Article by Kat Tenbarge and Kevin Biggs.
The Ohio Pawpaw Festival raises awareness for more than its famous fruit. It sets the standard for sustainability and economic development in Athens County and beyond.
Video by Nate Doughty.
Athens County is the pawpaw capital of the world. The fruit, commonly described as having a banana taste and a mango texture, is plentiful in southeastern Ohio, where the agriculture industry employs one in seven people. Sustainability issues hit close to home, or in many cases, close to backyard.
“For me, this is the epicenter of all that is fair and just and imaginative in this region,” said Charlene Suggs, an educational coordinator with UpGrade Athens County. “Here we have energy, sustainable agriculture, all these pieces are people that care about this land, care about this place and want to nourish it. Because when you nourish land, you nourish yourself.”
Suggs spent her weekend at the Energy Village, a 30-by-60 foot tent at the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival. Surrounded by solar-powered sewing machines, biofuel popcorn cookers, resource conservationists and kid-friendly sensory exhibits, Suggs was in her literal natural element.
“I love the Earth and I’d love to continue to be a happy species,” Suggs said. “A lot of people are doing agriculture around here and the energy sector is largely unattended, it’s not as glamourous. Everyone uses energy. So when we’re together creating a world that none of us really want, we need to recreate it.”
Clean energy passes consumer test, giving fossil fuels a rest
One person working to recreate the energy sector is Robby Ryan, the Southeast Ohio sales executive for Dovetail Solar and Wind. Ryan is young and energetic, a perfect face for a campaign targeted at millennial environmentalists. But Dovetail has been in business for over two decades, providing weekly solar panel installations for residential homes and commercial operations.
“I just see that there’s a current problem with how we’re extracting energy, with mountaintop removal and coal. It’s causing all these issues and pollution and we’re at the point where we can use solar energy to change the world,” Ryan said. “Every single day it’s becoming cheaper. A solar panel was $5 a watt 10 years ago, now it’s just three and a half dollars a watt. It’s half of what it used to cost just a decade ago.”
For a home consumer using an on-grid system, Ryan estimates that it would take 12 to 13 years to pay off a new solar grid. The homeowner would pay the bank, versus an energy company. Once the grid is paid off, homeowners can rely on free energy for up to 15 years.
“I think our future energy consumption will likely be a melting pot of different alternative energy sources, but solar is definitely a big part of that,” Ryan said. “Getting the energy is not a problem — it’s storing the energy we need to work on. Once we’re able to do that, we’ll be able to get rid of this whole land system that we’re currently in.”
Another alternative energy source that homeowners can take advantage of is biofuel. Instead of irreplaceable fossil fuels, biofuels are made from naturally-occurring organic material, such as animal and plant waste matter. Traditional wood stoves can actually be replaced with biofuel companions, explained David Clark of The Heat Zone.
“Lumber yards or furniture companies use an extruder to compress leftover sawdust and turn it into a pellet, which you can burn in your home. It’s a little more convenient than your traditional wood stove, you don’t have to cut wood or chop wood,” Clark said. “It’s still the same heat, very high-output heat. The wood stoves we sell are really efficient and they reduce emissions.”
When wood is burned in a chimney, it releases fuel directly into the air. Clark’s system circulates and cycles the output, so what it eventually releases is comparatively little.
“The system is efficient, and it’s a sustainable heat source because it uses wood scraps,” Clark said. “This is probably our first real venture into sustainability, so being here in today feels really good.”
Local merchandise sold for the fairest price
Sustainable businesses were housed under the Energy Village tent, but on the outskirts of the festival, the Artisan and Community Marketplace featured rows and rows of artisans selling unique ornaments and decorations. Amanda Buchanan, the art-vendor coordinator for the festival, set up her booth among the other artisans, where she sold fused glass jewelry.
For Buchanan, Pawpaw Fest brings a rare opportunity to expand business and gain publicity that isn’t ordinarily available to independent vendors.
