COLUMBUS, Ohio – Without fast action by Congress, programs that help keep small and specialty farmers in Ohio afloat are at risk.
The current farm bill will soon expire, and with it go dollars to fund certain programs that benefit local, sustainable and small- to mid-sized family farms. Among them is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provided the training for Linde Collingwood of Solon to launch her small-market garden. She says these programs help her and other growers provide healthy food options for Ohioans.
“There’s going to be more demand and more interest as people learn where their food is coming from, so we’re going to need more local farmers and beginning farmers to provide these things. If the funding is cut, there’s going to be a huge gap.”
The Senate passed a farm bill in June, but the House Agriculture Committee passed a different version of the bill in July. Unless the House takes action, the current farm bill from 2008 will expire Sept. 30.
Another program that could lose funding is the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, which Ron Meyer of Strawberry Hill Farm near Coshocton says has been a tremendous help to him. He fears losing the program, particularly after he’s already lost nearly one-third of his yield this year, because of the heat and drought that have devastated farms across the Midwest.
“We’ve seen insects – insects that we’ve never seen before. We’ve had some disease problems we’ve never had before – and both of those are due to the weather this year.”
While the House passed a disaster assistance bill for farmers earlier this month, the Farm Bill that outlines short-term and long-term farm policies remains stalled. Meyer is a member of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, which advocates for policies that protect and benefit sustainable agriculture.
You’ll find plenty of sweet corn in local markets this summer. You may even find some Ohio-grown corn on local farm stands as early as this week.
Just don’t hang your hat on finding it everywhere, or at windfall prices.
It’s a bit early to solidly predict the 2012 harvest of local sweet corn. Extended periods of high heat can be beneficial to corn crops. But low rainfall could prove destructive.
“We are thinking it may be one of the earliest seasons on record,” says Paula Szalay, whose family operates Szalay’s Farm in Peninsula.
Corn likes heat, Szalay says. Coupled with the higher water levels available on her family farm on Riverview Road in the Cuyahoga Valley, “the corn is using [both] to its advantage,” she says.
But if the recent dry weather persists, it could herald big problems, farmers agree.
Statewide, according to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus, this year’s sweet corn crop could end up being “only 50 or 60 percent of normal yields,” according to spokeswoman Lauren Ketcham.
“The hot, dry weather really affects pollination, but it is sometimes hard to forecast yields until farmers start picking and see the condition of the ears,” wrote Ketcham in an email.
Conditions are less than desirable east of Cleveland, says Craig Sirna, owner of Sirna’s Farm & Market in Auburn.
“As far as I know, everyone out in these parts is behind because of the drought,” says Sirna.
“We haven’t had ANY rain to speak of,” he says. “I think I’ve had less than a quarter-inch of rain over the past three weeks — and other [growers] are measuring by the tenths of inches.
“I don’t even know how my corn is growing,” Sirna adds.
According to OEFFA, a membership-based, grass-roots organization whose mission is “promoting and supporting sustainable, ecological and healthful food systems,” early plantings of corn generally fare better than later plantings. Residual water in the ground from winter snowfall and spring rains is a boon to initial seedlings, but it must be replaced by seasonal rains.
“But [corn crops are] all under stress right now,” Ketcham writes. “Those farmers who can irrigate their crops are spending a lot of time and money to get water to them.”
Irrigation is a salvation of sorts for Pochedly Farms in Mantua, says family member Jeff Pochedly. But it costs significant money to move water to fields, he adds.
“So far this year we’ve spent about $2,000 on diesel fuel, just on irrigation alone,” Pochedly says. “And you have all the wear-and-tear on the irrigation equipment.
“But still you can’t cover everything — and it’s not like having natural rain,” he adds.
Critical stages of development, such as when the corn starts to tassel and when the ears begin to fill with enlarging kernels, are when significant rainfall matters most.
But rain also has to span several, staggered plantings. Most farmers plant sweet corn in phases to ensure a steady supply of the crop through a season that extends into early fall. Those “critical stages” repeat several times each season for subsequent plantings.
Which means forecasting this year’s harvest involves equal parts agricultural expertise, hope and guesswork.
