The U.S Department of Agriculture is investing more than $40 million to establish a regional food business center in Appalachian Ohio.
The goal of the Appalachian Regional Food Business Center, created in partnership with Rural Action, Inc., based in The Plains, Ohio, is to build resilient local and regional food systems through technical assistance, coordination and capacity building services for small and mid-sized farms and food businesses, according to a USDA press release.
“The key here is to create more new and better markets [to support smaller farms],” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, during a May 3 press call announcing the news. Vilsack was joined on the call by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rural Action chief executive officer Debbie Phillips.
Building resiliency has been the focus of many of the USDA’s funding efforts of late. The Appalachian RFBC was one of 12 projects selected to receive funding from a pot of $400 million that was set aside last fall to create regional food business centers. On May 3, Vilsack also announced $420 million through the new Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure Program to fund processing and distribution capacity projects.
Modern agriculture’s focus on efficiency has often been at the expense of its ability to bounce back from system shocks. It also put most of the power and profit in the hands of a few, Vilsack said.
“The fact is the commodity agriculture system that we have in the United States really has put a premium on large scale production, which has encouraged the consolidation of markets and a concentration of profitability,” Vilsack said.
Last year was a record year for farm income, but about 7.5% of farms in the U.S. or about 150,000 farms, received 89% of that income, Vilsack said.
Phillips has seen firsthand how resilient local food systems can be. Rural Action, a non-profit group that works on economic development in rural Appalachian communities, runs Chesterhill Produce Auction, in Morgan County, that serves people and businesses in Ohio and neighboring West Virginia. When the usual channels of business were shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the auction pivoted to meet the community’s needs another way.
“We were able to change our business model quickly and shift to more of a distribution model where we didn’t have customers coming out here to buy produce, but we could reassure farmers to go ahead and plant,” Phillips said.
When parts of eastern Kentucky were devastated by flooding last year, she said several local food systems groups were banded together to bring fresh produce to the communities that were hardest hit.
“These shorter value chains do have more built-in resiliency to respond to emergent situations,” she said.
Phillips said this investment in local food systems will begin to level the playing field with bigger players that have controlled much of the market share.
Appalachia was one of the areas of particular interest for regional food business centers program. Alongside the Central Appalachian Network, Rural Action will use the USDA funding to expand training and technical assistance resources; invest in local farmers, ranchers and food entrepreneurs; build and expand on markets in the Appalachian region; and coordinate with other Regional Food Business Centers to promote cross-regional support and market development.
The Appalachian Regional Food Business Center will serve Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or email@example.com.)
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