The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Monday awarded more than $113 million in program grants to support farmers growing fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops, also known as “specialty crops,” through research, agricultural extension activities, and programs to increase demand and address the needs of America’s specialty crop industry.
Monday’s announcement is part of a USDA-wide effort supporting President Obama’s commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems. These grants are administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
“Increasing market opportunities for local food producers is a sound investment in America’s rural economies, while also increasing access to healthy food for our nation’s families,” Vilsack said. “These investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables. The grants also help growers solve technology needs or make better informed decisions on profitability and sustainability, leading to stronger rural American communities and businesses.”
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is awarding $63 million to 755 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program projects nation-wide. The grants are issued to State departments of agriculture for projects that help support specialty crop growers, including locally grown fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops, including floriculture through research and programs to increase demand. Since 2009, AMS has awarded 385 grants totaling $392.9 million for 5,484 projects, including those announced Monday.
For example, an Ohio program was awarded a grant that will increase specialty crop competitiveness by helping Ohio growers with organic production and food safety grant. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association will provide Ohio beginning and existing organic farmers direct technical support and educational programming to help improve organic production and marketing skills. The project will also help transition other growers to certified organic production, and will help farmers of all sizes and levels of experience to establish and implement on-farm food safety plans.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is announcing $50 million in grants funded through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which is made available through the 2014 Farm Bill. This program develops and disseminates science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops across the entire spectrum of specialty crops production, from researching plant genetics to developing new production innovations and developing methods to respond to food safety hazards.
In fiscal year 2015, NIFA made 15 new awards totaling more than $40 million. Fiscal year 2015 grants includes USDA Agricultural Research Service, Peoria, Ill., which will receive $3,672,482.
Additionally in fiscal year 2015, NIFA made also made five continuation awards totaling $9.7 million for grants initially funded in prior fiscal years. Continuation awards are based on available appropriations and project success.
Examples of funded projects include a project at the University of California working to sustain the supply of high quality lettuce in the face of changing technology and climate. The University of Florida will research management strategies for Laurel wilt, a lethal disease in avocadoes. And Michigan State University aims to use applied genomics to increase disease resistance in cucurbit crops. Since 2009, NIFA has funded almost $285 million for 138 research projects including those announced today. Abstracts of projects previously funded are available on NIFA’s website.
AMS works to improve global opportunities for U.S. growers and producers. AMS grant funding supports a variety of programs, including organic certification cost-share programs, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program. This funding is one of the ways that USDA invests in the future of rural America and the nation’s agricultural sector. NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.
More Ohio-grown organic produce should be finding its way to supermarkets as an increasing number of the state’s farmers turn to this method of growing in a nod to consumer demand.
Though the image of organic farming is one of back-to-the-land hobbyists raising heirloom vegetables for farmers markets, Ohio’s organic farms have found that what was once a niche is now an industry.
The state’s organic farmers added 12,000 acres to their more than 500 farms and doubled sales between 2008 and 2014, the only two years of full U.S. Department of Agriculture census data on organic farming nationwide.
Another sign of Ohio’s organic farming growth is that 25 percent of organic operators get all of their income from their farm, up from just 14 percent in 2008. Last year, 34 of Ohio’s organic farms had sales of $500,000 or higher, more than double the number in 2008.
“A lot of farmers are seeing that there is a tremendous amount of potential in the organic market,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “We have seen more growth in demand than supply. The market opportunity is just incredible.”
Ohio’s organic producers grow peppers, squash and tomatoes, cut flowers and herbs. They make pickles, grow microgreens indoors and raise sheep. They also grow some organic corn and soybeans for animal feed. But the big growth in Ohio’s organic production has been in dairy and eggs, two longtime Ohio specialties.
Ohio’s organic milk production, with $36.6 million in sales last year, makes up more than 40 percent of the state’s entire organic production.
Perry Clutts converted his family’s 116-year-old crop farm near Circleville into an organic dairy, and he’s never looked back.
“We transitioned in 2007, and it has been nothing but asking for more and more milk,” he said.
Clutts sells to Horizon, one of the largest organic dairies in the nation. When his family’s tenant farmer retired, Clutts wanted to invest in something with a bright future. He knew his family’s farm, with its poor soil, couldn’t compete with conventional growers. He saw potential in organic products.
“Demand wasn’t great in 2007, but it looked like an opportunity,” he said. “It looked like something that would be around for awhile. I figured people would be more interested over time than less interested in these products.
