Drive along virtually any road in rural Ohio, and you will see them everywhere: towering cornstalks, high as an elephant’s eye, dappled brown and tan and deep green in the warm autumn sunshine. It’s harvest time in Ohio.
How did humans stop wandering and start farming? It’s a crucial question, because farming allowed our ancestors to move beyond itinerant lifestyles into more permanent cultures. When farming was adopted, and people saw the benefits of having food at the ready, early humans put down roots (pun intended), established long-term structures, and began to defend their territory and protect their possessions. Civilization as we know it was the ultimate result.
There are two competing theories. One is that early farmers migrated from their home area and brought their seeds, tools, and farming concepts with them. The other posits that hunter-gatherers saw the benefits of farming and decided to adopt the farming lifestyle. The latter theory seems a bit far-fetched, because it’s hard to imagine hardy hunter-gatherers appreciating the benefits of farming and radically changing their transient ways.
Now DNA studies have lent support to the former theory and indicate that farming was spread through Europe by migrants. The study found that a Stone Age farmer was genetically distinct from hunter-gatherers of that era, and suggests that farming began in the area now known as Turkey and spread north and west, as farmers looked for tillable acreage where their crops could thrive. The study also suggests that modern Europeans have more genes of the early farmers than they do of the hunter-gatherers.
In short, the farmers won the Darwinian contest. Their lifestyle might have been boring compared to that of the hardy hunter-gatherers, but with their steady diets, domesticated animals, and focus on building for a better harvest next year, they were more likely to survive and pass down their genes.
This afternoon Penny and I walked over to the initial New Albany Farmers Market. The Market will be held between 4 and 7 p.m. every Thursday, from now until early September, in the Market Square area in front of the library.
The Market drew a good crowd and the farmers must have been doing a pretty brisk trade, because by the time we got there at around 6 p.m. some of the items were sold out. We saw stands from many Ohio farming communities, including Hiram, Frazeyburg, and Fredericktown. Items for sale included honey (with and without honeycombs), artisanal cheeses and meats, berries, ice cream, freshly baked breads (including gluten-free options), various kinds of vegetables, yogurt, sweet corn, and preserves. The stands ran up and down both sides of the Market Square roadway, and it looked like organizers could squeeze in a few more if some other local farmers express interest.
I was tempted by some fresh goat cheese, but the varieties I asked for were sold out. (The woman at the stand promised to have a bigger supply next week.) Instead, I bought some Muenster cheese made from milk taken from 100% grass fed cows, and it is quite good. If you live in the Columbus area and support the local sourcing of food, or if you just want to sample some freshly picked or home-cooked fare, the New Albany Farmers Market is well worth a visit.
The Kishmans have long owned family farms in the Vermilion area. Kish’s Dad described himself as a “general farmer.” He grew corn and soybeans, once kept a chicken coop, and tended to beef cattle because he loved being around animals. The Kishmans were like many Ohio families who worked the land on property that had been in the family for generations.
Agriculture has always been a big part of the Ohio economy. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Ohio has more than 75,000 farms. The vast majority of these are family-owned operations, although some of the larger farms are owned by families through corporations. The statistics also indicate that 2.7 percent of the farms in Ohio produce more than $500,000 in agricultural products. Most farms, therefore, are smaller business operations. It is unclear how many of those farm involve “general farming,” as opposed to production of only a single crop. And there are ongoing concerns about how those family farms are faring in an increasingly competitive where, in recent years at least, the credit that farmers need has become scarce and banks have been skittish about lending.
Recently I went to the North Market to buy some cheese and decided to buy an Ohio product. The proprietor of the cheese stand at the Market recommended Blomma goat’s milk cheese produced by Lake Erie Creamery. The cheese was extraordinarily good — and made me realize, yet again, that Ohio has a lot to offer, including great, locally sourced meats, cheeses, and produce for foodies and regular folks alike.
It turns out that Lake Erie Creamery is a husband and wife operation that produces artisanal goat’s milk cheese in Cleveland. They purchase milk from a family farm in Portage County, make it into cheese in Cleveland, return the whey that is a byproduct of the cheese-making process to local farms for hog and chicken feed, and sell their cheeses locally. Blomma is one of several excellent cheeses made by Lake Erie Creamery.
It’s a great story, and one that I imagine is duplicated elsewhere in Ohio. It makes me wonder if the future of Ohio agriculture, in part, lies not in the general farming of the past, but in an artisanal approach where Ohio farmers — whose operations could easily be in urban areas, as is the case with Lake Erie Creamery — focus on growing or making one kind of food, be it cheeses, radishes, milk, beef, or blackberries, and make them the best products imaginable. Americans have an appetite for high-quality food items and, as the booming “local-sourcing” movement indicates, they will pay a bit more for something that is fresh, high quality, and different.
I’d like to see the artisanal agriculture movement take off because it offers a model that will allow family farming, which has been such an important part of Ohio’s history and heritage, to continue. And those family farm jobs can’t be moved overseas, either.
We went up to Vermilion this weekend to celebrate Easter with Kish’s family. On Saturday, Richard and I took Effie for a walk and ended up strolling to one of the barns on the Kishman property. The Kishmans have been farming in Vermilion Township for generations, but no members of the immediate Kishman family are farming any longer. As a result, this particular barn is not used for anything except storage of knick-knacks and old equipment.
Barns are interesting buildings. They are designed simply to enclose space and to keep things within that enclosed space dry and out of the elements. Once you are inside the barn, it seems cavernous, and there is a luxury of abundant space between the concrete, hay covered floor and the rafters high above. From the evidence of the eaves, the lingering smells, and the design, it looks like the barn has been home to wasps and yellow jackets, swallows and other birds, and cats and rats and livestock. Blades, cranks, rotors and other assorted dangerous-looking machinery hang from hooks on the wooden walls. Some of the design elements of the barn seem obvious, but others are mysterious. You look up at the walls and wonder why there are latched doorways at odd locations on the walls, including one directly below the apex of the vaulted roof.
Standing in the dusty barn — and I expect that every barn is always dusty — and looking around, you get a strong sense of the challenges of the farming life. It is easy to envision the farmer appearing in the barn on a cold winter morning, wearing his barn coat with his breath visible in the sharp air, to prepare feed for the livestock, or climbing up the ladder to the hayloft on a hot summer day to hoist and then toss a few bales down to the floor below.
Everywhere there are reminders of the enormous physical demands of farming. For example, the old Kishman barn has two silos that are about 40 feet high, and each of them has a ladder that goes up to the top. How often do farmers have to climb to the tops of silos, and what do they have to do when they get up there, perched precariously so far about the ground? How tough was it to breathe if you had to go into the silo to shovel out the last few inches of grain?
Farming no doubt has its rewards, in working with the soil and with animals and in being your own boss. But it also has to be one of the toughest jobs around.