County planning officials intend to promote the fruits -- and vegetables, plants and livestock -- of local farmers' labor to bolster the regional economy and encourage healthier eating.

County planning officials intend to promote the fruits - and vegetables, plants and livestock - of local farmers' labor to bolster the regional economy and encourage healthier eating.

Half of Fairfield County, more than 175,000 acres, is made up of farmland.

That's a lot of land and, according to the Fairfield County Regional Planning Commission, it represents even greater potential.

Backed by the recent receipt of a $5,000 grant from The Ohio State University's Center for Farmland Policy, the commission will kick off a series of monthly meetings in February to gather information and ideas about the county's farmers, their produce and livestock.

The end result, officials say, will be the creation of an agricultural economic development plan, which will promote local farmers, help generate more sales of their crops and livestock by area restaurants and retailers and, ultimately, kick-start the county's economy and facilitate healthier diets.

"We have 177,000 acres of farmland in Fairfield County, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture," said Holly Mattei, executive director of the Fairfield County Regional Planning Commission. "In Ohio, the agriculture industry is a $93-billion industry, and we want to keep some of that money in Fairfield County."

The commission, with the help of the grant, the OSU City and Regional Planning Program, the Fairfield County Economic Development Department and the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District, already has formed a committee to examine the county's farm base and determine how better to ensure its goods are distributed and sold locally by food processors, restaurants and retailers.

The committee consists of five Fairfield County farmers, five food processors, five retailers and 15 policy-makers representing agencies such as the Fairfield County Farm Bureau, Fairfield County Department of Job and Family Services and Fairfield County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

"Agriculture is Ohio's No. 1 economy," said John Torres, organization director of the Fairfield County Farm Bureau. "In a time when we see so much bad news about the state and national economies, agriculture is still a bright, shining light.

"We want to make sure we keep farm families in business so they can help the local and state economies. Fairfield County has some of the best, prime soil in the state of Ohio, and we want to make sure we protect its use."

The first of the committee's monthly meetings - to be held through June - is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Fairfield County Courthouse. The meeting, as well as subsequent ones, will be open to the public, and Mattei said she hopes Fairfield County farmers and others with ideas for promoting local farming and sales of local food will attend.

Through those meetings, the program partners hope to develop a plan that will focus on specific barriers to incorporating local foods into existing business operations. They also will seek to provide policy recommendations for the long-term integration of local foods into county businesses and restaurants to promote sustainable economic growth to support county farmers, Mattei said.

"By doing that, I think it will help grow our economic base, help preserve our local farmland and also create a healthy community by providing local, fresh and nutritious foods to our residents," she said. "We also want to set up one-on-one meetings with local businesses to understand what their goals are for providing local foods and find out what their barriers are.

"This is building upon our 2002 land-use plan that was adopted by the Fairfield County Regional Planning Commission and the Fairfield County commissioners, which focused on strengthening our use and promotion of our farmland."

Following the monthly meetings, the OSU City and Regional Planning Program will write the plan, which will be presented to local farmers, businesses and, potentially, state and federal legislators.

Additional information about the development of the plan and participating in the public meetings and planning process can be obtained by calling Mattei at (740) 652-7110.

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