A city girl takes the plunge and buys the farm
Twelve years ago Janet Hahn returned to Ohio to care for her mother and fell in love with the life of an organic farmer.

By Jason Witmer

Farm at a Glance

Janet and Roy Hahn
Garrettsville, Ohio

Location: Approx. 1/2 hour southeast of Cleveland

Size: 55-acre farm, 30 acres tillable fields, spring-fed creek, maple tree grove.

Products: Diverse range of garden vegetables, organic beef, lamb, pork, chicken, medicinal herbs, homemade salves, maple syrup, homemade soaps.

Marketing: Hahn's marketing strategy has been through multiple reincarnations as she's determined what works and what doesn't for her farm. She tried selling to wholesale markets, launched a CSA which morphed into a "working" CSA, and finally opened an on-farm organic market. The market has become a drop-off point for local growers and stocks a variety of locally-grown or locally-made items in addition to her own products.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by
Jason Witmer

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Ohio traveler debuts “global grassroots” network of farmer-correspondents

BEGINNINGS::From pitching in on his Grandpa’s farm to an organic sojourn across two continents

EASTERN THAILAND: Meet Jon Jandai -- farmer, builder and man of leisure

LAOS: A chemical past convinced this farmer to prove organic is the future

THAILAND: Thailand's Buddhist "Asok" movement builds organic farms, sustainable communities

INDIA: Indian farmer creates an organic oasis in a harsh land

INDIA: Beyond the Green Revolution to Regeneration

The Himalayas: The western world has invaded, but not yet conquered

SPAIN: Fighting weeds and tradition in Spain's wine country

SEPTEMBER 12, 2003: After 8 years of working as an engineer for a telephone company in New York City, Janet Hahn knew she needed to do something different. “Corporate America was just not what I was looking for,” said Hahn, a tall, loquacious visionary and parent of five young children. “I was doing all the things I was supposed to do but there was a real empty feeling and I knew something was missing.”

When Hahn’s mother contracted uterine and colon cancer in 1991, Hahn decided to return to her home state of Ohio for a few months to take care of her mother – a decision that would prove to change the course of her life.

It was while searching for ways to improve her mother’s health that Hahn became interested in organic products. “The food issue came up rather quickly and I started reading about and learning more about our food supply,” she said. “And I guess I was just really shocked to learn how animals were raised and all the chemicals and stuff that were used on the crops.”

Hahn found several local farms where she could purchase food for her mother and put her on a strict diet of whole, organic foods. Hahn also became the volunteer “carrot forewoman” on Silver Creek Organic Farm, in Hiram, and found that this new occupation was fulfilling. “That was the big turning point,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and decided this was what I wanted to do.”

After officially retiring from her job, Hahn and her father purchased the 55-acre farm outside of Garrettsville, Ohio, where she lives today. The land consists of 30 acres of tillable fields, a creek, and hundreds of tall maple trees. “I just knew when I came on the farm and walked the land... I could just feel that this is where I needed to be,” she said. She named her land “Sweetbriar Farm.”

Hahn was 29 when she moved to the farm and now realizes that her agricultural aspirations may have seemed a little farfetched to neighbors. “The whole community must have been shaking their heads – this young gal’s coming by herself...”

Luckily, she found help from Bill and Roy Hahn, two brothers who had managed the dairy farm across the street organically for 30 years. Janet, who eventually married Roy, would walk across the road every morning and glean what knowledge she could from the two brothers while they were milking. They helped her with projects such as loading hogs into the pick-up truck and the construction of a green house.

Moreover, because Bill and Roy had been renting the land that she bought, her soil was in top shape. “Where most people who want to grow organically purchase a farm and spend three years before they can certify it, and spend a lot longer just trying to get soil health back, I walked into a gold mine,” Hahn said. When she read the numbers off a soil analysis to an expert over the phone, he laughed and told her they basically meant that she didn’t need him.

Hahn began raising a variety of garden vegetables to sell to wholesale markets but soon found that selling them was more difficult. Organic markets weren’t moving much quantity and she had to compete with low-priced vegetables from California or flooded markets. “We’ve sold our society on the idea of cheap food,” she lamented.

Unable to pay the bills wholesaling, Hahn began a Community Supported Agriculture program in 1994. After a couple years, a shortage of labor prompted her to begin selling only “working shares,” which meant customers had to agree to work on the farm a certain number of hours. “Those were the best years of our lives,” Hahn said. “The appreciation level changed dramatically when they had to come out and work.”

