Kurt and Corinna Bench own and operate Shared Legacy Farms LLC in Ottawa County where they produce organic vegetables for a CSA and for local chefs.

Sharing the legacy: Small farm selling a connection to food

Food is about more than just sustenance. For many people, food is about family, friends, life, and relationships. For people who are looking for a closer connection to their food, there need to be farmers who are wiling to provide that connection.

“We have good relationships in both directions with our customers,” said Kurt Bench, who owns and operates Shared Legacy Farms LLC in Ottawa County with his wife, Corinna. “Part of our success is based on getting to know our customers face to face. Between the two of us, we know them all by first name.”

The couple works full time on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm where they sell shares of the production from nine acres of vegetables at the beginning of the season. Through the growing season, share holders get to visit the farm for various events, form relationships with Kurt and Corinna and even take part in work on the farm.

From June 22 to 26 this year the farm is hosting a Farm Science Camp for first graders to learn about food production. Through this and various other activities, customers get the connection to their food and the land while Shared Legacy Farm gets a viable business plan for a small acreage operation.

“We are not going to grow any more shares than 400. If we get any bigger, we can’t have that one-on-one contact with customers,” Kurt said. “I want to be more than just a box of vegetables that is delivered. I want to be somebody’s farmer.”

Kurt handles the intensive production side of the business while Corinna does the administrative work.

“As a single person trying to do this, it would be very hard,” Kurt said. “She really sells the farm and I back it up. She is a very good writer and good at administration, which is not my skill set.”

He grew up right next door to the farm as the third generation to grow specialty crops. She grew up in Texas and they met in Chicago. Even while working off the farm, Kurt had aspirations to return someday.

“I did a lot of research on growing vegetables and running a CSA while I was at a wholesale plant nursery in Chicago for seven years. I volunteered for a CSA out there because I wanted to find a way to come back home and farm. I attended a course on CSAs where we learned from three different farms. That was very valuable information. Then I went and visited all of those farms. I had to prove to my wife that this could actually work and I had to do a pretty hard sell job. She had no idea what she was getting into when I said I was from a farm family,” Kurt said. “The property we are farming now was adjoined to one of the properties my family owned. My grandma bought it in the mid 90s and then it was available for me to come back and farm. When we bought this property and moved back my wife didn’t want to live in the old house, but I told her we were not moving back for the house, we were moving back for the soil. My parents and grandparents have been growing specialty crops since the 1940s. My parents are right next door and grow bedding crops and sweet corn.”

At first, Kurt needed off farm income to get the operation going.

“I had a full time job with ADM. That helped me support my family while we got the farm started after we came back to Ohio in 2008. The farm just paid for itself and I built the infrastructure with the farm money,” he said. “We transitioned full time to the farm in 2013. We started out with 12 customers and every year we have doubled our size. From 2012 to 2013 we went from 100 to 200 full shares. That was the hardest jump production wise. I had a pretty good idea of what quantity I needed but I didn’t have the right equipment at first. Having that job with ADM helped us out immensely but I jumped ship in April 2013 and we haven’t looked back.”

Customers have a variety of options at the CSA including fruit, eggs and coffee from local businesses.

“We have a 19-week CSA and offer a half and full share. We have drop off sites at Perrysburg, Sylvania, Toledo and Port Clinton this year. They can pick up at the farm as well. We are servicing just shy of 400 households in the Toledo metropolitan area. This will be our 8th season growing in this area. The majority of what we sell is grown on our farm organically. We have some free range chickens too,” Kurt said. “Usually we are sold out by the first of May or the first of June. This year we were sold out by April 1. We are gaining steam as a mature farm now. Our products are higher quality and we have top-notch service. We have a really good social media and website pages too. When we started we had a lot of trendier people as customers that just wanted to see what this was all about, but now we have mostly people who are really in this for the right reasons. We are getting the right customers on board now.”

shared legacy2Even though Kurt had an extensive background in specialty crop production, he still found there was much to learn upon returning to the home farm.

“There was a very steep learning curve. I had a lot of experience growing warm season crops like sweet corn, melons, tomatoes and peppers but I did not have experience with carrots, onions and potatoes and other cool season crops. I had to learn a lot about the timing of succession planting. We had 12 customers our first year. They were great about just learning with us. I conduct trials, keep really good notes, do a lot of research in the winter and keep on learning,” he said. “We raise all of our own transplants in a greenhouse onsite and in my uncle’s greenhouse when we do not have enough space. Half of our product is transplanted. We grow about everything that can be grown in Ohio, maybe 30 different kinds of crops. We do have a few high tunnels where I try to push a few things. We don’t have enough high tunnel space to do too much yet but we may add more down the road.”

So far, Shared Legacy Farm is not certified organic, but it is in the process of getting there.

“Our customers know who we are and what we are doing. They can check out the farm any time and we answer all of their questions. Because of that, I didn’t see a need to get certified. But one of my friends who is an organic farmer challenged me by asking how it would negatively affect our operation if we got certified. I said, ‘Yeah you are right, that will open up more doors for me.’ We’re already doing a lot of the things we need to be certified. The documentation is all there already. It is just a matter of getting it centralized,” Kurt said. “Customers want local food and a relationship with the farmer first and foremost. The organic thing is important to more of our customers all the time, and it is gaining steam. They want organic but only a few even really understand the background of what organic really is. The rest of them need a lot of education.”

