Watching for signs

Old MacDonald had a cow
Old MacDonald had a pig
… or once he did!
Now the yellow ‘dozers dig

RANDOLPH, Ohio – Be careful driving through Portage County. The signs here might distract you.
At least Fred Maier hopes you’ll be distracted … distracted enough to first take his signs seriously and then take action.
Maier’s signs are a takeoff on the old Burma-Shave marketing campaign – a series of signs, about 100 feet apart on well-traveled highways, promoting a product or cause.
In this case, Maier isn’t advertising shaving cream, he’s trying to save family farms.

Carrots from out west
Greens and all the rest
Import them? Why, oh?
Grow ’em in Ohio

Each line is on a separate green board and at the end is always a fifth sign that says “Save a Farm” and gives his campaign’s Web site, www.saveafarm.org.
The point is to get people thinking about where their food comes from and how important it is to make sure family farms thrive.
* * *
Maier is one of those people who saw family farms disappearing and food being shipped from other countries and decided that wasn’t right.
Although he has a small herd of Shetland sheep, he’s a wood worker by trade, not a full-time farmer. His parents weren’t farmers either and neither was his wife’s family. But that didn’t stop Maier from helping at a family friend’s farm when he was a boy and later taking agricultural workshops through Penn State Extension.
It wasn’t until he moved to Randolph in 1993, however, that he really put his passion for agriculture into play.
In the late 1990s, Portage County formed a citizens’ group for farmland preservation and Maier was there from day one.
The group later morphed into the county commissioners’ farmland preservation advisory board and task force but Maier ended up leaving the group two and a half years ago. He hoped that, on his own, he might be more effective in waking up the community to agriculture’s issues.
So he began making roadside signs.
They appeared for the first time last summer, and this year, they’re in three Portage County locations.
Maier and his wife, Carol, think up original jingles about saving family farms, keeping open space and promoting local produce. Maier switches the signs every two weeks.
This is the project’s key, he said. Keep drivers watching for those signs, wondering what jingle will be next.
Maier hopes curiosity will get the best of them and they’ll start looking into what’s going on with agriculture.
* * *
Maier’s overall goal is to chip away at citizen complacency.
Ask children where their food comes from and they’ll likely say the grocery store, he said. And even if people do realize food comes from a farm, their vision of a farm is a romanticized picture far from the grit of real life.
Even farm tours are dangerous, he said. Everything looks nice and neat and people go away with a “warm and fuzzy feeling” about farming. This isn’t reality, he said.
Instead, he said, the U.S. imports frozen strawberries from China and Ohio brings in vegetables from California.
Many areas can’t afford to keep doing this since they have the means to produce most of the same food themselves, Maier said.
“I’ve never used the word ‘crisis,’ but it’s important for people to know things aren’t right,” he said.
“Until the general public realizes it’s in their own self-interest to preserve family farms, we aren’t going to get anywhere.”
* * *
As much as Maier wants the general public to take an interest in agriculture, farmers also need to step up, he said.
This year when he attempted to expand his sign project, he went door-to-door telling farmers about his idea and asking if he could put his signs on their property. He took pictures of the signs, copies of his jingles, and he told them to think it over and let him know.
They were polite, Maier said, but every farmer said “no.”
Maier admits his signs may not be the answer; maybe there’s something else that would work better, but at least this is a step in the right direction.
He hopes his Web site will spur further action.
It’s too soon to tell how many people see his signs and, as a result, visit his site. But he does know that most of his feedback has been that people want to be able to call or e-mail him.
But Maier said there’s no need to talk about it anymore, he said.
“We already know there’s a problem,” he said. “People need to do something.” (See related article.)
* * *
Maier hopes his project is enough of an oddity that a larger group, like a regional conservation group or even American Farmland Trust, might pick it up and expand it by spreading similar signs across Ohio.
Maybe there could even be a volunteer network to put up signs in other locations, he said.
The possibilities, he said, are definitely out there.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)
Find the signs in Portage County

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