Toad Hill Organic Farm jumps into vegetable market

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DANVILLE, Ohio – It’s warm and breezy outside and the forecast isn’t calling for rain, but the overcast morning sky is menacing.

Rain clouds taunt Tim Patrick and he keeps an eye to the sky, not knowing whether to unroll the hose to water several flats of vegetable seeds and starts outside a greenhouse or wait for Mother Nature to do the job.

After all, he relies heavily – almost completely – on Mother Nature for successful crop production at Toad Hill Organic Farm near Danville, Ohio.

In the end, Patrick flipped the hydrant handle and gave each flat a quick once-over, “just enough to hold them over.”

Bountiful harvest. The Knox County farm has proved to be enough to hold over the Patrick family for the last 10 years, through good and bad weather and changing consumer attitude toward organic foods.

Today the farm employs Patrick and his wife, Jane, full time. His mother, Helene, also helps with chores. The family also includes the Patricks’ two children, ages 5 years and 1 month.

The 114-acre homestead has been in the family since the early 1970s, when Patrick’s parents began renting it. Tim took over the farm in the early ’90s after moving home from the Washington, D.C. area, where he had worked in an engineer’s office.

“I got tired of the office job and being inside. I had sheep when I was young and we did things a lot like we do now, and I thought it would be a fun way to make a living,” Patrick said.

Raising sheep. Upon returning home, he started a small flock of Dorset and Merino crossbred ewes and began cultivating vegetable acreage, both of which have expanded in size over the years.

“I’m pretty sure that out there I’ve still got three or four of my original ewes,” Patrick said of the flock that today numbers 80 ewes plus their lambs.

The sheep are raised organically, a production method that stresses natural feeding and eliminates all worming and chemical treatments. The sheep are grazed in paddock areas and only receive organic creep feed in the winter for the lambs and small amounts of hay when needed as nutritional supplements.

Throughout the spring, most of the young lambs are sold outright to other producers or at the local sale barn. Patrick doesn’t market the lambs with an organic label because he doubts public interest in raising sheep organically, a chore that’s often difficult because of the threat of parasites.

“I don’t really say that they were born organically, because I doubt that even one would be fed out that way. There’s just not a big interest,” in organic lambs in north central Ohio, he said. “But if I had a separate area to feed out lambs, I would.”

Benefits on the side. His interest in the sheep, however, goes beyond their potential meat and wool production.

Patrick admits he mainly keeps the sheep around for the manure they produce, a significant input for his vegetable crop. Nutrient-rich manure cleaned from the barn during the winter is spread on the crop land, along with horse manure from a neighboring farm.

In the eight years he’s raised them, the sheep have also aided in the transition from lower quality farmed crop land to productive pastures.

“When I started here, there were a lot of brambles and scrubby grass and moss. You could see the soil through the grass that was here, and the ground was gravelly,” he said.

With minimal seeding, the pastures are now thick with white clover and grasses and support the flock year-round. Eventually, he plans to transition more of the pasture land into crop ground for the vegetables.

Hens and chicks. The operation also includes organic poultry production, including pasture-raised broilers and laying hens. The Patricks have raised poultry nearly as long as the sheep, and count approximately 200 broilers and more than a thousand dozen eggs in the farm profit books each year.

The birds intended for meat are fed an organic feed manufactured in nearby Fredericktown. The feed is soybean-based and includes corn, kelp meal and minerals.

“I’m really doing good so far, and haven’t lost any chickens,” Patrick said of his 51 broilers divided among two movable pens in the pasture. “Like anyone else I usually lose a few, but not this year.”

The two wood and wire pens are moved across the pasture as the chickens grow, allowing the birds to have fresh grass as bedding and to fertilize the ground as they’re moved.

The laying hens – Rhode Island Reds, Golden Comets and Black Australorps – are fed an organic corn and wheat mixture and are let out of the coop each afternoon to range the pasture with the sheep. Their eggs are sold at various markets, along with the farm’s other produce.

Vegetable crop. Toad Hill’s major crops are potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and lettuce and greens including arugula, spinach, mustards and oriental greens, Patrick said. For the 2002 season, he planted 500-700 pounds of potatoes, nearly 2,000 tomato plants and 300 eggplant starts.