The Pochedlys, who sell corn to the Heinen’s supermarket chain, are several days from picking the 80-acre spread the family cultivates in Portage County. They just wrapped up their eighth and final planting of the season. For now, it’s a matter of sitting back and hoping for a few stretches of good rainfall.
“There won’t be a lot of volume until the first week of August,” says Pochedly. If all goes well, he adds, the days surrounding Labor Day will be a big weekend.
Szalay of the Peninsula family farm remains philosophical.
“The best-laid plans don’t always come through,” she says. “But right now, we’re hopeful.”
Above: Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia stand in front of the barn on today’s Peach Mountain Farm. The Silo is covered in Virginia Creeper, a vine that creeps into their barn and prep area. Below: Leslie Garcia shows us one of the last strawberries of the season. Doug Seibert inspects beneficial insects in a cover crop of flowering cilantro that is roughly four feet high. He is conscious of not seeing bare ground on his land and cover crops grow in any row that is not currently in production.
An easy-to-miss driveway juts off a county road north of Spring Valley, Ohio. The gravel lane leads to a modest house tucked in amid tall shade trees. Across the yard stands a barn that’s seemingly held together by its contents: old machine parts, stacks of plastic nursery pots, seed packets, bags of soil amendment. A stooped yet graceful white-haired woman pushes a walker slowly down the pebbly drive, taking in the cool morning air.
This 17-acre Greene County spread is home to Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia (along with Garcia’s 93-year-old mother and a big ol’ farm dog). On seven acres, the pair —business and life partners since 1991 — cultivate a huge variety of vegetables and cut flowers under the Peach Mountain Organics banner. Their farm, certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA), produces enough for Seibert and Garcia to create a simple, sustainable lifestyle on the land.
The farm’s bounty also graces dining tables throughout Montgomery and Greene counties: Seibert and Garcia sell to restaurants in nearby towns, including the popular Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs and The Meadowlark in Dayton. Their ever-changing salad mix is a must-buy at the Saturday morning Yellow Springs farmers’ market; Peach Mountain sells out of its offerings in an hour or two. “I once saw a woman in high heels running across the parking lot to get the last bag of our salad mix before we sold out,” Seibert says, laughing.
Peach Mountain is surprisingly productive: last season, they harvested just under a ton of salad mix. More than a thousand bunches of kale (“we did kale before kale was cool,” Garcia says). More than 4,000 pounds of tomatoes came out of just one greenhouse. Last fall, they planted 1,000 pounds of garlic, which this summer will yield perhaps five times that. Squash, greens of all kinds, onions, strawberries, herbs, potatoes … the list goes on. Organic certification requires detailed record-keeping of every input (seed, soil amendments, pest control, planting dates) and output.
The Business of Farming
Think about the business model for a moment: About 22 tillable acres (Garcia and Seibert have a nearby property with 15 acres under cultivation). The expenses of organic seed, soil amendments and pest management. Two highly limited sales channels: a single farmers’ market stand and a handful of restaurant accounts. A seasonal production cycle.
How in the world can anyone make even a bare-bones living raising vegetables organically? The secret, says Seibert: no debt.
By purchasing their land outright (the latest parcel at auction for a favorable price), buying used equipment and a secondhand greenhouse (deconstructed, moved and rebuilt by Doug), and keeping their staff to a minimum (two full-time summer employees), Seibert and Garcia have withstood the variability of weather and the volatility of expenses. They haven’t raised their market prices since 1991.
To be sure, the couple have a huge “soft” investment in the farm — namely, in their own labor. Farming, organically or not, is a 24/7 venture pretty much year-round. The couple seems content to take no more than they need, maintaining a simple lifestyle, and even managing to put away a bit of money to buy a small farm property in Washington State near Seibert’s grown son. They have a tidy nest egg; what’s left of any profit is reinvested in the farm. “We’ve never had a losing season,” Garcia says. “Our worst season, we each got about $365.” “It’s never been about the money,” Seibert says.
What it is about, though, is satisfying customers and being good stewards of the land. Standing in an open field behind a large triple greenhouse, her salt-and-pepper hair in two braids, Garcia says she and Seibert never for a minute considered farming conventionally. “I read ‘Silent Spring,’” she says. “I saw what happened in Bhopal, India. How many clues do people need?”
