Our planning grant was to explore the possibilities for establishing a “profitable and sustainable” market for fiber in northeast Ohio. I was the applicant, but the proposal was a collaborative effort to enhance and extend an existing but highly informal network of people involved with fiber production and use.
However, only a few months after we were awarded the grant, my principal collaborator, Silver Creek Farm (which for more than a decade had been a focal point of organics in northeast Ohio), effectively suspended operations and sold its flock. Although some advised me to give up the planning grant, I did not do that, since I believed that our plans still offered potential. With the encouragement of then NCR-SARE farmer rancher grant program coordinator, Ken Schneider, I thought to reconstitute a core of interested fiber people and then follow through with the grant proposal.
I made three specific efforts. None of them was successful, although I learned quite a bit in the process. First, I went back to the local Ohio State University (OSU) Extension office and to several of the people we consulted with when we wrote the grant proposal. Second, I consulted repeatedly with a number of the producers with whom I had exhibited at the Great Lakes Fiber Show held each May in Wooster, Ohio. Third, I attempted to develop interest within the Algonquin Spinners and Weavers Guild in Carrollton, Ohio. This is an active group whose membership includes both fiber producers and users.
As I indicated above, in no instance was I able to establish even a small core of people with whom to work. Interest, in my opinion, was always qualified by the perception that the wool-marketing project (whether successful or not) was going to consume a lot of time and energy – commodities already in short supply. In 2004, in an effort totally unrelated to my own proposal, an area couple sponsored an informal gathering in order to organize a local chapter of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. I was the only person who attended.
I note that couple’s experience as, unfortunately, it seems to confirm my sense of a malaise, one that seems all too common among regional small-scale producers. To be sure, there are growers and flock owners who do enjoy profitability, and they shine brightly in the publicity they deservedly receive. These folks have created a “niche” for their operations, a niche that serves them and their clients well. Unfortunately, their individual successes are prone (always) to overshadowing by any number of factors (fatigue, age, health problems, farm succession, family problems, suburban encroachment) precisely because their operations are individual. To create a niche is to position oneself outside a support system. Agriculture practiced without its culture is not sustainable.
Two issues, and their inter-relationship, became very clear to me during my struggles with the wool marketing grant and my simultaneous – and extensive – involvement with the Portage County Farmland Preservation Board and with our township’s zoning commission. The first, I have suggested above: the decline of the culture within agriculture. The second is the complacency of the general public about (and/or ignorance of) the precariousness of the nation’s supply chain, which has become petroleum dependent. Until the general public comes to understand that its long-term well-being is directly linked to the well-being of local, independent farms, the farming community will continue to wither.
Because I felt – and feel – strongly about these issues and about the lack of success that I experienced as I worked with the planning grant, I began the Save a Farm project. To do that, in June of 2004, I appropriated the concept behind the old Burma Shave signs. Now, after two summers, it is evident that the concept still has bounce. During those summers, I placed signs with simple, rhyming jingles along three highways in Portage County. The first four lines may, for example, promote locally grown products or they may address the difficulties faced by local farms. The fifth sign, which never varies, concludes the jingle with “Save a Farm” and gives the website (www.saveafarm.com). The jingles change every two weeks. They are meant to be both engaging and thought provoking.
Not infrequently, people want to know why I’m out there posting signs, and often in their “Why?” I can hear the unspoken “You don’t really think it does any good, do you?” Responding to the spoken question, I summarize the efforts of the many people with who I’ve worked for years in my county (farmland preservation) and my township (zoning). I tell them that there were some tangible results, but that despite all our effort, little occurred to stem the loss of farms. Finally, I tell them that the lack of both public awareness and of leadership – at all levels of government – was, and is, startling. So for me, it was either stay home or post signs. To respond to their unspoken question, I always add that I will probably not know if the signs and their jingles do any “good,” but that I do know that this is not the time to stay home.
(Editor’s note: Fred Maier wrote an article called “Save a Farm,” that was published in the Winter 2005 issue of Farming Magazine. For a copy, contact Farming Magazine at: