Whole Systems Approach to Building a Sustainable Regional Food Economy

2003 Annual Report for LNC02-207

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

Whole Systems Approach to Building a Sustainable Regional Food Economy


In July 2002, the Ecological Design Innovation Center (EDIC) received a two-year grant for $99,596.10 to develop a whole systems approach to building a sustainable regional food economy. EDIC is a non-profit organization established to apply ecological design to the development of a more sustainable regional food system for Northeast Ohio. EDIC’s primary affiliation is with Oberlin College, a prominent liberal arts college, although this grant has enlarged EDIC’s network of institutions to include Ohio State University, Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Akron. The original goal of the proposal was 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. The short-term outcomes of this project included:
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) utilize in-vessel composting technology to divert institutional food waste from the landfill to the 70-acre farm.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Over the past year and a half, significant progress has been made in reaching each of these three objectives. We are pleased with the reception of the idea of whole food system development across Northeast Ohio and have formed an impressive consortium of partners concerned with the development of a more sustainable food economy for the region. Some of the highlights detailed below include:
1) Establishment of George Jones Farm, including a 3-acre organic farm, two production greenhouses, an orchard, rotational chicken grazing system, storage buildings constructed with recycled barn lumber, basic farm infrastructure, and selectively cut timbers that will be used to construct a farm office with straw bales from a local farmer.
2) Organization of broader consortium of universities (primarily urban) in Northeast Ohio working on issues related to regional food system development; and
3) Completion of a waste audit, business plan, and implementation plan for a college-based composting operation.


OBJECTIVE ONE: Establishment of an economically viable model for whole systems agriculture on a 70-acre farmstead owned by Oberlin College

OVERVIEW: The George Jones Memorial Farm, owned by Oberlin College, is a 70-acre property with a history of commodity grain production. Following a comprehensive site assessment completed in 2000, significant degradation was noted based on soil surveys and biodiversity studies for the farm. In 2002, following funding from the USDA-SARE, EDIC began to implement a broad-based restoration plan for the farm, including the establishment of an economically viable organic farm and restoration of critical habitat on the property. Our overall goal for the property is to develop a model for diversified, intensive agricultural production tied to local markets that is educational to the broadest possible audiences, from college students and faculty to farmers and local schoolchildren. To date, we have established the basic infrastructure for the organic farm, constructed buildings using reclaimed barn wood, installed an innovative experimental wetland restoration station, and involved several hundred people through tours and volunteer activities. Drainage improvements, further soil restoration, and the construction of food handling facilities and a farm office in 2004 will complete the infrastructure for the farm and establish the site as a long-term home for an organic farm. Our overall goal is to make the organic farm profitable. An economically-viable enterprise holds the greatest potential for educational value. Unfortunately, growing conditions were horrible in 2003 due to a combination of cool wet weather and unresolved drainage problems on the farm. We are confident that with further site improvements and, hopefully, a better growing climate, 2004 will put us on the track to viability.

