For 15 years, Beth Ellis spent her working days inside a sterile environment surrounded by coworkers, humming medical machines and inquisitive hospital patients. She had consistent work hours, provided the health care and retirement coverage for her family and truly loved her job. To give all that up to run a game bird hunting preserve on the family farm in Clinton County wasn’t an easy decision.
“You go from an environment of clocking in and clocking out every day and being so good at something that it’s like breathing to walking out of it and doing something that you think ‘Am I qualified to do this?’ It was terrifying,” said Ellis, who runs the day-to-day operations of Cherrybend Pheasant Farm near Wilmington. The 640-acre farm offers pheasant, quail and chukar hunting.
The job switch came at the right time. The community hospital where Beth worked had just become private, and the family was in desperate need of a manager for Cherrybend, which is part of the Ellis family’s farm. Her husband, Matt, farms about 5,000 acres for grain production along with his father, Wayne, and brother, Scott. They didn’t have time to leave the farm fields to help manage the growing hunting preserve. Beth, who had helped out at Cherrybend in her free time, stepped in. Those first few months were eye opening.
“You have to be an accountant, marketer, Web page manager, cook, peacekeeper, point of sales specialist, naturalist, human resources expert. I was trained to stick needles in people. I didn’t know how to do this stuff,” she laughed. “That’s the facets of a small business – you don’t have the option to say ‘I don’t know how to do that’. You’ve got to figure it out.”
And figure it out is exactly what Beth has done over the last six years. She describes Cherrybend as her third child (she and Matt have two school-age children, Carlie and Nathan) and her co-worker is now a faithful labrador retriever. During hunting season, which is typically Sept. 1 to March 31, Beth works seven days a week and at least 10 hours a day. She has learned to turn off the phone during family time and respond to hunting requests and questions after the family has settled down for the evening.
Cherrybend has a rich history. It was started by a neighbor family that raised hogs. When friends kept coming out to hunt pheasant, the family decided to get a preserve license in 1953. At one point, the farm had 7 acres of flight pens and mesh netting to hold tens of thousands of birds. The Ellis family bought the business in 2006.
Beth is quick to point out that Cherrybend is a farm, not solely a hunting preserve. Instead of planting acres of the same grain crop, the family puts in 120-foot wide strips of crops alternating among wheat, corn and soybeans, followed by cover crops of sorghum and sunflowers. These crops, in particular sorghum, provide habitat and food for the game birds as do decades-old tree fence lines at the edge of farm fields. The money from the grain crops allows the farm to continue to offer game bird hunting.
“We’ve got to pay for this place. It’s not paying for itself,” Beth said. “We’ve got to have a usable and saleable crop to allow hunting to go on here. It takes effort and a lot of planning to integrate habitat with farming. We’re still getting the yields and crop; we’re just breaking it up, which takes more planning and time but it works.”
Since the mid-1800s, the Ellis family has been farming in Clinton County. Today they rent about half the land they farm, and the positive relationship they have with landlords has resulted in more wildlife habitat conversion in the county.
“Some of the landlords are really Earth conscious and love the idea of having quail on their farm. They’re willing to make concessions and let fence rows grow up, and we’ll take quail over to their farms and release them,” Beth said. “Some people say our land looks like a hot mess but it’s what’s best for habitat management.”
Beth describes herself as an advocate for both traditional farming and conservation, which she says, with a little extra work and time, can go hand-in-hand. For the past two years, she’s been president of Clinton County Farm Bureau and has traveled to Washington, D.C. and Columbus to advocate for agriculture. After Gov. John Kasich submitted a tax cut proposal, she was asked to testify before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on how that proposal would affect her as a small business owner. After her testimony, she was surprised to hear a representative say that many years ago he had hunted at Cherrybend and was pleased to hear it was still in business.
“People who have been coming to Cherrybend for years say they feel comforted that it looks the same. We’ve tried to keep that genuine country feel to it but we’re very progressive behind the scenes,” she said.
Cherrybend draws hunters from all over Ohio and surrounding states, and many have never been on a farm before. Beth and her family take that opportunity to talk to them about farm life and show how much work goes into food production. They sometimes share the story about the importance of closing gates and doors. One year a Cherrybend employee left a barn door open and 600 pheasants got out.
“It was painful and such a big loss. It’s not like you can catch them out in the fields,” Beth said. “It’s so natural when you’re born in the country that if you open a gate, you shut it right away.”
While saying she likes hunting and can shoot a gun “with the best of them,” Beth describes herself first and foremost as a farmer.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be true to who and what you are,” she said. “We don’t claim to be something we’re not – we’re not a big hunt lodge. We’re not claiming to be anything but what we are and that’s farmers who are inviting people to hunt on our farm.”