By Kyle Sharp
While Russ Sellman doesn’t know exactly how a Christmas tree grower feels watching excited families pick out the best tree prior to Christmas, he thinks he has a pretty good idea. It’s probably a lot like watching people clamber over the turkeys he and his wife, Mendy, along with their three children, Emely, 21, Jesse, 17, and Elaina, 13, raise and sell for Thanksgiving from their farm near Galion in Crawford County.
Twelve years ago, the Sellmans started marketing meat from the animals raised on their farm, Rus-Men Farms, and the venture has steadily grown over time. They began with beef and pork, and have added chicken and turkey to fulfill customer demand.
“Everything is direct marketed,” Russ said. “We haven’t hauled anything to market in probably two years.”
And while they enjoy the constant interaction they have with their enthusiastic, local customer base, the most memorable time of each year is when people come to pick up their turkeys.
“Turkey picking night is a riot,” Russ said.
The family gets about 50 turkey peeps the first week of July and another 50 the third week of July and raises them on grass with feed. They get the groups two weeks apart, so they ultimately have different size birds to offer customers.
The Monday before Thanksgiving, the birds are taken to Pleasant Valley Poultry in Baltic, where they are processed and packaged. The next day, the Sellmans pick up the turkeys and bring them back to the farm, where customers are anxiously awaiting their return. People instantly start picking out their birds, and within minutes, many of the turkeys are already headed back out the driveway to customer refrigerators. All the birds are gone before the day is over.
“Our Thanksgiving pickup night is a blast,” Mendy said. “It’s really neat. It’s turning into a social thing. People cheer as we pull in with the truckload of processed and packaged turkeys. They love our turkeys because they’re never frozen. They basically come back here and go straight to the pot.”
It’s that connection between the consumer and their food that has made the farm a success. About 90% of what the family raises is sold to local customers, with the rest going to customers throughout Ohio and even beyond. One family lives in Chicago, comes back to Galion to visit family, and they bring coolers to fill and take home with them, Mendy said.
“I was direct marketing before direct marketing was cool,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve learned a lot. You just have to have a passion for what you’re doing. It’s a lifestyle.”
Mendy is the sixth generation of her family to live and work on the farm. She’s never lived anywhere else. So when she and Russ, who grew up on a dairy farm near Loudonville, met and eventually married in 1993, he knew he would have to be the one to relocate.
They both initially had off-farm jobs, before the company where Mendy worked left town 15 years ago, and the family was faced with a dilemma.
“We thought it would be the worst thing that ever happened, but it’s the best thing that ever happened,” Russ said. “She’s been home and able to hold down the fort, while I worked at the shop.”
Russ worked for a tool and dye company in Galion, and Mendy started farming with her grandfather, Gene Crim, who has since passed away.
“I credit him with teaching me how to love life, love farming and have faith,” Mendy said. “We really want to give God the credit for all the things we’ve been able to accomplish.”
The meat business basically started out 12 years ago with leftover fair animals, she said. When Mendy told the owner of Link’s Country Meats in Crestline about their fair animals, he suggested they have them processed and sold.
“I laughed at him,” Mendy said. “But me being adventurous, I said, ‘Heck yeah. Why not.’ It tied into my passion of connecting people with their food.”
The family started out selling freezer beef and pork, in wholes, halves and quarters, directly from the house. The meat was stored in freezers kept in their basement until customers came to pick it up. They eventually shifted to cuts, because some customers couldn’t use that much meat. Poultry was added after enough people asked for it, and no hormones or antibiotics are used with their naturally raised meats.
“Everything we do is consumer driven,” Mendy said.
Initially the Sellmans would make a waiting list of who wanted what types and cuts of meat, until business got too big.
“It’s so big now, it’s hard to keep track of every cut of meat,” Mendy said.
“It’s first come, first serve now,” Russ said. “There’s no more waiting list.”
Chicken breasts and beef ribeyes are the most popular. It only takes about 15 minutes to sell out of them when they are available. Bulk ground meats also are popular.
“One woman showed up a half hour early before we opened one day and camped out in the driveway so she could get what she wanted,” Russ said. “She wanted to buy all we had, but we had to talk her out of it, because we had 12 other people coming to pick stuff up.”
A lot of their demand is seasonal.
“As soon as they can drag that grill out in the spring, all the hamburger, steaks and pork chops are gone, and we start building up roasts in the freezers,” Russ said. “And now, with winter coming, people are starting to buy more roasts. It’s interesting to watch.”
Currently, Rus-Men Farms raises about 35 steers, 40 to 50 hogs, 750 broiler chickens and 100 turkeys annually. In addition, they grain farm about 1,000 acres. The combination has grown enough that Russ was able to quit his off-farm job this past June and focus on the farm as well.