Archive for the ‘Sustainable Agriculture in the News’ Category

Ohio cattle ranchers rebuilding herds

Monday, July 21st, 2014
The Columbus Dispatch
By JD Malone
7/17/14

On Saturdays at the Worthington Farmers Market, Licking County rancher John Wiley sells every piece and package of beef he brings.

Thanks to historic high prices for both beef and live cattle, Wiley’s grass-fed cuts aren’t cheap, but that hasn’t hurt his sales, and he’s working to produce more.

High prices, unrelenting demand and decent weather have Ohio’s cattle herds once again on the rise. Buckeye ranchers added 2 percent to their stock this year over last, one of the few states to do so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

But unlike businesses that make toys, cars or computers, adding production capacity at the ranch level isn’t as easy as throwing up a new building or contracting with another manufacturer. It’s complicated by fickle markets, biology and weather, say Wiley and other experts.

Beef is a different sort of animal.

Americans have a love affair with beef, and insatiable demand in a headwind of historic prices proves it.

“We’ve seen demand continue to increase,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, which tracks the restaurant industry. “Consumption is up. Consumers like their beef and burgers.”

The U.S. beef herd has long been in decline. The nation’s herd size peaked in the 1990s and has lost 38 million head since. It is now as small as it was in 1951, when there were half as many Americans to feed, according to USDA and U.S. census records.

Recent droughts — the widespread calamity of 2011 and the current rainfall deficit in the West — have prompted ranchers to cull millions from their herds because they have become too expensive to feed.

“We are starting to see signs of some hints toward expansion,” said Elizabeth Harsh, president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. “Ohio has been fortunate. … We have been in a different weather pattern. Beef producers are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

Ohio’s pasture and range lands are in good shape, with 93 percent in fair to excellent condition, according to the USDA’s latest crop report. In major beef-producing states such as Texas, Kansas and Colorado, 20 percent to 35 percent of pastures are in poor to very poor condition. In California, the report rated 75 percent of pasture as poor to very poor.

Partly because of good grazing conditions, Ohio’s ranchers kept more heifers (young female cows) to breed and are looking to grow their herds as their operations allow, Harsh said. Wiley has added 20 cows to his operation, Up the Lane Farm, through the past couple of years, but he is now at capacity.

Wiley said his fellow ranchers struggle with the decision to cash in their cows at today’s prices or hold a few back and grow a bit to see if tomorrow brings even better returns.

“Some of these guys are more likely to hang on when the prices are up,” Wiley said. “The animals are worth so much money, it is almost too expensive to turn them into meat.”

Calves are sold by weight, and weigh between 450 to 800 pounds. Prices for calves in June 2013 ranged from $640 to $1,000, the USDA said. This June, prices ranged from $1,000 to $1,600.

“We keep raising our (retail beef) prices to keep up,” Wiley said. “But everything we do keeps costing more; everything from hay and the price of calves. I would say it has doubled in about five years.”

Because of the high price of calves and low herd count, fewer animals are being sent to slaughter this year, the USDA said. Harsh and Wiley agree that there are fewer cows at local processors.

If true expansion happens, it’ll come slowly.

“Predictions aren’t for a rapid expansion anytime soon,” said Stephen Boyles, a beef expert with Ohio State University Extension. “I see interest, but I’m not sure I have seen a lot of action.”

To hold back a heifer to expand a herd through breeding and raising a calf is a two- to three-year commitment, Boyles said. That is a long-term investment without a guarantee that prices will remain high. Just buying a calf and raising it for slaughter takes 12 to 18 months.

Wiley said his customers often ask why he doesn’t bring more meat to the farmers market when he knows he has a strong customer base.

“What I tell people is that the animals I have now are the ones I bought two years ago,” Wiley said. “I didn’t know you’d be here two years ago.”

Checkoffs: More and more of the same

Monday, July 21st, 2014
Farm and Dairy
By Alan Guebert
7/10/14

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there now are federal commodity checkoffs for beef, blueberries, Christmas trees, cotton, dairy products, eggs, fluid milk, Hass avocados, “Honey Packers and Importers,” lamb, mango, mushrooms, paper and paper-based packaging, peanuts, popcorn, pork, potatoes, processed raspberries, softwood lumber, sorghum, soybeans and watermelons.

Let’s see, that’s 1, 2, 3… whoa, 22.

These 22 federally mandated, largely nonrefundable, commodity checkoffs raise most of an estimated $750 million per year from U.S. farmers and ranchers to promote everything from, well, avocados to watermelons.

Wait, there’s more

Long as that menu is, however, it’s not the whole checkoff enchilada. USDA operates another 35 or so federal commodity marketing orders and many states oversee dozens more local commodity checkoffs.

For example, there are at least 22 state corn checkoffs — for varying amounts per bushel; some refundable, some not — that contribute a portion of their money to a coordinated national corn promotion effort.

Also, many state beef groups either now have or are pursuing statewide beef checkoffs to add up to another $1 per head to fund state-specific beef promotion programs on top of the $1-per-head nonrefundable federal checkoff each beef and dairy producer already pays upon sale of their animals.

Combine state and national checkoff collections and it’s guessed — because checkoff data is not compiled — that American farmers and ranchers pay $1.25 billion per year for commodity promotion and research.

Organic checkoff?

That pile will grow if the Organic Trade Association, a self-described “membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America,” is able to sway federal lawmakers to endorse an organic checkoff in the next two years.

OTA claims a checkoff would carry benefits for farmers and industry alike. It sees the money, pegged between $20 million and $40 million per year, as a way to “distinguish organic in the market place, grow demand and help the consumer understand all that organic delivers.” (Links to documents are posted at http://farmandfoodfile.com/in-the-news/.)

To raise the money, OTA is pushing an assessment plan it calls “broad and shallow” for everyone in the organic “supply chain.” Everyone “means not only producers,” according to OTA, but also “handlers, brand manufacturers, co-packers (and) importers.”

Exempted from paying any checkoff, however, would be “organic certificate holders” (most players in the U.S. organic market must be “certified” organic by USDA) with gross annual sales of $250,000 or less.

The proposed assessment advocated by OTA is 1/10 of 1 percent of gross organic revenue greater than $250,001 per year. “For example,” OTA explains, “there would be a $1,000 assessment at $1,000,000 gross organic revenue.”

‘One-sided.’

While OTA’s checkoff plan is relatively broader and cheaper than its federal siblings, most organic farmers see little need for it.

Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, recently posted a lengthy discussion on NODPA’s website on what he calls OTA’s “one-sided propaganda campaign” for the checkoff.