“What it does is, because most of us are local and we give preference to Ohio companies and businesses, it gives us exposure outside of our area. It helps all of us develop a new customer base,” Buchanan said.
The festival draws in thousands of people from Ohio and beyond, which allows these skilled artists to sell their products to a wide variety of customers while keeping a majority of the profits.
“The booth fee is 10 percent of your take,” Buchanan said. “So if there’s bad weather, the festival doesn’t do as well because the artisans don’t do as well. So we all contribute to the success of the festival, monetarily anyhow.”
The direct business-to-customer contact allows each vendor to gain recognition, as opposed to selling products at a retail location. However, many of these artisans’ goods can be found at local stores like Mountain Laurel Gifts on Court Street, which subsequently promotes local businesses in Athens.
Other vendors that capitalize at the foodie festival are local breweries, whose pawpaw-flavored beers are a highlight, explained Keith White, the beer-token sales coordinator.
“Little Fish is in town, Devil’s Kettle is in town, Maple Lawn is just down the road… then there’s Jackie O’s. Black Box Brewing is from out of town and North High Brewing is from out of town, but the majority of these are in town,” White said.
The festival gives each brewery generous publicity and accentuates its signature flavors with the pawpaw theme.
The beer garden represents nine different microbreweries that offer a variety of options for attendants, with 10 different pawpaw-inspired beers, six alternative flavors and three non-alcoholic pawpaw sodas.
Pawpaw Fest also hosts a brewers’ round table and tasting, which further promotes each microbrew and allows guests to sample each of the different beers. Each microbrew represented gets a chance to present its product directly to consumers, forming a rapport with beer fans and gaining name-recognition.
“Beer is obviously a really important part of the money flow at the Pawpaw Festival,” White said. “It’s a very low-cost festival with lots of attractions for kids, lots of free things you can do in the park, and beer is a big part of making all that possible.”
Without a trace, the cleanest space
Solo cups and plastic containers are a staple of most festivals, but Pawpaw took extra care in using reusable drink cups and having special bins for trash, recycling and compost.
Shannon Pratt-Harrington, an Americorp volunteer with Rural Action, was in charge of the festival’s waste stream. Along with a team of workers, she sorted every piece of trash generated throughout the weekend.
“Zero waste ideally means zero waste. For us, if 90 percent of everything generated at the festival is reused, composted or recycled, that is zero waste,” Pratt-Harrington said.
Across the parking lot from Rural Action’s Zero Waste Event Productions tent was a staggeringly-high structure made of cardboard boxes. Kids doused in paint ran in circles around sidewalk chalk decals and messily taped, sprawling cardboard appendages.
“We’ve been collecting cardboard for three years in trailers,” said Joanna Sokol, a junior meteorology and plant biology major and volunteer with Bobcats Recycle. “Every year it would always rain, but Pawpaw finally gave us the OK.”
Sokol and a team of OU students created the Chateau de Cardboard, a recycling effort that broke the Guinness World Record for tallest cardboard castle that day. Reaching 18 feet in height, the kid-tested creation beat its predecessor by three feet of pure plant pulp.
“I’ve always cared about the environment and recycling is one of the easier things you can do, especially at OU,” said Abraham Kitchen, another Bobcats Recycle volunteer and senior plant biology major. “For me, it’s cool to see what goes on behind the scenes at the recycling center. Move-in day is always nuts, and football weekends.”
From sustainable businesses to local jewelry crafters to students enthusiastic about mini-fridge packaging, the Pawpaw Festival brought out its greenest supporters to celebrate everything environmentally friendly on the shores of Snowden Lake. Passionate about protecting plant and animal life, these volunteers’ visions were sweeter than the pawpaw fruit itself.
“I grew up in Southeastern Ohio and it’s the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen, so for me it’s a really personal issue,” Pratt-Harrington said. “I’ve seen that if I don’t take care of my nature, I won’t be able to see these hills and trees and I won’t be able to have four seasons of the year. I have to be sustainable so that I can enjoy this land and the kids in this area can enjoy this land.”