When Rich Eshleman describes a late April day on his farm in Sandusky, OH, his voice comes alive. The asparagus spears are all lined up in rows ready to harvest. Just several days before, their tufty green and purple heads were barely poking out of the cool soil. The fruit-bearing trees are coming alive, too, with small leaves developing. On some, you can just start to see the bloom while others, like the sweet cherries, are just about at full bloom. The bees are active buzzing to and fro and warmer days are on the horizon—the arrival of the asparagus harvest is a sure sign of that.
For those who long-await the local produce season, these pointy stalks are an early reward for our patience. At Eshleman Fruit Farm, this cool-weather crop is like the first domino that falls in a row for the season to come on his land that he farms now alongside his son, Jeffrey. Rich has more than 40 years of experience farming and he recites like the conductor of a symphony how each crop plays its part at just the right time. He anticipates the asparagus harvest lasting about eight weeks into mid-June when the days really start to heat up. But that’s OK, because it’ll be time to move their efforts to the fruit-bearing trees as the sweet cherries start to ripen.
Next up are the early peaches, plums, and then a crescendo of numerous apple varieties that’ll take Eshleman Fruit Farm all the way into November. “It’s interesting,” says Rich, an alumnus of The Ohio State University with a degree in horticulture. “That’s why I like fruit farming rather than just corn and soy beans and wheat.”
True, the orchards are what Eshleman’s is predominantly known for as the name “Fruit Farm” implies. But by starting to grow asparagus about six years ago, the farm is able to have additional income from harvesting something early in the season. “It’s another way to diversify and not put all of your eggs in one basket,” Rich says of the farm that’s now comprised of more than 300 acres.
Rich started dabbling with his first peach orchard on his parents’ land after high school while pursuing his degree before he was enlisted. He spent five and a half years in the army where he obtained the rank of Captain while serving overseas in Vietnam. Then, Rich and his late wife Betty spent time in both Michigan and Washington to study fruit farming. They purchased a parcel of land in 1977 and started farming, adding another 40 acres to it in 1989, which is where the Eshleman farm market stands.
At that time, he recalls fruit farms being plentiful in the area, but as time went on, there were fewer. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are only seven farms in Ohio reporting 100 or more acres of land bearing apples. Rich says that Eshleman Fruit Farm has 100 or more acres dedicated to apples, about 30 acres of peaches, 32 acres of asparagus, and the rest dedicated to sweet cherries and plums with some land rented out to other farmers.
Rich, who kids that he is supposed to be inching closer to retirement, is determined to keep Eshleman growing strong, especially now that his son Jeffrey, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force for 21 years, has joined him. And that means ensuring that it is profitable. When Rich started farming asparagus about six years ago, he knew there weren’t many others in Ohio growing more than a few acres for commercial purposes; although it yields a good profit early in the season, it’s a very labor-intensive crop.
Eshlemen Fruit Farm sells its local goods at its farm-store presence, to other farm stands, and to select retailers like Dorothy Lane Market in the Dayton, OH, area. After harvesting, Eshleman likes to get the products to its destination where it will be sold within two days.
DLM Produce Director Michelle Mayhew says that asparagus is in high demand starting right before Easter. “But nothing compares to the excitement when the local product arrives,” she says, a true sign that the local floodgates are opening. – Jessie Kuhn
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