Mary and Bert Hostetler never dreamed that the card table they set up across the road from their farmhouse in 1993 would grow into the farm market they operate today. Their Sweetwater Farm, found in the rolling hills of Sugarcreek, in western Tuscarawas County, has become a go-to market not only for local families, but also for one of the area’s most popular pizza restaurants.
Trip of a Lifetime
The Hostetlers married in 1974 and took over Mary’s family’s farm on the outskirts of Sugarcreek in 1976. They operated a dairy herd for nearly 30 years, but their desire to reach a special goal prompted the couple to consider an additional source of income.
“In 1993, we decided we wanted to take a trip out West with our boys, Nate and Chris, before they grew up. So we started raising a few extra vegetables to sell,” Mary said. “We started with the basics of green beans, tomatoes and sweet corn.
“I can still see our sons carrying their buckets down the road to pick green beans, and our son Chris saying ‘Mom, we just may have a business.’ It was nothing like what we have now,” Mary remembered with a laugh.
By 1995, the Hostetlers had earned enough to take that family trip. “We spent two weeks going through Montana, the Dakotas, Washington and Wyoming,” said Bert Hostetler. “We saw Glacier National Park, the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. It was a great trip.”
The Little Red Barn
“When we got back, we got a little more serious about the produce business, because we started to see it as a way to diversify our farm,” Mary noted. “Then in 1998, we sort of found ourselves at a crossroads. Our youngest son Chris had the opportunity to buy a dairy in Stone Creek, and he bought our dairy herd and equipment and moved it there. Our farm is at the edge of town, and it could only grow so much. And really, our dairy couldn’t support two families. So we concentrated on the market.”
Sweetwater Farm’s familiar “little red barn” welcomes guests to purchase a variety of produce from varieties of tomatoes, sweet corn and green beans to fresh herbs and offerings such as peppers, kohlrabi, red beats, eggplant and fresh cut flowers. “We try to offer something different every year,” Mary said. The couple also has 400 laying hens that provide blue and brown eggs year-round.
Farm Bureau Involvement
“We’ve been Farm Bureau members for more than 30 years. We love what they do to promote agriculture, and we share that passion for agriculture,” Mary said.
“Bert and Mary are the nicest people you will ever meet,” said Michele Specht, organization director for Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson and Tuscarawas counties. “They are just wonderful ambassadors for agriculture. Mary has served on many of our county committees over the years and has served as our membership chair. She and Bert are very involved with our community and have volunteered for many, many local causes.”
The Hostetlers have donated produce, gift certificates and their services for many nonprofit organizations and have also participated in the Tuscarawas County Soil and Water Conservation’s Ag in the City Day. This fall they donated all of the vegetables for Harvest For Hospice, a farm-to-plate dinner hosted by Tuscarawas County Farm Bureau and Ohio State University Extension that raised at least $25,000 for Community Hospice in New Philadelphia.
Cultivating a Following
The Hostetlers enjoy the relationships they have cultivated with their customers. “We love and appreciate our customers. They’re why we do what we do,” Mary said “We really get to know our customers personally because they come once a week and sometimes two or three times a week.”
Sweetwater Farm is located in an area known for its Swiss heritage attractions, but tourists make up only a portion of the farm’s customers. “We have a trolley that stops at the farm probably four or five times a day, but the tourists are a pretty small part of our business,” she said.
The demographics of their customer base have changed over time. “I would say 90 percent of our customers are local to the area, probably within 10 or 12 miles. They come from Dover, New Philadelphia, Strasburg, Uhrichsville and Dennison. We’ve noticed our customers used to be the older generation, but now we have a lot of younger families,” she said.
“We find our customers are much more concerned about what they eat. They see that it’s raised right here, and the first question they ask is ‘Is it yours?’ They’re finding they can buy quality, fresh produce that is local.”
A Partnership in Pizza
One of those local customers happened to be Courtney Shanower who, with her husband, Rocky, owns and operates Park Street Pizza, a Sugarcreek favorite. “We used to live right down the street from Mary, so Courtney would take our kids in the stroller and walk down to the market and get our produce,” Rocky said.
The Shanowers had purchased the closed Crossroads Pizza in 2003, and in 2008 rebranded their business as Park Street Pizza. “In the beginning we had the former owner’s recipes. Courtney and I both come from a restaurant background, and over time we experimented and developed our own recipes and our own philosophy,” he said.
“I think especially once we had children, we became much more conscious about what we ate, where our food came from and what products we wanted to serve. We also knew we wanted to develop relationships with local producers to have the freshest ingredients. We aren’t farmers, but we have a passion for locally sustained agriculture, and we just have a passion for food.”
That passion led Park Street to become an Ohio Farm Bureau member. The restaurant also offers a discount to Farm Bureau members.
The Shanowers started working with Sweetwater Farms six or seven years ago. “We have found such a great partnership with Bert and Mary,” Rocky noted. “They were the first producer we worked with. We share so many of the same philosophies and values. In fact, one of our seasonal pizzas, the Farmers Market Pizza, features vegetables we get from Sweetwater Farm, including peppers, onions, heirloom tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs.”
In addition to its relationship with Sweetwater Farm, Park Street works with local producers to buy greens and micro greens, cheeses, sausage, pepperoni, apples and honey.
Their personal food philosophy allowed the Shanowers to tap into the growing movement among consumers of seeking locally grown foods. The Park Street menu also contains many vegetarian and gluten-free options for its customers. “It’s been really well received,” Rocky said. In fact, Park Street expanded the footprint of its restaurant in January 2015.
The Shanowers also expanded their business with a second entity called Bahler Street Pizza last year, which offers stone-fired sour dough crust pizzas at the local Tuscarawas Valley Farmers Market. “Being involved in the farmers market has been a two-way street for us,” Rocky said.
“It has allowed us to educate more people about eating healthy, and it has also drawn some of our customers to the market so they can see all of the local produce available.” Bahler Street Pizza also provides catering services as well as fundraising events for schools and local nonprofit organizations.
You could say that Sweetwater Farm and Park Street Pizza have each found the sweet life through their locally grown efforts.
Park Street Pizza is at 215 Dover Road in Sugarcreek and can be found online at parkstreetpizza.com as well as on Facebook.
Connie Lechleitner is a freelance writer from New Philadelphia.
Published in the November/December 2015 Our Ohio magazine. Stay connected with and support great food and farm stories like this by becoming an Our Ohio Supporter. For just $25 a year, you can stay connected with Ohio food and farm stories while supporting local foods and community outreach.