The old adage that every day is Earth Day to a farmer is certainly true for Otterbein’s family farmers, who strive to be stewards of natural resources while producing much-needed crops and livestock. Read on to learn more about how these alumni are incorporating sustainable practices into the operations of their farms.
Leatherwood Stock Farm
In 2000, Judy Ackerman Henry ’70 and her husband, Jim, “retired” full time to their 500-acre cattle ranch in Clarion, PA. They now raise 300 Angus beef cows naturally, without growth hormones. According to the Global Action Network, the European Union has banned the use of growth hormones in cattle and has prohibited the import of hormone-treated beef since 1988, citing concerns for human health and the environment.
It takes more time and care to raise them this way, but the Henrys prefer the cycle of “following the grass,” allowing the cattle to graze, breed and birth on a natural schedule.
While steroid implants enhance the growth of the cow and reduce costs, they also “have a tendency to reduce the grade of beef,” Jim explained. The USDA grades of beef run from prime — the highest grade — to choice, then select and standard. Most naturally fed cows will be “93 to 97 percent choice, two to three percent prime,” he noted. “If you ear implant those same types of cattle with steroids, you’ll get 86 to 87 percent choice, one percent prime. Ten percent slips into the standard category.”
Their calves are born mainly between mid-April and mid-June. They are weaned in October or November, then normally sold in January at about seven months of age. A few years ago, the Henrys joined forces with other cattle ranchers to form the nonprofit Keystone Beef Marketing Network. The group’s primary objective is to sell their calves first to Pennsylvania buyers, decreasing their carbon footprint and benefitting the local economy. In addition, they’ll hear soon if they’ve received a grant from the USDA that will allow them to get Pennsylvania beef into most of the state’s supermarkets.
Currently president of the network, Jim has been operating their cattle ranch since the 1980s. At that time, he took over his family’s dairy farm, which has been in business for more than 200 years, then bought two adjacent properties to convert the dairy farm into a cattle ranch. Although Jim has been operating the ranch since then, both he and Judy commuted between other jobs in Ohio and the farm until 2000, when they moved to the property full time. “We like living in the country. It’s a way of life,” Judy commented. “Every day is different—that’s why we enjoy it.”
Rider Landing Organic Grain Farm
Nan Van Scoyoc Rider ’66 and husband, Ken, have maintained 500 acres of certified organic farmland for 26 years. In 1974, they purchased 27 acres of property in Deshler, OH, and began farming conventionally. Soon, however, they purchased more land and made the move to organic. “We really wanted to raise the purest foods that we could,” commented Nan. “We were probably one of a very few in the area who were doing that.”
Growing corn, soybeans, wheat, spelt and alfalfa, the Riders do not use any herbicides or pesticides. To be certified organic, any fertilizers they do use—all chemical free—must be approved by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
According to the 2011 Organic Production Survey by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are 191 certified organic crop farms in Ohio and 6,564 in the United States.
Farming organically is time-consuming and laborious: although some equipment can be used for weed control, “there is a lot of hands-on work because we don’t use pesticides.” To help prevent weeds, the Riders rotate their crops every nine years, and they use cover crops, mainly alfalfa, which loosens the soil, and provides nitrogen and other nutrients for later crops.
As organic farmers, the Riders must keep a paper trail from the time they purchase and plant the seeds to the time they sell their crops. They must pass an annual inspection, as well as unannounced inspections, by the OEFFA, to be certified. Their crops are sold locally, as well as across the country and internationally. “Our crops may end up in Japan, Germany or Canada,” Ken noted. “Whoever buys that product in Germany, however, can track that all the way back to my field because of the organic certification.”
The number of organic farmers has grown over the years, and the Riders have a wide support base from local organizations, as well as from The Ohio State University, Michigan State University and Purdue. Still, said Nan, “You must be passionate about organic farming because it is labor intensive. Our mission is to provide a good food source for people and for animals.”
For nearly 10 years, Suzanne Allison Lees ’69 and husband, David Lees, have dedicated a part of their 300-acre farm near Granville as a compost facility. A grant through the Coshocton-Fairfield-Licking-Perry Solid Waste District allowed them to purchase the necessary equipment, and after a few classes at the OSU Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster, they were soon up and running. The Solid Waste District has designated their farm a drop-off location for yard waste. The yard debris from area residents, plus manure from the cows on their own farm and from three local horse facilities, are combined to make the compost.
According to the West Virginia University Extension Service, composting is beneficial to farming in two key ways. First, it creates a marketable product from agricultural waste. Second, it provides valuable nutrients and organic matter to soil, which improves moisture retention and plant establishment, suppresses soil-borne diseases, reduces the needs for pesticides and fertilizers, prevents erosion and safeguards water quality.
Depending on moisture and air temperature, it normally takes six months to break down the compost. During that time, the original pile shrinks by 50 percent, removing the smell and becoming a natural fertilizer for garden soil.
