Written for the dedication of the new market sign and 25th Anniversary of the Lucy Luoma Hantala Pavilion, August 22, 2015.
Recollections of the Iron County Farmers Market
Cathy Techtmann, Iron County Resource/Agricultural Agent (1983-1998)
The Iron County Farmers Market has its roots in the leadership of three area farmers who were passionate about putting idle Iron County land into production and promoting agriculture as a viable economic development strategy. Retired farmer and county zoning administrator John Sola Sr. and dairy farmer Roger Baker both from Kimball, together with Saxon dairy farmer Ken Clement originally were members of the Iron County Economics (ICE) Subcommittee on Agricultural Development. ICE was a county-wide initiative created in the 1960’s by then County Agent Herb Kinney to promote economic development following the closing of the last iron mines and the job losses that followed, By the early 1980’s, all of the ICE committees had disbanded except for one—the ICE Ag Development Subcommittee. This speaks volumes to the dedication of these men to the future of agriculture in Iron County. They are the founding fathers of the Iron County Farmers Markets, and as I will share, and through their leadership sowed the seeds for many of the other successful farmers markets and agricultural ventures.
As I recall from history shared by them and County Agent Geoff Wendorf’s reports from the early 1980’s, the Iron County Farmers Market started as a project to encourage 4H youth to become involved in agriculture through selling seeds and plants to the public. A triangular plot of land generously offered by Bill and Rena Vittone at the corner of Business Hwy. 51 and 10th Avenue North was the location for these Saturday morning sales. The seed/plant selling idea didn’t work out exactly as planned, but local citizens began using the opportunity to sell their excess garden produce with encouragement from John, Roger, and Kenny. John coordinated the Saturday morning market, organizing the sellers into the customary circle-the-wagons configuration with pickup trucks or cars backed in with beds and trunks full of home grown produce. It was pretty informal and the amount of produce and sellers varied widely each weekend. During this time, these farmers also worked with Hurley high school biology teacher Gus Giancola, to start an “Agriculture and Ecology Class.” Through classroom and field trip sessions students were introduced agricultural production and the variety of agricultural enterprises that they could become involved in when they graduated from high school.
John, Roger, and Kenny were the first local residents to meet with me when I became the Iron County Extension Resource/Ag Agent in 1983. Iron County had never recovered from the loss of iron mining jobs and early 1980’s country-wide recession spurred new efforts for economic development. In talking with these agricultural “spark plugs”, it was apparent a more organized structure was needed for the farmers market and agricultural ventures if we were to promote agricultural-based economic development. Together we successfully lobbied the Iron County Agriculture and Extension Committee to sponsor a new county board subcommittee on agricultural development made up of John, Roger, and Ken. This “official” designation gave the group more recognition and regular connections with the county’s decision makers. The objective of the new Iron County Agricultural Development Sub-Committee was to “pursue methods of promoting small scale agricultural production and encourage proper use of idle lands suitable for gardens, vegetable crops, and livestock production which would provide supplemental income to area residents.” The first accomplishment was creating objectives which included researching opportunities to partners with “Rural Ventures” a new small scale vegetable growing project that was starting in the western Upper Peninsula, determining the market opportunities for selling produce, and measuring the amount of interest by area residents.
Iron County’s involvement in Rural Ventures figures significantly into the growth of the Iron County Farmers Market and must be briefly told. Rural Ventures was a Minneapolis-based Job Training program that secured funding to train limited resource western UP land owner to grow cole crops (broccoli and cauliflower) on a commercial scale. The project was funded through 1985. We saw this as a perfect opportunity for engaging Iron County landowners in commercial ag production that could support both ag exports and the Farmers Market. We secured $21,000 in Wisconsin Job Training funds to support five Iron County families involvement in Rural Ventures. There was so much interest in this project that an additional 20 Iron County residents formed a group called “Superior Growers” to mirror the Rural Ventures project. They would get similar training from UW-Extension vegetable crop specialists that would allow production coordination with Rural Ventures growers.
