Always Growing

A novel idea.
Thirty years ago, one county Farm Bureau wondered if a “farmers market” would be the wave of the future.

Buying local?
That was the notion when sweetener was first made from Ohio corn rather than being imported.

Staying in touch.
Getting together to talk about life in their communities is one thing that hasn’t changed for Farm Bureau members.

It has often been lamented that there’s nothing new under the sun. Going back through Ohio Farm Bureau’s magazine archives, we decided to put that to the test.

For instance, who knew that long before Internet users turned their virtual soil in “Farmville,” there was “Sodbuster.” The board game developed more than 30 years ago by an Ohio dairy farmer allowed anyone to try their hand at the business of agriculture.

Or how about the 1986 presentation by one young Ohio Farm Bureau member couple on the potential for computers to provide a digital forum for families to have conversations about current issues and instantly express their opinions. (Just think, Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg was only 2 years old.)

And in 1980 the local Farm Bureau in Richland County tried something of an experiment: a “Farmers Market” that would provide one location where customers could buy direct from several growers.

“I think Farmers Market will be the trend for the future,” said then county Farm Bureau president and fruit grower Ken Burrer.

The market’s success was a bit of a surprise, and the group offered to help other county Farm Bureaus launch “Farmers Markets” in their communities.

“I just chuckle to myself because the grocery is selling my apples,” Burrer was quoted. “There is just something mental involved in the Farmers Market. The customer feels better about buying his goods from the man who raises them and it is good for the man who raises the goods to know his customers.”

That line of thought must have had some appeal, because years later Ohio Farm Bureau changed its mission to “forging a partnership between farmers and consumers” and then launched the Our Ohio brand to help grow those relationships.

It’s a good thing that it did. Knowledge that was common for those inside the world of food and farming would later surprise consumers as they renewed their interest in the origins of a meal.

Starting in the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup was welcomed as a replacement to refined cane sugar. Instead of importing sweeteners, one Ohio facility boasted it could buy locally from as many as 4,000 of the state’s farmers.

But as the article predicted—“the industry responded too well to the growing demand for its product … in a few years, you name it and it will probably have corn sweetener in it.”

We now know, the simple ubiquity of the sweetener has made it a target of food concerns.

Then there’s a decades old interview with a University of Kentucky researcher who touted the opportunity for “restructured meat” to better satisfy consumer demand. Only recently did consumers hear a similar product labeled “pink slime.”

From food policy to the survival of the family farm, issues that have long been discussed in Farm Bureau are now receiving attention from a new generation of eaters. And that strikes at one of the organization’s earliest concerns—how to bridge the division between farmers and their customers.

Originally, the divide was over food prices. Farmers were getting paid too little to make a decent living, and consumers worried they were being gouged at the grocery.

One plan emerged from Ohio in the 1960s—Farm Bureau members across the nation would purchase a major grocery store chain and run it cooperatively. While other states didn’t support Ohio in that endeavor, other big ideas born in Ohio Farm Bureau paid off.

In 1926, Farm Bureau members invested $10,000 to start an insurance company designed to respond to its customers, not outside shareholders. That company eventually became Nationwide.

But the organization’s biggest investment has been in people.

Consider Fayette County farmer Bob Peterson who in 1990 was volunteering on his county Farm Bureau’s safety committee. He and his wife Lisa later won the organization’s Outstanding Young Farm Couple award, he became county Farm Bureau president, state Farm Bureau president and is now serving in the Ohio Senate.
As he prepared to enter the Statehouse, Peterson said his experience with Farm Bureau helped him develop leadership, problem solving and communication skills.

“All of that was great training to serve the people in government,” he said.

Ohio farmer Bob Gibbs, also a former Ohio Farm Bureau president, followed a similar path to the U.S. Congress.

More recently, Laura Johnson, who received Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation’s Women’s Leadership in Agriculture scholarship in 2009, talked about how she is now helping small farmers in Africa.

Johnson, who grew up in suburban Upper Arlington, credited her experience with Ohio Farm Bureau and exposure to Ohio agriculture with helping her relate to farmers abroad. She develops insurance products that allow African farmers to invest in growing food with less risk.

“It’s a great environment to work in. They want to grow better crops and they want to feed their families better,” she said.

So, perhaps the warning is true, that what has been done will be done again. But for Ohio Farm Bureau that has meant providing a place where ideas and people can grow. And certainly that’s worth repeating.