Local Foods Coordinator Wants
to Grow the Market
By Jessica Merzdorf
Jodee Ellett discovered her passion for farming by accident.
The new Purdue Extension local foods coordinator was in Denver as a professional ballet dancer when she suffered injuries that ended her career. She then decided to go to college in Montana and become a physical therapist.
But when Ellett took an elective course on plant taxonomy, she was hooked.
“It was so cool. I loved it,” Ellett says.
She switched to studying water use in plants and ended up earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany and crop physiology.
Now, after successful work on ecology projects and community-supported agriculture farms, known as CSAs, in the West and in Australia, Ellett serves her community by working to create more opportunities for owners of small- and medium-sized farms—such as her own family—to connect with consumers.
Back Home Again
Ellett and her husband Kevin moved back to Ellettsville, Ind. after the birth of their two children, wanting to give them the connection to the land that they had both grown up with.
“We were ready to come back and be Hoosiers again,” Ellett says. “When you have kids, you meet others who have kids, and you discover that many of you have a desire to connect with the land where your kids’ food is grown and to give your kids that connection with the land. We wanted our children to take part in the farming.”
The Elletts received permission from Kevin’s grandmother to use family land to build Gener8 Farms, a CSA farm that gives customers the opportunity to help raise their own produce in exchange for discounted prices. In keeping with her multigenerational vision of farming, Ellett plans weekly tasks that customers’ entire families—including children—can participate in.
Shortly after her move back to Indiana, Ellett became involved with the Bloomington Community Farmers Market. It was there that she began to see the need for stronger connections between farmers and consumers.
“As I talked to growers, I met a lot of people who wanted the ability to sell to more markets besides just farmers markets,” Ellett says. “There is a large time commitment to farmers markets, and it took a lot of time out of their schedules to prepare and sell there. And as I looked around, I saw that there really was no outlet robust enough to support a mid-sized farmer.”
So Ellett joined Bloomington’s Local Growers’ Guild, where she met other growers interested in selling their produce wholesale.
“I found the obstacles that these growers were facing, and I realized that there was more we could do statewide to strengthen the system, particularly here at Purdue, where there are huge resources and I knew we could do more.”
As Purdue’s first local foods coordinator, Ellett plans to identify people and communities that are already building connections between farmers and consumers and work with them to make the statewide system stronger.
“I guess I’m a problem-solver,” she says. “My goal is to work in the system and strengthen it, to be strategic in our support for growers and continue to meet consumers’ demands for local food,” she says. “We need to support communities that are ready to support food hubs and wholesale.”
She pointed out, for example, efforts by Purdue Extension in Hancock County to create Hoosier Harvest Market Inc., a food hub that will coordinate the weekly sale and collection of local farm products for delivery across central Indiana.
The time is ripe for local growers and farms to expand and connect with consumers as demand for locally grown foods continues to outpace supply, Ellett says. Opportunities for expansion and connection are growing as well; the number of farmers markets in Indiana doubled between 2009 and 2012, and the number of farmers markets nationwide increased 40 percent from 2008 to 2012.
This trend may be happening for several reasons. Some farmers markets are created on principles, such as being connected to the land and the farmer, the desire for a more positive impact on the environment, or buying local food because it benefits the community and makes the economy more stable.
One reason that often gets overlooked, Ellett says, is the taste of the food itself.
“I think the American palate has really expanded over the last several years,” she says. “Americans are interested in handcrafted wines and beers and exotic foods. We’re exposed to a lot more foods from different cultures now. I think our palate has matured sufficiently to tell the difference between food that is fresh and local, and food that is fresh, but one week old and shipped from another place.”
Buying local foods is a good way for Hoosiers to support their local economies and communities, Ellett says. When people buy local, food dollars—estimated at $4,000 per person annually—stay in Indiana. This money strengthens the economy by helping farmers buy more resources and offer employment to more people.
Additionally, supporting local growing helps preserve agricultural land by using it. “If it isn’t right for one farmer, maybe it’s right for another, and can still be used.”
- Watch Jodee Ellett’s brownbag seminar on local foods, held April 15 at Purdue University.