Back to the Land: Mott Family Farm, Middlebourne, Ohio.
October 17, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
An Ohio native who moved to the bright sunny state of Southern California, Jeff Mott decided his life had a different purpose. That purpose meant leaving behind the SoCal lifestyle, buying an Amish homestead on the Virginia/Ohio border and initiating a lifestyle change that has not only proven to be profitable, but has also changed his entire perspective.
35 miles outside of Wheeling, West Virginia lies the Mott Family Farm, the Ohio-based haven of two former California residents, Jeff and Shelley Mott, who craved a back to basics approach to life, a slowing down of pace and an opportunity to share a love of growing that began in California. Land prices and moving closer to Jeff’s father were only part of the equation. Mott felt his California lifestyle was missing a sense of community.
“You are just stuck in that freeway, parkway kinda lifestyle. Everything’s fast. Everyone just rushing trying to make money trying to keep their lives together. I was so longing for community, like growing food, making things together,” explains Mott. “It’s kind of idealistic, but I just wanted to try to move in that direction.”
The Motts weren’t complete strangers to the growing way of life. Shelley Mott grew up in a Japanese American family in Illinois. Her parents grew Asian vegetables for the Chicago wholesale market. Jeff’s parents live in Holmes County, Ohio embracing much of the Amish perspective on establishing a relationship with the land and placing family and community above all else. In the end, childhood roots won out over the bright shiny magnetism of Orange County.
“I just wanted to have my own piece of land we could care for like that. I studied permaculture. We just said, ‘what can we do with our land to really keep it healthy?,’” shares Mott. Today, the Mott Family Farm is a place to not only grow and learn about sustainable agriculture but a place to learn about sustainable communities, buying local and knowing your farmer.
When they began farming in Ohio, the Motts had little personal experience in organic food farming. Jeff Mott had worked at an indigenous plant nursery in California where he grew a deep respect for the flora and fauna of the Golden State. The rest of the learning process was a matter of observation, trial, error and reading about organic gardening. Besides visiting farmers markets and farms, attending agriculture conferences while working at the nursery and talking with Amish growers, the Motts spent a lot of time reading the works and digesting the philosophy of Wendell Berry.
“I guess he verbalizes so much of what we were feeling, what we want to see happen. I remember him saying: ‘it would take generations for us to go back and learn what we’ve lost.’ That really hit me deeply. The amount of knowledge and wisdom you need to have…I’m starting to just get a glimpse of what he was talking about,” shares Mott.
A fan of pouring over seed catalogs, Mott continues to experiment with his five to six acres of crop space, combining dependable staples with exotic varieties. Currently they grow 70 kinds of tomatoes, 40 kinds of peppers, squash, chard, potatoes, kale, onion and celery. The farm is home to 150 fruit trees and a plethora of leafy greens. Mott utilizes as many traditional farming methods as possible including crop rotation, cover crops, composting (through manure collection) and drip irrigation to work the 90 acres of land. Mott works with 25 60′ x 150’ beds, which just made it easier for him to work the land and keep track of the crop. They consulted with an efficiency expert to make sure they were getting the most out of their land and their budget when establishing the farm.
Purchasing Amish land meant less worry about chemical pollutants in the soil and the opportunity to borrow from the sustainable farming practices of the surrounding community. “I knew if we were going to learn to live off the land, then the Amish had a lot to teach,” states Mott. The Motts hire local workers including several Amish to help till their land. Despite wanting horses to farm, the Motts quickly found efficient use of horse power needed an expert touch. After a bumpy start, an overturned wagon and a runaway horse, the Amish workers have tamed the beasts for the Motts and use them for low till ground turning and manure spreading. The horses are a great addition to the wagon rides offered during the farm’s fall harvest open day.
Currently, the Motts have five different CSA programs to reach out to the surrounding region with customers enjoying weekly produce baskets. The CSA shares are purchased in advance of the growing season and mean 18 weeks of local organic produce. Like many farmers, the Motts choose not to purchase the organic label but assure their customers they use sustainable chemical free growing methods to produce their crop. Catering to both the individual family and the wholesale market, the Motts offer their produce to wholesalers, local restaurants, chefs and retailers. The Motts offer pick up points as well as delivery systems to their customers using a detailed schedule and online registration to keep track of all the different avenues of distribution.
Since settling into the Ohio countryside and beginning their organic farm, the Motts have focused their attention on not only selling produce to the locals but selling a family first, community close second, lifestyle that sustains them financially and spiritually. At the Mott Family Farm growing and sharing produce is personal. They customize growing choices for their neighbors and are happy to do it. They make harvesting a community affair. For Mott, it’s all about creating sustainable relationships in the day to day of modern life and with the planet. In fact, Mott hopes one day that his farm in Ohio will just be the beginning of a larger impact to America’s self-sustainability.
“I wanted to do this farm not just so we could make a living and we could be successful, but my passion in my heart has always been to create a model that would be reproducible so other people could do this. I think young people would do this if they thought it was possible,” states Mott.
For Mott, learning from the farmers that have gone before, the sustainability writers and gaining firsthand experience are the first steps for anyone considering a switch to a farming lifestyle. “I think if you could see someone that’s done it too you could save yourself a lot of heartache and expense. It wouldn’t be bad to have an internship with some farms. And minimize the debt. I think we could have done it with less debt. Start with what you can afford, start with a few acres and expand as you grow,” advises Mott.
To go from an Orange County lifestyle to a traditional Amish homestead and make it into a profitable business has been quite the baptism by fire for the Motts.They’ve made mistakes, learned from them and come out strong, successful, sustainable farmers. No-one said profitable small farming was going to be easy, but I think the Motts would be the first to say it was all worth it in the end.
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