Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beans, Beans, They’re Good for Your Mind

Shagbark Seed & Mill

The Granville School District is doing something drastic that does not involve their curriculum. They have turned their school lunch program upside down with an emphasis on locally sourced food that is fresh, seasonal and healthy. If the thought of your typical school lunch does not contain these adjectives, yet instead has you conjuring up images of soggy “Mexican pizzas”, greasy fries and sugary “fruit” drinks, rest assured that this is no longer the case in our neighboring city to the northeast. Granville’s quest to choose healthy food from local producers led us both on a recent visit to Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, Ohio.

If you are unaware, there is an amazingly diverse food system located in southeast Ohio. In fact, the Athens Farmer’s Market is one of the best anywhere that I have been to and it continues to grow each season. As you leisurely walk through the market, you see an overabundance of bright seasonal vegetables, sustainable meats, fresh eggs, and homemade cheeses; but what Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian noticed was missing were locally processed grain and legumes. Sure, this would seem ironic for a state that is known for ubiquitous fields of corn as far as the eye can see, but without anyone to process and package that grain it is deemed useless.

In 2008, with the help of a farmer rancher grant from the USDA’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) program, Brandon and Michelle started the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative (ASFC). They began immersing themselves in everything related to building a sustainable food system and started growing. With the help of several local farms they built test plots containing numerous varieties of grains and as soon as the word of their little experiment got out, the phones were ringing off the hook with restaurants, bakeries and local foodies wanting to buy their products. Brandon and Michelle decided to assemble an advisory committee and soon their mission became clear. Reluctantly, Brandon explained to us that they “took their hands out of the dirt” in 2010 and figured out the real need was for someone to process the crops. Shagbark Seed and Mill became the first business launched by the ASFC. It was named after the majestic Shagbark Hickory tree and the designation couldn’t be more fitting. The Shagbark tree has a sweet edible nut that, as I was told, is extremely hard to crack. Once you do manage to pry it open, bits of shell fragments are left behind, probably explaining why I have never before seen this on grocery store shelves. Michelle remarked that this was a perfect metaphor for their new business - hard to crack and a lot of fragments to pick through. There was also an added symbolism; the Shagbark pays homage to a native food producing perennial plant, which in their opinion is the direction our food system is heading.

Although Shagbark Seed & Mill is certified organic, they do not always work with USDA certified organic farmers. For them it is more important that the farmer is practicing sustainable organic principles and even lend a helping hand to local farmers who are on their way to becoming certified. In order to become certified organic by the USDA a farmer needs to practice organic processes and be inspected regularly for a minimum of 3 years. Not only is this a lengthy process, but it is expensive. During that transition period the farmer cannot sell their crops for the higher certified organic price, even though they are losing money due to added costs. This is where Shagbark steps in and alleviates some of the financial burden for the farmer. During these transition years, Shagbark will purchase crops directly from the farmer at a price somewhere in between the commercially grown and certified organic value. Shagbark, explained Michelle, gets “a good crop, grown the right way” for a better price while the farmer makes more than the standard commercial price for their transition crops. A win-win for both parties involved.

Brandon and Michelle walked our group through which crops come through the door, which products go back out ready for consumption, and what happens in between. Currently, Shagbark buys a variety of crops from 5-7 Ohio farmers that cycle depending on the season. The various crops which come to Shagbark for processing include two kinds of beans; black turtle and adzuki, popcorn, spelt and two kinds of corn; 3rd year transition and certified organic heirloom. The grains or beans coming through the door contains a lot more than just the crop - plant matter, rocks, and dirt all need to be sorted out and the crops need to be cleaned. The seed cleaner is fit with two screens specific to the crop. The top screen is just big enough to let the crop fall through while keeping the larger pieces out and the smaller screen is just small enough to keep the crop on top and let the smaller waste pieces descend through. Everything is adjustable and they explained to us that it takes the right touch to get a clean crop with little waste. Most of the crops go through the seed cleaner and then are packaged into 1, 2, 15, 25, or 50 pound bags. Some crops continue onto the stone mill to be ground into flour. At Shagbark, they process 250 pounds of fine corn flour an hour and 350 pounds of fine spelt flour an hour. Shagbark also partners with a family owned tortillerilla in Toledo, Ohio which takes the cleaned Shagbark whole corn and corn flour and turns it into delicious tortilla chips and corn cracker minis.

After our tour, I was lucky enough to speak with Greg Enslen, Executive Chef of Granville Schools. The goal of the new school lunch program, which was started nearly three years prior, is to source locally grown healthy food for their K-12 lunches, but they didn’t stop there. They found that having their own garden maintained by the students would not only educate children as to where their food comes from, but also, fingers crossed, would get them to eat their dreaded vegetables. The program is proving to be successful and the students take pride in harvesting the fruits of their labor. They watch as the fresh-picked food is washed, processed and put directly on the salad bar for immediate consumption. Greg shockingly mentioned that their students eat a lot of vegetables and at one point they actually ran out of broccoli. Oh and another surprise, they have gotten rid of all of the deep fat fryers! In Granville, they must feel that a healthy body promotes a healthy mind and the statistics don’t lie. When the program first began, they had 23% participation; today they are up to 60%. Greg was kind enough to invite me to have lunch at one of their schools and for the first time in my life I think I will actually look forward to enjoying a healthy, locally grown school lunch, including some delicious products from Shagbark Seed & Mill.

Black Beans

The Shagbark Seed & Mill Organic Black Turtle Beans (pictured left) traveled 72 miles to Columbus, while the black beans (pictured right) traveled from Dandridge, Tennessee, roughly 397 miles from Columbus.


NCR-SARE's Field Blog Fresh Food Pays Off for Granville Schools (Columbus Dispatch)

Spicy Black Bean Hummus

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