“I wish I could pick things as well at Scioto Downs.”
Organic egg production has seen hockey-stick growth. The segment had sales of about $2 million in 2008 and grew to more than $17 million last year — about 19 percent of the state’s total organic sales. Ohio is home to enormous egg operations and trails only Iowa in egg production, so it makes sense that farmers here exploit an opportunity when they see it.
“It depends on consumer trends. If the consumers are asking for more (organics), farmers like us will continue to produce more organics,” said Lisa Timmerman, egg division manager for Cooper Farms in Fort Recovery, in western Ohio. “We are seeing a strong market for organics.”
Cooper Farms produces regular white eggs, cage-free eggs and about a year ago added organic eggs. Organic now makes up 5 to 6 percent of its egg business, Timmerman said.
Finding partners and making sure its operation met organic standards has been pretty smooth so far, Timmerman said. The company contracts with local farmers in Indiana and Ohio for its organic eggs.
“The key is that no matter what kind of eggs, cage-free, conventional or organic, farmers will be willing to produce what the consumers want,” she said.
Though it is growing in leaps, organic farming is a tiny fraction of the state’s agricultural footprint.
Ohio has about 75,000 farms and more than 10 million acres in production. The value of Ohio’s bounty tops $10 billion a year.
Lipstreu sees Ohio’s strength in conventional farming as a boon to its future organic growth. A lucrative organic grain market — for high-demand organic meats — could attract more of Ohio’s large, experienced grain farmers into organic production, especially as prices for conventional corn and soybeans continue to fall.
The U.S. imported more than $1.4 billion in organic foods in 2013, according to the USDA. A lot of that food, such as bananas and coffee, can’t be grown here. Soybeans and wine, of which the U.S. has abundant conventional producers, are also leading organic imports because demand far outstrips domestic supply.
Organic grapes won’t likely be a major Ohio crop, but Lipstreu sees grains like soybeans, wheat and corn as the next big growth area for organic farmers.
“We have seen some farmers split operations, doing both organic and conventional, testing it out,” she said. “There is a huge opportunity there.”
An East Side couple is pursuing a passion for organic farming in the city and supplying crops to two local restaurants and to a Butler, Pa., community- supported agriculture organization.
Joe Pedaline and Suzanne Murphy commercially grow salad greens, herbs, popcorn and sweet corn at Early Road Gardens, 585 Early Road, where they live.
Pedaline said he has turned his life around after his three-year federal prison term for his role in a Marshall Street marijuana warehouse ended in 2007.
“It was a mistake I made doing something illegal. I paid my price,” Pedaline said.
“I just want to stay here and out of trouble,” Pedaline said of the farm his grandfather, Joe Hubert, bought in 1943.
Murphy, a tailor by profession, joined Pedaline on the farm seven years ago, after moving here from Minnesota.
“I had my own garden in Minneapolis. I did mostly flowers, and I had a little community garden plot,” Murphy said.
“When I was 3 years old, I would go down and play in the greenhouse and be in the gardens all the time, and it just got into my blood,” Pedaline said.
Pedaline said the location of his city farm is convenient. “I don’t have to drive 35 minutes to go anywhere,” he observed.
“I’m two minutes from downtown, and it’s quiet and private here,” he added.
Pedaline, Murphy and three part-time workers farm 5 acres of the 30-acre site. The remainder is mostly woods.
“I’ve always been interested in growing my own food,” said Taylor Marucci, of Struthers, a civil engineer at Marucci & Gaffney Excavating Inc. in Youngstown and one of the farm’s part-time workers.
“I really like plants and nature,” she said, adding that she would like to reduce her food expenses and eliminate trips to the grocery store.
“It’s a healthier way of eating,” Pedaline said of consuming organic food.
“It just tastes better, and it’s better for the environment,” Murphy said.
Organic farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers or chemically based pesticides or herbicides, and they don’t use genetically modified organism products, Pedaline said.
“We know where it’s from, and we know what’s in it,” Pedaline said of crops grown on his farm.
“Anybody we sell anything to, we say: ‘You come to the farm and see what we do.’ You’ll see exactly what goes on. You’ll know what we’re putting in the soil,” Pedaline said.
Early Road Gardens is certified as an organic farm by the Columbus-based Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
The farm supplies food to Ely’s vegan restaurant in Boardman and to Friends Specialty at the Garden Cafe at Mill Creek Park’s Fellows Riverside Gardens.
