A piece of the East Coast thrives at Birdsong Farm in Hiram Township, where farmer/owner Matt Herbruck reseeded the work ethic of a mason and a produce farmer from Milbridge, Maine and cultivated a sprawling Northeast Ohio-certified organic farm.
Herbruck’s sandpaper handshake and soiled and tattered T-shirt silently, yet succinctly, begin to tell his story.
Herbruck’s experiences working alongside bricklayer Francis Smith and farmer Chet Curtis in the mid-1990s transcended his modest $4-an-hour pay. “The most important thing those guys taught me was how to work,” he says. “They didn’t have to, but they took me under them. They were my extended family.”
After working for Curtis and later renting his fields, Herbruck began Back Bay Farm in Milbridge, amid a local foods movement ripe with energy. By 1997, the human ecology graduate from College of the Atlantic had a flourishing 36-acre certified organic farm and a clientele list to match.
“I delivered greens personally to Martha Stewart in Northeast Harbor, Maine. We were on the cutting edge of trends,” he says.
Called by family needs 12 years later, Herbruck and his 4-year-old son, Oscar, relocated to Hiram, where he nurtures Birdsong Farm with spirit and sweat.
Field after field and row after row of garden greens, berries, tomatoes, potatoes, turnips, squash, onions, beets, radishes, cabbage, flowers and an ever-evolving yield validate Herbruck’s 12-hour workdays, supported by full-time farmer Emily Yurcich and playfully by Oscar, who oft implores, “Dad, I need to see the hose.”
On this near-90-degree Sunday afternoon, which Herbruck says he would gladly swap for a chilly rain and a sweatshirt, he peeks under low and high tunnels, protective coverings that shield his crops from insects and wildlife and allow rainwater to seep through. He pulls a cluster of round, white turnips from the ground and hands them to me with instructions to chop and eat. Herbruck doesn’t have a recipe collection or time to cook fancy fare. “I have to remind myself to eat,” he says, explaining that the farm consumes his nearly-every-waking-moment 10 months of the year.
Herbruck points to his latest work in progress: a berry field, where he anticipates a healthy crop of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries in three to five years — perhaps the first showing of locally grown organic berries in the area. Nearby, a 3/4-acre garden dedicated to flowers represents a reply to customer demand. Kale, mizuna, hakurei turnips, red butter lettuce and radish plantings answer similar calls.
Pots of cooking herbs and assorted medicinal varieties share greenhouse space with young plants easing their way to the fields. Herbruck gives the newbies time to acclimate to full-time outdoor residency, transferring them in and out of their protective shelter for three or four days in a process called “hardening off.”
With his adoring Australian Shepherd, Sadie, a constant at his side, Herbruck leads me to the side yard of his early-1800s farmhouse, where a vertical grid of stacked oak logs plugged with Shitake mushroom fungi spawn the Asian delicacy, which Herbruck extracts from the logs by soaking them after nine months.
“Much of what I learn is by doing,” Herbruck says, explaining how introducing Shitakes and berries to his farm meld with traditional practices of rotating gardens. He plants pea-oat-buckwheat cover crop to give his gardens periods of reprieve and nourishment; it smothers weeds, and later he tills it into the soil.
Through time-weathered farming practices and a response to public interest for locally grown, chemical-free produce, Herbruck represents a new-breed: the 21st century farmer who is conscientious about human and environmental well-being.
“Farming is one of the bedrocks of society, but it transitioned from food production to food manufacturing,” Herbruck says, referring to factory farming and pesticide use that erupted in the later years of the 20th century. “I have a moral and environmental problem with using chemicals. It’s great to see people in Northeast Ohio beginning to take interest in what they eat and where it comes from.”
Herbruck makes that connection between farmer and produce with his customers at Haymaker Farmers’ Market in Kent on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at the Chagrin Falls Farmers’ Market on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. He also makes deliveries for his Community Supported Agriculture customers at Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson on Wednesdays at 5 p.m.
“It’s important for people to see me and to know I grow 100 percent of what I offer,” he says. “It’s very hands-on and person-to-person. It’s about a community of friends.”
Getting the Goods
Herbruck currently provides his certified organic produce to about 60 share-holding Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers from June through October. Offerings include:
- Small family share ($350) for one or two people, includes $16 to $20 of fresh, seasonal organic produce each week.
- Standard share ($575) for families of three or more, includes $28 to $30 of fresh, seasonal organic produce each week.
- Post-season share ($100) includes a limited, seven-week, November through December offering of cool-weather and storage crops such as kale, chard, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, turnips and carrots.
- CSA orders fill by March. To get on the mailing list for next season and to view a list of monthly share offerings, visit birdsongfarmohio.com.
To Market, To Market
Birdsong Farm owner Matt Herbruck offers insider’s tips to make the most of your next farmers’ market shopping trip:
- Arrive early to get the best selection but not before opening, when vendors are setting up.
- Ask about produce varieties and how they were grown. If you want to ensure the produce you’re about to purchase is locally grown or certified organic, ask.
- Bring your own bags.
- Bring cash (personal checks usually work, too), but don’t expect to pay with a credit card.
- Don’t haggle about price.
- Ask vendors for cooking and storage tips.
- Bring along the kids to meet the farmers and ask them questions, but don’t allow them to dismantle displays.
- Ask about future offerings. If you’re looking for something in particular, it might not be in season or could be just a week or two from harvest.
- Try something new. You’ve never tasted hakurei turnips or Japanese mizuna salad greens? Now’s the time to snatch up hard-to-find specialty produce and introduce your taste buds to new experiences.