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OSU honors organic farmer with study site

HASKINS - John E. Hirzel dedicated much of his career to organic farming.

This morning, Ohio State University will dedicate a 28.8-acre research site in his memory at the Agriculture Incubator Foundation on State Rt. 582 just east of this community.

“John was a tremendous supporter of not only Ohio State, but sustainable and organic agriculture,” said Deborah Stinner, research scientist and coordinator of the Organic Food and Farming Education and Research program. “Because of his interest in organic agriculture, he became the largest certified producer of organic vegetables in Ohio.”

Mr. Hirzel, who had been president and farm manager of Hirzel Farms, Inc., of Pemberville, died of lung cancer in February, 2000.

He most likely would have been honored by the John E. Hirzel Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Site because it embodies many of the things he felt strongly about, according to his brother, Joe Hirzel.

“After his demise, it was quite crushing to the sustainable agriculture community,” Joe Hirzel said. “He was a leader in that, and his death was sudden. He was only 55.”

“Sustainable agriculture” refers to farming techniques that are “economically, ecologically, and socially sustainable,” Ms. Stinner said. Organic farming, which avoids the use of chemicals, is one of those.

John Hirzel, a graduate of Ohio State's College of Agriculture, got interested in organic farming in the 1980s and converted 600 acres of the family's vegetable farm into certified organic production. His brother said Hirzel Farms always has been interested in filling niche markets.

“Anything that looked a little unusual we got into, anything no one else wanted to do,” Joe said.

The company has a strong interest in sharing the knowledge researchers gain with farmers and students of agriculture. That goal was behind the Hirzels' decision in 1998 to purchase the former world research headquarters of the H.J. Heinz Co. and convert it to a non-profit research foundation. Universities, corporations, and other agencies now lease space at the 140-acre site.

Ohio State's Agricultural Research and Development Center, which will run the Hirzel research plot, has 10 outlying branches, including a 247-acre plot near Hoytville in southern Wood County that is primarily devoted to field crops, and a 105-acre plot near Fremont focused on vegetable crops, said Kurt Knebusch, spokesman for the center.

While the site dedicated to John Hirzel is smaller, Ms. Stinner said it holds all kinds of possibilities.

“Depending on the questions that are being asked, 29 acres is a huge universe,” she said. “... Actually it's a wonderful resource from my perspective. It will have more meaning to farmers because even though the plots are only 30 feet wide, which is machine operation width, it looks more like what they might see on their own farm.”

Ohio State plans to establish five replicated farming systems that demonstrate different options in sustainable agricultural crop production and marketing, including conventional and organic grain and vegetable crops.

The center has set aside $20,000 a year for five years for the Hirzel site and is seeking additional funding and contributions to enhance the research conducted there, Ms. Stinner said.

“What we and Ohio State are doing is just one part of a much larger vision and dream that local leaders - including John - held,” she said.

Officials and guests will gather at 10 a.m. today at the Agriculture Incubator Foundation for the dedication.

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