A greenhouse and three unheated “tunnel” buildings extend the growing season at Early Road Gardens, where crops are produced from mid-March to mid-December.
“Whenever we harvest, we try to replant the same day,” Pedaline said.
“I think it’s a great trend. People are getting more aware of it,” Murphy said of the organic-food movement.
“I think, 10 years down the road, it’ll be a whole different food movement in this area,” she added.
She and Pedaline lamented, however, that too few people are willing to pay the higher prices for organically grown crops, which Pedaline said are typically 50 percent higher than those of conventionally grown crops.
“Our fertilizer is twice as much. Everything we buy is twice as much. We weed by hand,” Pedaline said, explaining the higher overhead and labor costs associated with organic farming.
“People talk about wanting good food, but, actually putting their money and their cooking habits where their mouth is, is a different story,” Pedaline said.
Organic farmer Mardy Townsend of Ashtabula County is worried about the effects of fracking waste on the environment, as well as her crops. Courtesy: Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
WINDSOR, Ohio – From spills to earthquakes, environmental and agriculture groups say hydraulic fracturing poses serious threats to land, water and public health.
Ohio is one of several states taking part in a National Day of Action today, calling for an end to fracking waste and fracking-related earthquakes.
Mardy Townsend owns Marshy Meadows Farm in Ashtabula County, where there are 15 active fracking waste injection wells. A board member of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, she says a similar well was behind a series of earthquakes in the area in 1986.
“That is a real concern for us, because the Perry Nuclear Power Plant is less than 20 miles away from my home and my farm,” she says. “It is one of the few areas in Ohio that has been known to already have seismic activity.”
There are over 180 injection wells in Ohio receiving fracking waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and state officials linked a string of quakes near Youngstown in 2011 to a wastewater injection well. Industry groups, such as Energy from Shale, argue that hydraulic fracturing is safe, and a boon to the economy – if regulated properly.
To coincide with the national event, Ashtabula County Water Watch is launching a campaign to increase awareness among residents about the dangers of fracking waste. Townsend says what is known as “brine” is toxic, radioactive and largely unregulated.
“The concerns have to do with the possible environmental contamination,” she says. “The other concerns that the people in this county have about brine is that it is being spread as dust control on the dirt roads.”
Townsend adds that very few people benefit from the claimed benefits of fracking, while the rest are left exposed to environmental problems, including possible water and soil contamination.
“I do know of an organic farmer who is surrounded by both frack pads and compressor stations, and I don’t know how long he’s going to be able to hold on,” she says. “Stewardship of the earth is one of the reasons we’re organic farmers, and fracking does not lead to good stewardship of the earth.”
Rallies are being held in over a dozen Ohio counties, as well as in Cincinnati and Columbus.
Farmers and ranchers, as a whole, tend to like quiet lives. They’re not much into politics and would rather leave the lobbying to farm organizations like the South Dakota Farm Bureau or Nebraska Cattlemen.
But increasingly, agricultural producers are being called into advocacy to protect their way of living and doing business. Those who refuse threaten to have their rights taken away by lawmakers who aren’t educated on how their decisions can affect citizens who are involved in agriculture.
“When most people think of influencing regulation, they really think of lobbying,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus, Ohio, during a farmer advocacy training webinar held in September.
But she said advocacy is just as vital to shaping agricultural policies.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Lipstreu said.
Advocacy is the active promotion of a cause or principle, she explained. Unlike lobbying, advocacy does not have to involve confrontation or conflict, though it does include actions that lead to a specific goal.
There are a variety of advocacy strategies, from talking one-on-one with politicians, testifying in state legislature and litigation to educating community groups, hosting speakers or independent film showings, and writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Advocacy also includes attending rallies, blogging or even just being on the regulations team of a local Natural Resource District or another agency. Just about any activity that is done to promote a certain cause is included in advocacy, Lipstreu said.
With today’s media-saturated age, law- and policy-makers — not to mention any reader, listener or viewer of messages online or through traditional media outlets – are bombarded with communications advocating for one thing or another.
“While advocacy is getting louder, it’s not necessarily getting more effective,” Lipstreu said, who recommended that farmers interested in advocacy have the most sway with lawmakers simply by making phone calls or sending personal emails to lawmakers.
“Personal stories are the single, most effective tactic,” she added. “Personal stories, plus why the issue matters to you.”
Politicians respond best to people they have a relationship with, Lipstreu said, so she also suggests advocates take the time to not only thoroughly research the issue they want to promote, whether that be boycotting the construction of a pipeline or protecting crop subsidies, but also to research what issues are important to their state lawmakers.
“Don’t call about broad issues. Call about specific legislation,” she said, adding that as few as 10 calls on a certain angle of an issue can change a lawmaker’s stance.
It’s not unusual for farmers to be intimidated by making a phone call, but hearing a voice gives more meaning to a story than reading it in an email, Lipstreu said.
To give an overview of a typical phone call to a lawmaker’s office, Lipstreu introduced Jazz Glastra, a college intern who worked with Lipstreu over the summer. Glastra said that one of the lawmaker’s aides typically answer the phone. The person calling in needs to remember to give the aide his or her name, residence, any relevant association affiliations and the reason for the call, citing a specific piece of legislation, before giving a personal story and a statement as to why that lawmaker should care about your story.
“This doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience,” Glastra said, though she did admit that the first couple of phone calls do feel awkward.
The aide who takes the phone call is generally able to help the caller through the process. The aide will take notes as the caller talks, before thanking the caller and hanging up the phone.
Other tips from Glastra included writing down talking points and being prepared to give an introduction in a voicemail, with the caller’s name and phone number, so that his or her story can be told when the aide calls back.
“The more you make those calls, the more you interact, the easier,” Lipstreu said.
No matter what, farmer advocacy is becoming an ever-increasing need in agriculture to ensure that farmers – who are in the minority of the total U.S. population – are able to keep their rights as to how to do their business.
“We have so many pressing issues around agriculture and food policy right now,” Lipstreu said.
When trying to influence a legislator or a federal or state agency, one heart-felt personal letter is likely to be more effective than the signature of 1,000 persons on a form letter.
That advice was given by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s (OEFFA) policy program coordinator Amalie Lipstreu during a webinar titled “Advocacy: What, Why, and How.” She commented that although “advocacy is getting louder, it is also less effective.”
“You don’t have to go to Washington, DC or your state capitol to be effective,” Lipstreu said. She noted that merely signing an online petition is easy to do but this is seldom likely to make a difference.
Take advantage of organized lobby days, develop relationships with legislators, research a topic properly and demonstrate one’s scale or interest in an existing problem, Lipstreu suggested. Organize or attend rallies because they tend to attract media attention.
An often overlooked avenue of advocacy is providing input when federal agencies have a formal comment period on the development of regulations. She said legislation could be needed to deal with violators or actions which are causing harm.
Letter writing hints
When writing that letter or making a phone call to a legislator, be sure to research any existing stance of the legislator on the topic, try to make some connection with what the legislator views as a priority, and be very specific on the policy or pending legislation, Lipstreu said. In some cases, as few as 10 calls can make a difference on legislation.
In addition, take advantage of any opportunity to meet the legislator in one’s home district, Lipstreu stressed. When making the contact, point out that “you are a constituent” of the legislator, “identify any organization memberships that you have” and “tell your story” on why the legislator should act in a certain way, she stated.
Writing letters to the editor can also be effective, Lipstreu said. She noted that the OEFFA’s website has a page with guidelines on how to write such a letter.
Importance of advocacy
As farmers, gardeners, and educators — the groups who make up most of the membership of the OEFFA — it is important both from a historical perspective and on pending current relevant issues to engage in advocacy for one’s beliefs, Lipstreu emphasized.
Lipstreu cited the effectiveness of advocacy in creating the national organic production certification program 35 years ago. She said advocacy also includes trying to get large institutions to make corrections in existing practices or policies and that advocacy does not necessarily result in conflict or confrontation.
Advocacy also applies to arranging community meetings or forums that lead to setting goals and setting strategies on ways to approach problems. She also suggested that advocacy should not take the form of a partisan political stance.
Topics for advocacy
In Ohio and other states, some of the current topics suited for advocacy are frac sand mining, the labeling of foods for genetically modified organisms, crop insurance, and local food policy councils, Lipstreu said. She noted that Ohio already has more such councils than any other state — due in part to advocacy by OEFFA members.
“More general topics that are appropriate for advocacy include the economy, the environment, biotechnology, and the effect of legislation on local communities”, Lipstreu said. She can be contacted at Amalie@oeffa.org.
