The fruits of hard labor

The fruits of hard labor

Seeds of good intention sprouting a community farm experience at Hidden Valley Farms

By Emma Jarman

PLANTING THE SEEDS

By noon, he’s put in a full day’s labor but is only half done. A bandana worn linen-soft, folded in a sloppy triangle, covers his face from his long, lower eyelashes to the top of his grey, sweat-stained t-shirt and ties tightly at the back of his head. A dusty old baseball cap, pulled low, shades the rest of his face. Plodding up from the back of the farmhouse, his kind eyes betray the hardness of his masked appearance; the sweat of backbreaking work through a morning unusually warm, even for July, collects in the crinkles next to his eyes formed by years of smiling through sun damage. Bob Ullrich, owner and operator of Hidden Valley Fruit Farm in Lebanon, Ohio is a farmer. And not only does he farm, but he also shares his life’s work with his community.

Bucking the trends of industrial agriculture and monocrop operations, Hidden Valley Fruit Farm is an oasis of biodiversity. With more than 300 acres and a wide variety of crops, patches and orchards, Ullrich is guaranteeing himself at least one successful yield per season and brushing off the notion that more is more. Traditional farming methods at Hidden Valley Fruit Farm maintain the idea that family farms can be successful even in the face of government-subsidized industrial agriculture. Instead of acres and acres of corn and soybeans, Bob gets specific.

Hidden Valley Fruit Farm offers everything from pick-your-own fruit opportunities to a farm store full of freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, baked goods, ice creams, local honeys and cheeses.  It also takes every opportunity available to invite you to celebrate the fruits of its labor with myriad planned events and festivals on the premises. But what seems like a lot of fun and games really has a load of backbreaking, frustrating work that sometimes rides on just a glimmer of hope and whose success is necessary for Ullrich to run the self-sustaining farm he aspires to year after year.

“I’m here, constantly, totally. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t,” said Ullrich. He lives in a small farmhouse near the back of the property, adjacent to the road behind one of the apple orchards. “Golden delicious, I think,” he said. Not only is this Ullrich’s business, this is his home, and having a home pay for itself can be all-consuming. But with the variety of agricultural endeavors Ullrich has worked himself into, it would be almost impossible to take any time off. Hidden Valley Fruit Farm is more than its name suggests.

Yes, it has fruit. The 300 acres of producing grounds, 70 of which Ullrich owns outright and about 250 more that he rents, includes property on the other side of the road he uses for parking space and hay. On these acres Ullrich grows 37 varieties of apples including the gigantic Thriller apple, which can grow to more than 24 ounces per unit.  There are rows and rows of grape vines, four varieties at all times, and although they are not difficult to grow as far as weather conditions are concerned, they are hard to find in the area due to the labor-intensive growing process required. This year presents an onslaught of difficulties atypical of the average season. It’s not just the crops that wither and dry prematurely, or the farmers’ skin that blisters in the heat, but the wildlife has to survive it, too. The birds and animals are just as thirsty as the corn and apples and brave the booms of the morning cannons to have a go at the produce.

“We’ll really be fighting to pick our own grapes this year because we’re having such stiff competition from the birds,” said Ullrich, who usually offers the opportunity to visitors for a short time at the end of each summer. “The birds ate pretty much all of our blueberries, all of our raspberries, all of our blackberries.”

Other farm fruits include blueberries (annually available for self-picking), blackberries, gooseberries, currants, melons, tomatoes, peaches, cherries, strawberries and raspberries. Pear trees are scattered throughout the grounds as well, sweet diamonds in the rough of the rain-thirsty Hidden Valley soil.

However, you must never feed the goats in the zoo-area a pear. While goats may be able to easily eat and digest tin cans and tennis shoes, their bellies draw the line at pears – they’re toxic. “Here’s a good dilemma; typical farm dilemma,” said Ullrich. “The pears are a good source of income for us, but if you feed a pear to a goat it’ll kill it. Our question is, do we cut down the pear trees? Their systems cannot digest pears. Isn’t that funny?” Maintaining the farm is riddled with dilemmas such as this: practicality versus idealism.

Multitudes of vegetables are also grown on-site and are largely responsible for the self-sustainability of the farm. First comes the corn. Yellow corn, white corn, Indian corn, corn maze corn, decorative dried ears of corn – if you can think of a use for it, Hidden Valley will give you the type you need.  Other vegetables grown and harvested on the farm include yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, onions and, most importantly this year, pumpkins. Pumpkins are typically a major crop for Hidden Valley, as they always seem to do well. Hidden Valley Fruit Farm grows 20 variations of pumpkin, all for sale, all the time, including small pie pumpkins and usually the oversized mega-pumpkins that require a tractor or airlifting to get out of the patch.

