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Geauga farm growth highest in Ohio




      Instead of losing farms like other counties, Geauga County is growing them, according to Randy James, Ohio State University Extension Geauga County extension agent.

      "The county is booming in farm numbers," while many neighboring counties are losing them, Mr. James said. Farms have been growing in the county for the last 30 years, contrary to what has been thought, he said. "We just didn't know it. We do lose farms, but the net growth is up."

      In Ohio, Geauga County is clearly No. 1 one in farm growth, he said.

      A 1997 OSU Extension study that documented the number of horse farms found that the more suburban townships on the west side of Geauga County are rising faster in total farm numbers than the eastern, more rural side of the county.

      Greenhouse operations are farms, and traveling on Chillicothe Road (Route 306) one can see them on the western tier of the county, Mr. James said.

      Auburn is the fastest growing township in terms of farms, he said. Most of them are horse related, and they have a good supply of customers right in the area, he said.

      Horse farms are starting everywhere, Mr. James said. Horses are a traditional part of agriculture, he said. As in the old western movies, the livery stables were at the end of town, he said. "We're just outside Cuyahoga County.

      "The trick is to recognize them as farming units." Mr. James said, if there are no dairy cows, people don't think of them as farms."

      Geauga County has increased by more than 15 percent in farms, going from 578 in 1970 to 661 in 1997 and an estimated 670 in 2002, according to a USDA Agricultural Census and the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

      The steady increase has been in horticulture and equine farms. Sheep farms are up some as well, Mr. James said. "One of our most frequent calls is, 'I want to start a farm.'"

      The U.S. Department of Agricultural census defines a farm as any unit selling at least $1,000 of agricultural products per year and businesses producing food and fiber. Animals do not need to be eaten to define it as a farm.

      The OSU Extension study found that the county had approximately 170 horse farms that met the $1,000 of sales requirement and was growing at a rate of two to three stables per year.

      While it is tempting to dismiss the new farms as "hobby farms," that is not what the statistics say, Mr. James said.

      The OSU Extension estimates that a horse-boarding farm of 20 horses should have gross sales in excess of $100,000 a year. In general, the county is losing financially smaller farms and gaining financially larger farms, Mr. James said.

      The most rapid growth is in farm products or services that are sold directly to consumers, he said.

      "Agriculture is more than cows, but we're still a large dairy county."

      And most residents in the county would rather have a farm as a neighbor, he said. "It's more in keeping with Geauga's rural character. It's a no-brainer. Most want a nursery, greenhouse or horses over development."

      The county is in a location near many people. A wholesale vegetable and fruit auction in Middlefield allows farmers to sell there, getting the same price as selling it to California, he said. And the farms on the western tier of the county have a "wonderful location," because they are close to greater populations.

      Geauga County farmers have the advantage of a short marketing exchange. The produce they grow is likely to be eaten within 30 miles, Mr. James said.

      Local officials have supported local farmers. An example is the start up of a farmers market in South Russell.

      Large-lot zoning helps agriculture, because housing is not so dense, he said. "A township in Medina County chose to zone for 10-acre lots, and it just spurred farming.

      "Our figures are conservative," Mr. James said. The study did not use businesses such as cheese factories in the county, he said. "We included just farms."

      Farmers have learned to be flexible as well. Haskins Farm in Bainbridge started an apple orchard, adapting to the market around it. The same is true with Patterson Fruit Farm in Chester. It used to be a dairy farm, Mr. James said.

      Farms in the county may appear small, but they may be giant in terms of finances, he said, and they are an economic engine that drives the county.