At 59, she’s a veteran of organic agriculture. Wary of the dangers of agri-chemicals and dismayed by the conventional teachings of the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, where she spent a year, Garcia began organically farming a few acres in Adams County in her early 20s. That farm was near Peach Mountain, reputed to be Ohio’s second or third largest peak, depending on you you ask, and it lent its name to the current operation.
Neither Garcia nor Seibert come from farm families; Seibert, 62, is a Cincinnati native who attended Wilmington College, where he lived off-campus in a “shack” with a big garden. His early career as a machinist comes in handy; someone’s gotta build the hoop houses and keep the tractor running.
In a large greenhouse and several smaller structures, Seibert and Garcia start nearly all their crops from seed, then transplant directly into the ground in hoop houses or open beds. In addition to the salad mix and Garcia’s gladiolus, which Peach Mountain is well-regarded for, and a whole host of organic produce, the farm sells vegetable and herb plants. Until a few years ago, Garcia also grew bedding plants for retail sale; while that was profitable business, the work was exhausting and the two decided to scale back.
Fooling Mother Nature
On a cool May morning, rows of healthy tomato plants reach nearly four feet high in a greenhouse. The farm uses a clever rope-and-pulley system to corral the vines: As the tomato plants grow taller, the rope is lowered so the heavy bottom stems coil on the ground, containing the plants and keeping the tomatoes in easy reach for harvesting. Growing tomatoes under cover is expensive, Seibert says, because the close conditions are heaven for aphids, which must be controlled by introducing insects that feed on them.
In a creekside field near the main farm, Garcia picks flowers to arrange for a weekend wedding. Rows and rows of hardneck garlic, planted by hand in the fall, are already sprouting their springtime curlicue scapes. Seibert walks past a patch of cilantro that he let go to seed as a bee pasture; the tall, spindly plants are recognizable only by their strong scent, and they’re humming with insects. Seibert and Garcia use plants like clover, vetch, and field peas for all-season cover, to add nutrients to the soil. “I don’t like bare ground,” Seibert says. “You want that microbiology going on in the soil all the time.”
Organic farming is a carefully managed ecosystem — and while it tries to work within the natural order of things, it’s also a constant battle against nature. They tried raising chickens a couple of years ago, Garcia says, but the raccoons systematically picked off the flock. She points to a bed of lettuce that’s speckled with maple sproutlings, thanks to the huge trees that frame the farm. “Mother Nature wants to take over all the time,” she says. “We try to have a lot of crop diversity, but in the end, farming isn’t all that compatible with nature.”
Trial-and-error and sharing knowledge help Seibert and Garcia in this constant struggle to both sustain and control natural forces. Their success with the former and generosity with the latter have earned the two recognition and admiration from their fellow farmers. In February, OEFFA awarded them the Stewardship Award, its highest honor. Growers throughout the region cite Seibert as a mentor. “People ask me questions all the time, and I’m always happy to share what we’ve learned,” Seibert says.
On a warming Saturday morning, there’s a line at the Peach Mountain Organics booth at the Yellow Springs farmers’ market. Seibert has pulled up a panel truck full of produce; customers snatch up salad mix and other seasonal goodies.
This single market pulls in three-fifths of Peach Mountain Organics’ annual revenue. “When we first started, farmers’ markets were at the bottom of a downward trend,” Seibert says. They’ve taken a calculated risk by investing in a single retail venue rather than participating in multiple markets or launching a CSA program, which they feel would compete with their Yellow Springs presence. “We do one market, and we do a big deal,” he says. “We spend two days getting ready for Saturday.”
Customers are loyal to Peach Mountain because of their organic, high-quality product. Like the environment, a farmers’ market is its own ecosystem, with vendors working in concert to draw big crowds that benefit everyone. Too few farmers and customers don’t come; too little variety and the farmers compete. Seibert and Garcia are always evaluating what to grow, in what quantity, and how much to bring to market. They raise cost-intensive crops like herbs and greenhouse tomatoes because they know demand is high. “A farmer can’t stand there all day and sell $100 worth of produce,” Doug says. “We want to sell out. It’s a fragile balance.”
