JEFFERSON, Ohio — Diversity, sustainability and self-sufficiency are words to farm by for Ralph and Connie Rice of Jefferson.
From sheep without wool to short-legged cows, from the maple sugar shack to Connie’s quilting machine, Riceland Meadows is a farm marching toward as much independence as anyone can achieve on 73 acres.
The unwoolly woolies in the Rice’s front pasture along Route 307 could be the first clue that Riceland is not a typical small farm.
The Katahdin sheep, a breed originating in Maine, are called hair sheep and provide a number of advantages to a small operation, Rice said.
“They’re really good mothers,” he noted. “We cull for that.”
With a standing herd of 20 to 30 ewes, that means fewer midnight lambings and minimal bottle feeding. “We never have less than a 200 percent increase,” Rice said. “If they have them, they raise them.”
To the untrained eye, the Kahtadins look like they may be some kind of black and white goats, but their value is not in their coats.
Katahdins, which Rice called a niche type, are meat sheep and there is a good market for grass-fed American lamb, he said. “American lamb is very different,” he said, compared to lamb grown in feedlots and raised on corn.
“Grass-fed lamb is very mild and not fatty at all.”
His stock is 5 to 6 months old when they go to Cherry Valley Processing — large enough to be full-sized but young and tender enough to satisfy his regular customers.
Unlike their woolly cousins, Katahdin sheep shed their thick coats in the spring, which is a bonus for area birds. Rice said nests for miles around have warm, soft linings thanks to his sheep.
A collection of black cattle grazed around a pair of newborn calves, cleaning up the corn-stalk stubble. About half the size of an adult Holstein, Rice’s Dexter cattle supply both milk and meat — a handy combination for a small farm.
“They were an experiment here,” Rice said. When he first bought a mixed group of heifers and cows they were pretty wild.
“They hadn’t been handled,” he said.
Even though they are small compared to other breeds, they can still do damage to a careless human.
But one reason he decided on the Dexters is their amiable attitude, Rice said. “They’re very docile cattle,” he said.
It took time but he tamed the herd. “After a while they warmed up.”
The Dexters are good keepers, will supply up to two gallons of high butter-fat milk a day and provide top-quality beef, Rice said.
His 20 years of experience as a butcher led him to choose the breed. “I’m always breeding and growing for carcass,” he said.
Connie Rice sees his inclination from a different angle. “My husband really likes to invest in rare breeds,” she said.
He researches the various breeds and learns about the lineage before making a decision, and distance is not an issue. “We drove all the way to Iowa to buy the Dexters.”
Cross breeding. Rice is also partial to cross breeding. His four sows — Thelma and Louise, Betty and Wilma — are York and Landrace crosses and he breeds them to a Chester White boar twice a year.
Watching his five black Percheron draft horses charge down the fence toward the barn, “calm” is not the first word that comes to mind. As they thunder around the corner, they are reminiscent of the war horses of the Norman conquerors. But the giants are indeed gentle, bred and raised to pull logs out of the woods and do other chores.
“We were only going to have two,” he said, but they started breeding their mares to a local stallion, Burton Thunderstick, and the herd enlarged.
“We had nine at one time. There was hardly enough pasture.”
The hobby got in the way of self-sufficiency.
Rice likes to manage his fields and pastures so they mostly support the animals he raises and so he doesn’t have to buy much grain and hay.
Horses are high-maintenance, so he had to sell some, reducing his stock to the point where they don’t encroach on his mission. But hooking them up to a two, three or four-horse hitch and driving them is a pleasure.
“Our goal is to be as diverse as we can and be self-sustaining,” Rice said. “Sustainable agriculture is the only way a small farm can survive.”
Chickens. By rotating his crops and his pastures Rice comes very close to his target. And he gets some help from a handful of New Hampshire chickens which are good for free-range eggs and meat. They are also prime pest-control troops, eating bugs and weed seeds that threaten Rice’s crops.
To make the most of that quality, Rice built their coop on an old boat trailer and in the spring, summer and fall, he relocates the coop to areas that need the flock’s attention.
In the cow pasture, they scratch and peck, scattering manure as they gobble up winged and crawling pests. Keeping the coop in the field means keeping the chickens out of Connie’s flowerbeds and garden — as good a reason as any for ensuring the flock occupies the “free-range” of Rice’s fields.
“When they are out there, they keep me out of trouble,” Rice laughed.
The vegetable garden is a huge family effort every year, Connie said. Between the two of them, they have seven children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. “They all like to come here,” Connie said.
The garden is a family project and everyone benefits, she said, preserving tons of vegetables and fruits in line with the self-sufficiency mantra.
Connie estimates Riceland Meadows provides about 95 percent of everything she and Ralph consume with a lot left over for the rest of the family. “Chocolate we have to buy,” she said. “We’re still eating potatoes from last year.”
When she isn’t gardening or preserving, Connie brings in some extra cash with her machine quilting.
The couple purchased the property in 1992 and lived in the original farm house, leasing most of the acreage. After they placed a spacious manufactured home on a full basement more central to the property, Ralph added a bright, large, airy room on the back for Connie’s quilting.
“It is a nice retirement business,” said the retired nurse. “It’s wonderful. I can be as busy as I want.”
Retirement for Ralph, 50, is still in the future. Now a shift supervisor at Millennium Chemicals in Ashtabula where he has worked for 18 years, his heart is on the farm, where he has projects lined up.
The next will be refurbishing the sugarhouse in the grove of maple trees by the pond. With luck he’ll be tapping trees next winter, adding a little more sweetness to the Riceland success story.