Slow Food Columbus

Athens Weekend Tour June 2009

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Goats at Integration Acres

On a beautiful June weekend Slow Food Columbus took its second trip to Athens. The first trip at the beginning of November was a day trip highlighting the Village Bakery, Green Edge Gardens and Jackie O’s Pub and was documented by CMH Gourmand. We seem to have very good luck with the weather in Athens, or maybe it is always sunny there. Trip two, bigger and better, a full weekend was organized by CMH Gourmand Jim Ellison. The weekend had a flexible format and participants were able to pick and choose which events and meals they wanted to partake of. I think at most we were 24.

As well as being a college town Athens is also well known for its local food economy, quilt barns, farmers market and festivals. Our weekend was packed full of information so this will at best just be an overview with links for more information.

Our first stop was the Athens Farmers Market and we were lucky enough to be there on the day of the Berry Bake-off. This producers only farmers market has been in operation since the early 70′s and in its current location since 1999. It is one of the largest open air markets in Ohio (if not the largest) and has over 100 members. Most of the vendors come from within a 5 county radius with the average distance from the market being about 20-30 miles. A couple of the stall-holders have been selling at the market since it first started.

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We were given a tour by market manager Sarah Conley-Ballew who told us about the history and structure of the market and some of the new initiatives such as the junior chef school, a verified local growers scheme, market bucks (gift certificates) and introduced us to Community Food Initiatives, a non-profit that among other projects collects surplus food and donations from the market to distribute to food pantries and other charities.

The market has a good range of produce, baked goods, meat, preserves and some crafts. We saw some of the farmers that we would be visiting later in the weekend. By lunchtime it was getting hot and paw paw pops (popsicles made from paw paw pulp mixed with other fruit juices) from Integration Acres were the preferred way to cool down.

Snowville Creamery

Snowville Creamery

Our second stop was at the Snowville Creamery where we were given a tour by Steve Ferreira, the General Manager.  Snowville Milk is widely available in Columbus and many of the group were interested to see how the milk and cream they enjoy is produced. Steve explained how Snowville milk is different (flavor, grass-fed active cows, a fresher product with a shorter shelf life, non-homogenized and pasteurized at a lower temperature for less time). We also heard about some of the new developments – Snowville is planning to start selling yoghurt and will also be packaging their cream in smaller containers. Then it was time to go and meet the farmer, Stacy Hall, who along with her husband Bill Dix own the herds that Snowville Milk is primarily produced from.

Stacy Hall shows us her dairy farm

Stacy Hall shows us her dairy farm

Stacy showed us the milking parlor and explained how the design and technology allows one person to milk the whole herd (over 100 cows) single handed. The cows live outside year round but are only milked seasonally. They primarily grass fed and but they walk to the milking parlor for food supplements (grain, soybean protein and essential minerals) every day even through the winter. They get fresh pasture and water after every milking. Stacy said that the exercise, diet and seasonal milking cause the cows to live longer and healthier. They usually have 6 lactations which is more than twice conventional herds.

We went out to the fields to meet the cows and see some of pasture including a new siberian clover and heard details of how they have been trying to improve the soil and productivity of the farm which they purchased in 2001.

Next stop was Integration Acres where we were shown around by owner Chris Chmiel. Chris is a promoter of all things paw paw and has been a paw paw pioneer since 1996, he even sports a paw paw  tattoo. Paw paws are of particular interest to us Slow Fooders as they are an Ark of Taste product and the state native fruit. Paw paws are the largest edible fruit native to the U.S and you can read about how Chris got involved in paw paws or you can go to the annual Paw paw festival in September (near Lake Snowden, Ohio).

Integration Acres: Paw paw heaven

Integration Acres: Paw paw heaven

Although Integration Acres is now the largest paw paw processor in the world, Chris doesn’t stop at just paw paws, he also promotes other local and native food products such as ramps and spicebush berries. A former dairyman he discovered that goats will not eat paw paw trees and that you could therefore integrate dairy farming with paw paw farming. Chris now has a goat dairy and is making goats cheese. So far he has been making soft cheeses (chevre and feta) but is experimenting with some aged, hard cheeses such as a gouda and some smoked chevre.

Goats and Goat Cheese at Integration Acres

Goats and Goat Cheese at Integration Acres

Warren and Victoria Taylor, the owners of Snowville Creamy had kindly invited us to camp at their house. While some of the group chose the comforts of town and headed off for enviable showers, the more intrepid or foolhardy among us went to set up camp. It was an idyllic spot and the starry sky and bonfire were ample compensations for the lack of a shower.

Camping at the Taylor Farm

Camping at the Taylor Farm

Dinner was at an Athens restaurant Zoes, a little disappointing because the menu used very little of the beautiful local produce we had seen all day. Luckily everyone had taken the BYOB to heart and it was as much a wine tasting as dinner with an amazing array of Ohio wines, many of which I had not tried before. After our respective nights under the stars or in the comfort of an Athens hotel room we regrouped for a relaxed brunch at Jana’s Soul Food Cafe, enjoying traditional American style breakfast food, southern inspired dishes and lots of coffee. The Athens food network is such that we had the same server at brunch that had served us across town at dinner.

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A smaller group moved on to Sassafras Farm in New Marshfield, a small farm owned and operated by Ed Perkins since 1974. Ed is the president of the local OEFFA chapter. Ed sells his produce primarily at the Athens farmers market and his strategy is to simulate a grocery store produce section so that someone could buy their fruit and vegetables from him each week. He grows what sells well at the market and what he is comfortable growing. He therefore has a wide variety of vegetables: broccoli, squashes, beans, kale, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, eggplants, chard, spinach, carrots, potatoes,onions, garlic, zucchini, brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, and probably  more besides. We also saw raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and rhubarb, but the priority is vegetables. Ed has a couple of helpers and a work horse, but farms with mainly manual labor and little irrigation. He uses successive plantings and tunnels to help him extend the season. Ed Perkins is fiercely passionate and practical about his farming. The farm was beautifully maintained and Ed’s farming philosophy came through strongly both in viewing his fields and listening to his words.

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Our final stop of the weekend (apart from a sneaky visit to O’Betty’s for a hot dog) was for a Q&A session at Casa Nueva, with one of the founders Leslie Schaller, who can most succinctly be described as one of the movers and shakers in the Athens local food economy and Bob Fedyski from Rural Action (a VISTA volunteer working on sustainable agriculture). It was an interesting session and we learned a lot more about the local food economy, ACEnet projects, the Food Ventures Center (including the kitchen incubator), Rural Action, the history and structure of the worker owned Casa Nueva, Ohiofoodshed.org and efforts to get local foods into colleges and other institutions.

It was a weekend packed with information, wonderful food experiences and we met some fascinating and inspiring people. It was really interesting to understand more about where our food comes from, to meet the farmers and understand how local food systems can work. Athens is a good model with over 30 years work invested into developing a local food economy and a huge amount of collaboration between organizations. Athens is definitely worth a trip, whether for a day or a weekend. If you missed the Slow Food trip, there is a Locavore weekend getaway on August 14-16 highlighting some of the same places that we went to, and featuring Mailou Suzko, author of the book Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate.

More photos of the weekend can be found on flickr here, here and here.

My apologies that this post is long overdue. One of my many excuses is that I left my notes under a paw paw tree. Many thanks to Chris from Integration Acres for returning them. Bethia.

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