Northeast Ohio specialty vegetable grower transitioning to grain crops

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K. W. Zellers & Son, Inc. is getting out of the produce business after 50 years of growing and selling vegetables from its farm in Hartville, Ohio. Pictured, from left, are production manager William (Cecil) Keene and farm owners Kenneth Zellers and Jeffrey Zellers

HARTVILLE, Ohio — After producing up to a million boxes of fresh vegetables per season, serving retail outlets throughout the eastern U.S., the owners of K. W. Zellers & Son, Inc. are discontinuing their successful vegetable growing operation.

The combination of weather risk, labor uncertainty, food safety pressures and an aging ownership group pushed the decision to exit the vegetable business. The family plans to continue farming the rich muck soil in Hartville, Ohio, focusing on grain crops. They will also maintain nearly 4 acres of greenhouses.

“There have been lots of changes to the farm,” said Jeff Zellers, current president and the grandson of founders Kenneth and Helen Zellers. “We had livestock too, 50 to 60 years ago.”

Challenges

For the past 50 years, the farm has focused over 1,100 acres on leafy lettuces, radishes, herbs and green onions. This transition to corn and soybeans started a few years ago with a decision to downsize, in part because the owners and management team were getting older. Zellers was also concerned about increased risk factors.

“No matter your opinion on climate change, storms and weather are in a new violent pattern,” he said. “For our crops, that’s devastating.”

The dramatic shift away from vegetables to grain crops was an emotional decision.

“We’ve had good years,” he said. “It’s our choice to stop now. The easiest thing to do is the same thing over and over, even if you know it needs to change.”

In previous years, planting started in March and continued through September, with harvesting from May to November.

In past years, the management team spent much of the winter securing help for the following harvest, typically using the federal H2A program for seasonal labor. At their peak, Zellers & Sons needed 240 temporary laborers during the summer. Many of the workers lived at the farm in housing licensed and regulated by the Ohio Department of Health. In 2023, they had just 125 extra laborers during the season.

“It’s gotten harder to make sure we had enough people,” Zellers said. “This is labor intensive agriculture, and you can’t do this without good people. We’ve always had good people.”

Zellers describes added complexity caused by weather events along with packaging requirements dictated by different grocers. Years ago, 24 heads of lettuce were packaged in a box. Now, different grocers want lettuce wrapped in various types of packaging. Tracking the differences and shipping to the right locations can be complex.

“We didn’t want to disappoint a customer, ever,” Zellers said. But harvesting was impossible following a 3-inch rain event, and some fulfillment managers didn’t understand the reality of weather issues.

For the past 50 years, K.W. Zellers & Son has focused over 1,100 acres on leafy lettuces, radishes, herbs and green onions in northeast Ohio. The farm began transitioning to corn and soybeans a few years ago as it began to transition out of produce production. (Submitted photo)

Changes

Zellers told his regular employees in December about the decision to end the vegetable operation. They’ve been helping prepare the equipment for an upcoming auction.

“It was agonizing,” Zellers said. “But dealing with the risks is agonizing, also. The business decision makes sense. The emotional side of not seeing the beautiful greens in the field is hard.”

Zellers joined the business in 1987, right out of college. His cousin, 66, is part of the team. Their long-time production manager, Cecil Keene, is turning 70 this year. His father Kenneth, now in his 80s, has continued working on the farm.

“If I got there at 6 a.m., he was already in the field,” said Zellers. “He was NOT going to not help. I’m glad he can continue to be involved but walking 10 miles a day looking at lettuce was getting to be too much.”

The greenhouse operation will continue to provide bedding plants, some of which will go to Buurma Farms in Willard, Ohio. Several seasonal employees are moving to other farm operations, including Buurma.

“We are thankful to our employees, customers and suppliers for the longstanding relationships that were integral to our success,” Zellers said. “Maybe this summer, we’ll only work 50 hours a week instead of 80 to 90.”

A specialty equipment auction will be held March 21 starting at 10 a.m. at 13494 Duquette Ave, Hartville, Ohio.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this interesting and sensitively informative article. Consumers and even grocers have become distant from the people and processes, and even the weather conditions, required to fill our grocery stores. It’s rather unsettling.
    Years ago the morning news and weather ALWAYS included the farm and ranch report. Now, almost nobody knows what that is, or it’s potential impact on their lives. It’s touching to read about a family dedicated to supplying the nation’s food, and the challenges they (and subsequently -we!) are facing.

    • Thank you for your comments! I appreciate knowing you read the story and I share your concerns. I remember hearing the daily farm reports when I was much younger. I can’t remember exactly when I stopped hearing them. I think when I moved to Columbus I assumed “city stations” didn’t play them. So short-sighted. (Both me and them!)

  2. So sorry to see this family leave the business. The legacy that they have left on the produce industry can and never will be duplicated. I will still come and vist Ken and Jeff in the summers.

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