New agricultural business hopes to promote a completely local food system

In their hit song "Mr. Sluggard," the Jamaican reggae band Culture asks Mr. Sluggard, "Tell me where you get your bread?" Millfield residents Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian have adopted the phrase as their slogan, and now they are asking the residents of southeast Ohio to consider the same question.

Jaeger and Ajamian are pioneering a local food system based on a traditional idea: staple foods like grains and beans should be processed, milled and consumed in the same area in which they are grown.

Food-lovers acquainted with the local food scene know that a wide selection of natural foods are available at local businesses and farmers markets, but Ajamian and Jaeger believe that staple food crops " and a local facility that can process and store them " are the missing pieces in the local food economy puzzle.

Jaeger and Ajamian teamed up with local farmers and activists and set out to discover how staple foods could be re-introduced into the Athens area economy. The project is now known as the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative.

Last year Jaeger received a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to plant test plots of staple food crops that could eventually become the base of a new, localized staple food system in southeast Ohio. Ajamian and Jaeger experimented with crops such as millet, meal corn, quinoa, amaranth, spelt, beans and buckwheat to find out what staple food crops can be grown efficiently and sustainably in our region.

As with any experiment, some crops fared better than others, and this year SARE gave Jaeger a larger grant to expand the project and employ the help of local farms.

"We're testing while we're doing," Ajamian said while sitting with Jaeger under a tree at Green Edge Gardens organic farm near Amesville, one of the sites hosting the current season's test plots. "We got to figure it out together...we're trying to give farmers an alternative."

The collaborative now has more than seven acres of staple food crops growing at Green Edge and the King Family Farm near Albany. The crops are organically grown, highly nutritious and could serve as examples for established farms and small start-ups alike.

There is one problem, however: such crops must be cleaned, processed or milled into flour before anyone in his or her right mind would want to eat them.

That's where the Ajamian and Jaeger's new project, the Shagbark Seed and Mill Co., comes in.

Shagbark, which is tentatively set to open at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) Athens facility in October, will process and clean seed and grain crops from the test plots, and distribute the finished products to local businesses. Ajamian and Jaeger hope to develop a local market for such products so more farmers will be encouraged to get involved.

Ajamian and Jaeger say that most farmers in southeast Ohio and across the state grow wheat, corn and soybeans for livestock feed and corn syrup. This is often the best option for independent farmers trying to keep up with corporate farms and a food system based on mass production. As a result, most of Ohio's crops are exported and processed in other areas of the country, while Ohioans eat food shipped in from elsewhere.

Ajamian and Jaeger want to make another option " sustainably growing staple foods for local human consumption " economically viable for farmers as well.

"It's about matching that interest (in) growing the crops with growing the market," Ajamian said.

Ajamian and Jaeger are reaching out to two types of farmers: those who are already growing feed crops and could switch to growing crops for human consumption if a local market for such products existed, and owners of unused land who want to learn how to grow something useful.

Their argument is simple: If staple, high-energy foods are grown and consumed locally, then the food is fresher, of better quality, and the money changing hands never leaves the local economy. They admit that the Shagbark mill will not be able to process enough food to feed the entire region, but they hope their experiment will serve as an example for other farmers and milling entrepreneurs.

Their vision is one reminiscent of the agricultural past: local farmers taking their grains, oilseeds and other staples to be processed at local mills and then being eaten by local people.

"There used to be mills in every town," Ajamian said. "We live in Millfield. We live on Mill Road."

Ajamian also said that farmers traditionally shared equipment and cooperated with one another because their economic interests were tied to their local community. She hopes that the Shagbark mill and the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative, which has received grants for harvesting and milling equipment from the Athens Foundation and other donors, will inspire a similar mentality among new and experienced farmers alike.

Ajamian and Jaeger are not stuck in the past, however, noting that they're deeply concerned about food security in an uncertain future.

"We can't pretend we have an endless supply of petroleum-based products," said Ajamian, referring to the petroleum-based fertilizers and fuels that are the bread and butter of modern food production.

Jaeger mentioned the food riots that erupted last year in countries across the world after oil prices peaked and drove up food prices.

"It's boom and bust, and we know about that in Appalachia," Ajamian said, referring to the industrial mentality that has created the Rust Belt and left so many Appalachian mining areas in poverty and ecological despair.

LUCKILY, AJAMIAN AND JAEGER have found allies in local business owners who share their dream of a sustainable, local food economy. Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. is currently exploring contracts and cooperative deals to sell its products to some of the area businesses involved the local food movement, including Crumbs Bakery, Casa Nueva and The Village Bakery, among others.

Bob O'Neil, co-owner of The Village Bakery and Dela Zona at 268 E. State St. in Athens, said he selected an heirloom variety of meal corn for Ajamian and Jaeger to grow in their first test plots. The corn thrived, and was perfect for the Village Bakery's signature tortillas, he said, adding that he's looking forward to the harvest of four acres of the meal corn currently growing at the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative plots at the King Family Farm.

O'Neil said his businesses also want to buy spelt, barley, beans and other products from Shagbark.

"We collaborate with all sustainable, local, agricultural people and farmers," O'Neil said. "(Ajamian and Jaeger) are part of the new way of looking at the way we eat."

Some might argue that finding new ways to eat, such as buying local and organic food, is not an affordable option for everyone. Ajamian said this is all the more reason to expand and build on the local food system.

Ajamian maintains that people who buy local food are "activists" who fuel the local food movement and help ensure that everyone can eventually benefit from a local food economy.

Farmers, landowners and volunteers interested in working with Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. or the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative can contact Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger at GoodFoodDirect@gmail.com.

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