Sustainable Ag Org. in Ohio Sees Increased Role in Supporting Influx of New Farmers
December 11, 2013 | Marianne Peters
Ohio farmers new to sustainable agriculture can get a leg up on the learning curve with the help of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
The non-profit organization, established in 1979, works to promote and support the sustainable agriculture community in Ohio from producers to consumers including those new to farming. OEFFA assists new farmers through a variety of networking events, an apprenticeship program, and an investment fund created to encourage the expansion of sustainable farming practices.
Renee Hunt, Education Program Director at OEFFA, has seen an increase in the number of farmers who choose to manage their farms sustainably in the past several years, and has expanded educational programming to meet this need.
“It’s great when newer farmers don’t have to go through the learning curve,” says Hunt. “I recently overheard a workshop presenter comment, ‘It took me ten years to figure this out.’ He’s sharing his knowledge, so the people learning from him don’t have to wait those ten years.”
Sustainable and organic farmers in the Buckeye state connect annually at OEFFA’s two-day conference, which features keynote speakers, educational tracks and workshops, and a large trade show. The 2014 conference will take place February 15-16 in Granville, Ohio.
Ohio farmers also network through a dozen OEFFA-sponsored farm tours throughout the year.
“We tap different types of farming operations—urban, grain growers, product growers, value-added, livestock, and dairy,” Hunt said. “The farm tours are a great way for farmers of all experience levels to see and learn how others are approaching their particular farm, as well as to talk directly with other farmers.”
Ben and Emily Jackle, owners of Mile Creek Farm in New Lebanon, Ohio, appreciate the networking opportunities OEFFA has provided them. Their farm was established in 2007 and became certified organic through the OEFFA in 2010.
“Our farm has benefited most from our association with OEFFA and the opportunities to see other farmers’ operations,” says Ben Jackle. “We’ve learned more through OEFFA-sponsored farm tours and workshops than we have through any other means.”
Networking among farmers often leads to collaboration. To facilitate on-site learning and hands-on experience in farming techniques, OEFFA founded an apprentice program that Hunt describes as “a bit like a dating service” for farmers. Prospective apprentices and host farmers both fill out applications on the OEFFA website. The applications are approved, and then posted online where both apprentices and host farmers can view them. Either party can make the first contact. Membership in OEFFA is not necessary, but there are added fees for non-members.
Hunt hopes that more established farmers join the program and pass on their know-how to the next generation. “We currently have more apprentices than host farms,” she notes.
Learning to farm is one thing; finding the financing to get started is another. In 2012, a group of local Ohio investors created the OEFFA Investment Fund to support the growth of sustainable agriculture in Ohio and provide needed capital to farmers. The fund provides an additional avenue for those who are having trouble getting financing through traditional sources. Farmers must be certified in sustainable and organic practices and a member of OEFFA to apply for funding. Funds can be used to improve or expand their business, make repairs to equipment or property, pay for short-term operating needs, or cope with an emergency such as a fire or natural disaster.
Hunt observes that farmers with an ecological bent are often resistant to the idea of taking out loans, especially if they are just beginning.
“A lot of sustainable and organic farmers are hesitant to take on debt,” she says. “Many new farmers don’t have the business background to understand how to build in expenses or make capital investments.”
Part of OEFFA’s mission is to help new farmers overcome such barriers, she says.
“We have evolved as an organization to be more supportive of young farmers,” says Hunt. “But we are here to advocate for the needs of all sustainable and organic farmers in our state.”