KENT: On a gravel path under the Route 59 overpass, where Franklin Avenue meets Summit Street, they’ve been gathering for 20 years.
Long before local was the trend in food; long before the words “organic” and “sustainable” were part of our grocery shopping; and long before anyone gave much serious thought to where food comes from, a couple of city residents thought it would be nice to be able to shop for produce at an open-air market.
Husband and wife Fritz Seefeldt and JoAnne Jones had no idea how far ahead of the trend they were when they founded the Haymaker Farmers’ Market in Kent, which this season is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Among local farmers markets, Haymaker is a pioneer. In 1992, the national farmers market movement was still budding, and no local ones existed yet.
The market was established three years before Cleveland’s prolific North Union Farmers Market first set up a folding table in 1995, and more than a decade before the Countryside Conservancy began sponsoring its popular markets in Summit County.
On Saturdays for nearly six months out of the year, farmers, bakers and artisan food purveyors of all varieties come together under the bridge to shop, sell and share the bounty of the local food system with hundreds of customers, including students and faculty from Kent State University and locals from throughout Portage and Summit counties.
It wasn’t always that way.
How it all started
Seefeldt and Jones moved to Kent in 1984. He is a native of Youngstown, and she grew up in Brookfield Township in Trumbull County. After Jones began working as an MRI technician at Akron City Hospital, the pair decided to settle in Kent, where Seefeldt worked as a massage therapist and furniture maker. (Seefeldt has since become a nurse, and now works at Akron City.)
Seefeldt said he got the idea because he missed Youngstown’s Pyatt Street Market, an open-air market that used to operate on the city’s south side.
He thought Kent would benefit from a similar market, and the couple started making plans, along with Kent architect Rick Hawksley, who drew up the site plan that Seefeldt and Jones took to City Council.
Seefeldt said he wasn’t really aware of the country’s infant farmers market movement at the time. “I was aware there were farmers markets in larger cities, but I just thought it was something we ought to have in Portage County because of the agricultural nature of the county. Back then it was primarily agricultural,” he said.
The idea was to offer an outlet for farmers to sell their produce and “to encourage people to keep farmland in production,” rather than seeing it converted to housing developments and strip plazas, he said.
The name Haymaker came from the bridge under which the market meets each week. That section of state Route 59 is known as the Haymaker Overpass, taking its name from the Haymaker family, one of Kent’s founding families.
At its first meeting, just four vendors set up shop.
“We put a lot of effort into keeping it going,” Seefeldt said.
Seefeldt and Jones would solicit area farmers, asking them to bring their produce to town to sell, and eventually the numbers grew.
In a college town that has never really outgrown its hippie past, the reconnect-with-the-land aspect of a grower’s market caught on with farmers and customers. Today, nearly four dozen vendors have regular stalls, selling everything from organic bread to goat cheese and, of course, farm-fresh produce.
The market has music and tie-dye, and a relaxed feeling as customers stroll, nibble, shop and converse with each other and with vendors.
“It’s become its own community and a lot of it is based on food,” Jones said, noting that their son and daughter grew up at the market, and now their grandchildren are there each Saturday.
Bernie Chaykowski of Chaykowski Farm has been a vendor since the first year, and keeps coming back because of the connections he has made with the people, both customers and other vendors.
Retired as a general superintendent with the Portage County Engineer’s office, Chaykowski said his family has farmed the same land in Mantua since 1943.
“The people, oh, yeah, great people,” Chaykowski said, explaining why he keeps coming back.
Chaykowski said he could sense early on that the farmers market would succeed, as customers and the country in general were becoming increasingly interested in connecting with their food producers on a personal level.
The market is producer-only: Farmers and other vendors may sell their produce, but food wholesalers are not permitted to sell there.
Bonny Graham Esparza has been selling her home-baked bread at the market for 17 of its 20 years, and summed up its success this way: “It’s about relationships.”
Esparza makes her bread with organic flour she purchases at the Kent Natural Foods Co-op.
She said selling at the market has taught her a lot about working with customers and working for them. “It’s not about what you think you want to sell. You have to listen to them and provide what they want,” she said.
Esparza also praised Seefeldt for his leadership and assistance over the years, noting that he was always willing to work to get vendors what they needed and to help them succeed.
In recent years, Seefeldt has taken a lesser role in the operation. He still holds a position on the board of directors, but in 2011, the market contracted with Kelly Ferry as its first manager.
Ferry had been a volunteer for many years, and was excited for the chance to have an integral role in the market’s management.
“I loved the market and wanted to be a big part of it,” she said.
The market continues to find new ways to expand. Several years ago it began holding indoor holiday markets in November and December, and began its popular Music at the Market series, which features performances by different local musicians each week.
To celebrate the anniversary, the market is marking its home under the Haymaker Overpass.
Artist Elaine Hullihen, a KSU fine arts graduate, is painting a mural on the overpass supports that will give permanence to the location.
Through various sources, the market was able to raise most of the $11,000 needed for the project, including repairing and preparing the bridge supports. The Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University donated a large portion of the money and worked with children from Kent’s Holden Elementary School, the school nearest to the market, to help them write poetry based on food and their gardens.
Hullihen’s mural includes images of fruits and vegetables intertwined with lines from the students’ poetry. It is expected to be completed by the end of the month.
“It will give the market a sense of place,” Hullihen said.