You’ll know you’ve arrived at Breakneck Acres when you spot the big yellow school bus. The “Free-Range Rover” sits smack-dab in the middle of the farm and serves both as an immense chicken coop and as a playful symbol of the surprising partnership that is the basis of the farm’s success.
Like the school bus and the happy hens that call it home, farmers Ami Gignac and Tim Fox don’t immediately strike you as an obvious match but their compatibility reveals itself fairly quickly.
“When you meet us, we appear to be polar opposites,” Ami explains. Tim, a bit of an introvert, grew up on an Indiana dairy farm with nine siblings. After high school he followed a blue-collar path, becoming a union ironworker and farming in his spare time. Ami, an extrovert and an only child, was raised in the city, college educated and (until recently, anyway) chasing the corporate dream as manager of a San Francisco-based mining company.
“We’re different in many ways,” Ami says. “But take a look at all the hats we’re required to wear here at the farm: mechanics, entrepreneurs, social networkers, navel gazers, reality checkers, negotiators and customer entertainers. We’re the perfect match.”
When Tim decided to buy this small Ravenna farm, “it was just something to do,” he laughs. He planted row crops and intended to farm without the use of chemicals—the same way his grandfather had farmed. But with only 35 acres, he and Ami quickly realized the farm couldn’t make it on corn and soybeans alone. “We were losing $10,000 to $15,000 a year,” Ami explains. Something had to change.
Ami needed a change too. The high-stress corporate life was taking its toll. She decided to focus her entrepreneurial spirit on the farm and find a way to make it a sustainable and profitable operation.
In California Ami had discovered the growing locavore movement, “folks interested in foods that offered something better, something whole and something local,” as she put it. A visit to Pie Ranch, a specialty grain farm in Pescadero, California, inspired Ami to take a chance on growing specialty grains and bush varieties of heirloom beans at Breakneck Acres. These were crops that could be harvested using the combine she and Tim had already purchased for harvesting corn and soybeans. And like those California locavores, eaters here were also hungry for wholesome, flavorful, locally grown staple foods.
Tim’s ability to handle risk and Ami’s analytical, businessminded approach to farming helped them create a new plan for their farm, focused on specialty grains for the local wholesale and retail market. It was risky. Finding appropriate varieties of wheat, corn and legumes that would thrive in Northeast Ohio’s climate and soils required considerable research. Heritage seed can be expensive and difficult to find, so seed-saving and connecting with other growers was crucial. Breakneck Acres also invested in organic certification, adding additional value to their products (and inspiring at least one of their neighbors to do the same).
With help from Elizabeth Dyck at Organic Growers Research and Information-sharing Network (OGRIN), Ami and Tim decided to plant hard red winter wheat, prized among bakers for its high protein content and the delicious breads and baked goods it produces. They also planted heritage varieties of corn for cornmeal, grits, and polenta, and they chose to grow heirloom beans such as aromatic Jacob’s Cattle and rich, creamy Kenearly Yellow Eye.
Ami was also eager to invest in a stone-mill. Gentle stonemilling at low temperatures keeps Breakneck’s superior-quality grains intact and maintains their nutritional value (as opposed to industrial-milled grains, which are torn apart by steelburrs, removing the wholesome germ and bran and resulting in flour that must be enriched to make up for the lost nutrients). Hand-crafted from pine in Austria, the mill is not only a showstopper; it’s a work-horse, capable of milling 150 pounds of flour per hour.
Which is a very good thing. In the past two years, Breakneck Acres’ specialty grains have become highly sought-after among chefs, caterers, bakers and food producers throughout the region. An early partnership with Breadsmith of Lakewood produced what may have been the region’s first 100% local bread loaf, the Homegrown Whole Wheat. Fellow farmers market vendors including Bonnie’s Bread, Schmookie’s Cookies and Thrive also rely on Breakneck grains to produce their own delicious baked goods.
It’s not just bakers who’ve been inspired by the farm’s grains. Cleveland’s Ohio City Pasta is beginning to produce fresh pasta with Breakneck’s whole-wheat flour. In the coming year, Tom’s Foolery, a family-owned micro-distillery located in Chagrin Falls, will introduce the region’s first Pot Distilled Bourbon made with Breakneck Acres–grown as well as organic corn and rye from other local farms. As proprietor Tom Herbruck explains, “It made sense for us to find and support the local grain growers who are also maintaining authentic and traditional farming methods. It is the closest thing we can get to how food and spirits were made long ago.”
Ami glows when she speaks about these collaborations. “It’s gratifying to see our grains used to create all these unique products that can be enjoyed by folks all over the region.”
Breakneck Acres products, as well as those of neighboring farms, are available for purchase through the farm’s on-line store (LocalFoodMarketplace.com/breakneck). And of course, visitors are invited to shop at the farm each Wednesday afternoon from 1 to 6pm. Be sure to look for the Free-Range Rover and say hello to the farm’s friendly chickens and Luther, their handsome (and protective) rooster.
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