Hiram couple pioneers organic farm

HIRAM, Ohio – What do you get when you combine a university philosophy professor and a marketing guru?

An organic farm, of course.

Molly Bartlett had always known that someday she would change career paths from marketing to something a little more outdoorsy. She hoped her husband, Ted Bartlett, a retired professor, would also go for the idea.

So she combined her love of the outdoors with her love of food and started Silver Creek Farm, a certified organic produce farm in Hiram, Ohio.

“Reading a cookbook is as interesting to me as reading a seed book – and as interesting to others as reading a novel,” said Molly, 56.

Metamorphosis. Although neither Molly nor Ted, 64, were raised on a farm, they raised their five children on a 5-acre patch of land where they grew their own produce.

However, this “small” garden soon felt too cramped for the Bartletts, and they decided to try out their green thumbs in a big way – by starting their own farm.

In 16 years, this farm has metamorphosed into a 70-acre commercial farm, which grows produce from arugula and zucchini to rhubarb and melons. In addition, they raise chickens, turkeys and a flock of 60 ewes.

Although the farm is 70 acres, only 20 acres are used for crop production and due to a four-year crop rotation, 12-15 acres are planted at any given time.

The Bartletts are devoted to educating people on food and where it comes from.

“You can’t go to a grocery store and find out about [how the weather is affecting the crops],” she said. “You don’t walk into a grocery store and hear, ‘Man, it’s a crummy growing season.'”

Filling in the gap. The Bartletts try to cover this information gap by welcoming not only classrooms to the farm but also adult groups. Molly estimates that 500 schoolchildren visit the farm each fall and 500 more each spring. She also estimates approximately 15 adult groups visit each year, ranging from garden clubs to a group from the Cleveland Natural History Museum.

The Bartletts are willing to accommodate a group of any size, with advance notice, and offer walking tours, slide shows, box lunches and catered dinners.

During these tours and through her newsletters, Molly stresses the importance of eating locally. Not only is it healthier, it also preserves the local economy, she said.

When she sees a truck hauling in Washington apples to schools, she said she knows those schools could instead buy apples from nearby farms – thus supporting local agriculture.

The problem is that many farmers do not have that connection to market their products.

Luckily, Molly brought her background in marketing to Silver Creek Farm and is focused on diversifying the farm’s products.

Getting involved. One of the Bartletts’ biggest marketing outlets is through their farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program, which they began 11 years ago. It was the first and is the longest-running program in Ohio.

In exchange for an advance payment in the spring, participants purchase a share of the upcoming harvest. The season typically lasts from the first of June through October, and members are provided with in-season fruits and vegetables.

Members can lower the cost of their share by volunteering on the farm.

“Not only do you get good fresh food, but you also establish a farm connection,” Molly wrote in one of her newsletters. “You have a season-long invitation to come visit your food and see how it is grown.”

Ninety-seven households are participating in the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program this year. Molly said in the past that number has been higher, however they capped the number this year because they wanted to have time for other activities on the farm.

In addition to the regular Community Supported Agriculture membership, shares can also be purchased for eggs, chicken, lamb, beef, cheese, yarn, honey and preserves.

The Bartletts are always open to trying new share ideas. In the past, they have even offered home-brew shares, which included three six-packs of different varieties of beer.

Participants are welcome to pick their goods up at the farm and stay to visit, or they can pick them up at any one of the approximately 12 distribution sites.

One of the Bartletts’ current projects is using a solar greenhouse to extend the growing season. They are hoping to be able to offer a smaller Community Supported Agriculture program throughout the winter.

Another project in the works is raising a flock of East Friesian sheep. They have one ram now and are hoping to add to the herd within the next year. This will allow them to sell milk and cheese on the farm.

Farm stand. In addition to marketing the farm’s products at restaurants in Cleveland and through a food cooperative, the Bartletts also have a farm store open Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The phone number is 330-569-3487.

The store sells the farm’s produce and eggs, products from other nearby farms, books and handmade goods, including pottery made by Molly and sweaters made from the wool of the farm’s sheep.

One of Molly’s “tricks” to success is compiling a list from the customers who come to the store. She then sends newsletters, information about Community Supported Agriculture and seasonal updates about the farm.

Research center. Another key to the farm’s success is Rachel McKinney, the farm’s manager. McKinney, 32, has been a part of Silver Creek Farm for several years.

In addition to being the manager, she also is the director of the Bartletts’ Small Farm Research and Education Center, which is a “nonprofit mission to connect people with this farm and other family farms and to support rural life,” Molly said.

Grant money helps the farm administer educational projects, conduct tours, distribute information about local farming and practices, organize outreach projects and educate student interns working on the farm.

For now, the main focus is the growth of the research and education center so the farm can continue as a working farm, according to McKinney. She said she wants it to continue to be a model of a family farm that gives and receives support from surrounding farms.

Molly said that one of their interests has always been to not only sustain their own farm, but to sustain other local farms, and the research center is a step in this direction.

Working together. The Bartletts enjoy working with other farmers – picking up tips and also offering advice. Molly said it is especially rewarding because they can offer advice to others who are considering certified organic farming. Silver Creek Farm has been certified organic since 1987.

“It’s certainly healthy for us and certainly healthy for the environment to raise crops [organically],” she said. “We hope we serve as an information center for others considering being certified organic.”

Overcoming. Other than the battle with weeds and weather, Molly said one of her biggest obstacles is balancing the idea of making a profit with taking the farm in a personally satisfying direction.

As the Bartletts look toward the future, Molly wants to continue to expand her market; however, she wants to expand it just outside her front door.

Although she said it is most difficult to attract the attention of the people in her neighborhood, she said her biggest success would be when their marketing included everyone in their own community.

So, what do you get when you combine a university philosophy professor and a marketing guru?

Silver Creek Farm, of course.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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