The tomatoes are endearingly ugly with their blemishes. They grow either in Payson or close by, were delivered to the farmers market by car and not semi-truck, and they taste delicious.
“Some of the tomatoes might be uglier, but it tastes sweeter than at the store,” said Payson teen Samantha McCormick.
The Payson Farmers Market, nearing the end of its first season, has succeeded despite the failure of other previous efforts. Every summer Saturday, local vendors of produce, herbs, muffins, bread, cheese and honey gather with live music playing in the background as people meander, buying food for dinner or just looking.
The market, which runs through the end of this month, is organized so that vendors can buy their own tables or join the co-op table. Occasionally, a flea market organized by the Community Presbyterian church fills the same parking lot.
Every stall has a story. You will find produce growers passionate about selling pesticide-free crops set up next to fledgling family start-ups.
McCormick, 17, and friend R.J. Morris, 18, have made $200 in a month of selling corn, squash and zucchini to pay for a Six Flags trip celebrating Morris’ 18th birthday.
Morris and McCormick haven’t solidified their future in vegetable sales, but the market has incubated other small businesses — some starting at the market, others just growing.
Payson’s farmers market means more than a ringing cash register.
McCormick and Morris love it because they can make some cash without submitting to an evil boss or ugly uniforms. They can also trade tomatoes for brownies because bartering is cool.
Two bakers found creative outlets after the café they sold their goods to closed its doors, and a young chef debuted a line of spices and soup mixes at the market with the help of her parents.
Foodies love it because they can buy tomatoes straight from the guy who grew them. Patrons chase the thrill of a bargain or the memory of a great taste when they return for more.
The now-thriving community marketplace began during the pervasive pessimism that descended on the community during last fall’s presidential election.
As partisan bickering replaced communal bantering, John and Lorian Roethlein decided the town needed space to gather.
“We wanted a place in our community where people were nice to each other,” said John.
Even more, the couple wanted to build community. Although they moved to Payson in 2004, they had not found their place.
“I am totally a people person,” said Lorian. “I was really lonely here.”
In their paid vocation, the Roethleins run an executive headhunting firm. They recruit. Lorian calls executives to see if she can’t steal them to work for whatever fabulous company has hired her.
John researches, finds background information.
He is also the type of person who will pick up an empty water bottle on the ground and throw it in the trash can if he happens to pass by one, he said.
“Why wait for someone else?” he wondered. And when ideas roll around in your head like empty water bottles on asphalt, you can either wait for the perfect time that never comes, or you can pick the idea up and start rolling.
John and Lorian have a unique relationship. He is the visionary, and she is the connector. He concocts all sorts of wild ideas and she then organizes and makes phone calls.
“It caused a lot of problems early in our relationship,” said
Lorian. She’s since learned that not all ideas merit action. The farmers market, however, was too positive a force to abandon.
In this newest project, the Roethleins applied the skills that have made them successful headhunters. They researched, recruited and organized.
One Friday, Lorian drove to the Sedona farmers market and found Freddy Munoz, a produce grower from Camp Verde.
She tried to recruit him, but at first it didn’t work. Freddie had other obligations on Fridays; he sold his crops at the Prescott farmers market.
Then, before the 4th of July opening, Munoz called Lorian for a progress report and discovered the Roethleins had signed up just one produce vendor.
“You can’t have a farmers market with one vendor,” said Munoz. “I’ll help you get started,” he told her.
He never returned to Prescott. Munoz said he competed with eight or nine other produce vendors in Prescott, but the lesser competition in Payson means more money.
“That’s a no-brainer — go where there’s no competition,” he said.
Munoz, 61, began farming two years ago after investing his savings in a failed car show. Previously, he worked as a construction electrician. A longtime friend urged Munoz, now broke, to start farming on a vacant half-acre in Camp Verde that his family owned.
The friend told him to buy a tractor; he would lend Munoz the rest.
“It was meant to be,” Munoz said. Two years later, he loves his new occupation.
He loves the self-sufficiency of it, the camaraderie of the farmers markets and eating quality food.
Munoz grows tomatoes, five varieties of squash, four varieties of watermelon, and onions.
“Use your imagination and give it a try,” he said. “See if it will grow.”
