While Athens may be a great place to find local fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products, it’s difficult to find other regional staple crops such as grain, seeds and beans. One Millfield couple is working to change that and provide regional grains to local businesses and grocers.

Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger are the founders of the Appalachian Staple Food Collaborative. The goal of the group is to foster staple crops such as beans, seeds and grains in the area to decrease dependency on outside food sources.

According to Jaeger, the group received a grant in 2008 to grow test plots of staple crops and assess the community’s interest in the venture. He said that local businesses were interested in using and selling the products.

Now Jaeger and Ajamian are working to grow and process locally grown grains for market and have started the Shagbark Seed and Mill Co.

According to Jaeger, he received a grant to purchase a mill from France and has been milling for a few months at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) kitchen in Athens. He said the specialized mill has a filter that captures all dust, making the small machine perfect for use in the shared-use facility at ACEnet.

Funding for the test crops and facility equipment was provided by several grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Central Appalachian Network, Ohio University’s Sugar Bush Foundation, Ohio State University’s Stinner Endowment for Healthy Agro-Ecosystems and Sustainable Communities, the Athens Foundation and the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation.

Jaeger said they have several years of organic farming experience, but are new to the milling process.

The couple’s first milling project began a few months ago after they purchased a large amount of corn from Amish farmers in Chesterhill.

So far, Shagbark has sold cornmeal to Athens businesses Avalanche Pizza, Crumb’s Bakery and Casa Nueva.

Jaeger and Ajamian are hoping that this year’s growing season proves more productive for corn and other crops. Jaeger said that last year was terrible for corn in particular. He said the wet spring and mild summer created too much moisture to support corn crops.

Shagbark’s milling venture has been temporarily put on hold because  the company is out of corn.

He said the Amish farmers in Chesterhill will plant 8 to 10 acres of corn for Shagbark to purchase this year.

But corn isn’t the company’s only cash crop. Jaeger and Ajamian will also have 9 acres of spelt to harvest and mill. According to Jaeger, spelt is a type of wheat that grows well in Ohio.

The two are also working with local farmers to grow beans. Jaeger said the company hopes to eventually have a steady supply of oil seeds to create local oils.

One local businessman who was interested in the company’s products is John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche Pizza in Athens.

Gutekanst has been spending his free time baking bread for local foodbanks. While Gutekanst provided homemade bread to area food pantries last year, this is the first time he’s been able to use local products in the dough.

According to Gutekanst, he is using cornmeal milled by Shagbark.

Gutekanst said he watched the corn being harvested in Chesterhill. He said he purchased 900 pounds of the finely milled cornmeal from Shagbark.

According to Gutekanst, the same variety of corn used for the cornmeal has been found in ancient Indian burial grounds in the area.

Gutekanst uses the cornmeal, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt to create sweet high-protein bread for donation. Gutekanst said he bakes about 80 loaves a week during the winter.

He said he hoped that families with children were receiving the bread because some children depend on school lunches, which they haven’t been receiving during the snow days that have plagued the county in recent weeks.

Ajamian said Athens County has a rich history of milling, but most of it has vanished.

According to Ajamian, what stopped the milling industry in the area was “a 50- or 60-year-old trend of unrealistically cheap petroleum fuel and mega-farm subsidies from the U.S. government that forced U.S. farmers to get big or get out.”

She said this created a nation that spends “very little of its income on food and gets nutrient-deficient food (causing diabetes, obesity, and other health problems), damaged ecosystems, and impoverished farm communities.”

Ajamian said this trend made it impossible for the small-scale farmers and processors to compete, and due to the topography of the region, local farmers have to be relatively small.

“But the petroleum boom is beginning its bumpy descent to bust, and that’s one of the reasons that regional-scale food systems can and must return to our communities,” she said.

For information about Shagbark Seed and Mill Co., e-mail goodfooddirect@gmail.com or visit the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative on Facebook.

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