The Hard Way

Creativity and care help Millgate Farm beat long odds

It doesn’t make any sense.

Every time I’m heading west on I-90 toward Millgate Farm in Jefferson, in Ashtabula County, I think the same thing: It doesn’t make sense.

Why do Tod and Shelley Mogren raise cattle on pasture and pigs in the woods in the Snow Belt, an area that gets more snowfall than any other part of Ohio—where even the hardiest breed of cow or pig has to spend nearly six months indoors?

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You see, the land in this area doesn’t freeze in the winter, insulated under so much deep and heavy snow (Tod says it hasn’t frozen since at least 1997). So the pigs and cattle can’t be allowed to wander the soft and saturated winter ground, lest they stomp it into so much mud and muck that it becomes compacted and useless the rest of the year.

And why grow hay, necessary to sustain the sheltered cows through the long winter, in Ashtabula County, where a grower is lucky to get three cuttings a year compared to the potential for five or six cuttings realized just an hour to the south?

I simply couldn’t make sense of it. So I headed east to visit Tod seeking answers that would help me understand what it is that drives farmers to live there, and allows them to thrive in quite possibly the most difficult place to farm in the state. While I’m not quite ready to abandon the relative comfort of Cleveland to raise grass-fed beef and forested pigs like Tod did, at least now I have a better understanding of what it takes to keep Cleveland well fed.

To understand what’s going on at Millgate, you have to consider the origins of medium- to large-scale agriculture in Jefferson. Tod was happy to share that history with me as we hauled four fat Berkshire hogs from his farm to his butcher near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Tod explained that the first people to try cropping the area in earnest were tobacco farmers looking to escape the relatively crowded (agriculturally speaking) South and make a go of it in Northeast Ohio. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t take the itinerant growers long to realize that Jefferson, Ohio, was not nearly as suitable for tobacco growing as their native South. So after trying to make tobacco work for about 10 years, 90% of the growers took off. The remaining 10%—“the stubborn ones,” according to Tod—stayed in Jefferson and continued to lay the groundwork for the agricultural community that exists in Ashtabula today.

Now we’re left with a bunch of stubborn farmers living in one of Ohio’s least fertile regions, which in addition to having imperfect soil and receiving more snow also gets less sun light than anywhere else in state. That Ashtabula doesn’t have the rich loam and relatively sunny climate of Western Ohio is evident to anyone who takes a quick drive through the county today. But despite not being blessed by the sun and fertility gods, Ashtabula County is far from a wasteland. There’s ample water. There are thick woods. And there are loads of great and stubborn people like Tod and Shelley who are hellbent on making things work.

No one in Tod’s family was a displaced Southern tobacco grower. He was raised in Cleveland Heights and, rather than farmers, his dad was a teacher and his mom a dietitian. The call to the country came after his parents read Louis Broomfield’s Malabar Farm like so many others at the time. And like the transplanted tobacco farmers before them, long on hope but short on an understanding of what they were getting into, the Mogrens purchased 235 acres in Jefferson. Tod, splitting his youth between the Heights and Jefferson, eventually settled in the latter, foregoing the offerings of the city and a successful tree service business for the freedom of his own piece of land.

Understanding what drives people to this particularly challenging part of the state is one thing, but understanding how they make things work is something else entirely. It’s clear that this place is not well suited for the usual corn-and-soy-style agriculture practiced though much of Ohio. In Tod’s mind that left livestock as the most viable option.

Should be easy, right? We’ve all read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learned how Joel Salatin took a neglected piece of property and raised high-quality, healthy animals that fetched top dollar on the farm and at farmers markets. Let the animals be the animals and all of that.

So Tod started reading Stockman Grass Farmer, the periodical that preaches the gospel to practitioners of grassland agriculture. But there was a problem: Jefferson is not like the rolling mountains of Virginia. Jefferson isn’t like anywhere outside the Snow Belt, where the cows and pigs can frolic outside all year long, with fall’s precipitation held in place by the frozen ground, and the frozen ground providing a suitable surface for livestock to roam. Instead, the ground in Ashtabula is kept warm by the microclimate around the lake and further insulated by the nearconstant layer of snow that’s present during the winter. So if a farmer were to keep the cows in pasture or the pigs in woodland paddock year round in the Snow Belt the result would be compacted ground as hard as concrete, unusable for years to come.

And remember, Tod is a grass farmer—the cows eat nothing but grass and the pigs are sustained in the forest paddocks. So if the pastures are too compacted to produce that grass, or if the health of the forest that supports the pigs declines, the whole operation falls apart.

OK, I was thinking, simple solution to this Snow Belt thing: Just put the animals in a shelter for six months and call it a day. All that’s left to do is feed the animals and enjoy coffee and kick your feet up by the wood-burning stove. Not quite, I was kindly informed. Whereas moving the cows every two days and the pigs weekly from May through (hopefully) October may sound like a lot of work, that’s nothing compared to sustaining healthy animals indoors for six months.

For one thing, preparing to winter the animals in the shelter starts the previous spring. Millgate only feeds its cows grass, and only its own grass at that. So supplementing 40 acres of cattle pasture is a 195-acre hayfield. That hay has to be cut, wrapped and fermented in order to ensure that Tod and Shelley’s cows have healthy grass to eat throughout the winter. No corn or soy is ever given to the cows. Just balage (fermented hay) that Tod grinds for the cows twice a day, every day (cows don’t take holidays), for as long as it takes until the pastures dry out enough to support the cows tromping around.

In addition to tending to the cows, Tod and Shelley also have to take care of their 100% Berkshire pigs, in from the muddy woods from late fall until the spring, ensuring that the pigs’ presence on farm contributes to an improved, not worsened, ecosystem.

Watching Tod go through his home-mixed pig feed, you can’t help but notice that he’s a dietitian’s kid, and that it’d be a lot easier if they were still outside foraging on acorns, tubers and grubs like they do for much of their food when they’re in the woods. Like the cows, Tod’s pigs get neither corn nor soy. But that’s where the similarities end. Whereas the cows get grass and nothing but grass, the pigs are fed a blend of barley, oats, flax seed, nutrients and alfalfa—all measured with scientific precision.

If a pig gets sick while inside for the winter, which is rare, the ill pig is not given any antibiotics, but is instead fed charcoal and some dirt from the woods. So far the holistic routine has resulted in healthy, seemingly happy and eventually tasty pigs. And watching a somewhat burly farmer, far from New Age foodies who often purchase his products, discuss the virtues and fluffiness of fresh-ground flax seed is something to behold.

One additional result from all of the clean feed given to the animals, along with their ample space and fastidious care, is that the shelter housing the cows and pigs during the winter has an almost sweet smell, at least as far as livestock barns go; compared with commercial cattle and pork operations, Millgate’s barn might as well be an operating room.

This isn’t to say that farmers in Ohio’s other regions are mailing it in, because it’s safe to assume that most of them aren’t. But it’s important to keep in mind where our food comes from. Our farmers, particularly those in the Snow Belt, deal with challenges met by few others in the world. By buying their products we support their efforts. And by supporting their efforts we ensure that even here, in Northeast Ohio, where the climate is just one of our challenges, we have access to some of the finest local food available anywhere, produced by the same stubborn folks who make sure we always have farms nearby and a foodshed that is second to none.

Millgate Farm’s beef can be found at several Cleveland-area farmers markets, including the year-round North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square. Tod and Shelley aren’t the only stubborn folks out there, so check out your local farmers and ask how folks are doing things. Better yet, get out there and go check out some farms!