By Carmen Pease
There's a lot more in common between the rolling hills of Ohio University and the lush, rustic farmlands of Appalachian Ohio than just landscape. Since 2001, Ohio University has made it a point to bring the grange closer to home by participating in the farm to college program, which provides an outlet for local farmers to sell their homegrown products for use in campus dining halls.
The pet project of Randy Shelton, director of housing and food services, the program is a way to increase farmers' incomes, support the local economy and environment, and improve students' eating habits. As opposed to foods shipped in from commercial establishments, purchasing directly from local farmers means the University is getting fresh, high-quality products raised with fewer synthetic additives.
"It's a win-win situation," Shelton said as to why he approached the University about starting up the program. "The only negative to the program is that I can't work with every farmer."
Part of the appeal that has prompted the projects to "grow like wildfire nationwide" is that even though they are overseen by the Community Food Security Commission, there is no fixed blueprint. This allows each school to custom-make its project to accommodate its unique needs and situation. Ohio University has embraced this initiative with enthusiasm.
Growing like wildfire
With products ranging from autumn-hued squashes to bottles of syrupy honey, the project has ripened into an all-around success. What started as a modest program with three farmers has now doubled and is scouting other ways to expand and make use of local commodities.
Besides just raw products, the program is now evolving to the point where it will make use of local "value-added products," such as Casa Nuevo sauces, salsa from Tomatillo's and baked goods from Millie's Munchies and Crumbs Bakery.
"By adding those products to our markets, it's a dual process; we're supporting the local establishment and the local farmer who provided the goods," Shelton said. "The program has really taken another turn in that respect, since produce is only seasonal. Now we're working toward creating an environment where farmers' products are marketable throughout the year."
The next step of the program is to coordinate a menu to the farmers' products. The University also is working with a local pork producer to develop a signature sausage exclusive to Ohio University.
"It's time for us to work with the farmers," Shelton said. "Even if we only work with one farmer a year, it's still the right thing to do. As opposed to dealing with commercial farmers, these programs make the business more like a relationship because there are people and faces."
Breaking down walls
As for Larry Cowdery, a local farmer who has participated in the farm to college program selling varieties of produce including lettuce, sweet bell peppers and oriental vegetables, the program has been valuable and has spurred him to help other farmers join.
"The potential for expansion is unlimited when you think about how much they use in the dining halls," Cowdery said, mentioning his farm has planted extra products to accommodate the dining halls' sizes. "I would like to thank Randy Shelton and the others who run the program. They make the program nice to work with and I appreciate that they are willing to work with the farmers and give students fresher quality in food."
Although coordinating purchases from farmers is more work because not every farmer can offer every product, Shelton said the added stress is worth it because of the consistent, reliable quality the University is reaping. Having grown up around farmers and knowing their trials and tribulations, Shelton said he also likes being able to extend a helping hand to the farmers.
"These programs help to break down the walls that often exist between communities and universities," Shelton said. "My goal is to develop the program to the point where whether I'm here or not, it will keep going on."
Carmen Pease is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing.