Purplebrown Farmstead focuses on imitating nature

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A woman stands in a tunnel under a shade cloth.
Sasha Miller, of Purplebrown Farmstead, stands under the shade cloth that covers the mushrooms at the farm, Feb. 11, in Boston Heights, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

BOSTON HEIGHTS, Ohio — In 2021, Sasha Miller is hoping to get pears from the trees she planted a few years ago for the first time, at Purplebrown Farmstead. Those trees are part of her long term plan to develop a cider orchard, with apples, pears and mulberries. They are some of the 300 trees she’s planted so far.

In the meantime, she spent part of her morning, Feb. 11, chasing down pigs, which are part of the permaculture system that will eventually get her to the full-fledged orchard. They escaped their pen, and their tracks were all over the farm in the snow.

With the pigs securely back in their pen, Miller can turn her attention back to the rest of the farm. The pigs and the chickens and ducks on the farm have helped get the soil on the farm ready for planting vegetables and trees. She chooses vegetables and plants that grow well together on the farm.

Permaculture, Miller explained, involves creating a system that can be sustainable and self sufficient.

“It’s just mimicking the cycle of nature,” she said.

Permaculture

That concept is central to her plans for the farm. Miller got a hold of the farmland through the Countryside Initiative, which offers long term leases of land, up to 60 years, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to farmers.

She submitted a proposal for the site, including her plans to use a permaculture design, and her proposal was chosen. She and her family moved to the farm from Chicago, in 2016. Miller had looked for farms elsewhere, but land access was a challenge. The program gave her a chance to start her farm.

Miller has a certification in permaculture. She’s spent much of her first five years on the farm figuring out what plants work well together on her land, and what doesn’t. So far, she’s planted about two out of the 12 acres on the farm.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Miller said, reflecting on her last five years of farming. “At this point, we know what to scale up.”

She plans to keep raising pork, poultry, vegetables and mushrooms. In addition to improving the soil, the livestock provide meat and eggs to sell. Miller was surprised how much she enjoys raising pigs.

“They’re dear to my heart,” she said. “They’re hardy; they’re cool; they eat a lot of grass.”

But once the fruit trees are ready, the orchard will be the star of the show. Her plans include developing a tasting room for cider in the barn.

A woman reaches over a fence to pet a pig on the other side of it.
Sasha Miller reaches over the fence to pet one of her Idaho pasture pigs, Feb. 11, at Purplebrown Farmstead, in Boston Heights, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Growing

She’s already made a lot of progress. A pond on the farm was completely overgrown when she got there. Miller got a grant for a pond restoration project to clean it up. She’s improved soil and planted in several areas of the farm, and is continuing to expand that work.

Miller plants in mulched rows that match the contour of the ground. That way, the roots of the trees and other plants can slow water running down hill towards the pond, to protect soil and conserve water.

She grows mushrooms in logs from the forest on the farm. They cut down some trees in February, inoculate the logs in March and let them sit for a year before they start growing. Once they start, the logs can produce mushrooms for about five years. She tries to keep about 500 logs in production each year, in a small tunnel with a shade cloth over it downhill from the pond.

“We have access to woods that can stand to be thinned,” Miller said. “We can take some oak trees out without ruining the whole forest.”

She plans to plant more trees downhill from the pond so she can eventually have a mushroom forest and won’t need the shade cloth.

Community

Miller lived in northeast Ohio for a long time before moving to Chicago. That’s how she knew about the Countryside Initiative. The farm, she said, is a great combination of her experiences with community development and interest in agriculture and conservation.

“We’re not all meant to be farmers, but every community ought to have a farm,” Miller said.

In 2020, she made adjustments to fit what her community needed. She used to go to one of Countryside’s markets, but when it shut down in the spring, decided to try out a farmstand in the barn. Some friends from the market brought their products.

“We just decided to hunker down and lay low and see what worked for us here,” Miller said.

It worked out. The farmstand grew organically from week to week, and customers seemed to appreciate it being there. For now, that and a small CSA are the farm’s main outlets. Miller plans to reevaluate in 2022 to see if it makes sense to go back to the market or seek out another avenue.

Community involvement is important to Miller. While she believes large scale agriculture has value, she also thinks smaller scale agriculture in communities is important.

She has offered workshops on home butchery and on growing mushrooms, and pick-your-own flowers events in the summer. She is hoping to offer the butchery workshop again this fall, but will probably put other workshops on hold.

“One lesson we learned last year is not to plan too far ahead,” she said.

Profitable

Another part of her goal is to show that regenerative farming can be profitable. Many farmers rely on off-farm jobs, and she wants her farm to be an example of how a farm can support a family. The farm isn’t there yet, she said, but she believes it can be done.

Miller has gotten some help with seasonal labor through Countryside’s internship program, and some volunteers and friends that have helped out with things like planting trees for Earth Day, but she is the only one on the farm full time. Her husband works off the farm full time.

Values

Part of the draw to farm life is being outside, Miller said. No matter where she’s lived, she’s always gone to forests and green spaces around her. She enjoys walking around the farm with her dog, Sonny Bricks, and she thinks it’s a great lifestyle for her children, who were born in Chicago.

She also likes that her neighbors and community can have access to a farm. Some customers just pick up their food and go. Others like to stick around for a little bit. But they seem to appreciate the outdoor space.

But her interest in farming started when she studied religion in her undergraduate years. Regenerative farming is important for her farm, because it’s about finding ways to make the land better.

“That’s really where I came to the value of the earth,” she said. “If we’re really going to do God’s work, we really ought to treat his creation in a much more respectful way … it’s just doing the thing that I think I ought to do.”

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