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Ralph Schlatter

April Profile

Guests are excited to see Ralph Schlatter’s farm. At this joint OEFFA and Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) farm tour more than forty adults and children are crowded around Ralph. Some are his customers from the Toledo area; others have driven from across the state to be here.

Ralph tells the story as though he has told it a hundred times—how he remembers when his father started spraying pesticides on the fields, on the farm that is now his own. “I can remember my dad somewhat questioning these practices, but according to extension, this was the way to do it. These conventional farming practices struck him wrong” says Ralph. Ralph’s father passed away when Ralph was 17 and the young Schlatter brothers started using a lower nitrogen fertilizer once they took control of the farm.

In the early 1990s, Ralph realized that his farm equipment needed replacement and that the family business of raising Holstein cattle was at a crossroads. He could either go the capital-intensive route or head the opposite direction, in search of an alternative.

In 1992, Ralph came across the idea of grass farming. Creating and maintaining healthy soil that leads to nutritious fodder is the focus of grass farming, and high-quality, pastured livestock is the result. “Now this is maybe something that would work, would fit,” Ralph thought to himself. After gathering some information from OEFFA workshops and conferences, Ralph started grass farming “cold turkey” in 1993. They sold off much of the farm machinery but kept their mower, rake and baler.

With this “new” farm came new marketing strategies. The Schlatters sell most of their products directly to customers, on the farm, at the farmers’ market, or through a buyers’ club. In their first year the Schlatters raised four hundred broiler chickens and advertised them word-of-mouth. The second year they sent advertisements to random phonebook addresses and sold 2,000 broilers! Ralph says the trick is to emphasize the “nutritional superiority of what you’re doing.” He has tests showing that the nutritional content of pastured meat is higher than conventionally raised meat, because they forage nutritious grass and field insects.

Ralph is “not going to raise fifty-nine cent [per pound] chicken,” so the farm caters to a special kind of quality-conscious shopper. Ralph’s buyers’ club in Toledo is one such quality-conscious group. Two women, Kris Johnson and Lisa Bowe, started the club. Lisa is a nutrition coach to people who have cancer and she urges patients to eat farm fresh foods. She says people have an intuitive understanding that farm fresh foods are simply better, the way food should be. Ralph takes orders and arranges a delivery for the group every other Wednesday.

While Ralph no longer farms with his brother, the farm is still a family affair. Two Schlatter generations live and work on the farm or at the spacious farm store adjacent to the house. Ralph has two sons on the farm and one, Kyle, works in the milking barn while the other, Brian, makes artisanal cheeses next door.

Good cheese starts with good soil, as any grass farmer knows. Ralph’s soil is rich in minerals, which travel to the grass and then to the milk. Ralph has doubled the organic matter of his soil, to about 7 percent, through cow manure and by simply grazing animals. Dung beetles even showed up at the farm after Ralph started grass farming! They help speed up the breakdown of the manure. No chemicals are applied to the grass and if a weed problem arises, Ralph mows.

To make cheese, the milk is pumped from the milk tank to the adjacent cheese-making room. Brian studied cheese-making at the University of Vermont. He says that “time, temperature, and culture” are the three variables used to produce different varieties of cheese. He heats the milk in a long vat, adds cultures, and cuts the curds. The cheese is pressed into molds (some custom-made) and then aged in a refrigerated trailer behind the building. Since the cheese business started in November 2007, the Schlatters have made 18,000 pounds of cheese!

The cows feast on pasture during the warm months and are moved to a different field every day through a system of “mobile fences” that are easily pulled open or closed by a wire. Currently, there are around 90 milking Shorthorns. The cows are milked twice a day in a New Zealand-style parlor. Cows enter one side of the barn and are milked 14 at a time.

Ralph calls the dairy “semi-seasonal” because the cows calve in both the spring and autumn. The cows who give birth in autumn sustain milk production through the winter and start to dry up in June.

Ralph also keeps a few Devon steers pastured with the dairy cows. Near slaughter time he rotates them into the milking parlor. When the steers are loaded on the truck for slaughter they are docile and accustomed to the routine. The steers are grass fed and do not put on as much weight as grain fed cattle. But, Ralph says, “We feel, if you don’t have a certain measure of self, then you can make all the money in the world. We feel that people can stay healthy and enjoy life.” He values the fact that grass fed cattle are healthier and the finished product is better for the consumer.

The Schlatters also raise black and red egg-layers and white broiler chickens. The broilers are kept in mobile chicken coops about the size of pickup beds, set over pasture. They are moved across the field using a dolly. Sunlight and fresh air enter the metal and wire coops through the sides and the ceiling. At exactly eight weeks old the broilers are sent for processing.

Being on the Schlatter’s farm is a pleasure; there are few places in Ohio where you can see as much open sky. The Schlatters have created something wonderful and the guest are grateful to share in it, if just for a few hours. Ralph enjoys the farm, too, where many species of birds and frogs flourish:

“You need money to pay bills; money is important from that angle. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing in these bird houses now, but there’s been eighteen broods of bluebirds fledged from our birdhouses this summer. I enjoy seeing that, watching that, hearing them. I can remember my dad telling me, when the tractor starting coming around we didn’t hear the birds singing anymore. He grew up with horses and then switched to tractors. Mornings in May and June, it’s just beautiful listening to the birds…bluebirds singing all the time. And the frogs – cricket frogs, green frogs, bull frogs out here. They just put you to sleep.”

Lisa, from the Toledo buyers’ club, once spent some time on the farm getting to know the Schlatters. She recalls, “When I was at the dinner table with him grace was three or four minutes. They were thankful that I was there and for everything they had. There’s just nothing like this; the quality of life really is up there.”

It is something the Schlatters share with the world through food.

About the writer: Danielle Deemer is working on her master's degree in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. Danielle, through her OEFFA internship, profiled some of the organization's most accomplished members and their successes, creating OEFFA’s Profiles of Success series. Lauren Ketcham has updated and edited content. This series is being unveiled throughout OEFFA's 30th anniversary celebration year.