Ohio’s four seasons and hearty soil allow farmers to grow a wide variety of produce including apples and asparagus, blackberries and Brussels sprouts, cherries and celery. There are probably a dozen or more other crops I am not even mentioning also grown in Ohio.
More often than not, when I go grocery shopping, my apples are from Washington, my asparagus is from South America, blackberries from Oregon, Brussels sprouts from California, cherries from Michigan or Washington, and celery is from California. It is easy to understand why all the tropical fruits have labels from Central and South America; Ohio is just too far from the equator to produce pineapples, coffee beans and mangoes.
This leads me to why we don’t see more Ohio produce in our grocery stores, especially when these fruits and vegetable can be grown here.
Money would be my number one reason. As consumers, we want the best product at the lowest price. There is nothing wrong with that, right? Well, maybe — but that means everyone who produces apples in the world can compete for that spot in the grocery store. If Washington can deliver equal quality at a lower price and has the added bonus of filling all the grocery stores in that region, they are going to receive the contract. Most grocery stores offer more than one option for the same produce; sometimes that is a local choice. But again, people like to get the most bang for their buck — so unless that local option is better quality or better value, most people are going to choose the out-of-state or even out-of-country item.
Growing seasons also affects whether local produce will be available. There are few local foods available in November, such as apples, cauliflower and winter squash. Then there is almost nothing fresh available again until April or May. Potatoes are about the only produce available year-round that is grown locally. There are, however, a number of Ohio companies that produce canned and frozen fruits and vegetables available year-round.
Back to the growing seasons where harvests can range throughout spring, summer and fall. We obviously can’t grow strawberries in Ohio in the winter unless they’re inside a hoop house or greenhouse, so we are limited to just having local berries mainly in June and July. The rest of the year we can still purchase strawberries grown in warmer climates like California.
Farming is as unpredictable as the weather in Ohio. A farmer can do everything right and still have a bad harvest because of rain, drought, frost or even wind and hail. For example, this past spring and summer, farmers were faced with a very wet beginning to their growing season which led to several problems, including seeds washing away and poor root systems growing. This greatly affected this year’s pumpkin, tomato and cabbage crops. Instead of Ohio farmers filling the grocery stores with Ohio pumpkins, tomatoes and cabbage producers from other states had to make up for the lack of product this year.
Ohio’s leading commodities include corn, soybeans, dairy products, hogs, eggs and cattle. So even though there are lots of fruit and vegetable farms, the majority of our agricultural industry is focused on these top commodities. We are fortunate to be in a county where berries, apples, sweet corn and other vegetables are grown. Even if Delaware County’s produce is not the main produce within the grocery, there are other ways to get your hands on local products.
Farmers markets, on-farm markets and community-supported agriculture groups are great ways to get locally produced food. There are also many produce farms that sell directly to consumers, offering “pick your own” berries or apples. A small local farm may choose not to pursue large grocery store contracts because they either don’t produce a high enough quantity or they can profit more from selling on-site or at farmers market.
Some farmers grow their produce specifically for a finished product like apple cider, frozen green beans or canned tomatoes so larger companies process the fresh crops and then redistribute them as a processed food item.
When finding Ohio produce seems impossible, you can ask yourself: “Can Ohio compete in that market? What harvest season is it? And how did this year’s growing conditions affect the product availability?” And if you don’t know, be sure to ask a farmer.
Carol Keck is program coordinator for ag and natural resources for the Ohio State University Extension in Delaware County, writing on behalf of the Delaware County Farm Bureau.