Transcript: “Planting Roots in Richland County” with Walt Bonham – S2 E2


Richland County is a family of communities, and Walt Bonham helps tie those communities together with food. Bonham returned to Richland County after college and career ventures, and quickly immersed himself in community development, using his specific skills and passions. In this episode of “Workforce Pulse” hear Walt’s story and learn about his involvement in local Urban Farming and Cooperative Growing.


CLINT: Welcome to season two of the workforce Pulse. My name is Clint Knight, Director of Workforce Development here at the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development. In Season 2, we’re going to hear stories from individuals who live, work and play here in Richland County, and we’re excited to share those stories with you. The message here is that there is space for everyone here in Richland County. We’re going to hear the stories of how they’ve found their space, how they’ve created their space, and how they’ve discovered space for the things that they love to do, the things that they wanted to do, and the families and opportunities that they wanted to create. Make sure that you subscribe and follow Workforce Pulse as you can hear each of these stories as they come out here over the coming months.

Welcome back to the Workforce Pulse Podcast. We’re here today with Walt Bonham, graduate of Mansfield Senior, grew up here in Richland County, has returned, and now owns The Food Lab and works with the urban farming projects and is involved in quite a few things that are going on. I appreciate you coming on and talking to us and sharing your story with us. Let’s start with the fact that you grew up here and then I think you moved away for a little bit. Tell us a little bit about growing up here, your formative years and then where you went when you originally left.

WALT: I was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio, a Mansfield Senior graduate, went to Malabar Senior High. After Senior High, I attended Wittenberg University, went to Wittenberg, did my four years there, hung around in the Fairborn area for about a year and a half or so, then moved to Columbus. I didn’t quite know for sure everything I wanted to do so decided to further my education a little bit more and got my master’s at Ohio Dominican. I then ended up working a few places and trying to figure out different things I wanted to do, until I ended up deciding to create my own business, venture out to try doing a few different things, get more into things I was more passionate about, instead of looking at my life and business and my work and things as just at work and so on. And then I ventured on and moved back to Mansfield.

CLINT: So, when you went to Wittenberg, what were you originally studying? What did you set out to do when you left?

WALT: When I came out of high school, I was definitely confused on what I wanted to do ultimately in life and things. But I knew that I eventually wanted to try to get into business and things and try to venture into either working somewhere really cool or owning something really cool. So, I studied business management with a minor in economics and then my master’s is in management also.

CLINT: You were thinking entrepreneurship probably from the beginning.

WALT: Yea somewhat, so entrepreneurship, working somewhere real cool. A lot of the entrepreneurship came on a little bit later on, once I started really kind of understanding how businesses were working at things, more or less in my master program and different things like looking at things from a higher level. So, it of made me want to venture into, eventually, like I want to start a business and do some different things after I worked and learned more.

CLINT: So, since I do workforce development and I talk about career pathways all day, every day, did you have somebody, was there an educator that said to you, “you would be a good business owner or you have the right brain for this type of work,” or was that something that you had a family member who was doing that type of thing? How did you discover that path or what do you feel sent you on that trajectory?

WALT: A lot of it did come from schooling and things in the master’s program, really thinking of things differently, working a bunch of places, and you get caught up, even if you are successful, kind of get caught up feeling like you got to wait for somebody to die to move up. Or, you know, you got to relocate to try to make more money, and kind of feeling like things are stagnant. Right? Yeah, you know a lot of ways and my career and things. Feeling like that and then also just looking at what I was doing for other companies.

I ventured out to work for Whole Foods really aggressively and started out part-time bagging, just walked in with a master’s and told them like I don’t care, I just want to, you know, figure out things and learn and so on. Eventually, I got up into higher-level management in under two years and in looking at it all, you know and kind of looking at it. I was like man, you know running these larger budgets, you know, having 60 plus employees at one time during higher parts of season and doing different things. I was like, you know what if I had like 10 employees? I had like, you know, I don’t know like a couple $100,000 budget or something like that. I can do a lot of these different things and so on, so you know that kind of really inspired me to really you know, just try to think of things differently. Think about what I wanted to do, the impact I wanted to make, and then how I could start a small business doing a lot of the work I was doing for other folks, just doing it for myself.

CLINT: So, when you were here, high school years, were you thinking, I’m out of here as soon as I graduate, I’m leaving. I’m not coming back. Was that the mentality that you had?

