When you first meet Harold Hartzler and shake his large, strong hands there is a sense of connection to something good. Maybe it’s the humble spirit. You know he has met hardship and difficulty in a real way, but there is no defeat in his clear eyes. There is certainty. He knows something important, if not invaluable. His strong words and sure movements confirm everything he communicates. It’s easy to forget he is in his mid-eighties.
Perhaps his confident demeanor is due to the fact that Harold Hartzler has accomplished a dream. In 1990 he gathered his family to talk about offering their dairy products to the community. Hartzler had been farming using natural methods for some time and he knew the milk produced on his farm was free of pesticides and other toxins. No other such milk was being made available to the community. The family approved and Hartzler Family Dairy, Inc. was formed.
Harold and his wife, Patricia, have been farming in Ohio’s Wayne County since 1952. During their 40 plus years in marriage and agriculture they also raised six sons and two daughters. The land, the family and the life philosophy are all apparently interwoven here, as the Hartzler story unfolds.
“I farmed all my life,” Harold begins. He pauses slightly before continuing, “But I guess it was 1954 or ‘55 that the sprays came along. I drove 50 miles to buy it and started putting it on my hay and corn fields. Well, I’ll never forget the day we had a heavy rain come in right after I had put that stuff out. It ran over to a neighbor’s hay field and actually killed it. Now that neighbor was an elderly gentleman and we tended his fields for him. He had never trusted the chemicals and asked me shortly thereafter not to use any of the chemicals on his fields again,” he says.
Later Harold began to notice how hard his soil was becoming to plow and that his livestock was unhealthy. Most calves were barely living two weeks. Disturbing trends seemed to be developing beneath the earth, too.
“My sister used to have a thing about earthworms. She would follow the plow furrow and have herself a jar full in a matter of just a few feet,” Harold laughs. “One day I was in the middle of plowing a field and it was really hard. So I stopped the tractor and got down just to look around. I walked almost 500 feet and only found two worms. That bothered me,” he says with concern.
Harold Hartzler had no governmental help, no professional advice and no research supporting what he was about to do. Nevertheless, he felt strongly that he had to do it. “We went cold turkey in 1964 when I made the decision not to use any chemicals, herbicides or pesticides on my crops,” he says.
Harold read voraciously. But not only did he study printed materials, he also began experimenting with his own soil. Harold Hartzler said:
Other important and interesting things Harold learned included:
• Insects don’t particularly like healthy plants, they prefer to eat unhealthy plants
• Weeds are not all bad and actually return vital trace elements to the soil when plowed under
• Soil must be in balance in order for earthworms to hatch
“It only took me a few years to get my worms back,” Harold says proudly. “Their castings (manure) have five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorous and 11 times more potassium than the soil does before they process it. They are like having a fertilizer factory on your property for free.
That lowly, little worm works day and night while I’m sleeping,” he laughs.
There were more weeds than profits at the Hartzler farm during the first few years of conversion. It was no small decision to abandon the use of petrochemicals, which at the time were promoted heavily. But Harold and Patricia persevered. While he scrounged the farm and sold off old equipment for cash, she stretched the family food dollars with tasty but economical recipes. Eventually the Hartzler's began to see a return on their efforts. Their crop yields increased, their livestock’s health improved and their dairy began to produce profitable and great-tasting milk.
The Hartzlers’ success has not gone unnoticed. Today their farms are being thoroughly documented in terms of soil ecology, cropping systems, animal nutrition, economics and whole farm ecology by a USDA-LISA funded project through the Ohio State University Sustainable Agriculture Program.
Harold’s methods are also being studied internationally. He was flown to Italy where he met with agricultural dignitaries from the Italian government and six other nations. “I was nervous,” says Harold. “I went over there thinking I was going to be talking to farmers. Well, it was a good thing I spoke through an interpreter because that gave me time to think between sentences while I was presenting to all those officials,” he adds.
In fact, the group in Italy liked what they heard so much that they sent another group to Ohio to actually visit the Hartzler farm. “We have a lot of farmers, local and otherwise, coming here to find out what we’re doing,” says Harold. “It really surprises me. Why, one time we had a bus pull up here with 41 people from Australia on it,” he mentions with a unique blend of puzzlement and humility.
However, Harold will quickly announce with a proud smile, “My sons said that if they couldn’t farm naturally, they wouldn’t farm at all.” This is a key truth that obviously gladdens his heart. He knows he has left a valuable legacy.
New Year’s Day, 1990, marked another historic event in the Hartzler family. On that day, Harold, a deeply religious man, felt compelled to approach the family gathering with an idea. “It was the Lord’s leading, but I brought everyone together and basically said we are farmers raising a good product without using anything harmful. In fact, we have a superior product in our milk that no one else is offering around here. We should be selling it ourselves to the community,” he remembers.
The idea was approved. Hartzler Family Dairy Inc. was formed. However, unknown to the Hartzlers, no one had started a new dairy in Ohio in 30 years. Besides the usual logistics of starting a new business, there was a formidable health department rule book whose guidelines had to be learned and implemented. Property was located and cleared by the family. Construction then began on a facility that would house a milk processing plant and an Ice Cream Shoppe. The Hartzlers also located and purchased used dairy equipment from farmers in Pennsylvania who had quit the business.
The store front opened April 15, 1996, but the first bottle of milk was not sold until July 9. The first store to take the first shipment of their milk was The Mustard Seed Market in Montrose-just west of Akron.
Although Harold no longer works a dairy, he is far from retired. His company, PRO-MIN, keeps him busy in the business of biological soil consulting. He runs a warehouse from which he sells biologically safe fertilizer for lawns and gardens. Other farmers continue to visit regularly (and increasingly) for advice from Harold. He shares his information wealth freely.
“I don’t know everything about the soil,” he readily admits. “In fact, I once had a fertilizer expert tell me that everything I told him was in the books, but his teachers never taught it that way. All I know is I think we’re doing it as God intended it to work. The insects, the worms, the weeds...they all have a job to do with us as we farm the land. It’s really all quite simple once you understand what’s going on.”
Harold Hartzler definitely knows what is going on with the earth he has cultivated. He is very much at peace and in partnership with it. And he knows he has connected himself, his family and his customers to something good...
March 10, 1926- May 21, 2011
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
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