PROGRESS: Geauga Family Farms: Farmers pave own future path

SALEM, Ohio – A year and a half ago when six men sat down in a Geauga County farmhouse kitchen, they knew just what they wanted, but they didn’t know how to achieve it.
Their concerns mirrored much of the industry’s worries for the future: farmers folding because they couldn’t make ends meet, and younger farmers seeing hardship and wanting out before they even began.
The group sat around the table and hammered out ideas. If they could just get better prices for their products, farmers would stay in business and younger farmers would stay interested.
They concluded direct sales were the answer, and although they didn’t realize it at the time, a new marketing force had just held its first meeting.
Jump-start. This group, which has now expanded to almost 100 members, wasted no time getting started.
In just a year and a half they’ve named themselves Geauga Family Farms, hired a marketer, hosted numerous educational workshops, created a logo, and started a once-a-month farmers’ market in Burton, Ohio.
Despite the name, it is open to all northeastern Ohio family farms. And, although much of the membership is Amish, it is open to any farmer.
Direct sales. Nevin Byler was at that first meeting and still has a hard time believing how quickly the group has moved forward.
Byler has a dairy operation in Middlefield, Ohio, and also works at Middlefield Original Cheese Co-op.
Being in the dairy business, he knows firsthand how volatile milk prices can be.
There’s no guarantee, he said. But by joining Geauga Family Farms, he plans to improve the price he receives.
Most of the cheese currently is sold on the commodity market, but now, as a member of the group, the cheese house hopes to sell directly to grocery stores.
Middle-man costs will be cut and Geauga Family Farms hopes that money will instead end up in farmers’ pockets.
Sign to watch for. The logo is the most exciting development, Byler said.
Customers will see the maple leaf with the farm scene pictured inside and know the product came from a farmer right in their community, he said.
“If you were going to buy lettuce, would you buy a Geauga County head of lettuce or a head of lettuce from California?” asked the group’s treasurer, Nick Reiter.
This belief that people prefer locally grown and produced food is the basis for Geauga Family Farms.
It isn’t limited to just fruits and vegetables. Members produce a little of everything, Reiter said, including honey, meat, eggs, cheese, maple syrup, flowers, baked goods and fresh-ground grains.
New farmers’ market. While members continue working to find markets for their products at local stores, they’re also starting their own farmers’ market.
The morning market, which is held at the Burton Historical Society in Burton, Ohio, is the first Saturday of each month through October.
Only member producers can sell at the market and all products are produced locally, Reiter said.
“You’re buying it straight from the person who raised it,” he said. Customers can ask how it was grown and get an answer right from the farmer.
“It also means it’s fresher,” he added. “There are no miles on it.”
Education end. The education end of the program is proving to be just as important as the marketing, Reiter said.
Geauga Family Farms, working with the county OSU Extension office, hosted several educational workshops in the last six months and received such a positive response that it plans to tailor even more programs to fit members’ interests.
Earlier this year, people had to be turned away from a session on goat meat production because so many were interested. A second workshop was set up and that one was also packed.
Other meetings covered chicken and egg production and meat processing regulations. The room was also full for both of these, Reiter said.
In addition, the group is working on establishing a phone number for members to call when they have questions about licensing, marketing, disease, insects or any other topic related to production.
In progress. The group is a work in progress, and there isn’t a similar program to model it after, Reiter said.
Instead, members offer ideas and everyone sorts through them to see what will work, he said.
Membership is $25 annually. Members complete a short application, specifying what they produce and their interests so the group can address everyone’s needs, Reiter said.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)
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