People always used to ask Samantha O’Byrne, director of the O’Hara Commons & Sustainability Center in Hamilton, what the center did. Now in its sixth year, the answer to that question has become pretty clear.
Over the last four years, the non-profit center has been providing about 300 classes per year for children and adults, as well as a Wednesday afternoon farmers market. Classes include summer youth programs, adult learning series, and programs for young children. There’s also the in-person farmers market which opens this year on June 3. O’Byrne said it has become so popular that a line forms around the edge of the property in anticipation of the 4 p.m. opening.
“Any connection to food helps build resiliency and a connection to food systems,” says O’Byrne.
During COVID-19 their classes went to online only. But what really changed was that they partnered with several other groups and started an online local foods market and that has really taken off. The market is designed so that people can order online and then on distribution day they can drive through and pick up their orders. There are currently 28 vendors and 400 customers with about 65 orders filled per week.
Along with O’Hara Commons, the project was supported by Cobey Williamson, owner of bitterrootvalley.org, Ravalli County Economic Development Authority and CARES Act funding. The market promotes a “sustainable, circular economy.”
Vendors are local and regional. Offerings include mushrooms, honey, dairy, eggs, meat, produce, baked goods, coffee, ferments, value-added herbal products, some ready meals, and plants. They also offer a “scratch & dent” category of imperfect produce at a reduced price. Organic growing methods are preferred. O’Byrne says they now have a nursery license so they can offer plant starts like rhubarb and asparagus and even dahlias from Kangaroo Gardens.
“We’re so unconventional,” said O’Byrne. “Numbers of stuff is not a factor. We can sell one item or odds and ends just as easily as larger amounts.”
People can shop from their favorite vendors. Some of those might include bread from Oddfellows Bakery out of Salmon, Idaho, chicken from Living River Farms in Stevensville, cheese and meat from Lifeline Dairy in Victor, eggs from Buck and Dave’s in Corvallis, or coffee from Zaxan’s Coffee Roasters of Hamilton.
“We have an incredibly strong SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) participation,” says O’Byrne and they now offer a “double SNAP dollar match” which gets a SNAP participant an additional $20 worth of items for every $25 spent.
O’Byrne said they have begun collaborating with the Bitterroot Climate Action Group in transitioning to sustainable packaging. They are creating starter kids for their clients, with a reusable bag and a variety of sustainable packaging options. They are looking for feedback from their customers as well. Do they prefer a one-time use compostable container or a reusable container?
“This is a process,” said O’Byrne. “It will take time. We need to understand the true issues around plastic. We’ll always have it but we can get it out of our food chain.”
The O’Hara Commons is located at 111 S. 4th Street in Hamilton, in a house built in 1896. The property was made available to O’Byrne by a generous benefactor, Andreas Herrmann, who shares a vision with O’Byrne to have a community center. The outdoor space contains demonstration areas such as an edible landscape, a pollinator garden, composting and backyard chickens. O’Hara Commons will be on the Secret Garden Tour this year representing the edible landscape. “Every single annual planted this year will be edible,” said O’Byrne. “The vegetable garden will be a children’s kitchen garden.”
O’Byrne said the online market is set to run through at least March of 2022 or longer. She said the Hamilton Farmers Market and the Wednesday Market will have an effect on it, but Wednesday Market vendors will be able to sell online as well. “We’re here to stay,” she said. “People are used to the online market and they like it.”
She said the next layer for the online market is to get a refrigerated truck, which will enable them to pick up local products, lowering the carbon footprint. “Then we want to add delivery to individuals,” said O’Byrne. She is currently looking for funding for a truck.
She said she has an “incredible volunteer base” of 10 dedicated people who greet customers, pack boxes, and run food out to the cars. They also have a gleaning program. They will harvest fruits and vegetables of anyone who is unable to harvest their own. They can also process the produce in O’Hara’s certified kitchen. Last year they harvested 3200 pounds of honeycrisp apples, giving the fruit to anyone who wanted it as well as making cider. They gave the cider pressings to a local farmer for his livestock.
O’Byrne can hardly contain her enthusiasm for these programs that she believes are geared toward “empowering a resilient community,” the motto of the O’Hara Commons & Sustainability Center.
“Nobody asks us what we do anymore,” she says with a smile.
Find out more at https://www.theoharacommons.org