Bryn Mooth is an independent journalist and copywriter focused on food, wellness, and creativity, and she shares recipes on her amazing, consistent, and timely blog Writes4food.com. Cultivators is her standing column in Edible Ohio Valley, where she brings you the stories, in words and pictures, of the growers, producers, bakers, cooks, and vendors who bring great local food to our Ohio Valley tables.
CADIZ-Many people have a sense of history about their families-ancestry, old photos, memories of grandma’s house. Holly Herbold is living her history. “It feels like I belong here, like home. It’s come full circle.”
She says this from the porch of a large, old farmhouse overlooking one of her newly-certified organic gardens. In 1805 her great-times-four grandparents acquired this family farm under the Land Act. The farmhouse was moved from a rise, bringing it about 50 yards closer to the spring house from which the women folk carried buckets of water for washing, cleaning and cooking.
Holly’s earliest memories begin here. Her grandparents lived in the house, and her parents fashioned the former granary into living space. “I picked daisies. I remember riding in the horse and buggy. My mother drove the horse and buggy everywhere. She took me to school down the road.”
Holly Herbold and dog Corso take a break on the farmhouse front porch. “My grandmother used to sit in that corner and rock, and my grandfather sat on the steps.”
Holly moved to California when she was eight and to Hawaii when she was 20, where she surfed, worked at a Four Seasons hotel and “began really learning about food.” A move to upstate New York in 2002 furthered her food career. She opened a health food store and added a cafe, which then became a successful restaurant featuring local foods. Among all of this activity she managed to acquire three degrees in anthropology, deaf studies and teaching, but whenever she visited the family farm in Ohio she dreaded saying goodbye. Holly took an opportunity to return to her roots in 2009 and hasn’t looked back.
Her interest in actually farming the land grew when she began working for neighbor Mick Luber, owner of Bluebird Farm. “He’s amazing. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s always encouraged me to succeed.” The next year, she decided to grow some produce on her own and is now in her second year as Her Bold Farm. Starting small, she has developed two acres for planting, using one at a time. But there are thousands of plants-vegetables, herbs and flowers-that Holly and employee Ellie Myslinsky tend and prepare for sale.
Tomatoes, beets, peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic, basil, dill, radishes, carrots, okra, kale, Swiss chard, peas, “really good lettuce,” gladiolas, cosmos, zinnias, pumpkins and squash-a partial list of more than 70 items that will make appearances at her market booth this year.
“It isn’t just ‘beets’ for me. I have five kinds of beets. I like the variety. People ask me if I have Swiss chard, and I’ll show them three different types of Swiss chard,” says Holly. “Maybe one type will work better for what they’re doing, or maybe they’ll be open to trying something new.”
Other parts of the 188-acre farm on Brushy Fork Road are home to the requisite two farm dogs and a cat, in addition to pasture for a horse, four beef cows and 11 Boer-mix goats. The plan is to breed the goats up into quality meat stock. Two flocks of five types of chickens free-range it. The older group is kept closer to the hen house and pasture land while the younger pullets’ portable coop and large pen is moved around a flatter area every two days.
Holly’s fresh egg business is taking off with Black New Jersey Giants, Rhode Island Reds and Golden- and Silver-Laced Wyandots. Another chicken she decided to add as a novelty, the Araucana, lays blue and green eggs. She places one of these in each dozen pack as available.
Her father, John, has two bee hives, and Holly captured her first hive this spring. The bees not only provide sweet honey, but pollinate the crops. They’re part of the farm’s history, too, as Holly points out a hive that has lived between the walls of the farmhouse for more than 50 years.
As if produce, goats, eggs and bees weren’t enough, Holly puts on her grandmother’s apron and makes home-baked bread, too. One day a week Holly and Ellie (who worked for a bakery while living in Maine) create 50 to 80 loaves by kneading and stretching the dough, no electric mixers involved.
In February, Holly and John submitted the nearly 30-page application for organic farm certification. The process is technical, specific and all-encompassing. Fences must be constructed from untreated wood. Inspectors test soil for chemicals, and farmers have to keep a paper trail beginning with seed packets and receipts for each plant and ending with harvest dates. Because the farmland had not been utilized in 30 years, the process was streamlined to an extent for the Herbolds. Why insist on certification, in effect, to farm the “old fashioned” way?