Spring is the busy season for composting, and the Lees sell to gardeners throughout the county. According to Suzanne, the compost adds nutrients to the soil and helps loosen it up. Ironically, in all the time they’ve been composting, the Lees have never had the chance to use it on their own farm. “We never have any excess because we sell out every year,” commented Suzanne.
The farmland not being used for composting is dedicated to raising beef cattle, as well as growing corn, soybeans and wheat. While not able to use the compost, “this year we planted peas to use as a cover crop,” Suzanne noted. “It adds nutrients to the soil so we don’t have to use as much fertilizer.” These will survive the winter and help retain nutrients for next year’s crops.
Tuxedo Tree Farm
The Laurens, SC, tree farm owned by Rachel Siviter ’60 has been in the family since the mid 1800s. It was originally a cotton farm, but the family eventually quit planting the crop and much of the property became overgrown with trees. Nearly 30 years ago, Siviter’s aunt cleared about 75 acres to plant white pine seedlings and renamed the property Tuxedo Tree Farm.
The planting of pines is a “good way to preserve the earth,” noted Siviter. “It’s good for the soil and for the air.” The roots help prevent soil erosion and improve water quality. The pines also provide food and shelter for the birds and animals on her property. She often spots turkey and deer, along with numerous types of birds.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Siviter hasn’t done much farming, but she consults a forester on caring for the pines, which are fairly maintenance free. They reseed themselves and they grow quickly, so no further planting on her part is needed, and they “self-prune.”
The trees have been thinned twice since her aunt first planted them. An area timber company removes the trees from the property, using most of the wood as pulp for making paper. Some are also used for furniture, flooring, and paneling.
Although she did not live on the farm, she and her family visited often, and she has wonderful memories of her stays. “My mother grew up on the place with nine brothers and sisters, so they all told wonderful stories,” she recalled. “Everything about this place is stories.”
After graduating with a degree in business from Otterbein, Mark Heister ’65 moved back to his family farm in Canal Winchester to help manage the property. A fifth-generation farmer, Heister has been farming 300 acres without help for 45 years. For the most part, he has grown corn, soybeans and wheat.
In the early ’70s, he made his own corn planters and began no-till farming. “No-till preserves the soil and saves fuel and time,” he noted. Decreasing erosion, it “lends itself well to worms. They add nutrients to the soil, and their holes are good for aeration and for water.” In addition, he was able to plant his crops in very narrow rows — just 7 ½ inches apart.
About 35 percent of crops in the United States are grown with no-till farming, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Approximately half of soybean crops are raised with no-till techniques.
Wheat is harvested in July, and soybeans and corn, in September or even October. “If you farm a lot, weather may close in on you with snow, etc., so timing is important,” Heister commented. “I’ve run into January, because we’ve had a wet fall.”
The crops were sold to local mills and commercial markets in Columbus and Circleville. About 35 years ago, Heister built a large grain facility, which allowed him to keep corn fresh for more than a year. This enabled him to sell it at various times throughout the year — not just at harvest, when the “market could become flooded and prices go down.”
Heister retired three years ago. He sold his tools and machinery, but not the land. He and his wife still live on the property and a neighbor farms it for them.“Being self-employed was nice, but we had to provide health insurance and our own retirement,” he said. “The trade-off is that it’s more of a lifestyle. I was home more with the kids, and I didn’t have to drive to the office. Those are good trade-offs.”
Kuns Farm, Castalia
Just a few years after graduating from Otterbein, Carole Fitzthum Kuns ’59 quit her teaching job to work alongside her husband, Larry, on his family farm. The two have been working the 500-acre property near Castalia, a small town in northern Ohio, ever since. The farm was managed by Larry’s grandfather and father before him; now, the Kuns’ son and grandson have taken over the daily farm work. Until 10 years ago, they were managing about 100 dairy cattle, but now raise only beef cattle. Corn, soybeans, and wheat are also grown on the property.
In all that time, the Kuns have refused to use steroids on their dairy or beef cattle. “We just weren’t comfortable with it,” Carole noted. “When you give the dairy cows the hormones, they milk faster but their life span is shorter. And our beef cows have never had hormones. I wouldn’t want to eat meat that was filled with that, and I wouldn’t want our customers to eat it either. We have regular customers who come to the farm to buy it each year,” she explained.
According to the Center for Food Safety, the use of rBST (growth hormone) in milk production has been shown to elevate the levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a naturally occurring hormone that in high levels is linked to several types of cancers. It also induces an unnatural period of milk production resulting in low-quality milk that sours more quickly than milk from untreated cows.
All but one of their beef cows are currently pregnant, so in the spring, they will have 19 animals. The heifers will stay on the farm; the remaining will be sold as beef to mainly local customers, or raised to sell inexpensively to young 4-H members to show. The Kuns remember how financially difficult it could be for their son to buy his own animals as a young 4-H member, so they do what they can to help educate tomorrow’s family farmers today.
Carole and her husband have semi-retired from farming, but “a farmer never retires,” she said, recalling the many years she and her husband woke early every morning to feed the cows. “I miss that—it was a pretty time of day.” •