Editor’s note: This article was published May 3, 2017.
Rich Tomsu is 85, well past the age to consider retirement, yet he still operates his own farm.
Tomsu could wake up one morning and decide to never plant another potato. He could choose to sell Rich Gardens Organic Farm in Shade — after all, his profit would be what he called “a fortune.”
The only problem is he doesn’t want to.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else (but farming),” Tomsu said. “I don’t want to do anything else, and I’ll probably continue to do this until I drop over one day in the field, and they’ll dump me in the compost pile.”
Tomsu is just one of the many farmers of Appalachian Ohio who are struggling financially but continue to plant, harvest and sell their products, and some of them are looking to Ohio University as a saving grace.
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In 2005, three women decided to challenge their fellow San Franciscans to only eat food grown within 100 miles. One of them coined a term for the movement: locavore.
Since then, the “locavore movement” has spread across the country. In Athens, though, the idea of a meal of local food is neither foreign nor new.
In 1985, the Worker Owned Network formed in Athens, aiming to help grow small businesses and, subsequently, the local economy. At nearly the same time, eight unemployed workers founded their own restaurant. The two groups collaborated, and Casa Nueva was born.
The Worker Owned Network, now the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, or ACEnet, still aims to boost the local economy by helping food entrepreneurs.
Leslie Schaller was one of the eight workers who began Casa Nueva, and she is now its business director, as well as the director of programs at ACEnet.
“We all get to vote with our forks every day,” Schaller said. “Buying local one time a day or one time a week can really help the local farmers.”
ACEnet and its partners work to slim the definition of “local” food further than 100 miles. The 30 Mile Meal, as its name suggests, narrows the circle to within 30 miles of Athens and works to aid small farmers.
“It’s ‘how do we provide more opportunities for farmers?’” Schaller said.
While ACEnet is pinching the distance food can travel to be considered “local”, there is one group some feel is taking liberties with its definition — Ohio University.
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On the third floor of Lindley Hall, Theresa Moran often mulls her employer’s culinary habits.
More than $2 million, or approximately 18 percent, of OU’s annual food budget is spent on local food, Dan Pittman, a spokesman for the university, said.
However, OU’s definition of “local food” is either within 250 miles of Athens or anywhere in the state of Ohio, Moran, an assistant professor and the director of the food studies theme at OU, said.
“If you were living someplace other than the rich food system in which we find ourselves, there might be a lot of applicability to that definition of local,” Moran said.
However, Moran continued, the “robust food system” of Athens should allow OU to focus on Athens County.
“I think it’s disingenuous, at best, to say that there’s about 17 percent local,” she said.
Even if the university were to be more transparent, Moran has another question: “Where’s the commitment to developing the local economy?”
That question rings true for many farmers who see OU as a buyer who could keep them well-off until their dying day.
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Michelle Ajamian and her partners at Shagbark Seed & Mill, 88 Columbus Road, use a seed cleaner to turn beans and corn into everything from pasta to chips.
One day, Ajamian was browsing OU Culinary Services’ website and saw Shagbark named as a sustainability partner. Ajamian wrote to OU, pleased and eager to sell more.
She walked away disappointed — the university buys a few cases of tortilla chips every other month, Ajamian said, and stocks them in the markets on OU’s campus.
“If we can’t get support from the biggest institution in our community … they should be embarrassed,” Ajamian said. “But they’re not embarrassed because they’ve got a PR campaign that makes them say, ‘Look what we did.’”
Kip Rondy, who owns Green Edge Gardens in Amesville, shares Ajamian’s sentiments.
“We’re all in this boat together,” Rondy said. “It’s a separate existing economy in Athens County.”
Green Edge Gardens grows vegetables, mushrooms and herbs — all products the university uses daily. Still, Rondy estimated that OU purchases less than $500 of food from him annually. Meanwhile, Becky, his wife and co-owner, said the university hasn’t purchased anything in three years.
Naturally, the Rondys looked elsewhere, including Denison University.
“They buy $1,000 a week off of me,” Kip Rondy said.
While OU’s main campus is home to nearly 30,000 students, Denison, in Granville, is home to more than 2,000.
Ajamian, Tomsu and the Rondys, among others, feel left behind by OU, which they say should use its purchasing power to help them — but it isn’t that simple, the university says.
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Each day, droves of hungry students enter OU’s dining halls, hungry for anything from pizza to salad. In total, OU serves nearly 4 million meals a year, Pittman said in an email. Because of this high demand, one of OU Culinary Services’ main concerns is availability.
“Product availability is essential in order for Culinary operations to run smoothly,” Pittman said. “Because of the extremely high volume of product that we purchase and the variability of different food commodity markets, it is a constant challenge to find and secure needed product from local vendors.”
Though OU does not purchase directly from produce auctions, it works with farmers who deliver straight to the university, Pittman said.
“Our main challenge with local produce auctions is ensuring that we can purchase the large volume of product that we require,” Pittman said in the email.
Moran acknowledged the issue of availability, blaming the rolling hills of Appalachia.
“(Southeastern Ohio) is not an agricultural producing area like central Ohio or eastern Ohio, where there’s large farms with acre upon acre of corn or soybean,” she said. “We’re the hill country.”
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Under a green ballcap reading “veggie man” is Ed Perkins, the owner of Sassafras Farm in New Marshfield. Perkins, like many area farmers, packs his produce into coolers each week and drives to East State Street for the Athens Farmers Market. For more than 30 years, Perkins, an OU alumnus, has grown and sold his vegetables and berries.
Perkins acknowledged that his alma mater’s demand is too high for small farmers like himself to fulfill. However, he thinks that a collaboration between many area farmers could meet OU’s needs.
“We aren’t organized enough,” Perkins said. “But it could be done.”
Moran acknowledged that millions of plates of food can’t be replaced immediately, but it is doable.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said. “It’s food.”