Connecting the dots with Farmer Charlene Stoller
Today on Rootstock Radio, Theresa Marquez interviews Charlene Stoller, an Organic Valley dairy farmer in Sterling Ohio. Charlene is not only a farmer, a wife, and a mother of eight, but also an educator and a speaker. Currently, she’s working on writing her own cookbook!
When Charlene and her husband Scott began farming organically it wasn’t always easy. But a number of conventional practices—like using pesticides and antibiotics—didn’t sit quite right with the Stollers. They reached a point where Scott was saying “I will farm this way even if I don’t actually certify in market this way. This is the way I want to farm.”
The entire Stoller family in 2007. Today, the Stollers’ oldest children are grown and have started families of their own.
But of course they did certify organic in market. Today the Stollers own and run a thriving organic dairy farm that has won accolades at the county, state, and national levels. Charlene and Scott like to call their path to organic agriculture a simple, commonsense act of “connecting the dots.”
Charlene affirms that organic farming “takes management, it takes hard work, but it’s possible, it’s doable and the result of that is food that—with a clean conscience—we can eat and feel good about.”
You can also learn more about Charlene and her family in this lovely video by Organic Valley:
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with one of my very favorite people, Charlene Stoller, who is an organic dairy farmer in Sterling, Ohio. And she’s of, course, a wife and a mother of eight. She’s writing a cookbook, she’s an educator, she’s a speaker. And Charlene, it’s an honor to have you on our program today.
CHARLENE STOLLER: Thank you, Theresa.
TM: And I just kind of want to start right, almost from the beginning, of wow, how did you and Scott decide to go into organic farming?
CS: We kind of call it connecting the dots. When you see results that you like, you tend to pursue that. If you see results that you’re concerned about, you tend to ask questions and maybe steer away from that. And my husband, Scott, was injured in a farming accident almost twenty years ago. He lost his right hand, and through that, a lot of antibiotics that may have saved his life—it’s not that there’s not any good to it—but then we saw a lot of downside, a lot of side effects from that.
And I also say, what we learn in the house, we transfer to the barn; what we learn in the barn, we transfer to the house. And just a lot of watching, connecting dots, and concern about medicines and their effect on us, side effects, just made us reach out for the organic world. And at that point it wasn’t popular, it wasn’t vogue. It was very looked down upon, maybe sneered at. And yet we got to the point where this is what we felt we needed to do.
There really wasn’t much of a market at that point—it was back in 2001—and we didn’t know if we’d ever be able to sell organic milk. But Scott got to the point where he said, “I will farm this way even if I don’t actually certify and market this way. This is the way I want to farm.”
TM: Wow, what a dedication. But also, my goodness, I know Scott and he’s just very competent. And I think he has a prosthetic that he just seems to use extremely well. But I’m also always just amazed that after having an accident—and it was a farm accident, wasn’t it, Charlene?
CS: It was.
TM: And after that, he, wow, you kept farming. Was that full of challenges?
CS: That was. We actually, the year he lost his hand, his grandparents actually sold us the first half of the farm, and then the second half the next year. We were just like in a daze, going through that time. I look back in kind of disbelief and think, I can’t believe we did all that. But Scott is amazing. He is actually amazing. He is a conqueror, he’s an overcomer even of maybe his own fears and insecurities. And he meets a challenge head-on. And people that have been around him, I think, a lot of times, I think it inspires us to conquer our own challenges, because we decide that it’s…by watching him, it gives us the courage to try.
I remember him telling one of the kids one time, “When life gives you the lemons, make lemonade.” Scott is not a pity-party person, he’s not out having, “Poor me, I lost my hand.” He just, he’s over and above, and he doesn’t let it get in his way.
TM: Well, you know, what an amazing time that we live in now, and we all need to look at those people who have so much courage. And I see that you and Scott both, for me, embody a courageous spirit and can-do spirit that is just such a great model for all of us, and I’m sure a great one for your children.
But you know, I’m really curious. You have, I know, quite a bit of acreage that you’re farming and being stewards of, and then you’re also milking cows, and also you have all kinds of other animals. Can you tell us a little bit about your, I’m going to call it your menagerie? I think our listeners would love to hear about that.