Development of George Jones Farm.
Created full-time farmer position to operate organic farm as enterprise.
Established 2.5-acre organic farm, featuring vegetables, fruit crops, and egg layers.
Developed 2,000 square foot production greenhouse with straw bail endwalls.
Constructed small production and seedling greenhouse.
Built equipment storage shed with lumber gathered from an old barn at a nearby abandoned farmstead; additional wood will be used for future projects.
Installed drainage ditches and tiling to improve drainage on farm.
Developed long-term drainage improvement plan connected to ponds that can be used for irrigation or aquaculture.
Developed sustainable forest management plan.
Selectively harvested 30 trees from 22-acre wooded preserve to use for farm office building and fencing around farm.
Initiated shitake and oyster mushroom program on tree stumps and branches left over from selective cutting.
Installed gravel access road, water line, and parking area to improve access to the farm and provide water services.
Worked with Oberlin College seminar to develop a design for a timber-frame, straw bail building to serve as a central office and library for the farm.
Developed innovative “chicken tractor” system to improve topsoil on growing beds with rotational intensive chicken grazing system.
Restored 10-acre wildflower and native grass prairie in former soybean field.
Restored 2 acres of wetlands in old soybean field.
Installed 3-acre experimental wetland system with six ½ acre wetlands cells to conduct research on comparative methods for integrating wetland habitat in an old commodity grain field.
Collected native plants from neighboring wetlands and transplanted them into restored wetlands to improve wetland biodiversity.
Organized joint partnership between Oberlin College and Ohio State University to conduct on-farm research in wetland restoration and soil improvement strategies.
Integrated on-farm research into four courses at Oberlin College (hydrology, soil science, systems ecology, and field biology).
Completed phase-two farm development plan to include: farm office building, shade pavilion to encourage community involvement in harvests, refrigerated and dry-storage building.
Developed bike-powered bio-diesel processor to convert campus dining grease waste into bio-diesel for on-farm use.

Feedback Indicators for Farm
Developed Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based soil-sampling grid for farm to determine changes in soil conditions over time.
Developed survey transects in the orchard, growing fields, greenhouses, and fallow fields to compare the effectiveness of different soil management strategies on organic matter content and fertility.
Identified “carbon impacts” of farm, both in terms of atmospheric carbon released as well as atmospheric carbon absorbed.
Determined methods for measuring soil microbial activity on the farm using enzyme assays in a biological laboratory on the Oberlin campus.
Conducted soil analysis of on-farm wetlands to determine base conditions and measure changes over time following different restoration strategies.
Developed plan for intensive wetland monitoring system with real-time data logging connected to an interactive web-site.
Secured a weather monitoring station to collect data on climate, and correlate data with growing conditions on the farm.
Conducted energy study comparing organically grown lettuce on the farm with conventionally-grown lettuce distance-shipped from California.
Developed detailed farm logs to track production over time.

Youth Involvement in Farm
Initiated college intern program and hired six full-time interns to work on the farm during the summer of 2003.
Initiated work-study program to hire students on financial assistance as farm workers.
Organized demonstration on sustainable forest management and on-site milling for high school students at a local vocational school.
Organized day activities on the farm for 30 at-risk youth participating in a summer camp program at Oberlin College.
Involved over 150 college and high school volunteers in activities on the farm.
Participated in freshman orientation activity with Oberlin College to teach incoming college students about the farm and challenges confronting local agriculture.
Organized teacher training for 15 public school teachers in August 2003 who used to farm to learn about sustainable agriculture production and the use of Geographic Information Systems as a farm-planning tool.
Organized sub-committee of three public school teachers to help plan for the development of a school curriculum utilizing the farm and wetlands on the farm.
Coordinated eight Oberlin College students who are designing activities utilizing the farm for four public school classrooms.

Farmer Involvement
Organized farm tour of the Jones Farm in September of 2003 for 25 local farmers
Provided personal tours of farm for five area farmers.
Developed keynote address for annual Innovative Farmers of Ohio meeting, which included 150 farmers from across the state of Ohio.
Developed workshop for annual Northeast Ohio Food Congress at Cleveland State University on the farm.
Organizing network of farmers in Northeast Ohio to participate in future events at the Jones Farm.

Oberlin College Involvement
Organized advisory faculty team with 12 faculty who utilize the farm and related projects for coursework, applied research, or independent studies (including professors from Biology, Environmental Studies, Geology, Expository Writing, Art, and History).
The farm was utilized by professors in the following courses: Expository writing and science writing, comparative systems ecology, modern dance, ecological art and sculpture, soil science, groundwater hydrology, field biology, community ecology, ecological design seminar, and sustainable agriculture and forestry course.

Interactive Website
Developed an interactive website detailing the history and accomplishments of local foods purchasing at Oberlin College.
Developed concept and copy for extensive website detailing the George Jones Farm, regional food system work, composting, and bio-diesel processing (to be programmed in January of 2004).

