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Molly and Ted Bartlett

December Profile

“You probably want to know why we’re not farming,” Molly Bartlett laughs over the phone. Speaking to me from her seaside home, Molly is now a long way from Silver Creek Farm back in Hiram, Ohio.

In 2007, Molly and her husband Ted sold their farm to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. The Conservancy ensures that the land will continue to be farmed sustainably, even if it should face the crunch of residential development from nearby Cleveland. “A very real question for us,” says Molly, “was what to do with the farm when we got older and could no longer farm. Our grown children all chose other parts of the country and occupations and weren't interested in the farm. We just didn’t want it to be sold and subsequently developed.” Terms were reached with the Geauga County-based conservancy, the farm was sold, and the grandparents of 10 then moved to property they owned in Florida.

Having had some experience growing food for her family and friends, Molly started farming in 1985. She “just really liked being outdoors" plus felt a strong connection to the whole process of producing safe, clean food for a local food system. Molly was in a good position to start farming profitably. Ted’s job as a university professor provided the family with health insurance plus a salary, and Molly was selling pottery she made in her studio at weekend craft fairs. Molly had previous marketing experience, which she applied to selling farm products.

Silver Creek Farm became certified organic in 1989. The farm is 75 acres, with 15 to 18 acres in rotation and 8 to 10 acres in vegetable production at any one time. An acre was devoted to high bush blueberry production and also raspberries and asparagus which was the bulk of the farm perennial crops. From time to time the Bartlett’s raised shiitake mushrooms on logs. Two greenhouses produced seedlings for the farm and for market plus crops were grown in the high tunnel hoop house. A hundred ewes were raised for meat and wool, plus poultry for meat and eggs. A nearby Amish family processed the chickens that were marketed to CSA customers. The sheep were processed at an Ohio-inspected facility and the meat was sold retail from the farm market. The Bartlett’s sought to achieve “a complete circle” of sustainability by maximizing on-farm resources and working to keep the soil healthy by adding on-farm generated compost. They also saved their own seeds when time allowed.

Silver Creek Farm produced food for restaurants, grocers, natural food stores, and farmers markets. But, Molly considers her crowning achievement the creation of a Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) in 1991 that thrived for 13 years.

Molly reflects, “The CSA really enabled us to farm in the manner in which we wanted to.” They benefited from receiving the members’ dues in the spring, before the growing season. The CSA also allowed the Bartletts to showcase other farmers’ products, such as goat cheese and cut flowers. To Molly, being a successful CSA farmer meant having CSA customers who were “mentally on board.” Molly wrote a CSA newsletter every Wednesday, which included recipes with information on how to use the vegetables and fruits in their weekly distribution. The newsletter explained the importance of eating local foods, the production involved in CSA farming, and crop seasonality. “I felt if I was getting them more connected to our farm and the whole concept of eating locally, then I was doing my job well. That was success to me,” Molly says.

There was no lack of helping hands, however. Five to 30 volunteers showed up on a daily basis during the growing season. They included CSA members or locals who were simply interested in learning how food is grown. Over the years, the farm hosted at least 25 interns, many of whom lived on the farm during their tenure. On average there was at least one school group or adult group that weekly visited Silver Creek Farm for a tour.

But it was the youngest workers that most pleased Molly. “I loved watching kids go out into a patch of green beans and give them baskets for picking. Within minutes you would see the kids sitting there, munching on a fresh bean and enjoying the sounds of the farm. Cooking wasn't important for a fresh delicious bean! And this would be after their parents or grandparents said, ‘Oh, so-and-so doesn’t eat vegetables.’ But I would always argue that it was how fresh the vegetables were and that if you gave them fresh and hopefully organic ones they might eat them.” This wonderful picture of kids on the farm enjoying themselves fed Molly's farming soul.

If Silver Creek Farm sounds like a dream come true, it’s because it was. For Molly, organic farming was “the opportunity to live a dream and be on the farm. Our whole family enjoyed it immensely. We didn’t take vacations far away; we were living our vacation. We were so very fortunate to be at such a beautiful place.”

That’s not to say there weren’t challenges. Molly realized that farming required an enormous dedication of time and physical energy and an essential willingness be tied to the farm. Thankfully, the Bartletts and their children were willing to dramatically change their lifestyle to suit the farm, a commitment that Molly feels was their key to success.

Molly advises new farmers to prepare themselves for this enormous commitment. She also advises new farmers to “cover your bases” by planting perennials, every year we added more to the "perennial bank" that will provide a reliable yield year after year. “It’s also important to have other skills,” Molly suggests. “Farming is a difficult occupation. You should do whatever you can to bring in other income to fall back on.” For example, Molly kept up with pottery in her free time and sold it on the farm.

To focus only on Silver Creek Farm would be to overlook Molly’s significant contributions to OEFFA. Molly joined OEFFA in 1986. She says she gained a great deal of farming know-how from OEFFA friendships and from attending the annual meetings. After serving as a board member, Molly was OEFFA’s president for three years in the mid 1990’s. More than anything, Molly values OEFFA’s “grassroots feel.” She believes OEFFA has distinguished itself by staying committed to farmers and consumers.

While the Bartlett’s are no longer farmers per se, they continue to maintain a vegetable patch in a community garden. And, they are currently working to establish a residential community garden and farm in northwest North Carolina. Currently, they are also members of a CSA in Punta Gorda, Florida. Interestingly, these CSA farmers had driven to Cleveland to hear Molly give a speech about CSAs in 1996 at a conference for landscape architects. “We’re just sort of going in circles,” Molly says of her recent role exchange.

Indeed, if there’s one thing the Bartlett’s are good at, it’s working in circles. They’ve kept their farm in perpetuity, achieved sustainable production, and inspired a new generation of sustainable farmers. Without a doubt, the Bartlett’s best crop will be harvested by the generations to come.

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.