A Look at the Serious Growth in Our Local Food System

There’s never been a better time to try locally produced fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, and herbs. And now, thanks to the COVID-19 shutdown, you can get almost everything delivered to your doorstep.

“Heyyyyy, cow!” Jeremy Boswell yells from the all-terrain vehicle he’s using to give a tour of his 132-acre farm in New Richmond. And here comes the herd—caramel colored with long shaggy hair and long horns, light tan with short hair and short horns, one black and white—stampeding over a fairway on the former Lindale Golf Course.

Jeremy Boswell raises beef, pork, chickens, and turkeys at Emmett Ridge Farm.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Boswell has been raising cattle and other animals for nine years, beginning on a small homestead in the area with enough meat and produce to feed his family. He owned a successful tree-trimming business at the time, but felt himself pulled toward farming after studying where our food comes from. Boswell decided to become a full-time farmer and, with his wife Lauren’s support, began leasing farmland from his in-laws in Georgetown, Ohio, and built a small customer base. But the Boswells felt a calling, from both God and their consciences, to serve more people, so they bought the golf course just 25 minutes from downtown Cincinnati.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Zipping around his property, Boswell points out a pond where he wants to try aquaculture to raise tilapia or other fish for consumption. He’ll stock one of the ponds with catfish, his favorite. There’s an area that should be good for a fruit orchard, and he’s going to lend some of his land to a local farmer to plant a produce garden. “Our mission early on was to help lead the charge to a vibrant, sustainable food system locally,” Boswell says. Emmett Ridge Farm—named after their eldest son, whose name means “strong, hardworking, industrious leader”—now provides up to 150 area households with monthly subscriptions for assortments of grass-fed beef, pasture-raised and heritage-bred pork, and pasture-raised chickens and turkeys. An 18-pound order is $140 a month. Their boxes, delivered to customers’ doorsteps, can now include fresh produce from nearby Foxtail Farm.

The Boswells represent one cog in a local food system that’s better organized and more accessible than ever. Convenience used to be the enemy of local farms, but innovative farmers are adding delivery, on-farm markets, and other ways to connect with consumers.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

The truth is, if you’re privileged with extra time, a form of transportation, and a little wiggle room in your budget, you can get all your fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses, breads, and so much more from producers in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. And you can get to know the farmers and support staff who do the actual work.

At the same time, our local system is far from living up to its potential, says Michaela Oldfield, director of the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council, an initiative of Green Umbrella, the region’s environment and sustainability alliance. “The thing is, local and regional food systems are not luxuries,” she says. “They’re essential for us to be resilient to things like COVID-19. If we had good interconnected systems, we could compensate when one market collapses or one region doesn’t produce. That’s what’s so great about a strong local food system nested in a strong national and global system, which we don’t have yet.”

On a warm spring morning, Estevan and Toncia Chavez pack black cooler bags inside a barn on their 68-acre property in Felicity, Ohio. They bounce between the walk-in and standing fridge, stuffing frozen meat, microgreens, eggs, and other items from local farms into bags, checking off items on lists. Five drivers for their company, ETC Produce & Provisions, are ready to take roughly 150 orders to homes across Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Toncia Chavez sells 500 dozen eggs every week through her company, ETC Produce & Provisions.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

The Chavezes got the idea for ETC while living on an organic farm in Oregon. They met as chefs at a Louisville restaurant and worked in the food industry much of their careers. Toncia managed food departments (bakery, wine, and meat counter) for a large grocery chain, while Estevan worked with his Cincinnati-based family business, opening and managing parking lots. “We never saw one another,” says Toncia. “We were exhausted all of the time.”

They decided they had the resources to make a major change, so they hit the road and lived in a camper for a few years “WWOOFing” across the country. That’s Willing Workers on Organic Farms (or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, depending on who you ask). “We really used the time to reconnect to life,” Toncia says, and they began to formulate a plan for their own farm. They wanted a child and decided to move back to the Cincinnati area. The couple looked at more than 100 properties around Lexington, Louisville, and Cincinnati before finding this one in Felicity. Soon after, they welcomed a son, Nicodemous, into the world.

Photograph by Devyn Glista
Estevan and Toncia Chavez operate ETC Produce & Provisions at Findlay Market (left and below).