According to Holly, “The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a reputable certifying agent with over three decades of service as a vital resource to farmers, gardeners and citizens who value a sustainable, local and ecological organic food system. Knowing that our family farm is certified by OEFFA gives my customers a credible guarantee that our products are organically farmed using natural processes that benefit not only environmental health but the health of my community. I can give back to my community by growing quality vegetables, baking organic and homemade artisan breads and sharing this wealth with my neighbors.” More than 70 acres have also been approved for organic hay farming, one of John’s projects.
OEFFA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program Organic Initiative awarded Her Bold Farm a $10,000 grant for a “hoop house,” the first of its kind in Harrison County. Plans involve running an irrigation pipe from the spring house to a site above one of the garden plots-just next to the former site of the farmhouse. For four years Holly is to plant “a little of everything” in the nearly 2200 square foot house while developing and monitoring conservation practices.
As idyllic as the setting is, running a 200-year old farm in the 21st century presents its own issues. After signing the contract for the hoop house grant, Holly was told that Governor Kasich’s budget cuts may eliminate the program’s new projects-possibly hers.
Stringent organic certification requirements aside, selling her wares in a largely rural community means traveling to a farmers market over 60 miles away, selling produce with Bluebird Farm’s booth at other weekly markets as well as finding customers through less traditional outlets.
Updates have been made throughout the years to the farmhouse her great, great grandparents built in the late 1800′s, but there are nine other old buildings on the farm, including the spring house, a smokehouse, a stable, a pig pen and a chicken house. An architect has drawn up plans to restore the granary to living space again, eliminating “holes that birds fly through.”
Of particular concern to the Herbolds is a historic hay barn that John’s grandfather purchased from the Cope farm when Clendening Lake was formed. He had it reassembled on its present site. Still in use, the foundation is deteriorating and will be costly to rebuild. Preserving it means not only preserving part of the farm and family history, but the community’s history as well.
These family acres have never been mined or drilled, and Holly worries, “Ours is one of the few remaining treasures of natural beauty in Harrison [County.] I’m concerned about the fracking planned for so much of our area. If the undisclosed chemicals used for fracking seep into our water table or watershed, they may also seep into my vegetables. I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to take a drink from the springhouse that has been used by my family for nearly 210 years.”
Odd little gifts tilled from the gardens keep her grounded: an old spoon, an arrowhead, an 1825 penny. Someday, Holly speculates, she’d like to have four or five acres of production with vegetables on all the hillsides; interns working the farm, learning about organics, staying in cabins along the woods; and opening the farm up as a writers’ retreat (Holly is also a writer.).
A friend is creating a website for the farm, but Holly does have a Facebook page. For information on Her Bold Farm products or working part-time on the farm, call (740) 942-8042 or email Holly at email@example.com.
“I think my ancestors would be proud of the way our farm seems to breathe life into the food produced here. You can almost taste the fog rolling in off the bottom when you take a bite. I’m hoping in some small way of my own to show that keeping the farm alive is an important part of keeping the community alive and history alive.”
Ami Gignac starts most days with her feathered friends in a retrofitted school bus that serves as a mobile chicken coop. Sixty laying hens including 20 leghorns live with her and Tim Fox on their Portage County farm.
Photo by Edward Duvall
“And then we’ve just recently taken on two cows. They are grass-fed beef that we will later use for meat.”
The cows have quite a salad bar. Breakneck Acres sits on 35 lush acres not far from Kent State University in Portage County.
RETURNING TO HIS ROOTS
Tim Fox grew up on a dairy farm. “Basically I guess it’s still part of my heritage.”
Amy had been a city girl. She realizes they’re getting into farming at the right time, at the peak of the farm-to-table movement.
Photo by Edward Duvall
“But it wasn’t planned. The transition was for personal reasons. I was 70 pounds heavier than you see me today. My blood pressure was 160 over 100. I had this great 6-figure salary but I wasn’t healthy and I wasn’t happy.”
She’d been the general manager of a small mining company. They were living in Kent in 2006 when Tim found the property they turned into Breakneck Acres.
