CORVALLIS, Ore. — The way Lauren Gwin sees it, helping small farmers and processors thrive is right in Oregon State University’s sweet spot as a land-grant university. It’s all about collaboration, sharing information and wading through the regulatory thicket.
A successful local food system, she says, bridges the gap between farmers and community nutrition and public health in a way that producers don’t get caught in the “price-point conundrum.” Meaning they can make a living while providing people access to an affordable, healthful diet.
It’s a complicated challenge, but it has become part of the College of Agricultural Sciences’ mission at OSU. Gwin is associate director of the college’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems. She and center Director Garry Stephenson head up a program that helps beginners and small-scale producers learn how to raise crops, operate machinery, find markets, improve soil, understand regulations and many other lessons.
Meanwhile, Gwin has emerged as one of the country’s go-to experts in small-scale meat processing. She co-founded the national Niche Meat Processor Network, an online service that allows small processors to pose questions, offer suggestions, figure out the rules and support each other with peer-to-peer consulting.
She’s also developed an Introduction to Food Systems course at OSU.
To her, the term local food takes on a regional definition. Some food can be grown in close proximity to markets, but others — such as beef — need more landscape.
“When I talk about local food I’m talking about environmentally regenerative, possibly organic, humane and minimizing the use of external inputs,” she said.
The OSU small farms center is expanding its focus beyond ground-level operations to include long-term profitability, Gwin said.
Not every county needs or can support a meat processing plant, for example, but there are ways local producers can cooperate to save money and time. Small producers might share livestock transportation to a plant, so one producer isn’t wasting time and money taking just a few head “over the mountain” for processing.
“We have a vision for agriculture and food in Oregon and the region and the country,” she said. “These farms will persist.”
A combination of technical knowledge, business management and supportive political and consumer environments will help that come about, Gwin said.
“It’s important to our economy that these things thrive,” she said.
Position: Assistant professor and Extension Service food systems specialist, Oregon State University. Associate director of OSU’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems.
Personal: 44, two daughters, Lillie and Susannah. Husband Clint Epps is a wildlife biologist and an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Background: Grew up in Connecticut, was an English and liberal arts major at Harvard, earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Policy and Management from the University of California-Berkeley. At OSU since 2008.
Notable: Co-founded and coordinates the Niche Meat Processor Network, an online resource to help small processors wade through regulatory issues, share tips, ask questions.
At a glance: Bubbling with information and enthusiasm for local food systems, small growers and processors and the need to help them thrive. “You ask a simple question, you get a pageant,” she says. “I come from a long line of people who tell very long narratives.”