WALT: Yeah, you know what and it isn’t properly branded in Mansfield a lot, especially for you know the high schools and things because you do grow up thinking that, hey go to high school and then you know you got to go to college. Of course, right? Make something of yourself and do something great and go leave and go do something bigger and better or something like that. And I understand that Mansfield doesn’t offer you know everything in the world, but it offers a lot more than what we kind of can realize if you’re not paying attention to it. So like, definitely you know in high school and things I was kind of like the mentality in there behind things.

CLINT: I don’t think that’s unique to Mansfield, though. I think a lot of times that’s the case. You know, we grow up thinking like I’m getting out of here. There’s nothing here for me, and then later in life we figure it out later that we do want to come back. Which is kind of a little bit of your story right?

WALT: Yeah, definitely.

CLINT: So, you talked about working in corporate retail with Whole Foods and other experiences and that kind of led you to thinking what if I could do this my own way? What if I could take what I’ve learned here and run my own business and create my own pathway? So, what led you to come back to Richland County, at what point did that happen after college?

WALT: There was an entrepreneur out here that was opening up a restaurant and then through me deciding to make some different changes and things to kind of go down this path of like I’m going to grow food and want to start a business, I was just kind of communicating and talking to people about it, so I got connected with a woman that opened up a small restaurant in Mansfield and I said, you know what, I want to help her do it. A lot of things that I had did to previously leading up to that, even like working at Whole Foods, I treated it like big internships, like hopping on food trucks and doing the Whole Foods thing, visiting gardens and volunteering for things and different things and so on. So, I want to treat that opportunity like a way to learn how to manage a small business, manage a restaurant and food and things and so on.

So, I moved back to help out with that and that’s how I end up getting attracted to the project that was going on in Mansfield with the farming and growing food, because it connected what I wanted to do with the catering and my business, The Food Lab, build, grow, feed, right? So, kind of going from seed to stomach and those type of things.

CLINT: So, there was already a project happening here in Downtown Mansfield, specifically, with the North End Community Improvement Collaborative and Ohio State with the Urban Farming Project, right?

WALT: It was called the Microfarm Project and of having urban farmers as one part of it mixed in with the rural farms, as well.

CLINT: OK. So, when you came back, how did you get connected with that from the beginning?

WALT: Man, it was really funny. I actually got an e-mail. It was like but right when I was in the process of moving back, I got an e-mail about the symposium that was happening, because I spoke about me wanting to grow food and get into different things and so on. They said, hey, you know there’s this project. They’re getting people together to kind of figure out if this is possible and things, so I got the flyer like, I was like man, this seems really cool. They forwarded me the information they were actually a former employee of NECIC that I just knew and grew up with, and then I, you know, marked the date down on my calendar and I made sure that I got there and just stayed with it ever since I showed up that day. I was able to meet a lot of people there at the symposium and just kept showing up to things.

CLINT: So, do you think if you were trying to work your way into a project like that in a larger area, so say you were still in Columbus, or if you were in a larger city, what do you think your experience would be like? How different do you think that experience would be compared to what you experienced here in Mansfield?

WALT: Well, I think that one big difference about Mansfield is like the way everybody is connected in different things and so on. So even when I was just experimenting with my business plan, being able to go down like to the Chamber and things and so on, and then eventually the Chamber was connected to the project and that happened you know at later point in time, and you know different things like that. I think that like the same thing with the NECIC right? NECIC and I have been involved and I was able to get information about, you know, getting a community garden organizer position there even before they became a part of the project. So, I think the community connections between a lot of the organizations and people working together, OSU, Mansfield, being really connected with the inner parts of Mansfield. Things all were in line and kind of came together. So, as I was working with different entities individually and everything was coming together, it just made sense to continue to be a part of things.

CLINT: So, you connected with the Urban Farming right, and then you connected with the Co-Op. Tell us about the Co-Op and how you’re a part of that and where it’s come to at this point.

WALT: So, the cooperative was a part of, stemmed out of the Microfarm Project, being able to get a group of people together with a bunch of small businesses, individual businesses, and collectively come together to grow food on a small level and being able to sell it on a larger scale. So that formed out of the Microfarm project and right now I feel like we are heading into our 4th year, so we spend a year or so plus training, couple years in development and things as part of the project and being researched and then now, we are starting to venture out onto our own right now.

It’s been definitely a journey. It’s been something cool to kind of work with a bunch of different people who all haven’t done this and didn’t have backgrounds in farming to now be all producing food and try to bring in additional income to our businesses through farming.

