Portraits in Progress: Don’t look back: Maize Valley Farms taps into consumer market

(ed. note: The following feature was included in the 2001 Farm and Dairy Progress Edition)

HARTVILLE, Ohio – Twenty years ago, Maize Valley Farms was a conventional, traditional dairy farm, with a barn full of Holsteins and fields full of corn and soybeans.

But owner Kay Vaughan is anything but a conventional, traditional thinker – he gave up a 19-year teaching career in 1975 to work full-time on the Marlboro Township farm he and his wife, Donna, bought in 1964.

In the mid1980s, he added a grain storage and farm and seed supply business on the farm. Maize Valley Grain grew to be the largest grain storage facility in Stark County.

The family farm offered crop consulting, chemical and fertilizer sales, custom farming and grain marketing. Vaughan expanded his rented acreage and farmed in four counties.

Sweet beginnings.

In 1988, Vaughan started planting sweet corn with the corn planter in the end rows of his field corn.

Soon he was planting 20 acres of sweet corn, then 40 acres, then 80 acres – and finally Vaughan bought a picker. The corn was sold wholesale to just a handful of buyers, including the Canton-based supermarket, Fisher Foods.

Next came a wagon set up to sell sweet corn at the end of their farm lane and by 1991, they set up a trailer at the intersection of state Routes 22 and 619 to retail more corn.

The sweet corn was followed by pumpkins and melons and the trailer was joined by a tarp awning to protect their growing produce sales efforts.

In 1995, Vaughan’s daughter, Michelle, and her husband, Bill Bakan, attended their first direct marketing conference – and came home with lots of ideas about building more direct retail sales of the farm’s produce, including building a farm market.

“Dad kind of looked at us as if, ‘are you crazy?’” admits Michelle Bakan.

Farming amid houses.

But looking around their township, the family recognized the erosion of conventional production agriculture.

The region’s housing boom pushed their decision to get into direct marketing. Marlboro Township around Hartville is one of the Stark County’s hottest growing residential areas. The family can count 50 new houses that have been built in their immediate neighborhood in the last three years.

Developing their produce business into a farm market just seemed like a natural progression for Maize Valley, sitting in the middle of all those hungry consumers.

“We just looked around at all the houses being built,” said Michelle. “We’ve been watching that for 15 years.”

In 1997, they moved the trailer to a site along 619 and in 1999, they built a 500 square foot market at that location.

Maze challenge.

Bill Bakan, the creative energizer of the family, decided they could do more to entice urban and suburban families to come to the farm, and built a corn maze in the shape of the Goodyear blimp, first securing the permission of the Goodyear company to do so.

It was a huge success. Last year’s corn maze featured the Pony Express and Bakan conservatively estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 people wound their way through the corn stalks in 2000.

This year’s maze, which Bakan designs and creates himself, features the “Lost Kings of the Mayan Empire.”

In addition to the sweet corn, melons and pumpkins, the family raises tomatoes, green beans, squash and peppers, as well as other vegetables. This year, they’ll plant 150 acres of sweet corn, complemented by 20-30 acres grown to their specifications on a farm in southern Ohio to catch the early market.

Shifting gears.

The same innovative thinking that led Vaughan into full-time farming and then into a diversified agribusiness is leading the family into the retail farm market business in a big way in 2001.

The family sold its dairy herd last September and cut back on its own cash grain acreage and custom farming, although they’re still farming approximately 2,400 acres, of which about 500 acres are owned.

“We couldn’t find help and we would have had to add more cows,” said Michelle Bakan. “And with the increased environmental regulations coming, we just didn’t have the desire to keep milking.”

“We can’t do everything and we’ve just started to focus on the market,” said Bakan.

“We had to get off the commodity treadmill,” added Michelle’s husband, Bill, “but we were looking for ways to stay in farming.”

Barn gets new life.

Earlier this year, the family bought a century-old barn and 10 acres along Route 619 that abuts some of the Maize Valley Farms property. In that old barn, knee-deep in manure from cows and chickens long gone, and filled with all sorts of odd farm “stuff,” the Vaughans and Bakans saw the makings of a new farm market.

They have spent months cleaning out the two-story barn, ripping out old stanchions, sandblasting the interior that includes a stone foundation wall, reinforcing the handhewn beams, tearing off lean-tos and tearing up the old floor on the ground level, adding a wrap-around porch, residing and reroofing the huge barn, installing new wiring, plumbing and septic system.

They have combed auctions for used refrigeration units, for tables, produce display units and for lighting fixtures.

The new Maize Valley Farm Market, which will feature produce, deli items and a bakery, will open July 1.

They are also adding a greenhouse, with plans for bedding plants next spring and mums this fall.

Big leap.

“This year is kind of a big leap for us,” admitted Michelle, who will be managing the market. “It takes a fair amount of time and investment.”

Plus there are lots of questions you can’t get answered by looking in your agronomy guide, like “how long do I bake pies in an commercial oven?” and “how much room should there be between the serving counter and the wall.”

The Bakans are quick to thank two local farm markets, Whitehouse Fruit Farm in Canfield and Patterson Fruit Farm in Chesterland, for letting the newcomers pick their brains.

“We didn’t invent the wheel, we’re just building somebody else’s wheel,” Bakan said.

Educational opportunities.

The Bakans have developed tours for school and nonprofit groups (one week this spring, they welcomed more than 300 students).

But, like most ideas this enterprising family has, the tours have a twist. Bill Bakan took a look at the fourth and sixth grade Ohio proficiency tests and at what types of subject matter is being required. Then he developed age-appropriate examples and information to link to the maze tours or the farm tours.

A-maizing change.

The willingness to diversify is nothing new for the Vaughan family, although it’s difficult for many conventional farmers to fathom. After all, said Donna Vaughan, “we have been changing ever since we started to farm. It’s just one change after another.”

“That’s perceived in many different ways,” Michelle Bakan said. “But we see an opportunity to keep farming. The farm market is just an extension of the change.”

“We’re still operating and we’re still a family,” said Donna Vaughan. “It’s not been easy, but we’re hangin’ in there.”

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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