Goodell Farms cooks up happiness with syrup, potatoes and dairy

MANTUA, Ohio – Take a pinch of maple syrup, a smidgen of potatoes and a bit of dairy cattle, mix in 178 years of tradition and you have Goodell Farms.

And the Goodells’ not-so-secret recipe is an operation in Portage County focused on low inputs and lots of dedication.

Had Jay Goodell not headed into adulthood with an economics degree and an office job, he may never have come to appreciate the family farm when he returned for good two and a half years later.

“You find out what you like and don’t like when you get out there,” he said. And his revelation was that farming was what he wanted for the “long haul.”

Sustenance. The long haul is what made Jay, 53, and his brother Bruce, 50, want to practice sustainable agriculture – to sustain the land and to sustain themselves.

So they came up with a plan for low inputs: They milk their cows in the tie-stall barn – no need for a fancy parlor. Their cows graze outside half the year – no need for too much feed. They hire custom work for their fields – no need for lots of expensive equipment.

Although the farm in Mantua originally had dairy cattle, they were sold when Jay and Bruce were children. Soon after Jay and his wife, Barb, came back to the farm in 1976, Jay and his father, Frank, decided to get back in the dairy business.

Grazing. When Bruce joined them 10 years ago, they moved to intensive rotational grazing.

The brothers started the adventure from scratch, knowing virtually nothing about grazing.

With years of practice and tweaking the problems, Bruce now describes it as “fun.”

“There’s nothing like being a rancher or cowboy and moving cows down a lane outside,” he said.

Bruce, who handles most of the grazing, moves the cows every 12 hours between 17 paddocks on about 125 acres.

The herd started out as Holsteins, but in more recent years the brothers have used Jersey semen to crossbreed the Holsteins. They say this cross eases calving and the crossed cattle take the heat better.

“Although they may not be as high in production, they’re high in fat and protein, and they breed back easier,” Jay said.

The cows freshen in the spring and by September, Jay is usually milking about 70 cows.

Sugaring. Although Jay says dairy is the linchpin of their farm, the 178-year tradition of maple syrup is what brings the family together.

It has also given them hundreds of fans in their community.

Famous for their March pancake breakfasts, Jay and Bruce’s parents, Frank and Virginia, started the breakfasts at Shalersville Town Hall 22 years ago.

They were also both instrumental in honing in on syrup marketing techniques. These include maple butter, maple nuts, maple barbecue sauce and the Sunday breakfasts.

Thanks to Virginia’s marketing, attendance totaled 2,085 at four breakfasts last month.

In the woods, Bruce points out the thin tubes that snake through the trees and carry the maple syrup from 2,000 taps to the sugar house.

The family started the first section of tubing in 1989, but before that they used tractors, wagons, buckets and outside help to gather the syrup.

Even though the sweet smell of maple syrup still fills the sugar house in April, one of the hardest jobs is still ahead: cleaning the tubing that covers more than 100 acres.

Potatoes. Things have changed since Frank and Virginia were married 59 years ago. Not only have the maple syrup sales changed from wholesale to retail, but their potato crop has also changed.

Years ago, they planted more than 60 acres of potatoes, which were sold commercially into the potato chip market.

Now, the Goodells plant about five acres of potatoes and sell them from the farm

Next generation. Frank and Virginia are pleased that two of their sons (another son lives in Connecticut) have stayed in farming and now count on their grandson, Jay’s son Nathan, to continue the tradition after he graduates from college. Nathan is a sophomore at Ohio State University, majoring in animal science.

Barb and Jay also have three other children who helped on the farm. Steven is an electrical engineer in New York, Lisa is in graduate school for forestry and Rachel is a senior in high school.

Although Nathan hasn’t decided for sure whether he’ll continue cooking up the family’s farming recipe, the Goodells still have pride in the operation’s tradition.

“If you didn’t have a little pride, it wouldn’t be as fun,” Bruce said.

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