Jennifer Bone is proud of her farming history. She’s been “digging” dirt for nearly three decades — tilling, planting, pruning and growing vegetables (or produce).
“It’s hard physical labor. It’s hands and feet in the soil,” she shared. “It’s learning the language of the land, a language you can truly learn by feeling the soil, the air and the space between them. It’s all about breathing clean air, and experiencing the sun, wind and rain. You can consult books for great resources and tools but unless you can read the land you are playing catch up all the time. It’s about efficiency too, only using what you need.”
Bone has evolved her “ground game” and today shares her passion for agriculture as the founder and owner of MyFarmersMarket, a cooperative vendor-operated farmers market space tucked in Groton, Vt., a rustic corner of the North Country. The market’s 1,000-square-foot layout, a former General Store location on Route 302, is where neighbors shop for fresh and local, gather for casual community dining, enjoy music and pop-up dinners and sit and engage as a community.
In two short years Bone’s market has become a welcome community space that has encouraged entrepreneurship and supported the local economy.
MyFarmersMarket is occupied by more than 20 area small businesses (30-plus in the summer), family farms, local artisans and the wildly popular Jay Duval, known as Mountain Man pizza. It offers a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, breads and meat with businesses and crafters selling jams and jellies, soaps, herbal extracts and dry goods. The Market’s core group of vendors includes Nana’s Kitchen (pies), Rusted Feather Farm (baked goods and eggs), Haverhill’s Schoolhouse Bakery and Cross Molina Farms.
The vendors each sell their goods but also are part of a unique business model where Bone requires them to pool their time (each spending three hours a week to manage the register) so she can offer storefront hours six days a week, providing her customers more flexible hours to shop, eat or mingle. And regardless of the weather or the season, Bone, who sources fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, is able to keep MyFarmersMarket open year-round.
“I think people realize more and more that commercially produced food is not healthy,” Bone said. “In order for food to sustain life, it has to retain life and the longer it is out of the farmers’ or producers’ hands — whether it’s shipped, stored, processed and stored again — it loses its vitality. People are seeking out clean food.”
MyFarmersMarket is part of a national trend that has seen the number of farmers markets in the United States grow rapidly in recent years, from just under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 markets currently registered in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Farmers Market Directory. According to the USDA, more than 150,000 farmers, ranchers and agricultural entrepreneurs are selling quality products directly to consumers. These direct sales at farmers markets exceeded $1.5 billion nationwide in 2015, the most recent data available.
“It’s nice to be on a farm but it can be isolating so the market has connected me and my children with great people,” the mother of four said. “I see it more as a lifestyle than a business.”
Bone’s children, Noah, 15; Quinn, 12; Genevieve, 7; and Evalyn, 4, all are involved in the farm and the market, and her sons also have branched off to take on more responsibility. Noah, who has been farming for eight years, now tosses pizzas with Duval, and Quinn is displaying his own entrepreneurial spirit and designs: He sells accessories like lanyards, rifle slings and survival bracelets.
“The kids’ interactions with people are great and it’s a lifestyle that has sustained us,” Bone said. “We’re surrounded by people who genuinely care about what they do because, as vendors, they are each responsible for their own business. It’s different than conventional retail. I never have to worry about quality control because everyone takes pride in their own product.”
Prior to MyFarmersMarket, Bone began farming on the New Hampshire seacoast on Barker’s Farm 25 years ago and fell in love with the lifestyle. She moved around a bit, from an herb farm in Epping, N.H., to a couple of farms in Warner, N.H., one a vegetable farm and the other a small diverse family farm.
Then she spent time on a dairy farm in South Ryegate, Vt., in 2010 and started her own vegetable, herb and cut-flowers farm. She attended the Groton and Peacham winter and summer markets, where she spent her time managing Groton’s seasonal venues. In doing so, she experienced firsthand the struggles of a small-town market.
Still, she was eager to set up a business of her own, and her modest journey began five years ago, out of her garage. She first focused on an online market model. And while that still is part of her offerings today, it quickly became evident that customers wanted to touch and smell their produce. She then graduated to an Amish shed and added a shipping-container-turned-walk-in-sales-cooler.
As MyFarmersMarket began to gain attention, Bone started to look to invest in a more expanded property on Route 302 to take things to the next level.
Bone made acquaintance with Sally Wilson, who lived in nearby Ryegate, Vt., and has spent her career as a consumer marketing strategist and food and beverage consultant. Wilson, the founder of the Hanover Area Farmers Market and a SCORE counselor, saw something special in Bone’s approach. The two met a few times and discussed possibilities.
“If there was any indication of a community getting behind Jen’s concept of a larger, self-sustaining farmers market, it was here,” Wilson said. “Right from the start, I believed in Jen because her heart has always been in the right place and she is driven by a community mission. Things started with grassroots, ground building and fundraising because Jen’s plan met the needs of the community for fresh, local food.”
Wilson encouraged Bone to sign up with Upper Valley SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to educating entrepreneurs and helping small businesses start, grow and succeed nationwide. Through the SCORE mentorship, Bone and Wilson have had a wide range of business counseling interactions — from business planning and fundraising to gathering volunteers and spreading the word on her initiative. The interactions continue today.
In October, MyFarmersMarket expanded and opened at a new space in Groton.
“The question I constantly asked myself was, ‘How do we get more people to the market?’ We tried everything — workshops, a kids’ play space, kids’ crafts, events and a variety of other ideas seeded from the farmers market association. After many efforts, there was a time when I thought we had hit our ceiling.”
She realized many of her patrons were interested in fresh area produce, and that there were others who wanted to support her but who were unable to visit during the traditional Saturday hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“I heard over and over that we needed a solution,” Bone said. “To increase our customer base, we had to add hours. To extend hours, we needed to pool our time and keep a market open all week. It’s working and we’re thrilled.”
What also has made the market’s unique model successful is how community stakeholders (and individual entrepreneurs) have worked diligently and collaboratively.
“There’s a tremendous trust factor because we all have a sense of individual and community ownership at the same time. It has really lifted the spirits of many and we have become a pulse of sorts to the Groton community and the North Country region,” Bone said.
To establish a startup presence, Wilson played a hands-on role spearheading fundraising dinners. The first was a $100 per plate event; because seating was limited to 36, it quickly sold out. The next event, a casual, buffet-style dinner priced at $30 per plate, took shape soon after and also was a quick sellout. The dinners were led by volunteer efforts.
“Sally’s guidance has been spot-on and her straightforward approach has made her and SCORE great to work with,” Bone said. “She came along at an ideal time when I was contemplating the expansion of a new space. Her knowledge of farmers markets and expertise in managing commercial kitchens, as well as her insights on bringing a pop-up concept to the market, has been central to our success.”
Bone has no shortage of ideas to further evolve MyFarmersMarket’s offerings, from summer events and exploring more regular pop-up dinners with music and vendor samplings to exploring a Groton winter festival and offering some cooking and preserving classes in the next year. She also has eyeballed the space next door and can envision, with a little work and some TLC, hosting a local used sporting gear and flea market. She also has ideas of creating a large root cellar and food distribution center in the basement of the space and is looking to secure nonprofit status.
“We love our customers, so customer service is very important and comes naturally when you love what you do,” Bone said. “We have achieved many milestones but have a ways to go before I can consider our project a success. Dedicated vendors, community support and hard work have all helped us to get to where we are.”
Lynn Luczkowski is a SCORE volunteer and president of L2 Communications, a public relations, marketing communication and social media agency in Quechee. Email her at Lynn@L2comm.biz.