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According to Columbia University—a symbiotic relationship between communities and local farms will effectively ensure a more sustainable future for people. Through developing sustainable agricultural practices, many farmers and communities are working together to grow and consume nutritionally-dense food, including Drew Manko of The Ross Family Farm.
Drew Manko is a sixth-generation farm manager for The Ross Farm — a heritage, family-owned farm that’s been operating for over a century in the upper Ohio Valley region. The farm raises specialty, rare-breed sheep to produce wool and lamb. Drew’s mother, Amy Ross Manko explained that the family immigrated across an ocean some 300 years ago from Scotland and Wales.
“I’m on the 1910 Farm which was actually purchased in 1894,” Amy explained. “And down the road about a mile and a half my cousin is on the 1830 farm. And then if you go about three miles farther down the road, you get to the 1700s farm.”
The farm is now home to 11 breeds of heritage sheep—which are breeds that come from, and have adapted to specific, challenging geographic regions. While steeped in personal and historic farming traditions, Amy explained modern farm managers like her son Drew are part of a movement of innovative farm techniques that both lean into the future and hearken to past practices.
“When I call my son innovative,” she said, “it’s because he’s not sitting back saying, ‘well, we just got to ship into the auction because that’s what Pap did.’ No, he’s going out and seeking clients. He’s processing himself. He’s got a USDA processing number. He’s providing the community with healthy, humanely raised, sustainable food.”
As part of a youth storytelling series made possible through Oglebay Institute and the Rural Arts Collaborative (RAC), Ohio County public school kids there are teaming up with an outfit of urban farmers with the nonprofit Grow Ohio Valley. Jenn Jenson brought local sheep farmers in to speak with students. Together they put together this story.
Student Question: What’s The SCARIEST thing to happen on the farm and what was going through your mind?
Drew Manko: I was chased down by a steer one time, and I jumped the gate just in time for him not to get me with his horns. We were loading him up to go to the processor. And he decided that maybe he didn’t want to go. And he turned around and chased three or four of us. I know Jordan was there that day, but uh, yeah. He just kind of put us down and thought about it for a second and then took off after us. It was really that like instinctual fight or flight? Like there’s no way I’m going to take on this 1200 pound animal so I just ran as fast as I can away from him.”
Drew also shared the story of how his grandmother once saved their livestock from a dog attack.
Drew Manko: There was a dog attack before I was born in ‘93 and we lost, 66 ewes were ripped up by dogs — not even wild dogs, somebody’s dogs that lived near the farm. So, my grandmother, who was a professor of nursing at WVU, stitched every single ewe back together. We didn’t lose a single ewe and they all lambed shortly following that.
Drew went on to explain that today some of his sheep are butchered and their meat sold. Others are bred for their wool. He also talked about what happens to the wool after sheep are sheared.
Drew Manko: We send it out to the family owned mill in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and they spin it into either yarn or roving and send it back to us. And then mom goes to 10 or 12 fiber festivals a year and sells them as well as we have a shop on Main Street in Washington that we sell yarn from, as well as online.
Amy Manko: I started the yarn company in 2012. And then people ask me questions, and I figured out I better learn how to spin and knit because I didn’t know the answers!
Student Question: What advice do you have for young farmers who might just be starting up?
Drew Manko: My generation has watched the turmoil that we’ve had in the 90s, early 2000s. Where the prices are down, the inputs are up, they’ve watched their fathers and their grandfathers and their mothers and their grandmothers struggle, and work a job or a second job as well as on the farm. And that’s not something they want to do. Because they don’t want to live like that. They don’t want to struggle like they’ve watched their ancestors struggle. They get that there’s-never-going-to-be-anything-for-me-here mentality. The second they’re out of high school they’re going to college, welding a pipeline, they’re doing something else.
So the main thing is: don’t give up.
There’s a lot of opportunities that the old timers either didn’t see or didn’t understand. Like niche marketing, direct marketing, direct-to-consumer, stuff like that. I mean we’ve got an older guy that farms a farm down the road from us and behind us as well, and … he just calls me crazy.
Drew says his least favorable part—the hardest part—about being a farmer is the risk he has to take.
Drew Manko: I mean, any morning I could wake up and the place could be on fire and we would lose it all. And you know, we could have a bad predator attack and lose a lot of animals. We could get a disease come through, like you’re seeing in the Chinese swine population right now. Just the uncertainty or the risk of it.
Despite hearing about scary encounters with bulls and dire warnings about risks associated with farming, students came away with respect and longing to visit the Ross farm. Many aren’t far removed from a time when farming was a normal, critical way of life in their families. And many experts in the field say returning to small farm models, which are still prevalent in this region, is the future.
This story is part of a youth storytelling initiative made possible through Oglebay Institute and the Rural Arts Collaborative (RAC). RAC is funded by the Benedum Foundation and aims to bring professional teaching artists into schools during the content day to enhance the arts education experience.
It was recorded and produced out of a yurt in an outdoor classroom in the middle of an urban farm in downtown Wheeling.