In fact, writes Maltby, the push by OTA, “a trade organization using emotive language and a well-financed program,” will be “counter-productive at a time when the [organic] community needs to be united in the face of many marketplace and USDA threats…”

Most farmers and rancher, however, continued to support state and national commodity checkoffs despite little independent evidence to suggest any of billions spent on checkoffs in the last 25 years has had any material impact on prices received by farmers and ranchers.

Indeed, checkoff detractors often point to the dramatic drop in farmer and rancher numbers over the life of current checkoffs as simple proof that farm- and ranch-financed promotion efforts have had little to no impact whatsoever on farm and ranch prices, profits and lives.

They’re right, checkoffs should be about more farmers making more, not fewer maker more. As such, it’s hard to see how the latest checkoff scheme is little more than more of the same.

Wooster farmers form cooperative to sell food in Cleveland, aided by USDA grant

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
By Debbi Snook
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
March 16, 2014

Monica Bongue sees Ohio like many others in the local food movement: As a state rich in possibilities, with three big, hungry cities surrounded by a lot of productive farmland.

The owner of Muddy Fork Farm in Wooster sells weekly subscriptions to food she grows, and individual vegetables at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square. Bongue (BON-gay) just needed to build up that rural-urban connection for her and her farming friends.

She was already deeply invested in the food movement, making the commitment to grow certified organic crops and contributing $1,000 to the start of Local Roots Market & Café, the first all-local, farmer- and consumer-owned food store in Ohio, where she serves as president of the board.

The commitment was also deep for her early farming collaborators, Martha Gaffney of Ashland, a native Ecuadorian who farms in the traditional ways of her homeland; Marcus and Beth Ladrach of Wooster, growers of certified organic grains and meats, and Daniel and Jennifer Grahovac of Crooked Barn Farm in Wooster, who produce Certified Naturally Grown crops.

Wooster, home to Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has great passion for these homegrown concepts, but is relatively sparsely settled.

“We were maxed out with our customers,” Bongue told her audience at the recent Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference in Granville. “We were farmers with not enough market.”

A few years ago, she and two other farmers signed on with a Cleveland-based local food buying club. They grew the food, and the club distributed. But the relationship was not what they wanted. They felt they didn’t make a large enough percentage of the profit or have enough interaction with their customers – two of the biggest promises of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

They wanted their own CSA, but as any farmer can tell you, growing food and running a business – especially one with customers 50 miles away – is a plate piled high.

Bongue applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE offers money to farmers and ranchers with innovative, sustainable methods for solving their own problems. Her idea was a success, getting her a $22,500 grant to help start the non-profit Farm Roots Connection Cooperative. It was among the largest SARE farmer grants given in 2013.

The awarding of funds last year came too late in the growing season to launch Farm Roots in full, so Bongue set up trial runs at the Local Roots store in Wooster. She also started a charitable program so that those with money can buy shares for those who cannot afford them. One visit to a church netted $1,000 in donations.

She found small-business help and money from the Ohio Cooperative Development Center, which helped her obtain a lawyer to register the business and set-up a web site. She linked with Local Roots for online ordering, bought computer and packing materials.

Fortunately, the SARE grant also will help pay for her to be the cooperative’s first manager.

“Farmers are busy,” she said. “They don’t have time to manage other farmers.”

Now, she needs to continue building her customer base to help pay for a manager in the future. Farm Roots will drop off to customers at Gordon Square Farmers Market on Cleveland’s West Side, Countryside Farmers Market at Highland Square in Akron and Local Roots in Wooster.

The grant money comes in three installments, each with a requisite amount of paperwork and documentation.

Joan Benjamin, a coordinator for the SARE program in Ohio and other “north central” states, said by phone last week her group’s goal is not only to help farmers solve their own production problems, but also solve problems shared by other farmers.

“The best way to get information to farmers is from other farmers,” she said.

Bongue will eventually file a full-program report that will be available to other farmers as well as the public.

Benjamin says SARE has important success stories in Ohio. Farmers in the northwest part of the state have used the grant money to show how specific methods of planting cover crops (rather than leaving land barren) enriches the soil and helps stop the kind of runoff causing algal blooms in places such as Grand Lake St. Mary’s and Lake Erie. Another farmer used her grant to develop breeding strategies to create resistance to gastrointestinal bugs in sheep.

“They’ve done some remarkable work,” said Benjamin.

Bongue’s grant proposal was, like the others, reviewed by not just administrators but a panel of 25 judges that Benjamin described as “mostly farmers and ranchers.”

The issue of farmers “scaling up” to a livable wage is challenging, said Benjamin.

“There are so many logistical things involved in a solo farmer making it work today. There used to be a lot of farms around, and the infrastructure that was there, is not there anymore.”

Potential impact of fracking worries Northeast Ohio farmers

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

The industry claims farmers’ concerns about water and air quality are unwarranted by WKSU’s VIVIAN GOODMAN This story is part of a special series.

The government is now asking citizens to help in a bid to find safer ways to get at rich deposits of natural gas.

Farmers in Northeast Ohio say there’s a lot at stake, including the safety of local food. WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in this week’s Quick Bite on farmers’ concerns and industry reassurances.

LISTEN:
Windows Media / MP3 Download (4:49)
The U.S. EPA last week called for public comment on ways to develop safer fracking chemicals. Fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — shoots sand, water, and assorted chemicals deep underground. But the industry has no responsibility to tell property owners what’s in the chemical cocktail or to inform them about spills or pipeline breaks..That worries Mick Luber, a lot. “I run Bluebird Organic Farm. We’re in eastern Ohio about 7 miles from Cadiz, in Harrison County” — which is in the heart of Ohio’s fracking boom.He grows vegetables and raises chickens for eggs.“They’re a Hubbard Comet. They’re a cross between a Rhode Island Red and a Bard Rock. The roosters are white, as you can see, and the hens are brown. They lay a brown egg.”Luber called the Ohio EPA two years ago when he saw a chalky white substance trickling out of a hill above his farm where a natural gas well was being drilled. He worried he’d lose his organic certification if it were to contaminate the stream running through his fields of onions, beans, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. “They came out and investigated. They said that they’ve taken care of the problem.”

New worries in farmland
But now he fears other potential impacts. We climb into his truck for a bumpy ride. The roads are ravaged, and he tells neighbors who signed leases with the oil companies they have only themselves to blame.“My neighbors have taken the money. So they’re all in favor of it, until they see the road conditions now that they’ve been running big trucks across the roads,destroying the roads.”