Toncia says, at first, area farmers were confused with the ETC concept. “They were like, You want to sell my stuff?” she says. “We had to build some street cred.” That was April 2017. They’d secured a table at the Findlay Market weekend farmers’ market and started a chicken operation producing about 12 dozen eggs a week. Today they sell roughly 500 dozen eggs per week through their delivery service and a brick-and-mortar space inside Findlay’s Market House, along with items from roughly 100 local purveyors. “We want to be the Amazon of local food in Cincinnati,” says Toncia, who envisions having several storefronts around the region one day.

Roughly 55 percent of the fruits and 32 percent of the vegetables eaten by Americans today are imported from another country, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There have always been two streams within our food chain, says Oldfield of the Food Policy Council: one for big farms and one for medium to small farms. The nation’s supply chain doesn’t make it easy for the latter to get a piece of the retail market. Nevertheless, she says, Cincinnati’s local food system is gaining ground.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Oldfield knows this because of a 2018 report the policy council completed on the state of local food, updating a similar report from 2013. It shows that we’ve made significant progress in distribution, consumption, and access. For example, two local food hubs, Local Food Connection and Our Harvest Cooperative, now connect producers to restaurants, institutions, and individual consumers and provide resources for those working in our food system. Both formed in 2015, and by 2018 they reported a total of $1.3 million in local food sales—a pipeline farms just didn’t have before.

The Food Policy Council, also created in 2015, has been working with the hubs to commit schools, universities, museums, company cafeterias, conference centers, and other institutional buyers to acquiring a portion of their food from local producers. Our region also has two incubator kitchens now—Incubator Kitchen Collective in Newport and Findlay Kitchen in Over-the-Rhine—providing shared equipment and space for member artisans to create items like jams and baked goods. More and more grocery stores carry local produce.

“Even small behavior changes can be really meaningful,” Oldfield says to those thinking about buying more local food. “If 10 percent of the Greater Cincinnati population shifted 10 percent of its food budget to local products, it would infuse about $66 million into the local economy annually.” For a local family, that 10 percent equals roughly $15 a week on local foods, she notes.

Under pink grow lights, the tomatoes at 80 Acres Farm are otherworldly. Growing in aisles suspended off the ground, their stems wrap around and around their bases and suck up nutrients from natural soil substitutes such as peat moss or coco coir. “They grow about a foot a week,” says farm supervisor Zach Burns, standing in the 30,000-square-foot facility that was a former Miami Motor parts plant in downtown Hamilton. Since February 2019, it’s been a hydroponic farm.

80 Acres produces more than 3,000 tomatoes each week at its indoor farm in downtown Hamilton.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

The operation captures, cleans, and reuses 97 percent of its water. Pesticides or herbicides are never applied. They produce an average of 3,000 tomatoes weekly, which are sold by Madison’s at Findlay Market, Butler’s Pantry in Covington, 10 local Kroger stores, Jungle Jim’s, and Whole Foods.

Something else is different about these tomatoes. While outdoor plants produce tomatoes for three to four months, these can produce as long as 16 months. It took years to create such a perfect tomato, says Mike Zelkind, who cofounded 80 Acres with business partner Tisha Livingston in 2015. The company regularly tests its tomatoes in the lab, and tissue samples always show high levels of vitamins and minerals, says Zelkind. “Instead of genetically modifying a plant to survive in some environment, we take the most natural heirloom seeds and create the best environment for them to grow,” he says. “The tomato industry is producing these perfectly red tasteless tomatoes that have no nutritional value and taste like teddy bear stuffing instead of this yummy local stuff. That’s the problem with our country’s food system.”

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Photograph by Devyn Glista

80 Acres grows lettuce mixes, cucumbers, microgreens, and herbs year-round, too, and its newest facilities are mostly automated. “Technology enables agriculture to do things we couldn’t have imagined before,” says Zelkind. “We decided that we had to build what 10 years ago was literally science fiction and five years ago you couldn’t make profitable.”

Alice Chalmers, founder of the Local Food Connection hub, agrees that our local food supply chain has evolved quickly in just a few years. She arrived in the Cincinnati area from Maryland in 2014. Her family has roots in Kentucky, and she moved back for personal reasons, but Chalmers brought along an idea to build a food business that could help “everyone find what they want” and promote local sustainable agriculture at the same time.

