Butler County farmer, woodworker adjust to sell local at farmers markets: How they’re doing it

The West Chester Farmer's Market runs through October on Saturdays at The Square at Union Centre in West Chester Township with a variety of farm fresh vegetables, fresh made breads and snacks, soaps, jewelry, crafts, flowers and more. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
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The West Chester Farmer's Market runs through October on Saturdays at The Square at Union Centre in West Chester Township with a variety of farm fresh vegetables, fresh made breads and snacks, soaps, jewelry, crafts, flowers and more. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Farmers markets, some of the key parts of the warm-weather times of year for buying local and meeting with neighbors, have mostly returned in Butler County this summer, to the delight of operators.

West Chester, Fairfield, and Oxford are among those back to holding regular markets where people can buy organic produce and homemade goods.

Jennifer Bayne, owner of 7 Wonder Farms, got her start by growing garden vegetables and raising animals in her backyard while simultaneously growing disenchanted with the food industry. As her backyard activities expanded, she knew she’d have to take to the next level, as in buying an actual farm, to continue.

Today, she grows produce according to organic standards and pasture-raises her animals. That means her prices are higher than most. During the lockdown, people bought food from her because they had little choice, but once the grocery stores opened back up, activity changed.

“I would say 75 percent of people went back to their old habits,” she said. “Even though our meat tastes substantially better, it’s hard to beat the convenience of one-stop shopping for all your food. It’s funny because farmers markets are actually safer (during COVID-19), because only one person is handling your stuff, while at Kroger, everyone is squeezing your tomatoes.”

7 Wonders Farm earns its living by traveling to five regional markets, three of which are year-round.

“When the markets went into lockdown, that really hurt,” Bayne said. “Oxford was the only one that never shut down, and that really helped us. We were also lucky. I don’t think of myself as tech-savvy, but I could sell online, and a lot of other farmers couldn’t.”

Jon Graybeal made the decision to start Greybeal Wood Works in September 2020. The reason? He lost his regular job in April.

“I’d always done woodworking, it was in my family,” he said. “When I bought a house, I was too cheap to buy furniture; I just made my own. During the pandemic, friends asked me to make pieces for them, because orders were so backlogged at the big box stores. So, I figured, ‘Why not try this?’”

Graybeal started at the West Chester market. His top sellers remain entryway benches and console tables. He does a lot of custom furniture but also makes items such as coasters, picture frames, and seasonal décor. Larger, more complex pieces include beds (cedar headboard and frame, all one piece) and charcuterie tables with circular holes in the corners.

“People like to hang them in their kitchen,” Graybeal said. “They’re visual like art pieces.”

Graybeal said he was apprehensive when he started selling at West Chester.

“It was hard to tell whether a market was even going on (due to COVID),” he said. “I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but other vendors told me it was definitely down. Restrictions were significant. Everyone was masked. Booths were arranged for distancing. There were protocols about wiping tables.

“Fairfield was even tougher, because their winter market is indoors. They were really good at giving vendors COVID kits, with masks and cleaning things. It still turned out to be a great way to get my name out there. Traffic was heavy even if people didn’t buy anything.”

With the warm weather and eased restrictions, Graybeal sells at the West Chester and Fairfield markets every week, and twice a year at Grace Market in Lebanon, which is a full weekend. He also connects on social media.

“I end up getting a lot of custom orders at the markets,” he said. “That allows me to make pieces that are too large to bring to the market. The restrictions are mostly gone. We’re still encouraged to distance, and Fairfield still has a designated spot for food, I guess because they don’t want people walking around, eating.”

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