Though, after a dry season to say the least, Ullrich is unsure about the availability of the super-squash this Fall. “I don’t know if there will be any big pumpkins because no water,” he said. “Even with irrigation. This water is a problem. If the weather were to continue like this summer, what can I do? I can only just keep irrigating. We’re lucky enough to have that. We could hook up to the water in Clearcreek Township. It’s a balancing act. But we’re definitely getting pumpkins and that’s definitely money so that crop will be irrigated. If that water stops we’ll have smaller pumpkins but we still have that crop.” With the irrigation pond down 10 feet from its usual fill line, tapping into Township water sources is a real possibility and one that Ullrich isn’t alone in facing. He’s lucky to have his own water source in the first place.

But after a tough year pushing through everything from drought conditions to competition from the birds for blueberries and grapes, a particular amount of faith has put in the pumpkin patches this year this year to keep the farm fruitful, literally and figuratively.

Like the blueberries and apples, the squash have difficulty keeping the animals at bay. Evidence of deer and squirrels can be found at the tips of the zucchini stems where the earlier orange squash blossoms are replaced by browning stubs of curled stalk. The same is found in the pumpkin patches – Ullrich’s last chance at an overwhelmingly successful crop.

DON’T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET

With difficulties presenting themselves at the end of every tilled, hand-weeded row, Bob realizes the importance of diversity in his work. His main priority is that he keeps on farming. More than his livelihood, Hidden Valley Farm is his life. “We are diversified as possible,” he continued. “We sell everything in our market, we have our own homemade baked goods, we do our own pies. Yesterday we probably didn’t sell much produce but we sure sold a lot of baked goods, you know? We have our own ice cream, we sell Hershey’s ice cream.”

Hidden Valley Farm also features a 150-year-old cabin on the back of the property, behind the final pumpkin patch and the last of the beehives. It’s in a secluded area, through the covered wooden bridge and down a grassy hill. The sun hits only part of the field at any point in the day and the surrounding trees shade the sand volleyball court and picnic tables. Companies have functions, families have picnics and young couples have had weddings on the front porch of the restored cabin, under the watchful eyes of the screech owl hiding in the high branches, invisible to even a searching eye.

“So many birthday parties here that I couldn’t even think of it,” said Ullrich. “Everyone has their own little purpose for coming to the farm as far as for entertainment.”

Fortunately for birthday parties and wedding receptions, Ullrich’s idea of entertainment is different than most. While some lob birdies back and forth with badminton racquets, he’s propping scarecrows and firing cannons to keep them away from his berries. While some spray their arms and legs with sunscreen and bug spray to keep ourselves comfortable while picking apples or grapes at the farm, Ullrich sprays his plants with a soap and water combination that he swears keeps the bugs from chewing the leaves off his trees, vines and bushes. Some hydrate their bodies while Bob hydrates his crops using irrigated water from the pond on the property between the pumpkin patches. We shop for honey in the farm store because Ullrich insists on pollenating his crops with outcroppings of beehives he tends to by hand.

The children’s area towards the front of the property, behind the large barn next to the farm store, is one part of Hidden Valley Fruit Farm that makes it unique. Fenced around a green space are all sorts of farm animals including ducks, chickens, pygmy goats and alpacas, with a bunny hutch in the corner guarding the wooden child’s walk-through maze. A play tractor where kids are invited to climb up and spin the metal steering wheel idles behind a small playground with a twisting slide and wooden stairs.

In the fall, Hidden Valley Fruit Farm really comes to life. Hayrides, pumpkin picking and fall festivals full of inflatables, train rides and juicy, fresh fruit fill the calendar. Check out the farm’s website (www.hiddenvalleyfruitfarm.com) for information regarding the Grape Escape Sept. 1-3, September Family Fun Days weekends in September, Apple Daze Sept. 22-23, the Ohio Cider Fest Oct. 6-7, Fall Fun Days weekends in October, Halloween Fun Oct. 27-28 and Pumpkin Days Oct. 31-Nov. 4. Support local agriculture tradition, take a stand against big box produce, take a bite out of the freshest peach you’ll ever see; whatever your reason, see what Hidden Valley Fruit Farm has to offer. Look for the guy in the linen-soft bandana and the baseball cap. He knows a lot about the place.

For questions about the farm, events, or hosting your own event at Hidden Valley Fruit Farm contact them at (513) 932-1869. The farm is located in Lebanon, Ohio at 5474 North State Route 48.

Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@daytoncitypaper.com

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