CS: Well, that’s for fun. Our livelihood is selling milk. We do keep, I guess, varied interests on the farm. Some are the kids’, some are Scott’s. We do have ranging chickens, and that is for eggs for ourselves and our kids—we have three married kids and their families. We have peacocks, peahens. We have turkeys. We have the Bourbon Reds, tend to sit on their eggs, and I just was told today that a mother turkey just hatched five or six babies, baby turkeys. We have, in the past we’ve had donkeys—we’re still not sure why we did that. We’ve had goats. And it always seems like…
One of my favorite stories about this is, I guess, I appreciate Scott’s, the kindness in which he deals with people, but I also say I don’t want him to market our milk. We had bought a donkey for our daughter, and it was, I think it was three hundred dollars, and it seemed kind of like a lot just for, you know, for nothing[?], but well, that’s what she wanted. So we got this donkey, and then we got it bred, and we went to sell the baby to one of our friends, and Scott said, “Oh, I think probably two-fifty.” And I’m kind of asking him, “Well, if the mother was worth three hundred, why isn’t the daughter?” Well, you know, he just can’t charge that much to his friend. And I thought, you know, I am actually proud of him for his kind spirit. And you don’t lose when you deal with Scott.
We also have Norwegian elkhound dogs, which are very hardworking dogs on the farm, and they are what make it possible to keep our ranging chickens, because they ward off predators. Right now we have pigs—this is the first time for us. I was told for years that we needed pigs, and then I was under the impression that they really were going to get a pig this year, and I’m like, okay, it’s all right, we’ll let them get a pig. Well, when “the pig” arrived, it turned out there were five pigs! And I was told, “Oh, it’s okay, Mom, really, only like,”—these were runts, so—“only like statistically half of them live.” But under the loving care of my offspring, all five of them are still living. And they would often get out and range the farm and eat and root around in the grass.
TM: Oh dear!
CS: So that’s finally been, they’re now confined and they don’t get out anymore, which is a great relief to me.
TM: I would say so, because I’m assuming that you have just a wonderful garden that you all eat out of.
CS: They don’t even make it to the garden—the garden is farther from where the pigs were. But yes, we do have a large garden, and I would be heartbroken to see it rummaged through by a pig. But that part of our little trauma is over, so…
TM: And the pigs are for both manure, which you probably don’t need because you have the cows, but for your food.
TM: They’re not just pets.
CS: No, no, it’ll be for food. And one interesting aspect of that also is my mother is a very avid gardener, and she loves to pull weeds and load them in a wheelbarrow and take them to the pigs. And so while we’re also getting the weeds out of the garden, the pigs just think it’s a delicacy, and they love to see her come into the barn with her goodies. And she just is delighted because she’s finding a use for these weeds, and the pigs are eating them. And it’s kind of a neat cycle.
TM: Yeah, it is a neat cycle, isn’t it? Boy, that would make me feel a whole lot better about weeding, I think, which is of course, every gardener has to do it.
CS: Yeah, my mom just said this morning, it just adds an extra interest to it when she can actually feed them to the pigs and they’re excited for it, so…
TM: Yeah, well, it kind of goes back to connecting the dots, isn’t it?
CS: It does. It sure does.
TM: It’s like, you know, maybe people, when they pull weeds… You know, someone told me once that a weed is a plant that grows where it’s not supposed to be growing. But maybe another definition for a weed is a weed can be some animal’s delicious, delectable treat.
CS: Well, actually, weeds can be very nutritious and edible. And I used to bring in the purslane from the garden and add it to the salads till my husband and my sons just groaned and rolled their eyes enough that I stopped. But I was just reading how full of omega 3s, which we know we need so much, and vitamin E, and they’re so nutritious. And it’s just a pity that they’re out there going to waste. But Scott just told me that we’ll feed them to the pigs, and then that’ll do the pigs good, and then we’ll eat the meat from that. And so he’s still going to get it that way.
TM: So he’s, you’re still out there connecting those dots.
CS: We’re still connecting dots.
TM: And you said that you had three children who are married and have families, and so lovely that they’re close to you and that you share so many things. And your other five children, they’re still working on the farm as well, aren’t they, Charlene?
CS: That is correct. The other five are still home. Actually the married, my two married sons work on the farm; and my daughter is married to a farmer also but they don’t farm with us, they farm on their own. But the kids are very, very involved in not only the farm work but just the garden and just… We all have to work together to make it all come out right. There’s no free road in here.
TM: Everybody has a job, don’t they?
CS: Everybody has a job, yeah.
TM: Well, I had the great pleasure to visit your farm, and I saw a lot of happy people in your family, and no one seemed to be complaining about work. They seemed to be in that place where work is an honorable thing to do.
CS: I just want to definitely enlarge that thought. Work is truly a privilege. And I admit I don’t always see it that way, and my kids don’t always see it that way. But in general, and as a whole, I firmly believe that. And we have seen, it gives the kids a purpose in life, it gives them… When they get responsibility they feel good about themselves and it makes them feel like a worthwhile human. They’re contributing to a family.