Economic benefits along with the risks
To the contrary, says Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. He says the industry’s investment in infrastructure is a boon to local governments.“They are overjoyed on the money that’s been invested by producers to upgrade roads that were completely trashed out in the first place. In fact, I heard a county engineer tell me once that they had a road going to a well site that was essentially a gravel road and they turned it into a highway.”

Impact up in the air
But when he looks up from the potholes there’s another image farmer Luber can’t get out of his head.“You can see right up through those trees the pad where they currently have fracked and (are) getting ready to flare.”When they do, Luber worries about air quality for his crops below and the health of people who consume them.“All the particulate matter from that well are going to come down on my land, and I’m selling them a product to make them healthy.”But since he sees no current, direct impact, he doesn’t share his fears with customers.

Shoppers unaware
“When you go to a farmers’ market it’s sort of a sunny place where you get away from things and you get fresh vegetables. Talking about what’s terrible happening to you, it gets old for people to have to confront that stuff on a regular basis.”“Could something happen?” asks the Ohio Oil and Gas Association’s Stewart. “Do airplanes fall out of the skies? Do buildings fall down? Do accidents happen? Yeah, accidents happen.”But he says if and when they do, farmers can trust what he calls their industry “partners.”

Nothing to fear from “partners” says the industry
“We care about our relationships with those people because we need them in order to do business. If we have a problem on property are we going to look at our partner and say, ‘Screw you’? No. We’re going to work with them and say, ‘We’ve got an issue here. We’ve got to clean it up.’” Do we need a law in order to do that? I don’t think so.” But the Ohio Environmental Council does. It’s pushing the SAFER gas act to mandate that the industry immediately alert not only government officials, but also farmers when accidents occur. Trent Daugherty directs the OEC’s legal affairs.“People that lease their land aren’t notified when something potentially harmful occurs on their land until there’s a final report by the (Ohio) Department of Natural Resources. And you don’t want a farmer or a farmer’s family, children in their back 40, playing around, or working in an area that’s potentially contaminated or potentially unsafe.”

Fears from afar
One western Stark County farmer doubts a disclosure mandate would pass. “Perhaps once we get a new legislature,” says  Alex Dragovich. “Most of them have accepted oil money, and they have embraced these people.”Dragovich plows his fields the old fashioned way at his Mud Run Farm. “This is Tom. He’s a 5-year old Percheron. Most of the horses we use are Percherons.”Mud Run is well west of the state’s fracking boom, but he sees it coming. He’s turned down several leasing agents who want access to his land.“My biggest concern has always been water. The only water we have on this farm is the water we pull out of the aquifer down here. If at any given time they would start to frack, there is in my opinion a good chance of damaging any water we have.”   He’s afraid of losing his livelihood. “We raised our family here. This has been a good place for us.”

Water is gold
Since most of Dragovich’s neighbors have signed leases with oil and gas companies, he could lose control over his property anyway under the laws of eminent domain. But he still won’t sign.“First off I don’t like to be bullied, and the second reason is I worked 40 years for this place. And those are my mineral rights.”
He understands the value of natural gas and the economic boon it is for many, but it is water, he says, that’s like gold to a farmer.“One lease man said ‘Mr. Dragovich, we are 99 percent sure that you will never have any problems with your water.’ And I said ‘Well, why don’t you put that on your lease here, that you’ll take care of any damages that we have?’ and he says, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ”But farmer Dragovich, according to industry spokesman Stewart, worries in vain.

Fears are unfounded says the industry
“What water that’s flowed back from those wells is disposed here in the state of Ohio according to the landmark federal law known as the Safe Drinking Water Act. We do not put it back in streams. We do not put it back in pits. That’s been against the law since 1984. We construct our wells in such a way that we don’t impact drinking water reservoirs or potential reservoirs underground and on the ground.”Just 10 days ago voters in Mahoning County turned down for the third time a proposed moratorium on fracking, despite a recent Ohio Department of Natural Resources report linking the drilling process to a rash of earthquakes. The Oil and Gas Association’s Tom Stewart says the majority was right.“Is there impact from economic activity? There is. The largest impact I see on farmers is the $5,000 an acre that they’re getting if they sign a lease that says, ‘Come onto my property and drill a well.’”    

$19 billion invested
The state has seen almost $19 billion in investments in more than 100 shale-related projects, about a fifth of those in the Mahoning Valley.Earthquakes in 2012 in Youngstown were linked, according to ODNR, not to hydraulic fracturing, but to injection wells — the dumping ground for oil and gas waste from West Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as Ohio.That’s what has grass-fed beef farmer Mardi Townsend all shook up in seismically-active Ashtabula County.“I definitely fear it. There are four injection wells being heavily used about a mile and a half from me upstream. And two more permits have been applied for drilling two more wells on that same site. And I know that the injection well-casings will fail eventually because all well casings fail. I hope it’s not in my lifetime, but they will fail and they will contaminate the ground water and it will be very bad for people and animals.”But these are groundless fears, according to the industry spokesman, because casings are protected by steel pipes called “strings.”

The case for casings
“That’s not going to happen. You’re putting in casing strings, sometimes up to three casing strings that are all cemented underground through the groundwater reservoir.”Farmers, he says, actually have more to gain than lose from fracking. “The agriculture community are very heavy users of energy. They like the fact that energy prices have moderated where we have Marcellus and Utica production. And we have very high BTU gas being generated (with which) they make all kinds of great things that farmers need, like fertilizer at affordable prices.”

Quakes are commonplace
As for the quakes, he says, no big shakes. Happens every day. “Cal Tech recently said that 8,000 quakes per day fall in the range of 1-point-0 to 1-point-9, similar to what the recent incident was in Mahoning County. People within a mile felt a slight shaking. Do we want that to happen? No. Are there ways to mitigate it? Yes. And we’re working with regulatory agencies now to try to figure that out.”How can you stop an earthquake? He says it’s simple: “Don’t drill into known faults.”

After the boom
Meanwhile, back at Bluebird Farm, Mick Luber just hopes his groundwater’s safe.“But what are you going to do even if you have a spill? You can’t go back and make your water clean.”And Mud Run Farm’s Alex Dragovich hopes Ohio agriculture can survive the natural gas boom.“This thing’s only going to last 20 maybe 30 years. And then we’re going to live with that the rest of our lives.”And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week we find out how the honey bees that pollinate so much of our food made it through the harsh winter.

