DEFIANCE, Ohio — When Ralph Schlatter began grass-based farming in 1993, he wasn’t exactly starting from scratch. After all, he is the fifth generation on the family farm, near Defiance, Ohio. But the high interest rates of the 1980s and an aging fleet of equipment had made it clear that the farm’s conventional production was no longer sustainable. A switch to grass-based production seemed like the best way forward.
“I thought maybe we could stay in farming by doing this,” Schlatter said. Even so, he said, he was carrying debt from previous years, so instead of starting over from scratch, he was starting “below scratch.”
Now, after nearly 30 years of grass-based production, Schlatter, his wife, Sheila, and son, Kyle, are producing a variety of livestock products and marketing them directly to consumers. Their farm, Canal Junction Farm, specializes in grass-fed meats and cheeses and also includes a herd-share dairy. Farm fields that were once used for grain production are now pastures and hayfields. The farm produces beef, pork, lamb, turkey, chicken and eggs as well as milk and raw milk cheeses.
At first, the Schlatters didn’t intend to market directly to consumers, but once they started raising livestock on pasture, they saw the potential for direct marketing. They now sell products directly from a store on the farm and make deliveries to nearby towns.
Most customers don’t come from rural Paulding County, where the farm is located, Schlatter said. Instead, customers come from nearby urban counties.
To deliver products, the Schlatters take orders through an online buying club and then meet up with customers at drop points each Wednesday. They alternate between drop points in Wauseon, Whitehouse and Sylvania, Ohio, one week, and drops in Perrysburg and Bowling Green the next. Over the years, customers have helped them find the locations for their drop points, all located in church parking lots.
They’ve also used the parking lots of businesses in the past, but those locations sometimes led to hassles with business employees, who weren’t aware they had permission to be on the lot.
Their customers have helped them get permission from the governing bodies of the churches and now they can distribute their products without getting in anyone’s way, Schlatter said. The farm’s customer base has grown mostly through word of mouth. They’ve also linked with customers who found the farm through online searches for herd shares or grass-fed meat.
Demand grew rapidly from the early 2000s through about 2015 and then plateaued, he said. They saw a bump up in demand after COVID hit, but haven’t seen a sustained increase. They’re currently in the process of updating their webpage to simplify marketing and reach more customers.
All the Schlatters’ owned land is now in permanent pasture. They also make hay off of some rented land nearby. Their beef and dairy herds, as well as their sheep flock, are all grass-fed. Their hogs forage on pasture and also receive whey left over from cheesemaking, and a custom non-GMO grain ration.
The Schlatters start broiler chickens and turkeys in indoor brooders, then move them to portable outdoor shelters. They move the shelters every morning to give the birds access to fresh pasture and supplement their diet with customized non-GMO grain rations.
Their 500 laying hens are housed in a hoop greenhouse and also get a custom non-GMO feed ration. The customized rations, which include ingredients such as oats, kelp and alfalfa, cost more than typical poultry and hog rations, Schlatter said.
But he believes the more expensive feed ingredients keep the hogs and poultry healthier and improve the flavor of the meat and eggs.
To maintain milk production year around, the Schlatters breed their dairy herd to calve in two groups, one group in the spring and one in the fall. At peak production, when the groups’ lactations overlap, they are milking about 65 cows. As conventional farmers, the family’s Holstein herd was once in the top 5% in the state for milk production, Schlatter said, “Now, we’re probably in the bottom 5%.”
A high herd average is no longer their goal. They now prefer moderate-sized Normande and Jersey crossbred cows that do well on pasture and produce high-quality milk, he said.
Part of their milk is bottled raw in plastic jugs and marketed through herd share agreements. Shareholders make a one-time, buy-in payment of $50 for a share in the herd.
Then, they pay $7 per gallon of milk as a charge for boarding the cattle.
This arrangement complies with Ohio regulations that prohibit the sale of raw milk, Schlatter explained. In the early 2000s, he was one of a small group of dairy farmers, who lobbied for changes in the enforcement of state regulations to allow herd shares. In addition to bottling fluid milk, the Schlatters make raw milk cheeses. Among the cheeses they make is Charloe, a cheese unique to their farm, which has won national honors through the Good Food Foundation.
The decades of grass farming have improved their heavy clay soils, Schlatter said. Current soil tests compared to tests done in the 1970s show an increase in soil organic matter of 2%.
“You can dig into that soil with a screwdriver now,” Schlatter said. “It’s pretty crumbly.”
That increase in organic matter indicates an increase in the carbon held in the soil. While some environmental activists claim cows contribute to climate change with greenhouse gas emissions, they are overlooking the ability of pasture to capture carbon.
“Cows on grass are the solution, not the problem,” he said.
Besides improving the land, Schlatter said the switch to grass-based production has improved his family’s chances of carrying the farm forward. His son, Kyle, a member of the sixth generation, has been able to join the operation as herdsman and manager of the dairy enterprise.
Seven of Ralph and Sheila’s grandchildren have also been helping on the farm, feeding chickens this summer. Those grandchildren, who range in age from 8 to 13, make the seventh generation on the farm.
“I feel like there’s an opportunity here,” Schlatter said. “I’d like to keep it going.”
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