What started with two friends investigating how staple food crops can perform in our region's soils and climate, (see Athens NEWS story July 14, 2008), has grown into a multifaceted project that is bringing state and federal funding for farming, food policy and economic development under the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative.
The collaborative is a loosely formed group started by Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian this year.
Joan Benjamin, associate regional coordinator for the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE), praised the work by Jaeger and Ajamian. The program funded the first leg of their work with a two-year grant that started in spring 2008.
Jaeger said that his interest in staple crops started when he looked at all of the locally produced fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs and dairy that he could purchase at the regional farmers' markets and other food outlets that support local farmers and food producers. He said he felt like the bounty also pointed to a missing piece.
"The bulk of the calories and protein of a healthy human society comes from what I call 'staple seed crops,'" he said, explaining that these crops include grains, beans, oils, nuts, seeds and pseudo-cereals, such as buckwheat or amaranth.
"I noticed that I had to bring all of this fine local produce home to accompany a jar of dry beans, a loaf of bread, or a bag of pasta, the raw material of which was grown on the other side of the continent - or the world. I'd like to see that change," Jaeger said.
A factor in making these crops locally available is their processing and storage requirements. Before last year's test plots were maturing, the pair had already realized that growing is just a piece of the food system needed to truly make these crops local.
Most recently, Ajamian and Jaeger teamed up with Rural Action to apply for funding to study the system needs for staple foods in this region. Their proposal to form a food policy council and study publicly owned and managed agricultural land both in Athens city and county was among four projects statewide that were awarded grants through the Farmland Protection Partnership Program (FPPP) and the Center for Farmland Protection and Innovation.
"Solid community planning and organizing can enhance the viability of local agriculture and the health of area farms," said Jill Clark, the center's director. "By considering agriculture to be part of local economic development strategies, communities can benefit by keeping more dollars circulating in the local economy and protecting local farmland resources."
Athens City Council and Athens County are providing matching funds to launch an alliance to examine how publicly owned and managed farmland can be used to grow food crops, particularly high-nutrition staple food crops. Ajamian will head the project.
"Our aim is to look at how we can boost sustainable farming practices, redirect crops away from commodity feed to human food crops, and impact the ever-growing population of the food insecure in our region," said Jaeger.
According to Jaeger, hundreds of acres of our county's best farmland are owned and managed by Athens County, the city of Athens and various water districts, and are not in production.
"This is particularly critical in the Appalachian Ohio region, where our hilly and densely forested topography means a lot of small, irregular plot farms with marginal soils," he said.
Of particular interest are wellhead-protection areas that are not being farmed in order to keep chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides out of the water table we use for drinking water.
The second grant, awarded to the Collaborative and Rural Action by the Sociological Initiatives Foundation, will map the network of people and resources that can help create a staple foods system for our region.
"There's more to this study than knowing who is growing what, where it's being processed, sold and distributed," said Ajamian, who will be working with the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at OU and Networkweaving to conduct the research.
Jaeger stressed the importance of developing a system that addresses food security.
"I just think it's critical to work on a regional system that addresses how we might produce more of what we need right here, and that we measure the emerging local food system by its inclusion of those who are the most food insecure," he said.
Both projects are administered through Rural Action, a community-based member organization with more than 15 years experience in sustainable agriculture programming in Appalachian Ohio.