Agriculture has a long history in Washington County but that doesn't mean local farmers are averse to trying new techniques and approaches.
In fact, Washington County is the top county in Ohio in terms of receiving federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants, said Eric Barrett, agriculture educator for the Ohio State University Extension in Washington County.
Sustainable techniques deal with everything from caring for land and conserving resources to making a farm more profitable, Barrett said.
The grants are worth a maximum of $6,000 for a single farm or $18,000 for endeavors by three or more farms.
The most recent recipients are Randy and Amanda Hamrick of Back to Basics Log Cabin in Belpre. They've been approved for the purchase of a commercial mill, which can be used to process products like oats, flaxseed and corn meal.
"So all the local farmers will have a close place that they can come to, a central location ... and have it locally milled for them instead of having to drive a couple hours," Amanda Hamrick said.
Washington County farmers have been the recipients of seven federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants, more than any other county in Ohio.
The most recent is Back to Basics Log Cabin in Belpre, which will use the money to purchase a commercial mill that local farmers can use to process their products.
A SARE grant also helped establish Yourfarms.com, a Web site featuring local produce, plants and other products.
Frontier High School students are learning about plasticulture, which is not a new technique but one that hasn't been used as much in the eastern part of Washington County.
In addition, the Hamricks plan on setting up a store at the site. Farmers would be able to bring their produce to the site and have it sold, rather than manning a stand of their own, Amanda Hamrick said.
Barrett said the store would provide a central location for local food.
"More folks want to eat local food. They want to know their farmer," he said.
Consumers are interested in how far their food has to travel, the impact the farming has on the land and how many chemicals are used, Barrett said. Buying local lets them know more about these topics and keeps money in the local economy.
There are still logistical challenges to selling local. For example, Barrett said, many people might be interested in buying smaller orders of meat, but that means a farmer has to get it processed, then take it back to their establishment, then get it to the customer.
That's why the extension office is working on a "locally focused meats" program, talking with packers, farmers and consumers to help resolve those issues.
The extension already has a Web site, Yourfarms.com, established with the help of a SARE grant, to help people find local sellers.
Advances in farming are also keeping local agricultural educators on their toes.
"It used to be all plows and cows and now there's more science than some people realize," said Lisa Miller, agriscience teacher at Fort Frye High School.
For example, students learn scientific techniques for determining the proper diet for animals, such as how much protein they need.
At Frontier High School, agriculture teacher Erwin Berry is introducing students to plasticulture, a technique that may not be new overall, but isn't used as frequently in the eastern part of the county.
"In this area of Washington County, beef and grass have been pretty much what people use, but the profit margins on those are ... not as good as it used to be," he said. "I'm trying to steer my students toward fruits and vegetables more. The problem is that our topography lends itself well to pasturing, to red meat animals. ... We'd just like to diversify more out here."
In plasticulture, equipment creates a raised bed in the soil and spreads plastic over it. This allows farmers to conserve water by controlling where it goes and preventing it from evaporating, Berry said. It's also an efficient way to apply fertilizer, by putting it in the water and directing it to the plant's roots.
The plastic on the raised bed warms soil on three sides instead of just on top.
"So your crops are actually coming to market earlier," Berry said.
Plasticulture is most frequently used in this area with strawberries, tomatoes and sweet corn.
Berry noted that local farmer Dave Westfall of Valley View Farms was instrumental in getting his students started with plasticulture by initially loaning them equipment then helping to calibrate theirs. Westfall has been using the plasticulture method for more than 20 years.
Other techniques the students are learning about include modern irrigation and running small engines with hydrogen gas using a device called a hydrolyzer.