When David Ernst decided to carry on his family’s farming tradition for a fifth generation, he was starting from the ground up.
“I could afford a broken rototiller,” Ernst said, referring to the high costs of land and machinery.
But with some basic equipment and a modest plot of land, he got to work.
It’s been a growing number of small entrepreneurs like him that has helped slow, if not reverse, a long term downward trend in the number of farmers across the nation.
“It’s something you can do and you can raise your family on and be proud of,” said Ernst, who now grows three acres of organic mixed vegetables in Richland County. “I know I am.”
Key to his success was having a way to connect with local customers. Without the Shelby Farmers Market, he notes, he wouldn’t have been able to build a business. He now manages the market in hopes of making farming “more approachable” to people in a similar situation.
“I think there’s others that would like to become farmers, if they thought there was opportunity for them,” he said. And if there are middlemen needed to process, package or distribute products, “I prefer those middlemen to be in Ohio.”
The infrastructure to get local food from farm to plate has received more attention in recent years as customers, for a variety of reasons, began to seek products grown closer to home. The number of farmers markets alone has more than quadrupled since 1994, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But for Brian Williams, the director of agriculture programs for the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the efforts to date have only scratched the surface.
“When I think local food, I think slaughterhouses and trucks,” he recently told a group of community leaders gathered at a meeting sponsored by Richland County Farm Bureau and the Richland County Community Development Group.
Williams doesn’t discount the value of the existing local food system, but says that even with Ohio’s booming agricultural economy, food dollars are still flowing to other states by the billions.
And if local advocates can “learn the logistics lessons from the big guys,” as Williams put it, the more of those dollars communities around the state can capture.
He points out that Ohio’s smaller slaughterhouses often lack the capacity to efficiently serve commercial-scale livestock farmers. And schools, hospitals or businesses that want to source large quantities of local produce are unlikely to do so from a farmers market.
“One thing that more communities are looking at is putting together some sort of food hub,” Williams said. Such a facility would serve as an aggregation and distribution point for local food while potentially offering other services such as packing, processing or educational programs.
There have already been success stories across Ohio. Cooperative kitchens, produce auctions and food delivery services have all helped scale up the possibilities for cultivating new food enterprises.
In the end, it’s not about restricting production, Williams says, but providing more options.
“We want to find common ground. We want to find out what works,” he said.
That broad approach was welcomed by Jean Taddie, who coordinates local food programs for the North End Community Improvement Collaborative in Mansfield.
She has seen the vibrancy that community gardens can bring to urban neighborhoods hurt by the housing crisis. And she also recognizes the sorely needed economic development opportunities that larger food businesses can offer.
“I would want to make it inclusive that super small, small, medium, large and even larger than large can be part of the local food system,” she said.
By turning vacant lots into gardens and urban farms, she sees opportunity to allow more people to participate in their own food security. And with a more focused effort to support local producers, she believes food businesses will thrive.
“It’s very hopeful in Richland County,” she said.
There is plenty to build upon as 1 in 7 jobs in Ohio are already associated with food and agriculture. In all, it’s a more than $100 billion industry. And for some community advocates, further developing the local food system means extending that benefit to more people.
Karyl Price, the Creating Healthy Communities project coordinator for the Richland County Health Department, added her voice to those exploring new strategies—from market gardens to new distribution models—to improve the lives of area residents.
“These can have large impacts on community life, neighborhood stabilization, community revitalization and economic development,” she said.
A recent survey showed that 73 percent of adults in Richland County are either overweight or obese, and Price points to the fact that fresh, healthy foods are often inaccessible.
“Creating an alternative to that current environment by increasing the availability and access to fresh and healthy food is critical to the health of our residents,” she said.
All of these possibilities are being explored by a working group that has been facilitated by Richland County Farm Bureau Organization Director Tim Hicks. It’s a challenge Ohio Farm Bureau is well-positioned to consider with its diverse membership of more than 200,000 Ohioans.
“If we can put the pieces of the puzzle together, we can continue to create opportunities for farmers as well as all members of our community,” Hicks said.
David Ernst has been able to start his own farm thanks to a renewed interest in local food. In addition to supporting other farmers like himself, he hopes that more jobs related to agriculture will be kept in the area. Strengthening the connections between everyone involved in the local food system could create what Ernst describes as “fertile economic soil.” As he put it, “the more links we can establish between suppliers and consumers, the better.”
Jean Taddie sees local food as an opportunity to build community and introduce vibrancy into urban neighborhoods. In addition, she hopes that more businesses related to food and agriculture will help spur economic development. One of her goals is to make the the production and consumption of local food accessible to more people. “Maybe we think of local foods as something that’s really expensive and not affordable. We’d like to see that change,” she said.
Karyl Price says one of the biggest challenges is to support balanced growth in the local food system. “This would include efforts to increase consumer awareness and demand for local foods while supporting increases in producer capacity and improvements in purchasers’ access to local foods,” she said. For Price, the ideal local food system would provide easy access to fresh, healthy foods produced as close to home as possible.
Learn more about your county Farm Bureau by visiting www.ofbf.org/counties.