THE SKILLS TRANSFER
“When I was in the mining business there was always this piece tied to sustainability and being environmentally conscious and a lot of that transitioned over. And then of course the financial management, the human resource issues, all of that has really transitioned nicely. And I think the difference is when I have a meeting I have cowboy boots on and before I had high heels.”
At first farming had been only a hobby.
Photo by Edward Duvall
“We had started out as row crop farmers and transitioned recently into doing seasonal produce and also specialty grains that we mill on the farm. Our primary is the wheat, corn and beans. We grow a special variety of a hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat that are high in protein and excellent for milling and for bread-baking. We grow a special variety of corn that’s a little sweeter than your typical field corn, lovely for corn meal, grits, and polenta. We also grow soybeans and different varieties of heirloom dry beans that are lovely for soups and that sort of thing. I think this year we have 5 varieties in the ground from an heirloom Black Turtle to Jacob’s Cattle, and one called Tiger’s Eye. We’re also looking for some wholesale customers. So we’re working with Breadsmith in Lakewood and they do a lovely loaf of bread that uses all local ingredients that’s really cool. And we’re also just starting to work with Ohio City Pasta on some signature pastas that will offer local ingredients which is also really neat because we love pasta.”
LISTED IN THE GOOD EARTH GUIDE
Ohio farms that sell directly to customers are listed in the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Good Earth Guide. Published since 1990 , it’s grown from a list of a dozen or so to 350 farms including organic farms, like Breakneck Acres.
“Now that we are certified organic it’s important for me then to keep our information updated because I would guess that about ten percent of our customers find us via the good earth guide. Customers that are specifically looking for specialty products. I’ve even had someone from Malaysia call to talk to me a little bit about milling that said they had found us from the Good Earth Guide and then did a little more research on us so that was really cool.”
STONE MILLS FLOWN IN FROM EUROPE
One of the farm buildings houses two hand-crafted East Tyrolean stone mills they had shipped over from Austria.
Photo by Edward Duvall
“Stone milling keeps the temperature really below 140 degrees as it mills, says Gignac.” And so you don’t lose as much of the nutritional value as you would with some of the burr milling.”
Amy claims her chickens taste great and it might be because they feed on a gourmet blend.
“We use stone ground corn, buckwheat and hard red winter wheat and then we also add some trace minerals, some salt, some sea kelp. It’s great. In fact Tim taste-tests it each time I make a batch. They eat better than we do!”
Photo by Edward Duvall
She says she and her partner have no regrets about buying the farm. And they plan to keep life simple.
“We’re not going to go into ‘big Ag.’ We appreciate that we do need to grow to be sustainable and really for both of us to officially quit our day jobs. But it’s a slow growth and its making small steps in the directions that keep Tim and I healthy and happy and stress-free.”
Amy Gignac and Tim Fox sell their specialty grains, beans, organic vegetables and herbs and free-range eggs every Wednesday afternoon at the farm. They’re also at the Kent and Ravenna farmers’ markets.
Features OEFFA member and farmer Bryn Bird of Bird’s Haven Farms on MSNBC discussing the impact of drought and climate change on farming, corporate control of agriculture, commodities, and crop insurance with Chris Hayes and Amy Goodman in this three part video.
Farmers are right to demand legislators take swift action on the 2012 farm bill (“Farmers vent over farm bill,” New York Times article, Aug. 13 Dispatch).
Because of inaction by the U.S. House of Representatives, important farm-bill programs stand to lose funding on Sept. 30, including the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. This very valuable program covers up to 75 percent of annual organic-certification costs.
Without the program, many farmers say they would not be able to afford organic certification, which requires an operation to comply with strict production standards.
Consumer demand for organic certified meat and produce has risen steadily for several years. This is largely because the organic label is a trusted indicator that a product was raised with care for the health of consumers, animals and the environment.
The 2008 Farm Bill funded the program at $22 million over five years, a small fraction of the farm bill itself, which costs around $300 billion.
This is a small investment that will help our economy to grow and keep American farmers in the business of growing good food for the rest of us.
Those interested should call their U.S. representatives and tell them to preserve funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program in the 2012 farm bill.