CLINT: So those are both urban farms and rural farms, so farms that are all over the county, correct?

WALT: Yes, yes, so we have three farms located at the NECIC urban farm, so the NECIC themselves as a farmer, myself, and then Vince Owens Fulfillment Microfarms, and then our other urban farm is Amanda Stanfield of Grow Forth on 4th St, so it’s hard to miss that tunnel as you drive up and down Fourth Street, Senior High, the schools..

CLINT: Where does the food end up? Where does the produce go?

WALT: Yeah, so that is a very interesting question, right? So, we started out with a model, a few different thoughts about, you know this is all experiments, right? To see what can happen of trying to aggregate produce on a larger scale to just kind of 1 individual, institutions, and so on. And then we quickly found, with some of the competition in the market and then COVID happening and so on, started changing everything. Of course, COVID happened right in the middle of our project.

So now we have kind of moved into a model of being able to specialize in what particular people want, what our local community wants, and what some buyers and people who are actually looking for our food want. So, I’m not going to try to convince anybody to pay a little bit more to get your food locally or to get your tomato from a local farmer. I’m actually going to the organizations and people who are searching for those types of food. Right now, our food goes, Hudson Essex is a big buyer of us regularly. We have some different food sheds and food hubs that buy our food. Stoodt’s Market is a buyer of our food.

Speaking of the institutional buyers, we have a partnership going on now that our cooperative just started with Yellowbird Foodshed that we are going to start being able to offer farm share boxes to our community in Richland County. You’ll be able to pick them up on Fridays or you’d be able to get him delivered right to your house, and then they will contain not only our food from Richland County and our cooperative foods, but you’ll be able to also get additional produce for other local farmers in Ohio.

And so that’s one way that we’re trying to distribute our food and get our food out there. We are now at our farmers’ market at NECIC Urban Farm on Thursdays, from 4-7, so that’s another way that we are able to distribute food and get our food also.

CLINT: So, you’ve got locally grown and sourced food, and you’re providing local markets, local restaurants, and now directly to the consumer.

WALT: Yeah, and then we wanted to always do more of a direct consumer approach to things, but trying to build a business and trying to get rid of that much produce on a level to make a farmer successful, we had to include that into the model too. So you know now, we’re looking into trying to partner with schools and trying to partner with other institutional buyers and things that are looking for our produce, because through our cooperative, our farmers are becoming GAP certified, the Agricultural Practices Business Certified and so on, that will open up the door to work with larger buyers and markets on a smaller scale for a farm that can operate with multiple farms together to make a larger order and impact.

CLINT: Did you see that happening when you came back to Mansfield? Is that something that you had set out to do, or is that something that came together because of the network that you were able to get involved in?

WALT: Yeah, a lot of it, just literally, just organically, naturally came together and formulated. I moved back to just think about, trying to learn to become a farmer a little bit, get into catering and things. I have also been able to cater over the years and things too grateful for those opportunities. And just try to just build my small business, build a small storefront or truck or something and different things, while found access to be able to grow my own food and offer that seed to stomach experience. A lot of things that happen now just formulated through opportunities that have presented to do something different to make an impact in the food system. People thinking about things on a bigger level or what things could look like in Mansfield and trying to change things. And me being, just from my past and background, stepping into the cooperative and things, kind of opening up the opportunities for me to try to help those things happen.

Now we’re working with schools. It’s good to be able to see a high tunnel go to my old middle school, and working with my old high school to get farming going there and offering college credit for kids in agriculture now. So, this project has spun into many opportunities. We’re working with working with RICI, getting guys out and training them on farming and things and giving them community service opportunities. Just tons of different opportunities. And now, like I said, being able to offer those food boxes to the community, those farm share boxes with our Richland County food in it is a big deal, something different.

CLINT: So just in a few sentences you mentioned, so you’re working with the high schools, you mentioned RICI, which is a correctional institution. We already mentioned the North End Community Improvement Collaborative. That’s a large cooperative, not just food cooperative, but an educational and resource cooperative that’s been created there.

WALT: Yes, we’re trying to create opportunity. I often talk about doing things outside of the produce, right? The produce and the food is one thing, but the impact that even growing the food brings and the opportunities that growing the food can create speak more and are worth more than even the value of the produce.

CLINT: That’s amazing work. We didn’t even mention the catering really. I mean you mentioned it a couple times, but you own Food Lab, as well. So, tell us about what that is. I know that you mentioned that as part of the vision, but tell us a little bit about that.

