Apples, hard cider and a success story in northeast Ohio

Matt Vodraska, Rittman Orchards

Matt Vodraska is something of a 21st century renaissance man.

Soft spoken and poised, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s Outstanding Young Farmer of 2019 is rooted in agriculture, educated in art, skilled in developing business ideas and dedicated to furthering the interests of all types of farmers. Oh, he also crafts fine wines and ciders on the family farm south of Wadsworth.

“He always had a lot of interests,” said Matt’s older brother, Chris Vodraska. “He did sports and plays.” There wasn’t much sibling rivalry, however. Chris said, “Matt was best man at my wedding.”

“Brothers should be friends, and they are,” said Peg Vodraska, their mother. She and their father, Dale, cultivated that idea, while expanding the boys’ horizons by taking them to museums, zoos, parks and various classes when they were young. 

While Chris was always interested in science and math and Matt fine arts, the two share a common passion for farming. They operate their family’s Rittman Orchards & Farm Market and Bent Ladder Cider and Wine. 

The immaculately tended farm, with jaw-dropping views, employs about a dozen people year-round. Matt lives on the farm. Chris, his wife, Amanda, and their toddler daughter, Abigail, live nearby.

“Matt is driven, strategic and passionate,” said Kelsey Turner, OFBF program specialist, leadership development, who met him during the judging of the Outstanding Young Farmer award. Criteria for the award include growth of the farm business and the farmer’s involvement in Farm Bureau and the community.

 “Matt’s reputation and leadership preceded our introduction,” Turner said. “He has been an active young ag professional for many years.”

In addition to farm and winery work, Matt is president of the Wayne County Farm Bureau. He’s also active at local and state levels with the Ohio Cider Guild, Midwest Apple Improvement Association and Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association.

“I think it is very important to give back to the industry and the community. Taking an active role in Farm Bureau, as well as other community and trade organizations, is my way of contributing,” Matt said. “Change and leadership start at the grassroots level, and I always strive to lead by example.”

John Fitzpatrick, a longtime neighbor, said, “I tell him I live a mile away but you have 12 more hours a day.”

Matt has a “natural talent for marketing. I marvel at him,” said Fitzpatrick, a retired Farm Bureau organization director. To build business, Matt took produce to local farmers markets and developed relationships with Cleveland chefs.

Vodraska cultivated a relationship with the pastry and sous chefs at Lola, Michael Symon’s flagship restaurant. Now a Bent Ladder cider is used in Symon’s French toast recipe. 

The start of the farm

It all started in early childhood when Matt, now 35, and Chris picked strawberries at their parents’ 200-acre Sunnydale Farms in Ashtabula County.  Besides getting red faces and hands, they learned about many of the crops they grow today and developed a career-changing love for farming. Matt was an artist and Chris a biochemical engineer.

In 1996, seeking a fresh challenge, Dale found a new orchard in Washington state. But they eventually moved to the Smoky Mountains, where Matt attended the University of Tennessee studying photojournalism. (Some of his photos are used on the farm’s website and adorn the winery walls.) His parents unsuccessfully attempted retirement.

When Rittman Orchards became available in 2004, they moved home to Ohio, preceded by Chris, who was in graduate school in Cleveland. The neglected 125-acre site had to be completely replanted and the farm market bulldozed and rebuilt in 2005.

Bent Ladder Cider and Wine

Bent Ladder Cider and Wine, which opened in 2016, “was the next step in the evolution of our farm,” Matt said. “We sat down and projected the steps we would have to take to build a viable business that could support multiple families on it.”

Hardly a generic name, Bent Ladder represents a Midwest attitude. He said, “You may not have the best materials, but you keep reaching for the top.”

Along with a wide variety of pick-your-own fruits, the orchard has over a dozen cider apples coming into production this year. These are prized for characteristics such as phenolic compounds and tannins, not the sweet-tart flavors of dessert apples.

The public’s seemingly insatiable demand for new flavors, boosted by the craft beer movement, fuels cider’s popularity. “Cider is the fastest growing segment of the alcohol industry,” said Matt, who is intrigued by making wine and cider. “There is an art and a science to it, just like farming. It is something that I found, and still find, endlessly compelling and challenging.”

Also challenging are the issues facing all farmers, including farmland preservation, shrinking margins and the “widening distance between the majority of the population and where their food comes from.” This lack of understanding creates misunderstandings that result in “burdensome regulations.”

“Education plays such an outsize role in keeping farmland farmed,” he said. “Farm Bureau plays an integral role at the government level helping to educate and influence legislators that most often have no experience with agriculture.”

An inviting form of education is available at Bent Ladder, from a monthly book club to crafts to entertainment.

Plus there’s berry camp. The day camp started last year and is led by Amanda, a former teacher. Young children have a chance to pick berries, learn where their food comes from, play games and perhaps make fond and enduring farm memories.

Photos by Kelli Milligan Stammen