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Rural Action: Revitalizing Appalachian Communities

by Fred D. Baldwin

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Rural Actionís Sustainable Agriculture Program, coordinated by Tom Redfern, worked with local resident Jean Konkle and the Chesterhill community to organize a wholesale produce auction to support local farmers.

Twice weekly from May to October, farmers bring produce to an open-sided auction barn in Chesterhill, Ohio: bags of potatoes and onions, bushels of sweet corn, boxes of beans and blueberries. By the time the auctioneer has chanted his last chant, the produce has all been sold, some of it for home consumption and some for resale at small roadside stands. It's a scene that may suggest a rural marketing past that's somehow survived in a world of supermarkets, but in fact the auction is only two years old. Morgan County resident Jean Konkle built the auction barn and provides its facilities to local farmers in exchange for 10 percent of auction sales. Gross sales during the 2006 season totaled about $40,000, an amount Konkle expects to double in 2007 as more farmers participate. Yet her explanation of why she decided to start an auction has little to do with her own profit. "We saw what produce was going for," Konkle says. "And we thought people were worth more than that."

That attitude fits the overall strategy of Rural Action, whose headquarters are in Trimble, Ohio. Rural Action can be defined either as a network of projects or as a coalition of generally like-minded organizations and groups in Appalachian Ohio, which covers the state's southeastern counties. Its projects are based on the premise that the area's farms, streams, and forests are valuable, and that its people are far more capable and resourceful than they themselves may realize. Supporting projects like the Chesterhill Produce Auction is one of the ways Rural Action works to promote a focus on the value of local assets.

The historical antecedents of Rural Action can be traced to several initiatives by activist groups who organized on behalf of specific issues or causes, often involving pollution abatement or environmental preservation. By the early 1990s, more than 30 such organizations had concluded that warding off immediate threats, while important, would never be sufficient. Always clear about what they were against, they began the more difficult task of articulating what they were for.

With support from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), representatives of these groups formed Rural Action to envision and stimulate creation of sustainable alternatives to short-sighted policies and practices. The organization defines its mission in terms of constructive action on three fronts: ". . . to promote economic, social, and environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio." Or, as Jane Forrest Redfern, the executive director of Rural Action, puts it, "We can fight until the cows come home, but it's up to us to create the environment we want."

Helping Local Food Producers Thrive

Rural Action's three broad goals are to create a sustainable economy, promote sustainable communities, and foster a sustainable environment in Appalachian Ohio. Promoting sustainable agriculture is an integral part of Rural Action's efforts to meet the first of these goals. The organization supports a cluster of activities to help area food producers survive economically; much of the focus in these activities is to find ways to enable and encourage local food consumers to choose locally produced products. Tom Redfern, Rural Action's Sustainable Agriculture Program coordinator, uses the analogy of a watershed to describe the area's "foodshed." In eastern Ohio, as in almost the entire nation, residents depend for their groceries on flows of food from remote places (oranges from Florida, lettuce from California, beef from Argentina). Redfern doesn't expect to end these downstream flows or put supermarket chains out of business, but he insists that enabling local farmers to survive and grow is good for both the farmers and the community—as valuable as having a few deep wells just in case upstream sources become polluted or unduly expensive. "The dream," Redfern says, "is to build a local wholesale food system."

In support of the Chesterhill Produce Auction, Rural Action arranged for five farmers in the Chesterhill area to visit Green Edge Gardens, an organic farm in Amesville. The Green Edge owner, not hesitating to help potential competitors, joined with a Morgan County extension agent to offer information on greenhouse construction, gravity flow irrigation, and other techniques to extend the produce-growing season. Three of the five participants decided to invest in greenhouses and irrigation equipment.

An ARC-supported regional survey to gauge interest in buying local foods identified invitees to a farm-field day designed to bring together area farmers, people in food-related businesses, and institutional food buyers and preparers. Participants included farmers from six counties, local restaurateurs, other food retailers, and staff from Ohio University and nearby Hocking College, whose delegation included two chefs and 30 culinary arts students. Immediate results included new sales from three area farms to local stores and restaurants, and the event sponsors were glad to introduce 30 future chefs to the advantages of buying fresh meats and produce from local suppliers.

The Athens Farmers Market, a retail-level version of the dream of a local food system, provides another example of Rural Action influence. The market is open year-round, and on a summer weekend more than 60 sellers offer a cornucopia of fresh produce, cut flowers and bedding plants, jams and pickles, and baked goods. Everything is locally grown or produced—no exceptions. The market is financially self-sustaining, and Audubon magazine recently rated it one of the ""top 10"" such markets in the nation.

Rural Action didn't create the farmers' market, but vendors who sell there are emphatic in saying that Rural Action has helped the market grow. For example, Larry Cowdery, a Meigs County farmer, has been bringing produce to the market for eight years. In addition to local favorites like green beans, squash, and lettuce, his stand displays exotic-looking varieties of eggplant and hot pepper, in demand by Asian and Indian families at Ohio University. Rural Action helped him with university contacts, including a recent deal for supplying some of the produce for the university's food service. "If it wasn't for them," Cowdery says, "we wouldn't have been able to get in the door."

Capitalizing on Assets

Altogether Rural Action provided help for 40 area entrepreneurs during the most recent reporting period—including the creation of two new growers' associations. Rural Action's support normally takes the form of assistance with networking and marketing. The agency also makes extensive use of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to help local groups get good ideas off the ground. Rural Action currently uses 27 of these volunteers, who contributed almost 38,000 hours to Rural Action and its partners in 2005.

One of Rural Action's more innovative agriculture-related projects is based on research in "sustainable forestry." (In 2002 an out-of-state nonprofit group deeded Rural Action a heavily wooded 68-acre tract in Meigs County; the site is used for research trials, as well as education and outreach activities.) One aspect of Rural Action's sustainable forestry strategy is teaching landowners to squeeze extra value out of wooded acreage by growing marketable forest herbs, such as goldenseal, black cohosh, and ginseng. Ginseng takes nine to ten years to mature, so growing it is no way to get rich. But the herb's dried root sells locally at about $350 per pound. Tom Johnson, president of Roots of Appalachia Growers Association, calls growing ginseng "a good way for a small farmer to make enough money to pay the taxes." He adds that demand for ginseng is growing fast as Chinese buyers become more affluent. "When demand spikes," says Chip Carroll, Rural Action's non-timber forest products research, education, and demonstration coordinator, "our people will be in the best position to supply that market."

Both comments say something about Rural Action. Some aspects of its projects recall the past. But those same projects reflect a determination to recognize and capitalize on previously undervalued assets, so that Appalachian Ohio can sustain its environment, economy, and quality of life within a highly interconnected world. "We're talking about promoting a mindset," Forrest Redfern sums up. "The whole idea is looking at your assets and building on them. Then a lot of the negativity and hopelessness of a needs-based mindset don't happen."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

February 2007