Starting from a seed: Agritourism, conservation help farm flourish

Photos by Dave Gore and Amy Beth Graves

A pumpkin patch and farm market in the fall draw thousands of visitors, helping the farm’s bottom line. Right: The farm houses bees from a nearby honey producer.

George Lohstroh’s interest in growing pumpkins sprouted from a fistful of seeds his mother gave him one summer during his childhood. As the pumpkins grew, so did his interest, fueled by the money he was making selling them. Five cents a pound might not sound like much today, but back in the 1960s, that was a lot, especially for a young boy.

What originally started as a way to pass the long summer hours is now an important part of Lohstroh Family Farms, located just half a mile from downtown Mount Sterling. George and his son Jonathan, both Madison County Farm Bureau members, work full-time on the farm, raising corn, soybeans, wheat and a few cattle. A pumpkin patch and farm market in the fall draw in thousands of children and their parents who want a taste of country life. Visitors can go on a tractor ride, pick out a pumpkin, pet calves, navigate a corn maze or pick up some fresh produce and locally made products. It’s all part of the state’s agritourism industry, which is growing thanks to the efforts of Ohio Farm Bureau.

The fall brings long hours and strangers sometimes straying into off-limits areas but the Lohstrohs love showing off their farm. George’s wife, Michelle, is the primary educator, teaching all ages about the different varieties and uses of pumpkins and squash and how much hard work goes into growing food. Around town she’s known as the “pumpkin lady.” Another appropriate title would be “conservationist.”

Over the course of her life, Michelle has put her heart and soul into conservation, starting in 1980 as a student trainee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service. In 2015 she retired after 33 years with NRCS, and the next year Lohstroh Family Farms was named Ohio’s Conservation Cooperator of the Year for its efforts to improve water quality, wildlife habitat and reduce soil erosion.

“I believe you should practice what you preach and doing these conservation measures (on the farm) has kept me honest,” Michelle said. “I’ve been able to talk about our successes and failures like when cover crops sometimes don’t come up.”

A legacy of conservationPumpkinStack
Over the years, the Lohstrohs have planted cover crops (which reduce nutrient and sediment loss from soil), used no-till cultivation techniques, installed solar panels on their barns and planted warm season grasses, which have deep roots to help prevent soil erosion and provide a sanctuary for wildlife such as pheasants and rabbits. They’ve improved water quality by investing in high-tech equipment that applies fertilizer at a variable rate and put in buffer strips and fencing to keep their cattle out of Deer Creek, which feeds into the popular recreational Deer Creek Lake. Earthworms are the sign of a healthy soil, and the Lohstrohs have an abundant supply.

The family’s cover crop of rye is so thick in the pumpkin patch that it serves as a natural mat to keep visitors’ shoes clean and cuts down on the amount of mud being trekked onto school buses, a common complaint. The rye also helps curb weeds and pumpkin diseases. To help prevent mice from munching on the pumpkins, the family has planted some corn in the patch – mice prefer that over pumpkins.

Fixing up their house has been a labor of love. It was such a mess when the couple moved into it in 1989 that George’s father offered him a match to burn it down. A pot-stove heated the home and part of it had been used for storage. During renovations the couple removed some plaster and discovered beautiful logs behind it that dated back to the early 1900s. Unfortunately the chinking to keep the elements out was missing.

“The wind and snow would blow in and the water would freeze in the Christmas tree stand. Our daughter didn’t know a hair dryer was used for hair for the longest time. She thought it was used to thaw out the toilet bowl,” laughed Michelle.

All in the family
At an early age their son Jonathan and his two sisters learned nobody was too young or too busy to help out. “I can remember being on the bus in third grade and seeing Dad sitting on the front porch with two shovels waiting for me to get home from school. The tractor was stuck (and needed dug out),” Jonathan said. “I remember I wanted to stay on the bus.”

Now Jonathan can’t wait to get out in the fields to plant crops or tend the cattle. His wife, Annie, has a mobile veterinary practice and happily helps out on the farm. The couple met while attending Ohio State University and quickly connected over a common interest – both had grown pumpkins, of all things.

The pumpkins, corn maze and farm market may be what draws people out to the farm, but it’s the warm greeting they get from the Lohstrohs that keeps them coming back year after year.

“People know who we are and they give us hugs and ask how our crops are doing and how the rain impacted us. They’re so happy to meet and get to know a farmer. They ask our opinion on agricultural issues and that’s heartwarming because they’re paying attention to an issue and want to hear both sides,” Michelle said. “Coming here puts a face to their food and that’s really special.”

Left to right: George, Michelle, Annie and Jonathan Lohstroh.

Working for You
Jonathan Lohstroh was one of several Ohio Farm Bureau members who testified in favor of an agritourism bill that addressed farmers’ concerns about zoning, liability and how land for agritourism is taxed. The new law, based on model legislation developed by Farm Bureau, went into effect in August. It is expected to help grow Ohio’s agritourism industry, which now has almost 700 farms that offer an agritourism feature such as farm stands, corn mazes, u-pick fruit farms and farm tours.

“Agritourism has helped me come back to the farm because it provides extra income and stability,” Jonathan said. “Without it, the farm wouldn’t be big enough to support a father-son operation.”

Lohstroh Family Farms is located at 15632 State Route 56, Mt Sterling. The fall market is open Sept. 9-Oct. 31 with wagon rides to the pumpkin fields on Saturdays and Sundays in October.