Farming the Roots of Wooster

Just an hour or so south of Cleveland, Wayne and Ashland counties feel like a different world. Here, the land is wrinkled by glaciers that left bulldozed debris piled up in ridges and bumps. Glacial meltwaters sluiced out the dramatic Killbuck Valley that cuts north to south across the area. The rain that falls here is claimed by the Mississippi River rather than Lake Erie. Urban influences have trickled out along the Cleveland-to-Canton corridor to the east. Here, small towns hold more weight. Brick buildings frame sleepy streets where drugstores, diners, credit unions, antique shops, and the like are the centers of interest and activity. Parking here is easy and free.

This is farm country.

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To be sure, farming happens in the rural ring surrounding Cleveland where lake plain fields host acres of corn and soy, wine grapes, and greenhouses full of nursery plants. Sugar bushes, youpick blueberries, Christmas trees, hay fields, and alpacas sparsely populate the hills to Cleveland’s south and east.

But here in the outskirts of Wooster, farming is a major enterprise, with between a half and three-quarters of the land in production. And the farming is more diverse, about equally livestock and crops. Corn and wheat grow alongside vegetables and fruit. Cows look out on pastured sheep, and goats and pigs cozy up to poultry.

There are nearly 3,000 farms in these two counties. But for our field trip, two farms stood out. Not for the quality of the farmland—one is a flat, open field, the other on a woodsy hillside. Not for the crops produced, though the two farms produce an incredible diversity. We steered to Martha’s Farm and Muddy Fork Farm for the respective farmers—two women who have built lives for themselves feeding their community. These two farmers, whose circuitous journeys led independently and improbably to the area, brought their personal histories to bear fruit in Northern Ohio.

Martha’s Farm

Martha’s Farm is named for its principal farmer. Martha Gaffney runs her farm as her mother ran hers.

“Where I come from, our farming is what you call here sustainable. Every family owns, like, three or four acres and then we have to do a little bit of everything,” she says in a singsong voice.

When she left her native Ecuador, Marta Vásquez Moreno brought with her the childhood experience of helping her mother farm the family plot—three or four acres of Andean mountain at an elevation of 15,000 feet. Today her farm, Martha’s Farm, is six flat acres west of Ashland.

Our farm visit is decidedly off-season. The first snow flurries, masquerading as flower petals, ride a bitterly honest breeze that stings the ears. An Amish-built house, several white outbuildings and a foggy greenhouse, full of determined tomatoes, merge with a cloudy sky. Waning vegetable plots checkerboard the front of the property, while in the backfield white turkeys huddle around a mobile coop making Jurassic sounds.

Set against this dreary and cold backdrop, Martha stands out, wearing a long scarlet skirt, layers of white lace and pink floral trim, with flared transparent sleeves and a red braided necklace. She admits her first winters here were tough and her mother doubted she could live, let alone farm, in a place that is frozen for months. In Ecuador, ice and snow are relegated to the high Andes where people don’t live. But if Martha was determined to build a new life in Ohio, her mother urged her to continue wearing her traditional clothes to remember who she is and where she came from.

Martha remembers her origins with the Conga and Cuencano people who, she says, think in terms of community rather than as individuals. As she transformed herself from Maita Arequipa Guanoliza—her Incan name—into Martha Gaffney, the Midwestern American market farmer, she reminded herself to farm according to those old-world, community-minded traditions.

Ten years later, now in her mid-40s, her community includes her husband, Pete—a shoe-worn global traveler from California, their two children, helpful Amish and Mennonite neighbors, and the locavores who have adopted her as their go-to farmer via her market stand, CSA, and Local Roots presence.

As her mother predicted, the surprise of finding an indigenous Andean woman selling produce at a rural Ohio farmers market helped Martha market herself initially. She offered food for the hungry, giving away free tamales at her first markets, and a storybook explanation for the curious.

And it starts with Pete.

“He’s the first guy who could sit with my mother and eat cuy,” she says. Her mother raised and sold cuy, known here as guinea pig (a pet rather than snack).

They returned to California, but realized they were priced out of the land market. A longtime friend of Pete’s, who had already discovered the down-to-earth cost of living away from the coasts, offered the couple the keys to his Midwestern house while he was away. Martha and Pete decided to explore terra incognita together. After a short stay, they were convinced—here they would put down roots, raise a family, and produce food with and for their community.

They bought an Amish house, with all of the amenities one would expect, and relied on Amish neighbors for a crash-course on Ohio survival, including hauling ice from the river for summer refrigeration.

“Ten years it took us to convert the clay soil to humus,” Martha says. The soil was so bad, they grew enough to feed only themselves at first. But the market pulled on Martha as it did her mother. “That was her soul, the market,” she says.

Of course, the root explanation for Martha’s successful repositioning is what she brought with her—an outlook that would be the envy of any self-help guru. She lives her life with resolve, faith in her community, and resilience. The traditional techniques of farming that Martha learned in Ecuador are those that inspired and informed the sustainable food movement, which led to the proliferation of farmers markets, CSAs, and food co-ops in the U.S. over the past decades. There is a winding path from the agricultural traditions of Martha’s mother to the modern ethos of those who scramble for Martha’s produce.

Martha laments that her village in Ecuador has moved down another path. During her visits over the years, she has witnessed the erosion of traditional farming practices as genetic modification, chemical applications, and more intensive mechanization has lured many traditional farmers into the global marketplace. “All the newworld techniques assure great quantities [of produce],” she says. “I’m here. I see what happens, the price you’ll have to pay.”

As we prepare to leave, Martha reaches down into a patch of green, frilly leaves. With seeming ease, she uproots enormous multicolored carrots from black rich soil and gives them freely to her guests this cold, fall day.

Muddy Fork Farm

About 20 miles east toward Wooster, long rural straights between corn stubble and wood lots knot-up, becoming the streets of downtown Ashland, before spreading east to the broad shallow valley of Muddy Fork Creek’s watershed—Monica Bongue’s farm is here.

Muddy Fork Farm is a tangle of shrubs, trees, and buildings on gently sloped land that pulls up to a wooded ridge on its eastern property line, as if the trees are keeping the whole farm from sliding down into Muddy Fork Creek.

Monica stands tall in mud-covered boots and layers of flannel and Carhartt, an unlikely ensemble for a molecular biologist from the University of California. “I was a research scientist in my previous life, 25 years ago,” she begins.

When her husband was offered a job in Wooster, Monica didn’t foresee any opportunities for an academic position, but the couple decided to move to Ohio. After a time considering how she might remake herself in Wooster, she told her husband, “Let’s find a farm. We’re here, land is cheap.”

The search took a year. But one day, driving along a lovely country road west of Wooster, she saw a place for sale. It took her a moment to register the idyllic scene.

“That’s a farm,” she recalled exclaiming, as if startled by the realization. “I just knew it was for me. So we bought it.” They moved in during the summer, and the following spring, she joined a farmers market, where she sold the asparagus and rhubarb that were already established on the farm.

Her initial idea was to limit herself to spring crops, leaving her summers free. But her new identity took hold of her, and with all the fresh enthusiasm of a beginner, she expanded her crop list, hired employees, and was soon traveling to five farmers markets a week all summer long, running a CSA, and supplying produce to local food establishments, including Local Roots where she is a founding member.

Although new to farming herself, Monica had a familial role model. She grew up in rural foothills of the Andes—Pichinde, Colombia, in the 1960s and 70s. Her grandfather, an émigré from the Netherlands, had a coffee farm located in the rainforest, with coffee trees underneath. “No big machinery. All artisanal. That’s what I knew,” she says.

She grew up with the understanding that throwing food away was sinful. If her family didn’t eat it directly, they gave it to the chickens or dogs. “Even though we were middle class, [we] lived with a lot less resources,” she remembers.

When she went away to college in the U.S., she took a job in the cafeteria, where she witnessed a different attitude toward food. “I saw the food they threw away and how they played with the food and I was shocked,” she says, still disgusted.

While Monica’s environmental ethic originated in childhood, it was perhaps an overly ambitious farm schedule that has brought her back to her original plan.

“My focus now is spring, perennials, and permaculture,” she says. She’s growing a long list of crops including rhubarb, green and purple asparagus, sunchokes, strawberries, black walnuts, three varieties of currants and raspberries, apples, pears, walking onions (also called Egyptian onions), radicchio, grapes, and herbs. Though she has some chickens, she prefers her ducks, which reproduce without her intervention.

Her stated farming philosophy aligns with her grandfather’s tree-based farm.

“Working with nature now, not fighting it anymore,” as she sums it up, adding, “If it grows really well here, it will grow here. I work with what wants to grow.”

These days, she attends one farmers market through June. With her reclaimed time, she enclosed a loft in her barn and christened it the Artierra Art Studio, where she paints and throws pottery. With an easy laugh, she describes herself as a serial career person, who wants to do other things with her life.

Her pottery wheel faces a window with a view of the country road she wandered onto 25 years ago. Beyond are farm fields and the wooded banks of Muddy Fork Creek.

Monica reflects on a beautiful, cold-water stream that bordered her grandfather’s coffee farm. She grew up wading in the swimming holes and gazing on the waterfall provided by the stream. That stream eventually attracted the attention of legal and illegal gold miners, whose effluent turned the creek yellow with pollution.

The change left a lasting impression. In determined contrast, Monica produces goods—food and art—in ways that improve the land that sustains her. She understands the value of home. It’s where we can branch out and flourish, once we’ve established deep roots.