By Kyle Sharp
Hundreds of people gathered at the Ross County farm of Larry and Betsy Moore on Sept. 29, but it wasn’t for an early harvest party. They’d come to watch and participate in the 2010 “Down on the Farm Run,” a low-key cross country meet that has become quite popular among six area schools.
The event is the brainchild of the Moore’s daughter, Jennifer Johnston, who is an agricultural education teacher and cross country coach at nearby Zane Trace High School.
“I started coaching cross country at Zane Trace in fall 2000, and I would take some of our runners out to the farm to run as practice,” Johnston said. “It became tradition and the kids really liked it. Then one of them said it would be neat if we had a meet here. She thought it would be fun to run around the cow pasture.”
That got the creative juices flowing, and plans were soon underway to hold the first “Down on the Farm Run” in 2004. Early preparations were a work in progress. The initial idea to have the team trophies be golden-painted pitchforks didn’t quite pan out, for liability purposes, Johnston said with a laugh.
Instead, seniors in Johnston’s agricultural education program at Zane Trace were assigned the trophy-making task. Johnston provided some plastic farm animals and spray paint, purchased at the local Tractor Supply store, and then let the students use their creativity with what scrap wood and other material was available in the ag shop.
“We wanted to do it on the cheap that first year, but it has become tradition ever since,” she said.
The other tradition that has become very popular among the runners are little green John Deere tractor key chains, which go to the top 20 individual runners in each high school race, and the top 12 in the junior high races.
“The first year the run was held during the Fairfield County Fair (Johnston lives in Fairfield County), and I didn’t have anything for the individuals. I went to the fair and John Deere had these little tractor key chains at their display, so I got 60 of them and it has stuck,” Johnston said. “I had no clue what I was going to do, and that worked.”
When choosing which schools to invite, Johnston decided to go with the area schools that had the highest rural student population: Adena, Huntington, Paint Valley, Southeastern, Westfall and, of course, Zane Trace. The meet was pitched as a fun warm-up for the upcoming league meet, and its popularity has soared among runners and coaches ever since.
“Most of the runners really appreciate and enjoy it. They really like what we do,” she said. “One year, my uncles were actually combining at the time of the meet, so they parked the combine next to the field, and the winning teams had their pictures taken next to it.”
While the schools and runners all liked what they were hearing, Johnston had to convince another important party it was a good idea — her parents. Their initial reaction was not positive.
“Are you crazy!” her dad said was his initial response.
“Mom’s first words were, ‘We’re going to get sued,’” Johnston said. “Then she brought up all the things people could get into or problems that could happen.”
But they softened their stance and finally relented when they learned they could get a one-day insurance policy to cover any mishaps that might occur the day of the race, she said.
“After the first year, they were sold on it, because they saw how fun it was,” Johnston said. “Grandma comes down, sits in her chair and is the resident farm historian, and Dad enjoys socializing with all the people and meeting the kids.”
In fact, the exposure to the farm from the event has even prompted some of Johnston’s runners to work on the farm during the summers. They’ve gained a whole new appreciation for agriculture and the work involved that they never would have had otherwise, Johnston said.
Runners from the other schools also enjoy the farmland exposure.
“The kids just really have always enjoyed it. I always have a few who are farm kids,” said Westfall coach Jerry Mudd. “They look forward to getting tractors every year. I had a kid last year who was a senior and finally got a tractor, and she was really excited.”
Her whole goal last year was to win that tractor, said Judy Conrad, a family friend who had two daughters at this year’s race running for Westfall. In fact, the runner, Gracie Hurley, went on to college at Harvard, and the tractor is proudly displayed in her dorm room there, Conrad said.
“The kids would rather get a trophy here than any other place,” said Judy’s husband, Greg Conrad.
That’s the kind of reaction Johnston enjoys. And while the event is popular, there are no plans to expand the meet beyond the original six schools.
“The kids can race in a fun atmosphere without the pressure of points, and since it is a small meet with small schools, runners who would probably never earn a trophy at a larger event, may get to take an award home from here,” Johnston said. “Plus, if we get too many people, where would we put them all if it rains, because we park them in a cornfield.”