Innovation and collaboration can make Ohio better for farmers, eaters and everyone in between.
From feeding our local communities to feeding a booming global population, new opportunities could boost Ohio’s food system.
Ohio Farm Bureau’s Bringing it to the Table conference held earlier this year was the first step in an effort to spark fresh thinking and collaboration in pursuit of new ideas for farmers, consumers, food processors, grocers, restaurateurs and anyone else with an interest in Ohio food and farming.
To get the conversation started, Ohio Farm Bureau invited a number of speakers to share their perspectives on factors influencing food production. While there is still much more to discuss, here are some excerpts from the first meeting:
Transparency in the food system
The communication gap that used to divide farmers and their city counterparts is shrinking thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Web videos and blogs.
“With the advent of social media and the opening of our communication channels, it’s become easier to connect with farmers,” said Walker Evans, founder of ColumbusUnderground.com, a popular metropolitan social networking website.
Rachel Tayse-Baillieul, who authors a food blog at houndsinthekitchen.com, said people are curious about what they’re eating and they’re relearning the things that most people used to know about food.
“I am facing a previous generation of people who knew how to cook by dumping things out of a box,” she said.
For Chuck Wildman, a seventh generation Ohio hog farmer who recently started a blog at acornsforthought.blogspot.com, consumers’ renewed interest in food is perfectly understandable.
“I welcome people’s interest in farming, what I and we do. My goodness, if you eat, you should be interested in what you’re putting in your mouth, where it came from and what it is. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And as a farm community, I don’t know anybody that would say you shouldn’t know those things,” he said.
New recipe for school lunches
Chuck Dilbone, director of business operations for Granville Exempted Schools, wasn’t happy with the food his district was providing students.
“It didn’t taste good. It wasn’t presented properly to our kids. It wasn’t a good situation,” he said. Only 22 percent of the students were purchasing school lunches.
That led Dilbone to pioneer a new approach to how the school served food.
The district hired a chef to oversee meal preparation and started using fresh and locally-grown foods.
“The first day we did this last year, it almost brought tears to my eyes to be honest with you,” Dilbone recalled. “The chef comes out and says ‘Chuck we’ve got a problem.’ I said ‘What’s the problem?’ He said ‘The kids are taking far too many vegetables.’”
It was a great problem to have, Dilbone thought.
Now, more than 70 percent of students are eating school lunches.
Dilbone, who also has worked as an administrator in school districts in Muskingum and Perry counties, believes a program like his could be implemented anywhere.
“The cafeteria business in schools is a huge business,” Dilbone said. “And if you think about that, that money should stay in Ohio and stay locally as much as possible.”
Dr. Ken Lee of Ohio State University’s Food Innovation Center said by the year 2050, the world is projected to have a population of 9.1 billion people, an increase of more than 2 billion people and a major challenge in terms of food production.
“The same thing, but more of it is not really the innovation that we need to really address the problem. Some of the innovations that we need, people haven’t even thought of yet,” Lee said.
Part of the issue, Lee noted, is that more food is currently produced than reaches the table.
“So it’s an issue of waste. It’s an issue of processing, storage, transport. All those things in the food chain that can make a difference and increase the efficiency of food production are things that we need to look at,” he said.
The challenge for food scientists and the food industry, he said, will be to find new ways to provide good nutrition in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
“We know how to do that. We’re working on doing more of it,” he said.
Local and regional food
A number of food producers say a growing interest in local foods is creating new opportunities for farmers. Freshness, flavor, quality and a greater economic impact on the local community can be attributes of food that is harvested closer to home, said Brandon Jaeger, of Shagbark Seed and Mill Company in southeast Ohio.
“I also think that this contributes to this sort of regional specialty, the culture of our communities all over America, but I’m very excited about the culture we have here in Ohio through food,” said Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a Columbus business that uses local and seasonal foods in its products.
She said that growth in her business has translated into even greater support for Ohio farmers.
“I bought $24 worth of strawberries at the farmers market,” she recalled of her ice cream shop’s early days. “It wasn’t really making that farmer’s day. He was excited for the sale, but not that excited. Last year we bought 24,000 pounds of strawberries from one farm. That farmer grows us the exact strawberries that we want and, you know, we made his year.”
Richard Stewart of Carriage House Farms near Cincinnati said consumers’ attraction to local foods has created new opportunities for his farm to be profitable.
“It also allows us to charge a premium price for our product because there’s less spoilage,” he said.
A restaurant that uses his freshly cut greens, for example, can expect a longer shelf life than a product that was shipped from northern Mexico.
“That’s a big boon for a local business,” he said.