Mike Laughlin (R) delivers organic butternut squash to a Short North restaurant.
Organic farmers are celebrating a milestone anniversary. It’s been 25 years since the federal government started regulating organic farming. The Organic Foods Production Act unified a patchwork of different state standards. We take a look at organic farming regulation and the areas where industry experts say there’s room to improve.
Mike Laughlin delivers several crates of large, organic butternut squash to the Short North restaurant Northstar.
Laughlin owns Northridge Organic Farms, in Johnstown. He’s been an organic farmer for about 35 years, long before the Organic Foods Production Act.
“Back then there was no law that governed labeling of the products, so you could just say it was organic,” he recalls.
Before the federal regulations, states certified farms. And the rules varied.
“Some of them were not as strict as others. So if you were growing organically in Ohio and selling it, you might be competing against somebody across a border that is producing with less stringent standards and maybe can produce that a little bit cheaper,” Laughlin says.
Laughlin says the Organic Foods Production Act leveled the playing field.
“And it protected the integrity of the word organic.”
But the law wasn’t perfect. It received a lot of public outcry and pushback from farmers for being overly broad and not stringent enough.
“That original set of rules would have allowed in organic production: genetic engineering, sewer sludge and ionizing radiation,” says Carol Goland, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association director.
OEFFA is one of the oldest organic certification agencies in the U.S.
“As a result of that backlash, those three things are explicitly prohibited in organic today,” Goland says. “Eventually, those rules were revised and they were released in 2000.”
By 2002, the federal National Organic Program was created to oversee all organic production and labeling.
On the northwest side of Columbus, Amy Shaw, shops at Raisin Rack, a natural food store. Shaw says she has eaten only organic foods for eight years. She thinks it’s healthier and better for the environment, but she wonders about the labels.
“You have to be wary. I’m big on whole foods. I mean, you don’t have to worry about the labels or the labeling if you’re eating an organic apple,” Shaw says. “If you know the farmer, and you shop locally, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting what they say you’re getting.”
Agencies like OEFFA certify organic farms for the USDA. There are about 50 of them in the U.S., and they hire contracted inspectors.
Goland admits agencies are stretched thin. OEFFA, for example, oversees nearly 900 farms and 70 processors across 10 states.
“But the reality is, that farmers and organic food processors have to go through the certification process every year,” Goland says. “As a whole, we are keeping up, but it represents an area of growth since organics is growing.”
Goland adds certifiers are calling for clarification and more regulation in areas like animal welfare, hydroponic crops and beauty products.
“You will see some cosmetics or body care products out on the market that are labeled organics. There aren’t really standards for these,” she says.
There are more than 730 certified organic operations in Ohio and nearly 20,000 in the U.S. Nationally, organic products generate $39 billion in sales.
COLUMBUS, Ohio – With preservatives, flavorings and other unpronounceable ingredients, making sense of food labels is difficult enough. Opponents say the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act could create even more confusion. They refer to it as the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK Act.
The legislation would allow foods made with genetically modified organisms to be labeled as natural and allow some GMO foods to be labeled as non-GMO.
Warren Taylor, who produces non-GMO milk at Snowville Creamery in central Ohio, said the act would take away people’s right to know what they’re eating.
“The cheapest commodity jug milk at a grocery store can be now labeled non-GMO milk,” he said. “Every egg sold in America can be labeled non-GMO eggs, regardless of the fact that those animals are all being fed GMO feed.”
The bill also would ban states from regulating food labeling, which supporters say would stop a patchwork of conflicting laws. While it would set up a voluntary national labeling system, Taylor argued that most companies that actually use GMO foods are not going to advertise it.
The legislation passed in the U.S. House with only two Ohio lawmakers voting against it. The Senate could introduce the measure soon.
Taylor contended that the bill undermines existing businesses like his that sell non-GMO products. For the past eight years, he said, Snowville Creamery has been breaking even, and recently received a game-changing offer that would have paid the company a premium for its non-GMO milk – but the deal didn’t last because of the labeling act.
“The day the DARK Act passed the House of Representatives, a week later, they called me from the cheese plant and rescinded their offer because all cheese in America became non-GMO, according to the DARK Act, if it passes the Senate this month,” he said. “Snowville Creamery is like a cat hanging on a wall right now.”
There are global economic concerns, Taylor said. At least 35 countries have laws that impose labeling or import restrictions on GMO foods. Taylor said America’s non-GMO producers will suffer without proper labeling.
