Ohio has a long and rich farming history, but today less than a third of the state's farms remain. Every year 10 percent of small farms disappear.
The climate change and political tariffs have made it harder for farmers to grow and sell crops and smaller farms can no longer compete against giant agribusinesses. The average age of a today’s farmer is 59, and the industry is having a hard time attracting new, younger people.
Melissa Alexander has one piece of advice for young farmers just starting out, "Farming looks romantic. It really does. It’s beautiful. It’s seducing. But when you get out here and you're in the grit with it, your back’s gonna ache, you're gonna have blisters, your feet are gonna hurt. But you’ve got to love it, and want it."
Melissa and her husband Ryan own the Alexander Organic Farm in Wilmington, Ohio. It’s a cold winter day and we’re gathered in the Alexanders farm house. Seed catalogues are piled up on the table where Melissa’s busy feeding their 8 month old daughter lily, whose just woken up from a nap.
Outside the window, snow covers the open fields and the cluster of red barns behind the house. In a few months, these barns and fields will be bustling.
"We had a cover crop of crimson clover. We did tillage radishes, and crimson clover, and we had people just driving down the road and stopping, and getting out, and trying to figure out what it was, because you just don’t see some of these crops," says Ryan. He grew up just down the road. His father was a part owner and manager of this farm that now belongs to the younger Alexanders.
"I grew up playing in this barn and playing all over this farm. I was taking care of pigs, and took on more responsibility as time went on. I loved the animals and everything, but my mind was elsewhere at that time. I wanted to play music."
Melissa and Ryan meet through their shared love of music and traded in the rock and roll lifestyle for farm life. Now they’re raising two young daughters, along with a variety of organic crops and animals.
The change from traditional to organic farming was an idea that Ryan and his father had both shared.
"I never wanted to come back here and spray. That was the part I hated the most," says Ryan. "Anybody that’s a young farmer starting now, and even people who majored in agriculture at a university, their first job anywhere is going to be probably at a co-op mixing chemicals, or out spraying them. I don’t think that they realize the danger they're putting themselves in, as well as everybody else who's exposed to it. And that’s scary, and I think it’s going to be interesting how health plays out, not only in the food system, but in the people who are growing the food."
The farm is now a totally organic operation. Oats is one of their big crops, along with hay, sunflowers, and harvesting grass seed to resell.
This lifestyle is truly a family affair. Last year their eight year old daughter Violet raised pumpkins that she sold at a roadside stand in front of the farm to help pay for her school tuition.
"She worked really hard on it and she was able to make a thousand bucks off a half an acre," says Ryan.
It’s the joy of farm living keep the Alexander’s going.
"The beautiful thing is, every year is a new year. There’s always a struggle to the year, and you overcome it, or you don’t overcome it, but you get another chance next year, hopefully," says Ryan.
When I get up in the morning, and I put on my muckboots, and I bundle up, get my cup of hot coffee, go out. The sun’s not even up yet. You hear the snow under your boots, you can see the steam coming off your coffee. And that first brave little soul, that bird that starts chirping and everything comes to life, and that sun’s coming over the hill, and you can see the breath from your livestock, you can hear them crunching as they’re coming to meet you. And in that moment, I know God," says Melissa. "All my senses are alive. I’m communing with God."
And sometimes, they still sneak away to the barn to rock out.
"We do Barn Karaoke," says Ryan. "That’s our thing we’ll do together. It’s not real Karaoke, we just put the CD on and hook the microphone up and we both sing."
"Blast out the jams," laughes Melissa.