HARTVILLE, Ohio – Jon Brenckle wiped the dashboard of his pickup with his finger, then rubbed the black dust on his work pants.
“And I just cleaned this truck, too,” he said, half apologetically.
But that black dust isn’t just dirt at Brenckle Farms – it’s muck dust.
It’s black gold.
Muck soil is rich, fine soil, high in organic matter. For Brenckle and his father, Thomas, – and several generations before them – the muck fields have yielded radishes, greens and a way of farming quite different from the “high ground” farmers that surround their Stark County farm.
Deep heritage. The history of the “Hartville Swamp” runs as deep as the muck itself. As early as the 1870s, farmers in this region were unearthing the gems that flourished in this soil.
The black soil was home to at least 29 muck farmers in the early 1960s; today, you can count the remaining farms on one hand.
Muck soil is unlike any other. There are places where the Hartville muck is 14 or 15 feet deep; in other spots, it runs 8 or 9 feet deep. It’s so fine that you can plunge your arm into the soil right up to your shoulder. You could almost call the soil “fluffy.”
Jon Brenckle points to a gray house across the field that tilts to one side – muck soil doesn’t make a very firm foundation.
And when the wind blows, everything around gets coated with a thin coat of fine, black dust.
The good earth. The muck soil is ideal for raising produce – celery, radishes, lettuces, greens, peppers, herbs.
When Tom Brenckle’s grandfather moved to the area in 1933, he bought 40 acres for an unheard-of $1,000 per acre. Celery and radishes were big then, Brenckle recalls, and the family sold much of its produce at the wholesale markets in Pittsburgh up until 1956.
As a young man, Tom Brenckle, 59, left the farm to work in a shop (“You have to find out what you like,” he says in retrospect), then came back in 1967 and subsequently took over the operation in 1984.
Jon Brenckle, 32, joined the operation in 1984 after graduating from Ohio State with a degree in ag engineering. Tom Brenckle’s wife, Pat, keeps the farm’s books.
The Brenckles added more land as it became available. They now farm roughly 150 acres, including 50 acres of “high ground.”
They plant, harvest, wash and pack their produce, filling a huge cooler room until the vegetables make their way to grocers.
Other than the Brenckles, most of the farm’s labor is migrant laborers. Between 30 and 40 workers help harvest crops between June and October.
Planting starts in March, and the only crop that’s machine harvested is green beans. Some crops they can take two or three harvests off; others yield only one harvest.
Marketing. Much of Jon’s time is spent on marketing the 20 items he grows. He follows consumer trends and talks to his buyers to stay on top of his product mix.
“Every year you have to change something,” he said. “That’s the key to the success of this business.”
Five years ago, he said, there was no demand for red lettuces; today, they’re hot. And in the late 1980s, for example, Romaine lettuce demand picked up as Caesar salads became more popular.
Romaine lettuce is now the farm’s No. 1 product, followed by green onions and radishes. The Brenckles grow 40 acres of six types of lettuce: Boston, endive, escarole, Romaine, green leaf and red leaf.
In recent years, they’ve added cilantro, different pepper varieties and green beans.
Flexible. The farm’s size – not too big and not too small – gives the Brenckles the flexibility to try a few test rows of new products based on buyers’ requests.
“The smaller you are, the more apt you are to change to try and fit the niche,” Jon said.
Brenckle Farms’ products are not branded, but are carried in and around the Stark County area in local groceries like Giant Eagle, IGAs and Topps.
The Brenckles also work closely with neighboring grower, K.W. Zellers & Son, as well as with other produce and muck farmers in Ohio, to market products.
Irrigation. Water is a big part of the Brenckle operation for, as Jon Brenckle points out, 95 percent of his product is water.
The farm has always been irrigated, and maintaining the irrigation system and field drainage infrastructure is a big part of their job. The tillable acreage is all tiled.
Three wells supply the farm with its water. Drip irrigation is used on certain crops, like peppers; larger water wheels and cannons are used in other crops.
Gone with the wind. Because the muck soil is light when it dries out, some sources say a half-inch or more of topsoil may blow away in a year. To prevent that loss, Brenckle plants long rows of rye strips as miniwindbreaks every five rows of his crop.
Rye and wheat serve as winter cover crops.
Urban sprawl. Situated in northern Stark County, the Hartville area has seen a housing boom in the last 10 years. Some of that pressure is squeezing the Brenckles and there’s now a sewer line extended within a half-mile of their farm.
“You have to have areas you can spray, you have to have areas where you can farm,” said the elder Brenckle.
They don’t like to think about it, but both Brenckles say there may come a time when encroaching homes force them to make a tough decision – whether or not to move their farm elsewhere.
“If it keeps coming and we can keep this business going, we will move,” said Tom Brenckle. “But only because we’re getting crowded out.”
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at email@example.com.)
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