Young Farmer Series; Deb and Jeff Eschmeyer, Farming the Heartland with New Intent and Serious Cred

Debra Eschmeyer and Jeff Eschmeyer

Debra and Jeff Eschmeyer own Harvest Sun Farm in New Knoxville, Ohio. They are two farm kids who grew up in the same small western Ohio farming community where they are now the fifth generation of Jeff’s family to live and farm on the land they work.  While admirable, that in and of itself is not all that unusual, there are many farms in this part of America’s heartland that have been passed down through the generations. However there are several facts that make Deb and Jeff a little unique in this neighborhood that are worth noting.

First, they are farming using organic and sustainable methods, meaning they use time-tested and traditional agricultural techniques like crop rotation, crop selection, use of cover crops, and no synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides, in order to insure the health of the soil. They recognize the importance of healthy soil, a seemingly obvious notion that has become lost in the modern industrial fix-it-with-chemicals agricultural paradigm. Now while this is a good thing (at least from my point of view), it is not all that unusual these days as all the earlier posts on this blog and all the media attention to the new agrarian movement will attest.  However, first of all, the Eschmeyers’ farm is located smack dab in the middle of corn country. I drove there from Columbus last month, through literally hundreds and hundreds of square miles of nothing but corn and soybean fields. Those two heavily taxpayer subsidized crops which are responsible for so much of the obesity, nutritional imbalance and political imbalance of our national food policy, are firmly entrenched in this part of the country. Pulling down the long dirt driveway into the Eschmeyers’ farm is like stepping into a little bubble of sanity and health amidst the almost Oz-like uniformity of the surrounding landscape.

yellow pear tomatoes on the left, pepper plants on the right

heirloom Tomato plants

Flowers for market (shown above), heirloom tomatoes, peppers, scallions, garlic, brassicas, lettuce, you get the idea. Fresh, healthy, organic food, great tasting and here’s the thing, like too much of America, these are foreign to most of Jeff and Deb’s neighbors!   They sell at a local farmer’s market where, in the middle of farm country, there are very few farmers actually selling food, and they are starting a brand new CSA which to my amazement will be the first one in that part of the state. Where I live in northwestern Connecticut, where farmland is hard to find, there are nonetheless at least a dozen CSA’s just in my and the surrounding four towns, all with waiting lists for several years. Yet, here in “farm” country, there are no others anywhere around! Deb told me they are nervous about finding enough people who will be interested to invest the time and money, given the cultural and political viewpoint of the area’s residents, yet their initial outreach for members has been very encouraging and they are confident that when they start it in 2012 they will be enthusiastically received. I am in total agreement for two reasons: First, Deb and Jeff are not outsiders coming in and preaching to the locals or offering judgments about how this new attitude will save them from agricultural and nutritional horror. Quite the contrary, Deb and Jeff are from and of this culture; they grew up here, Deb’s family still farms around the corner and Jeff was the local town supervisor for a short time. They respect and love their neighbors, and rightly so. Preachy they are not!

Second, not only are they very smart about what they are doing, but they actually have heavyweight credentials to back up the their viewpoint. Debra is one of the founders of FoodCorps, which is a new nonprofit national service organization, a kind of Americorps for healthy eating, that is working to reverse childhood obesity by increasing children’s knowledge of and access to healthy food.  The program does this by sending young leaders into at-risk communities and schools to create school garden and farm to school programs for a year of service .  Debra was the Communications and Outreach Director for the National Farm to School Network and was project director at the National Family Farm Coalition. She is also a Fellow of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food & Society. You can hear her talk about some of this right here, or you can read an interesting interview she gave to ecocentric blog here.  She was also one of the 10 original recipients of the  James Beard Foundation Leadership Award,  which is given to individuals making working successfully for  “a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world.”  Jeff was an aide to Senator Mark Dayton and also worked for the Ohio Farmer’s Union. They don’t have to preach; they know their stuff. Their mastery of food policy is firmly grounded in their experience growing up on farms and now running their own.  When a politician whose elections are funded by large corporate agribusiness scoffs at small organic farmers building sustainable communitites, Deb and Jeff have the statistics, the facts and the on-the-ground (or in-the-ground!) knowledge to counter the posturing.

True heroes of this young farmer series, I can’t say enough to convey how inspiring this couple is. They could be working in Washington or for a big corporation or as industry lobbyists. Or they could have simply stayed in the stream they were born in and worked the farm in Ohio just like everyone else. We should all be very happy they did not and thankful that they are perfectly suited and situated to make a leveraged impact for healthy and sustainable food production.

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