Ohio beginning farmer finds a future in specialty grains

First-generation farmer Tim Schacht raises specialty grains at Ohio Till Farmstead near Marysville, Ohio. He started by raising raised popcorn and oats the first year and since then he’s added heirloom corns, food-grade soybeans, einkorn, spelt, black oil sunflowers and hard red spring wheat. (Gail Keck photo)

MARYSVILLE, Ohio – When he was a little boy, Tim Schacht got an idealistic impression of farming by looking through his great-grandfather’s stash of old farm magazines with their Norman Rockwell-style illustrations.

Later, as a teenage gearhead working on old tractors, he was discouraged to discover how expensive it would be to start farming. But that didn’t deter him and in his early 30s, Schacht decided he wasn’t willing to wait until retirement to give farming a go.

Now, as he starts his fifth year farming, he’s juggling a full-time job, a growing family, renovations on a 160-year old farmhouse and the production and marketing of seven specialty grain crops.

“Logistically, it’s a lot,” he said, “but at the same time, it’s so fun.”

Schacht began by raising popcorn and hull-less oats and has added heirloom corns, food-grade soybeans, einkorn, spelt, black oil sunflowers and hard red spring wheat. The growing consumer interest in local foods and the promotion possibilities of social media combined to give him a starting point for the farm, Schacht said.

In 2019, Schacht and his wife, Michelle, bought their 11-acre farm near Marysville, Ohio. Since then he’s added rented acres, mostly in small scattered fields he found via social media.

“I put a post on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, I’m a first-generation farmer looking for ground around us,’ and I was able to pick up another 30 acres that second year.” He posted again the following year and gained even more fields.

Schacht is now farming about 85 acres, with 10 fields, some an hour away by tractor. Part of the land is owned by a friend’s aunt and other fields were sent his way by the realtor who sold him the farm.

Michelle helps him move equipment, but she’s busy herself with their two sons, her own career and a second job teaching yoga. For the most part, Schacht works on his own.

“It’s a lot of work to manage that many fields to get that little bit of acreage,” he said.

Eventually, he’d like to consolidate with larger, closer fields rather than farming so many small, scattered patches, he said. “The efficiency matters.”

Career changes

While Schacht wasn’t raised on a farm, he enjoyed country life growing up in Medina County, with free range over neighboring land owned by a gentleman farmer.

“I always enjoyed the outdoors and nature,” he said.

During and after high school, Schacht studied diesel technology. Then, he went on to work for a Kenworth dealership as a semi-truck mechanic for about five years. After a few years, though, he saw older co-workers having physical problems from the strenuous, fast-paced job.

He started taking night classes to change careers, first studying engineering, then switching to architecture. Michelle, who was his girlfriend at the time, helped him realize he’d have a hard time finishing a degree while also working full-time, so he decided to go back to school full-time and enrolled at Ohio State.

While Schacht was working on his degree, he and Michelle settled in Marysville after she started working for Honda in supply chain logistics. After graduating in 2014, Schacht worked for OSU’s Architectural Services before taking a job with an architecture firm. That’s when a mentor gave him some advice that nudged him back toward his goal of farming. “He told me, ‘You need to find a career that allows you to have the lifestyle you want.’ ”

Still, Schacht figured farming would have to be a retirement occupation until his dad had a stroke in his 60s. Schacht realized that healthy retirement years weren’t guaranteed.

“With farming there’s only so many years you get to plant and harvest,” he said.

Soon afterwards, the Schachts bought their farm and began planning.

One of the hardest tasks was settling on a farm name, Schacht said. Several of their first ideas were already taken. The name they chose, Ohio Till Farmstead, points to the value of local Ohio food production and recognizes their glacial till soils as well as income going in the till. “Farmstead” refers to the history of the land and their own stake in it. Before they bought it, the farm had been passed down through a family that originally cleared the land in the 1860s.

“I wanted this to be a business,” Schacht said “I wanted this to be a money-making operation that’s taken seriously from the start.”

As it turned out, Schacht’s start in farming was well-timed. In 2020, he began working at home because of COVID, which gave him more time to spend with his sons on the farm. Then in 2021, he was laid off from his job with the architecture firm with three months’ severance pay.

At that point, he knew he wanted a job that wouldn’t require long days away from the farm. He eventually returned to work for OSU Architectural Services as a building information model manager. He now works from home three days a week and on campus two days a week.

Starting with popcorn

When Schacht first started researching crop and marketing options, popcorn came to the top of his list. He grew up with an interest in row crops and row crop machinery, but, with his small acreage, he wanted something with higher value than commodity crops. He also wanted something that would be popular with consumers.

“The average consumer understands what a popcorn kernel looks like and they know how to cook it,” he said

Along with growing the crop, Schacht began researching food regulations, labeling, packaging and pricing. Using his knowledge of graphic design software, he was able to do his label designs himself. Their sons, Harrison, now 11, and Henry, 7, lend their names to different popcorn packages.

As he added acreage, Schacht has added additional grain crops. Social media posts about the farm have helped Schacht connect with buyers such as Farm and Sparrow, a mill in North Carolina that focuses on locally adapted landrace crops. He also packages his einkorn and spelt to sell directly to local consumers.

He’s raising non-GMO soybeans for KAPI Agri Products, a processor that supplies food-grade soybeans for export and for domestic use. Those sales help with cash flow, since most other sales are smaller, spread out and less predictable, he said.

Schacht is in the process of transitioning his ground to organic production, partly to meet demand and also because he’s not comfortable handling herbicides.

“It really aligns with my mentality of farming,” he said. “The market that I’m targeting is all food-grade. I want to grow food for humans.”

Schacht is on the board for the Union County Farmers Market in Marysville and sells his products there regularly, but it’s not his main marketing channel. Wholesale marketing to small, independent retailers brings more sales, he said. He sells popcorn and birdseed in about a dozen stores around Ohio.

To find those marketing opportunities, Schacht looks for shops that have a vision similar to his, he said. “It’s all been through social media and reaching out to folks.”

One of his best retail outlets is Union Station, a welcome center and gift shop operated by the local tourism board. He also donates popcorn to the Avalon Theater, a re-built historic performing arts center in Marysville.

To Schacht, engaging with the community to sell his products is an important part of farming.

“I love it,” he said. “I love talking to the people about the grains, I love growing the grains.”

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