The tractors have fallen silent for more than 2,000 Ohio farms over the last three years. Despite this, agriculture remains Ohio's number one industry. The food and agriculture sector adds more than $79 billion to the state's economy. But many feel that most farms are still underperforming. As part of Making Change: Reinventing Our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman reports on one crop that exemplifies the untapped economic potential of Ohio's agricultural industry.
Apparently, the adage about an apple a day keeping the doctor away has a lot of truth in it, although Kathleen O'Neal Webb, manager of the Coit Road Farmer's Market in East Cleveland, says recent studies find that one a day isn't enough.
Kathleen O'Neal Webb: Three apples a day can help an individual reduce his or her cholesterol. It's the pectin in the apples and the malic acid that help the body break down fats and eliminate cholesterol... how 'bout that?
So it's a good thing that Ohio has such a vibrant apple industry. Last year was a particularly juicy year; the state produced 95 million pounds of apples, a 36% increase over 2002. Yet when there are so many apples out there, Webb says, farmers can have a hard time getting rid of them. She recalls helping one Ohio grower harvest a bumper crop of Melrose a few years ago.
Kathleen O'Neal Webb: And Tom said he knew that he was going to have more apples on his trees and in his coolers than he could possibly sell.
In fact, Webb says, there were so many that even the food banks wouldn't take them all. That's not a particularly common scenario. Generally, the region's small- and mid-sized apple growers produce only enough to meet consumer demand, which poses a problem when the apples grow more abundantly than expected. But some say there's an opportunity there for growing the apple industry in Northeast Ohio, if only there was a better way to connect growers with buyers... large scale grocers, for instance. Jeff Heinen of Heinen's Supermarkets says he buys local apples whenever he can, but he's limited by what's available.
Jeff Heinen: If we had the requirement that we could only buy from people who could supply all of our stores, we'd quickly limit the people we could buy from. So we're happy to buy for one store if that's what makes sense, if it's the right product.
Heinen says there just aren't that many local growers, and fewer still who are willing to deal with a retailer the size of Heinen's. The other issue is consumer demand. Heinen says most shoppers tend to be unaware of the diversity of apple varieties grown in-state and they shy away from them, turning instead to out of state standards like galas.
Jeff Heinen: We do see this, local farmers growing the same varieties that we're getting from other places. Seemingly it sometimes seems like that's what the customer wants but it's our job as a retailer to hopefully education them why they might want a winesap versus having just another version of a gala.
Which explains those winesap or honeycrisp samples you sometimes see at the store. Heinen says the limit on local options holds true for other produce as well, which is a shame since local fruits and veggies are less expensive to buy and fresher. He says some produce, like lettuce, doesn't keep as well as apples do when shipped from afar. Just as the average consumer needs to be educated about local apple options, so too is there a need for more information for farmers on how to get their products out there. That's where the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network comes in.
Brad Masi: It's an effort to bring together food buyers including grocers and restaurants and institutions. And trying to match those buyers with local farmers.
Brad Masi is a coordinator for the Foodshed Network. He says despite growing interest in buying local apples, there are some serious stumbling blocks to expanding the apple industry, starting with lack of infrastructure.
Brad Masi: And here we're talking about facilities for processing food for distributing food, and if we can develop those facilities we're really helping to develop new jobs and new opportunities within the regional economy. By taking the small step of buying apples from the orchard down the street we're really taking the much larger step towards keeping dollars local and supporting new opportunities.
Consumer expectation is another barrier to those new opportunities, Masi says. In-state apples aren't always as pretty as the shiny, uniformly shaped out-of-state varieties and that puts off shoppers. But Masi points out beauty is only skin deep, especially with apples.
Brad Masi: Because we're flooded with apples that are of much lower quality coming in from a much greater distance. Flavor and nutrition aren't the only casualties; the other casualty is the local economy in the fact that our food dollars are going out to the infrastructure to fly those apples to us.
Masi says he'd rather see people using their food-dollar to support local apple growers either at grocery stores or farmer markets. If more people sought out local apples, he says, then perhaps no farmer would have to worry about too many apples in any given year. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.