Online project in works for local produce research

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In the past decade, the nation has rediscovered the value in producing food close to the demand -- not just because it tastes better but also because it builds community, helps with nutrition, generates economic development and can even offer food safety benefits.

With experiments in urban gardening or local produce sourcing popping up in one region and research on how to connect farms with customers in another one, people interested in applying best practices to their own efforts often are forced to hunt around for details or just plunge in on their own.

"We know all this work was going on," said Brian Raison, assistant professor of community development at the Ohio State University Extension in Troy, Ohio. But tracking it down isn't always easy.

This is the kind of project for which the Cooperative Extension Service was created more than a century ago. The nationwide, noncredit educational network, which gets federal support and is tied to the land-grant universities, was once best known for sending out its agents to share research with small farmers or with rural homeowners.

A new online project -- -- is under way to create one source for research on subjects ranging from parenting to raising poultry in the backyard to soil testing, all gathered by Extension offices around the country.

There are dozens of expert communities being formed to establish protocols in different knowledge areas, and Pittsburgh is serving as a sort of de facto headquarters for the "food systems" piece of the project, looking at all the parts of creating a regional network that connects those growing food with those buying it -- either for use in products or consumption -- with those selling it.

This weekend, a group of about 30 experts connected with the Extension service met at the Cambria Suites Pittsburgh hotel at the Consol Energy Center, Uptown, to hash out details on making information involving local food systems easily available to the public.

"These kinds of food systems can generate jobs," as well as help small farms, noted Sharon Lezberg, associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led a session Tuesday morning to help the group define what their focus would be. "There's a whole host of benefits."

The group gathered here in part because Penn State University's College of Agricultural Sciences was already involved in a long-term project to evaluate regional food systems in the Northeast and enhance food security of underserved populations.

Since the eXtension project needed a food systems component, the Penn State Center-Pittsburgh applied for a $50,000 grant to form a community of experts that would build the online database. The grant was approved in late May, and the list of participants from all over the country -- including California, Missouri, Virginia, Vermont, Delaware, North Carolina, Kentucky and Maryland -- quickly assembled.

Virtual discussions began right away, said Deno De Ciantis, director of the Penn State Center-Pittsburgh, but it was important to get together and lay the groundwork for everything from what software to use (they decided to share papers using Google Docs) to whether to include information on organic farming (no, but they'll point users to that information elsewhere on the site).

Among the subjects the community may address are marketing issues, production and partnering with economic development groups.

Within a few weeks, Mr. De Ciantis said, the group should have its basic framework set up, although it will take awhile to build up content on the website and then there will be the matter of maintaining the flow of fresh materials.

Eventually, the improved flow of information could contribute to stronger food systems around the country.

On Sunday, the hosts took their visitors on a tour of local food system initiatives, including Grow Pittsburgh's Braddock Farms and the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District.

"Pittsburgh has an exciting and rapidly evolving regional food system," said Heather Mikulas, who works in Allegheny County with the Extension service. "While there are wonderful examples all over the country, Pittsburgh is one of those examples."

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Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.


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