WOOSTER, Ohio – You might say that farmers in northeastern Ohio are “tweeners”, farming between the edge of the Corn Belt and the edge of the Population Belt.
And this “in between” situation presents a unique set of challenges for farmers in the region, according to Mike Hogan, OSU Extension educator and co-coordinator of the extension sustainable agriculture team.
Hogan spoke during a regional sustainability forum March 24 in Wooster.
“We need to have a different way of thinking about agriculture in this part of the state,” he said. “Our thought process needs to change to sustain the family farm.”
Eye on consumer. Under the old way of thinking, Hogan said, farmers looked at their operations from a commodity focus as opposed to looking at it from a customer focus.
The message to farmers used to be that they needed to get big or get out, but the message has evolved to getting different or getting out.
“I don’t see the problem with large scale agriculture,” Hogan said. “Farmers need to look at it from a managerial aspect; they need to be different in order to be successful. They need to change their thinking from that of a farm laborer to that of a farm manager.
“Instead of seeing their farm as an industrial model, they need to see it as an entrepreneurial model.”
Need diversification. Hogan said in order for agriculture to continue to be successful in the state, Ohio has to be diversified; where it was once seen as a livestock state, it now can be seen as having crop and livestock production integrated.
Embrace sustainability. Hogan also encouraged producers to make decisions from a sustainable local perspective as opposed to a conventional perspective.
Hogan defined sustainable agriculture as being environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially acceptable.
He told the group that there are three types of alternatives for Ohio farm families, alternative enterprises, alternative production systems and alternative marketing systems.
Alternative enterprises include fruits and vegetables, livestock, aquaculture, green industry, and agritourism/agritainment just to name a few examples.
Alternative production systems include organic systems, grass-based systems, reduced tillage systems, season extension practices and cover crops.
Lots of potential. But the real area for growth, according to Hogan, is in the area of alternative marketing systems.
“When you look at the demographics for this region, we are missing the boat when it comes to marketing,” he said.
“There is a lot of potential for farmers to market their products to consumers through farmers’ markets or on farm markets. There is a lot of potential for community supported agriculture and over-the-road marketing such as Schwann’s Ice Cream and other products.”
Another area for growth, Hogan said, is marketing farm products to institutions such as restaurants, schools, universities and local grocery stores.
“Restaurants want to buy local, seasonal food,” he said. “But the demand is greater than the supply.”
Other niches opening. The organic and natural markets, specifically, have seen significant growth over the past few years.
Other niche markets include identify preserved grains, branded products, functional foods, and food grade grains such as corn and soybeans.
“The ethnic market is a huge, untapped niche market,” Hogan said. “There is a huge demand for meats and other foods for this market.”
Producers can also add value to their products through additional processing such as making sausage or cheese, or providing additional services such as barbecues.
“We need to recognize agriculture as part of economic development,” he said. “We never think about the resources that we have, but they should be the central part of economic development in the state.”
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