By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Boba drinks and baked goods. Meat from seven Wyoming producers. Raw milk, cheeses and butter. Lettuces, blue cheese dressing and pickles. Unpaper towels, candles and chocolates.
These are just a few of the locally sourced Wyoming products available at a new, year-round farmers market that’s opened in Fremont County that showcases locally produced foods and products from more than 40 vendors — and counting.
The fledgling business is open five days a week, similar to a regular grocery store. But its vendors are all local producers who drop a new batch of products off periodically when shelves become bare.
Now about 800 of the available 15,000 square feet is filled with Wyoming products. That gives this store plenty of room to grow for the future, Jessica Fritz, co-owner of the Fremont Local Market told Cowboy State Daily.
The model for the new venture is for-profit, although nonprofit Fremont Local Food is helping to get it off the ground. While the idea for the year-round farmers market didn’t stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, it did help provide a spark, Fritz said.
The pandemic helped highlight for its board members “that something like this could quite possibly be very essential,” she said. “Because instead of dealing with a whole bunch of different farmers all in an open space, you’re only dealing with one, basically a cashier, who brings up all of your products for you as you go and shop.”
It’s All About Local
The store already has around 200 customers a day, Fritz said, adding that regular hours and a variety of goods available are key selling points.
“Consumers are super happy,” she said. “They love being able to swing by and grab the things they want. Everything’s reliable. We have a lot of people who only want the local meat and only want local eggs.
“The fact they can get their milk and eggs and meats and then bread products – and everything right here locally – in timelines of hours that work for them.”
Eventually, Fritz said she hopes to affiliate with Eat Wyoming so products that can be shipped across the state are available to a wider market.
Another Option For Producers
Consumers are not the only ones liking the new arrangement, Fitz said. Producers also like that they can drop products off to be sold by designated agents, rather than waiting around to sell their products during a limited timeframe on weekends or weeknights.
Now their products are on sale five days a week, and they’re free to do other things while they’re being sold.
Among these producers is Tim Thornburg of Gold Standard Farm and Ranch in Riverton, who sells a variety of raw milk products at the Fremont Local Market including, of late, strawberry and chocolate-flavored milk, as well as kefir and yogurts, which are sweetened with local honey.
“I just talked to a local chocolatier yesterday and we’re going start using her syrup in our chocolate milk,” Thornburg said. “So, we’re not only going to use our local raw milk, we’re going to use chocolate syrup from a local chocolatier here.”
Started With 1 Cow
Thornburg and his wife Bobbie started their business milking cows in 2016 in response to a downturn in the oil and gas industry.
“At that time, my wife and I, we had, I think, one milk cow,” he said. “We had some pigs and chickens, and I told her we’re either going to have to get serious about this and go whole hog, or we are going to have to sell everything and move into town.”
The Thornburgs were tired of the ups and downs of the oil and gas industry.
“You had four years of boom and then, depending on who got elected, you either had another four good years or four years of a bust,” Tim Thornburg said. “You lived your life four years at a time.”
So the couple took all their savings and bought some milk cows.
Supply Chain An Eye-Opener
Then the pandemic hit and the resulting supply chain issues, and suddenly Thornburg had more business than he could keep up with.
“I’m going to say we’ve been as high as 11 cows at one time,” Thornburg said. “Right now, we’re milking, well I have five cows right now. Three are in milk, two are dry. We’re waiting for them to calve and then they’ll be freshened up, so we’ll start milking them again.”
Each cow generally produces five to six gallons a day, but Thornburg has one cow that does 11 to 12 gallons a day. He’s been trying to breed her — but so far no luck. She’s only produced bulls.
Thornburg said he believes the pandemic has opened people’s eyes about their foods and where they’re coming from.
“(Groceries) aren’t coming out of the backroom at Walmart or Safeway,” he said. “Farmers are producing the groceries one way or another. So, I think it’s kind of an awakening that people are like, ‘Wow, I can go right out here to my local farmer and get the same thing. And I can talk to the farmer, I can find out how it’s produced. I can find out if they, you know, if they’re given antibiotics or if they’re spraying their vegetables or that kind of stuff.’ At the grocery store, you’re just taking their word for it.”
Quality Trumps A Bargain
Price might be the only sticking point for some, Thornburg acknowledged. A gallon of raw milk produced from his farm is $12.
With hay at $250 a bale and corn costing $100 a week, that’s just where his math lands.
“I’m going to be the first to admit that yes, probably the prices are higher in (Fremont Market) than what you can go to the grocery store and buy it for,” Thornburg said. “But anymore, I just set my price, and when someone says, ‘Well, I can’t, that’s too much or something,’ I think well, I just tell them, especially on milk, I said, ‘Well OK, you go buy a $2,000 cow, then spend another $2,000 on milking equipment and have another $10,000 worth of feed sitting there, and then tell me what you have to get for a gallon of that milk?’”
Most of Thornburg’s customers and others buying at Fremont Market aren’t necessarily shopping for bargains. They have special diets, want to source local food to keep money circulating in the local economy or they believe the quality of what they are getting is worth paying a little more.
Closing The Gap
But as inflation continues to shrink the price gap between the large retail and local markets, many stands with locally sourced foods are beginning to see more customers.
Lené Whitt operates the Whitt’s End Cattle Depot and Farm Stand about 12 miles west of Cheyenne, which has about 33 vendors selling locally sourced foods five days a week.
The Farmstead opened last November, but Whitt and her husband Augustus have been running cattle for about seven years and selling their meat online.
They are careful of the price differential for their meats and are very aware of grocery store prices in setting their own rates.
Lately, prices for hay and corn have been up substantially even when buying feed in bulk. But so far, they are sticking with their current prices.
“We’re not making a lot of money,” Whitt said. “But my husband says, ‘Well, we’re feeding America, and I love what I do.’”
Whitt feels that most of her customers, while conscious of price points, are prioritizing better quality over price.
“Our prices are higher than Walmart because, I mean, that’s what we have into them,” Whitt said. “At Walmart, you can get burger for $4 a pound and we charge, if you buy in bulk, it’s $6.”
That’s an overall a loss for the couple, but they make up for it somewhat with their high-quality steaks, which they can charge a premium for. Those command higher prices, though set to still compare well with grocery store prices.
Local Producers Sourcing Other Local Producers
Whitt also offers raw milk at the market and ice cream she makes from their dairy cattle.
The milk she sells stays on the shelf for just four days, after which it goes to another vendor who makes it into cheeses.
“We also buy local eggs,” she said. “Anyone around here can bring us eggs and we’ll put them in the Farmstand. And then we’ve got salsa and honeys, honey mustard and barbecue sauce — they are all from local people.”
One woman bakes pies, another makes cookies and there’s even someone who crochets items.
“We try not to do a lot of stuff, but during Christmas we do ornaments, and we’ve got some people that bake once a month and they’ll bring us stuff,” she added.
Among these one-offs are amazing cinnamon rolls, Whitt said, that have at times prompted quite the rush of customers for the dozen or so available on a weekend.
The business has so far done well enough in its first year of operation that Whitt and her husband are looking at a larger shed to expand their fledgling local food business.