“The purpose of the DARK Act is to not give the American people the GMO labeling that every other industrialized democracy and Russia and China have,” he said, “but rather to assure that the American people will never be able to make an informed choice.”
A poll this year found that 87 percent of Ohioans surveyed support the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian sit across from each other at the center of a long table they’ve haphazardly strung together from four-tops at Athens’ hippie Mexican eatery Casa Nueva. One by one, as their friends arrive—a recent college grad in a maxi skirt, a toddler-wheeling couple sporting dreadlocks—Jaeger and Ajamian jump up and smile with arms outstretched. Every guest is treated with an enthusiastic hello or a strong-armed embrace that lingers with familiarity.
The convivial air carries through dinner. Familial teasing is directed at the father figure of the group. Remember that one time Jaeger had to learn to drive a combine on the fly, and then it ran out of gas on a hill? Or when, having never operated a forklift before, he had to reverse it off the bed of a truck?
The goateed Jaeger laughs along as he takes it in stride, adding to the stories with hand gestures that mimic gear-shifting. Amused, Ajamian sips on a can of Jackie O’s beer as she good-naturedly disputes small details in every tale.
Among the baskets of tortilla chips and sauce-covered enchiladas that decorate the table, the real reason for this dinner takes shape. The staples of this meal—chips, black beans, tortillas—would not be possible without this ragtag group of community do-gooders who learned how to run an organic grain and seed mill on the job. Since opening in 2010, Shagbark Seed & Mill has become a source to which organic farmers can sell corn that turns into food, not feed, and from where area chefs find grains, beans and flour grown and processed in Ohio.
Brandon Jaeger at the Shagbark mill in Athens
That’s a tougher feat than it may seem. Until Shagbark began selling black turtle beans, Northstar Cafe had to look to the West Coast to buy the essential ingredient for its veggie burger. One corn farmer confesses he had never tasted his own crop in a product before Shagbark began making tortilla chips.
“Brandon and Michelle are really, in a very direct way, changing the world and Ohio for the better,” says Darren Malhame, partner at Northstar Cafe. “People like to talk about organic like it’s some sort of elitist thing. There’s nothing elitist about providing healthy food for everyone. They’re using corn for really what it should be.”
Sustaining the masses is exactly how the idea of the mill started. At the peak of the local food movement, as consumers began obsessing over heirloom tomatoes and kale grown nearby, Jaeger fixated on a single question: Why are we looking elsewhere for staple foods like corn and beans?
“We’re just not going to survive on tomatoes and lettuce and kale and heirloom squash. We’re going to need to rebuild our staples,” says Jaeger, who calls this conundrum his existential anxiety. “Someone needs to be focusing on organically producing the foods that have been a staple in our diets for so long.”
That someone, it turned out, is Shagbark.
An Origin Story
Shagbark Seed & Mill was never intended to be a business. It was an experiment that started with a two-year grant application to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a U.S. Department of Agriculture organization that promotes agricultural innovation.
At the time, Jaeger was on a monastic training retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center. Ajamian, a community activist with a design background, came out to stay with Jaeger—planning the getaway to work on a grant proposal to support a perennial-annual education lab. But after Jaeger first uttered the phrase “existential anxiety,” Ajamian suggested a second proposal.
The question that won them the $5,800 grant in 2008: Could they create a model staple food system that would make high-nutrient grains and beans local again? It started as test plots on four farms to identify which ancient grains—quinoa, amaranth, millet—and beans would grow well in Appalachia. But as they conducted studies and consulted with members of the collaborative they’d created, Jaeger and Ajamian found one glaring piece missing from the staple food network: a processing facility. Even if a farmer wanted to grow black turtle beans, Jaeger says, he’d have no outlet through which to process them.
“We were ready for a blissful life with our hands in the soil and walking through test plots with clipboards noting pollinator activity and stem girth,” Jaeger says. “But we realized there are plenty of farmers around us with the soil and equipment and know-how to grow the right crops. But they need a reason for it.”
If you wanted to open a coffee shop, you could walk around a single city block, find a handful of java-slinging storefronts and get a feel for how the business is run. But, five years ago, if you wanted to start a regional organic grain mill, you’d come up short with examples to follow.
