Toward a regional food
system for Northeast Ohio

The following article was written by Brad Masi, executive director of the Oberlin-based nonprofit organization Ecological Design Innovation Center (EDIC). His article (and flowcharts) appeared in a report from EDIC's "Farms to Colleges" conference which took place in November 2001. According to Masi, the conference succeeded in bringing together farmers, students, faculty and institutional food service managers to lay the groundwork for developing a sustainable regional food system.

Family farm crisis in America

For the last two decades, the farming industry is the sector in greatest decline in the United States. Few American farmers can sustain a family, and in the 2000 Census, farming was not listed as an occupation. In fact, 89 percent of the revenue for the average farm comes from off-farm activities in the off-season.

From 1993-97, the United States lost 75,000 farmers. In addition to these real losses, there are threats to the future of farming in America. Over 50 percent of the farmers in America are over 55 years in age and only eight percent are below the age of 35.

While the current American farm crisis results from several factors, the primary culprit is low food prices. Food prices today are 35-50 percent lower than in 1985. Farm subsidies promote farm consolidation and the overproduction of food which suppresses prices both domestically and abroad. Thus, farming as an occupation carries high risk and is not viewed as a viable economic option for most people. Evidence of this national farm crisis can be seen in Northeast Ohio.

Land use threats in Northeast Ohio

In Northeast Ohio, local agriculture is primarily threatened by the conversion of productive farmland to alternative uses. If current trends continue, by the year 2010 the seven county Cleveland Metropolitan Area is expected to lose three percent of its population while devoting 30 percent more land area to residential and commercial development.

In 1997, Northeast Ohio was identified by the American Farmland Trust as the seventh most threatened area in the United States for prime farmland lost to urban sprawl. The Northern Ohio till plain (which covers most of the region) was considered by the AFT to be one of the 20 most threatened major land resource areas (MLRA) in the U.S. MLRAs are areas that have soil types, fertility and conditions conducive to productive agriculture.

Lorain County (home to Oberlin College) lost 31 percent of its farms from 1977 to 1997. Yet, in a survey conducted in 1999, 94 percent of the respondents in Southern Lorain County wanted to preserve the rural character of the area.

Lorain County farmers have identified several factors that indicate strains on the viability of local agriculture. Through a series of interview conducted by the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, the following key threats were identified:

  • PricesLow prices reduce profit margins in agriculture and make it next to impossible for anyone to farm full-time or support a family off of farm related revenue.
  • Land valuesAs residential development becomes more widespread throughout the county, farmers have an incentive to sell land for development. It is hard to justify $120 per acre for soybeans when you can have $10,000 per acre for housing. In addition, high land values make it next to impossible for a new farmer to start. The cost of mortgaging the land could not be covered through farm revenue.
  • Food illiteracyConsumers lack a basic understanding of what it takes to produce food. Additionally, consumers lack an understanding of the environment and social impacts of our modern farming system. As a result, public policies do not necessarily reflect the real conditions confronting farmers.
  • Loss of security and continuityIn many cases, farmers are forced to sell their land because their children find more enticing economic options than the marginal existence of agriculture.
  • Urban sprawlUrban sprawl has increased the population of residents seeking the mystique of countryside living without accepting some of the features of country life: slow-moving machinery, occassional smells from manure, and promoting local land-use policies that support farmers.

A tale of two food systems

The problems described earlier can be called design flaws inherent within the predominant national food system. Overall, there are two principle design templates for food systems: a linear, cradle-to-grave system and a closed-loop, circular flow system.

The first food system features a linear chain of distribution that covers, on average, 1,300 miles from farm to plate and an extensive food distribution system that depends on extensive fossil fuel energy inputs. Through this system, only 20 percent of the average food dollar benefits farmers and farm suppliers. The remaining 80 percent is tied up in national distribution, mass processing, packaging, advertising, and, ultimately, disposal. Through this chain, food is grown, distributed through an extensive national distribution network, consumed and then hauled to a landfill where it biodegrades in anaerobic conditions and becomes methane which contributes to global warming.

By contrast, a closed-loop system features a network of local farms providing food directly to consumers through direct marketing channels. Through this system, food is grown in close proximity to the consumer. The food reaches the consumer through a local or regional food distribution system which reduces the number of transaction points. This establishes more direct contact between farmers and consumers and an overall set of economic relations that keep more dollars circulating in the local farm economy.

Ultimately, through a food waste recovery program, all food waste is composted and returned to local farms to rebuild topsoil and fertility. This distribution chain generates healthier farms, a network of local relations between farmers and consumers, and reutilization of organic wastes. The latter scenario, in other words, resembles a sustainable regional food system.