Aside from the growing demand, Kurt also employs organic production practices because that is the way he wants to farm.

“I read Omnivores Dilemma. It changed my life and this is the way I want to do things. When you grow up on a farm you just do some things because that is the way you do them. That book made me aware of the history behind agro chemicals and I really wanted to leave that middle man out and get to know my customers and do things on a smaller scale,” he said. “We eat organic stuff as well. We believe in this and we want to move it forward. For me, I just want to get to know my farm and know my soil like my Shared legacy4grandparents did.”

Along with moving toward organic production, the farm is also moving toward compliance with future food safety requirements.

“The food safety changes are going to affect everybody by 2019. We are trying to slowly phase all of those practices in. We have training for all of our employees, we have the documentation for cooler temperatures and pest management. We have a lot of things going on at a slow pace and we are preparing ahead of time so we do not have to make a bunch of changes at once,” he said. “The requirements are definitely doable for a farm of our size. If we were trying to do this when we were starting out it would have been a different story. We have enough capital now that we can do these things.”

The farm does require quite a bit of hired labor.

“We have 4 or 5 seasonal workers on the production crew that help with planting, weeding and harvest. Then I have 15 to 18 work share people who work for their share. They help with harvesting and packing the products. They are here for four or five hours a week and they get a free share out of it,” Kurt said. “That has been one of our big success stories. We have found people who are passionate about it. We have some mothers who just want to get out and get their hands dirty. I have a pretty thorough interview process for this though, because we have to get the right people on the bus. Those people represent the farm when we are not here and it is important to find the right people to do that. We’ve got one customer who gets a discount to find recipes for our products.”

Kurt feels like he is finally getting to the point where he is able to start honing in on the finer details of producing high quality crops and preserving the future of the soils on his farm.

“I am working with composts and cover crops to build the fertility on my farm.

We are just starting to get deeper into cover crops and I do not have all of the right equipment yet. I think it is really important to cover the soil. I am even getting my dad into this. Grandpa did it all of the time back in the day,” Kurt said. “Right now I have rye with some red clover for a cover crop. I’ll cut the rye for mulch and the clover will come up behind it and I will pasture my chickens on that to add some fertility during the fallow period. In the fall I will spread manure and put fresh beds in for the following spring. Then I plant a mixed block of potatoes, garlic and onions, and follow that with brassicas. After that I go with tomatoes or cucurbits. A lot of our rotation depends on the drip irrigation systems too. I have always had this big rotation in my head and I am just starting to get it down, but something always throws in a curve ball.”

He is working to reduce his reliance on tillage as well.

Shared legacy3“There is more research in reducing tillage in organic production than there used to be. Right now my rototiller is my best friend. It makes a great seed bed but it beats up my soil. In the future I want to use more cover crops and less tillage. I am looking at a large vertical tillage tool too — a Sundance disk. It will work things up but not disturb the soil as much,” he said. “I try to use some hand tools more too to get away from using the rototiller in the smaller beds. We burn through organic matter with vegetable production and we are aware of that problem. We are really looking at more minimal tillage if we can afford the tools. We are also getting some compost that is all analyzed and we are doing a better job with soil samples and looking at things like rock phosphate. We use foliar spray fish emulsion a lot in the summer months too.”

Even as the farm continues to increase output, there are no plans for the CSA to expand.

“We are going to grow, just not in the CSA realm. We are going to grow with restaurant sales this year,” he said. “I am planning for more chefs. We are dealing with forward thinking chefs who change their menu regularly based on what we can provide them. They are really pushing awareness and educating their customers. They do not want to have the same thing all year round. They want to make it seasonal based on what we grow. These guys are on our same wavelength. Some of them are even doing their own fermenting to better store the crops.”

There are constant challenges to keep things running on the farm, but it a dream come true for the Bench family.

“I am not getting rich. I am paying myself very minimum wage. It was hard leaving ADM — it is a great company and I got paid very well there. But I am not farming for the money. And our boys get to be out working with their dad, and you don’t get that with a lot of jobs,” Kurt said. “It takes a self motivated person and we have to be organized and prepared. But, I am my own boss and we get to teach our young kids some pretty good life skills. I work my tail off and get paid a lot less, but this is in my family and in my blood. I feel pretty blessed that Corinna and I are to wake up every morning and do something we both love and are passionate about. We don’t take being farmers lightly and strive for excellence in everything we do because there are many out there who would like to be in our shoes.”

For more about the farm, visit sharedlegacyfarms.com.

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One comment

  1. Good luck with the food safety requirements. I had to quit selling wholesale in my winery to keep the ODA food safety people out. I am a traditional style winemaker that believes in microbiological diversity in my winemaking facility. This flies in absolute opposite to what any sanitatrian learns and they know absolutely nothing about alcoholic beverages. Wine is a palatable disinfectant and most wine states exempt wineries from the ridiculous regulations. For information on the unnecessary, superfluous, duplicate (of licensing and sanitation in liquor codes), and discriminatory (in favor of out of state wineries and in state ones producing grape juice) regulation of Ohio wineries by the Ohio Department of Agriculture please do an online search for FreeTheWineries .

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