She started by working with a handful of farmers and a handful of chefs—it’s our restaurants that should be credited, she says, for really getting the local food economy going. With a master’s degree in finance from the University of Pennsylvania and a 20-year career in strategic planning behind her, Chalmers knew she needed to scale up. “I wanted proof of concept that it could be fiscally sound,” she says.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

By year three, she was in the black. Local Food Connection is now operating in Dayton, Louisville, and Lexington and was just acquired by Creation Gardens, a midsized food distributor, which allowed for expansion into Columbus, Indianapolis, and Nashville. “As you increase in volume, you need more trucks, more infrastructure, more storage space,” says Chalmers. “They were able to count on us to do local food aggregation. Each of us saw the value of that partnership.”

COVID-19 altered everything, Chalmers says, with food being redirected where it could be as restaurants and schools stopped buying. So Local Food Connection expanded its delivery service to Cincinnati and Lexington households in early May.

My first Local Food Connection order finally arrives at my house, with three pounds of Kentucky-raised veal short ribs destined to become a meal for five in my Instant Pot; a plastic grocery bag stuffed with hydroponic kale that will last more than three weeks in the fridge; a washed-rind–style cheese; a pound of multicolor radishes; and a pound of candy-yellow onions. Total damage: $60, including a $5.99 delivery charge. The ribs, a bit of a splurge, cost $35.74 alone.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Six days later, my ETC order arrives: beets, green onions, mint, apples, sunflower shoots, sweet potatoes, a dozen eggs, whole wheat flour, Kentucky stone-ground white grits, a kombucha from Cincinnati and one from Indianapolis, locally made deodorant, and two chicken breasts. I ordered the organic artichokes from California because, well, spring artichokes shouldn’t be missed. Total bill: $93.50. Both orders come directly to my house near downtown, dropped safely behind my coded gate in cooler bags.

Other than the artichokes, everything I bought was produced within a 50-mile radius of Cincinnati, including from growers within a 100-mile radius whose items can be purchased inside those 50 miles. That’s the definition of “local food,” according to the Central Ohio River Valley (CORV) Local Food Guide, released each spring. We’re talking about small- and medium- sized farms and community gardens commonly following organic, sustainable, or regenerative (the new buzzword) methods. Old, conventional farming practices have wrecked the soil for generations; regenerative farming ultimately means adhering to growing and grazing practices that rebuild the organic material in soil and restore degraded biodiversity.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Inside the 50-mile Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky foodshed, there are now more than 50 small farms, more than 40 farmers’ markets, and more than 20 community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, according to CORV. CSAs are farm memberships selling a share of what’s grown. At Carriage House Farm, for example, a popular CSA in North Bend, members choose between a $500 standard share for 24 weeks of vegetables or a $300 work share with the same amount of vegetables and a requirement to work 24 hours on the farm.

Alan Wight, an assistant professor and service learning coordinator at The Christ Hospital College of Nursing and Health Sciences, has spent the last several years studying and mapping our local food system as part of his master’s and doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati. He teaches a course on nut and fruit production at Cincinnati State and is leading an effort to put the history and data he’s collected from the Central Ohio River Valley’s local food system into a book called Edible City: An Art Atlas.

The local foods landscape is changing so quickly now that Wight says it’s hard to keep up, and many challenges remain. Farmers are aging out in this country and are often woefully underpaid, he says. In reporting this story, I heard from lots of people making low wages, even a CSA farmer who got IOUs for months in lieu of payment. “You don’t make money farming,” says Wight. “A farmer’s equity is all tied up in his or her land. Most farmers have off-the-farm jobs to survive.”

It’s also highly volatile work, Wight says. A week of spring nights below freezing, and you can lose an entire crop of strawberries or asparagus. Super wet falls might destroy harvests that prefer dry conditions. These unreliable conditions are one of the unfortunate consequences of climate change, which Chalmers sees as the biggest threat to farmers. Meanwhile, large grain farms and livestock operations are underwritten by massive federal agricultural subsidies, says Wight, while produce farms pay low wages to migrant workers. “We have an ag system that’s paying people to grow huge amounts of corn and soy for animal feed or additives to the rest of the food system,” he says. “I’m not going to say, Take that away, but if you allocated a small percentage of that money to grow local fruits and vegetables and paid growers equally for their produce, that would help.”

Toncia and Estevan Chavez sell locally grown produce via home delivery and at their ETC Findlay Market stand.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

That sort of policy shift could also help Americans eat healthier. We live in a nation with both an obesity crisis and a lack of access to healthy food (14.1 percent of Hamilton County residents were rated as “food insecure” in 2018, including more than 35,000 children). Many problems are related to our overconsumption of processed foods. Humans have actually processed food since they first put meat on a fire millions of years ago, because “processed” simply means it was altered—think baked, frozen, dried—meaning that not all processed foods are unhealthy; in fact, processed foods like Greek yogurt are healthy.

