Learning low-tech production production

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HOMERVILLE, Ohio – F.W. Owen of the Homerville Wholesale Produce Auction has a problem. He is never able to get as much produce to sell as his buyers want to buy.

At the same time, Owen’s neighbors have a problem of their own. Many of them are still trying to dairy with a small herd or to continue farming on land that no longer returns much of a profit.

Owen has a plan he thinks might assist some of his neighbors that, at the same time, will assist him with his own problem.

Owen is one of 44 producers in the northcentral region selected to receive a 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program grant.

His project is to provide information about small-scale and sustainable produce growing to farmers who are looking for a new way to farm.

Owen received $4,900 from USDA to finance a winter speakers’ series for current and potential produce growers and to provide them with information they might have trouble getting elsewhere.

The All-Ohio Growers Roundtables, a series of three, one-day roundtable discussions on fruit and vegetable production and on growing for the produce auctions, will be held on three Wednesdays in January and February.

They are scheduled for Jan. 17, Feb. 7, and Feb. 21 at the Homerville Town Hall, about a mile north of the Homerville Produce Auction in Medina County.

The emphasis will be on growing produce on conventional soils using sustainable agricultural methods.

But because many of the farmers in the vicinity are Amish or Mennonite, Owen said he is particularly interested in providing them the chance to explore some of the new horse-drawn technologies that have been developed in eastern Pennsylvania and in Ontario.

“There will be information for all growers, Amish and English,” Owen said. But because he is particularly interested in reaching the area’s many Amish farmers, he wanted to find speakers they would respect and be willing to listen to.

Owen is still milking a herd of 30 cows on his 60-acre farm, but says that he is now considering selling the herd. He said his own milk check has gotten so small that, after 40 years, it’s no longer worth it.

Owen found an alternative source of income by establishing a wholesale produce auction three years ago, after putting five acres of his own land into vegetable production.

He now has 300 growers, and said that if he had twice that number, he would still not have all the produce he could sell.

At least three-fourths of auction buyers are from some kind of farm market. They range from basic to supermarket size, but they are all seeking fresh, local produce.

Owen said part of his plan when he established the auction was to provide a nontraditional market that would give other farmers in the area an incentive to switch to produce.

“Vegetable growing,” Owen said, “is one of the few alternatives available that might keep farmers in this area on the land.”

A lot of them are not growing any produce, he said, and those who do are not really up-to-date on some of the latest technologies.

Owen has lined up about 20 successful growers, the majority from the Lancaster area in Pennsylvania, but also from the produce-growing regions of southern Ontario.

He plans to have six or seven growers at each of the meetings to conduct a roundtable discussion on using small-scale and horse-drawn technology and near-organic methods in the production of several crops.

The meetings will be arranged around growing seasons. A spring-topics meeting will cover areas like using greenhouses, bedding plants, growing strawberries and other berries, and growing flowers for the commercial market.

A summer-topics meeting will focus on the growing season, covering irrigation, mulching, fertilizer, harvesting and packing produce.

And a fall-topics roundtable will concentrate on vine crops like pumpkins and other fall crops.

Owen attempted to have a series of workshops last year. But because he didn’t have the funding to pay travel expenses for the speakers, those meetings were not particularly successful.

The SARE grant money will go toward paying the travel expenses of the growers who are coming in to speak.

Owen said he also hopes to attract growers from the other four produce auctions in Ohio. The roundtables are open to anyone who is interested in attending.

For information about the All-Ohio Growers Roundtables, contact Owen at 330-625-2369 or Ivan Sauder at 419-906-2635.

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