That was a big challenge in the beginning as they launched their prototype regional mill, Ajamian says. They consulted with any experts they could find, cobbling together the necessary equipment. An organic farmer in Oregon recommended the kind of French mill they needed. They found a seed cleaner for sale in Westerville. The wooden Austrian sift box they use now to grind polenta, grits, spelt flour and buckwheat flour is still technically on loan from a farmer.
And of course, they needed to persuade area farmers this would work—and it would be worth working with the little guy who needed a few hundred pounds, not tons, of corn.
Thankfully, the right farmer followed Ajamian out into the hallway. She had just delivered her stump speech to a group of grain farmers at an Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) meeting.
“I’d like to come down and see what you’re doing,” said the anything-but-shy Chris Clinehens. More than a decade earlier, the third-generation Bellefontaine-area farmer had his conventional 210-acre farm certified organic. Shagbark intrigued him.
That first trip, he brought 150 pounds of corn. Now, he supplies the more than 100,000 pounds of corn needed annually to make Shagbark’s signature tortilla chips and corn crackers. Talk to him about his commitment to Shagbark, and he speaks as if he’s a partner in the business, wishing his farm wasn’t 250 miles away so he could help more day to day.
“They’ve got a lot of guts,” Clinehens says, admitting he’s given them a lot of leeway on when they pay for product. But it’s worth it, he says, because he believes in their mission. “I can see where they’re headed. It’s pretty outstanding that they’ve accomplished what they have.”
For a company that runs on part-time employees and volunteers, Shagbark’s growth has been explosive—from selling corn meal and spelt berries at the Athens Farmers Market to tortillas and chips at Columbus-area Whole Foods. Clinehens is one of eight farmers—a mix of certified organic and Amish—who supply the mill with high-nutrient organic goods to produce roughly a dozen products, including buckwheat flour, spelt, popcorn, stone-ground grits and polenta and pinto and black beans.
Shagbark went from selling $10,000 worth of product its first year to $125,000 the next. By 2013, they reached $321,000 in sales. It’s leveled out a bit, Jaeger says, but is still on an upward swing. This year, they’ll go through about 150 tons of Ohio bean and grain crop—with corn for chips, crackers and tortillas making up 60 percent and black beans another 30 percent.
Much of this growth is owed to Shagbark’s ability to diversify products and adapt a wholesale business that distributes product around the state.
Jaeger and Ajamian created their three-ingredient tortilla chips (corn, sunflower oil and sea salt) in 2011 to help one of their favorite restaurants, Casa Nueva, which didn’t have the manpower to make chips in house. Now lovingly referred to as their “gateway product,” the chips have become their most recognized creation.
The chips first attracted Katalina’s owner Kathleen Day to Shagbark in 2012. After sampling their chips at a Dine Originals event, Day persuaded them to sell her individual-sized bags she could serve alongside sandwiches at her Harrison West cafe.
“Once you eat their chips, you are a convert for life,” says Day, who also uses Shagbark black beans. “You can taste the difference in the corn. It’s what Michael Pollan would call heritage corn. It’s much more filling and good for you, and it’s not overly processed. It’s what real corn chips should taste like.”
Shagbark’s latest product is just as everyman-friendly—corn tortillas, which they started producing at the Koki’s Tortillas plant in October 2014. Shagbark tortillas stand out not just because organic corn is used, but also because the corn is soaked in an alkaline solution before it’s hulled—an ancient process known as nixtamalization that’s been proven in some scientific studies to increase nutritional value, flavor and aroma in corn. (The corn for their chips is also nixtamalized.)
It’s also a nod to the way corn has been treated in Mexican culture for centuries, Ajamian says. The two had a chance to experience this process first hand. Earlier this year, she and Jaeger traveled to Mexico with the owner of Koki’s to visit her family. There water was electric blue, rich with limestone. This is the water in which corn is soaked before it’s ground into maize for tortillas.
When the food culture relocates, Ajamian says, swiping through pictures of her trip on her phone, a lot of people bring the food, but not the cuisine. “We’re doing our tortillas the traditional way—calcium added into the water and pressed into the tortillas,” Ajamian says.
“It was a really nice reinforcement of the concept—how important food is to culture,” Jaeger adds. “Maize is the perfect example of culture of food. Nixtalimization in tortillas and chips—it’s a process that’s community-oriented.”
The tortillas, which will be on retail shelves later this summer, are becoming popular with chefs at area restaurants including Skillet, Casa Nueva, Acre and The Worthington Inn.