Remaining Projects:
Surveys for End-Users
Planning to do an extensive outreach survey for farmers to determine foods that they grow, seasonality of foods, and preferred distribution methods to provide data for local food purchasing at Oberlin College and other interested institutions and buyers.
Developing outreach survey for other institutions and buyers in Oberlin (including local restaurants, a retirement community, a hospital, and local schools) to develop a larger buyer consortium for locally grown food and improve distribution efficiencies.
Planning outreach survey for all Oberlin College faculty to determine faculty interest in utilizing the farm for interdisciplinary, applied learning opportunities.

OBJECTIVE TWO: Form local growers consortium to increase direct sales to Oberlin College and other institutional markets

OVERVIEW: Initially, we set out to increase the total sales of local produce to Oberlin College’s dining halls and to build a consortium of other institutions interested in local food purchasing. While the level of sales to Oberlin College nearly doubled in 2002-03 over the previous year, we realized a severe limitation to college-based purchasing. As an institution, Oberlin College bears additional costs in organizing local food purchasing. This cost comes from increased staff time needed to organize orders from multiple farmers, deal with different invoicing systems and delivery schedules, and changing availability. We have since concluded that a truly sustainable campus purchasing program will require additional organization and development within the food sector outside of the institution. The local food system lacks the infrastructure and organization necessary to compete with food shipped in through traditional channels. We have formed a consortium of institutions who are working with us to investigate business and economic development in the local food sector. Recent accomplishments include a food congress held at Cleveland State University that brought together multiple stakeholders in the local food system to develop a strategy for building a more sustainable regional food system. The food congress also worked on the development of a partnership between Akron University and a non-profit university in Akron looking to develop a shared-use food venture center to facilitate distribution and processing for the local food economy. Such food sector developments will help to improve economic prospects for local farmers while creating greater distribution efficiencies that, ideally, will make local food cost-competitive and easier to obtain.


Food Purchases at Oberlin College
Recorded an increase in total local food purchases by Oberlin College to $220,000 for the 2002-03 academic year (up from $120,000 for 2001-02).
Involved 15 local farmers and local food vendors in campus purchasing.
Developed tracking system to better quantify local food purchases per year.
Worked with Campus Dining Service on campus to list local food vendors on campus website.
Designed website detailing history of local food purchases, an assessment of food purchases from 2002 to 2003 academic years, and tips for local farmers and institutional buyers.
Worked with four college students to conduct interviews with local farmers to post on website about local food purchasing at Oberlin.
Developed purchasing relationship with local distributor that carries food grown by local farmers.
Organized purchasing contract with hydroponic lettuce grower.

Consortium of Local Institutions
Organized partnership with Cleveland State University’s College of Urban Affairs to conduct an economic development study for the Northeast Ohio food system and to organize an annual food congress involving all aspects of the regional food system (farmers, distributors, restaurants, institutional managers, grocers).
Developed program in conjunction with a professor of organizational management at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherschool of Business in which graduate level business and organizational management students will do intensive studies for the regional food system (including development of a foodshed network, shared-use kitchen incubator, agricultural re-development potential along the Cuyahoga River, and marketing and promotions for an independent natural foods store).
Worked in partnership with the University of Akron to develop connections between a proposed shared-use kitchen incubator project and nutrition learning and business development.
Continued work with Oberlin College’s Environmental Studies Program to determine hands-on, interdisciplinary research opportunities utilizing the Jones Farm and the regional food system.
Forged partnership with Ohio State University to involve graduate students and faculty in the development of on-farm programs in wetlands and soil restoration programs.
Presented workshop at the College of Wooster about the benefits of local food purchasing to an interested professor and students.

