Ag diversity, struggle on display in southeast Ohio

The heart of Ohio’s Appalachian foothills seems a far cry from Washington, D.C., or the Statehouse in Columbus for that matter. Yet the choices made in those places far from the cascading hills of southeast Ohio have made an impact on Jack Haessly, owner of Haessly Hardwood Lumber Co. in Marietta.

Haessly harvests woodlands locally and is proud that his products are made in America 2019 OFBF Board trip to Marietta Ohio - Haessly Hardwood Lumber Company— from start to finish. However, 75% of his wood is shipped to China and the tariffs are hurting his bottom line. He shakes his head a little and talks about how it has been “tough” for his lumber company, started 78 years ago by his father, Norman. A business that started with two employees, a team of horses and a crosscut saw now boasts 70 employees and 35,000 board feet cut per day.

“This tariff tax is vicious,” he said. “It affects the market that we cater most to. The sooner we get this thing settled, the better we’re going to be. We need good markets all over the world.”

2019 OFBF Board trip to Marietta Ohio - Haessly Hardwood Lumber Company
Lumber has been cut and shipped from Haessly Hardwood Lumber Company for almost 80 years, but 75% of its product is shipped to customers in China. The trade and tariff war has hurt the business, according to owner Jack Haessly.

The Ohio Farm Bureau board trustees sat huddled on a stuffy tour bus to hear Haessy’s story as rain poured down outside. It was one of four stops they made on the first day of a three-day board meeting in southeastern Ohio in June.

The diversity of Ohio agriculture was on vivid display despite the gray skies. Board members’ first stop was Marietta College.

The institution has the only petroleum engineering program in the state and the only accredited one at a liberal arts college in the country, for good reason. Southeastern Ohio historically has been a key region for power generation. Former coal burning power plants dot the landscape, but natural gas has taken over this part of the Ohio River Valley. Local landowners have been impacted by the gas pipelines that criss-cross the region and fracking has been a constant for several years.

Another stop on the tour was Witten Farm Market and Greenhouse in Lowell. “Buy local” is a lifestyle for the Witten family, whose slogan is “From our farm to your house, daily.” The farmers boast the freshest sweet corn in the state (they start hand-picking at 2 a.m. and deliver to their retail locations that same morning), along with a booming berry business, heirloom tomatoes, greenhouse and 23 roadside markets throughout the southeast region.

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Andy Kuhn, director of the Southeast Ohio Port Authority, speaks to OFBF board members at Marietta College.

Through the roadside markets, the Wittens and their staff have direct contact with customers. They get to have a personal relationship with consumers that many farmers don’t, said Julie Witten, manager of the Witten Farm Market and Greenhouse.

“We have a staff meeting at the beginning of every season,” she said. “At a two-hour meeting, we talk about produce for about 20 minutes. We talk about attitude and customer service. Our customers value us now. It’s nice. I get to see them every day and they really do appreciate what we do.”

About 20 minutes away from the Witten’s home office, beef cattle roam the fence line atop picturesque rolling hills that look like they popped from the colors of a Rockwell painting. Red barns, green hills and neat farmhouses mark the landscape of the property, which has been in the same dairy farm family for more than 90 years. This final stop was Zimmer Farm, where the challenges of necessary farm diversification were discussed. Along with a very recent change from dairy cows to beef cattle, the operation is selling silage and alfalfa to other local farmers for feed to keep the family farm profitable for the next generation.

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State Board Trustee, Al Miller, welcomes his colleagues to his farm in Marietta. He and his wife, Jean, own a commercial cow-calf farm where they also produce hay.

Finding a market to sell their milk and keep their 400-plus cows was becoming harder and harder to accomplish, according to Dean Zimmer. The dairy segment of agriculture has been hit very hard in recent years because of changes in the market and consumer tastes. So after a year of diligent research, the Zimmer family made the gut-wrenching decision to sell the dairy herd and move the operation to beef cattle.

The pain of implementing that transition was still fresh for Zimmer in June.

“The future (for dairy) didn’t look like it was there,” he said. “Switching to beef, it’s a new learning curve for me. We’ve had 93 years here. We sold the last milk cow two weeks ago. It’s been a big, hard change.”

2019 OFBF Board trip to Marietta - Zimmer Farm
Dean Zimmer, left, spoke to board members about his family’s bittersweet transition from a dairy farm operation of more than 90 years to raising beef cattle this past spring.

That type of change has a ripple effect on the community, too. Zimmer used to have 15 employees. Soon the operation will be down to two. When asked if he missed the dairy cows, Zimmer could barely answer the question. While their family made a business decision, it was clear it was one that weighed heavy on the heart.