Local Conference Inspires Local Food Enthusiasts

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The third annual Real Food, Real Local Institute conference gave participants an insight into Athens County’s flourishing local food economy and encouraged them to start the movement in their own communities.

People from all around Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia were present at the two-day conference held at Kiser’s Barbeque at Eclipse.

Jen Harvey, an AmeriCorps VISTA at Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) and a conference organizer, said the conference went “very well” this year.

“A lot of people were engaged and excited,” she said, adding that attendance was on par with that at the prior two conferences.

Harvey said conference organizers are still trying to find the best time of year to hold the event. The conference was held in July the first year and May the second.

“It’s hard to plan around farmers’ schedules,” she said.

According to Harvey, there were many people from out of town who attended the event, including those from Youngstown, Cleveland, Yellow Springs and Columbus.

In addition to hearing from leaders in the food and nonprofit sectors at the former Eclipse Company Store, participants also went on various tours to see where all the magic happens. Thursday’s tour stopped by Vest Berries in Stewart and the Chesterhill Produce Auction.

Rick Vest spoke to guests about the work he’s being doing on his farm since the 1980s. The business’ biggest and most profitable crop is strawberries. People often come to the farm to pick their own berries, Vest said, noting that strawberry season is coming to a close.

Vest said that growing strawberries is also the most labor-intensive crop on his farm, stating that he works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. during strawberry season. He said that he works a minimum 60-hour work week.

In addition to berries, Vest Berries grows and sells other produce, including sweet potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce and more. Vest said he hopes to harvest 12,000 pounds of sweet potatoes this year. He said he planted between 5,000-6,000 sweet potato plants by hand.

Vest said it’s important to have a diversified crop as you never know what the seasons will bring. For instance, his thornless blackberries vines won’t produce fruit this year due to the harsh winter. He said the fruit doesn’t grow if temperatures reach below zero.

Vest and his wife Terry sell their produce at the Athens Farmers Market year-round. They also sell goods to Casa Nueva and to area schools.

Cally Byrne, a recent Ohio University grad from Cleveland who majored in nutrition, and her mother Lois Byrne were two of the conference participants who attended Thursday’s tour.

“We’re both interested in eating healthy,” Cally Byrne said of their decision to attend the conference. “Also I’m not sure what I want to do with nutrition since I just graduated.”

Byrne said she will be in AmeriCorp next year and is trying to find her niche when it comes to healthy foods.

“I thought it was great. There were so many interesting lectures,” she said of the conference. Byrne added that two of her favorite lectures were about serving local food at schools and how area organizations are working together to address food insecurity in Appalachia.

Huntington, West Virginia native Jake Sharp attended the conference to get a better understanding of Athens’ local food economy as he just accepted a position as the assistant director of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I’ve been extremely impressed,” Sharp said. “It’s amazing that they’ve been able to bring so many influential people from many disciplines together.”

Sharp said the conference was a great introduction to how important food is to Athenians.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” he said.

For information about the Real Food, Real Local Institute and the 30 Mile Meal campaign, visit