Growers Consortium Expansion
Organized partnerships with farmer-interest groups with members in Northeast Ohio, including Ohio Farmers’ Union, Innovative Farmers of Ohio, and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
Printed flyer to encourage interested farmers to join a network that will be used to promote direct sales to Oberlin College and other institutional and commercial markets throughout the Cleveland metropolitan area.
Developed survey to determine types of crops/quantities/seasons that can be procured by local sources. The survey will also include information about preferred marketing and distribution channels for farmers, including direct marketing, working with an independent distributor, or forming a farmers’ cooperative.
Received funding for feasibility study from the Ohio Cooperative Development Center to investigate the potential for developing a commercial buyer-based cooperative for Oberlin (including two restaurants, Oberlin College, a retirement community, and the local school district). Feasibility study to be conducted during the spring of 2004.

Farm to College Conference
Worked with Cleveland State University’s Urban Affairs College to organize annual “food congress” event to form greater collaboration between institutions, restaurants, grocers, and local farmers to build a more sustainable regional food system.
Organized Community Food Workshop to determine options for business and economic development in the regional food sector. The workshop was led by Leslie Schaller, Business Ventures Director for the Appalachian Central Economic Network (ACENet) in Athens, Ohio. Workshop attended by 30 participants.
Organized participatory strategic visioning session with 65 attendees of the Annual Food Congress at Cleveland State. Identified key visions, barriers, and strategic action steps for increasing direct connections between farmers and local institutional and commercial markets.
Formed regional food council to follow-up on recommendations of the food congress and organize a second food congress in 2004.

Economic Development Analysis
Conducted detailed food system assessment for Northeast Ohio with a professor of Economic Development at Cleveland State University. The study looked at aggregate consumer spending, reported sales for food-related businesses, total crop production, restaurant and farmer interviews, and case-studies for successful local food purchasing systems.

Remaining Projects:

Handbook on Local Food Purchasing
A handbook will be published in May 2004 detailing local food purchasing programs, information about local farmers, local buyer networks, and an assessment of economic development opportunities in the regional food economy. The handbook will provide practical information for local farmers and institutional or commercial buyers and others across the state or nation interested in developing local food purchasing programs

OBJECTIVE THREE: Develop a composting system to utilize food and yard waste from the college and community for improving soil on the 70-acre farm.

OVERVIEW: Initially, we had hoped to install an in-vessel composting system on the Oberlin College campus by the summer of 2003. Unfortunately, the college entered a severe financial crisis in 2002 that required budget cuts and the elimination of 35 positions at the college. Because the compost system required staff and financial commitments from the college, it has been put on hold. However, we have completed detailed studies that quantify waste streams, collection and delivery systems, and case-studies of successful systems at other institutions. At the urging of the college’s chief financial officer, we have developed an initial business plan for composting that will enable the full cost of operating the system to be recouped by sales of product coming out of the system. To keep momentum going for actual capture of food waste coming out of dining halls, we have established an open-air composting pile on the farm to accept food waste from some of the smaller dining halls on campus. Students deliver compost to the farm using a “trike”- a three-wheeled bike that has a wagon for carrying food waste containers. We are also developing an experimental greenhouse in which we hope to capture heat waste from food waste compost to heat greenhouse seedlings.


Composting Program
Developed assessment comparing available composting technologies for institutional-scale composting.
Conducted case-studies of successful institutional composting programs across the country.
Worked with statistics class at Oberlin College to conduct a statistically-defensible audit of the total waste stream coming out of Oberlin College dining halls. Determined that the college generates between 438 and 941 pounds of waste daily and an average of 154 tons of food waste annually.
Completed site assessment to determine potential location for in-vessel composting facility on the Oberlin College campus.
Worked with economics professor and college student to conduct cost/benefit analysis of campus waste, revealing that avoided garbage disposal costs could save the institution as much as $40,000 per year in operational costs.
Presented findings of waste audit and program to Ohio’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee.
Initiated small on-farm composting operation to mix food waste from smaller dining halls with municipal leaf waste for use in on-farm greenhouses.
Developed design for experimental greenhouse to capture waste heat from food waste compost and manure as a heat source for seedlings. Facility to be constructed in spring 2004.
Completed business plan to determine options for making composting system financially self-sufficient through potential sale of product.

