SALEM - The secret to farming is letting nature do most of the work. That's what Salem resident Kevin Swope and his wife Sarah believe.
The couple own and operate Heritage Lane Farms on Mountz Road in Salem, and were recently honored by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) as one of five top conservation farm families in the state.
Each year the ODNR Division of Soil and Water Resources sponsors the award for farm families that show a long-standing dedication to natural resource conservation on the land they farm.
Top 5 —Kevin and Sarah Swope and their daughter Hannah raise buffalo and sheep on their conservation farm on Mountz Road. The family was recently recognized by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for their conservation farming techniques. (Salem News photo by Katie Schwendeman)
A ceremony was held at the Farm Science Review near London on Sept. 22. The Swopes were the only family awarded from Columbiana County, according to an ODNR press release.
Kevin Swope said he didn't always have farming experience, but working with a local USDA Soil and Water Conservation Service helped him learn the process for maintaining healthy soil, which is crucial to conservation farming.
He currently serves as district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Carroll County.
"I was working with farmers and watching some of these (conservation) practices being implemented so I started forming an idea of what I wanted to do," he said.
The Swopes raise bison and sheep and harvest hay on their 80-acre farm. Tomatoes and other minor crops are also harvested in three high tunnel gardens that use solar energy.
All of the farm's produce and meat are sold at farmers' markets.
Kevin Swope said when they first moved to the farm in the early 1990s, a majority of the topsoil and soil fertility was depleted.
"We are trying to operate basically under an organic system, and under that system you begin to consider the ecology of the soil rather than treating it as a mass to hold roots. You start taking a look at the life in the soil," he explained.
The Swopes do not use any commercial fertilizer on their fields. Instead, the fields were seeded and a grazing system was implemented.
"With our grazing system the bison and sheep are only in a particular pasture a day or two; then they are
moved and won't be back (to that pasture) for 30 days," he said.
The system allows the eight main fields to naturally replenish and absorb the organic manure.
Each main field is divided into five sections, allowing the bison and sheep to roam in 40 paddocks. Bison are kept on one side of the farm and sheep at the other. At any one time there are 20 to 40 bison on the farm.
"We are trying to mirror what would happen in a natural system. In a natural system, with large groups of animals moving across the grasslands, they would be there a short while and move onthat land wasn't under continuous grazing," he said.
Other farms across the state are using similar techniques, and government agencies like the USDA are beginning to focus more on soil health, he added.
"I think the farming community needs to get out and tell their story because the public is very interested in what they are doing," he said.
This year marks the first time the Swope family has received the Top Conservation award.
More than 140 Ohio farm families have been recognized as top conservation farmers since 1984, according to the ODNR press release.