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May 31, 2020

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15 minutes with Andrew Keeler, BHS and Bluffton University grad

"My wife and I are owner-operators of Avodah Sustainable Acres"

We’ve forgotten all this: When did you graduate from high school and college:
Bluffton High School in 2008 and Bluffton University in 2012.

What did you major in?
I graduated with a major in history and minor in economic development.

The last time we caught up with you, you were involved in the Mennonite Central Committee mobile canning crew. Where did the canning crew travel and when did you volunteer in this?
When I was on the MCC mobile cannery, we traveled to 33 different locations in the US and Canada.

We traveled as far west as Kansas and Nebraska, north to Manitoba and Ontario, Canada, and East to Pennsylvania and Virginia. Any state in between there we stopped in as well. Another place I was able to go while on the cannery (but not to can meat) was to Guatemala and El Salvador. While there, we were able to visit and interact with families and children who were benefactors of the canned meat. 

The most interesting place that I visited on the cannery was Sterling, Oh. This is the case because that is where I met my future wife, which is the basis to the following questions about our agri-business enterprises.

The years I volunteered on the cannery were from the summer of 2012 to the spring of 2014.

Tell us about your agri-business.
My wife and I are owner-operators of Avodah Sustainable Acres. If you are wondering what "Avodah" means, it is a Hebrew word that means work, worship, and service.

We started out by growing strawberries right after we got married, but have shifted more of our energy into maintaining a no-till market garden. In addition to the strawberries and market garden, we also have a flock of around 100 laying chickens as well as raising organic fed and pastured broilers (meat chickens). We do everything in the market garden in a no-till system, which means exactly what it sounds like, we do not till.

Not only is there an abundance of life above soil, there is an even more abundant life in the soil that we try to preserve by not disturbing the soil. Essentially our farming practices are based around feeding the life in the soil with compost, which will inevitably feed the plants we are raising in the soil. We also do everything without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. 

How did you make the leap from being a history major to yagri-business?
This is a hard question to answer. I still enjoy the area of history and have found my winters reading about agricultural topics that address the historical importance of how farming practice have shaped the evolution of civilizations.

One book I would recommend in this area would be David Montgomery's book "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations." However, I would say the leap came after I got married and wanted to become my own employer. So, what one does in thinking this is to start with what they know. What I had a lot of experience and passion for was growing produce.

This was instilled in me at an early age by working at Suter's Produce from the age of 12 right up to when I got married … 13 or 14 years?

Who and where are your customers?
The markets that we use for our produce are all direct markets. The first year we wholesaled about 90 percent of our strawberries, but as the word got out and we start to put our nose in different areas we have been able to rely mostly on direct sales.

Every Saturday we attend a Farmer's Market in Wadsworth. We also have a stand at the farm that is open every day (except Sunday) during strawberry season and every Tuesday once strawberries are done until fall. The only wholesaling we do is to a local bulk food store.

There we sell eggs and lettuce year round, as well as spinach during the winter at this location. For now, all of these markets have been able to keep up with what we are able to supply. Every year we plan to grow more and wonder if we will have to expand to different markets but each year our markets have continued to grow.

However, we are currently working on the final details to starting a Community Supported Agriculture program in 2020. We are excited for this opportunity and what the future will hold for us. We truly have a wonderful customer base that are not even customers anymore but have become friends. 

Any chance of expanding in the Bluffton area?
Well we have thought about it but the 2-hour drive would be hard to manage...I would love to be able to with the roots that I have there but at this point it will not work. 

Can you remember who you sat beside in first grade?
Not a chance. 

Are there any school detentions in your past? Care to elaborate.
I believe I only received one detention in my school tenure. That was in Mr. Sycks' MS Music class. I received the detention for flicking a paper football across the room. I was obviously at fault for this and deserved every bit of it. 

What was your favorite BHS or elementary cafeteria lunch, or did you pack?
I would have to say my favorite or just the first one that comes to mind would be chili cheese fries.

In addition to the lunch, the best part was getting an oatmeal creme pie. At the time lunch was $1.65 and I was given $2 for lunch. An oatmeal creme pie was 35 cents and provided the proper means to emptying my pockets. 

What is your lowest-ever golf score? Any holes in one?
My lowest golf score was during a Lima Junior Golf Tournament in Celina where I shot a 67. I only have 1 hole in one in my life and that was at a golf course near Bally, Pennsylvania. 

If people are interested in what you are doing where may they follow your business endeavors?
We have a Facebook page where people may follow us. All you need to do is look up Avodah Sustainable Acres and like us or friend us to see our updates.

We also have a Youtube channel called "Learn as we Grow" where we put weekly videos up about different aspects of farming/farm life that we are experiencing.