RUSSIA — When the Pilgrims and Native Americans met for the first Thanksgiving in 1621, they celebrated a bountiful harvest of crops that had been cultivated on their farms.
Beth and Brent Schulze, on their Heritage Breed Farm in rural Russia, farm much the same way those early settlers did. While the Schulzes use gasoline-powered machinery instead of horses and mules to pull plows, they plant heirloom seeds and raise heritage animals on their fully organic farm.
They also practice sustainable farming. They use techniques that promote health for plants, animals, people and the environment.
“If we’re going to raise something, we want to raise the healthiest thing for ourselves and our kids,” Brent said. That means they don’t produce anything they wouldn’t be willing to eat themselves or feed to their six children.
“We talked to another farmer — a big-barn turkey farmer. He said he won’t eat turkey because of what they put in the feed. How can you sell something to people that you know isn’t healthy? We eat everything we grow and raise,” Beth said.
That includes turkeys. This year, the Schulzes have raised 30 Broad-Breasted Bronze birds. They are not considered a heritage breed; however, at Heritage Breed Farm they have been fed only organic food and they have free run of the farm’s garden to forage for themselves.
The couple purchase poults, young birds, each year from Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio. The birds are shipped when they are one day old.
“We go down to the post office and pick them up,” laughed Beth. This year was a “bad hatch,” Brent said. The birds came late and had not grown very large by the time people wanted them this week.
“We just butchered 10 of them and the largest was 8 pounds. We’re hoping the others are ready for Christmas,” Beth said.
The turkeys, along with chickens and ducks, are part of a complex system of farm management called stacking. The Schulzes have a small dairy herd, which eats hay. The skim from the cows’ milk is fed to pigs, so the pigs don’t need as much grain. The sheep and a goat follow the cows in the pasture to eat what the cows don’t. The chickens and turkeys follow the sheep. The pigs aerate the manure of the cows, which gets spread on the fields to fertilize the hay. Turkey and chicken manure fertilizes the vegetable garden, where the birds eat all the weeds.
“Each animal benefits every other animal,” Beth said.
Farming this way required a big learning curve for the family. Beth has a Bachelor of Science in agriculture from the Ohio State University. Brent spent his youth on a farm owned by his grandfather and father. So what they knew were traditional farming techniques. They have had to do a lot of research to develop the dynamic operation they oversee today.
Other organic farmers have shared tips. Brent’s father passed on what he had learned from his father, who never used chemicals. They have scoured journals and websites for appropriate articles.
“We have never been afraid to change. If we found we were doing something not right or found something better, we just go into it. If our farming model needed to change, if it wasn’t the most holistic process, we’d quit cold turkey and do something better,” Brent said.
The plan was to farm for themselves, but as word got out, people started asking to buy from Heritage Breed Farm so it has become a business with clients who travel from Indianapolis, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati and points in between to get their pruchases.
“We went to Dexter beef cattle, then to Large Black and Red Wattle hogs. Then we got Buckeye chickens. The sheep came because people were asking,” Brent said.
Ducks soon followed, “and we got the ducks to hatch the chicken eggs,” Beth added. Hard boiled chicken eggs are fed to the turkeys to provide protein to the larger birds, who get about 30 percent of their feed from foraging for the first two to three months of life.
“Our whole model is grass-fed, start to finish,” Brent noted. They have 140 acres, including pasture. Everything they feed their animals, they raise themselves.
“We do open pollinating corn,” which results in a higher protein level in the grain, he said. “So we’re feeding 10 to 15 percent less to our animals. Everything we do is measured in quality.”
In addition to the crops and animals, the couple have a fledgling apple orchard of heirloom varieties dating to the 19th century, and they tend to 13 beehives. The beef cattle herd numbers 120, of which one or two per month are butchered. There are hundreds of chickens each year and four Guernsey cows, who give them about 100 gallons of milk per week to sell.
The family added a small dairy to the farm operation not long ago. They make butter, cream, cheese curds and ice cream to sell in addition to milk.
Everything isn’t always clear sailing. There have been mistakes along the way.
“One year, I didn’t plant the right depth. We missed the rain and got it planted too late. The corn came up, but it was 2 feet tall. Then rain came and there was some tall and some not. We still cleared 50 bushels per acre. And it sold for premium because the protein content was so high,” Brent said.
The pair don’t get upset by mistakes.
“It’s a never-ending learning process. We’ll never have it mastered,” Brent admitted. “The biggest surprise was the amount of work it takes to manage a dynamic farm and how hard it is to tell someone how to do it, because you’re basing it on how animals respond.”
How much space they need, how much feed they need changes from day to day.
“It’s a constant change,” Brent said. “Being a small farm isn’t less work than a large farm. Some of the big farms have thousands of acres, but they’re doing one thing across many acres. We’re doing everything across the board. We’re looking at the ecology side and trying to do it the right way. The down side is you don’t have much time for anything else.”
Maximilian, 10; Marie, 8; Ignatius, 7; Rosemary, 4; Virginia, 2; and Isidor, 5 months, are the rest of the family. The older children already have daily chores and are home-schooled.
“We’re amateur farmers,” Brent claimed. But they have professional farmers’ attitudes and dreams.
“One of the best pieces of advice was from a farmer in Virginia: you don’t need more land. You need to do more with the land you have,” Brent said. He’d like to try more no-till organic farming in the grain fields and hopes to get fences up so “the cows can spread their own manure in the fields. I like the idea of getting the animal to do it for you,” he laughed.
Beth wants to grow more vegetables and fruits and would like their dairy to manufacture cheese.
They both want everything on the farm to be an heirloom variety or a heritage breed, raised organically in a sustainable way.
It’s likely the Pilgrims would approve.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.