From Tomatoes to Tourists

Merchants band together to boost local business

By Drew Myron

Deena and Ray Johnson are renovating Moro’s old grocery store into a hub for their business and are working to strengthen the community via events and opportunities.

With tomatoes and tenacity, a handful of local merchants are coming together to strengthen communities across Sherman and Wasco counties.

What began with a farmers market in Moro has expanded into community art walks, outdoor movies, street dances and more—and all of it along the newly formed Discovery Loop. The loop travels I-84 from 97 to 197, from The Dalles and Rufus, and south to Shaniko. The route includes hidden gems, events, treats and treasures along the way.

“We hope to bring business and revive our small towns,” says Deena Johnson, owner of Sage Mountain Primitives, a yarn, tea and gift shop in downtown Moro.

Still in its infancy, the Discovery Loop is a grassroots marketing campaign promoted by word of mouth and with colorful brochures that spotlight events and businesses in the rural communities of north central Oregon.

The list of summer highlights includes the Oregon Raceway in Grass Valley, a pancake breakfast in Pine Hollow, grass car racing in Wamic, a yarn-bombing gathering in Moro and many more activities unique to the area.

Response to the promotional efforts has been enthusiastic, says Deena.

“The Moro City Council was really supportive, and the mayor, too,” she says. “We had 10 businesses advertise in the brochure, and more will be in the next printing.”

Business-boosting efforts began several years ago with the creation of the Sherman County Farmers Market.

Though the county’s landscape offers endless farms, these fields produce large-scale commodities of wheat and barley, with some specialty crops and cattle. Unlike nearby towns in the Columbia River Gorge, Sherman County does not have small-scale farms growing produce for local markets.

To address this food desert, in 2012 the Gorge Grown Food Network—a nonprofit organization promoting access to fresh local food—brought its Mobile Market van of fruits and vegetables to the farmers market in downtown Moro during the summer.

“The mobile van was one of only three vendors serving our little market that first year,” says Cindy Brown, educator with the OSU Extension Service in Sherman County, who served as market organizer at the time. “It was crucial to have the van, as they brought a diversity of local and regional products to the market. The community also respected that they provided discounts to food stamp shoppers.”

Due to budget challenges, the Mobile Market stopped delivering. Sherman County did not have a farmers market for several years.

In 2017, Deena stepped up. New to town, she and her husband, Ray, are busy renovating the town’s old grocery store building with hopes of turning their retail space into a “local place to hang out and have fun, a real community place,” Deena says.

Deena made contact with Hans H. Schalling Jr., who travels throughout the region providing produce to small markets, bringing fresh goods from the Yakima and Willamette valleys. Also joining as a vendor was Ryan Loop of Prairie Fish farms outside of Moro.

Gorge Grown Food Network, a nonprofit organization promoting access to fresh local food, brings its Mobile Market van of fruits and veggies to the Farmers Market in downtown Moro. Photo courtesy of Deena Johnson

Both Hans and Ryan accept the Sherman Veggie Rx vouchers as part of a program that provides free fruits and vegetables to those who qualify.

In 2018, Gorge Grown was able to secure additional funding, and the Mobile Market returned.

Unlike many farmers markets, the Moro Farmers Market is an all-volunteer endeavor, with no fees for vendors or booths. Deena says everyone pitches in, with an emphasis on community building over moneymaking.

As the “new” farmers market took shape, expansion was in the air. Because the farmers market naturally carried a street fair atmosphere—with Moro merchants displaying their wares on the sidewalk and local artists sharing their work—last summer the farmers market evolved into an art walk.

Soon the streets were chocked with one-of-kind quilts, handmade jewelry, elaborate woodwork, fresh plants, baked goods and lemonade stands.

“The sidewalks are full,” Deena says. “People meander Main Street. It brings families out and brings people together.” This burst of weekend fun led organizers to look to their neighboring towns. Surely others harbored special treasures and events, too. Thus, in 2018, the Discovery Loop was born.

While still in the initial phases, the trio of local entrepreneurs—Deena, along with Lisa Shafer, owner of the quilt and sewing shop in Moro, and Deb Holbrook, who operates the Shaniko Preservation Guild—contacted shop owners throughout Sherman and south Wasco counties, and have included them in the brochure and event listing. More efforts are in the works.

Similar to Moro, most of the region’s small communities lack resources to offer official chamber of commerce operations, making these can-do efforts a valuable boon to small business.

“I really want to see all of the communities benefit,” Deena says. “We want to tie it all together and get everyone to know what’s here. Our businesses depend on tourists, and the more people who visit, the more it helps us all.”

For more information or to get involved, contact Deena Johnson at (541) 705-0232.

Moro Community Events

Moro Farmers Market & Art Walk is in downtown Moro the first Saturday of each month, May through October, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Street Dances

These free family-friendly events follow the farmers market and art walk from 4 to 10 p.m. on First Street.

  • Saturday, July 7
  • Saturday, August 4
  • Saturday, September 1

Movie Nights in Moro

Bring your chairs and enjoy movies at this free family-friendly event in the Moro City Hall parking lot.

  • Friday, July 6 at 8:30 p.m.
  • Friday, August 3 at 8:30 p.m.
  • Friday, August 31 at 8:30 p.m.