MILLFIELD, Ohio — As Weston Lombard experimented with different fruit and nut trees on his farm, he started noticing a pattern.
“It seemed like every year, I was putting a lot of energy into these other non native trees, and I was getting the most fruit from these wild, untended trees … mulberry and black walnut,” he said.
Mulberries are a native, low-maintenance crop that can be grown chemical-free more easily than many other fruits — growing apples in the area, for example, is difficult, and growing them organically is almost impossible, Lombard said.
He’s spent more than a decade working on turning Solid Ground Farm, a former horse farm, in Millfield, Ohio, into a system that can meet many of his own food needs, and help other people connect with their environment. Native plants that work well with the natural landscape are an important part of that.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out how to grow more organically,” Lombard said. “I think we’re all discovering it’s much harder than we thought it would be, and there’s sort of a reason people have been doing it the way that they do.”
Lombard bought the farm in 2007. He started running a summer camp and doing educational workshops at the farm a few years later, around 2010.
He comes at farming from a philosophical angle. He took a class in college about species loss and mass extinction, and another class that focused on climate change and soil loss. They inspired him to be proactive.
“I wanted to create a lifestyle that was in line with my values,” he said. “Food production seemed like a place to start.”
So, after working in marketing for a little while, he decided to jump full time into the farm. His wife worked off the farm, and he reinvested most of what he made back into the farm. It took him about 10 years to make it profitable. Most of the farm income is based on programming and agritourism.
For a few years, the farm had a CSA with a drop off point in town. Now, it’s transitioning to sell directly from the farm, starting out with a seasonal sale every month or so. Last year, the farm also hosted a 100-person farm to table dinner with pork, vegetables and apple cider from the farm.
The farm’s products include maple syrup, vegetables grown in a greenhouse, and, of course, the fruits and nuts. Lombard also sells parts of his fruit trees for grafting.
In his experimental orchard on the farm, Lombard has almost every type of fruiting tree he can think of: apples, pears, plums, mulberries and more. If the weather ruins one crop’s chances for the year, he still has others to rely on.
“It’s so diverse … every year we at least get hazelnuts,” Lombard said. “Sometimes we get so much food … and sometimes we hardly get anything.”
The farm also hosts Solid Ground School, a school for children ages 4-10 that includes a lot of outdoor education. On a windy April 1, students were playing and learning outside in winter coats and boots.
Lombard and his wife had talked about hosting a school on the farm years ago, but it didn’t become a priority until their daughter turned 4 and they started thinking about where to send her to school.
“There wasn’t really an option that we loved,” Lombard said. “We made the option.”
He works with another parent who has more experience in education and can help with curriculum and meeting education standards. Students often learn traditional subjects partly through practical applications — for example, they may learn math concepts partly through the calculations required to sell a head of lettuce.
The school uses the orchard and greenhouse for seasonal projects. The students will also have a farm stand sale at the end of the year.
“They do a lot of the farm management with me,” Lombard said.
Lombard didn’t have much of a background in agriculture or forestry when he started. He’s been learning as he goes.
It’s all about informed trial and error. If he wants to do something, he reads books and watches YouTube videos. He’s learned a lot by helping other people out, too. For example, before pruning an apple tree on his farm for the first time, he would take a job helping someone else prune their trees.
He’s also done some of his own research. When he was learning more about mulberries, it was easy to find information about their benefits: the trees grow and bear fruit quickly, they have few pests and diseases and they don’t need a lot of attention. But he couldn’t find an example of a mulberry farm in the whole U.S., or much information about commercial cultivation.
He got a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant in 2016 that allowed him to study mulberry cultivation and the commercial potential for the crop.
When he published an article with the results of his research, in 2018, it was one of only a few online. Since then, interest in the crop has gone through the roof. He gets emails from people telling him they want to start mulberry farms. He thinks a lot of that is connected to interest in organic farming.
To Lombard, sustainability is about being a participant in an ecosystem.
“All organisms are an integral part, and function within their landscape and have relationships with the other organisms,” he said. “And I think we do that, too; it’s just sort of this unconscious thing … our ecosystem is very big, and it’s not very direct.”
Lombard wants to have more direct relationships with his ecosystem. Walking around the farm, he can point out which plants are and aren’t edible — chickweed is one of his favorites. He’s able to source much of his food directly from the farm.
“When I grow my own food, I have a vested interest in improving the soil and making it more productive over time,” Lombard added.
He tries to help students in the school and visitors who come to workshops on the farm start to develop that kind of relationship with the land, too.
The farm is getting to the point where, soon, it will be able to hire a farm manager. Lombard also plans to have a you-pick option for the mulberries. There are a few hundred trees started in one area, where people will be able to walk through and pick mulberries as they go.
He hopes that the farm’s programs can help people find things they are interested in, whether it be fruit production, foraging or something else.
“We just try to give a bunch of examples and hope something sticks,” he said.
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