By Connie Lechleitner, OCJ field reporter
For Dave Benchoff, of Ashland, what began as a backyard garden has grown into a full-time business with Banzhaf Garten Organic Farm.
“We weren’t always health conscious, but having kids made my wife and I study where our food comes from,” Benchoff said. “My wife has food allergies to MSG and other preservatives, and our kids were starting to have them too. Our oldest son would break out into hives if he ate eggs from the store, but yet when we raised our own, he had no problem.”
The Benchoffs have three children, a son (21), daughter (16) and son (10). Benchoff and his wife, Lori, were living in Mansfield, where he was working as an EMT instructor and firefighter, handling 911 calls.
“When we turned 40, we decided it was time for a change, and we moved to the country in 1999. We got a good deal on a 20-acre farm, and I wanted to find something to do with the land besides mow it. I started out with a garden, but it got out of control,” he said with a laugh. “Then I realized that I might be able to make a living at it.”
Soon, the Wooster native with a masters in history found himself immersed in the study of organics. His research led him to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
“The OEFFA began in 1979, and had been certifying organic production since back in the early 1980’s,” Benchoff said. “They started well before the national movement, and it wasn’t until 2002 that the USDA developed its own certification program.”
Benchoff received organic certification for his farm in 2003.
“At that time, the national standard was new,” he said. “I had several people tell me I was crazy for pursuing it, but I knew there was an interest in naturally grown produce, and it has only increased since then. It is a good marketing tool for produce growers.”
The certification process was initially extensive.
“The inspectors look at everything from your seed packets, to invoices, to harvest records and sales receipts,” he said. “You have to maintain records and document everything that goes into or out of the ground. And you have to use substances approved by OEFFA or the Organic Materials Review Institute. The first inspection took a whole day here at our farm.”
Benchoff developed his own recordkeeping system that has been well received by inspectors as well as other growers.
“I’ve actually taught my system at OEFFA workshops,” he said. “I create forms in Word that can be printed out with a computer, but you don’t have to have a computer to do this system. In fact, some people have taken my system and tweaked it to meet their own needs. The inspectors love it because they don’t have to take all day to do their records audit.”
He credits his EMT/fireman training for helping him develop the system.
“When you do EMT work, you learn to look at things in a logical way, and put it into a matrix as you survey the scene,” Benchoff said. “I like to keep things simple, so I basically took that mindset as I developed my record system for the plants.”
On a recent farm visit in late April, outdoor planting was just beginning. Cabbage and snow pea plants were in the ground in the outdoor planting beds, as well as garlic. Mown grass was already being used as mulch.
“We use it to help keep weeds down, and it breaks down into organic matter that goes back into the soil,” he said.
In addition to its outdoor planting beds, the farm is using a high tunnel structure.
“2011 was the first year of production with it, and we were still learning what we could grow in it,” Benchoff said.
The farm received a cost share grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA) to build the structure. During the farm visit, the high tunnel housed bok choy, kohlrabi, lettuce, beets, Swiss chard, oriental turnips, kale, radishes and parsley.
“What I like about the high tunnel structure is the ability to control everything from water, to nutrients to temperature,” he said. “In 2011, we had such a wet spring, where it rained for two months and there was no sun. It really hurt our production, but what we grew in the high tunnel really saved our production last year.”
Benchoff said the farm achieved 5,000 pounds of produce in 2010, however the growing conditions in 2011 dropped production in the same beds to about 4,000 pounds.
“The high tunnel gave us about 700 pounds of produce, which essentially kept us even with the year before,” he said. “Without it we would have been hurting.”
To get the most efficient production, Benchoff employs a succession planting system.
“I do very little direct seed planting,” he said. “It’s mostly snow peas, green beans, garlic and potatoes. Everything else gets started in the greenhouse, with the heirloom tomatoes being from my own seed stock.”
The successive planting concept goes to work when harvesting begins.
“It’s all in the timing,” he said. “For example, when cucumbers go into the ground, it’s time to start the next set of seeds. I know that it will take two to three weeks for those seeds to germinate and be ready, and I will have harvested the existing plants in the mean time. I’ll pull them out and plant the newer plants. It maximizes production.”
A drip irrigation system runs throughout the farm.
“It’s more labor up front, but it is so easy once it is in place,” Benchoff said.
He has also incorporated a system to run his fertilizer — fish emulsion — through the drip irrigation system as well, getting just the right nutrients to the plants.
“I use very little chemical input on the farm,” he said. “I’ve consulted with the researchers at OARDC on specific issues, and I do have corrective measures that are organic approved. For example, I use copper hydroxide for tomato blight. It is a mild fungicide that is an approved treatment.”
Benchoff produces more than 40 species of organically grown fruits and vegetables, as well as a wild-crafted raspberry and blackberry stand, and a wood sales operation.
Most of the farm’s marketing efforts have concentrated on farmers markets, which has also led Benchoff to other leadership roles, including volunteering at the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy in Peninsula and Akron. The Countryside Conservancy advocates community agriculture through markets, networking and workshops to help guide new farmers.
Initiatives like the Countryside Conservancy fit well with Benchoff’s strong belief in building local economies.
“The small entrepreneurs, the cottage industries, are what America is supposed to be about,” he said. “It’s sad to me that so many of us are no longer making a living off our land.”
That passion for entrepreneurship has also led Benchoff to become involved in local producer causes. He served as an original steering committee member in 2009 when the Wooster Local Roots store was formed. The food store is open daily and features produce, textiles and crafts from local growers. The store also includes a café, which features menu items that are seasonally based on the local produce available at the market.
Now, an Ashland Local Roots store is on the horizon.
“For now, we’re holding a farmer’s market every Saturday in the building, but we’re waiting for permits and approval of the architect’s rendering,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll have a second store in Ashland based on the same concept as Wooster. And we’ve already had requests to develop a Local Roots store in Mansfield and New Philadelphia.”
Back on Banzhaf Farm, there is more to do.
“There’s always something to learn,” Benchoff said. “You have to be dynamic and adapt to change. The world is changing. Our economy is changing. And we have to be ready.”