“Forging a partnership between farmers and consumers” has been Ohio Farm Bureau’s mission statement since 2003. This idea was a common theme for Dr. C. William Swank, a long-time executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau who retired in 1995. Long before others, he recognized a need for more attention to improving rural-urban cooperation.
“Bill Swank said to solve a rural-urban problem that you need to itch and scratch it,” said Dr. Mark Partridge, who was hired as the C. William Swank Chair in Rural-Urban Policy at Ohio State University. “Our charge is to look at issues that affect rural and urban areas, particularly issues where rural and urban conflict or overlap.”
Some of the issues the Swank program has examined include economic development, rural-urban quality of life, transportation, agriculture, green space and the environment. One area that Partridge has been studying is how to make local governments more efficient. He said only Pennsylvania has more local governments than Ohio.
“The rest of the world doesn’t have that administrative overhead,” he said. “We have to be smarter. Our local government system is set up for the 19th century and no longer works that great.”
The Swank program also is examining the economic, environmental and infrastructure effects of oil and natural gas exploration in Ohio.
“A lot of history shows natural resource booms didn’t end well. We need to look at what will happen in four or five years and what kind of government needs to be there. What shape will the roads be in when the boom ends? We don’t want to be left holding the bag with roads to maintain. This is particularly important to farmers because we can’t outsource them to China. We need to make sure the community is well run,” Partridge said.
Rural Mediation Group
The recent launch of the Rural Mediation Group reflects how critical a partnership between farmers and nonfarmers has become as people continue to move into rural areas and more want to know how their food is raised. The Dublin-based cooperative helps people find mutually agreeable solutions to rural conflicts. For instance, what happens when breathing in fresh Ohio country air is not so refreshing?
“Manure odors are one of the most common complaints from nonfarmers,” said Mark Wilson, an environmental expert at Rural Mediation Group. “Because farmers and consumers share the same neighborhood, it’s important to build that trust and confidence,” Wilson said.
But sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Rural Mediation Group got its start last April after agriculture law attorney Robert Moore noticed that litigation over farming issues was expensive.
“Robert felt horrible that both sides were paying so much money for an outcome that they didn’t expect,” said Natalie Blue, one of the group’s four members who also is a partner in Clifton Family Farms.
The goal of a mediator is not to impose a decision like a judge but to help both parties find an acceptable solution, Wilson said. Going back to the manure odor example, “As the two sides talk, they are able to better understand each other and come up with creative resolutions such as not spreading the manure on important dates for the (neighbor) like a high school graduation party,” Wilson said. “It’s important to have that trust and constructive conversation.”
A Community Comes Together
Positive, open relationships are also helping to revive a spirit of neighborliness between farmer and city dweller.
In Ross County, a progressive farm dinner sponsored by the county Farm Bureau pulled the community together to celebrate much more than local food. Ross County residents and others enjoyed a four-course meal served at four different farms where the farmers opened up their barns and fields to the visitors. The residents gathered around the farm table to talk, laugh and share their community spirit.
“Farms are great gathering places for a community. You have farmers and community folks coming together and having a natural conversation about what’s going on,” said Janet Cassidy, Ohio Farm Bureau’s senior director of marketing communications.
“This makes the field-to-table process so transparent because you’re able to talk to somebody who grew your food and that’s pretty powerful.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.