A third-grader makes his way through a rural neighborhood outside of Port Clinton Ohio, selling fresh, local produce from his parents’ garden. He then moves on to his next position, a job working for neighbors who have a greenhouse. From the time he was a child, Tom Redfern was obsessed with “growing things.”
“Those are my wagons now,” says Tom, pointing to a van and truck parked next to the Sustainable Agriculture offices on North Plains Road in The Plains. It’s been decades since Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture Director pulled his red wagon through the neighborhood, but he remains a man on a mission.
“Most of my career I’ve had something to do with selling growing things,” he says.
Tom came to Southeast Ohio to attend Hocking College, which boasted an “awesome curriculum with great instructors.”
“We’d get on a bus and drive out into the woods for a whole day,” he says. “We also went to Shawnee, to Stuarts Opera House, and other locations, learning deeply about the region.”
Tom then went to Ohio University for a degree in botany with a minor in geography, which is where he learned about systems and big-picture environmental issues from professors like Ted Bernard. “We were talking about climate change back then,” Tom says. “That got me thinking about agriculture at the systems level.”
After graduating, Tom spent two years with the Peace Corps working in Kenya. And for the next 15 years he worked in horticulture, a business that was thriving as the housing bubble drove demand for plants used in landscaping. He also spent a few years working for Miami University as a horticulturist.
In 2004, he took a Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator job at Rural Action, where his initial emphasis was on farm-to-institution agriculture, hooking local food systems into local institutions. “We surveyed restaurants, partnering with the OU call center to call every restaurant in Appalachian Ohio,” Tom says. “We created lots of data looking for best practices to create an aggregation model that could bring together the area’s small producers.”
From his desk in the basement of Rural Action’s Trimble office, Tom was filtering through a lot of the common ideas at the time, ranging from food coops to the ideas in Ernesto Sirolli’s Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies. Tom left the basement often to get out in the community to places like Chesterhill, where he met Jean and Marvin Konkle, who were in the process of pulling together growers, community partners like Joe Hershberger, agriculture extension agents like Brad Bergefurd of OSU, and a group of buyers to launch Chesterhill Produce Auction.
The auction launched in 2005 under a tent, with a driveway and permanent structure being added later that year. Meanwhile, Tom’s network was growing. He met Leslie Schaller of ACEnet and Kip and Becky Rondy, who had started Green Edge Gardens after moving to the area from Cincinnati.
“Kip Rondy invited me to Casa Nueva for a beer, and we hatched the idea of Season Creation workshops,” Tom says. The idea uses high tunnels, temporary structures that can be placed in the fields to extend the growing season. Thanks to funding from North Central SARE, it wasn’t long before they were conducting high tunnel training at Green Edge Gardens in Amesville.
“The beauty to me is how this work has persisted for so long,” Tom says. “Everything I’m talking about still exists. That’s the miracle. That’s why I’m so thankful to Rural Action to be able to keep that continuity of work.”
To illustrate the point, Tom notes that as he’s speaking Kip Rondy is on his way to Rural Action’s office at Sugar Bush Farm to plan for the building of a demonstration high tunnel. And the auction that the Konkles started in Chesterhill? When they were ready to retire in 2010, they sold it to Rural Action, which runs it as a social enterprise that continues to grow and expand, anchoring a food hub that moves produce to schools and institutions throughout Appalachian Ohio.
The Country Fresh Stops program ensures local produce is available throughout the food deserts of the region and the School Day at the CPA program brings local elementary school students to CPA to learn about fresh produce, nutrition, composting, the local food system, and how auctions work.
In recent years, the auction and growers have jointly invested in growing beyond produce. CPA now features Saturday auctions with specialty hand-made wood products, produce, and small livestock.
A key funding source came via the Central Appalachian Network, which helped pull together the players for a 2007 grant from the Ford Foundation that focused on PAD – processing, aggregation, and distribution. “We really focused on the process for aggregation and distribution at that point,” Tom says.
It wasn’t long before the success of these programs prompted people to come in and ask what lessons were learned in the process.
“Humility,” Tom says. “Drop the mic, buddy. That’s the lesson. Because it’s all these great people doing great things that I’m allowed to be around.” In fact, it’s uncommon to hear Tom say “I” when discussing all of these programs. He almost always uses “we” and names names, rattling off lists of people who helped make a given project successful.
National Service members have been critical in Sustainable Agriculture’s efforts, and alumni from the program have moved on to do great things in a variety of roles. Karam Sheban went to Yale and has now returned to Rural Action to run the Sustainable Forestry program. Rachel McDonald is now studying food systems at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Joe Barbaree is doing graduate work at the University of Georgia. Tanner Filyaw is Plant Propagation Manager at United Plant Savers. Molly Sowash is the Manager of Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture program. The list goes on …
“We have a lot of missions at Rural Action,” Tom says. “But raising that next generation of leaders has been my favorite. We train people to do great things.”
“The best ideas I’ve seen come from outside Rural Auction,” he says. “The produce auction and season creation model were brought to me. They weren’t my ideas. I could bring resources to support them., especially the produce auction. It was such a grass-roots thing.”
As Tom looks to Rural Action’s future, he likes what he sees. The organization is in the process of creating a Climate Corps to address issues associated with climate change. “It’s nice to see a sense of urgency, doing the big things, like buying a produce auction,” he says. “Whether it’s 2005 or 2022, if you don’t have a sense of urgency to try the big things, it’s hard to serve the area. I like that we have a sense of urgency, a sense of responsiveness, a sense of humility.”
“A coworker once told me Rural Action would be OK as long as we keep coming up with good ideas and helping people,” he says. “It’s a scary future. That’s just the human condition. As long as we don’t drift away from helping people, I think we’re good.”