OEFFA Announces 2014 Stewardship and Service Award Recipients

Monday, February 17th, 2014
COLUMBUS, OH—The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) has named the 2014 recipients for the Stewardship Award and Service Award.
.
Kip and Becky Rondy of Green Edge Organic Gardens in Athens County received the Stewardship Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the sustainable agriculture community, and Ed Perkins of Sassafras Farm in Athens County received the Service Award, which recognizes outstanding service to OEFFA.
.
The announcements were made on Saturday, February 15 and Sunday, February 16 as part of OEFFA’s 35th annual conference, Affirming Our Roots, Breaking New Ground.
.
2014 Stewardship Award Winner—Kip and Becky Rondy
Rondys 2014Kip and Becky Rondy own and operate Green Edge Organic Gardens, a 120 acre certified organic farm in rural Amesville, Ohio. Migrogreens, salad mix, mushrooms, greens, and other seasonal produce are grown year-round using 10 high tunnels and sold at the Athens Farmers Market, two summer and winter community supported agriculture programs which serve more than 400 families, and at stores and restaurants in Athens and Columbus. The farm, primarily tended by hand, employs 13 people, in addition to interns.
.
One of Ohio’s most successful year-round farms, Green Edge Organic Gardens has partnered with Rural Action to provide workshops on high tunnel operation, designed to help agricultural professionals work with farmers to promote season creation practices. As part of this collaborative work with local institutions to support a strong farming community, the Rondys also works with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio University to develop innovative designs for internal covering and venting systems in high tunnels.
.
“Kip and Becky have done a spectacular job at making organics work. They’ve set up a fantastic production system, while growing a business that supports its employees through a living wage and good benefits. At the same time, they continue to help the community by sharing what they’ve learned during on-farm educational workshops,” said Mick Luber, who received the 2007 Stewardship Award and presented the award to the Rondys at the Saturday afternoon ceremony.
.
To learn more about the Rondys and their winter growing, view Our Ohio‘s video here. For a full list of past Stewardship Award winners, click here.
.
2014 Service Award Winner—Ed Perkins
Perkins 2014Ed Perkins owns and operates Sassafras Farm in New Marshfield with his wife, Amy Abercrombie. They grow chemical-free vegetables, herbs, and berries on 2 acres, which are sold year-round at the Athens Farmers Market.
.
A graduate of Ohio University with a Masters degree in botany, Perkins purchased his farm more than 40 years ago and has been an integral part of the Athens local foods community ever since. His regular Our Home column in The Athens Messenger has helped to educate thousands about environmental issues.
.
Perkins is a long-time member of OEFFA and the former president of OEFFA’s Athens Chapter. As one of OEFFA’s most long-standing and active chapter presidents, Perkins hosted and organized local farm tours, potluck meals, and other chapter activities, helping to establish a strong link between OEFFA and the vibrant Athens local food movement.
.
“As one of the founding fathers of the Athens area local food movement, Ed has contributed so much to our community. As a farmer, writer, and organizer, Ed has worked for decades to build a strong OEFFA chapter and the amazing Athens Farmers Market. He and Amy are models of sustainable and simple living at Sassafras Farm, bearing witness to the beauty of lives thoughtfully lived in harmony with nature and community,” said Leslie Schaller, who presented the award to Perkins at the Sunday afternoon ceremony.
.
Perkins is the second recipient of the Service Award, which was created in 2013 to recognize outstanding service to OEFFA.To learn more about Ed, view Ohio University’s video here.
.
“Both the Rondys and Ed care deeply about creating a sustainable food system and have worked for years towards that goal. We should all be grateful for their generosity in devoting themselves to advance sustainable agriculture in our community,” said OEFFA Executive Director Carol Goland.
.
###
About OEFFA
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a statewide, grassroots, nonprofit organization founded in 1979 by farmers, gardeners, and conscientious eaters working together to create and promote a sustainable and healthful food and farming system. For more information, go to www.oeffa.org.
.
For a high resolution photo of the award recipients, please contact Lauren Ketcham at (614) 421-2022 Ext. 203 or lauren@oeffa.org. Please provide photo credit: George Remington, OEFFA.

No matter how you slice it, Ohio’s cheese makes the cut

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

 

WKSU
Friday, December 20, 2013
by Vivian Goodman
 
“Cheese is a very popular product. Everybody likes cheese.”

Brian Moran of Lake Erie Creamery says holidays are great, but Ohio cheese makers are of good cheer all year long.

Moran’s creamery has won national awards for its Blomma.

Which is a blooming rind goat cheese, aged at about three to four weeks before it comes to market, similar to a Camembert or a brie. ”

A cheese boom
Moran’s Cleveland operation was Ohio’s first artisan cheese creamery. It opened in 2006. By 2007 he had five competitors, and today there are 20.

And I know for a fact there are at least three or four getting ready to open either at the end of this year or the beginning of next. The big boom is the local food. People want to know where their food comes from, and I think that is the biggest driver for it.”

A Specialty Food Association survey shows “local” is the biggest cheese trend of 2013.

And Ohioans don’t have to travel far for award-winning cheese.

Hiram’s MacKenzie Creamery claimed 13 national awards in its first four years in business.

Owner Jean MacKenzie is proudest of the goat cheese she makes with cognac and figs. 

“Our little star we call her. Courvoisier cognac and dalmatia figs. And this little cheese has won five of our 13 awards, this one cheese.”

More local cheeses at the grocers
West Point Market stocks MacKenzie’s product along with many of Ohio’s artisan cheeses.

Its cheese shop carries 350 varieties from all over the world, and in the last five years has doubled its supply of locally-made cheeses.

Diana Bole ran the quality grocer’s cheese shop for 27 years. She thinks customers are getting more discerning.

“A lot of them would never taste a goat cheese, not ever. And now with the sampling that we do, washed-rind cheeses which are strong and stinky, where five years ago you couldn’t sell, people will try it now.”

Amanda Zazo and John Griffith of West Akron came to the cheese-tasting ready for adventure. Griffith hadn’t expected so many locally-produced cheeses.

“But come to think of it, with all of the local farms and cow farms, sheep, the fantastic products are there. So why not?”

“My favorite was the goat cheese coated in espresso and lavender,” said Zazo.

But that one came from Wisconsin, the mecca of American cheese-making.

On Wisconsin, but Ohio’s not far behind
Bob Dilcher of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board brought it to the tasting from the state that produces nearly half of America’s specialty cheese. But he has respect for Ohio cheese.

“There’s some great goat cheeses, some great sheep’s milk cheeses from Ohio. Brewster Cheese in Brewster,

Ohio, one of the largest Swiss cheese manufacturers in the country. Terrific Swiss cheese.”

People are eating more cheese, period. In 1970, the average American ate 8 pounds a year. Today it’s 23 pounds.

But what is this “artisanal” cheese?

It’s produced by hand in small batches from cow, sheep and goat’s milk  and often has to be aged and ripened.

One-woman show
Some producers raise their own animals, like Kristyn Henslee of Seville’s Yellow House Cheese. Hers is a farmstead operation.

“That means that everything happens start to finish on our farm. I milk the sheep myself, we make the cheese there, we age it there and sell everything from the farm. I’m kind of a one-woman show. I also have a husband whose a sixth-grade science teacher, so he’s home during the summers to help out. And I have two little girls 8 and 9 who are my absolute super-star helpers.”

Her sheep’s milk blue cheese won an American Cheese Society award in August. And she only started her business two years ago.

Of the 20 artisan cheese makers in Ohio, 16 are women.

Small but award-winning
Henslee’s farm is small and so is  Brian Schlotter’s in Defiance. His  family has been dairy farming for six generations.

Six years ago, after graduating college, Schlotter started making cheese.

His Canal Junction Charloe, winner of an American Cheese Society award, is his own creation.

The first bite tastes buttery and sweet, but then it gets nutty.

“We don’t have any peanuts in the production whatsoever. It is from the milk and the way we handle the cheese afterward in the aging.”

He’s optimistic about the future of artisan cheese making in Ohio. He knows Wisconsin has years on Ohio, and admits that’s a challenge. 

“If you look at the cheese makers in Ohio, the small cheese makers in Ohio most of them are complete newbies to the industry both the dairy and the cheese-making side.”

But he thinks Ohio will catch up. Wisconsin has long had a Master Cheese Maker program.

But in Ohio, where do you find the way — and the curds? 

The Cheese Guild
MacKenzie Creamery’s Jean MacKenzie found herself asking that question.

She worked in real estate for many years before she started making cheese. Her business sense told her a trade organization was needed. So she recently founded the Ohio Cheese Guild.

“We have a representative from a distribution company; we have a chef; we have a retailer. We have cheese makers from small creameries and from large companies. We want to include, we call them the big boys, because we can learn a lot from them.”

Kristyn Henslee of Seville’s Yellow House Cheese was one of the first to join the new guild. She’s not turning a profit yet but…

“We’re working on it. We’re making really great cheeses, and we’re just really hopeful that this is going to work out.”

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week our topic is the mislabeling of fish.

Dale organic farmer uses nature to nurture cheese

Monday, December 9th, 2013
 
Vincennes Sun-Commercial

December 7, 2013

By Tony Raap Jasper Herald

Dale organic farmer

Jerry Steckler changes the wire fencing on a section of pasture on his farm near Dale on Monday to allow his cattle to graze on a fresh portion of grass. By separating the pasture into sections, Steckler ensures that he has pasture for his cattle to continuously graze on through the winter. He makes organic cheese and is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

DALE — What if cows could produce harmony?

Sounds crazy, right? Well, not to Jerry Steckler, who runs an organic dairy farm north of Dale.

Last year, Steckler began producing organic cheese, which is sold under the label Steckler Grassfed in 37 grocery stores and wineries across southwestern Indiana and northern Kentucky. His cows graze on natural grass that is free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Organic milk also has more omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered good for the heart. Though more expensive, organic products have grown in popularity, becoming a $31.5 billion industry, according to the Organic Trade Association of North America.

“Science isn’t smart enough to figure out what’s better for us than nature,” Steckler said. “We don’t have to know how it works. All we need to do is live in harmony with nature. In this case, put the cows out on the pasture where God designed them to be, and through his design the food is automatically better for us.”

Steckler was raised on a conventional dairy farm. In 1987, he and his wife, Marsha, bought a farm of their own about a mile from where Jerry grew up.

Back then, he fed his cows corn and soybeans, just as his parents, Gilbert and Mary, had. Then, in 1994, he attended a seminar sponsored by Purdue University on rotational grazing.

“It clicked in my mind,” said Steckler, who owns about 50 dairy cows.

“There’s so many expenses that you can cut out,” he added.

Going organic meant no more harvesting or storing feed. He would just let the cattle graze from his 170-acre salad bar.

The switch didn’t happen overnight. Steckler slowly phased out his crops, turning his cornfields into a lush pasture. In 2007, his farm was organically certified by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, which certifies farms across the Midwest.

At first, he marketed his milk through Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative in Wisconsin, but later switched to Traders Point Creamery near Indianapolis to get a greater return on the sales price of his milk.

That arrangement lasted only a few months before the creamery told him it could no longer afford to ship his milk.

Rather than finding another distributor, Steckler decided to strike out on his own. For years, he had toyed with the idea of building his own cheese-making facility.

“It just tooka little bit more pressure to get us to decide to go ahead and do it,” said Steckler, who is 53.

His cheese is made from raw milk. Because it isn’t pasteurized, the cheese must age at least 60 days before it is sold, according to federal regulations.

It is stored in wooden crates in an aging room — what Steckler referred to as an “above-ground cave” — where the temperature is kept at 53 degrees.

The softer cheeses — Monterey Jack, colby and pepper jack — are cut up and sold after 60 days. But the cheddar is aged at least nine months before it is taken to market.

“It builds so much more character over that aging time,” said Steckler,whose cheese retails for about $6 for an 8-ounce block.

Stephen and Christy Gordon own Grounded Organic & Natural Foods in Jasper. Several brands of organic cheese line their shelves, but only Steckler’s is locally produced.

“It’s a great offering,” Christy said. “Supporting local is very important, too.”

Steckler said he is proud to produce cheese that is “more in harmony with nature.”

“To make better food available for the people who are wanting it, there’s got to be somebody that’s willing to step out and take the risk and do it,” he said.

Organic Farmers Bash FDA Restrictions On Manure Use

Monday, December 2nd, 2013
NPR
By Dan Charles
November 21, 2013

Many organic farmers are hopping mad at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and their reason involves perhaps the most underappreciated part of agriculture: plant food, aka fertilizer. Specifically, the FDA, as part of its overhaul of food safety regulations, wants to limit the use of animal manure.

“We think of it as the best thing in the world,” says organic farmer Jim Crawford, “and they think of it as toxic and nasty and disgusting.”

Every highly productive farmer depends on fertilizer. But organic farmers are practically obsessive about it, because they’ve renounced industrial sources of nutrients.

So on this crisp fall morning, Crawford is rhapsodic as he watches his field manager, Pearl Wetherall, spread manure across a field where cabbage grew last summer.

“All that green material — that cover crop and the cabbage — all mixed up with that nice black manure that’s just rich and full of good microorganisms, and we’re going to get a wonderful fertility situation for next spring here,” he says

Crawford has been farming organically in south-central Pennsylvania for 40 years.

                                     Crawford has been farming organically in south-central Pennsylvania for 40 years.

Dan Charles/NPR

Crawford, founder of New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, buys hundreds of tons of manure every year from a big turkey farm a few miles away. “It’s really at the heart of our operation for having good, rich soil, and good fertility, so that we have the highest-quality crops.”

It’s also part of a natural cycle, and the basis of organic farming. Most crops strip vital nutrients from the soil. But the nutrients don’t disappear; if you feed those crops to cattle or turkeys, the nutrients mostly end up in manure. For the turkey farmer, the manure is waste. For Crawford, it’s precious. “Cycling nutrients. That’s what it’s all about. Cycling organic nutrients.”

This is a typical practice among organic farmers, especially the smaller ones. But they may now have to change.

The Food and Drug Administration considers manure a food safety risk. Disease-causing microbes, such as salmonella or toxic forms of E. coli, are commonly found in animal waste.

Patricia Millner, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research center in Beltsville, Md., says scientists are now trying to figure out exactly how long such bacteria survive in the soil. “In some cases, salmonella will survive for a few weeks; in other cases, it’ll be reported that it survives for 300-plus days,” she says

Pearl Wetherall, field manager at New Morning Farm, spreads manure.

                                Pearl Wetherall, field manager at New Morning Farm, spreads manure.

Dan Charles/NPR

When they survive, microbes do get on food. Carrots or radishes, of course, grow right in the soil. But bacteria also end up on salad greens. Raindrops, for instance, splash soil and microbes onto the plants.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly how big of a risk this is. But the FDA is saying better safe than sorry.

The agency is proposing new national food safety rules. If those rules are enacted, when farmers spread raw manure on a field, they won’t be allowed to harvest any crops from that field for the next nine months. (This applies only to crops that people eat raw, such as carrots or lettuce.)

The rules don’t cover the smallest farms. They apply to farms with more than half a million dollars in annual sales, or which supply food to supermarkets.

But that includes Crawford’s farm.

He already follows the organic rules; he doesn’t harvest crops within four months of spreading manure. But having to wait nine months — longer than a growing season — would completely disrupt his operations. “We wouldn’t even be able to function,” he says.

There is an alternative: composted manure. The heat from composting kills disease-causing microbes. But Crawford says compost would cost him anywhere from three to six times more than manure. And he just doesn’t see why he should have to switch, because he doesn’t believe that what he does now is at all risky.

Feeding the chickens at New Morning Farm.

                     Feeding the chickens at New Morning Farm.

Dan Charles/NPR

“No one’s ever been sickened by anything we’ve grown, in probably millions of transactions between us and our customers over 40 years,” he says. Crawford sells most of his food at farmers markets in Washington, D.C.

Yet organic farmers are not united in their opposition to the FDA regulations. There’s a divide between large and small producers.

Earthbound Farm, in California, is among the biggest organic producers of salad greens. Will Daniel, the company’s chief food integrity officer, says, “History is not always your greatest ally, unfortunately. We never thought that we would see spinach or other produce involved in outbreaks.” But in 2006, his company’s spinach was linked to an outbreak of E. coli poisoning; 200 people got sick. Three died.

Raw manure was not the source of that outbreak. (There’s evidence the E. coli could have come from wild pigs that got into the fields.) But Daniel says using manure does involve risks that his company won’t take.

Instead, Earthbound Farm uses mostly “a pelletized, processed chicken manure product” that’s been treated with heat and pressure to kill all microbes.

“We’ve gone in that direction because we feel that it’s very important to assure that we are not spreading these pathogens in our fields, that could lead to contaminated product,” he says.

Daniel supports the FDA’s proposed rules on manure. Many smaller organic farmers, meanwhile, are sending the FDA a blizzard of comments, arguing that the environmental benefits of using manure far outweigh the risks.

Farm Apprenticeships: Keeping Farmers From Going Extinct

Sunday, November 10th, 2013
 
Mother Earth News
By Mary Lou Shaw
August/September 2013

Farm Apprentices Tend Caretaker Farms

Farm apprentices enjoy hands-on experience growing food at Caretaker Farms in Williamstown, Mass. While most farm apprenticeships are unpaid, Caretaker Farms provides a monthly living stipend

Small-scale farmers and homesteaders are in a powerful position to bring about the changes our food system desperately needs. By growing food locally and sustainably, farmers improve the physical, economic and ecological health of their communities.

Today’s average farmer is in his or her late 50′s. These farmers will need replacements, and their numbers need to be dramatically increased. Transferring their knowledge to future farmers is vital to the expansion of the emerging sustainable food system.

Young Farmer Nights

Young Farmer Nights (YFN) are bi-weekly social and educational events where young and beginning farmers gather to share ideas, a meal and stories. Each event includes a farm tour, a potluck dinner and other host-inspired activities. In 2013, YFNs also include informational workshops.

Industrial agriculture is disastrous for the soil and environment, animal welfare, and local economies — not to mention human health. Most North Americans rely on this system for their food, however, and its sudden disintegration would be a catastrophe. Some experts argue that the collapse of the current food system is imminent because of its dependence on three fragile conditions: cheap petroleum, plentiful water and a stable climate.

Monsanto and Big Ag want us to believe that only industrial agriculture can feed the world. The truth is actually the opposite. The Institute for Food and Development Policy reviewed available farm productivity data from 27 countries and concluded that the productivity of smaller farms — which integrate growing multiple crops with raising livestock — is anywhere from two to 10 times higher per unit area than on industrial-scale, monocrop farms. This is due to several factors, including the following:

• Small farms use more niche space by planting crop mixtures. This complexity makes a huge difference in total production per unit area and cannot be achieved with machinery.

• The integration of crops and livestock allows plants to benefit from manure, while animals benefit from surplus crops that aren’t consumed by humans.

• Small-scale farmers invest more manual labor in their land. The quality of this labor tends to be better on small farms, because farmers can devote their attention and energy to intensively managed plots.

Farm Apprenticeships

Farm Apprentice Views Tractor Demo

Chuck Currie (left) of Freedom Food Farm in Johnston, R.I., explains tractor implement use to NOFA/RI Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) Workshop participant, Mark Laroche.

If you decide to become a farmer, you can glean helpful knowledge from many sources, including universities, books and — most importantly — hands-on experience.

WWOOF Volunteers Dry Garlic

Volunteers through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) learn to dry garlic on their host farm in Princeton, N.J

One of the best ways you can connect with established farmers is through apprenticeship programs. You will need practical experience and access to affordable land, and experienced farmers need laborers and, sometimes, a trained person ready to buy their farm. Apprenticeships bring these two groups together through an agreement: Knowledgeable food growers pass on their know-how to people who want to learn to grow food in exchange for having additional, enthusiastic hands and minds around the farm.

 

Number of women farmers on the rise in Greater Cleveland and around the country

Sunday, November 10th, 2013
The Plain Dealer
By Debbi Snook

Mardy Townsend waited an hour for the hay man, and when he didn’t show, she turned to her 90 creatures of habit, now mooing with attitude.

Mardy Townsend of Windsor walks out to her cattle on Friday, August 16, 2013. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

Honestly, you’d think cattle had wristwatches.

Townsend unhooked the electric fence at her Ashtabula County farm and stepped over the bottom wire. That was the signal for the black and white Hereford Angus herd – each animal 1,000 pounds at maturity – to close in on her fast.

She walked a few hundred feet to open the gate to a fresh field of grass. They swirled past her, like in a cowboy movie, some kicking their heels in the air.

“Those are the young ones,” she said of the unnamed group.

“I just call them all Sweetie Pie.”

Mardy Townsend of Windsor guides her cattle to a fresh pasture on Friday, August 16, 2013, checking for health issues as they pass. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

Maybe a male farmer wouldn’t call them Sweetie Pie, maybe they would. But Townsend, with her smooth, toast-colored complexion shaded by a baseball cap, is clearly doing a job long associated with a man.

Despite one broken finger and a lot of bruises, it suits her fine.

Just as it suits a growing number of women.

Statistics extrapolated this spring by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2007 census figures showed a startling change: There are nearly three times as many women farmers as there were 30 years ago.

In three decades, women have gone from 5 percent of all farmers to 14 percent. The numbers from that census also shows Ohio in the top 10 among all 50 states with 29,060 women farm operators and 9,127 principal farm operators.

Women have always been integral to agriculture, but they have not always been counted. Up until 1978, U.S. census forms only had room for the name of one operator, and that usually went to – surprise – the male head of household.

Now that the government is counting all chief farm operators, the growth of the female ranks is evident. Some even call it a movement.

“I fully expect that results of the 2012 census [due out in 2014] will show even stronger data for women,” said Sharon Sachs, who helps run Central Ohio’s Women Farm, a consulting and support group. “One, I think it’s true. And, two, I think women are getting better at reporting into the census.”

Sachs, among many others, cites the growth of the local food movement as a job engine for all small farmers, especially women.

“You can farm on a smaller scale and be successful in a business,” she said. “You can have a small plot, a half acre or an acre, and make a contribution to the local food market.”

Success is not guaranteed, of course, and it won’t make up for the loss of millions of farmers since the 1930s who were absorbed by larger, industrial farms. But it is one of those rare upticks in agricultural numbers.

The USDA study showed that today’s female farmers may not yet have as much land or income as their male counterparts, but large percentages of them are grabbing a head start by making a beeline into higher profit forms of farming such as livestock and specialty crops. These women are older and more educated than male farmers, and more of them are coming into the business than going out.

They are now a million strong.

We talked to three of them working the land in Northeast Ohio, each with her own success story: Townsend at Marshy Meadows Farm in Windsor, Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm near Wooster, and Diane Morgan of Maggie’s Farm on the West Side of Cleveland.

Mardy Townsend, Marshy Meadows Farm, Windsor

While she has a master’s degree in agronomy from Ohio State University, it’s not like Townsend craved a life with beef animals. But she discovered her 226-acre property along the Grand River was suited to it. In spring, floods often cover a large section of the east side, and storms had a way of washing the topsoil off the higher sloping land to the west. If nothing else, the grass grew well.

“It’s the best way to cheat the environment,” she said, explaining that she can make a living off the land without damaging it.

And it’s not like Townsend comes from a long line of farmers. Her late father, Norman, ran Judson Manor, the deluxe retirement home in Cleveland. Townsend describes her mom, Marge, as one of the original “back-to-the-land hippies.” Marge bought the property in 1972, raising crops, chickens and hogs, eventually moving there from Shaker Heights. Townsend, 57, and Marge, now 85, live in a white frame ranch on the property and rent out an older home across the street.

“I’m not your typical farmer,” said Townsend, noting that farmland is traditionally transferred to sons. Both her brothers followed careers out of state.

After all the time she spends with cattle — calving, castrating, spreading manure, making hay, eradicating invasive multiflora roses and performing the routine of field rotations — Townsend can describe the animals well.

“They’re always hopeful and curious,” she said. “They could watch chickens for hours.”

The life looked good to her after two tours of duty as a relief worker in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

“I vowed I’d never do it again,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, especially when people are so poor.”

Farming isn’t as hard, but it isn’t easy, either. She’s grown her herd on her own, starting with 12 animals in 2002. Last year’s drought raised the price of hay, forcing her to sell off about a quarter of her stock. Her farm is certified organic, but the cattle are not, because she can’t afford the higher price of organic feed.

In the past few years she’s been leading an anti-fracking campaign in her neighborhood. Five injection wells have been operating in Windsor Township, taking in wastewater from Pennsylvania fracking operations. She worries about the toxicity of the chemicals used in that water and its effect on the only ground water she has for her animals.

Things are brightening, though. Fracking has slowed with the lower price of natural gas. She has a contract with Heinen’s supermarkets to sell her grass-fed beef. She will start supplying the Chardon and Bainbridge stores within the next two weeks.

It will relieve her of the job of going to a farmers market, for which she says she doesn’t have the time.

“But they’re going to put my picture up in the store,” she said with a groan.

Because she doesn’t pay a mortgage, she was able to spend money to erect a hoop barn for young cattle.

She said she’s happy producing for customers who want a product considered leaner, therefore healthier, that comes from a more humane operation than a muddy feedlot and helps put money back into the local economy — all elements more closely associated with local, rather than conventional, agriculture.

“I’m thinking about starting a marketing cooperative for grass-fed beef farmers in Ohio,” she said. She’s already taken a workshop at Kent State University and is now in touch with a consultant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A cooperative would give us more leverage with buyers,” she said. “And we could work toward having a year-round supply of consistent product.”

Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm, Wooster

Three years ago, when Wooster opened Local Roots Market & Cafe, Ohio’s first all-local food store, farmer Monica Bongue had a chance to pay $50 and become a member. She ponied up $1,000, believing strongly in what she calls food sovereignty and food security. It’s another way, she said, to feed ourselves better. She’s now on the board of directors.

This coming spring, she and two other women farmers — Martha Gaffney and Jennifer Grahovac — will launch a new business, Farm Roots Connection (www.farmrootsconnection.com), a farmer-owned local food buying club, or community supported agriculture (CSA) group that will grow food in Wooster and sell to the Cleveland market.

Monica Bongue of Muddy Forks Farm in Wooster arranges her display of fresh produce at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

“We’re maxed out here,” said Bongue, 51, of the customer base in her rural county. “And we have worked with CSA groups who buy from us. We don’t get the best prices; the customers don’t always know which farm the food came from, and the farmers don’t always know how the food was handled.”

Apparently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees. Bongue and her partners received a $22,500 federal Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grant this year to launch their cooperative. About 10 farms are expected to participate, with plenty of room for growth.

In designing the farmer-owned cooperative, Bongue hopes to simplify the farmers’ jobs. Instead of raising a wide variety of produce for customers, each farmer can narrow his or her focus to a few crops. Teamed with other farmers, they can continue to offer diversity without having to do a wide variety of labor themselves.

Bongue, a native of Colombia, is married to David Francis, an agricultural researcher who moved to Wooster for work at Ohio State University. She has her own agricultural history, studying nutritional microbiology at the University of California at Davis.

She has always farmed at home, including her years raising three daughters.

“I had this idea [for the cooperative] 10 years ago,” she said. “But I didn’t have the money.”

So far, part of the grant has paid for marketing materials and attorney fees to set up by-laws. The rest will be used to acquire a refrigerated truck and pay for a part of Bongue’s salary managing the operation.

Muddy Forks Farm produce sold at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Farmer Monica Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

“We’re a little behind,” she said of the current season. “We only have a few customers. But it’s a good practice run to work out the kinks before we launch next spring. We hope to make this a pretty substantial business.”

Diane Morgan, Maggie’s Farm, Cleveland

Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side collects a variety of potatoes on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

Surely this isn’t the only farm ever born in a meltdown moment. The way Diane Morgan tells it, she was living in her grandmother’s old neighborhood (Cleveland’s Stockyards) south of Clark Avenue. She had a good job at a computer company, but it really wasn’t what she wanted. Her husband Russ, a chef, was between jobs.

“I came home one day,” she explained in her sweetly lilting voice. “He was just sitting there and I started stamping my foot. I almost screamed, saying, ‘You’re doing what I’m supposed to do.’”

What she was “supposed” to do is look for her next opportunity.

“It’s funny when I think about it now, but it was a great experience,” said Morgan. “It made me ask myself, ‘Why are you mad at him about something you should do?’ It gave me the courage to do this.”

Today, Russ has a job in food at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Diane has 10 city lots to her name. Or to her dog’s name. The “Maggie” of Maggie’s farm is her pet, and relevant to the lyrics of the old Bob Dylan song about seizing your destiny, “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”

“It’s always interesting to see who gets it,” she said, adding that it’s usually a surprising number of young people.

Morgan doesn’t own all 10 lots, but she manages them as growing plots for a spectrum of people: churches, neighborhood groups, two dozen volunteers who help her do the work, the community supported agriculture members who pay her at the beginning of the season, wholesale buyers, and the customers who show up at her farmers market booths and her Friday and Saturday farm stand, 3164 W. 61st St.

“Neighbors Feeding Neighbors,” is her slogan.

Volunteers who work get paid in “Maggie Bucks,” her handwritten pieces of paper they can redeem for food.

Who participates? The employed, unemployed and the underemployed – all kindred spirits.

A week ago that group included Diana Mitchell of Lyndhurst, who was on vacation from her troubleshooting job at Progressive Insurance. Mitchell, 60, cleaned baby beets in a donated sink under a volunteer-built canopy and tore weeds out of some of the raised beds. Her reasons for being there made a long list: chance to do something different, love of organic food, Earth-friendly operations, chance to learn, chance to help.

Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side, passes freshly picked carrots to Arelis Latimer, a summer employee, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

Arelis Latimer, 18, worked beside Mitchell at the sink. The Puerto Rico native got introduced to Maggie’s Farm during a Youth Opportunities Unlimited program for work and mentoring. When Morgan needed help, Latimer stepped up again before starting civil engineering studies at Cleveland State University. Her little brother likes to make smoothies from the carrots she brings home from the farm, 10 blocks away.

“I didn’t even know there were purple carrots,” said Latimer. “And they taste sweet.”

And there’s Christina Keegan, 28, whose new job starts soon, but passes the time until then at Maggie’s.

“I love to work outdoors, and I don’t like working with chemicals,” said Keegan, who is trained in traditional construction trades and in alternative forms such as straw bale houses.

“And I have a 3-year-old who eats a lot,” she said.

All three describe Morgan as a great teacher and businesswoman.

“Want to see my spreadsheets?” Morgan asks.

There have been failures at Maggie’s Farm. Groundhogs ate all the green beans last year. A phone was stolen at the market. A hazelnut tree crop failed.

And Maggie’s Farm isn’t where Morgan wants it to be quite yet.

“The business model we have is a cooperative but we’re still too small,” said Morgan. “This is our second year and we haven’t made any money yet. But when we do, people who work the farm will share in it.

“I’m a firm believer that human equity is just as important as financial equity. That probably sounds anti-capitalist, but I value the work and assistance I’ve gotten, and this seems the only fair way to go.”

Morgan taught herself how to farm organically, but she started networking that way, too. She attended the first Sustainable Cleveland conference and picked people’s brains. Her first “farm” was really a community garden. She sidestepped the usual method of handing out individual plots and told all the farmers that they were all working together to grow for one another. The group, she said, has continued nicely without her.

And while Maggie’s Farm still isn’t in the black, there is plenty in the plus column. It sells to a local food aggregator, Fresh Fork Market. It obtained the equipment to take food stamps as payment for local foods. And it built a refrigerated room and indoor market space.

The farm will be selling its granola bars this winter at the Rooted in Cleveland stand at the West Side Market.

And it hasn’t run out of volunteers yet.

Morgan recently put a notice on the farm’s Facebook page to talk about an upcoming art project to call attention to the market.

“Oh yay!!,” responded Kayla Kelsey. “This is right across the street from my house! Let me know if you ever need help with anything! My boyfriend and I are more than willing to lend a hand!”