We actually had, one of our kids had a friend over just recently that, he was here for a few days, and he just was a super kid; he just dug right in and took part in the work, whether it was gardening or farm field work. And the mom said, when she came home, when he came home she said, “He was a different kid when he came home. He just has had such a good attitude.” And that made me feel good, that it had a positive impact on him, because it’s so good for a kid to feel needed. It’s not just busy work—it’s, you’re part of this unit and we need you. And it gives them such a sense of accomplishment.
TM: It is a wonderful thing to feel like you’re contributing. And I know that you, just, you’re talking about sharing, which your family does so beautifully, you share so much. I was just looking at all the different things that have happened just because of who you are and the way that you farm. For example, in 2007 you were awarded the National Resource—let me get this one right—Conservation Service Award for stewardship. Tell us about that. What did they find that they said this farm really deserves an award?
CS: The 2007 award was basically a stewardship of the land. Scott has, again, gone above and beyond the call of duty, and he did a riparian buffer, planting trees. What happened, we had a really steep spot in our, back in our back pasture, and he just, he thought of the danger that the children could…like if they would mow it and make some hay off it occasionally, that it was just too steep. And so we planted a lot of trees there; they did a cattle crossing, heavy-use access lane for the cows, because this goes back to, as we mentioned earlier about grazing. Grazing is such an important part of an organic dairy farm, as the cows eat twice a day, you know, of course, in season, get a new piece of grass, hay, clover, alfalfa, whatever it is. And so if it’s not done properly, you can end up with a mud lot. So with the heavy-use access lane, that was just imperative to efficient grazing.
It’s…the sun is the ultimate source of energy. When you can capture that with anything growing, then when the cow eats it there’s that powerful energy, goes into our milk, it goes into our bodies. It’s back to connecting dots: it’s the cycle. It’s beautiful. It’s how God made it.
He’s done waterways so that, to minimize erosion. He’s very, very conservation minded. And after…part of his frustration was that “no-till” was lauded as a way to minimize erosion. Scott believes that it’s exactly the opposite. He believes that the organic methods of farming and cover crops are far superior. And so after a heavy rain he would often, as he’d drive down the road, he would watch the outlets of this tile from farmland, and the water that was the runoff coming from the tiles on our farm was some of the cleanest around. And he feels very good about that because he feels like that’s being, taking good care of the ground, the soil, the farm that God’s given us.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with dairy farmer Charlene Stoller. Well, you know, Charlene, it’s so much deserved, of the National Resource Conservation Service award. And the other thing that I am really so proud of you is that you’re so willing to share what you’re doing. Did I just hear you say that you had several thousand people on your farm?
CS: Oh yeah! It’s called a Twilight Tour, and they showcase each year, area businesses donate money to…that you put on a nice meal. And Scott or someone has said that it was kind of like a fair without rides: free ice cream and a lot of booths set up for people displaying their products. So yes, we had a beautiful evening and a wonderful turnout. Someone said they had counted at one time, in the parking lot, which is where we’d just taken the wheat off, so it was a wheat field, they counted a thousand cars at one time in our wheat field/parking lot. It was very well attended.
And one neighbor said to me, “This was so good for the community.” He said, “Other communities, people are shooting each other, and for the community to be, without exception, invited in to share an evening and learn about farming…” And I think, for many years in our community, we have a term, Scott and I do, it’s called “organic by neglect,” where what people thought of as organic was simply not spraying, but then it was a weed mess. And I think that not only us, but lots of good organic farmers in our area are slowly showing the community that organic can be a very positive thing. It takes management, it takes hard work, but it’s possible, it’s doable. And the result of that, of the food that, with a clean conscience, we can eat and feel really good about.
TM: Well, you know, speaking of organic, wasn’t—I mean, this is a community event that happens every year in your, these two counties. And didn’t you tell me that this was the first time that an organic farm was chosen for the spot for this?
CS: That is true. We were the first organic farm to be asked to host the Twilight Tour, yes.
TM: Well, I would say, in Sterling, Ohio, organic has arrived, if three thousand people showed up. And you know not all of them were organic.
CS: No, but you know, we love our neighbors who farm conventionally as well. We believe in what we do, and we feel it’s a good way to go, but in our community, the rapport between organic farmers and conventional farmers, for the most part, is very good. I can tell you with, just loud and clear, that there are many conventional farmers living around us that we love dearly and we get along very well.
TM: That is a beautiful thing to hear, because certainly humanity is better off cooperating with each other and liking each other.
TM: But at the same time, I’m very proud because, you know, when you said, well, organic is hard, but isn’t all farming hard?
