Bay Branch Farm: Tech Savvy and Straight Rows
I met the owners of Bay Branch Farm, the husband and wife team of Eric Stoffer and Annabel Khouri, back in 2010 in OSU Extension’s Market Gardener Training Program. Even back then during their seedling stage of their farm career, Bay Branch seemed to embrace the technology side of small-scale specialty crop farming better than the rest of us. This was evident in their choice of a Jang seeder, BCS walk-behind tractor, very early adoption of a hoophouse (hand built, of course), and cover cropping.
Fast forward eight years and Bay Branch is still the most tech savvy farmers in Cleveland, Ohio. They’ve scaled up since 2010, but at a pace that is more pointed and specific than other farmers. Additionally, Bay Branch seems more willing these days to experiment with cultivars than they did several years ago. They own and farm two sites. The first is in the Birdtown neighborhood of Lakewood. The second is a completely unassuming spot nestled between West Boulevard and West 117th in Cleveland.
Upon arrival to the Cleveland Bay Branch backyard, the level of activity since my last visit is overwhelming. There’s a new giant hoophouse in the deep backyard. There’s new foundational walls and skeletal structuring of a future greenhouse. There’s a modernist shed that looks like it could be out of the pages of Dwell magazine. Two of the three just mentioned structures have rain harvesting capabilities, plus the oft overlooked pumps for using this collected water for a total of 1,400 gallons of rain water collection/stormwater mitigation. It’s immediately obvious that Bay Branch knows what they’re doing and the steps to get there.
That being said, upon my first open-ended question of “how’s it going” came a torrent of frustration out of Eric’s mouth. To be fair, this is distinctly a farmer-trait and is not specific to Eric or Bay Branch. First, he’s contending with a family of Houdini-like groundhogs that are chomping on his kale and chard, refusing to be trapped. Second, there’s a minor leaf disease on his cucumbers. Third, the parthenocarpic squash are aborting in unusually large numbers. Fourth, the slow release organic 8-2-4 fertilizer didn’t push the spinach like he wanted, but then was readily available for the beets that followed, resulting in thin and distorted shaped beets. However to the trained eye (mine), none of this was apparent.
Just like the flip of a light switch, Eric said something to the effect, “but let me show you what is going right this year.” He led me to the giant hoophouse in the deep backyard. In the hoophouse were hundreds of double-leader tomato plants that were over eight feet tall, plus already ripening peppers and basil. As a tomato nerd, I asked what cultivars he was growing. I’m pretty certain I audibly gasped when Eric explained that Bay Branch substituted a new F1 hybrid Toronjina tomato for the always crowd-pleasing, but famously splitting Sungold. However, the proof was in the pudding, as I was offered free range to graze the Toronjinas. To my surprise, the Toronjina was every bit as awesome as the Sungold. It had the same kind of sweetness with additional tomato-ness. If you consider that the Toronjina splits way less than the Sungold, then we have an award winning tomato for sure.
In the hoophouse, there was evidence of tech savviness in abundance. Watering was on timers. Custom-built Arduino circuit boards monitored soil moisture levels. The sides of the hoophouse rolled up with a push of a button, rather than by hand. A 1,100 gallon cistern collected rain water from the hoophouse itself. The whole complex felt like something you would see out of a magazine and not in someone’s backyard in Cleveland, Ohio.
Next up was a tour of the germination stations in the basement. Even in this setting, there was evidence of embracing outside the box tech hacks. First of all, there were three separate stations. I will discuss two of them. One was heated with T-4 fluorescent lightbulbs, which in a cool basement setting makes a lot of sense versus using heatless LEDs and heating pads. Then there was the freezer that was kept at optimum germination temperatures via a crockpot filled with water attached to a hand-wired thermometer that subsequently kept the humidity high. I just kept thinking, “how does he come up with this schtuff” and “how does he know how to do that?”
Lastly, we spoke of sales. In the world of specialty crops, I have an old saying that goes like this, “what’s the difference between a farmer and a gardener? If you can sell it.” The last time I talked shop with Bay Branch they were seeking alternative avenues for sales and specifically more restaurant accounts. I was glad to hear that they have in fact upped their game in terms of both restaurants and prepaid customer accounts. Some of the restaurants purchasing Bay Branch produce include Harlow’s Pizza, Forage, Root Café, LBM, and Flying Fig. I was surprised to hear that after seven years of vending at the Lakewood Farmer’s Market that they made a jump to Frostville Farmer’s Market in North Olmsted. As a farmer, you got to try new things. Congratulations to Bay Branch on being able to do so.
In this world of urban agriculture that I am so fortunate to be able to play work in, it is really great to see a farm go through the ups and downs of trendiness cycles and stick with the passion that has been evident since 2010. Thanks to Bay Branch Farm for taking some time to show me around in the middle of the hard-working season.