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LOUDONVILLE, Ohio — When you go to Tea Hills Farms in Ashland County, there’s a good chance you’ll be face-to-face with a pasture-raised animal quickly after you step out of your car.
It won’t be a large or dangerous animal — but a chicken, a duck or the farm dog are likely to greet you as soon as you arrive. It’s all part of the farm’s cage-free, pasture-based setup and the owners, Jason, 39, and Cara Tipton, 30, are committed to that type of farming.
“The chickens get to run around — they get to be outside in the fresh, clean air and drink fresh spring water,” said Cara Tipton. “They’re not stuck in a big barn full of ammonia fumes and tripping over each other.”
The couple — along with help from Cara’s father, Doug Raubenolt, her brother, Ross, and their families — raise pasture-based chicken, turkey, duck, lamb and pork.
Their signature product is their gourmet chicken patty — processed in a meat kitchen on the farm and available in eight flavors. During their busiest season, the family sells up to 800 pounds of chicken — at farmers markets and directly on the farm.
Cara’s parents were dairy farmers for many years. But in 1996, Cara and her family attended a grazing conference in Michigan where they became interested in pasture-raised livestock after hearing pasture-based guru Joel Salatin. He’s the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia, and one of the most prominent names in pasture-based farming.
It was the start of a new direction.
The family began the transition to an organic dairy and had all of its pastures certified organic around 2000. But an even bigger venture was when they started raising pasture-based poultry in 1996. They raised just a few birds the first year, and they were so popular, they increased to 800 head the second year, and have been adding since.
Doug Raubenolt said sales took off around 2005, when customers started shopping for meat with specific labels and a pasture-raised background.
“The boom hit and the customer changed,” he said. “The customers got to be ‘label’ eaters.”
As the business grew, the family realized they needed a processing plant, so they built and operated their own slaughter plant on the farm, often relying on local high school and college students for help.
“At the time, there was such a huge demand for custom processing because no one around us was doing it,” she said.
But as the helpers graduated and other businesses opened plants — they decided it made more sense to partner with a separate slaughter facility.
Today, the slaughtering is done at Pleasant Valley Poultry in Baltic, owned by Aden Troyer. But the kitchen area on the farm is still used for processing the meat — especially the chicken patties.
The Tiptons raise Cornish cross, which take about seven to eight weeks to mature, and red rangers, which take about 12-14 weeks.
They buy the birds as young chicks and receive about 440 Cornish-cross chicks every two weeks, from the middle of March through the first week of September.
“We’ve got a pretty long growing season,” she said, and if it gets too cold, they day-range the chickens, which means they put them indoors at night and allow them outside as the day warms.
When outdoors on the open pasture, the birds can seek shelter beneath movable range houses, which can be moved to different parts of the pasture once the ground beneath becomes soiled.
The Tiptons are especially excited this year, as recipients of an Ohio Department of Agriculture grant for value-added producers. They were notified in January that they will be reimbursed up to $178,000 for 50 percent of their working capital expenses — for about a three-year period.
With the new funding, they hope to hire new workers and expand sales of chicken patties. It’s common for them to sell 120 packs of patties at one farmers market.
Raubenolt, who works as an organic farm inspector, said he enjoys helping Cara and Jason sell the product — especially when he gets to meet the buyer.
“It’s a tremendous experience for a farmer,” he said. “Once you start doing farmers markets, you start developing a neat relationship with these city people (who) you never knew. It’s just like going to church with some of these people.”
He and his daughter both agree the chicken burgers are popular because they’re easy to cook and contain value-added ingredients like apples, garlic, onions and lean chicken meat.
“Once you try them, they’re a superior product to anything else you can find,” she said, “because we make them by hand and they’ve got really awesome ingredients in them.”
With so many animals on pasture, the farm sometimes has issues with predators, including coyotes and recently, airborne predators like hawks.
Earlier this year, they got a wolf-like dog from the local humane society to help keep watch. The dog gives chase to anything suspicious and also leaves her own scent behind, which helps detract would-be predators.
The couple has two young daughters, Adalyn, 3, and Sophia, 1. Their chores are limited right now, but they already help with some of the feeding and are getting a hands-on education about raising livestock.
The farm is located at 269 Township Rd. 2450 Loudonville, OH 44842. You can reach them at 1-419-685-1689.