Collection and Delivery System
Organized college team to develop collection and management plan for compost system. Team included operational managers, dining hall managers, and college financial administrators.
Developed delivery and collection management plan to be implemented once funding for composting system is obtained. Collection plan includes work-study students who will collect and deliver food waste daily to compost system and conduct education with Oberlin College students about the benefits of food waste composting.

Classroom Lesson Plans
Worked with environmental education practicum at Oberlin College to develop lesson plans for local classrooms relating to composting and the importance of compost to soil management. Twelve students worked with six classrooms to deliver lesson plans during spring 2003.

Remaining Projects:
Training Manual
A training manual for college composting will be completed with information about conducting food waste audits, understanding available composting technologies, indicators for measuring compost system performance, and the benefits of compost to soil.

Composting Feedback Indicators
Compost feedback indicators will be developed for tracking the quality of compost at the Jones Farm, including temperature, moisture, and pH. A similar tracking system will be developed as an institutional-scale system is installed on campus.

Research Plots
A schematic design for an on-farm research station has been developed for conducting replicated trials comparing different methods of soil restoration for the clay-heavy soils at the Jones Farm. A proposed plan, for which funding is pending, will include a control group with the following five treatments: food waste compost, composted cow manure, intensively grazed chickens, cover crops, and municipal leaf mulch. Labor and input costs will be factored into total crop yields to determine the most cost-effective options for restoring soil quality on a degraded farmstead. Research station to be installed during spring 2004, pending funding.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

A complete and detailed project evaluation is planned at the conclusion of the project. To date, we can report the following mid-project indicators for project impact:
Established 3-acre organic farm.
Developed 10-acre wildflower/native grass prairie in former soybean field.
Restored eight acres of wetlands including a 3-acre experimental station.
Initiated new farm enterprises, including: greenhouses, grapes, mushrooms, chickens.
Involved 10 Oberlin College faculty in farm-related research and projects.
Involved over 250 volunteers in farm-related projects.
Involved over 300 Oberlin College students in farm-related tours and educational projects.
Provided tours and outreach to 30 local farmers.
Formed sub-committee with seven public school teachers to plan for educational programs utilizing the farm.
Organized database of 30 farmers to investigate options for expanding local food purchasing at Oberlin College and other local institutional and commercial markets across metropolitan Cleveland.
Increased local food purchasing at Oberlin College from $120,000 in 2001-02 to $220,000 in 2002-03.
Employed six students and three staff in farm operations and related activities.
Reached over 1,000 farmers and other interested individuals through public addresses, speeches, and workshop presentations.
Identified 50 food system stakeholders to participate in Food Congress and strategic planning workshop in spring 2003.
Formed connections with five other colleges and universities in Northeast Ohio to partner on food system-related projects.
Involved 15 teachers in a teacher training program focusing on sustainable agriculture and local land-use issues.
Involved 30 at-risk youth in two-day program utilizing the farm in summer 2003.
Formed templates for more detailed site-monitoring program to track changes on farm and on-farm wetlands.
Increased total farm sales from $3,000 in 2002 to $9,000 in 2003.

Overall, the activities supported by the NCR-SARE program in the last 18 months have allowed us to build a solid foundation for a dynamic effort to build a more sustainable local food system. SARE funding has allowed us to establish a working farm that combines sustainable production with habitat restoration on a former 70-acre commodity grain farm. In addition, we have organized a strong network of institutions, farmers, and commercial buyers to form the basis for developing a more sustainable regional food system for Northeast Ohio. SARE funding has provided base funding that has been matched by other government and private foundation sources to build on-going programs that will benefit growers and consumers throughout Northeast Ohio.