Dirt to Dollars

Here in the Ohio Valley, two-plus decades into the local food movement, the business of farming is as challenging as ever. Fortunately, growers are committed to the cause.

Local bands tend to have a strikingly similar backstory: A group of friends meet in college. They start practicing, write some songs, book some gigs. They scrape together enough to record an EP and buy a van. They lose a member, find a new one. They play some shows out of town, maybe even come close to getting signed to a label. Then, eventually they break up and go their separate ways.

The stories of local farmers also have a lot in common, but their trajectory usually goes something like this: A person grows up in the Midwest with little or no experience in farming. They go away to college on one of the coasts. They meet some local people, get introduced to the ecology/food scene, maybe do a farm apprenticeship. They start looking for land and soon realize it’s too expensive. Then, eventually they pack up and move home.

That’s not to disparage either narrative; both represent rites of passage on paths that require creativity, hard work, and dogged determination. But the former is usually the end of the story—after all, few bands make it to aging rock god status—while the latter might be just the beginning.

For the first time in the modern era, local farmers and families see a glimmer of hope in a food movement that’s finally taking root for good in the Ohio Valley region.

We’re Still Catching Up

The farm-to-table movement pegs its start to the West Coast, circa 1971, when Alice Waters gained recognition for sourcing local produce for her Bay Area restaurant, Chez Panisse. It has grown in lockstep with demand for organic produce, trendy whole-foods diets, and a proliferation of Instagram photos that feature artful, rainbow-bright bushels and weekend farmers’ markets so lively they could—and often do—double as local art and music festivals.

But even as “locavorism” has become a thing, the reality is it’s still incredibly difficult to make a living in local farming. Nationwide, median farm income in 2018 was -$1,316 dollars per household. Keep in mind that this figure includes large agricultural operations, so the debt for some family-scale farms may be even greater; this is why many families hold off-farm jobs.

This is the financial reality for many Ohio Valley farmers, for a number of reasons. For starters, Midwesterners have been slower to embrace the idea of spending premium dollars for locally grown food than their coastal compatriots, especially when their neighborhood grocery stores offer a cheaper and blessedly convenient option. “It’s just a more supportive region in places like Massachusetts,” says Mike Haas, who owns Idyllwild Farms in Melbourne, KY. “The conversation is just much further along [on the East Coast] than it is here.”

Haas navigated both coasts before settling in NKY. He earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil sciences from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s in natural resource planning from Humboldt State in California, before moving to the Tristate 10 years ago to establish a farm here. He’s committed to growing and selling food locally, but he’s quick to acknowledge that the market here remains challenging for small farmers. Folks are less adventurous about trying new produce items and supporting locally owned farm-to-table restaurants with higher price points than national chains. Haas has friends in Maine who encourage him to move back east, where there’s “money sloshing around” and enough interest and demand to support a strong local food ecosystem.

In Greater Cincinnati, Haas says, farmers who run community supported agriculture (programs) and sell at farmers’ markets have to be much more conscious of what they’re charging for food than farmers on the coasts. Buyers here are more easily spooked by product shortages and fluctuating costs. “If a buyer joins your CSA or comes to market and you’re out of greens because of time of year, they might not come back until next season,” he says.

Northern Kentucky native Annie Woods experienced similar regional attitudes toward local food while living and working in the Pacific Northwest after college. She describes coming home to visit and being shocked by the Ohio Valley’s lack of local food outlets. Even though the number of farmers’ markets and CSA programs had grown significantly by that point, around 2010, it was still a far cry from the Greater Seattle community where she’d begun cutting her teeth as a farm apprentice. “The farm where I worked had a 200-person CSA,” Woods says. “And we were just one of dozens in the area offering programs. I came home and sort of felt like … is this really all there is?”

But Woods learned that the flipside of Seattle’s plenitude was a fiercely competitive landscape where it’s hard for farmers to carve a niche, and purchasing land anywhere within the fertile Snoqualmie River Valley is not an option for people like Woods with passion and knowhow but few financial resources.

Faced with the dilemma of delaying her independence in a place she had grown to love, Woods decided in late 2013 to return home for a fresh start among her family and support network. Emboldened by the lessons of her West Coast farm experience—and the world of produce she had explored beyond the Midwestern staples of tomatoes, beans, and corn—she started Dark Wood Farm as a tenant farmer in Northern Kentucky. She began forging inroads in the growing foodie scene she found here, with fresh, local, farm-to-table concepts coming online with increasing frequency.

Building a Local Food Network

Woods’ timing proved fortuitous: A year later, Alice Chalmers launched the innovative Ohio Valley Food Connection, which signaled a new day for small-scale farmers across the region. The business, which has since changed its name to the Local Food Connection (LFC), arrived on the scene in 2015 with a simple mission: Make it easier for suppliers to get their locally grown food from point A (the farm) to point B (the buyer).

Before starting LFC, Alice Chalmers worked in sustainable food advocacy, where she learned that without a system to connect directly with buyers, local farmers have little chance of creating year-round demand. And without that demand, they can’t grow their profitability. The arrival of LFC created an ecosystem where suppliers and buyers can interact directly and form relationships with other people in the local food scene.

