Whole Systems Approach to Building a Sustainable Regional Food Economy

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $99,596.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Federal Funds: $33,112.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $238,513.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Brad Masi
Ecological Design Innovation Center

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, potatoes, soybeans, sunflower
  • Fruits: melons, apples, berries (other), grapes, berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes, asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, greens (leafy), onions, peas (culinary), peppers, sweet corn, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants
  • Animals: bees, poultry
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms


  • Animal Production: grazing - continuous, free-range, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: agroforestry, cover crops, intercropping, municipal wastes, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, community-supported agriculture, cooperatives, marketing management, market study
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, indicators, wetlands, wildlife, hedges - woody
  • Pest Management: biological control, field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management, trap crops, mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: holistic management
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis, composting, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, urban/rural integration, community services, social networks, sustainability measures, community development


    The project encompassed a multi-disciplinary approach to regional food system development. Beginning with a partnership with Oberlin College, the project focused on developing a 70-acre college-owned farmstead as a center for sustainable agriculture enterprise development and applied education, increasing ties between local farmers and the college dining halls, and composting campus food-waste. The project expanded to involve other institutions and businesses in northeast Ohio in the development of a more sustainable regional food system for northeast Ohio, with emphasis on cultivating the next generation of urban/near-urban farmers, increasing farm-to-business connections, and increasing food access for low-income neighborhoods.


    The seven-county Cleveland metropolitan area is experiencing considerable pressure from urban sprawl. According to current trends, by 2010 the Cleveland area will lose 3% of its population while using 30% more land for residential development. The American Farmland Trust identified the northern Ohio till plain of northeast Ohio as the seventh most threatened area in the country for prime farmland lost to sprawling urban development. Lorain County (the home of Oberlin College) lost 31% of its farms from 1977-1997. Yet, in a survey conducted in 1999, 94% of the respondents in Southern Lorain County support preserving the rural character of the area. While public support for farmland preservation remains strong, new models are needed if agriculture is to prosper on the outskirts of the Cleveland metropolitan area.

    Located just 30 miles west of Cleveland, Oberlin College has exhibited leadership over the past 10 years in promoting sustainable food system development. The following projects highlight the active role the college played in leveraging its resources to help build a sustainable local food system:
    • local food purchasing survey and proposal by Environmental Studies in 1988;
    • initiation of local food purchasing in 1990 (local food purchases $50,000+ today);
    • formation of Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project (OSAP) in 1996 to operate a 5-acre organic farm, involving 250 college students and volunteers each year;
    • establishment of a downtown farmers’ market involving six local farmers in 1996;
    • development of elementary school garden project and curriculum in 1997;
    • survey on local marketing to 18 vegetable growers in Lorain County in 1998;
    • interview of 10 local farmers and publication of an essay in 1999 to determine attitudes about the economics of farming and issues around development and urban sprawl;
    • site assessment and GIS analysis for farm plan for a 70-acre property in 1999;
    • report on composting options for college generated food waste in 2000;
    • conference in 2001 with 80 farmers, institutional managers, and students and faculty focusing on connecting farms and colleges in northeast Ohio;
    • statistically-valid food waste audit for college in 2001; and
    • development of farm infrastructure for 70-acre property.

    To build on this legacy, members of the Environmental Studies Program (ESP) joined with the Trustees of the Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project (OSAP) to form the Ecological Design Innovation Center (EDIC) in 2000. A 501c(3) organization, EDIC was established to facilitate partnerships between the college and the wider community to promote sustainable food systems and community problem-solving. In 2002, EDIC secured a lease for the 70-acre property owned by the college. In 2003, EDIC organized the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network as a regional initiative to connect farmers with urban and institutional markets.

    The need for working models of alternative food systems is strong in northeast Ohio. Following the interviews of 10 local farmers in 1999, the following primary constraints confronting farmers in northeast Ohio were identified: low food prices, rising land values, lack of consumer support for local agriculture, lack of young people in farming, loss of wider support network of other farmers, and urban sprawl pressure. A more regionally-based food system can address these constraints by: improving farm prices by reducing middlemen and the overall distance that food travels, creating more direct farmer to consumer linkages, raising local awareness of agriculture (especially among youth), providing new market opportunities, and increasing the flow of dollars from concentrated urban or institutional populations to rural areas. While farmland preservation measures are critical to the long-term future of agriculture in Ohio, even more essential are working models for environmental sustainability and economic profitability. We have the opportunity now to build such a working model given a) Oberlin College’s contribution of a 70-acre site, b) the college’s commitment to purchasing locally grown food, c) increased demand amongst other institutions and Cleveland area restaurants for locally grown food, and d) an opportunity to convert food waste going to the landfill into a productive input for agricultural production.

    Our work draws on research by prominent scholars who have developed a whole systems approach to understanding food systems. For example, Miguel Altieri with the University of California in Berekley combines ecology and agricultural science to see farms as whole ecosystems. As such, Altieri describes the need to understand the “interplay between endogenous biological and environmental features of the agricultural field, and exogenous social and economic factors." This interconnect between on-farm and off-farm factors is an important component of regional food systems development. David Pimentel of Cornell University has devoted important scholarship to understanding the true costs of our current food system, not just from the standpoint of energy inefficiency and nutrient loss on the farm, but also inefficiencies within the broader food system. In Ohio, Ben and Deb Stinner have contributed important research to understanding farms as whole systems, examining nutrient cycling, energy accounting, Amish agriculture, and the impacts of crop and livestock diversification. Before Ben’s unexpected death in November, 2004, he was involved in planning and development for the Jones Farm and for the wider foodshed network in northeast Ohio.

    Several past projects funded by SARE relate to whole farm or reduced-input management. While these projects will help to inform the development of EDIC’s model farm, relatively few past SARE projects focused on a whole systems approach to sustainable food system development. The Nebraska Food Network by Paul Rohrbaugh established a network of local farmers, tested a model for local marketing, and built awareness of regional food systems. In addition, George Stevenson with the University of Wisconsin in Madison received a SARE grant in 1999 to determine the potential for institutional food purchasing in Wisconsin. Both of these projects provide useful models for EDIC’s proposed work. Through its work over the past two years, EDIC has added several unique features to this growing field of interest, including: identifying the role that liberal arts colleges can play in sustainable agriculture education, combining financial and intellectual resources of colleges and universities to support local food system development, forming collaborative networks for regional food system development, moving farm and food systems into regional economic development considerations, and identifying opportunities for waste streams to provide agricultural inputs.

    Project objectives:

    Our overall goal is to leverage the buying power and knowledge resources of a prominent liberal arts college in collaboration with a diverse range of community partners to stimulate a stronger regional food economy in Northeast Ohio. Over the next two years, our short-term outcomes include:
    a) establishment of an economically-viable model for whole systems agriculture on a 70-acre farmstead owned by Oberlin College;
    b) formation of a local growers consortium to increase direct sales to Oberlin College and other institutional markets; and
    c) utilizing in-vessel composting technology to divert institutional food waste from the landfill to the 70-acre farm.

    The long-term impact of this project will be the establishment of several models to support a stronger regional food economy. First, it will provide opportunities for applied research and interdisciplinary collaboration for college students and faculty. Second, it will provide the basis for a broader curriculum on sustainable food systems to be developed for local schools. Third, it will provide educational activities and opportunities for collaboration amongst local growers. Finally, it will serve as a model for utilizing college or university resources for stimulating a sustainable local food economy.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.