The run on toilet paper may be over. Chicks, however, are still hard to come by.
Tyler Layman, co-owner of Layman Feed and Lawn in Elida, said the business couldn’t keep any baby chicks stocked for more than a day when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Today, orders can still take five weeks before they’re filled.
His reasoning behind the chicken run?
“I would say it’s a food security thing — not that people are paranoid — but it feels good to have 15 chickens in the backyard,” Layman said.
Similarly, small-scale farmers saw a spike in demand for their services during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. When lines of cars stretched around blocks to get food from the West Ohio Food Bank, the few farmers selling direct-to-consumer goods were inundated with calls from those looking to sign up for community-supported agricultural services.
“It has calmed now. Early on, people were definitely trying to get food where they could,” said Amanda Wischmeyer, a farmer at Little Riley Creek Farm. “They just wanted to have a secure local tie to food.”
In a county that’s roughly 70% farmland, most of the food grown — outside of livestock — isn’t eaten by Allen County residents. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 6% of farms in Allen County sell food or agricultural products directly to consumers, and roughly 83% of total farmland acreage is devoted to two crops, soybeans and grain corn, which are rarely eaten by people until they’re processed through other means.
Agricultural trends are exacerbating the discrepancy as farms continue to consolidate due to shrinking numbers of people willing to take up the task and an increasingly thin bottom-line. From 2002 to 2017, the county lost 12% of its total farms while maintaining its total acreage, and the average farm size ticked up from 194 acres to 218 in the same time period.
“Most commercial farmers have gone to grain farming because that’s where you can make the money,” said Bonnie Hasty, of Hefner farms.
This past Tuesday, Hasty had set up a booth at Lima’s downtown farmer’s market to sell a grab-bag of agricultural products, such as honeys and jams, made from her own garden and bee apiaries. While her husband takes care of the commercial side of raising 4,000 hogs and producing soybeans and corn on the family farm, she wanted to use a portion of their land to support the local farmer’s market and give her grandkids some insight into the old ways of doing things.
“I started this to teach my grandchildren to make things instead of buying them from the grocery store,” she said.
This year, she set aside a plot of land to plant tomatoes, peppers, elderberries, squash, zucchini and other fresh fruits and vegetables.
Growing in the city
Meanwhile, in Lima, some residents are finding a hard time finding nutritious food. Five years ago, nine of the city’s 12 census tracts qualified as food deserts, or a neighborhood where the population has limited access to food. Today, that number is down to two of 12 tracts, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Activate Allen County Co-Director Kayla Monfort said the number of food deserts is of less concern today as it was then, partially due to subsequent changes to the USDA’s food desert definition that allowed the addition of dollar store chains to qualify as grocery stores.
Either way, Monfort said that when the coronavirus pandemic first picked up, some residents started to show a newfound interest in backyard and community gardening.
“People have been asking how to grow their own food, how to get started with garden, how much space that you need. There’s been some virtual education around that the last few months,” she said.
Lima does have at least nine community gardens as a result of an initiative undertaken by Lima-Allen County Neighborhoods in Partnership. Scattered throughout the city, multiple groups — many of them neighborhood associations — have set up mostly private plots of land tended by group members, but a completely public space where anyone can go to grow and grab food free of charge has yet to be completed. The first of such spaces, the South Jackson Community Garden, located at 200 S. Jackson St., is currently under construction.
LACNIP also helps run the Sustained Production on Urban Tracts, or SPROUTS program, which allows Lima residents to sign up and pay for a weekly box of fresh produce grown from a seed investment.
In the future, the Allen County Food Council is looking to jump-start the establishment of community gardens, Monfort said. Comprised of representatives of both the private and public sectors, the group is currently looking to create an easy-to-follow information packet that maneuvers those interested in taking the necessary legal steps in order to grow their own fresh produce within city limits.
“I don’t know how much it will take root, but for a while there, when the grocery stores were empty, it had people thinking about those issues and concerns,” Monfort said.
And then there’s chickens. While demand has been high for chicks, residents in the City of Lima have had to forgo any purchases due to the city’s relationship with the birds.
Unlike the majority of the municipalities in the region, the City of Lima, as well as the Village of Elida, restrict raising the animals within city limits unless there’s adequate space, currently defined as two acres.
During last Monday’s city council meeting, Councilor Jamie Dixon brought up the topic and asked that city council examine the issue in more detail after he said he’s had residents ask about the possibility of changing the city’s ordinance.
Council President John Nixon said he couldn’t support the move due to similar initiatives made in the past. In 2014, residents had proposed allowing the animals to be raised within city limits, and the negative feedback that resulted from the discussion had convinced council members to table the issue. Six years later, though, those councilors have since left their positions.
Chickens, however, are allowed outside of city limits, and they’ve grown in popularity since then. At Little Riley Creek Farm, the birds strut around the yard pecking at bugs as free-range animals. Outside of eggs, Wischmeyer uses their manure to add nutrients to the soil, and the family slaughters one on occasion.
She isn’t, however, in the chicken business, and she lets her other small-scale farming neighbors deal with selling chicken products. She said that Little Riley Creek Farm often works in concert with Probst Family Farms and Seasonal Sun Farms to provide a larger local product variety.
Wischmeyer admits the 40-acre farm isn’t the family’s only source of income. Her husband, Jon Tuttle, also works a standard 9-to-5 job to make sure the bills are paid, and the family, including her father, put in a lot of effort to keep the farm going.
Her customers, too, sometimes scoff at the prices of her final products, but that’s not really the point, she said. After five years on the job, she’s noticed plenty of ancillary benefits, like fresh meals on the family table, and she doesn’t have to spend days in the cab of a combine to make it happen, instead opting for older equipment and techniques that most commercial operations have since abandoned.
Either way, she said that there’s plenty of demand, and anyone looking to put in the work will find those more than willing to buy — especially when a worldwide pandemic has people wondering where they can get their next meal.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.