accepts SNAP, WIC and Senior Vouchers as well as SNAP Stretch.
CREAM OF THE CROP
“I can’t wait for the farmers and other local food producers to really bring in products and fill the space. … I really see the Public Market as a celebration of the abundance of what we do have here in the Ohio Valley,” Marshall said, just hours before some of the farmers were to arrive with their deliveries.
“I really see the Public Market as a celebration of the abundance of what we do have here in the Ohio Valley.”— Eleanor Marshall
Some of Marshall’s favorite moments in her two years in Wheeling is “finding really interesting products and people that are committed to making food right here where we live. I’m really excited to have been a part of creating such a central showcase for those kinds of products right here in downtown Wheeling.”
And a lot of those people, committed to food and to the Public Market, were milling about — no, not milling — they were bustling about the place earlier this week. “Controlled chaos,” one worker said.
Catherine Schnur, an Americorps VISTA volunteer in charge of producer outreach, was assisting Connie Morris of Harlan Farms in Jacobsburg, Ohio, cart in her boxes of no-sugar jams and myriad varieties of pickles. Morris will be providing raw milk goat cheese, dilly beans, pepper mustard and salsa — all of which she makes herself.
Eric Rubel of Rubel’s CrossRoads Farm in the Belmont/Centerville area of Ohio said he is looking forward to bringing his chickens, grass-finished lamb and beef, and free-range eggs to the market. He’ll also be supplying artisanal cheese — raw milk, 100 percent grass-fed — from Canal Junction Farm from Defiance, Ohio.
Chomping on a big, red apple on Wednesday was Charlie Farris’ toddler. Farris and his wife Britney Hervey Farris own Family Roots Farm, and they’ll be supplying the Public Market with maple syrup and sugar, and sorghum products.
19 Coffee of Washington, Pennsylvania, owned by Linsly grad David Diorio, is creating a special proprietary blend of beans for the Public Market’s coffee.
“The market will be full of natural and health products … prominently featuring local farmers and as much local food as we can find,” Marshall said. “Our dream is to source everything as locally as we can.”
Ready for Saturday’s opening were baskets of apples — juicy red deliciousness — from the John Morgan Orchard. Shelves were neatly stacked with vinegars, oils, duck fat, ghee, vegan mayonnaise, spices, salad dressings, kelp noodles, maple syrup and tins of oatmeal. Refrigerated cases were stocked with ice cream, milk, eggs and more.
Helping out at the market were 10 students from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. They are part of Grow Ohio Valley’s ongoing Food Justice Immersion program, in which college students spend a week in Wheeling during school breaks, learning about food justice, food security and local agriculture.
Along with working at the market — on Wednesday, they were making produce displays with burlap and baskets — they volunteered at all three GROW OV growing areas and did an additional service project with the House of Hagar Catholic Worker House during their week-long stay, explained coordinators Evan Williams and Nicci Fong.
“We’re here to serve, but I feel l the impact this community and its members have had on us has been so much greater than anything we could’ve given to them,” Williams said. “This area of Wheeling is considered a food desert, and it’s really brought to attention the issues of food deserts we have in Omaha …. the issues here are also impacting the Omaha community … and really inspiring me to become a voice in my home community.”
Mary Blake, assistant manager of the market, was decked out in a bright red apron. She said she’s excited to be bringing something new to the city that hasn’t existed. Up until recently, she was a teacher for Northern Panhandle Head Start but decided to apply for a job at the market. “I got hired, and I felt in my bones that this was right, that this was going to be great, and we’re really going to thrive in this space.”
General manager of the market, Dean Sparks, who relocated to Wheeling from rural Vermont, was busy talking to a guy about cheese. He declined to have his photo taken, as he said he hasn’t “shaved in three months” — apparently he’s been a little busy!
Swan is eager for the doors to open, despite his exhaustion.
“It’s been an ‘all-in’ effort from a core group of committed people, working around the clock. That said, the exhaustion melted away today [Wednesday] when — at last — farmers started dropping off their products at the market. Welcoming these farmers into the market, helping them merchandise their products, showing them the space we’ve created … that makes it all worth it,” he said.
“It’s been a long time coming, but here it comes,” Peralta said about arriving at “the starting line.”
Marshall also credits the market’s partners for the launch: the City of Wheeling and Ohio Valley Regional Transportation Authority, who worked to help secure the location, and many additional supporters and funders.
THE TIME IS RIPE
Saturday’s festivities will be a treat for those who come to the new market. Lots of the sellers will be on hand to sample their wares. As an added bonus, the market opening will take place in tandem with the third annual Grow OV Harvest Festival.
“The store will be open from 8 a.m. on, and throughout the day, we’ll have producers set up in the store by their products talking about what they’ve provided to the market,” Marshall said.
“We’ve got a woman coming from Pittsburgh who does Indian spice blends. We’re excited about having [Prya Osuri from Anar Gourmet] at the opening.” She’ll be at the opening from noon to 3 p.m., and her spices will be available at the market. “She learned to make spices from her grandmother, and now makes them and sells them in the Pittsburgh area, and I’m really excited to have her. She’s so knowledgeable.”
There will be live music inside the market in the morning from 10:30 to noon.
From noon to 12:45 p.m., Laura Hitchman of OV Power Yoga will host Nourish Your Soul, a free public yoga class.
From 1-7 p.m., music will be performed on 14th Street, featuring the Wheeling Symphony Brass Quintet, Ezra Hamilton, Adrian Niles and Matt Heusel, Ananga Martin, the Gypsy Cowboys and Mister James. The Public Market Facebook page details the day’s full schedule.
Harvest Festival family games and activities will take place from noon to 7 p.m. at Heritage Port. There will be a pop-up pumpkin patch and pumpkin decorating, face painting, kettle corn, and fall games and contests. The Fun-raiser truck will have toys and games for kids.
GROWTH ON THE HORIZON
“We envision a market that becomes a resource for our community,” Peralta said.
Workshops, such as straw bale gardening, natural living, home gardening, healthy eating on a budget, composting and kombucha making, as well as cooking classes for adults and children, will be offered in the future, Marshall explained.
“We’re working to create a Public Market that … is full of diverse customers that are improving their health through local and natural foods; increases Wheeling consumers’ access to information about the origins of their foods, including the local (or global) farmers who got the food to market; and is shaped by stakeholders, including customers, farmers and community leaders,” Swan said.
Community is key to continued success, they believe.
“I want to invite people in Wheeling to really feel ownership of and an investment in [the market]. And, I think however the store looks at the beginning, we really want to be responsive to the community,” Marshall said. “We want to welcome local farmers and food producers to approach us. We want to find even more.”
“A successful market will lead to more local farmers growing food throughout the year,” said Peralta. “Strengthening of our local food systems like this can increase wellness and resiliency throughout the valley. With strong engagement, we can achieve sovereignty over what we eat. This unique aspect, on its own, will attract people to Wheeling.”
Tomorrow is a pinnacle of sorts — of Swan and Peralta’s dream, as well as Marshall’s work in the last two years along with their committed team. But it’s really just the dawn of this community market.
“This is just the beginning of a market that I hope can grow — can grow opportunities for farmers, can grow relationships between farmers and people who live in the community, and can grow into a really community-owned space for thinking about food and health. That’s really exciting for me,” Marshall said.
• Having spent nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal now serves as Weelunk’s managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.