The greater Appalachian region has a personality of its own. Lush, rolling hills run throughout Southeast Ohio, into West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, all the way down to the Carolinas.Southeast Ohio has a tight-knit community that makes farming sustainable, from the crops to your table.
Southeast Ohio: A Bounty of Farms
A lot of the land in Southeast Ohio is used for farming. In Athens County and the five surrounding counties, there are 15,000 family farms. Farmers in the area grow everything from tomatoes to mushrooms to spelt. The variety of crops seems endless, which is evident after visiting the Athens Farmers Market.
The Farmer’s Market: More than Just a Grocery Store
The Athens Farmers Market is the largest open-air market in the state of Ohio. About 100 vendors make their way to East State Street every Saturday to sell their home-grown products. The majority of the vendors sell produce, but there is also a variety of other products sold, like baked goods and coffee.
The people who buy and sell at the market come in just as many varieties as the food sold there. While walking around the farmers market, it doesn’t take long to see how many people really enjoy the atmosphere and buying locally produced products. The farmers appreciate this attitude of people in the region.
Angie Starline, co-owner of Starline Organics cut back her hours at her other job, because she felt this sense of appreciation for her work, and wanted to help her husband out on the farm.
"My husband grew up on a farm. He knew how much work it had to take to keep it running. This isn't a part-time thing that you can do when you feel like it or have time. It's a full-time job and I had to cut back hours at my other job to help my husband out."
She admitted she didn’t realize how much time and work went into running a farm, but she and her husband do what’s necessary to keep up with all of the responsibilities.
Jack Cantrell, the Director of the farmer’s market, says all the work is worth it, to come and sell your products to the community. He likes the personal relationship between the vendors and the people they sell their products to—he considers the famers market a place to make friends and socialize.
"I love coming here. I get to see everyone I know every week. It's almost like if I miss a week I've missed out and can't wait to come back next week. We get to know everyone and the people we sell to. It's a nice relationship."
High Demand, High Supply
The Athen’s Farmers Market has filled all of its available spaces for vendors at 100, and there is even a 15-vendor waiting list for this year. Normally with high supply of similar products, there is competition to get the consumers' dollar.
That’s not the case in Southeast Ohio. There is a high demand for locally grown organic products, and the farmers have no problem providing for the demand. After talking with some of them, they all had the same answer, there is no competition. Angie Starline explains there is a sense of community among the farmers and their customers.
Slow Food Concept: A way of life
Farmers and restaurant and business owners realize that without the support of one another, their businesses might end up failing. They realize the quality in locally-grown products, and hold high value on them. One reason they enjoy home-grown products is because of the nutritional value. Many farmers in the area don’t use pesticides or chemicals to keep weeds and bugs out of their crops, so their produce is organic.
Some people might associate the word “organic” or “locally-grown” with expensive. After talking with Bob O’Neal, the owner of Della Zona, he explains what the real cost of buying and eating locally means.
"Everyone asks the cost question. But it all depends on what costs you're talking about. The cost to your body? The cost to the environment? Slow food provides such good nutritional content and doesn't damage the environment like some products at big corporate stores do when they make their products. These costs outweigh any monetary value you can put on anything."
This concept of “slow food”, as opposed to fast food, is at the core of the community in Athens. It’s all about the process that adds value to the food—from the seed to your table.
ACENET: Helping to Make Farming Sustainable
ACEnet, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, serves 32 counties in Appalachia and is centered in Athens, OH. Its mission is to build networks, support innovation, and facilitate collaboration with Appalachian Ohio’s businesses to create a strong, sustainable regional economy.
It acts as the middle-man between famers and businesses and restaurants that sell the farmers' products. ACENET provides services like graphic designing for logos, and advice on how to best market a product.
Next to ACENET’s office is a large warehouse, which has a large kitchen, food production room, storage units, and offices. Farmers and businesses can use any of these rooms to make their products they sell.
For instance, Crazy Frog salsas are produced in the production room, and Jackie O’s was making its pizza dough in the kitchen when the machinery broke in its own kitchen.
The major goal of ACENET is to help local farmers and businesses to make a sustainable income, but also to have them develop enough to move out and get their own space so they can be even more successful.
The Village Bakery is one success story of an ACENET tenant. It started making products in the ACENET kitchen, and eventually became profitable enough to move into its own building.
Other Helpful Organizations
There are other organizations throughout the area and nationwide that are dedicated to different aspects of farming process and creating a sustainable income doing so.
Here are a few organizations that help in the process:
30 mile meal - 30MM responds to people's growing desire to know where their food comes from, who is producing it and how. The Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACCVB) has created a 30 Mile Meal Map, making it possible for locals and visitors to find nearby food and farmers markets, eateries that primarily use local foods in their menus, CSAs, farm tours, food festivals and events, and more.
Community Food Initiatives - is an Athens, OH non-profit that works to increase local food security and self reliance. "From Seed to Self-Reliance." "Since 1992, CFI has expanded its mission to support a local food movement that promotes low income families' improved access to fresh and nutritious food, community controlled local food production, entrepreneurship training and environmental stewardship."
Rural Action - "Rural Action’s mission is to foster social, economic, and environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio. Rural Action builds model sustainable development projects and encourages a broad civic conversation around Appalachian Ohio’s assets in order to create sustainable development paths for the region."