Today, though, “processed” usually refers to a food product made of more than one ingredient with added salt, sugar, or fat—or a mix of the three. Think boxed stuff like breakfast cereals, chips, and crackers; canned goods; frozen, microwavable, and stovetop meals; candy bars; and hot dogs. Convenience foods. And it was convenience that amped up America’s production and desire for processed foods in the early 1900s, because it took less time than cooking everything from scratch. Society shifted based on necessity, too, during the Great Depression and World War II, when fresh food was either scarce or needed to be nonperishable.

Then came microwaves and TV dinners in the late 1960s, and, well, we know how the fast-food movement took off. Between 2013 and 2016, nearly 37 percent of adult Americans ate fast food on any given day, according to the most recently released report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the greatest healthy steps Americans can take is to eat more fruits and vegetables, according to the CDC. Statistics show we’re eating more than we were in the 1970s, but most of us eat well below the recommended 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

If you’re hoping to eat more local food, you must consider the seasons, says Abby Lundrigran, crop production manager of Turner Farm in Indian Hill. Like many young farmers, the 2010 Walnut Hills High School graduate was on another course entirely—studying art history in Chicago—when she was inspired by the sustainable agriculture movement. She became interested in urban agriculture while working for a nonprofit that tended a network of beehives around Chicago via bicycle. Then she attended a conference focused on rural agriculture. “I remember turning to my friends on the car ride home and saying, Does anyone else just kind of want to be a farmer now?” Lundrigran says. “It had never occurred to me. I was 21, 22, and I felt so inspired.”

Abby Lundrigan and her Turner Farm colleagues are helping consumers learn to eat seasonally and locally.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Nonprofit Turner Farm is one of the more well-established small farms in Greater Cincinnati. Its internship and veteran farming programs have been pumping out organically and sustainability trained farmers for years, including Lundrigran, who started there as an intern.

Last year, she and her team harvested about 40,000 pounds of crops, which go to Turner’s roughly 60 CSA members, onto Turner’s farm market shelves, and to the weekend farmers’ market at Findlay. It also goes out on Local Food Connection trucks and into Turner’s meal prep kits, prepared foods, and cooking classes held on the farm. “I’ve come to feel really strongly as a consumer myself to try and eat seasonally and locally,” says Lundrigran. “Sometimes it’s really inconvenient. It requires you to put more planning and time into what you eat, but we need a mindset shift.”

To get there, she experiments with preserving and freezing food, using it however she can. Food from a farmers’ market or farm will often last longer because it’s just been picked, she says, so that’s a plus. “It takes being willing to make mistakes and make some terrible food, but also some really good food.”

Growing her own food transformed Lundrigran’s relationship with it, she says. “Right now, I’m not buying tomatoes at the grocery store—it’s become second nature—and that’s going to make that first tomato of the season infinitely more enjoyable. It makes you appreciate things, but it also led me to having really special relationships with, say, the person I get my milk from.”

Photograph by Devyn Glista

In the spring and summer of COVID-19, most small farms were thriving. CSAs at Turner, Carriage House, Emmett Ridge, and other local farms had waiting lists longer than they’d ever seen. ETC’s sales tripled within the first few weeks of state stay-at-home orders, and many places, including 80 Acres, started on-farm drive-through pickup services.

Some farmers struggled, though, says Oldfield. They couldn’t find buyers fast enough when restaurants and institutions stopped ordering, which further exposed cracks in our system that had been forming. The meat-processing pipeline, for instance, had backed up before COVID. By mid-June, Boswell at Emmett Ridge Farm was getting desperate, because it had been several weeks since he’d been able to get his animals butchered. “We have business starting to really fire, and now I could be out of business in three months,” he says. He’s hoping to connect with investors and build his own meat processing plant.

He admits that he and farming colleagues wonder if consumers will stick with them as the pandemic wanes. “When the real world opens back up and it’s back to soccer practices and this and that, people may decide they don’t have the time,” says Boswell. “Will people forget these foundational things?”

“Heyyyyy, pig!” Boswell hollers from the four-wheeler. We’re at the pen where the swine stay when they’re not roaming wild. “This, at one point, was a manicured putting green that somebody spent approximately $40,000 to build, and now it just collects pig shit,” he says, grinning wide. “It’s a really great septic system—sand, pea gravel, drain tile, pea gravel, clay. Perfect.”

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