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Bonnie Mitsui

February Profile

"I always wanted to live in this house, on this farm, since I was seven years old," Bonnie Mitsui says. Bonnie grew up near Turner Farm, which has sat on the wooded outskirts of Cincinnati since 1873. Bonnie's grandmother acquired the farm in the 1960s, when the farmhouse still lacked indoor plumbing.

It was several decades before Bonnie would start farming at the age of 49. She lived in northern California for 25 years with her husband and two children and returned to Ohio in 1993. Bonnie had "always wanted to farm" but had no farming experience. She claims she had never grown so much as a houseplant!

Passion drove Bonnie to start farming. She had spent her childhood eating fresh produce and meats from local farms. She returned to Ohio "appalled" by the processed, unhealthy foods she found at grocery stores. She wanted to revive the agriculture of her childhood and share it with others.

While Bonnie does not have a traditional farming background, her experience as an interior designer was surprisingly helpful. Bonnie has a "great sense of space" and used to design floor layouts, which helped her organize her field space effectively.

It is easy to imagine that someone with no farming experience, who has just moved onto a medium-sized farm, would have a challenging beginning. But, Bonnie was not daunted because she says that farming is "like having a baby. You don’t think about it, you just have it. Then you figure out what to do with it." It is a good way to think about starting a farm, because "if you knew all the problems [ahead of time], you probably wouldn’t do it."

Bonnie faced two big challenges early on. The first was the soil, which was "just yellow, dead clay" that lacked structure and organisms. The first time she plowed, the soil broke down to dust. The soil is much healthier today, because Bonnie has added manure, leaf compost, and mulch, and has grown buckwheat, rye, and vetch to add nutrients and organic matter. She also added drainage tile to alleviate standing water problems.

Her second challenge involved learning when to take (and not take) the advice of others. While new farmers usually depend on advice from their peers, Bonnie had an unlucky start. One farmer advised her to plant pumpkins, claiming that they were easy to grow. Bonnie raised over 1,600 pumpkin plants, but spent most of her time and energy weeding and fertilizing them. They were anything but easy. Then another 'expert' noticed some pests on the pumpkins and recommended she apply rotenone. But, the rotenone killed off the pollinators and only two pumpkins actually sprouted!

Today Bonnie is an expert farmer. In 1996, she hired Ohio native, Melinda O'Briant, to help her manage the farm. Even though Melinda knows vegetables and flowers best, she is known as "the pig whisperer" for her ability to tame hogs. Originally from a farm in Crawford County, Melinda got her horticulture degree at Ohio State University. Melinda found Bonnie through a hand-written job posting at an OSU floriculture convention. Melinda, with her ready laugh, seems to be both friend and employee.

Bonnie and Melinda have been involved with OEFFA for the last two decades. They have given on-farm tours and workshops as well as conference sessions about growing garlic, successive plantings, and early plantings.

Turner Farm is bordered by dense woods on three sides. The seven acres of cleared land are broken up into pasture, fallow land, and several vegetable, flower, and herb gardens. Between four and five acres are usually in production each growing season. Additionally, there are the hogs, sheep, cows, and chickens. The veggies are organic but the meat is not, because the only organic certified slaughterhouse in Ohio is in far away Fredericksburg.

All these products end up in the lucky stomachs of customers who come out to the farm or go the Findlay Market, and the members of the two Turner Farm CSAs.

Melinda has seen huge growth in area farmers' markets in the last decade. She says that the demand for local and organic foods "way outstrips the supply." Members of the CSAs are expected to work two hours every week, tending the gardens or feeding the animals. Members are required to work because Bonnie wants to get ordinary citizens interested in growing their own food. Some of the CSA members have gotten into farming using the knowledge they picked up at Turner Farm.

It's this desire to educate the community that led Bonnie to make Turner Farm a nonprofit organization in 2009.

As part of this educational component, during the last 2 years, Turner Farm has run summer day camps for 8 to 10 year olds. Since the farm is small human scale, kids enjoy working on the farm and learning about their food.

Recently, Turner Farm has added more classes for adults on subjects including gardening, canning, and woodworking. As Bonnie has increased the use of draft animals on the farm and in the gardens, she has started an intern program for farming with draft animals and beginning driving classes for farmers. Bonnie has found that donkeys, in particular, are easy to work with, kid-friendly, more ecological than gas-powered machines, and “literally get fat on rocks”—meaning they need little food.

Bonnie is also a strong advocate for organic certification because it allows consumers to have confidence about how their food has been produced. But, Bonnie admits going organic has had its problems. Turner Farm is located in a climatic transition zone: both southern and northern pests plague the area in addition to the usual deer, rabbits, and raccoons. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Turner Farm is the only farm in the area, making it a favorite destination for nuisance animals. Dogs provide some defense against larger pests, as well as electrified fencing and offensive-smelling products (like fish emulsion and blood meal). The insects are harder to avert, however, and are easily spotted munching on the greenery.

But, Bonnie feels that life on the farm is worth all of the difficulties. She likes eating homegrown food and Melinda enjoys the butterflies that flock to the flower patch. (Turner Farm is a certified Monarch butterfly waystation.)

Bonnie's advice to new farmers is, "Just do it. We need more growers." She claims that you can make 30 to 40 thousand dollars a year just by growing a few crops. Melinda recalls one vendor at the Worthington Farmers' Market who made a killing selling only sunflowers. Bonnie grows, or has grown, just about every crop you can imagine, but she recommends starting simply and saving the crop diversity for later.

Turner Farm’s fields, spread with flowers, squash, and fluffy sheep, would make anyone want to start farming. It’s a place that both preserves the past and plans for the future of farming.

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.