Stepping Up to the Plate: Farming Makes a Difference Close to Home & Across the World
The pastures of SonRise Meadows in Batavia, Ohio, are a long way from the baseball diamonds where J.J. Hoover has pitched for several Major League teams during the past seven seasons. And the farm’s cattle and chickens are a far cry from the exotic animals that his wife, Megan-Kate, has trained throughout her career.
However, on this humble 75-acre farm, the Hoovers have found their proverbial field of dreams. Despite having no agricultural background, the couple discovered a shared passion for farming, and they are now sustainably producing their own food while helping others do the same.
“If J.J. wasn’t playing baseball, he’d be farming full time,” Megan-Kate says. “This is a big change and a big endeavor for us, but we’re doing things slowly, trying to be as successful as we can.”
Raising livestock may be new to Megan-Kate, but working with animals is not. As a young girl, she volunteered at the zoo in her hometown of University Place, Washington, where she also apprenticed with the local veterinarian and opened her own wildlife rehabilitation service—all by age 15.
Megan-Kate says her love of animals was a retreat from the pain and discomfort of Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition with which she was diagnosed at age 13. “I’ve been really sick my entire life, to the point that I have almost died,” she says. “Animals were the one thing that I just really connected with, especially being a sick teenager. They became that much more important to me.”
Her childhood interest in animals led to a professional training career, which took her to exotic locations such as Thailand to work with dolphins and elephants. In 2011, she landed at the Cincinnati Zoo as curator of animal development and training. That’s where she met J.J., who made his Major League Baseball debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2012. He arranged a private tour of the zoo, and Megan-Kate was his guide.
“We became friends and found out we are very like-minded,” she says. “We got along so well, and everything was just easy. We decided to start dating, and here we are.”
After they married in 2014, J.J. took an interest in researching ways to alleviate his wife’s Crohn’s symptoms and learned that eating unprocessed, naturally grown foods are among the recommendations. So, the Hoovers began growing as many fruits and vegetables as they could in their backyard garden.
“That was like opening a can of worms for J.J.,” Megan-Kate says. “He started getting more and more interested in how food is grown and processed and became passionate about wanting to provide good food for us but also for other people who need it.”
A little more than a year ago, the Hoovers purchased their farm to expand production, naming it “SonRise Meadows” to reflect their Christian values. In addition to a large garden, they’re now raising Devon cattle, with plans to offer grass-fed beef, and chickens to provide farm-fresh eggs.
The land previously had been row-cropped with corn and soybeans, so rebuilding soil health has been one of their first priorities. The couple is working to renovate pastures and build organic matter with different annual mixtures. They plan to sow perennial forages this fall. Rotational grazing is essential to their forage-based operation. The Hoovers set up a 17-acre pasture in a grid that resembles ladder rungs, Megan-Kate explains. They move the cattle through these paddocks twice a day, and the chickens graze behind the bovine in a mobile coop.
To create this system, Megan-Kate relies on Gallagher’s Tumblewheel, which acts like a rolling fencepost and allows her to move a fence line in a matter of minutes. The Hoovers also use Gallagher electric wire, energizers, geared reels and posts. These products make farm chores simpler for Megan-Kate, who’s typically the sole operator while her husband is on the road during the baseball season.
“Most of the time, it’s just me taking care of things, and J.J. did a ton of research about what would make my life easier,” Megan-Kate says. “We’ve been happy with Gallagher products. They work very well and save me time and energy.”
After the Hoovers purchased their farm, Megan-Kate left her job at the zoo to focus on agricultural pursuits and her business, Midwest Animal Training, where she specializes in training dogs, cats and other critters for the film and entertainment industry. Her skills in this area have served her well on the farm, too.
“A lot of it is patience,” Megan-Kate says. “You have to listen to the animal’s needs and not your own, knowing when to push and when to back off or try something completely different.” Even though she’s managing SonRise Meadows mainly on her own right now, Megan-Kate says the farm ultimately will be a team effort when J.J. retires from baseball.
“Eventually, we’ll be in full-scale production of eggs and beef, and we’d like to raise pigs and put in a permaculture garden and orchard,” Megan-Kate says. Permaculture is a self-sustaining growing system that works with nature. “By the time J.J. is done with baseball, we’re hoping the farm is producing income on its own to where he can just step into that role.” The Hoovers also have agricultural ambitions far beyond their Ohio farm. Working with a St. Louis-based group, Crisis Aid, they plan to purchase land in Ethiopia and establish a teaching farm where the local community can learn more about agriculture.
“One of the biggest issues in Ethiopia is the lack of education on how to feed yourself, and the starvation rate over there is like nothing else in the world,” Megan-Kate says. “Our goal is to be able to provide a school where members of a tribe could learn how to grow crops and care for animals and then take that knowledge back to their village.”
It’s a lofty goal, she admits, but one that could truly make a difference in the world—just as SonRise Meadows is making a difference close to home for the Hoovers.
“Our goals and our dreams are so positive with the farm that it’s worth the mud and issues and breakdowns and crying in the field,” she says. “We’ve had a lot ups and downs when it comes to running the farm and J.J. being away so much, but God is so driven behind this that it makes the tough days easier. Not every day on farm life is awesome. But it’s certainly rewarding.”
Keep up with SonRise Meadows on Facebook and Twitter or at sonrisemeadows.com. Learn more about Midwest Animal Training at www.midwestanimaltraining.com.