Five lessons gleaned from a visit to a southeast Ohio produce farm.
It’s been said the secret to success is to make your vocation your vacation. And while long days of planting and picking on the Vest berry farm are far more work than most like to do in their time off, you get the sense that there’s no other place Athens County Farm Bureau member Rick Vest would rather be. In the age of the “four-year career,” where job hopping is the norm, there are a few things worth noting about somebody who has found success pursuing a lifelong passion.
The farm gate displays a red and white metal sign that reads “Vest Berries.” As it swings open for customers, it rides on a wheel that retraces an arc across a gravel path. On the hill is a 5-acre patchwork of fruit and vegetable plots. It’s surrounded by a ladder of electric wires that have been strung across bark-covered fence posts.
Lesson 1: Cultivate opportunity
Rick Vest (above) is spending more time here since the company he used to work for left the area several years ago. At the time, his wife, Terry, wasn’t sure how they were going to make it.
With an easy smile, Rick remembered assuring her “It’ll work out,” sounding as if he still can’t quite figure out what she was so worried about.
Today, she laughs and says it was his optimism that helped farm life grow on her as he grew their farm. Although, he admits, some years it was hard to turn a profit.
“We’ve always enjoyed it. If nothing else, you eat rather well,” he said.
And as for that fence? Athens County deer also once ate rather well on Vest berries. So well, in fact, that Rick was losing sleep over his lost crops.
After the fence went up, “Now, the deer actually make me money,” he said.
He leases the rest of his land to hunters.
Lesson 2: Let your passion take root
So just what led Vest to put in that first small patch of strawberries nearly three decades ago? Was it enjoyment of nature, working outdoors, an appreciation for fresh food?
“All of it,” he said.
“Once you get it in your blood, it’s hard to get it out of your blood.”
He grew up working on a large produce farm near Cincinnati before moving to southeast Ohio.
He says he doesn’t put too much thought toward a farming philosophy, but seems clear on where he’s headed.
“We want a long-term approach to agriculture that’s sustainable and produces good, quality food for folks and continue to do it in the future. And possibly our kids and grandkids could do it, too.”
Lesson 3: Stay grounded
On a given day, if you asked Vest to list his top three concerns, he might just tell you “weather, weather and weather.”
“You learn not to sleep in, not to say in the middle of night ‘I’d rather be in bed than going out and checking what the temperature is,’” he said.
In addition to sleep, he says he’s sacrificed vacations, personal time and even a meal or two to keep his farm going. He estimates he does about 90 percent of the work himself.
“Now that the kids are out of the house I can work 12 and 14 and 16 hour days without getting in trouble so-to-speak from my wife,” he laughed.
So what makes it all worth it?
“There’s always a personal satisfaction. Then there’s the customer satisfaction. They come to rely every week, or every month, or every season that you have that product for them.”
Lesson 4: Don’t outgrow your fences
Referring both to the fence that protects his property and the number of hours in the day, Vest has come to a conclusion: “We can’t get any bigger and I don’t think I want to get any bigger,” he said.
But he still sees room to grow.
Three plastic covered structures called high tunnels are brimming with peas, carrots, beets, tomatoes, greens, beans and other crops. He’s always thinking how he can use every square foot of space.
In the off season, cover crops will be planted to protect and enrich the soil.
“My goal for next year is to better manage what I do have,” he said.
Lesson 5: Reap what you’ve sown
“Right now, I could eat asparagus for breakfast every morning,” replied Terry when asked about her favorite crop. She then grabbed a few peas off the vine to snack on and was already looking forward to squash and sweet potatoes.
She had recently cleaned out her freezer to make vegetable soup from last year’s harvest just as she was putting in this year’s strawberries.
“That’s real tough,” said Rick, thinking about his top pick. He finally settled on strawberries ... or maybe red raspberries.
It’s a payoff that anyone who has tended a garden can understand. But things move fast during the growing season. It’s not until cold weather arrives that Rick will pause to take stock of what he’s accomplished.
“Come late fall, when things are all out of the ground and the ground’s ready for winter, it does give you a good sense of satisfaction and completion.”
For about six weeks, anyway. Then the first crops of the new year will be ready to harvest.
Experience Vest berry farm for yourself. Find Vest Berries on Facebook to see what crops are available throughout the year.