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SchoolHouse Farms

Thursday, March 21, 2019
filed under: Utilization/Trade

       Vaughn Davis grew up a farm kid. “I had been farming with my dad and grandfather for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I think from the time I could walk, they had me on a tractor.”
       But after high school, Davis left his family’s farm near Celina, Ohio.  As a chemical engineer, he worked around the world, but says the older he got, the more he wanted to move back into agriculture. In 2001 he moved back to the United States from the United Kingdom and, while living in Maine, helped with planting in the spring and harvest in the fall back in Ohio. 
       In 2016 Davis decided to jump into agriculture full time.  He’s been farming ever since and developing SchoolHouse Farms, LLC with his friend Beth Curtis Cole of Berwick, Maine.
        This seventh-generation farmer isn’t afraid to try new things.  That includes sunflower.  Jody Kerzman visited with Davis about how sunflower has become an important product of SchoolHouse Farms, LLC.
Tell me about SchoolHouse Farms.  Where did the name come from, and what makes it stand out?
       SchoolHouse Farms, LLC was named after the one-room frame school house found on the Davis property in Ohio.  It was constructed in 1862 during the Civil War and has been restored to wonderful condition over the last 10 years.  It remains on the exact site it was built.  
       The land that makes up what we now call SchoolHouse Farms has a long and fascinating history.  I have a collection of native tools totaling over 200 pieces ranging in age from 10,500 years to 2,500 years from several ancient cultures that used to roam or trade in the area. 
Explain the idea behind your products.
       In early 2016, Beth Cole and I decided to enter the retail birdseed business.  Beth and her mother both enjoy bird watching; and when I was 10 years old I put together an Ohio 4-H project on birds. So we decided, “Why not?”  We wanted to grow and deliver our own farm-fresh black oil sunflower seed to local birdseed markets; and thus an entrepreneurial business was born.  
       The first couple of years were, quite frankly, a total disaster. But we have improved greatly, and 2018 was our best year yet.  We have developed a solid market following in southeast Maine, and that has done well.  We sell premium birdseed.  We clean sunflower much cleaner than the industry standard.  We even hull them, because birds in southern Maine are lazy! 
       We now grow and distribute birdseed, floral sunflower, sunflower oil from the Smude farm in Minnesota, gourmet popcorn, and crush milled heirloom and hybrid grain products and, most recently, sunflower flour!
Why sunflower seeds?
       We love them!  Who doesn’t love a perfect sunflower in summer?  The business started with a focus on sunflower for bird food but has expanded to include heirloom corn, gourmet popcorns and the many variants of sunflower. 
       We started growing sunflower for the birdseed business, and as I said, now we are doing quite a few things . . . different specialty crops.  We grow popcorn, and I wanted to press my own oil to sell with that popcorn.  While figuring out our birdseed business, we utilize the high-oleic sunflower oil produced by Smude’s Sunflower Oil in Minnesota.  And sunflower is a crop that seems to work in our area.  In northwestern Ohio our summers can be humid. The average temperature is in the 80s and low 90s, and we get plenty of rain during a typical year.  But the soil is well drained and sunflower works well in our sandy, clay loam soil.
Vaughn Davis
Where do you get the sunflower you use?
        With the exception of the sunflower oil and a few sunflower kernels over the last year, we derive all of our sunflower products in Western Ohio, and clean and package in either Rockford Ohio, or Berwick, Maine.  Jed Wall of Legend Seeds has been a huge help with hybrid selection and other operational issues.  Legend Seeds has been very patient with us and we appreciate that.
What kinds of challenges have you faced along the way?
       Name it, we’ve had it.
       Buying black oil sunflower seeds from the store and planting them wasn’t a great plan; they looked off but were definitely sunflower.  The yield was poor, and harvesting was a disaster as my dad decided to use a regular reel.  The sunflower heads were tossed like frisbees from the front of the machine. Luckily, it was just a few acres.  But it was a total disaster, and my dad said we were never doing that again. Like I’ve done for most of my life, I didn’t listen very well.  The next year we went to 20 acres!
       The next year, I got the planter set right, everything was going well — then it rained what seemed 14 feet in three days.  I got more seed and replanted.
       That year we modified a corn head to use a stationary knife. We’ve invested in other equipment, too, to make the process easier.  When I started I was using my great grandfather’s grain cleaner from 1920; now I have two modern grain cleaners, still made from the original manufacturer — and the screens from 100 years ago still fit!  This past year we increased acreage to 40 and ended up being very pleased.
       On the business side, we started our own brand name, and had to develop a logo, figure out bagging, and all those things that a startup company needs to do.  We are finally cash flow positive! Things just take longer than you think they will, but it’s a rewarding process.  Beth has done a great job back in the office with order fulfillment and the marketing
Where can your products be purchased?
       We sell to several flagship stores in southern Maine.  We started with three stores and by this summer will have two more in operation.  You can buy our products online, through “Something from the Garden” operated by Juli Hamilton in Van Wert, Ohio, and at the farm.  This summer, as part of an agri-tourism push, we will be offering four weekends of fun down on the farm (maze, animal interactions, farm market, etc.).
Are you doing advertising, PR, social media or other efforts to promote your products?
       Beth manages our marketing; our website is a good place to start:  We are also on Facebook and Instagram

Any new products coming out soon?
       We are so busy right now that we can barely keep up the way it is.  I’m keeping my engineering skills handy designing new process flow equipment to interact with our cleaners, dehullers and packaging equipment. We are investing in more cleaning and separating equipment as well as packaging.  
       Things are expanding, and it’s pretty exciting.  We are working on some premium birdseed blends, including safflower, cracked corn, peanuts and cherries.  But sunflower is the secret ingredient; without black oil sunflower we wouldn’t be able to do any of this. Bird feeding is huge in our part of the country, and people are willing to pay more to feed the birds premium birdseed. 
       The newest and most unique product we are now promoting is sunflower flour.  We have teamed with a local family in Ohio that has developed a unique and patented process for crushing the grain. Sunflower flour is unique in the industry, and we are making it.  That’s being marketed to high-end bakeries in Maine and in the Midwest.  The response we’ve had when sharing this with people has been a puzzling look at the beginning of the conversation; but when they taste it, they realize it is really good. You can make a great tortilla with sunflower flour!
       Outside of sunflower, we’ve added a portfolio of heirloom corns to the crop rotation. These are used in the distillation industry and for unique meals and grits.
       We will continue to grow agri-tourism in Rockford, Ohio.  Last year we had cars from 13 states visiting the farm. ?We will expand the floral market flowers and interactions in the field through mazes, wedding venues and photography sessions. 
       We grow sunflower for the floral market as well.  Last year we held an open field day where we invited people to come out and walk through our sunflower fields, take pictures and buy stems. We will expand that this year because it was such a success.  We are planning to have a maze or a design in the field that can be seen from the air, and I am going to haul my piano out into the field and shoot a drone video while I play.  We want to help people understand where their food comes from. 
       Sunflower is a huge draw in agri-tourism.  We have an opportunity to educate people, to teach them that steak doesn’t just come from a package in the store, and that sunflower seeds don’t magically appear in the Planters® jar.  Not many people farm anymore or understand where things are growing.  We want to change that.  And, at the same time, our goal is to be the largest sunflower grower east of the Mississippi River. 
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