Strategy: Farmers grow agricultural products in the region, and consumers need food and are interested in purchasing local foods, but effort from multiple partners was needed to connect the supply to the demand.
Photo courtesy of RuralAction.
Capitalizing on assets. Southeast Ohio has a rich history of agricultural production. The region also benefits from having multiple organizations in southern Ohio and central Appalachia that are leaders in supporting economic growth in the agriculture sector. These organizations, including the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) and Rural Action, have strong networks of local partners that enable them to function as coordinators of value chains. Value chains, which are networks of agencies and businesses, work together toward a set of shared values as well as toward each partner’s own goals to fulfill programmatic work that advances a market opportunity. Value chains are a distinct type of partnership compared to traditional supply chains, and they typically are facilitated by a coordinator that holds those shared values and larger vision.
Need for food systems infrastructure. Farmers grow agricultural products in the region, and consumers need food and are interested in purchasing local foods, but effort from multiple partners was needed to connect the supply to the demand. Several Plain community farms (such as Amish and Mennonite) are located in the area, whose ability to market their products is constrained by the distance they can reasonably travel by non-motorized means—typically horse and buggy. Larger towns and cities within the region have access to grocery stores, although they may not have carried much locally grown food, and many smaller communities and villages in the region have little fresh food access.
Strengthening the economy. Southeast Ohio contains several counties that are considered economically distressed. Low per capita income and high rates of static poverty and unemployment affect the resilience of the regional economy and often prevent residents from being able to take risks in starting up new businesses or changing business practices.
Goal: Farmers can market directly to household consumers and to buyers for restaurants, food banks, schools, and hospitals.
Image courtesy ACEnet
Rural Action, ACEnet, and their partners work to increase economic success for the region’s residents by providing connections to potential buyers and seeking opportunities to add value to the region in several ways. Farmers can market directly to household consumers and to buyers for restaurants, food banks, schools, and hospitals through the Chesterhill Produce Auction, a food hub that aggregates produce at two weekly auctions during the growing season of May – November each year. The Chesterhill Produce Auction in Morgan County, Ohio draws growers and buyers throughout southeastern Ohio and West Virginia’s Mid-Ohio Valley region and is located within a convenient travel distance for Plain community growers.
A social enterprise owned by Rural Action, the Chesterhill Produce Auction was founded by a couple who retired to Morgan County, Jean and Marvin Konkle, and realized residents had limited access to good quality food despite being in an agricultural region. Local buy-in from the Plain community and other farmers was key to securing adequate and consistent supply of produce to attract consistent buyers, and farmers continue to play a critical leadership role in the auction’s steering committee. The auction began operation in 2005, and Rural Action took on ownership in 2010 to ensure continued operation of this regional institution. From the beginning, however, Rural Action was involved in helping to establish the auction and connect to large-volume buyers. Farmers participating in the auction increased from 40 in 2009 (when Rural Action began collecting data) to 185 in 2018. Over this period, auction revenue increased 401 percent, to over $300,000 in 2018.
ACEnet assists the region’s food systems stakeholders to add value. ACEnet’s facilities include the Athens Business Incubator, Athens Food Ventures Center, and Nelsonville Business Center and Food Hub. These facilities are important parts of the food value chain infrastructure, including kitchens, thermal processing, warehouse and office space, cold storage, a local meat processing facility, and a separate produce processing facility. The Nelsonville facility is located in close proximity to institutions such as Hocking College, Ohio University, and the Tri-County Career Center, which provide opportunities for food business development. ACEnet also owns the Athens Food Venture Center, where the licensed commercial kitchen, thermal processing, and warehouse facilities are used by 65 food entrepreneurs each year. Food business entrepreneurs can access ACEnet assistance with business planning, marketing, regional brand access, and financial management, as well as the shared commercial facilities.
Value opportunities: The regional food systems value chain increases access to local, healthy foods.
Photo courtesy of ACEnet.
The value chain stakeholders identified opportunities to create locally rooted economic development by expanding existing businesses and establishing new ones that provide products and services directly tied to human-powered recreation. These local businesses that benefit from a growing economy include outfitters and equipment rental, equipment repair and services, outdoor recreation guides, and others. Many visitors to the region come for overnight trips, so hospitality businesses such as restaurants, lodging, and breweries provide other economic expansion possibilities.
