December 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB2

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Production, Processing, and Marketing Opportunities For Athens County, Ohio Farmers: Assessing Needs and Creating Solutions

An instrument was developed to identify production, processing and marketing needs of farmers in Athens County, Ohio. The questionnaire was mailed to 509 families with a 24% response rate. Forty-five (37.5%) needed improved markets. The greatest area of marketing interest was cattle (24.2%), hay (14.1%) and vegetables (14.1%). Respondents also expressed interest in educational programs on grazing livestock and farm management. As a result, a retail cooperative was formed to market local products, a feeder calf pool was established, and programs and publications were developed to address additional marketing and management needs.

Christopher D. Penrose
Assistant Professor and Extension Agent
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Internet address:

Penne L. Smith
Assistant Professor and Extension Agent
4-H Youth Development and Community Development

Ohio State University Extension, Athens County
Athens, Ohio

Edward M. Vollborn
Assistant Professor and Leader, Grazing Program
Ohio State University Extension
Jackson, Ohio


Athens County, a rural county in the Appalachian foothills in Southeast Ohio had a 1997 population was 61,276 (Pritchard & Bolton, 1998), which included the population of Ohio University with more than 17,000 students. The university is the largest employer in the county. The county poverty rate for 1992 was 32% (Crawford & Bentley, 1994). With a diverse population of residents ranging from the very poor to affluent, and 510 farms averaging 160 acres, farmers have an opportunity to capitalize farm production with local markets.

Expanding agricultural production, processing, and marketing programs has long been a high priority for Ohio State University Extension in Athens County. Based on a 1992 program review, new and improved markets for farmers was considered a priority. Other organizations in the county such as Community Food Initiatives and Rural Action also have a focus on marketing.

Ohio State University Extension, Rural Action, and Community Food Initiatives collaborated to assess the marketing needs and opportunities in Athens County. In 1995, community leaders perceived that agricultural production, processing, and marketing opportunities would change substantially in the future. A committee representing these agencies met together to develop an instrument to assess the needs of farmers.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the study was to determine needs related to: farming status, perceived needs and interests, and processing and marketing options of farmers and agricultural landowners in Athens County. The first objective was to identify satisfaction with current markets and determine market voids. Objective two was to explore farmer perceptions of processing and marketing opportunities. The final objective was to develop a framework to fulfill these needs.


A mail questionnaire was used to collect data. The questionnaire was pilot-tested by twelve volunteers representing the intended audience to check questions for readability and applicability to the population and appropriate changes were made. In 1996, 510 farms were in the county (Pritchard & Bolton, 1998). A population of farmers and agricultural landowners identified from the mailing lists of Ohio State University Extension, Rural Action, Athens County Farm Bureau, and Community Food Initiatives.

The questionnaire was sent to 509 residents and owners determined to be involved with farming in Athens County on April 10, 1995. Accompanying the questionnaire was a hand-signed cover letter explaining the rationale of the study and a stamped return envelop. Follow-up cards were mailed ten days later.


One hundred-twenty questionnaires were returned for a 24% response rate. Twenty-nine respondents farmed full-time, 47 part-time, and 19 were retired. Forty-five (37.5%) needed improved or expanded markets and 33 (27.5%) indicated that they could use assistance for locating improved markets. The greatest area of marketing interest was for cattle, 29 (24.2%), followed by hay 17 (14.1%), and vegetables 17 (14.1%). There was also interest in processed foods, other livestock, fruit, bedding and nursery plants, and forest products.

The questionnaire included a section asking for additional programs or services needed by the respondents. Agencies could then focus and prioritize efforts based on the results. Improved markets was the number one area of interest, with nearly one-third of the respondents expressing interest, followed by livestock production (30%), farm management (27.5%), natural resource management (23.3%), and extending the grazing season for ruminant livestock (22.5%).


Once the study was completed and results tabulated, plans were developed to meet the needs of area farmers responding to the survey. A cooperator-owned retail store (Farms-Plenty) that features locally grown foods was established as a result of the study. The store sells bedding plants, perennials, fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, poultry, and meat products produced by local farmers. Value-added products are now being marketed through this cooperative in the form of processed meats, pies, fruits and vegetables through a kitchen and deli. Ohio State University Extension provided information and support during the planning and building of the store.

In addition, sales at the local farmers' market increased by more than 30% in 1998 and a new satellite market was established in 1998 through the leadership of Rural Action. Community Foods Initiative houses community food kitchens to provide start-up businesses facilities to manufacture food products such as salsa and baked goods.

Ohio State University Extension has provided leadership in the area of marketing cattle. Direct marketing of feeder calves has allowed local farmers to add value and increase income from their operation. The local agricultural and natural resource agent provided names of feedlots throughout Ohio looking for fresh calves. The agent helps organize and group calves so they can be sold in large groups. Since 1996, over 1,000 feeder calves have been marketed directly to feedlots in Northern Ohio as a result of these contacts.

Increasing selling price is one way to improve profitability, but lowering costs of production is another. Considerable effort has been provided to area grazing councils to help farmers more efficiently utilize forages and lower overhead costs in order to become more competitive in the marketplace. Many of the educational meeting held also included topics on how to market products, whether it be through the farmers' market, feeder calf pools, local food stores, or direct marketing to consumers. Grazing councils are provided with discussions on direct and niche marketing on a monthly basis.

In addition, the agriculture and natural resource agent has worked with the grazing program leader and Extension agents and specialists on research projects to extend the grazing season for ruminant livestock. A new publication, Maximizing Fall and Winter Grazing of Beef Cows and Stocker Cattle (Boyles, 1998) has been published as a result of this work to help farmers address the issue of extending the grazing season. The Athens County agriculture and natural resource agent also works with the local woodland interest group to develop forestry and wildlife related programs, including income through non-timber sources.

Future Plans and Conclusion

Plans are underway to work with the grazing program leader and the district agriculture and natural resource specialist to provide farm analysis programs utilizing the FINPACK program developed by the University of Minnesota. This program will help potential farmers develop a business program and current farmers expand or start a new enterprise.

Collaboration will continue with Rural Action to assist in the growth of the new satellite farmers' market and the local woodland interest group with the marketing of non-timber products. Leadership will be provided to the Ohio State University Extension, Athens County Master Gardeners as a new project is initiated to develop markets for herbs and flowers.

Marketing has become a higher priority for most farmers in the area. Advertising, improved markets, and cooperation have improved profitability. Many producers are realizing that success can be attained through cooperation with their neighbors.


Boyles, S. L.; Vollborn, E.M.; Penrose, C.D.; Bartholomew, H.M.; & Hendershot, R.L. (1998). Maximizing fall and winter grazing of beef cows and stocker cattle. Bulletin 872, Ohio State University Extension.

Crawford, S., & Bentley, L. (1994). Athens County agriculture profile. Columbus: Ohio State University Extension.

Pritch, T. and Bolton, L. (1998). Athens County profile. Columbus: Ohio State University Extension.