CS: Yeah, it can be. Scott has a way of saying it. He said we don’t have as many tools in our toolbox, and basically it’s the chemicals that he’s talking about when he says that. Because for a conventional farmer, they can put that fungicide and insecticide on their seeds; they can put that seed in the ground just as soon as they can. We can’t. We don’t have that protection on our seeds, because we and our consumer have rejected the thought of it. We don’t think it’s a good thing to be consuming. So this is more challenging. It takes a lot more management skills because we don’t have those “tools in the toolbox.”
TM: Well, you know, I would be remiss to do this interview and not at least talk a little bit about your rotational grazing system. Aren’t you a part of this managed intensive rotational grazing among the grazers there? And I’m sure that that, of course, is not unique to organic. There are probably other grazers around you as well. But I wanted to just ask you a little bit about how you got into grazing as well, and how is it working for you?
CS: We definitely are very much into rotational grazing. And again, that takes management and studying your pastures and knowing what’s where and trying to get it, you know, before it’s too old and not too young so that it stunts it. We have actually changed our fields’ directions so that they, as they come off of the cow lanes, so the cows can get to them better and so that we can graze more of what used to be only cropland, like row crops. And now with the new cow lanes, it integrates better. The cow can reach the fields better and make better use of that.
We have been, for over a decade now, grazers, and we have found it works very good. I always get excited, you know, when we bring cows in, when they can first go out in pasture, and the cows are excited—they kick their heels up, they’re so happy to go out onto the grass for the first time. And I just feel like, again, it’s the [unclear] that makes the milk so much more power-packed. The research has only just begun, as they tell us more about the omega 3s, all the different benefits of the cows grazing on growing hay.
TM: Yeah, you know, what Charlene said is absolutely scientifically proven, and it’s actually been more than just one study. It’s many, many studies that show that the more a cow grazes, the higher the omega 3 content is—it’s 60-plus percent greater.
TM: Significantly greater omega 3s. But just as good, the ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 is excellent.
When you switched to grazing, Charlene, was it hard? It looks like you went through an evolution. You said that you just moved some of your row crops, and I’m assuming they were annuals, into grass, which of course are perennials. And of course, we all know perennials hold carbon—they’re carbon sinks. So there’s another wonderful benefit of grazing, and that is that it’s good for the environment as well as for the cows.
TM: Well, you know, Charlene, we’re running out of time right now. And I just wanted to ask you, you know, I have your maple syrup chocolate chip cookie recipe that you so generously shared with me. And I wondered if you would mind if we posted that on our Rootstock blog.
CS: You’re absolutely welcome to share that. I’m definitely a recipe sharer. I have a book that I’m editing, hopefully for…it’s supposed to go to the printer’s in a couple weeks here, and it’s a recipe book, sharing my recipes and also just giving pictures and excerpts from our life and our family.
TM: Oh, how wonderful! Gee, and when are you expecting that you might have this in print, so that when it’s out I can let our listeners know how they can get it?
CS: Well, I think it’s supposed to print in August. It’s called Farmhouse Flavors, and the printer is Carlisle Press. And I think it will be this fall—it’s supposed to be released this fall. And I actually just finished editing some recipes right before you called, so I’m trying to get it completed and accurate as possible.
TM: Well, you know what, Charlene? You’ve just added another item to my list of why you are a remarkable woman. All the things that you do, and you’re also putting together a boo—I am amazed, and congratulations! And for our listeners, we’ll make sure that it’s on our Rootstock blog and that it’s available for those of you who would like to try some of Charlene’s recipes. And I will just tell you that she is a remarkable cook, having eaten her food—it’s just absolutely delicious. So Charlene, I can hardly wait.
CS: You know, a lot of times people will say, “Well, if it’s good, it’s not good for you.” And I take that as a personal challenge to make it good and good for you.
TM: Goodness knows that we sure do need that for our citizen consumers—food that is delicious but also is good for you. And I know that that, I’m sure that’s—I’ve had so much food like that, so I know it’s possible.
CS: Right. There are consequences to the choices we make and what we eat. And while I don’t believe in being fanatical about it and making a big deal and making people uncomfortable—like “Oh, no, I would never let something like that pass my lips!” or… I’m very uncomfortable with making it just almost like a god. I think we should make wise decisions and wise choices, because we will reap the consequences of the food we choose to eat and our lifestyles that we choose to live. It’s just part of our stewardship that we owe to our Maker for the life he has lent to us.
TM: Beautiful, Charlene, and such an honor to be speaking with you today. And for our listeners, we’re talking to Charlene Stoller, a farmer, wife, mother, gardener, educator, recipe developer, cookbook writer, and I am hopefully saying that a friend that I value very much. So once again, Charlene, thank you so much for being with us today.
CS: Thank you, Theresa. It’s been a privilege.