Monica Bongue sees Ohio like many others in the local food movement: As a state rich in possibilities, with three big, hungry cities surrounded by a lot of productive farmland.
The owner of Muddy Fork Farm in Wooster sells weekly subscriptions to food she grows, and individual vegetables at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square. Bongue (BON-gay) just needed to build up that rural-urban connection for her and her farming friends.
She was already deeply invested in the food movement, making the commitment to grow certified organic crops and contributing $1,000 to the start of Local Roots Market & Café, the first all-local, farmer- and consumer-owned food store in Ohio, where she serves as president of the board.
The commitment was also deep for her early farming collaborators, Martha Gaffney of Ashland, a native Ecuadorian who farms in the traditional ways of her homeland; Marcus and Beth Ladrach of Wooster, growers of certified organic grains and meats, and Daniel and Jennifer Grahovac of Crooked Barn Farm in Wooster, who produce Certified Naturally Grown crops.
Wooster, home to Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has great passion for these homegrown concepts, but is relatively sparsely settled.
“We were maxed out with our customers,” Bongue told her audience at the recent Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference in Granville. “We were farmers with not enough market.”
A few years ago, she and two other farmers signed on with a Cleveland-based local food buying club. They grew the food, and the club distributed. But the relationship was not what they wanted. They felt they didn’t make a large enough percentage of the profit or have enough interaction with their customers – two of the biggest promises of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
They wanted their own CSA, but as any farmer can tell you, growing food and running a business – especially one with customers 50 miles away – is a plate piled high.
Bongue applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE offers money to farmers and ranchers with innovative, sustainable methods for solving their own problems. Her idea was a success, getting her a $22,500 grant to help start the non-profit Farm Roots Connection Cooperative. It was among the largest SARE farmer grants given in 2013.
The awarding of funds last year came too late in the growing season to launch Farm Roots in full, so Bongue set up trial runs at the Local Roots store in Wooster. She also started a charitable program so that those with money can buy shares for those who cannot afford them. One visit to a church netted $1,000 in donations.
She found small-business help and money from the Ohio Cooperative Development Center, which helped her obtain a lawyer to register the business and set-up a web site. She linked with Local Roots for online ordering, bought computer and packing materials.
Fortunately, the SARE grant also will help pay for her to be the cooperative’s first manager.
“Farmers are busy,” she said. “They don’t have time to manage other farmers.”
Now, she needs to continue building her customer base to help pay for a manager in the future. Farm Roots will drop off to customers at Gordon Square Farmers Market on Cleveland’s West Side, Countryside Farmers Market at Highland Square in Akron and Local Roots in Wooster.
The grant money comes in three installments, each with a requisite amount of paperwork and documentation.
Joan Benjamin, a coordinator for the SARE program in Ohio and other “north central” states, said by phone last week her group’s goal is not only to help farmers solve their own production problems, but also solve problems shared by other farmers.
“The best way to get information to farmers is from other farmers,” she said.
Bongue will eventually file a full-program report that will be available to other farmers as well as the public.
Benjamin says SARE has important success stories in Ohio. Farmers in the northwest part of the state have used the grant money to show how specific methods of planting cover crops (rather than leaving land barren) enriches the soil and helps stop the kind of runoff causing algal blooms in places such as Grand Lake St. Mary’s and Lake Erie. Another farmer used her grant to develop breeding strategies to create resistance to gastrointestinal bugs in sheep.
“They’ve done some remarkable work,” said Benjamin.
Bongue’s grant proposal was, like the others, reviewed by not just administrators but a panel of 25 judges that Benjamin described as “mostly farmers and ranchers.”
The issue of farmers “scaling up” to a livable wage is challenging, said Benjamin.
“There are so many logistical things involved in a solo farmer making it work today. There used to be a lot of farms around, and the infrastructure that was there, is not there anymore.”