For the businesses involved in services and equipment for outdoor recreation, a significant amount of knowledge and professionalism is needed to attract and retain tourists and tourism spending. However, these jobs tend not to be very high paying, with minimal opportunity for career advancement or increased incomes over time. Increasing the professionalism of the outdoor recreation-serving workforce may result in stabilizing or increasing incomes for these workers who may be at the economic margins.
Consumers within the region care about accessing foods that are healthy and taste good. Demand for local foods exists within the regional culture. Anecdotally, some buyers have reported feeling that by purchasing locally grown products, they are purchasing food that is higher quality and supports the regional economy.
The Chesterhill Produce Auction accommodates demand from both individual and institutional buyers by having two simultaneous auctions occurring within the auction facility. Small lots of produce are available for buyers who need a smaller amount for their household. Large lots are available for commercial buyers such as restaurants and institutions.
Food access is an issue for many households in the region, with some demand that cannot be met through traditional markets. Farmers can donate excess produce at Donation Stations set up by area nonprofit Community Food Initiatives at the auction and the Athens Farmers Market, and monetary donations enable the nonprofit to purchase additional local food. This is distributed to food pantries and agencies serving residents of the region who need food but may be unable to pay market price for it on their own.
Food systems work in southeastern Ohio is interconnected with other value chains, within Ohio and elsewhere in central Appalachia.
Photo courtesy ACEnet.
The strong regional culture supporting the food systems economy is reflected in several collaborative marketing efforts. Marketing connects the supply partners to buyers who are already interested in local foods by providing awareness of its availability. Marketing also increases demand by raising awareness of potential buyers about the quality of food available and its importance to the regional economy. A focus on food-related brand programs in southeastern Ohio has strengthened value chain commitments between buyers, sellers, and support partners. These brands include Country Fresh Stops and the 30 Mile Meal, as well as the Chesterhill Produce Auction’s own brand.
Country Fresh Stops are a program to increase food access in parts of the region that are underserved by grocery stores. In these communities, convenience stores and gas stations sell some food items, but they often lack high quality produce or locally produced goods. Through the Country Fresh Stops program, stores can purchase produce from the Chesterhill Produce Auction and other regional farmers with direct delivery to participating stores on a regular basis throughout the growing season. The brand also includes pop-up markets located at partner institutions, including healthcare facilities and school districts. Country Fresh Stops currently serve nine locations in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia, with a service area of under 100 miles from where the produce auction is located in Chesterhill. In 2018 alone, Country Fresh Stops brought more than 10,000 lbs of healthy local produce to these underserved food deserts. “One location is at a regional hospital in Athens County. Once a week, produce is distributed to the hospital store, where employees, patients, or others can make purchases,” explains Eric Smith, Rural Action’s Chief Program Officer.
Grants from agencies, foundations, and local contributions have been critical to lay the infrastructure that supports the existence and expansion of the food and agriculture economy in southeastern Ohio.
Photo courtesy ACEnet.
The Real Food Real Local Institute, another value chain partner in Southeast Ohio, developed the 30 Mile Meal brand with ACEnet and the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau. This brand assists residents and visitors in finding foods produced within a 30-mile radius of a participating community’s epicenter. Any food business can participate in the brand, which provides a shared identity to growers and producers, processors, servers, and sellers. After beginning in Athens County in 2010, the brand has been replicated in other communities in Southeast Ohio, as well as elsewhere in the state and in Huntington, West Virginia.
Leslie Schaller, Director of Programs for ACEnet, says, “Having a logo and brand allows food businesses to communicate directly with customers. It gives partners such as restaurant buyers credit for sourcing local, and it builds brand awareness. When consumers see consistent branding through the growing season and at various markets and businesses, we are reinforcing the idea that these are products and produce raised within their region.”
These brand programs are managed by partners within the region who maintain assets and recruit participants. Marketing assets for these brands include high quality logos that communicate the brand identity and are used consistently by brand partners. Branding guidelines ensure that partners know how to use the brand in appropriate ways and maintain a high level of quality and recognition of the brand. The brands maintain outreach assets, such as websites for each 30 Mile Meal community and for the program, and press releases that are issued or seasonal taste test events held when new Country Fresh Stops locations join the network.
Food systems work in southeastern Ohio is interconnected with other value chains, within Ohio and elsewhere in central Appalachia. Other partners doing food-related value chains in their own regions have joined together in a program called The Central Appalachia Food Corridor. Partners in Ohio as well as Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Eastern Tennessee are supporting economic resilience by connecting producers to wholesale and retail outlets.