The professional ag training and field support built excitement for locally grown produce. Knowledge in commercial crop production and handling was built. We offered direct marketing training for producers selling at the Iron County Farmers Market to improve their success. The Rural Ventures project resulted in over 40 families producing and marketing “A” grade cole crops through commercial markets. In Iron County, production was expanded to include rutabagas. By the close of the Rural Ventures program in 1985, 15 acres in northern Iron County were in commercial vegetable production, 17 tons of rutabagas were produced, a washer/waxer purchased, and pumpkins added to the list of commercially produced crops. Two families had started on-the-farm small vegetable and fruit businesses in addition to their cole crop production. Superior Growers formed a “cooperative” of 20 members to merge the two projects together, but decided that there was not enough income to support a commercial “packing “facility for cole crops.
The Iron County Farmers Market was a natural outlet for produce generated through these projects and by a growing number of local residents who saw it as a way to generate additional income. During this time, we worked with producers to create Market operational guidelines including strict starting times, expanding market selling days to Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon, and limitations on non-local produce. These gave the Market organization structure that was critical to its success. The Market became so popular that John needed to rope off buyers from the vendors to prevent pre-market selling before he could ring the iconic bell that signaled the Market’s opening. People wondered how Copps food store, located across the road, tolerated the Market because it could be considered “competition.” The answer was Roger who was always there to support the Market, making sure the store manager appreciated how the Market brought attention to the location and more customers into his store! Copps became a big local supporter welcoming other ag events such as Iron County Dairy Day featuring Kenny’s cows and dairy treats. Each fall an Iron County Market “Fall Festival” was held to celebrate the successful market season with a potluck dinner and plan for the next year.
In 1990, another event occurred to improve the Market. The Vittones, who had generously allowed the use of the original field lot, offered to donate to Iron County two land parcels adjacent to the Montreal River along Business Hwy. 51 as a permanent location for the Iron County Farmers Market. A condition of donation was that the Market be legally incorporated. This prompted the Iron County Farmers Market to become a 501c.3 nonprofit corporation with by-laws and a Board governing its operation. A local resident and John Sola’s former teacher Lucy Luoma Hantala read about the project and donated $6500 towards the development of the 50x80 foot pavilion that serves as the Market’s home. The Iron County Farmers Market successes were noticed by other communities that requested help in building their markets. John, Roger, Kenny, and I travelled to many communities including Land O’Lakes, Ashland, Rhinelander, and Hayward, sowing the seeds of new farmers markets based on the Iron County model.
In a county with a limited number of “traditional” farming operations, the Iron County Farmers Market became the largest municipal market in northern Wisconsin and the UP.
As the years went on John, Roger, and Kenny continued to seek other ways to promote locally grown produce and the economic development opportunities if offered. One of their long term goals, getting the Market certified to accept food stamps to promote healthy eating, has been achieved. Their vision was always to encourage local agricultural production of quality produce.
During the late 1990’s, participation in the Market diminished with the passing of John and Roger. Ken is the only remaining member of the original Iron County Agricultural and Economic Development Subcommittee. My job took me away from direct involvement in the Market and I must rely on others to pick up the story at this point.
The truth of John, Roger, and Kenny’s vision is evident with today’s resurgence of the Iron County Farmers Market and the local foods movement in Iron and Gogebic Counties. These three local farmers were way ahead of their time.
Many more stories could be told of the many meetings, hard work, and forever friendships that were made as a result of the Market. On behalf of the Iron County Extension educators who came before me and those who are currently involved, I am honored to have shared John, Roger and Kenny’s vision of the Iron County Farmers Market and helping to make it a reality! These three Iron County agricultural leaders set the foundation for promoting small scale agricultural production and use of idle lands for gardens, vegetable crops, and livestock production, to the benefit of all.