An Economic Anthropology Blog
My grandfather had a rice mill, I remember going to that place when I was really young. That memory came back to me while visiting the Shagbark Seed and Mill! It is really interesting to see that how local communities are trying to engage the various methods and processes of a food chain. The owners started this mill with the idea of inclusion which is indeed playing an important role. This mill is an excellent example of a rare combination of community practices and earning profits though profit maximizing has never been the prime goal of this mill. Shagbark has a good number of its trading partners starting from the local farmers to the big goons of food businesses in Ohio, USA. In this food chain (this word is not preferred by the owner!), Shagbark wants to maintain a minimum wage of $6.5/hour for the workers which is higher than the other parts of this poverty stricken Appalachian area. However, needless to say, this economic transaction will not be confined by only to the minimum wage/hour rather it is more than that. To start with, Shagbark still maintains the barter system so often though it is not practiced mostly in the present capitalist USA anymore. Shagbark, many times, trades its produce and wastes happening at the time of production with farmer’s milk, yogurt and other bakery items. This is interesting not only because it is exercising years old barter system, but also, in this way it is trying to incorporate zero waste economy. Next, Shagbark also encourages and incorporates disabled persons to work with them. By dint of this, inclusion is ensured. For ensuring inclusion more, any worker needs not to be an experienced one about milling rather any inexperienced person can join there. Shagbark is also integrated in the community interaction. One example is the way other people from the community help in setting up Shagbark’s counter in the farmer’s market. Along with that, the place where Shagbark Mill is situated, this is also a generous example of communities trying to come forward for the good cause of Shagbark. If some fundamental questions like how to scale up this initiative more, how to earn more profit and increase the hourly wage etc. can be answered in future, this model can become an exemplary model of community integration in business and food security.
Trip to Shagbark Seed and Mill was really an interesting and learning experience to me. I have never been to any such Mills before yesterday. I have had a preconceived idea that entrepreneurs usually start something new what they are passionate about or if they think there is an untapped opportunity exists in the market. The owner shared a different story about their motivation to start the Mill - to go local instead of relying on cheap GMO foods. Moreover the owner said neither of the two owners had any experience of doing such works previously and they are still trying to figure out the best way to run it. This indicates the underlying barriers to start a new initiative in the capitalist market economy. The support system they have in Athens, therefore, has enabling contribution to their effort in various forms - discounted rate for the space, shared area with another initiative divided by minimum boundaries, ideas about efficient production system from local engineers, trading of goods among the fellow farmers in the farmers' market, so and so forth. The Shargbark Mill is also returning the support from their position - ensuring a standard minimum wage for regular workers and 'differently abled' (I prefer this term instead of disabled) people. Not surprisingly, the recruitment of the employees are not usually based on their efficiency or expertise, rather the candidates with motivation to bring change or willingness to learn are being preferred. The tour-guide who is also an employee shared her best part of the job is the relationship with the community and the feeling of accomplishment when somebody acknowledges their effort of upholding local and nutritional foods. Thus it is clear that the employees do not work here only to earn money. The practice of sharing goods among the local farms is an important aspect worth mentioning. The farms/sellers at the farmers' market exchange some of their products among others. This underlying practice of sharing goods in the market economy is important because of two reasons. First, it reflects the community bonding based on mutual exchange; Second, this is an extra advantage for the employees in addition to their regular wage. The other employee echoed the later point by saying that getting the free yogurt from the Snowville saves around $7 for her as she would have bought it anyway. To conclude, such initiative which carries values beyond profit maximizations needs to function in a supportive environment in order to sustain and scale-up.
I find it interesting that Shagbark chose Athens as the home for its business and the central beneficiary of the good it is trying to do. And Shagbark is not alone; many companies in Athens have social betterment built into their business models. Michelle Ajamian, the owner of Shagbark told us of how her business has benefited greatly from people in the community who believe in her cause—the mill is located in a building that she pays rent that is well under the market rate (when she first began in the location, she actually paid less in rent per month than I pay for my apartment, although she said the cost of rent has since gone up some). Free advice from architects and the support of the Athens community has made the business possible, and it’s because much of the community believes in what Shagbark is trying to accomplish. The community helped Shagbark, who intends to make a positive social impact on the community. Yet, I never buy any of Shagbarks products. Not because they aren’t delicious (which they are, from what I’ve tried) and not because I don’t support the companies ideology. I simply just can’t afford it, and I know in this county I’m not alone. We live in the poorest county in Ohio, and once you drive ten minutes from the city, adjunct poverty abounds. Michelle spoke of how she hopes that everyone involved with Shagbark, from farmers to distributers, will make a fair and livable wage. If this goal is achieved, than the people she employs will be able to afford the product they produce. Yet, for a huge portion of the Athens community, beyond the university campus and in the impoverished areas that really need it the most, Shagbark is too expensive. Hopefully the efforts of Shagbark and others like them will succeed in alleviating poverty, but until then most people in this county still can’t afford to buy healthy and sustainably grown food.
