By BRYAN SCHAAF
WOOSTER -- A $250,000 grant for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center will allow researchers to begin assessing the potential for farmers in Northeast Ohio to grow crops, not just for consumption, but also for purpose of alternative energy.
The grant, approved by members of the Fund for Our Economic Future, is the next step in the group's efforts to expand Northeast Ohio's $8.2 billion agriculture industry.
"We're trying to improve our overall business, and what we're doing is looking at what we can do in the agriculture sector," said Chris Thompson, director of marketing and communications for the Fund. "What can we do to shift from more commodity agriculture to more specialty or value-added agriculture? Or from locally grown foods to growing crops for biomass? The Fund understands the critical role agriculture plays in the vibrancy of our region. In Wayne County and other areas, protecting and enhancing agricultural land is a top priority for communities, and we want to find ways of helping them achieve that goal.
According to an FFEF release, there are more than 2,200 farms in Northeast Ohio and about 40 percent of the region's land is used for agriculture.
Much of that land, though, is limited to commodity products, and each year more land is lost to residential and commercial development.
Fund member Lud Huck said there are currently several individuals doing research work around Northeast Ohio, and part of the grant will be used to tie those researchers together.
"This is going to touch everybody in Northeast Ohio," said Huck. "This is a strong move into the development of agriculture both for food purposes and commercial purposes in the area of alternative energy. This is a research module for a year that will put the tools together and develop a method of communicating information amongst all interested agriculture people in the region."
Huck said crops, such as Russian dandelions, which produce latex that can be used in natural rubber, and the jatropha plant, which has nuts that produce larger amounts of oils that can be used in ethanol, would be prevalent alongside traditional plantings like corn and soybeans.
"There are 15,000 vacant lots in Cuyahoga County alone where products like these could be grown that have commercial industrial value," Huck said.
Fund members concur that expanding the region's specialty agriculture production would result in higher incomes and job growth, and would also preserve the region's natural assets.
"Agriculture is a critically important industry to the economic future of our region, and this research will identify options to accelerate its growth," said Peter Meisel of the Meisel Family Foundation and co-chairman of the Fund committee that recommended the grant.
Dr. Casey Hoy, an entomologist at OARDC with a focus on agroecosystem health, will oversee much of the research, which is scheduled to be completed by next summer.
Hoy has already been working to build local sustainable food networks in the region, which is backed by a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.
"Agriculture is certainly one of the biggest industries in Ohio, and Northeast Ohio leads the pack in that whole area," said Dr. William Ravlin, assistant director at OARDC. "The idea is rather than shipping in produce from Florida, California, Mexico or somewhere else, what is the potential to produce food locally and distribute it? And what is the potential to do so with a solid product that efficiently links food production with consumers and builds the local economy as a whole?"
Huck said the $250,000 grant not only has the support of the Fund, but also the Wayne Economic Development Council and Wayne Growth Partnership.
In addition to Hoy, Brian Gwin and Rod Crider from the WEDC, Jim Currie from the OARDC and Adam Briggs from the Shoolroy Foundation have also been instrumental in moving the project forward.
Reporter Bryan Schaaf can be reached at 330-287-1645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.