Meet Seminary Hill Farm
As I followed behind my guide, Tadd Petersen, the gravel path crunched underneath my chuck taylors and the swaying birds chitter-chattered overhead. It was a stunningly sunny day in the beginning of April and I was more than happy to spend it touring Seminary Hill Farm. To our left, a series of thirteen mini high tunnels stood resilient in the shuddering wind, their doors hinged shut to protect the rows of budding plants inside. After several questions about how these high tunnels were constructed, Tadd humbly admitted that he designed the high tunnels to help meet their needs and extend the growing season. As he opened one of the high tunnel's doors to help me visualize what he was describing, I began to understand how important season extension was to the team here at the farm. Two long rows of raised beds lined the sides of the tunnel and the beginnings of salad greens and spring onions flourished within the warmth of the plastic layers. From the overhead irrigation to the height of the space between the raised beds inside, each detail was carefully considered and intentionally determined based on functionality and effectiveness. He carefully latched the door behind him as we exited and we continued on the gravel path. We rounded a curve and in front of us two 96-foot hoop houses towered on the horizon. Their plastic sides were partially rolled up to allow the heat to escape and I caught a quick glimpse of a brilliant green hiding from within. As he raised his hand to grab the handle of one of the hoop house doors, I could see the streaks of dry dirt collecting in the cracks of his fingers. Tadd was a young man in his early thirties, relatively normal height and dressed in black t-shirt, worn jeans and even more worn boots. Quick to smile with a welcoming demeanor, he said very few words and seemed to let the farm speak for itself. As the heavy door of the hoop house swung open, I was presented with a picturesque display of greens, yellows and amber reds, perfectly planted in precisely straight rows.
We walked along the narrow path etched out along the side of the hoop house as Tadd began pointing out the different varieties that were growing within the rows. A carrot was not simply a "carrot" at the farm. It was a Purple Dragon carrot or a Danvers carrot. The difference in varieties may not be something I could fully understand but as he explained the uniqueness of each variety, it was something I could definitely appreciate.
"What made you decide to be a farmer?" I asked. The air was clean and invigorating. Rows of salad mixes, brassica and herbs pushed out of the soil and stood vibrant against the earthy dark ground. "I've always had an interest in working with raw ingredients and preparing meals. The more I started learning about these ingredients, the more I started learning about where our food was coming from." He bent down to adjust a piece of the drip irrigation that had settled on its side. "Discovering the broken state of our current industrialized food system led me to start searching for a more sustainable and ethical solution. This is what led me to small-scale, sustainable agriculture."
We passed through the opened doors at the end of the hoop house and the entire farm spread out before us. Seminary Hill Farm was designed and implemented by Tadd about four years ago. Before he arrived, this five acre patch of land was just an open field. After the first year, he recruited Noel Deehr to help him manage the farm and the team has been working together ever since to create a space that provides fresh, quality food to the community of Columbus, Ohio. This year, they are planning on putting another five acres into production. The fields vary in size from 4000 square feet to just over one acre. Over 40,000 pounds of fresh food is harvested from these fields and provided to the community every year. From seed to harvest, Tadd explains that every effort is made to grow quality produce in a healthy, diverse environment.
We followed the mowed grass path that fell in between the two largest fields. Despite the unpredictable changes in central Ohio weather in early spring, I could see the early beginnings of kale, beets, chard, collards, cabbage, carrots, peas, garlic and parsnips in between two foot paths. The dark earth carpeted the fields as the ambitious plants crawled out into the sun, stretching their growing leaves to the sky. "How do you decide what is planted in each field?" I asked.
"It is based on crop rotation." Tadd replied. "In spring, we may have carrots and beets in a field. In the fall, we may have garlic in that same field. This helps us keep a nutrient balance in the soil." Tadd and Noel spend a large amount of time planning and creating crop plans. After our tour, I was offered a view of these plans and was immediately impressed by the amount of detail that went into them. Laid out in an excel workbook with over thirty different tabs, this year the team plans to harvest over one-hundred and twenty different varieties. "We tried to scale back the number of varieties we planted in the first couple of years and focus on the varieties we know will do really well here," he explains. Typically when people think of farming in Ohio, they will imagine a large field that contains one crop such as field corn or soy beans. The crop plans the farm team has laid out at Seminary Hill Farm is almost unimaginable when you look at what they have planned and compare it to what most people envision as a farm in Ohio.
Of these one-hundred and twenty varieties, about 80% are raised as transplants they grow from seed. This means that the seed is planted in a transplant tray and then is managed in a protected environment until it is strong enough to be placed in the field. Each of these transplants are placed into the soil by hand. As we passed through one of the fields that had been planted and was brimming with rows of thriving plants, I could not help but be amazed. "Wait, you plant each of these by hand?"
"Well, we really need a mechanical transplanter but for right now, we are working with what we have," he continues to monitor the fields as we pass, picking a rogue weed or adjusting the drip irrigation. During my visit, I discovered that there is only one tractor on the farm. It is used to till the fields. The majority of the work is managed by hand. From pulling weeds to watering, the team is actively managing the healthy life of the plants until they are ripe and ready to harvest.
Before I visited the farm, I learned that Seminary Hill Farm is a certified organic farm. When I asked Tadd about this, he says that it is really more about marketing. He explains that there is a cost associated with the certification and there is a tremendous amount of tedious paperwork. Every detail has to be reported based on the requirements of a third party so even though they may be maintaining their own reports of this information, they will have to fill out additional reports to prove their certification. He also points out that the label of certified organic is not necessarily the reason the community is supportive of the farm. It is more of an added benefit. His conversations with members of the community are more focused on how the food is being grown, is it sustainable, and the importance of transparency from farm to fork. "This farm is committed to using techniques and practices learned from hundreds of years of traditional farming. The organic certification may help people better label what we do but it certainly does not change the practices and techniques we use on the farm."
As we stood there with the sun in our faces and the bees buzzing past, I tried to imagine what it looked like before there was a farm. Before the two 96-foot hoop houses were erected, before the 5 acres of carefully plotted fields had been tilled, before the transplant tables had been built, before the mini hoop-houses had been meticulously designed and constructed, before the barn had been re-purposed to wash, pack and preserve the quality of the produce after harvest, before a single seed had been planted in the soil... it was hard to imagine that it had not always been there. It was hard to imagine not only the amount of knowledge but also the incredible amount of labor that must have gone into creating the farm. The immensity of what was happening at Seminary Hill Farm seemed to wash over me and as we stood there discussing the things we had not seen yet, such as the bee hives and the pasture-raised chickens, I began to truly appreciate the amount of work, wisdom and commitment that goes into cultivating fresh, quality produce in a healthy, sustainable environment. As I walked through the fields, I could feel an intimate connection with what was happening and it felt authentic. I believe the team at Seminary Hill Farm has something to truly be proud of and the community of Columbus has something to truly value.