“We’ve found that we get a lot of good response at the markets with the vegetables,” Patrick said.

“People really look for a nice, big tasty tomato,” and the operation has catered to that market by carrying several varieties, including 10 types of cherry tomatoes, he said.

To meet customer demand, Patrick also built an industrial-sized food dehydrator that’s used to dry sliced tomatoes. The dried and bagged tomatoes are then sold alongside fresh produce on market stands.

The farm’s other certified organic crops include onions, cabbages, beans and snow peas, winter and summer squash, cucumbers, basil, fennel and tomatillos. Patrick has also tilled nearly an acre to plant sweet corn and has already put in 550 raspberry plants.

Organic aims. Crops are rotated on five acres of tillable land every four years to control pests.

“I’ve had more trouble with potato bugs on eggplant, but have never had trouble on potatoes. Sometimes there’s just a little outbreak here or there,” he said.

The crops rely heavily on Mother Nature to provide rain, but Patrick also has a hydrant for drip and spray irrigation.

“It’s just one of those things. You just wait because when you irrigate, it rains. You never know how things will turn out,” he said.

As an organic farm, Toad Hill aims to grow produce the way nature intended things to happen, Patrick said, including the use of natural fertilizers and pest control, and limiting cultivation and planting. Fish emulsion and powdered seaweed are used to boost transplants.

“Unlike chemical fertilizers, the stuff I use is like nitrogen in a bottle. It really works with the soil,” he said.

Patrick also relies on manure and compost as natural soil amendments, and uses rotted hay and straw mulch on potatoes and tomatoes.

Marketing help. Aside from organic restaurants in central Ohio that utilize their vegetables, the Patricks sell their produce directly to consumers at the North Market or through small stores in the Columbus area, or at a market in Gambier throughout the summer.

“We don’t usually come home with an empty truck, but demand is growing slowly,” Patrick said.

An increase in organic production in the area, coupled with rising sales, spells good news for organic farms.

“If you consider that we’re still selling, even with more competition, we must be doing something right,” Patrick said.

What Toad Hill is doing right, Patrick believes, is letting their customers know the quality of their vegetables.

“Everything here is hand-picked. Our customers know where their vegetables are coming from and are happy with the quality,” he said, noting some of today’s customers are the same ones who helped start the farm’s retail success years ago.

“They keep coming back and buying year after year.”

That time of year. With all the farm’s success comes a need for speed in production and harvest.

“Things aren’t too bad right now, but in the next few weeks, things will pick up,” Patrick said of the spring and summer gardening chores. “There won’t be enough hands” to help, he said.

Laborers are extremely important on the farm, since most all planting is done manually, with the exception of the sweet corn crop, which is sowed mechanically. Each year Patrick hires help to plant, mulch and weed each vegetable patch – all by hand.

“We’re not nearly big enough to consider migrant labor, but there’s always a lot of hand work to be done,” he said.

Looking down the road , Patrick hopes to erect a 30-by-96 foot greenhouse near other tilled ground to start and grow lettuce outside the traditional growing season and reduce the planting and harvest rush. Currently the operation can produce lettuce and greens from June through early November, but growing in a greenhouse would stretch the season from March to December.

If the method works, Patrick said he might consider investing in more structures.

Philosophy. “To put it simply, I like to see what’s going on and what’s working or not working,” Patrick said of the changes he makes each year to ensure his farm’s success.

Patrick aims to neither overproduce or overtax the land and is experimenting with cooperative systems on the farm. One system he is testing now is apple trees planted in the sheep pasture.

“The trees will produce fruit for us but will also offer shade for the animals. Everything works together, and nobody has to spend any money” to make it work, Patrick said.

Challenges. Like other farms in Ohio, Toad Hill – whose name was chosen strictly because it “sounded organic” – feels the pressure of everyday challenges like weather uncertainty and land consumption.

People moving in near the farm are “good for the operation from what I see, but it would be nice if they were all customers,” Patrick said.

The farm also has issues with enforcing private property rights, water quality and the consumer image and acceptance of locally grown organic food.

In the end, and in the world of organically produced food, the names Tim and Jane Patrick might not mean much to anybody, Patrick said.

“But if they remember the name Toad Hill, that’s all that matters.”

You can contact Tim and Jane Patrick at 740-599-9809.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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