Mike Hirsch: Ohio Farm Lifer

We’ve been fortunate to work with Mike Hirsch, fourth generation owner-operator of Ross County, Ohio’s Hirsch Fruit Farm, since 2009. Strawberries for Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk brought us together, and now Mike also grows what we need for Sweet Corn & Black Raspberries and our fall pumpkin flavors.

While the strawberries and pumpkins are grown on Hirsch’s land, the sweet corn and some of the black raspberries are grown in nearby Pickaway County where Mike subcontracts 30-some acres from Brett Rhoads at  Rhoads Farm.  (A crop’s soil requirements determine where it’s grown. Sweet corn, for example, can be planted earlier in April in Rhoads’ well-drained soil.)

Taking a quick break from the orders of the day earlier this month, Mike—a former FedEx driver who gave up the city life to move back to the family farm—was kind enough to tell us a little more about himself, his crops, and why he does what does.

We love the fruit and vegetables he and his team grow for us, but we also love the opportunity to work with someone who’s so connected to what he’s chosen to do with his life. Hirsch, as the kids say, is all in.

Hirsch Fruit Farm origins.

My great-grandfather planted the first peach tree in 1890 in the hills of Ross County on the first 90 acres.

Hirsch Fruit Farm today.

We are about 485 acres, and we do have some livestock. We are currently 90 acres in specialty crops—fruits and vegetables—not commodity crops: corn, beans wheat, cotton, alfalfa.

We do apples, peaches, nectarines, pears, and plums. And we do berries: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, red raspberries, and strawberries.

The vegetables are tomatoes, asparagus, rhubarb, and buttercup pumpkins for Jeni’s. We also raise three acres of pick-your-own pumpkins for one of our festivals (the Circleville Pumpkin Show).

Our largest crop is apples. It’s a shame Jeni doesn’t do an apple ice cream.

Working with old friends: contracting down on the farm.

The Hirsch and Rhoads families have been together for many many years, dating back to the second generation. Brett and I are fourth generation.

The Splendid’s in the soil.

(The Rhoads) have very good soil for corn. The big reason is it’s nice and sandy and it’s not very heavy, so it drains well. This means they can plant earlier than we can in the season in Ross County. You want to get to the market the fastest, and if you can plant early then you can harvest early. So if they can plant in in early April, then they can be at the market with sweet corn by the fourth of July, which is always the target date.

Our soils in Ross County are very heavy with clay. If we get a half to three-fourths of an inch of rain in early April, that could set a planting back of this kind by 10 day to two weeks. Whereas, this is so well drained, it can rain an inch, half an inch yesterday and they can plant this evening.

Rhoads has been growing sweet corn for us for three decades. When I developed a relationship with Jeni’s through strawberries, and it grew to other crops, I was asked if we could do sweet corn. Since I already do sweet corn (through Rhoads) for our farm markets this just made sense.

Eat it raw

The best quality control, the best quality test is to eat it raw. If it’s good out here in the field you know when you put a little salt and butter on it, or when you put it in ice cream that’s going to be great.

All in the family.

Growing up on the farm, you’re picking strawberries at eight, nine, 10 years old. We all did it. I’m the youngest of five and I can remember wanting to get out there to pick berries.

The farmhouse.

I grew up in the house that my grandfather built, the house that my dad was raised in. My dad came back to the farm in the ‘60s and bought that house and raised us in it. When I came back to the farm, I bought my dad’s house, the house that I was raised in.

So now, (my children) Katie and Meredith and Frankie and Calvin are being raised in the house. There is nothing better than that, than to see my kids outside playing in the yard that I played in, back in the ditch, back in the woods, wherever. There is no place that I would rather raise a family than on the farm.

Farming is life.

You don’t do this for the paycheck, you don’t do this for the portfolio you’re building up. You do this for the lifestyle. Hopefully I’m passing that on to my kids so that one or two or all of them come back and continue.

Back to the roots of it all.

Once I was out of high school I went off the Ohio State. I ended up coming back to the farm a few years later. I met my future wife and we decided that we were going to go off and do our own thing for a while. So, we went back to Columbus. She went back to school and I got a job to put her through school.

Once she graduated, by that time I had been working in the transportation industry for FedEx for several years. You get to an age where you realize that you’ve made about as much money as you thought you were going to make and you’re still not happy. I always knew what made me happy: getting my hands dirty, getting outside, and feeling the sun baking on the back of my neck.

Build it and they will come.

In ‘05, we found a little slice of property off the main drag in Chillicothe, which is the retail district where the Walmarts and Kmarts and Penney’s and all those things are. I hadn’t come back to the farm yet. I was still with FedEx, and I brought it to my dad and brother and I said, “If were going to survive long term, we have got to get out where the people are.”

Chillicothe was and is growing north  toward Columbus and closer to the highways. Everything is about convenience. You can have the best stuff in the world, but people aren’t going to be in Kmart getting their baloney and underwear and all that and drive five miles south to get their apples and their cider and their cucumbers and their three tomatoes. But they will drive across the street. So now we have a farm market there close to all the retail.

Strawberry Fields

We raise strawberries based on flavor. We don’t raise a big berry. We don’t pump it full of water. What makes the berry we grow special is it’s so concentrated with sugars. (Jeni’s) has come to find that when they roast our berries they don’t lose as much weight (roasting roasts the water out of berries).

We’re not really concerned about yield. Were concerned about flavor. People buy the first time with their eyes but they continually buy with their mouth. They might buy a bigger berry the first time and then realize it doesn’t taste that good. But once they try ours, that’s repeat business for life.

After a couple of years of supplying a smaller amounts, in 2011 we really started supplying every extra berry we could spare. the only other account than Hirsch we supply berries to is Jeni’s.

Sleeping well at night. 

Jeni’s done a very good job of using Ohio products. All of our wholesale strawberries go to Jeni’s. That’s a tremendous relationship for us. When you’re picking berries and trying to supply your own (farm) markets, but now you gotta make all the phone calls for wholesale and sell to this market eight flats and this market 10 flats, and maybe this guy wants 20, and you’re driving all over south central Ohio to deliver it all—when you develop a relationship like this where no matter what you get, 10 flats and 300 flats that’s what she’ll take.

Now it’s gotten to be, “Bring us all you have, we’ll make it happen,” because they know in three weeks it’s all gonna dry up. So it’s been a tremendous relationship for me. It helps me sleep at night. I don’t have to worry about, “Hey, I’ve got two pallets of strawberries back there with no home.” Now, it’s, “I’ve got two pallets of strawberries back there with a home,” and that really helps.