Numbers show young farmers are keeping the industry growing in Ohio

Posted at 3:26 PM, Feb 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-24 18:51:44-05

CLEVELAND — The Junipers walked out of the front door of their vineyard prepared to spend all day trimming vines.

“It’s cold but it’s not muddy,” Joe Juniper said as he pulled on his gloves, the bottom of his heavy boots scraping over the frozen ground.

The 16 degree February weather wouldn’t stop Joe and his wife Kristi from being outside and tending to their livelihood at Vermilon Valley Vineyards.

With 80 acres of vines to care for, the work doesn’t stop.

“We grow all classic European varieties,” Joe said between clipping freewheeling parts of a Chardonnay grape vine. “So, things like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay and many more.”

The couple, who are in their 20s, hand trim all the vines, make and market the wine they produce and run a tasting room year-round.

“I love it. I love it. I’ve been in the wine industry since I was 13 years old. And I first got into the wine industry at 13 because I love plants. I love the outdoors. I love plants,” Joe said.

With an expert eye, Joe and Kristi made it through one row in about an hour. The vines cover most of the property located off Gore Orphanage Road.

“One of the best parts of the job is really getting to work with your wife every day. We get to work together day in and day out which, for some relationships, is great and some relationships can’t deal with it one bit. But, it works for us as it does for most small farmers I think,” Joe said.

The couple is part of a growing number of young farmers taking of the mantle of local agriculture. Numbers from a 2017 census by the Ohio Farm Bureau show young people are saving a shrinking industry.

"Gone are the days of the stigma that farmers are the unintelligent, lonesome old people—and the simple people —in the countryside. That is no more. That's no longer the reality of farming," Joe said about the changing age of people interested in farming.

Along with a renewed interest in farming, small farms are growing. There was a 20 percent spike from years past when the Ohio Farm Bureau measured the numbers in 2017.

The bureau said a small farm is 49 acres or less. Of the 77,000 farms in the state, most of them are 200 acres or less.

“I really think that’s a big part of why so many millennials are getting back into farming at this point—the desire to know where their food is coming from,” Joe said.

And he isn’t alone.

An hour southeast of Vermilion Valley is Rittman Orchards near Doylestown. Owned and operated by the Vodraska family, the orchard and vineyard produce a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.

“I also make hard cider and wine,” Matt Vodraska said.

The family operation is a diverse one with connections to local farmers markets and restaurants in the Cleveland area, plus a tasting room and market on site.

“I think agriculture is in a really interesting spot right now,” Vodraska said, standing in a big warehouse near a cold storage room full of apples. “Larger farms are kind of being swallowed up by the even bigger farms where family farms, like ours, are working hard to carve out a niche for themselves.”

That consolidation can be seen in Ohio with smaller dairy farms closing and selling cows and equipment to larger operations. Traditional row crops, like soybeans, are also suffering in the shadow of international trade issues.

“We didn’t want to wholesale anymore. We felt education was important,” Vodraska said about making the switch to a hyper-local market. “Educating the consumers and being more directly connected to them. We wanted to prove that apples were more than the eight varieties you find any grocery store.”

Currently, the orchard has more than 80 varieties of apples getting ready for harvest in the last summer and early autumn.

“But with a little education and a little direct selling and developing the relationship with the land and the farmer on the consumer side, they get a lot more satisfaction in what they’re putting on their dinner table,” Vodraska said about why local orchards and small farms are thriving.

Despite the growing want for a connection to the food on the table, Vodraska said he knows it doesn’t take much for a farm to fold.

“It’s a struggle. Farming is a tough business,” he said. “No farm's immune to the threat of bankruptcy or insolvency. A lot of farms are just one bad year off.”

Even though the margins can be razor thin and the industry is beholden to mother nature, both Vodraska and Joe Juniper said the same thing about the future of Ohio farming.

“The future of farming in Ohio is bright,” Vodraska said. “We’re really a big giant bread basket and fruit basket of the country.”

Numbers from the Ohio Farm Bureau show new and beginning farmers cared for more than 2 million acres of Ohio farmland.