By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
When Soda Kiser was young, he came across a YouTube video of a farm. He watched the video and was captivated by the lifestyle. From that moment on, he knew he wanted to be a farmer. He told his parents his plans. There was only one slight hurdle he would have to overcome to meet that goal: his location.
The Kiser family resides in Parma, located just outside of Cleveland. The city is not a rural, agricultural area.
“My husband, Dale, and I used to explain that farming is not an easy life,” Sabrina Kiser, his mother, said. “But, Soda remained steadfast in his goals.”
While looking for ways to foster her son’s interest, Sabrina learned about a local 4-H program that worked in conjunction with a historical site in the city called Stearns Homestead.
Stearns Homestead has a longstanding history within Parma. The farm was owned by Lyman Stearns in the mid to late 1800s. The Stearns family built their house in 1855, but the barn on the farm predates the house. In 1919, the property was purchased by Earl Gibbs, a Cleveland meat processor. The Gibbs family grazed cattle as long as they could before the suburbs enclosed their farm. By the time the city of Parma purchased the farm in 1980, it was the last working farm in the area.
Today the 48-acre farm is protected and managed by the Parma Area Historical Society. The homes on the property serve as museums, but the barns and farm itself are teeming with life. A special permit from the city of Parma allows the farm to raise a variety of animals, including steers, sheep, goats, hogs, chickens, alpacas, horses, ducks and rabbits.
Members of a 4-H club, called the Homestead Hoofers, are the main caretakers of the animals, in addition to a few adult volunteers. Soda joined the 4-H club about two years ago. His younger brother, Cooper, joined the club as well.
“We show our projects at the Cuyahoga County fair. I started with a pygmy goat and then added on a market hog my first year. Then this year I decided to take a lot more projects,” Soda said.
The sophomore at Valley Forge High School decided to take on a market steer, sheep, turkey and chicken project for the 2022 Cuyahoga County Fair. Younger brother Cooper also took a market steer, chickens, a fancy chicken project, and an alpaca. To exhibit livestock at the fair, all members of the Homestead Hoofers 4-H club are required to do chores at the farm on a regular basis.
“How often we have to go to the farm just depends on what animals we take and how many animals we are taking,” Cooper said. “Leading up to the fair, we were at the farm almost every night but now that the fair is over, I go about three nights a week to take care of the chickens and the alpacas.”
Members of the club are partnered up and assigned particular animals on the farm. Members share the responsibilities of the animal’s chores and care.
“When we share market animals, like steers or the hogs, we typically both get to show the animal in showmanship in different age classes and then one of us gets to show it during the market show,” Soda said.
Alyssa Bower is the 4-H advisor for the Homestead Hoofers. As a former 4-H member herself, Bower saw the impact that the program makes in kids’ lives.
“I started volunteering as the main 4-H advisor in 2015 after Stearns Homestead had taken a break from the 4-H program due to volunteer turnover. It’s always been my volunteer and passion project,” Bower said. “Our club has anywhere between 55 to 60 kids on any given year. We probably have a lot more involvement here as 4-H advisors than a typical, rural 4-H club. I am here usually four or five nights a week, making sure every animal is cared for and resolving any problems. We determine which animals are deemed safe enough for the kids to work with and then help to assign the kids to those animals.”
Animals are assigned based on levels of commitment, involvement, attendance and interest level. Bower estimates that the Homestead Hoofers club is home to the majority of livestock-exhibiting 4-H members in Cuyahoga County.
“Most of the kids in our club are from Parma, but we have kids from other neighboring cities like North Royalton, Parma Heights and Maple Heights,” she said.
Stearns Homestead pays for all the expenses of the livestock projects. They receive numerous donations throughout the year to aid in feed and veterinary costs. When the animal is sold at the fair, the exhibitors get to keep 30% of the auction price. The rest is reinvested back into the farm.
“My favorite part about volunteering with the 4-H club and at Stearns Homestead is just getting to share knowledge and watching the kids grow up. We host tours and groups here often. With Parma being so suburban, people don’t get the chance to have interactions with animals and we can provide that for them. We also educate them that we raise market animals, so they get to learn where their food comes from,” Bower said.
For Soda and Cooper, joining the 4-H club was just the start of their agricultural education. They also participated in a few other camps this past summer, including Camp Canopy and the ExploreAg program.
ExploreAg is a week-long camp hosted by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. The free camp aims to expose youth to careers in agriculture. This past summer, OFBF hosted three camps, one in central Ohio, one in northwestern Ohio and one in southern Ohio, respectively. Each week features unique stops at various agricultural businesses and farms. The brothers attended the camp in northwestern Ohio.
“My personal favorite stop was the University of Findlay farm. It brought me out of my comfort zone because we got to help them tag their cattle and vaccinate them. We were only there for a day, but it was so much fun,” Soda said.
Cooper’s favorite stop was Kalmbach Feeds, which is the same brand he fed his market animals all summer long.
“4-H has really opened my eyes. It’s made me want to get deeper into it and learn more. Maybe someday I will be a hog or beef farmer,” Cooper said.
“I would say that my involvement in 4-H and doing camps like the ExploreAg program have set my trajectory for a career path,” Soda said. “I have ideas now on what I want to do someday and where I want to go to school.”
While YouTube may have inspired the young man, unique urban agriculture opportunities have solidified Soda’s desire to be a farmer one day.
“If anything, it’s more of my dream now than it ever has been,” he said.