Startup Profile: Regional Staple Foods Enterprise Aims to Make a World of Difference
September 14, 2011 | Marie DeMange
“I’ve always been interested in making the world a better place,” remarks Michelle Ajamian, co-owner, of Shagbark Seed and Mill Co., a processing facility in Southeast Ohio that works with regional farmers to produce, process and market uncommon varieties of beans and grains from chemical free, sustainably grown crops.
For four years, fueled by a mutual passion to establish food security and nurture a healthy community economy, Ajamian and her partner Brandon Jaeger have worked hand-in-hand to create a successful model for regional staple foods production.
Jaeger explains that the inspiration for Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. came from his observation of a culture losing its regional scale economy. He believes that many present trials faced by humanity stem from a large industry model that has compromised the interwoven relationships once shared in communities.
“I see this as a source of sickness for all the problems that we know of, for the health epidemics, for us and other parts of the world, a lot of it diet based.”
How it all began
In March of 2008, Jaeger and Ajamian were funded through the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) fund to plant test crops of quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, black turtle beans and corn.
“We knew that we wanted to grow amaranth and millet,” states Ajamian, “because the world hunger association said these crops are crops to feed the hungry; they grow on poor soil, have very high nutrition, and can withstand drought”
Initially, their goal was to research the production of the crops in order to share their findings with growers. They desired to spark an interest in regional farmers to plant these nutrient-dense foods verses the typical corn, wheat and soy GMOs. At the time, they had no intention to start a business. However, in the same year that Jaeger and Ajamian began their project, diesel prices rose to $5.00 a gallon and the pair began to receive phone calls from buyers interested in their beans and grains.
“All of a sudden, what we were working on became relevant in a way that people couldn’t ignore,” remarks Ajamian.
With the unexpected demand for these staple crops, Jaeger and Ajamian decided to modify their project focus from researching production to researching regional processing and marketing.
Between 2008 and 2009 the partners received funding from seven different federal, state and regional grants. In that time, Jaeger and Ajamian established the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative (ASFC). Based in Athens, Ohio, the ASFC is an organization that brings regional stakeholders together to discuss how to rebuild regional scale food systems and, in turn, establish food security.
Shagbark was launched as a project of the ASFC. And what began as a demonstration prototype for a small-scale bean and grain mill has grown into a thriving regional staple foods business.
Who is Shagbark?
Shagbark Seed and Mill Co., established in 2010, now carries over a dozen products, processed from seven different chemical-free, sustainably grown regional crops, produced by six different Ohio farmers, with over 65 acres of beans, corn and grain throughout the Ohio area.
Their crops include: Black Turtle Beans, Pinto Beans, Adzuki Beans, Heirloom Yellow Corn, Certified Organic Hybrid Corn, Spelt and Amaranth.
Shagbark, along with the help of other regional businesses, processes these crops into various value added products and markets them to restaurants, bakeries, wholesale buyers, grocers and direct market consumers
Their products include: Black Turtle Beans, Spelt Flour, Corn Flour, Black Bean Flour, Spelt Berries, Popcorn, Popped Amaranth, Whole Corn, Corn Tortilla Chips and Corn Crackers (using non GMO sunflower oil), Spelt Bread, Spelt Spaghetti (or ‘Spelt-a-ghetti’), lemon bars with spelt crust and black bean brownies.
The response from customers has been overwhelmingly positive. And Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. has formed strong relationships with many local eateries, such as Casa Nueva and Cantina, a popular ‘locavore’ restaurant with a Mexican infused cuisine, which exclusively serves Shagbark Black Turtle Beans and Corn Tortilla Chips; the Village Bakery who uses their whole corn to grind into mesa flour for their Sunday brunch specials, and Abrio’s and Avalanche, two local pizzerias who use Shagbark spelt flour to make their pizzas.
The company has established partnerships with area restaurants in which these partners pre-pay for their product. These initial investments, along with contributions from their CSA program, have allowed Shagbark the ability to guarantee payment to farmers at harvest.
The social change component
With the aid of a handful of Ohio University interns, Jaeger and Ajamian have worked many 60 plus hour weeks to build Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. The owners recognize that they could have made a living operating Shagbark out of a barn, and that it certainly would have been easier. But, that’s not what the business is about for them.
For Jaeger and Ajamian, Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. is an initiative to figure out how a regionally scaled staple foods business can operate profitably, provide an affordable product, create gainful employment and also serve the community.
With a Wallace Foundation Healthy Food Enterprise grant, the business has started to develop a strategy to remove the bottlenecks from staple food access among low-income consumers. Shagbark partners with community organizations, such as Rural Action and Community Food Initiatives, who serve regional farmers and rural poor. They now aim to offer their products, at cost, to churches, community centers and homeless shelters that provide free meals.
“I want to be working toward making a difference on the issues that we’re facing in our community, and it’s not just here, it’s everywhere. That big picture is really crucial for me,” states Ajamian.
The business is growing; they have recently expanded their facility and hired three employees. In the future, Shagbark would like to restructure to form a worker-owned cooperative.
Ajamian and Jaeger still think of Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. as the first prototype for a regional food model. The ASFC is currently working with a new start-up enterprise in regional nut processing. They look forward to building more pieces of the sustainable food system, such as oils and baked goods, and to helping other regions build their own.