Locally grown produce contains more nutrients than food trucked in from other places, advocates say. Supermarket tomatoes, for instance, are genetically engineered to avoid bruising, and are often plucked from the vine before fully ripening, according to Munoz.
Sometimes days pass before a tomato reaches its destination from the farm, and advocates say nutrients leak out of the skin along the way.
Munoz uses no pesticides. To kill insects, he mixes soap and vinegar with hot sauce. “Once they get a taste of that hot sauce, they don’t want to come back.”
More than one billion pounds of pesticides leech into soil annually from modern farming, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic food contains more anti-oxidants, and 25 percent more nutrients on average than non-organic food, according to a joint report by the Organic Center and professors from the University of Florida and Washington State University.
Lorian, however, says that buying local matters more than buying organic. “You can buy tomatoes for 88 cents a pound, but they came from Chile and they have no flavor,” she said.
Or, you can cut open a cantaloupe that’s ripe to the skin because the farmer picked it the night before.
Buying local has also boomed fledgling market businesses.
“We have our own little stimulus package,” said John.
Karen Thomas, who makes healthy dog biscuits, started her business at the market and has had repeat customers from Scottsdale and Mesa.
Sales from Digga Bone Bakery biscuits, which are preservative free, oven baked, and contain ingredients like green beans and alfalfa powder, have allowed Thomas to help her son, Joshua. “My son, he’s having a hard time finding a job,” said Thomas. “I thought this could help.”
Brisk sales have buoyed her hopes for a successful business, and Thomas aims to build a Web site. “If I do it right, it’s gonna do really good,” she said.
Rowena Marrs and partner Christi Gibson baked for Fireside Espresso for supplemental income before the economy forced the coffee shop’s doors shut.
“I love the camaraderie of everybody,” Marrs said. “That’s what keeps me coming back and setting up every Saturday.
P.J. Ivey and Jeff Poshka have helped daughter Tonya Ivey Poshka launch her spice and soup mix business. Ivey Poshka, 30, has cooked in Florida resorts and at Bryce Canyon National Park.
P.J. said demand has developed in the two months of business, and the family will soon begin Internet sales.
Products, which include spicy chipotle barbecue seasoning and gourmet wild mushroom and herb brown rice mix, contain no artificial ingredients and organic vegetables.
Customer feedback at the market has allowed them to make changes like the new low-salt products they offer, P.J. said.
Repeat sales have also helped grow their business, and Jeff says he likes seeing, “people using their skills and energy to create something and provide a living for themselves.”
He also likes seeing food labels without words like sodium benzoate. “I read those labels and say, ‘My God. I’m not a chemist.’ I have no idea what that does to me.”
Lorian Roethlein says vendors will have made about $40,000 by the market’s end the last Saturday in September, much of which they will likely spend in Payson.
For vendors, a table costs $5 plus 3 percent of sales. The Roethleins give the Community Presbyterian Church, which donates its parking lot, money because they want to, not because the church asked for it. The church also covers the market’s insurance and electricity, asking for nothing in return.
“They said ‘No, we’re a community church and that’s part of our mission statement,’” said Lorian.
At first, not all prospective vendors showed interest. “I think a lot of people took a wait and see approach,” said John.
Lorian added, “If everybody took a wait and see, then of course it’s going to fail.”
The first farmers market opened with about 12 vendors. And although roughly 25 variously set up tables, the market has lacked consistency, which Lorian said has hurt some businesses because people can’t depend on their presence.
Traffic also has varied, and although early high numbers — possibly due to the holiday opening — have fizzled out, core customers now arrive ready to fill the cloth bags they bring, Lorian said.
And customers are dedicated. One recent Saturday, the market closed because of lightning. Three separate people arrived to find an empty parking lot, but then proceeded to drive to Strawberry and buy cheese from Fossil Creek Creamery.
Next year, the Roethleins will seek help with organizing the market.
“We need to get back to our real jobs,” said Lorain. Still, they want to register it as a non-profit and keep it growing.
Farmers on the roster know to grow more crops next year because the outlet exists to sell them. Businesses have thrived and access to healthy food has improved through the market’s success. People have used their talents to create something with its own personality.
John and Lorian, without community before, now see people they know in the store. “We actually have to look nice now,” John said. If only they could help that sad tomato, so bruised yet so sweet.