“Developing personal relationships is very important, but most of our suppliers don’t have time to do farmers’ markets,” Chalmers says. “They can post on our site and have immediate access to 4,000 wholesale and 2,000 household clients. We serve as sort of an online farmer’s market in that way.

“Depending on a food producer’s strategy, we can offer a unique opportunity to diversify and minimize risk,” Chalmers continues. “One way we minimize risk is aggregation. If a farmer in our system has an ‘off’ week, we can cover them with another farmer. Aggregating those resources minimizes risk for both the restaurant client and the grower.”

LFC’s influence on the local food movement has been nothing short of transformational. Fast delivery and a convenient online ordering system allow both restaurateurs and farmers to take calculated risks with their inventories. Farmers have a predictable, year-round distribution channel that allows them to set prices that enable a living wage. Meanwhile, chefs have more access and lower risk in experimenting with different ingredients, passing that experience along to customers with ever more adventurous palates and dining expectations.

‘It’s a Hard Living’

As the LFC community continues to grow, so does the public’s understanding and enthusiasm around eating local, creating critical demand that keeps food dollars here. That’s important, because even with LFC’s services, small-scale farming is a tough way to eke out a living.

Challenges include unpredictable weather, crop failure, labor and machinery costs, and the burden of serving as all-in-one investor, laborer, marketer, salesperson, and distributor. Not to mention that by October farmers have to have enough money in the bank to survive well beyond the spring planting season, when money from sales starts trickling back in.

“People romanticize this organic lifestyle, but it’s a hard living, and a hard way to make money,” says Guy Ashmore of That Guy’s Family Farm in Clarksville, OH. “You have to really be committed to it.”

Guy and his wife, Sandy, have built what looks like a charming farm life right out of Charlotte’s Web. They both come from a long agricultural tradition, with fond memories of working the land alongside their parents and grandparents. In 1988, the couple bought a farmhouse on 10 acres, and in 1998 they added 38 more acres. They installed a swing set in the middle of their property so they could work while keeping an eye on the kids until they were old enough to help out. The Ashmores’ two daughters now have growing operations of their own, while their son is an equal partner in the family business.

They’ve been at it long enough to have seen the deep downs and gradual ups in our local food movement. “In the late ’70s, farmers were leaving the business in Depression-era numbers,” Guy says. “The ’80s were also really bad for all farmers financially. A lot of people went bankrupt. Farms were consolidated. We took on a lot of debt in the early ’80s. It was a very tough time financially. We still have a mortgage on the farm, but the end is close.”

And while they’ve learned much in their more than three decades of farm ownership, day-to-day operations at the farm aren’t what most people would call “easy.” They rise with the sun and work until they can no longer see their hands in the darkness. They’re constantly at the mercy of the weather, and watching the skies through a Weather Channel app doesn’t do much to relieve the anxiety and risk of crop failure.

And there’s really no downtime. The Ashmores offer two seasonal CSA programs (June–October and November–February) and sell at Deerfield Farmers’ Market. They sell the rest of their inventory at Dorothy Lane Markets, at their home farm stand, and to restaurants throughout Cincinnati and Dayton via LFC.

“We got our organic farming certification in 1998 and haven’t looked back,” Sandy says. “Why we do it is a hard question to put into words. In the beginning, we did what felt right for our family and the environment. The more we learned about organic farming, the more right it felt to be intentional about our interactions with the land that we were living on.”

Guy and Sandy both feel the region needs more and different types of farmers. They’d love to see a more vibrant and diverse local farming scene, and they’re doing their part to inspire one by hosting May–October apprenticeships on the farm. They share their hard-won wisdom with aspiring young farmers, most of whom have little or no agricultural experience and many who are disenfranchised with the 9-to-5 office grind.

“The pathways for getting into farming are different now than when we started,” Guy says. “‘Buy local’ wasn’t here yet. The coasts were way ahead of us. It’s easier now in that aspect, and the internet has made it easier to connect with people and ask questions. There are more groups meeting cooperatively to source seeds or share highlights and frustrations. That’s all changed for the better.”

Local Food’s Next Frontier

Annie Woods is still working as a tenant farmer in Boone County, an arrangement that comes with its own challenges. She has been hesitant over the years, for example, to invest in machinery and infrastructural improvements to support a property she doesn’t own. Meanwhile, as more farmers leave the industry, owners are under intense pressure from developers with plans for a different kind of land use.

But after five years back in her native region, Woods is ready to find a place of her own where she can increase production, diversify, and deepen the friendships she’s made with local chefs and wholesale buyers through LFC. She’s looking seriously at a piece of land and hopes to make a purchase in the next year or so.

“As soon as I started my apprenticeship in Seattle, I knew that farming was what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “It’s a hard way to make a living, but I know myself and I can’t feel satisfied working in an office and being on that kind of daily grind. It’s just who I am now.” 

Hannah is a graduate of NKU's political science program and a freelance creative who writes extensively about development in Greater Cincinnati. She doesn't like to fly, but she loves to travel. Her favorite books are A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Love in the Time of Cholera.