From buffalo to buffers:Swopes conserve way of life

SALEM, Ohio – The journey to Heritage Lane Farm began in the late 1980s when blond-haired, blue-eyed Sarah Walton knocked on Kevin Swope’s dorm-room door to welcome him to Hocking Technical School.
Before long, the young couple was spending long evenings on campus talking about their future, the farm they wanted, the home they wanted, the family they wanted.
Now, three kids, 30 buffalo, and one log house later, Kevin and Sarah Swope are right where they want to be, but they aren’t done talking about the future.
Crazy? Maybe not. After graduating from school and getting married, they moved to Sarah’s parents’ small farm in Salem, Ohio.
Kevin began remodeling the 1830s log house and got a job with the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District, developing the county’s conservation program.
Then Sarah’s father, Homer Walton, died in 1992. Kevin, Sarah, and her mother, Sydney, had to decide what to do with the farm.
It was only 53 acres. Sarah’s father just had a few beef cattle and other nearby farmers planted row crops on the land.
Both Kevin and Sarah studied natural resources in college and they were interested in trying their own hands at farming. So when two insurance men came to the house after the funeral and recommended selling the farm and investing the money, the Swopes declined.
But they did need to find a way for the farm to pay for itself.
Lot off a front strip along the road for house trailers. Sell the trailers and use that money to farm the rest of the land, one of the insurance men recommended.
Sarah just laughed. That was out of the question.
Well, bison are supposed to be getting popular, the insurance man said. Why don’t you get some of them?
This time Kevin laughed. This guy’s crazy, he thought.
But about a month later, the conservation district hosted a buffalo farmer to speak at a children’s program.
Maybe it isn’t so crazy after all, Kevin told Sarah when he got home. They’re similar to raising beef but the prices are better. They’re hardy. They don’t take a lot of time, he thought.
In 1997, Kevin bought seven buffalo for Sarah for Valentine’s Day.
Rescuing the land. Even before the buffalo, Kevin and Sarah studied their land and soil. Erosion ate at the fields and the soil lacked nutrients. Cattle trampled the stream banks into sharp slants and killed the trees whose roots stopped the banks from eroding.
This bothered them.
And they started thinking about their own farming practices.
“We didn’t want to use the farm to a point where it was completely ruined,” said Kevin, who now works for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Carroll County.
So they decided to keep the cattle out of the forest and stream. They divided the fields into 4- to 5-acre paddocks and planted grass for grazing rather than corn.
“There’s no sense for me to fire up a $30,000 tractor and harvest the crops and feed them to the animals,” Kevin said. “They’re perfectly capable of going out there and eating it themselves.”
The Swopes didn’t stop there.
They planted trees on the stream banks, they planted pine trees for windbreaks, they hauled gravel for a heavy-use feeding pad in the buffalo’s winter grazing paddock, they planted grassy areas to encourage wildlife, they installed water pipelines to each paddock, and they planted warm and cool season grasses so the animals could graze all year.
“We’re not preservationists. We’re conservationists,” Kevin said. “An ecosystem lives here and we have to be careful not to disrupt what’s here.”
More than just burgers. Although the Swopes got their first three buffalo heifer calves and four yearlings that Valentine’s Day in 1997, it was years before they had something to sell.
Buffalo are kept much longer than beef cattle, up to 32 months, before they are slaughtered. It wasn’t until 2000 that the first one was butchered and only recently have the Swopes been able to slaughter regularly.
They sell the buffalo burger, roasts and steaks at the farm and go to the Salem Farmers’ Market and Shaker Heights Farmers’ Market touting the benefits of a leaner red meat and churning interest in burger that goes for $3.50 a pound.
Even with the steep prices, the Swopes probably could sell more.
Recently a restaurant called them and asked if they’d be willing to do business. While many farmers dream of this kind of opportunity, Sarah said they weren’t interested.
The Swopes want to focus on the quality of their meat, not the quantity.
“I want to tell the customers that I raised this animal from the day this animal was born until the day it went on the trailer,” Sarah said. “I can tell you what it did every day of its life.”
“This is a lifestyle,” Kevin added, “not a quest for wealth.”
Way of life. Old-time farms were small. People raised a little of this, a little of that – hogs, chickens, turkeys, flowers, vegetables, maple syrup. This is the farming ideal the Swopes are modeling for themselves.
But the family takes it a step further.
Their chicken flock includes heritage breeds, including Golden-Laced Wyandotte, Buff Orpingtons, Araucana and Dominiques. Their geese are Toulouse. And their lone donkey, Danny, is an ancient Sicilian breed.
Again and again, Sarah says this is conserving a way of life. A way of life that includes Kevin’s antique farm equipment collection.
In the hayloft, Kevin hoards a wagon and grain binder and corn binder. He’s waiting for the day he can restore the equipment to working condition and host shows at the farm.
“It’s silly to conserve all this and not share it with others and get them interested,” Kevin said.
That’s why the family dismantled a mid-1800s home down the road and is re-building it at the farm. Inside, they will set up a retail store for their buffalo meat and eggs and occasional flowers and vegetables.
Even more importantly, it will be a place for learning.
The Swopes welcome as many people as possible to their farm. They give tours and handouts and answer questions – anything to get across the importance of agriculture and the environment and history.
“It’s a great feeling when a bus pulls down that drive and 200 more kids understand where their food comes from,” Sarah said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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