In 1958, Ralph and Frances Witten moved from the 1790s-era family homestead near Fly and Sardis and bought a piece of farm land sandwiched between Lowell and Beverly because of the proximity to Ohio 60.
"Grandpa decided he wanted to move his farming operation and he had an opportunity to purchase this farm after he looked at a couple different ones," said Julie Witten, who helps to run the current operation with brothers Tom and Scott. "He knew he wanted to sell vegetables and have a farm market and there was a good bit of traffic here, they had just built Fort Frye High School and education was really important to him and our family."
That particular piece of land was also chosen because the soil type is ideal for good vegetables, with sandy loam instead of clay and fog from the river, which protects from frost. Ralph had a history of raising vegetables and started growing sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes and many other vegetables. He also managed a herd of 40 Holstein dairy cows and, with Frances, decided this was an ideal home to raise their seven children.
ERIN O’NEILL The Marietta Times
The first Witten greenhouses to grow and assemble popular hanging baskets were opened in 1995.
ERIN O’NEILL The Marietta Times
Bonnie Witten, left, and daughter Julie, right, look at a framed photo of an aerial shot of the farm near Lowell.
ERIN O’NEILL The Marietta Times
From left are members of the Witten family, which has been farming in the Lowell/Beverly area since 1958: Julie Witten, Scott Witten, parents Jerry and Bonnie Witten, and Tom Witten.
"He was the kind of guy who made sure everybody was working," said Tom, who graduated in 2002 from The Ohio State University with a degree in crop science. "Back in the day it was a little more sexist because the boys went to the field and the women either packed and sold stuff or ran the market ... but Ralph had five daughters and two sons and they all had to work."
Jerry, Ralph and Frances' oldest son, was 13 when his family moved to Lowell. After leaving for college and a trip out west, he returned to the farm with an agriculture degree from The Ohio State University and expanded the farm into more wholesale in 1970, increasing the acreage of sweet corn, cantaloupes and field corn. Jerry and his wife Bonnie also started their own family around this time, which eventually grew to five, three of whom still work the farm. Daughters Carrie and Amy are both in the agriculture industry but live out of town.
While customers would typically take a drive out to the farm to get their produce in the early days, the idea of taking their goods to where the people are became a necessity for the farm to sustain itself.
56 years in Lowell.
7 full-time employees, 20 migrant field workers, 100 to 120 seasonal employees, 10 truck drivers.
20 retail locations.
290 acres of fruits and vegetables.
250 acres of hand picked sweet corn.
20 acres cantaloupes.
5 acres of tomatoes.
5 acres of miscellaneous cucumbers, squash etc.
10 acres of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
800 acres of field corn and soybeans.
120 Black Angus steers for locally sold freezer beef.
40,000 square feet of bedding plants.
Source: wittenfarms.com and Times research.
750 W. Hunter St., Logan.
1810 N. Memorial Drive, Lancaster.
950 Baltimore Somerset NE Rd., Baltimore.
Ohio 33, Nelsonville.
1200 East State St., Athens.
8465 State Route 339, Vincent.
Academy Drive, Ripley, W.Va.
Under the Ravenswood Bridge, Ravenswood, W.Va.
2605 Pike St., Parkersburg.
3600 Emerson Ave., Parkersburg.
17005 McConnelsville Road, Caldwell.
221 Pike St., Marietta.
6006 Grand Central Ave., Vienna, W.Va.
3190 Maple Ave., Zanesville.
380 Agler Road, Gahanna.
3341 Winchester Pike, Columbus.
1246 N 21st St., Newark.
125 N. Maysville Pike, Zanesville.
251 E. Broadway St., New Lexington.
16670 State Route 60, Lowell.
Circa 1770 - First Witten farm established near Sardis.
1958 - Ralph Witten buys land on Ohio 60 between Lowell and Beverly and begins farming.
1970 - Jerry Witten expands the business into more wholesale, increasing acreage of sweet corn, cantaloupes and field corn.
1980 - Ralph retires and dairy cows are sold.
1986 - First satellite location opened in Reno, which later moved closer to Marietta on Pike Street.
1995 - First greenhouse is opened.
2003 - A large period of growth when more retail outlets are added.
"In 1958, the interstate system had not yet opened up and route 60 was a major thoroughfare," Tom explained. "Things change though. When I was growing up, it seemed there was more traffic on route 60 but now it's all commuters. Sunday used to be our big sales day."
"That whole area under the elm tree was just covered with 30, 40 cars," Bonnie added.
Julie explained that the initial goal was to branch out and sell sweet corn throughout Ohio and expand the wholesale business.
"We had an opportunity to grow and sell our sweet corn before everyone else in northern Ohio," she said.
"In Cleveland, there were grocery stores up there where you go in and see 'Marietta sweet corn' or 'Marietta tomatoes,'" Scott added.
In 1995, the greenhouse aspect of Witten Farms was started with Julie taking over hanging baskets and flowers and more of the retail operation. Today there are 20 retail markets in locations as far away as Columbus.
One big change over the years has included acquiring more migrant farm workers to pick up the slack where interest from local laborers has waned.
"The first year we had migrant workers was 1992 because high school kids just weren't interested in doing the work any more," said Julie.
"But we do still reach out to local workers," Tom added. "We find tremendous local people to work at our markets and we have some people who have been there for years."
There are currently around 20 migrant workers and 100 to 120 seasonal workers are typically hired on to work at the retail markets. Wittens is involved with the federal H2A work visa program, which requires advertising for help in local newspapers and is adamant about hiring local workers first, if there are any applicants. It's just that no one is biting.
"They are making sure they aren't taking jobs from local people," said Julie. "But there's nobody calling. People are willing to do the work in retail but not willing to get out here and bend over in the dirt ... If we had not made this change (to a migrant workforce), we would not be here."
Other changes have been on the technological front. Something as common as a cell phone has made life on the farm much simpler.
"I don't know how dad was able to talk to the guys, take orders or anything," said Tom. "It is something now we just take for granted."
Trickle irrigation was started at the farm about seven years ago, according to Scott, and it has made a big difference in the yield.
"We would rather have a drought than too much rain because now we can control it," Tom said.
"We can also add the fertilizer directly to the water ... it is so easy to set up," Scott added.
The renewed interest in organic and locally-grown produce has allowed the farm to expand to where it is today and there are hopes to further that expansion.
Technology has also allowed sweet corn, Witten's most popular item, to be picked at night, and on the road to consumers early the next morning.
"We start at 2 a.m., harvesting behind this light tower, and try to get it to people for lunch," Tom said. "That sweet corn never has more sugar than the moment I pull it off the stalk, then it starts a downward curve on the sweetness chart. So the faster we can get it to you and you can get it in your pot, the happier you are."
Looking to the future, the Witten children are hopeful their parents will finally take a break-not likely if you ask Jerry, who still makes his rounds day in and day out or Bonnie, who still works as a bookkeeper, goes to farmers markets and dotes on the grandchildren.
Whether or not the eighth generation of Wittens will take over remains to be seen.
"Dad always told us, do what makes you happy," Julie said. "But this is what we know and this is what we love."