The product is twice as expensive as conventional tortillas, admits chef Tom Smith of The Worthington Inn, but it’s worth it. “You can taste they’re doing the right thing,” Smith says. “It’s good corn they’re using. It’s processed well and fresh. Like in the tortillas, you don’t get that fresh corn flavor unless it’s just been milled.”
When he started using Shagbark tortillas on his pork tacos earlier this year, Smith says the whole dish came together. “It’s very rare you bite into your own food and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
It’s no surprise why Jaeger is so trim as he effortlessly limbers up and down a flight of wooden stairs. He disappears into the scaffolding, and then re-emerges with a gray tub of heirloom corn. Tipping it over, the red and yellow kernels buzz loudly like a hive of bees down into the funnel at the top of a blond wooden mill.
He bounds down to the concrete floor, flips a switch and put his nose to the now-grinding mill stone. Soon, granules of corn that have been pumiced into grits and corn meal begin to fill up large bags. This is the most processing any of Shagbark’s products receive. There’s no stripping of nutrients for shelf stability, or re-enriching. To ensure freshness, they mill and bag products to order.
It’s Tuesday, and a big production day inside the Athens mill. The warehouse space they rent might be small, but it’s efficient, Jaeger says. With gravity on their side, they could unload a ton of grain in 30 seconds if they’re not careful.
Today, a few part-time employees will help sort and bag 2,000 pounds of black beans as Jaeger grinds corn. On the floor at his feet are a few scattered red hulls, remnants of the buckwheat flour freshly milled for Taste of Belgium the day before.
Two years ago, when Whole Foods stopped carrying the brand of flour the Cincinnati-based restaurant needed to make their signature buckwheat crepes, owner Jean-François Flechet turned to Shagbark.
“I didn’t realize you could mill things so many different ways,” says Flechet, who expects to source up to 20,000 pounds of buckwheat flour this year. “Brandon sent us maybe 15 samples of buckwheat flour with different coarseness. It’s like a custom mill.”
Flechet speaks highly of the quality. He brought in the best flour he could find in France, and then made two crepes—one with the French flour, the other with Shagbark’s. The result was a draw. “For our application, it’s perfect,” he says.
Chefs throughout Central Ohio share similar experiences of Shagbark’s willingness to produce the product they need—and they say working with the company is as much about believing in the people behind the concept.
“They’re just characters. They are amazing, unique people, and they have these wonderful, optimistic, energetic personalities,” says Malhame, of Northstar, which has been buying Shagbark black beans for all its restaurants for three years and committed to buying 14,000 pounds this year. “They are just really great people who want to change the world for the better.”
A tour of sustainable and organic farms in Ohio will make a stop Aug. 7 in Sandusky County.
Turnow Ventures, which began operation in 1980 with 600 acres, will be featured during the 2015 tour and workshop series sponsored by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
The farm is located at 2956 County Rd. 92 near the Village of Lindsey. The tour stop will be at the farm from 1-3 p.m.
Steve Turnow began experimenting with growing organic crops in 1998. Within five years, he certified all 1,500 acres of his farm to comply with certification standards set by the National Organic Program.
Presently, 600 acres are dedicated to alfalfa production, which is a vital cog of a value-added supply chain of dehydrated chicken feed pellets – a part of the operation managed by extended family members.
The stop will also feature the farm’s rotation practices for corn, soybeans, wheat and black beans.
Turnow said he decided to try growing organically after he realized there was a market for the crops and he wanted to get away from using pesticides.
“I guess I felt more comfortable farming that way – to produce a fuller feed that didn’t have so much pesticide residual,” he said. “It’s been good up to this year. Without the use of herbicides it’s hard to kill weeds and it’s hard to kill weeds when it’s raining nearly every day.”
Chances are if you eat organic eggs they may come from chickens raised on Turnow’s grains.
“A lot of my products go to feed use,” Turnow said. “Some of it goes to food use. If you wanted to buy an organic corn chip, for example.”
The organic black bean market appears to also be expanding, he said, noting the Chipotle restaurant chain and others have adopted policies to buy from organic growers.
• A hops production workshop Aug. 25 at the Agricultural Incubator Foundation, 13737 Middleton Pike, Bowling Green.
Brad Bergefurd, a horticulture specialist with The Ohio State University, will discuss the latest research on hops planting, including production techniques, insect and disease control methods and harvesting. Marketing strategies that can be adopted by farmers wanting to provide hops for Ohio breweries will also be discussed.