OSU, Wayne County collaborating on value-added ag project

OSU, Wayne County collaborating on value-added ag project
Elizabeth Schuster

When commodity prices are so low, farmers can transform their product into one that has a higher price point that also has value to the consumer. An example is turning grapes into jelly.


Farmland is being lost every year in Wayne County, and many families are at risk of losing their livelihood. Wayne County’s comprehensive planning process recently highlighted the need to maintain the county's rural character while supporting a diversified economy.

This combination of factors makes it timely that Ohio State University is collaborating with partners in Wayne County on a value-added agriculture project.

The project was funded last year by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Locally on the OSU side, the project team includes Drs. Jill Clark and Shoshanah Inwood. They are working directly with community liaison Ann Obrecht, former Wayne County commissioner. The project will answer the question: how do rural communities work together collaboratively to solve problems in the context of food and agriculture?

“We had to vet communities across the country to choose a good example of value-added agriculture at work. There was a lot of thought that went into selecting since these stories will be shared nationally,” Inwood said.

Wayne County was one of the communities selected for a variety of reasons: a diverse agricultural base, the history OSU/OARDC has with the community and the Ag Success Team. It turns out Wayne County’s Ag Success Team is a rather innovative model for collaboration.

The Ag Success Team has an interesting structure, bringing together private and public sectors. It has representation from the county government, economic-development groups, OARDC, ATI, Farm Bureau, OSU Extension and other groups.

"As agricultural communities are changing and we are losing farms, there are things people can do,” Inwood said.

Of partnerships like the Ag Success Team, Inwood said, “We can really influence the trajectory of agriculture with respect to our economy and quality of life."

And getting even more value-added agriculture in Wayne County is a big part of getting that trajectory in the right direction.

“Value added is everything from the small-scale farmers and processors you see at Local Roots to Smith Dairy,” Inwood said. “When commodity prices are so low, farmers can transform their product into one that has a higher price point that also has value to the consumer. An example is turning milk into sour cream or strawberries into jam.”

Wayne County already has experience in attracting new value-added agriculture. SmithFoods is a notable example of value-added agriculture because it benefits local farmers and creates numerous jobs in processing. That is one of the appeals of value-added agriculture: supporting a diversified local economy.

“A few years ago Chipotle was looking for dairy products that met their 'Food with Integrity' standards. Chipotle valued the family and community orientation of Smiths, and the dairy leveraged their relationship with an existing group of local grass-based dairy farmers to develop their natural sour cream recipe that you can find in Chipotles across the country and in your local grocery store,” Inwood said.

So how can more investment in value-added agriculture be attracted in a way that isn’t just a one size fits all but is designed to meet the needs and values of the local farmers?

Leveraging the assets already present in Wayne County is one way to make farms and rural economies more successful. “Rural communities may not be rich in assets that are typically thought of in an urban context such as large populations and financial capital, but they can be rich in different kinds of assets such as social or cultural,” said Aiden Irish, a researcher on the project.

Here’s a tangible example of using existing assets in rural communities. Food hubs are centrally located facilities that benefit farmers by enabling them to share resources related to storage, processing, distribution and marketing. These facilities are becoming popular across agricultural counties in the U.S.

“Before we can see a food hub on the ground, there needs to be social infrastructure and relationships and political infrastructure in place as a foundation,” Clark said. “There are assets that are needed in the community before we can even start building the brick and mortar component of a food hub.”

A food hub may — or may not — be the right solution for Wayne County. The important thing, which is a central goal of OSU’s research project in Wayne County, is correctly identifying the existing assets of the rural community. Clark emphasized that a well-designed solution addresses many aspects that contribute to quality of life such as access to health insurance, food security and educational attainment.

Moving forward, the research team is committed to providing their community partners with technical support and helping them select their own value-added strategy.

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