Farmers market offers fresh produce to local communities

At Corn on the Curb, the day’s selling doesn’t begin at the market until the cowbell rings. ‘It’s just one of those things that start off the event,’ said Jeremiah Garcia, vice president of membership development for the greater Findlay area. ‘The bell helps add to the unique nature of the farmers market.’ Residents of Northwest Ohio are able to get fresh fruits, vegetable, herbs, vinegars, potted plants, cut flowers and even homemade soaps at the nostalgic farmers market. With an unemployment rate at 9 percent for the state of Ohio and 11.3 percent in Wood County, according to Wood County Employment Resource Center, farm marketing may be a growing market. Francisco Espinoza, of the Wood County Ohio State University Agriculture Extension Office, said growing and buying local has three main benefits: it supports local economy, yields fresher produce and cuts back on carbon emissions from long distance shipping. In the midst of one of the worst economic downturns the country has experienced, Espinoza said most local buyers do so because it supports their neighbors. ‘People feel more comfortable with how close it is,’ he said. ‘You know the farmers, you support your farmers. … Cut out the transportation cost and the middleman, and it may even be cheaper.’ Last year, Espinoza said the Wood County extension office was looking at creating a position that would focus mainly on promoting local farmers. Because of budget reductions, however, the position has since been put on hold. If the position ever becomes a reality, whoever fills it will have their hands full. In 2007, Wood County was the number one producing county in Ohio of soybeans and wheat, and number two for corn, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s annual report. Those crops, however, were never meant to feed Wood County residents. Instead, Alan Sundermeier, director of the Wood County extension office, said the corn feeds cows in the Carolinas or is converted into ethanol. The wheat is processed in Toledo and distributed across the country in Hostess products, and the soy is processed in Leipsic, Ohio. In 2006, Wood County farmers made $30,658,000 in corn cash receipts, $33,362,000 in soybeans and $12,801,000 in wheat, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture annual report. In other crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, Wood County made $32,362,000 in 2006. Northwest Ohio was once one of the largest tomato producing regions in the country, Sundermeier said, with both a Heinz plant and the largest Campbell’s Soup plant in the area. But the Heinz plant closed down, he said, and Campbell’s stopped buying Wood County tomatoes. The Campbell’s Soup operation in Napoleon, Ohio, was acquired in the ’40s when it was a beverage plant producing V8, said John Faulkner, the director of brand management at Campbell’s. Soon after, he said the company expanded and began producing beverages and soups. ‘We bought the brand and then we bought the plant, and subsequently we developed the soup plant and expanded the beverage plant and have done a whole bunch of other stuff there,’ he said. In an effort to support local agriculture, Campbell’s adopted a ‘100-mile principle,’ putting an emphasis on securing most of its ingredients from farms located within 100 miles of each plant. Wood County was once the main supplier of tomatoes to the Napoleon plant, but Campbell’s no longer uses the 100-mile principle in obtaining its tomato supply. They now buy most of their tomatoes from two plants in California, with the rest of the supply coming from Mexico. ‘Probably 85 to 90 percent of our tomatoes come from California,’ Faulkner said. ‘We’ve got two plants in California that are dedicated to processing our tomatoes, either into paste, where we process it aseptically, or into diced tomatoes.’ Due to the size and scope of the Campbell’s brand, mass producing their own tomatoes was a necessary move, according to Faulkner. While Campbell’s has transitioned its business operation, others remain fervent in their support of local agriculture. Hirzel Canning Co. ‘amp; Farms produces the Dei Fratelli line of foods in Northwest Ohio pride themselves on using all local ingredients. It may cost more to use all local produce, but Lou Kozma, president of Hirzel Farms, said there are several advantages that come with this practice. ‘By sourcing locally, we can pack and press the product,’ Kozma said. ‘By sourcing locally, it also supports the local industry as well as the surrounding communities.’ An emphasis on use of local agriculture is not limited to businesses, as the trend is beginning to affect consumer purchasing habits as well. With a grow local and buy local phenomenon sweeping the country, Gary Silverman, director of the Center for Environmental Programs at the University, said more small farms will start producing more crops for the kitchen table, rather than for processors. ‘People are interested in local food,’ he said. ‘If people are providing local food, there’s a market for it.’ The Area Office on Aging for Northwest Ohio offers the Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, which is a program funded by the USDA aimed at providing seniors citizens with coupons valued at $50 for fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables, herbs and honey. ‘Our program has been extremely successful,’ said Rebecca Libes, executive director of AOOANW. ‘We are in our ninth year and have served over 21,000 low income older adults.’ This program benefits many individuals as it provides senior citizen with nutritious food and supports local growers. ‘We provide fresh produce to senior citizens to support our local growers,’ Libes said. ‘We have 115 farmers who participate in this program from 10 counties in Northwest Ohio.’ Christine Haar, director of dietetics at the University, said there’s a good chance that fresh local produce may contain more nutrients than produce found in the grocery store. Produce from the local farms are handled with tender loving care, Haar said, picked at its ripest and delivered directly to the consumer down the road. Produce found in grocery stores are likely to have been picked too early and handled roughly during the shipping process, she said. ‘It takes time for the nutrition values to peak, so the longer it’s on the vine the better,’ she said. ‘The less it has to travel from the vine to your mouth, the better it’s going to be.’ In the grand scheme of things, Haar said promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables, local or from California, is the most important dietary concern facing Americans today. ‘One of the biggest things we struggle with as health care professionals, I think people think that if it’s not fresh it’s not worth it,’ she said. ‘Well, that’s not the case. ‘hellip; We would never discourage someone from eating fruits and vegetables, but there certainly are obvious benefits to buying local.’ Libes is also proud to say the agency on aging is going green by eliminating shipping cross-country. ‘The environment does play a role in our efforts to support local growers,’ Libes said. ‘It reduces our carbon footprint.’ While fruits and vegetables sold at the Corn on Curb may have spent less time off the vine, are more nutrient dense, yield a smaller carbon footprint, support local farmers and are possibly more affordable, there is one major drawback to buying local in Northwest Ohio: Corn on the Curb, like most farmers markets, is only open several months out of the year. ‘We’ll all starve to death if we rely on the part-time local products,’ Sundermeier said. ‘[Local growers] cannot supply enough off season.’ Last year the Wood County Extension Office set up a booth at several of the local farmers markets to provide local growers with information on how to can their products. Sundermeier said they invited local growers to bring in their old canners to be inspected for food safety purposes. With home canning, Sundermeier said, farmers can stretch their dollars. Stretching the Ohio climate to that of California is a whole other initiative. Many farmers across Ohio are building hoop houses. As the name suggests, hoop houses are greenhouse-like houses built by stretching greenhouse plastic over a series of plastic, metal or wooden half-hoops. Unlike greenhouses, hoop houses have no heater or ventilation fan and are heated by the warmth of the sun. Amy Hoops, assistant director of Dining Services at the University, said the University does its best at buying local produce. The only problem, she said, is students are on summer break during the local harvesting season. However, Hoops hopes to extend the season by implementing hoop houses at the University. ‘The hoop houses can be found all across Northwest Ohio and are used in a limited fashion,’ Hoops said. ‘However, the hoop house I am interested in participating is experimental as it is used to grow products in the ground during the winter season. The impact would be saving transportation from California to Bowling Green from November to April.’ With initiatives in the Bowling Green area to help boost local agriculture and an increase in demand for fresh, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, the cowbell at Corn on the Curb may be ringing earlier and more often in years to come.