Economic Development

Farms Feed the Local Food Economy

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Phil McMaster climbs aboard a large, bright yellow sweet-corn harvester and slowly inches the machine out of a barn toward the rear of a long driveway at McMaster Farms in Columbiana.

It’s a short test run. Because in three weeks, the big yellow harvester will be running over a field of 22,000 ears of corn that the vehicle will pick from the ground, transfer them to a truck running alongside, which will then collect and package them before delivery to grocers, farmer markets and distributors across the region.

“We do a lot of the roadside stands, a lot of the mom-and-pop stores and some of the major food chains,” McMaster says, looking over a vast field filled with green corn stalks that stand just taller than knee-high. About 75% of the farm’s produce – which includes pumpkin, wheat and soybeans in addition to sweet corn – is sold throughout this area.

McMaster Farms is just one of hundreds of farms in Ohio that seasonally contribute to the local food economy. Fresh produce, meats, dairy – all are harvested in the region and many of these products find their way onto kitchen tables or restaurants in the Mahoning Valley.

And food is big business throughout the state. Not only does the food economy include farmers and farm workers, it encompasses a wide range of business sectors such as processing, transportation and distribution. According to data compiled in a 2012 study, “OHFOOD: An Ohio Food Industries Input-Output Model,” the agricultural supply chain contributed $105.2 billion, or 11.7%, of the state gross product of $898.7 billion.

McMaster Farms, for example, distributes its sweet corn and pumpkins to nearby retail supermarkets such as Marc’s, WalMart and Giant Eagle, McMaster says. The farm’s box trucks deliver to the stores, while others can pick the corn up directly at the farm’s produce stand, which just now is being prepared to open.

Profit margins depend on several factors, says McMaster, who manages the day-to-day operations of the farm. First and foremost is the going price of the product. Sweet corn, for example, hovers around $3 to $3.50 per bushel. Several years ago, corn peaked at $7 a bushel, which is historically high. “Grain prices are pretty low right now,” he notes.

This year’s crop should be harvested just after July 10, he reports. “If you get it in early and you’re one of the first guys to have it, you make pretty good money, but it just depends on the year.”

Much depends on the weather, McMaster adds. As he was planting sweet corn in full force, growers in Michigan were delayed because the ground was still so wet.

“It’s been decent,” the farmer says. “We had a cold snap in early June for four or five days.” Warmer temperatures coupled with a healthy dose of rain over the past several weeks have helped the crop rebound significantly this season. Roughly 98% of the crop will be harvested once it’s ready and just about all of it is sold.

In western Pennsylvania, Audrene Burns says her operation, Burns Angus Farms in New Wilmington, Pa., supplies beef to nearby farm markets and sells from the farm by appointment. “It’s 100% grass-fed beef,” she says, noting her farm supplies beef to venues such as the New Wilmington Farmers Market.

The healthful benefits of grass-fed beef are important to many in the region, Burns says, and the farm supplies specialty retail outlets such as Natural Options in Grove City and Wholesome Fare in Hermitage. “A lot of people buy our meat products because of [their] current or past health,” she says. “It’s a clean source of meat that their bodies can handle.”

Burns’ farm also sells directly to the Habitat Restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, which has adopted a mostly green and natural-foods footprint throughout the hotel chain worldwide.

Despite the abundance of local farms, access to fresh produce is still difficult, especially for those who live in cities with food deserts that lack retail grocers, says James Converse, director of Common Wealth Inc., which helped organize the Lake-to River Food Co-Op.

Since the co-op began in 2008 – it evolved from several farmers markets established on the north side of Youngstown – the organization has attracted about 25 farmers and processors and has established an online market where consumers can order and pick up their products at the Lake-to River food hub on Elm Street. Farms in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Ashtabula, Portage, Geauga and Carroll counties supply the hub.

The premise is to convince growers and customers to spend their money locally, to keep dollars spent on food in the regional economy, Converse says. While many feel that it’s more economical to shop at a large discount chains, the dollars are spent on produce that likely originated from an out-of-town grower – or in some cases, out-of-the-country grower. Even more important, the money is then sent to a corporate headquarters rather than in support of a nearby farm.

Converse has consistently cited figures that show between 2% and 3% of the food consumed in northeastern Ohio is grown locally. Should this number leap to 25% – “the 25% shift” he calls it – it could translate into 27,000 jobs and $868 million in local wages. “It’s really slow in coming,” he says, “but it’s getting there.”

Sales from the co-op doubled between 2015 and 2016, says Melissa Miller, president of the Lake-to-River Co-Op. Most of the sales regularly go directly to consumers, rather than wholesale accounts such as schools or restaurants. “We do sell to some schools,” she says, but not consistently.

Obtaining this wholesale support is critical to the future of the co-op, Miller says, and she hopes that this segment of the business will grow. The co-op, she emphasizes, is not funded by grant money and is supported entirely by participating farms, including hers. Miller is also the owner of Miller Livestock in Kinsman, where she raises grass-fed cattle.

An idea that could help boost interest in locally grown food is a year-round grocery run by the co-op, Miller says. A small grocery that features locally made foods is operating in the Cultivate Café on Elm Street, something she would like to see expand.

Despite these and other barriers, restaurants in the region do what they can to support the local food economy.

“We were the first in the area to do a seasonal menu,” says Arianna DelGarbino, chef at Leo’s Ristorante, Warren. For this summer season, DelGarbino prepares lighter meals with fresh vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, corn or heirloom tomatoes. Her shrimp scampi noodle dish, for example, uses slices of zucchini in the summer instead of heavier pasta noodles.

“The public seems to respond to it, so we try to stay ahead of the trends,” she says.

While Leo’s doesn’t often buy directly from nearby farms, it does source its produce from a regional supplier, Sirna and Sons Produce Inc. in Ravenna. Sirna in turn purchases a large selection of its produce from local or regional farms.

“We deliver to restaurant chains and independents, hospitals, health care systems, schools and universities,” says its sales manager, Anthony Sirna.

Obtaining locally grown produce is all but impossible during the winter months, so the company often has to ship in products such as lettuce from California. “If it’s out-of-season, we have to get it from all over the country,” he says.

However, once local farmers start producing, the company buys as much as it can from local growers and suppliers, Sirna says. “We sell to Leo’s and a bunch of other restaurants in the Youngstown area,” he says. “Business is good. We’re definitely growing.”

Pictured, top: About three-quarters of Phil McMaster’s crop – pumpkins, sweet corn, wheat and soybeans – will be sold locally.

Pictured, bottom: Jim Converse, director of Common Wealth Inc., and Melissa Miller, president of the Lake-to-River Food Co-Op, say if northeastern Ohio got 25% of its food locally, it could create up to 27,000 jobs in the region.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.