Fields of green

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Michelle Bakan is all too familiar with the economics of farming.

Growing up on Maize Valley Farms in Hartville — where her parents, Kay and Donna Vaughan, grew corn, soybeans and wheat and raised dairy cattle — she learned the hard truth about the profits reaped from working the land.

“If you’re going to raise corn and soybeans and make a living at it, you’ve got to have thousands of acres, because the net margin per acre on those kinds of crops is very small,” she says.

But the acreage Bakan describes is becoming harder and harder to come by, even in rural Hartville. The nearly 3,000 acres her family owns and rents are scattered over four counties. One field is an hour’s tractor drive away.

She says that when farmers die, the heirs usually auction the land off in small parcels, often for residential development. Finding people willing to work the 15-hour days required to run a dairy farm — especially a 26-year-old enterprise that had proven only marginally profitable — is another problem.

“Basically, we weren’t making any money with the dairy,” she says. “We either had to get a lot bigger, which meant quite a big capital investment, or we had to quit.”

Instead, Bakan and her husband, Bill, who serve respectively as Maize Valley’s office manager and farm manager, turned to agritourism. In September, they sold most of their dairy herd to a farmer near Columbus and began making plans to grow more of the vegetables and melons they’d been selling from a small stand for the last two years. Their produce includes sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, zucchini, pumpkins, cantaloupe, watermelon — the kind of fresh-from-the-field items that produce a higher return per acre than traditional corn and soybean farming and draw city folk to a farmer’s market.

The family then purchased a turn-of-the-century barn next to 140 acres it owned on State Route 619, gutted the structure and began turning it into a produce market and deli/bakery. They opened a small petting zoo with sheep, goats, donkeys and a horse and cut into a cornfield a Pony Express-themed maze, which last year took and hour and a half to negotiate.

Bill Bakan even dug a 6-foot-deep pit to illustrate the different layers of soil he discusses in a lecture he gives about the land.

Other activities include tractor-powered wagon rides, horse rides, evening bonfires, scarecrow-making and pick-your-own-pumpkin excursions. And visitors can purchase hot dogs, sloppy joes and homemade apple dumplings at a trailer. Charges range from $2 per person for a wagon ride to $35 for a bonfire with enough wood to keep it burning for several hours.

Bakan says the response has been good. Groups of schoolchildren have visited from as far as Cleveland. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, youth and church groups have used the place for events, and businesses are beginning to inquire about corporate picnics. The couple expects business to increase once the produce market opens July 1.

Future plans include construction of a picnic pavilion and a greenhouse.

“We see this as the future for our farm,” Bakan says. How to reach: Maize Valley Farms, (330) 877-2547

Lynne Thompson