In forming a regional food system, it is important to consider development in three primary areas:

1. Supply sideThe supply side includes local farmers who can supply food for consumers throughout the region. The primary supply-side concern is in helping farms transition to sustainable production methods. Local marketing involves a farm operation that differs from commodity grain manaculture or farms designed for the long-distance food system.

2. Demand sideEducation is needed to provide consumers with more of an understanding of how their food purchases can help to shape the local farm economy. Efforts need to be made to encourage consumers (as individuals, restaurant owners, institutional managers or grocery store operators) to purchase local food that is generally fresher, healthier and, in many cases, organically or sustainably produced.

3. MarketThe most critical and most underdeveloped section of the regional food economy is a market mechanism to efficiently connect consumers and producers.

The role of colleges and universities in regional food system development

Colleges and universities possess unique resources that can help to catalyze regional food system development. First, through their intellectual resources, campuses contain high concentrations of knowledgeable faculty and talented students. This provides unique opportunites for innovation and experimentation. Second, colleges and universities have multi-million dollar purchasing budgets which, if directed to the local food economy, can serve as a catalyst for local farmers. Finally, campuses generally have high concentrations of talented and socially concerned people.

Over the past ten years, Oberlin has played an active role in utilizing the campus as a catalyst for local food systems development. The following areas of focus have defined Oberlin's local food program:

1. Local food purchasing: Oberlin conducted a local food study in 1988. Through this proposal, a network of local farmers was identified and proposals were developed for the college's dining system (2,000 students) and dining cooperative organization (650 students). In 1990, the student co-ops initiated a local food purchasing program which today puts over $100,000 into the local farm economy.

2. Community supported agriculture: In 1996, the Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project (OSAP) was founded as a nonprofit organization. OSAP's mission has been to foster a local food economy through the operation of a community supported organic farm and the development of a practicum in organic farming taught at the college. In addition, OSAP helps to provide new marketing opportunities for local farmers, including a downtown farmer's market in Oberlin and the organization of a farmer's market consortium to supply the college's dining system.

3. New model for local agriculture: In 2000, the Ecological Design Innovation Center (EDIC) was formed to fuse the college town in a dynamic educational partnership to focus on community problem solving. EDIC's primary concern relates to sustainable agriculture, land-use planning, and downtown revitalization. EDIC is managing a 70-acre property owned by Oberlin College to serve as a permanent home for OSAP's organic farm. In addition, EDIC will provide an experiement for meeting the basic human needs of food, energy and shelter while enhancing environmental quality.

EDIC named its 70-acre property in the memory of George Jones, a botany professor at Oberlin College who died at the age of 100 in 1998. The George Jones Farm will continue his legacy by providing a model for sustainable land-use that combines agriculture and habitat restoration. The specific plans for the Jones Farm include

  • Diversified agriculturea mix of perennial berries, flowers and vegetable crops.
  • Model for organic agriculturein 2002, OSAP will apply for organic certification and provide new approaches to organic production in the area
  • Building soil capitalthrough a composting program, city yard waste and food waste from Oberlin will be used to restore topsoil and fertility on the farm.
  • Permaculture designthrough such technologies as chicken tractors, multiple interdependencies on the farm can be fostered. Chickens can be used to control weeds and pests, add fertility as well as produce eggs or meat for sale.
  • Woodland food cropwe plan on utilizing the woods for understory herb production (wild ginseng, goldenseal) and mushroom production (Shittake).
  • Wetland restorationthrough USDA support, we will add 20 acres of wetlands to the property
  • Season extensionthrough a strawbale greenhouse, we plan on extending the length of the productive season on the farm.

Overall, we plan on using the George Jones Farm to build a regional food system by focusing on suply side issues (serving as a site for innovations in local agriculture), demand-side issues (working to engage youth, college students and residents in local agriculture), and market side (working with a regional consortium of farms and colleges in Northeast Ohio to increase economic ties between the two).

The resources that colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio can contribute to the regional food economy are many. As mentioned earlier, knowledge and intellectual resources can provide valuable research and innovation. College buying power can leverage more demand for locally grown produce. A consortium of colleges and universities can help to create a greater economy of scale which can lead to a more cost-effective regional distribution system competitive with distance-supplied food.

Finally, university and college committments to local food purchasing can help to build a platform for other potential institutional or commercial buyers, including hospitals, restaurants, retirement communities or public schools.

The Farms to Colleges conference provided a forum for better understanding the needs of farmers and the needs of institutions. By better understanding each other's needs, we can begin to identify viable distribution mechanisms to increase the flow of food from local farms to colleges. Our ultimate goal will be increasing overall linkages between primary rural farmers and urban consumers in Northeast Ohio.


Back to top

EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003



Back to main sustainable food systems



While the current American farm crisis results from several factors, the primary culprit is low food prices.


go to home page go to home page

Related Links:









Partner Links