Fitch Pharm Farm relies on farmer mentors to diversify

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Two men demonstrate how a cider press works.
J.D. Shouse, left, and Mark Fitch, right, demonstrate how the cider press works at Fitch Pharm Farm, in Ashland, Ohio, Oct. 2, during the Ashland County Farm Tour. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

ASHLAND, Ohio — Honeybees buzzed around Fitch Pharm Farm, in Ashland, Ohio, Oct. 2, as visitors passed through on the 2021 Ashland County Farm Tour. With a cider press humming in the background, the Fitch family told guests about some of the things they grow or raise on the farm: maple syrup, honey, blueberries, organic grains, hay, cattle and pigs.

The farm didn’t always look that way. When Doug Fitch bought the farm more than 30 years ago, he tried just grain and cattle farming first. But commodity prices were frustrating, and it could be tough to make it through the summer to harvest season, waiting to have something to sell, or just relying on hay and cattle sales until then.

So, about 25 years ago, Fitch made it his goal to find something to bring in money each month, so he didn’t have to worry about whether he’d make it to autumn.

“That’s why I’m a very diverse farm,” Fitch said. “I can make a living off of the farm … you grow and expand and change.”

Diversifying

Fitch grew up on a farm, and loved it, but aptitude tests in high school suggested that he should go into the medical field. He tried job shadowing a pharmacist and enjoyed it, so he became one, too. When he came back from school, a nearby farm was for sale. Fitch bought it and has been there since.

This year, Fitch retired from his job as a pharmacist. But he’s continuing to try new things on the farm, with some help from his wife, Bethany, three children and grandchildren.

This fall is only the second season they’ve pressed cider, Mark Fitch, one of Doug’s sons, said. They bought the press from another farmer who recently retired, and who also taught them how to use it. They don’t grow apples on the farm, so they buy apples from other local farmers to press. Doug Fitch is also experimenting with apple cider vinegar.

The Fitches have tried a lot of different crops over the years. At one time, they had one of the largest rhubarb crops in Ashland County. More competition came in, rhubarb became less profitable, and Doug Fitch kept trying other things. Maple syrup is a big part of the farm now — they typically makes about 500-600 gallons each year.

“Us Fitches have a sweet tooth,” Mark Fitch explained. Most of their products, he considers “luxury items” — they’re not essential, but people enjoy them. The farm also sells some add-on products, like taps for maple trees and beeswax candles. They have a grist mill, which they use to make pancake flour, to go with the maple syrup.

Bottles of maple syrup and small glasses set up for sampling on a table in a store.
Maple syrup set up for sampling in the store at Fitch Pharm Farm, in Ashland, Ohio, Oct. 2. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Mentor

Other farmers have been important mentors for Doug Fitch along the way. One neighbor got him started selling maple supplies, like taps, on the side as an add-on to maple syrup over 30 years ago. They also taught him how to tap maple trees and make syrup.

The neighbors he had growing up spent many years teaching him how to farm, too. When he first bought the farm, one of them brought two beehives over and told him he needed them on his farm. Now, he’s up to 30 beehives and does bee rescues and removals, as well.

His dad has been another great teacher, especially when it comes to work ethic, and at 93, still helps out at the farm sometimes. Most of what he’s learned, whether about growing a specific crop, or about the business side of farming, has come from “hard knocks and great mentors.”

“It’s such a great blessing when you can shut your mouth and open your ears and listen to your mentors,” Doug Fitch said. This year, he had enough extra bee swarms to help four beginning beekeepers get started with their own hives.

“That’s fun, to be at the stage where I can be a mentor now,” he said.

Learning

The farm is organic. Doug Fitch never liked using chemical sprays. He doesn’t necessarily think it’s all bad — things like sprays and genetic modifications to food have contributed to America having relatively cheap food prices. But he also thinks things can be done well “the old-fashioned way.”

That doesn’t mean he’s doing everything the same way he did decades ago. For maple trees, he relies on reading, workshops and classes through groups like Ohio State University Extension and local foresters and other experts to help him make good management decisions and stay up to date with best practices.

“I went to all the maple schools … to make sure I treat my trees the best,” he said. “I want my great grandson to be able to tap them.”

Using just two or three taps, instead of four or five, per tree, and using smaller taps so the holes heal up faster helps him keep the trees healthy and preserve the woods. Treating the trees well also means they produce sweeter sap, he said.

“Being the pharmacist, I’ve always been a little more on the perfectionist side … making sure that we’re above average on everything we do,” Doug Fitch said.

A man stands next to a sugar house and a sign that says "maple syrup."
Doug Fitch stands outside the sugar house at Fitch Pharm Farms, in Ashland, Ohio, Oct. 2. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Family

He’s hoping that one day, one of his children or grandchildren will want to take over the farm. For now, they help out when they can.

His oldest son married the daughter of another local farmer, and the two farms help each other as needed. His daughter is a registered nurse, which keeps her pretty busy off the farm.

Mark Fitch, his middle son, works for a fire and safety equipment company, but also spends a lot of time on the farm. He has some construction experience. That complements Doug Fitch’s skill set on the farm, Mark Fitch said.

“Dad has the book smarts; I’m mechanical,” he explained.

Doug Fitch’s goal is to reach the point where he can make about $100,000 on his 30 acres. Some people laugh when he tells them that. But he thinks he can do it eventually, and hopes it will help the next generation on the farm.

“You have to make it so they can make a living off of it,” Fitch said. “I’m going to make sure there’s trees there, and bees are there, so if they want to do it, they can.”

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