Salem farm part of growing ‘sustainable farm’ movement

By Charita Goshay
Salem — Among the calves, Jessie is one of the youngest of the bunch, but she also is the boldest. As the rest shy away from the approaching adults, Jessie wanders over, curious about the goings-on.

The only thing standing between her and a flurry of head pats? An electric fence.

Jessie is one of 70 bison being raised by Kevin and Sarah Swope, co-owners of Heritage Lane Farm at 29668 Mountz Road, which is part of the Ohio 2011 Sustainable Farm Tour and Workshops presented by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. OEFFA is a grassroots affiliation of farmers, gardeners, university researchers, food retailers and educators.

The tour and workshops showcase 40 farms and food businesses, university research centers and family-run businesses that have found success in using sustainable methods for food production.

The Swopes’ farm is an example of how some are using alternative, organic methods of cultivating food.

DIFFERENT WAY
Kevin Swope said Heritage Lane employs a pasture-based system to feed the bison, whose meat is lower in fat grams, cholesterol and calories than beef, pork or poultry. Forty acres of the farm is pastureland, which has been divided into paddocks containing different grasses for bison to eat.

The herd is shifted among the paddocks every two to four days, allowing the pastures to recover naturally.

“It’s a whole different way of thinking,” Swope said. “We’re harvesting sunlight by way of the grass, which finds its way into the animals, which becomes a meat product. … I’m not working for these buffalo; they’re working for me.”

In addition to bison, Heritage Lane also features organically grown vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes and flowers, as well as poultry and sheep. The meat is processed off-site by a USDA-approved facility.

“We’re attempting to manage our pastures, using an organic method,” Swope said. “We’re really focusing on the health of the soil and allowing the biology to develop.”

The property has been a working farm since 1830. It was purchased by Sarah Swope’s parents in 1978 and later deeded to the couple in 1991.

Kevin Swope said the chief goal is to reverse the impact on the soil of nearly 200 years of tilling and chemically-dependent farming. Lime, manure and chicken litter are the additives of choice. Forty of Heritage Lane’s 52 acres is under “grassland easement,” meaning that at least 40 acres must remain as undeveloped grassland for 99 years.

“There was a lot of erosion,” he said. “I see improvements every year.”

HIGH TUNNELS
Swope, who grew up in Louisville, had no prior farm experience. He did his own research on organic farming techniques. In addition to farming, he is a manager and soil conservationist for Natural Resource Conservation.

“Our agency is looking more and more at soil health,” he said.

Sarah Swope grows organic vegetables, including several types of hybrid tomatoes and flowers through a “high tunnel” method.

Essentially, high tunnels are Quonset huts made of clear plastic that cover the gardening area. The plastic keeps the ground warmer, which expands the planting season — from March through December.

High tunnels also reduce the spread of disease and protect plants from such extreme weather elements as high winds or hail.

“Almost all of our produce sold is grown in high tunnels,” she said. “You’re using purely solar energy.”

Sarah Swope said the growing method probably is not for everyone because the enclosure limits use of equipment.

“It’s extremely labor intensive,” she said. “The flip side is we produce all of our family’s food supplies for the year.”

FOOD DESERT
On weekends, the Swopes sell their products at a farmers’ market in Beechwood.

Kevin Swope said the Cleveland area has been designated by nutrition experts as a “food desert,” meaning that availability to fresh, locally produced food is limited.

He believes opportunities abound for people interested in farming as a profession, particularly small-acerage food production. The couple’s three children are engaged in agriculture or environmental studies.

“I grew up with that mentality that you can buy it cheaper than you can grow it,” Swope said. “Sixty percent of our fruit and vegetables in the U.S. are imported. But people are willing to pay for a premium item picked on a Friday.”

The Ohio Sustainable Farm Tour runs through Oct. 9. For a schedule or more information call the OEFFA at 614-421-2022, or visit www.oeffa.org.

Heritage Lane Farms also conducts tours. Call 330-222-1377.