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Local food hard to find despite state's agricultural roots - Business First of Columbus:

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By agimeaiminz

Todd Michael is something of a rarity in the Ohio farming landscape. His family has 2,700 acres, but they aren’t filled with corn and soybean commodity crops. He’s one of the maybe half a dozen Ohio growers large enough to supply grocery stores with fresh produce.

“There’s been a lot of consolidation in the grocery store business, so we were forced to grow,” he said of

, which started with 300 acres in 1958 and sells its produce to distribution centers in Ohio and surrounding states.

The farm uses less pesticides than many large-scale produce growers and has been recognized by the for environmental stewardship. But the fact that its harvest ends up on Ohio dinner tables instead of as ethanol in use four states away, reducing energy consumption, is what makes it attractive to grocery shoppers, who are showing a new zest for everything Buckeye, according to state officials, industry insiders and restaurateurs.

Individual stores might source from a couple of local farmers, but it’s tough for a large grocery store chain in Ohio to fill its shelves with Ohio-grown products. In fact, a government group focused on Ohio food estimates that less than 1 percent of the food consumed in Ohio is actually from the state.

Industry groups are looking at new ways to keep Ohio food in Ohio.

“Grocery stores represent one opportunity for people to access local food, but are there other ways we can create distribution opportunities and foster connections to getting food to you and me?” asked Michael Jones, executive director of Local Matters, a Columbus nonprofit group that advocates for fresh, local food.

Why does local matter?

The average food product is shipped anywhere from 500 to 3,000 miles, and that’s not good for the environment or nutritional value, said Leslie Schaller, programming director at the

in Athens, which offers assistance to farmers and food entrepreneurs looking to establish processing and distribution capabilities.

“Maybe we’re getting cheaper food, but with all the carbon emissions of moving these food molecules around and then the loss of nutrition when you have to pick a tomato green and ship it 3,000 miles ... the nutritional value is highly diminished,” Schaller said.

Sounds simple enough that Ohioans would be eating Ohio food, but the issue is complex. One of the biggest challenges to changing the dynamic is that there’s not an efficient distribution system in place to link farms to the marketplace, Jones said.

“Most of the farms in the state of Ohio that are producing food tend to be fairly small,” he said. “You’re not talking about 200- or 300-acre farms, you’re talking about a 50-acre farm. That’s a small entity when you’re talking about a distribution system that would have to go to 10 or 15 farms to get enough volume to get to a grocery store that would be interested.”

It gets complicated – and expensive – for a grocer to use all local food, Michael said.

“If they have to deal with 30 or 40 small growers on just a single commodity, and trying to get the quality always consistent, it’s an economic thing that makes it harder for a small grower to supply large stores,” Michael said. “You can set up a store in your garage to sell brake pads, but you’re not going to sell them to Chevrolet. You have to find a match between the size of the store and the size of the grower.”

If a grocery chain has a good product from a local source, the grocer will want to make sure it’s available in all the stores in the vicinity, so there can be problems with volume and reliability, said Tom Jackson, CEO of the

“It’s got to be reliable,” Jackson said. “If I sell out, will you be able to ship more to me tomorrow? I need to know that because I don’t want to disappoint my customers.”

Products usually are delivered to retailers, and it’s typically not cost-effective for a small farm to transport produce to the store.

“How do we get that done? It sure sounds easier than it is,” Jackson said.

Though a massive global distribution system is in place, it makes sense to develop new ways to distribute food locally.

“As energy prices increase, there should be an efficiency you can gain by not shipping things as far, and there’s a food security element to it, and there’s an economic development opportunity in it,” said Casey Hoy, an

agroecosystems professor.

In addition to farmers’ markets, farmers connect with the marketplace through restaurants and agreements known as CSAs between consumers and farmers to buy directly from the farm.

It’s not just connecting farm food with the market that’s problematic in Ohio. It’s getting that food in the right form first.

“Over the last half-century, as our food systems have scaled up, it’s more difficult to find processors who will accept small quantities,” said Carol Goland, executive director of the

. “There’s also been a huge amount of vertical integration, so the same corporation that controls the processor controls the product all the way through the food chain. It’s just harder for the small guys to find a way in.”

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