Source: Conversations in the Field
By Andy Pressman and Hannah Sharp
NCAT agriculture specialist Andy Pressman and sustainable agriculture intern Hannah Sharp recently spoke with Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger of the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative (ASFC), located in Athens, Ohio.
Ajamian and Jaeger started the AFSC in 2008 to build a model field-to-table food system for Appalachia based on the production, processing, and marketing of staple beans, grains, and oilseeds. Ajamian and Jaeger’s work and interest in staple foods has gained the attention of several organizations, farmers, local businesses, and students who are now involved in the collaborative. The growing support of the collaborative has also resulted in funding to set up a prototype processing facility to assess equipment, marketing, and scale for local processing of staple crops. The facility is called Shagbark Seed and Mill Co.
Q. How did you become interested in staple beans, grains, and oilseeds?
A. Brandon: I’d say it started with my existential anxiety about where my food comes from, which led me to wonder about grains and seed crops since they make up more than half of our calories. Southeast Ohio has great local markets for fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats, but there is an absence of grains. We started with a NCR-SARE (North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to plant test plots to see how some beans and grains performed in our area. Before the seeds were even planted, we started to get calls from folks who were interested in buying local grains. Once we saw the demand, we soon started to identify the issues of harvesting, processing, and storage.
Michelle: Rural poverty in Southeast Ohio is widespread and most folks outside of the Athens city limits do not have access to healthy foods nearby. I am sure this condition of rural food deserts contributes to much higher rates of obesity and diabetes outside Athens. Brandon and I felt that we could apply our backgrounds in farming and social change to improving food security in our area.
Q. Why are farmers reluctant to grow staple crops in your area?
A. Brandon: The topography of our region is characterized by flood plains, dense forest, steep slopes, and thin soils. Therefore, the agricultural land consists of small, irregular tracks that make it difficult to grow staple crops on a small and appropriate scale. Not to mention that deer sure do love it here.
Michelle: Historically, most people in this region grew their own grains and were able to take it to the local mill for processing. The last mill that processed grains for human consumption closed in the 1970s. Most of the grains that are being grown today are for animal feed. So even if we had more local grains being grown, there are no processing facilities. Also, most grains are cheap to buy at the grocery store.
Q. Can you tell us about the ASFC?
A. Brandon: The ASFC is a model for growing, processing, and marketing beans, grains, pseudo-cereals, and oilseeds. We are trying to identify all that it takes to build a regional staple food system. Once we have demonstrated the steps for providing a staple food system for this region, we hope that it will be easy to scale up our model so that local grains become an integral part of our food system. And this system will not only financially benefit the farmer who grows the crops, but also the local businesses and economy.
Michelle: In addition to the growing and processing of grains, the ASFC serves as a network to bring people together who are interested in local staples food systems within their community. As a collaborative, we address issues of food policy, farming opportunities, marketing, and land use.
Q. Can you tell us about the support you have for the ASFC?
A. Brandon: The ASFC would not exist without the financial and fiscal support we have received from several organizations. All of the components of the project have been made possible through grants from organizations like USDA-SARE, the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation, the Center for Farmland Policy and Innovation, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the City of Athens, the Sugar Bush Foundation, the Central Appalachian Network, as well as several others. Rural Action and Community Food Initiatives have provided fiscal support where we needed a nonprofit partner to apply for funding. We also are working with local farmers who are growing some of the crops for us. We have partnered with students at Ohio University to design appropriate technologies for processing oilseeds.
Michelle: We are very fortunate to have Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. located in the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) compound for start-up businesses. ACEnet is an important partner because their facility is already USDA certified and their mission is to help build a sustainable and regional economy. It’s so great to have community support. Last year the owners and staff from a local restaurant helped harvest the heirloom corn we grew for their homemade tortillas.
Q. Have local farmers been effected by the ASFC?
A. Brandon: Part of our mission in growing highly nutritious crops is to show that these crops can be grown naturally and at an appropriate scale. Farmers here are open to new ideas that will allow them to diversify and potentially increase their profits. One of the farms we worked with this year, King Family Farm, is growing its own feed for their pigs and poultry. We’ve been able to demonstrate a crop rotation for growing spelt, black turtle beans, and yellow dent corn, which we hope to test with other farms.
Michelle: We hope to build a model for a farm-based economy that will give conventional farmers alternatives to grain commodities and Roundup Ready crops that are being grown mostly for animal feed. Another farm, Green Edge Organic Gardens, has been involved since last season, when we were doing test plots, and they seem interested in the place our rotation idea fits with their veggie farm.
Q. There is currently a lot of interest in growing stale crops. However, one of the roadblocks is finding equipment for small-scale production. How have you addressed your equipment needs?
A. Brandon: Equipment for harvesting and processing is an issue. We recently purchased harvesting equipment that is over 30 years old. And our mill just arrived from France. The problem is not that the equipment doesn’t exist, it’s that it doesn’t exist in this country. What we have been able to purchase locally has been newly fabricated to meet our needs. For example, our seed cleaner comes from a company outside of Columbus that has been in business since the 1920s. Through the ASFC, we have connected with others who are working to design small-scale equipment.
Q. What other obstacles have you had to work through?
A. Brandon: Supply and demand are challenges we are facing. How do we efficiently scale up to meet the demand for staple crops? This opens up issues with time and labor. Storage is also an issue we need more work in, especially in trying to figure out how to get these crops into the diets of rural communities.
Michelle:Processing regulations are troublesome. There is no set precedence for small milling operations. The authorities really don’t know what to do with us since we don’t fall into the categories of a feed mill or a large-scale milling operation. We are fortunate to be connected with ACEnet and their already certified kitchen. A new processing facility is extremely expensive to build. Fortunately, organizations and funders are starting to recognize the issues surrounding the processing of staple crops.
Q. What is next on the agenda for the ASFC?
A. Brandon: We are looking for funding to establish community gardens and edible schoolyards that incorporate staple foods. We also need to develop appropriately scaled equipment for the small, irregular plots of this region.
Michelle: We will be taking what we learn at ACEnet to develop a business plan for staple food production and marketing that can then be used by others who are interested in starting a staple food system. We recently formed an advisory group of key stakeholders to help develop several facets of the project, which is mostly focused on the success of Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. and connecting with more farmers. It’s clear that processing is the key to both the market and to giving other farmers the assurance that expanding their portfolio will mean selling those new crops.
Q. Do you have any suggestions for farmers and gardeners who are interested in the small-scale production of staple crops?
A. Brandon: Staple crops are easy to grow. Sow seed and buy a scythe. For larger-scale production, look into sharing equipment with your neighbors.
Michelle: Have fun, be functional, and include your friends. If you are a farmer interested in growing acres of these crops, a business or nonprofit interested in developing a mill operation, get in touch with us. We would love to talk with anyone who is interested in staple crops.
To read more about his NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant project, visit the SARE reporting web site at http://www.sare.org/MySare/ProjectReport.aspx?do=viewProj&pn=FNC07-663
Michelle and Brandon can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement.