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OSU Conference Encourages Ohio Farmers to Sell Locally

Local sales of Ohio-grown commodities are steadily increasing. The popularity of farmers markets and research by Ohio State suggest that people are eager for organic and locally raised produce. The staff at OSU's College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences say they want to help Ohio farmers tap into this rapidly expanding market and they sponsored a symposium today on the subject. WOSU's Sam Hendren reports.

Bruce and Lisa Rickard raise sheep, cattle and chickens on their 280-acre Fox Hollow Farm near Fredericktown. 800 ewes dot several of their pastures in Knox County. Many of the animals -- or their offspring -- will be sold at auction and shipped to slaughter houses in Detroit or Chicago. But the Rickards also preside over a growing local market, selling lamb, beef and eggs.

"A lot of our customers really care that their food is local; that it's from a farm where they can go and visit the farmer and see how the food was grown. It's one thing to go to the store and pick up a package that says it's organic; it's another thing to go to the farm and see for yourself what's being done there," Rickard says.

At a local foods conference at Ohio State, associate professor Jeff Sharp told a large audience that consumer demand for locally grown foods is surprisingly large. It's fueling the growth of natural food stores in central Ohio. And grocery store chains, Sharp says, are bowing to customer's wishes.

"We're also seeing a number of grocery stores around the state increasingly sensitive to the demands of consumers. And so it's not uncommon to walk into a major chain grocery store and see locally grown Ohio apples or go into a natural foods co-op and see produce from the region or some meats that were purchased locally. So the demand is creating some changes in the dominant system that didn't maybe exist 10 years ago," Sharp said.

The Rickards in Knox County now make deliveries on Saturdays to a growing clientele. And they have customers who drive to the farm from as far away as Cleveland and Toledo. Bruce Rickard says local sales are an important source of revenue.

"We try to sell to a local market because it gives us some market diversity. So if something happens to the commodity market we still have another market to fall back on, says Rickard.

Diversification could help farmers across the state, according to Ohio State's Jeff Sharp. The price of energy is a key component in the cost of agricultural production. A substantial increase would create greater demand for produce grown closer-to-home.

"There's some real concern that the global system that provisions our food now is very susceptible to energy shocks. And to the extent that we can manage our risk developing a local system just helps to make the system more resilient in general," says Sharp.

It also may help the small farmer survive. Bruce Rickard believes that local production could help preserve the family farm and a traditional way of life in Ohio.

"We believe philosophically that your food ought to be grown close to home. And if the people of Knox County want to have farms to look at as they drive out into the countryside, the people who have those farms have got to have some way to make a living," Sharp says.

OSU's Jeff Sharp says organically grown foods are easier to market because they're backed by greater corporate capital. But, he says, the momentum for locally grown foods is building. Sam Hendren, WOSU News.