Within Ohio and West Virginia, Rural Action’s food systems work also includes forest farming. Forest farming encourages forest landowners to grow native medicinal or culinary herbs including American ginseng, goldenseal, and ramps. This work gives landowners income on an ongoing basis via high value herbal product buyers (in contrast to selling timber from their forest once), it builds cultural capital by helping local families continue a regionally significant practice of forest farming and land stewardship, and it provides environmental benefit by maintaining habitat for herbs that are being overharvested in the wild.
The value chain partners are also finding ways to apply the knowledge learned through their food systems work to other sectors. In one example, Rural Action has formed the social enterprise Zero Waste Event Productions, which serves special events by handling on-site collection of waste and sorting it into landfill, compost, and recycle streams. The Zero Waste value chain work also intersects with food systems, as the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival celebrating the native fruit is a Zero Waste client, and compost from the zero waste program is available as a soil amendment for gardening and agriculture.
Chesterhill Produce Auction, a food hub that aggregates produce at two weekly auctions during the growing season of May – November each year.
Photo courtesy of RuralAction.
Grants from agencies, foundations, and local contributions have been critical to lay the infrastructure that supports the existence and expansion of the food and agriculture economy in southeastern Ohio. For example, initial capital for the Chesterhill Produce Auction came from Jean and Marvin Konkle, who conceived of the auction with Rural Action and also donated significant amounts of personal time to the effort; grants from the Southern Ohio Agriculture and Community Development Foundation and Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation supported infrastructure such as the produce auction building, driveway, and other capital improvements. Similarly, the Nelsonville Business Center was supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, Nelsonville Chamber of Commerce, and others, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Osteopathic Heritage Foundation provided funding for equipment within the facility.
Start-up support in the form of labor has also been invaluable. The value chain coordinators and other partners have contributed significant time to planning and developing these value chain activities. Rural Action staff played a key role in developing the Chesterhill Produce Auction through its steering committee, grantwriting, and outreach to partners. The Ohio Small Business Development Center at Ohio University’s Voinovich School helped to develop a business plan while Ohio State University Extension of Morgan County assisted with fundraising. Area residents have invested their time, as Amish farmers contributed their labor to construct the auction building.
The food systems value chain connects producers to real market demand. As a result, some aspects of the value chain work are self-sustaining through payments for products or services. The Chesterhill Produce Auction functions as a social enterprise program of Rural Action, charging a commission of 16 percent on items sold through the auction. Similarly, ACEnet generates 65 percent of its total organizational budget through earned income from incubator services, including assistance to food businesses.
Some aspects of the value chain work are building capital for regional consumers that cannot pay market price for products or services. For instance, ACEnet’s remaining funding comes from federal, state, and foundation grants that underwrite the work to develop the local economy. The Central Appalachian Food Corridor program is an example of this kind of funding, with support from the Appalachian Regional Commission Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative, USDA, Just Transition Fund, and CoBank. Retail partners participating in the Country Fresh Stop program purchase produce, but at a reduced rate, with a subsidy provided by grants from funders such as the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation. The AmeriCorps VISTA program supports labor and expertise for distribution, sorting food, and other tasks related to the Chesterhill Produce Auction and Country Fresh Stop program.
Information sources: Chesterhill Produce Auction: A Rural Appalachian Case Study (2010) Chesterhill Produce Auction: 2018 Brochure Impacts of Chesterhill Produce Auction on Southeastern Ohio’s Regional Food System (2017) Rural Action JM Kaplan Social Innovation Prize Application (2017) https://acenetworks.org http://ruralaction.org http://realfoodreallocalinstitute.org Personal communication with Leslie Schaller, Eric Smith, and Joe Barbaree
This case study was produced under contract to the Region Five Development Commission through a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USDA. This case study was authored primarily by NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel.
Specialties: Local Food, Placemaking, Renewable Energy
States served: Minnesota
Additional details: Enhancing the vitality and quality of life in Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties is the mission of Region Five Development Commission. Resiliency, inclusion and collaboration are guiding concepts in achieving mutually shared goals that continue to evolve with local municipalities, state, federal, philanthropic, non-profit and social advocacy agencies.
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Additional details: RCAC Value Chains, economic development and Wealth Works are embedded in RCAC’s Building Rural Economies program. With over 10 years of experience in these arenas we technically assist communities who wish to envision and create their future.
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States served: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas
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