Hahn also valued the organic family that developed through the CSA. “This was a wonderful way for us to build community and connect with people of like mind. And we learned so much from each other.” Customers learned what it took to produce food and traded home remedies, experiences, and recipes in the fields.

Unfortunately, Hahn, who by then had four young children, was unable to get enough working shares to make it worth her time and energy. “Everything looked great on the outside,” she said. “But on the inside we weren’t making enough money and it was stressful on our family.” Hahn finally ceased running the CSA two years ago and calls that decision one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. She still gets Christmas cards from former members and hopes to launch it again when her kids are older.

Hahn now runs an organic market, which is located on her farm and is open twice a week. This market began as a drop point for local growers and has grown into a store that stocks items such as organic beef, lamb, pork, and chicken, medicinal herbs, homemade salves, garden vegetables, and maple syrup. Hahn’s family produces many of these items, such as the hand-collected maple syrup, which amounted to over 200 gallons last year.

Hahn has also begun to sell homemade soap, an item that she makes largely from the milk of her small herd of Nubian, La Mancha, and Saanen goats. “Milk has been used for health and beauty for years because it’s packed with nutrients.” Hahn said. “There’s nothing nicer than a goat milk bath. But most of us today are not going to sit in a goat milk bath so I said ‘what better than to have it in soap.’”

After tinkering with the recipe, Hahn has been able to make bars of soap that include goats milk and vegetable oils in equal amounts. She sells many different varieties. “Helping Hands” includes essential oils of tea tree, peppermint, eucalyptus and clove, and is recommended for healing. “Baby Baby” is an unscented bar with extra cream for delicate skin. “Almond Scrub” is for dry skin, and “Vanilla Almond” includes oatmeal and is recommended for oily skin. Hahn speculates that her goats milk makes such good soap because her goats have access to ample organic pasture, wild plants, organic hay, natural mineral supplements, and fresh grain and water.

Hahn explained that the hardest part is getting people to try the soap, but that once they do, they’re hooked. The majority of her steady customers now use it and Hahn has a friend who has sold quite a bit at a nearby market. She is working with another woman who is helping her with marketing to different parts of the country. Hahn hopes that the soap, which doesn’t need refrigeration and can be made year-round, will give them the money they need to continue. “It would justify us being here. It would justify the goats,” she said. “I am still determined that we will make the farm pay for itself.”

If they can get the farm to be sustainable financially, Hahn would like to have more time to spend teaching, which she has done much of already. “I have never felt like I owned this place,” she said. “I’m just the caretaker. The farm was always to be open – to anyone and everyone.” Hahn has recently taught soap making classes and a maple candy making class for a Waldorf school. She also has given tours for co-ops and this year hosted a farm city tour in which 2000 people came through the farm in 3 hours. Hahn hopes that in the future, with more help from her children, she will be able to focus on hosting classes on all the wonderful things that people can do in their own back yard.

Hahn continues to be extremely dedicated to living what she sees is an “organic lifestyle.” All of her children, who range in age from 2 months to eight years, were born at home and none have been immunized. This past year she home-schooled her children largely because she didn’t like the consumer culture they were being introduced to at school.

Additionally, Hahn strives to keep whole, organic, locally bought food in her cupboards and buys only toilet paper from the grocery store. She wishes that other organic farmers would do the same, noting that some organic farmers grow organic food but go to McDonalds for lunch. She explained that the word “organic” has become a legal terminology rather than a way of life that includes whole foods and small farms. “We’re at the point of having organic Twinkies,” she said.

Though Hahn is still struggling to earn a living by farming, she is grateful for all that she has. “I feel very blessed that I’m able to be here,” she said. “And although we’ve struggled some from the financial standpoint, I’ve got wealth beyond belief.” Hahn points to the beauty of the farm, the clean water they enjoy from their spring-fed creek, and the fact that they know where their food comes from.

Perhaps the most precious blessing is that Hahn’s mother, who now eats only whole, organic foods, is in great health. “I think cancer is an opportunity to reevaluate,” Hahn said. “Where some people look at it as a real negative, I think it’s been a positive in our family. Because it’s forced us to look at who we were, what was important to us, and to say ‘alright we need to make changes.’”

The changes Hahn has made have enriched her and her family’s life and she hopes to continue to be able to live out her ideals. “If we had all the money in the world, we’d still live on this farm,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll make it all work. I think we’re supposed to be here – that I haven’t given up on.”