OSU creates new center to support food systems

November 11, 2013
OSU Extension small farms alumna Kahty Chen Milstead. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum)
OSU Extension small farms program alumna Kahty Chen Milstead tends her flock. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has launched a new center that aims to strengthen local food systems under the umbrella of the Extension Service.

OSU's Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems is an outgrowth of the OSU Extension Service's Small Farms program. It expands the program's work with small farms production and marketing to provide a platform for collaboration across OSU and Oregon, which will help the center support farmers and build strong local and regional food systems.

A food system is a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste.

Director Garry Stephenson, a small farms specialist, and associate director Lauren Gwin, a food systems specialist, lead the center. Stephenson has coordinated OSU Extension's Small Farms Program for more than 15 years. During that time, the program has emerged as a leader recognized on a national level for innovative applied research and educational programs. Gwin brings her expertise as a researcher focusing on supply chain logistics and regulatory issues. She also co-coordinates the National Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.

"The OSU Extension Small Farms Program has always been about more than just small farms," Stephenson said. "We've always understood that for small farms to be successful, there needs to be consumers who are both willing and able to buy local food, businesses that want to sell it, and policy that supports it. These are all part of a successful and sustainable local food economy. Establishing the center allows us to take this work to the next level."

OSU's endeavor intersects with a nationwide local food trend. A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service showed that direct-to-consumer marketing amounted to $1.2 billion in sales in 2007 nationwide, compared with $551 million in 1997. Research shows that local food systems can increase employment and income in communities, according to the USDA.

The center will continue research and education on sustainable farming methods, alternative markets and public policy. Additionally, the center will collaborate with Family and Community Health, an Extension program administered by OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences. It will ramp up partnerships with community-based nonprofits and other organizations. The center aims to create an endowment to add new small farms Extension positions in underserved communities.

“Rural and urban communities in Oregon are engaging with their food systems around issues of human health, long-term community economic development and access to healthy food for all Oregonians. We need to understand all aspects of the food system and collaborate with others," Gwin said. "This effort puts OSU on the map as explicitly valuing a food systems approach."

That teamwork is important to Wendy Siporen, executive director of the Rogue Valley-based nonprofit The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy (THRIVE). She is working with the center on several projects, including one that aims to increase consumer access to locally grown food in places such as conventional supermarkets.

"Their academic perspective and technical support are really critical and help show us we're making an impact locally," Siporen said. "Small nonprofits in rural communities often work in isolation, so it's important to get access to the center's statewide network to collaborate on best practices and policies. The goals of the center are core to THRIVE's mission of helping to rebuild our local food economy." 

Author: Denise Ruttan
Source: Lauren Gwin, Garry Stephenson