WALT: Well, the Food Lab kind of was created with the vision to kind of build, grow, feed. So being able to 1 physically build different aspects around, like being able to grow your food, so building high tunnels building beds and things, and I wanted to be able to offer that experience to help other people be able to grow food, originally on my concept, and now I kind of been able to offer it on a larger level, like being able to manage a farm and build capacity at the school level and even in other communities now as we’re expanding our project. Then the feed part, built and grow part, of course, was just that growing food itself, but then also like growing awareness around like eating different food, growing opportunities for people to have access to food. Then the feed part is going a little bit above and beyond physically feeding people the food and going beyond just selling produce and things, but actually being able to chop it up and go to seed to the stomach and being able to say that hey, I put my hands on this and being able to cater it at the same time. So right now, I’m primarily focus on my consulting for NECIC and also consulting and helping develop our cooperative, but I have been able to do a lot of catering gigs and literally offer tons of food that we grow through our cooperative and that other farmers have offered and food that I have actually grown myself.

CLINT: It sounds like you’ve been able to come home and create something that is completely different every day.

WALT: Yeah, you know it’s always evolving. There are tons of opportunities. That’s kind of what the sense of what the project was kind of thought of. We know Mansfield is spending millions of dollars on produce every day, right every week, every day and so on thousands, millions, whatever. And how much of it has been grown in Richland County or Mansfield? Then those farmers that are out there on the outskirts and trying to do those things, they need help and we know that. So how can we correlate that and capture some of that money, but then also, how can we get some food in Mansfield distributed outside of our community and get our food in other places the same way food comes into our community? So now we are definitely a new dot on the supply chain. We’re right on 71, right on 30. All those intersections that come through Mansfield and things that connect to other communities, it’s good to be able to have a food hub and a group of farmers starting to create produce that can be distributed.

CLINT: That’s amazing. What would you tell 16-year-old Walt Bonham?

WALT: Oh man. I wouldn’t even know where to start with him. Really just, continue to stay open minded, continue to stay aggressive, get ready for a bunch of challenges and things you don’t expect, just stay open minded. I think that’s something that I had to kind of create and learn how to learn and kind of challenge myself in things and kind of put myself in positions that were different and new. Just pushing myself through those journeys and things a little earlier is probably what I would do.

CLINT: I think there’s definitely a culture of open-mindedness right now in this area, in Mansfield, and in Richland County in general, and I think things are progressing. I think things are growing. And they’re changing a lot. What kind of changes have you seen in this area? Having gone away, come back. What do you think the differences, are there differences in the last 10 to 15 years?

WALT: I see a lot more effort to connect the community in the town. I think a lot of people in Mansfield don’t even realize some of the opportunities that are available, and it’s good to see some of those opportunities and figure out different ways to try to reach out now and try to get more people involved on ways to be a part of the change and not a part of the previous problems. So, it’s good to see the new leadership coming into town, new people moving into town over the last years and bringing different ideas. I think a lot of it’s noticeable. I think a lot of things that we went through in the early and mid 2000s in Mansfield, we’re still trying to recover, but now it’s a different attitude towards it and I’m grateful for that.

CLINT: It’s definitely an encouraging place to be. I relocated here 10 years ago or so and it’s exciting. These are exciting times. I feel like there’s lots of space for entrepreneurship. Lots of space for dreaming. Lots of space for growing here and people are coming and doing the things that they want to do, and they’re able to make a living doing it.

WALT: Yeah, I would definitely say, like even my closest friends that I graduated with, right around the same year I did, you know they’re all over the place. You know other countries, other states, and there’s a little bit of Mansfield probably everywhere. You know the people that who grew up in this town or grew up in this area and then moved out. I think we can bring a lot of those skills and a lot of that talent back here. There is opportunity here. It’s a little harder, but there are people here that are connected that want to see that change and want to see those things happen and want to see some of these buildings back open, some of these vacant lots turned into different things. It’s hard to capture that. It’s hard to capture how much talent is really from Mansfield, but not in Mansfield. It’s good to try to bring some of that back and to do something different for our kids and the generation and folks that are coming to Mansfield now.

CLINT: Well, we’re happy to have you back and we appreciate you coming on the Workforce Pulse here and sharing your story with us, Walt.

WALT: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

CLINT: Thanks for listening to the Workforce Pulse Podcast. Make sure you subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, so that you can be aware when the next episode is available.