I enjoyed our fieldtrip to the Shagbark headquarters on Saturday. Michelle Ajamian, one of the two co-founders of Shagbark, greeted us with open arms and invited us in where the magic happens. The building didn’t have that overpowering “you’re a needle in a haystack” feeling like I felt when I visited mass production mill factories in the past. She started off by telling us the back story of Shagbark. One part of Michelle’s opening speech that stuck out to me was, “60 years ago, every town had a mill. And for that reason, there was always a street named Mill in a town because of the importance of the mill.” Which makes me chuckle because our very own Mill street here in Athens is still important to the community for multiple reasons, but now I know the reason behind the naming of the street. Shagbark started up back in 2008 and has continued to grow since. It’s a certified organic mild and seed processing hub here in Appalachia Ohio. Their model is to select beans and grain that has the most nutritional value. Some of the crops they grow are wapsie valley corn, black turtle beans, red fife wheat, pinto beans, oberkulmer spelt, and buckwheat. Any grain that isn’t good enough to sell at the market is sold to farmers as feed. Shagbark has farms in nearby counties like Defiance, Marion, Putnam, Shelby, Morgan, and Wynadot. Their products range from spelt pasta and corn tortilla chips to heirloom corn grits to buckwheat flour. To put it into perspective of how healthy their products are, a small bag of Shagbark’s corn tortilla chips is 2 servings and each serving has 4 grams of protein in it. Shagbark partners with school food service on pilot projects to identify what works best for school’s cafeteria and budget so that kids are exposed to these healthy products and can benefit them at an early age. Their “Good Food for All” program offers schools serving free and reduced meals and other food programs their products at their lowest pricing, and supports fundraiser for Social Justice and Art in our region through donations. Shagbark has 6 main workers, including the two co-owners, and 3 interns working the farmer markets. They also have a disabled person on staff helping with deliveries to Kroger and other stores. I personally love that they do this because when they hire people with a disability, that person gets paid the minimum wage, the same as the other workers, and gets health benefits they normally wouldn’t get anything where else. Right now Shagbark’s employees are paid minimum wage, which is $7.45. As the business grows and expands, they hope to be able to paid their workers $10 to $14 an hour with benefits 7 years down the road. If you’re looking for an internship with Shagbark, but don’t have any history of working in a mill, no worries! They offer research and internships opportunities to high school and college students in Food Studies, Agriculture, Industrial and Mechanical Engineering, and Marketing and Design, as well as University researchers who are looking for farmers to grow research plots or need a facility to clean and mill them.
Our expedition to Shagbark Mill turned out to be a great experience. The trip began with an introduction of their storage section of the mill to an open discussion with the owners. It was very interesting to hear about the means of production that functions the mill; with the sum of machines that undergoes the breakdown of corn and grains (eg. auger-silough). However, more interesting was the owner's response of company employment and methods of distribution. Hearing about the costly building construction that could have been implemented, to the softer remodeling of the already existing space gave me a new perspective towards the overall ownership and establishment. Its overall output (cheap labor wage) will hopefully ease the company's way towards a wider range of distributors. The company already has a plentiful amount of restaraunts located in columbus and Cleveland who buy their products. However, their aim of wider distribution is rooted within Athens commnity. The service withing the county has aided their milling production because its location within Athens as being cheap land, and the community that is most familiar is most ready to share their product. The local farms in Athens are part of their top priorities; as trading and exchanging products ensures long lasting ties and healthy relationships that extend to all parts of the community. Even local Markets such as the departments within the dining halls have been accepting and selling their chips and grains. The topic of Diverse economies fits well within the milling industry and Shagbark Mill does a great job showing how a low profile business is stepping up the competition with organic methods of bean and grain distribution. I really hope their name picks up popularity around the community and especially new distributors.
Shagbark Mill was an eye opener for me in many ways but what struck me the most was how much support it, and businesses like it, get from the community. The bottom line is businesses need to turn a profit but Shagbark was opened with the goal to bring quality nutrition to the community and is also an effort toward local food independence. Because so many people believe in what shagbark stands for they were able to start with relatively little in terms of funding, and are sustained by community members who believe in the cause. To me the cool thing about shagbark is they are trying to change how the game is played. They stand for fair trade, social equality, food quality, and community and social enrichment for farmers and business partners. While their food might be expensive now if the market changes because of shagbarks influence the residence of athens will have a more livable wage, a better standard of living, and more nutritious food readily available to them.
The trip to shagbark was not at all what I expected, with a company I hear about all over Ohio I expected the operation to be much larger, but it was overall a great experience and meeting all the interesting people behind the scenes who work there was awesome. I was very interested in the idea of how there are different reciprocity based relationships with local businesses at the farmers market. With all different types of economies being practiced in a more capitalist way it was interesting hearing how before the farmers market opens to the public that they have time to trade and barter with each other which is not a very popular thing done anymore compared to in our past. I also found it very interesting how the owners want to keep the business more to the Midwest region instead of going for more money and trying to focus more on making the community better through sustainable crops that have high nutritional value, and using some of the wealth to help fight poverty in the Midwest. Overall it was very interesting getting a hands on experience putting together things we have learned in class with examples from the real world and it helped me to understand how alternative forms of economics can affect a community in a lot of different ways.
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