For the Hunt
It’s all about food independence and living off the land for local hunter Steve Berk
The hunt begins and ends with the land. And like with most ongoing efforts to rekindle the long-lost relationship of balanced give and take we humans once maintained with the Earth, the return to procuring one’s own food involves such an intrinsic and fundamental connection to the physical soil that it almost seems holy.
It’s when discussing the land and his relationship to it that you see passion flare in Steve Berk’s eyes.
Steve, a local hunter, sets out towards the fields of Cherrybend Pheasant Farm with his trusted bird-hunting dog, Lulu, propped at his side in the passenger seat. If it were a hunting day, he would have his gun and Lulu would be prowling the fields for the next catch.
It was not a hunting day. For both of them, however, just setting foot on Cherrybend’s 640-acre fields, teeming with bird wildlife and rich with agricultural diversity, just feels like home. Perhaps it’s because for five years of Steve’s post-Peace Corps life he adapted his multicultural agricultural background, gained from his time spent in Paraguay, to the flat farmlands of Ohio.
During those early Ohio farming years, Steve lived in the second story of Cherrybend’s hunters’ lodge where he fully immersed himself in living off the farm’s land while beginning to engage in the area’s local hunting and farming culture and developing a love for the land that made the type of life he was pursuing possible.
If there’s one thing Steve has learned (and there have been many things), it’s that there is a profound connection between his own sustainable efforts, his relationship with other hunters and farmers in the community, and ready access to the land they all share to produce the food that sustains them and that supports their very own local food economy.
“The land” is Clinton County—field-striped farm country where Wilmington, Ohio, is located—that is home to several family farms that work to sustain a significant local meat, dairy, and crop market there.
Clinton County is also home to the unique hunting spot that is the Cherrybend Pheasant Farm, one of Ohio’s most substantial guided small game hunt and clays operations, which serves as a highly valued access point for land that is crucial to Steve and many other Ohio hunters’ ability to hunt.
Cherrybend is owned and operated by a local family with a long history of farming in the Wilmington area since the mid-1800s. It offers quite an exceptional experience for those interested in hunting ring-necked pheasant and bobwhite quail, providing scheduled release and catch sessions of the bird wildlife they raise with the option to use one of their expert bird hunting dogs.
The farm itself sits back off the road with the hunters’ lodge and bird barns tucked in between acres of corn, soybean, wheat, and cover crop fields—all actively managed with annual crop rotations and to ensure full crop coverage. In between the sorghum and sunflower cover crops is where the birds hide.
Lulu senses something. A pheasant weaves in and out of the sorghum, and though she hasn’t yet spotted it, her demeanor intensifies and she’s immediately on the prowl for what she has been trained to do: hunt birds. She spots the lingering pheasant, but it flies off as she charges towards it.
The hunting dogs are a key aspect to the particular hunting experience Cherrybend offers, where hunters are paired with one of the highly trained dogs to maximize each hunt in terms of success and enjoyment. Cherrybend’s hunt dogs, like Lulu, are trained by sense and instinct to guide the hunter through the pheasant and quail-propagated fields and to their next catch. Although kenneled when not out on a hunt, the dogs are worked with on a regular basis and are well taken care of.
“I would say, in a way, that these dogs have a higher quality of life than any dog you would see,” Steve says, “because they are getting to do what they are bred to do. They hunt all the time. At the end of the day, that’s all they want to do.”
For many hunters, like Steve, the close bond formed while regularly hunting with one of the dogs can sometimes serve as the motivation to hunt in the first place.
“So, here’s a little secret. I’d probably not enjoy hunting as much if there weren’t dogs involved,” Steve says. “Watching a great hunting dog is better than the hunt itself. I love the companionship and relationship it affords. [Lulu] is ornery, spoiled and has a hunting drive like no other and I love her for it.”
Steve and Lulu share a very close bond reinforced by the time they spend hunting together. Throughout the season, they are out at Cherrybend regularly on the weekends, hunting to secure enough meat to last through the winter.
Hunting is one of many ways Steve strives for food independency in his life and in his effort to engage with and live off the land. While all done in his spare time, Steve’s lifestyle also functions closely with his professional career as the organizational director of the Ohio Farm Bureau where he has the opportunity to engage in the policymaking side of agriculture. His personal endeavors in sustainable hunting and food-gathering fit in nicely with the work he does for the Ohio Farm Bureau. Steve is pretty much dedicated to his mission in all aspects of his life.
Last year, Steve and Lulu captured about 75 birds throughout the hunting season—enough meat and more to last them the entire winter. Steve was happy to be able to share his catch with friends and neighbors. Sharing is one aspect of Steve’s “life off the land” that connects him to a way of living where he is not just pursuing food self-sufficiency for himself, but is actively participating in and contributing to an entire Clinton County economy of local food barter, trade, and sale. One neighboring family may run the local dairy business, while another may sell most of the area’s beef, while another may produce a wide variety of vegetables. So while his hunt may initially begin with his interaction with the land, Steve’s entire process for securing food leads him to endless interactions with the animals, local farmers, and various community members that function to support a local network of food production.
Local production, purchase, and support is what is most important about this life, Steve will remind you, and is very much a return to a more communal way of living, especially with regards to more holistic and connected food practices. It’s a way of life Steve is committed to following and that aligns closely with his overall philosophy around sustainable food production—whether it’s when hunting, growing, or buying—that has continued to expand in his life after engaging in other cultures’ practices surrounding food.
“My experiences have really solidified how I wanted to interact with the world and the environment,” Steve says. “Much of that formed the emphasis I wanted to place on my food. It was super unique and influencing to interact with a culture’s intentional approach to their food, very much a social, sharing event.”
Although food practices of the Midwest in the United States are far from the communally ritualistic food practices of a place like Paraguay, Steve found that there are parallels between how local Midwest farming communities secure and interact with their food and what he experienced abroad; namely, that there exists a deeper intrinsic value to actively engaging with the production of food that is embedded somewhere in the core of all culture groups.
“Being connected to your food really means a lot,” Steve says. “Local agriculture is a big part of that and is equally as important. It all kind of works together in the effort to really getting to know your food and its source.”
In the spare time he has between working full-time at the Farm Bureau, hunting, and investing in his sustainability efforts, Steve blogs about his own experiences and unique interactions with the Clinton County land he lives on. There, he passionately “ag-vocates” for living a life in connection to the agriculture, people, and land that you can see, touch, and experience in your everyday life. He remains mindful of the future, not just of the state of local agriculture, but of the direction of his own life as well.
“My next step is to move out and do some of the work I was doing in Paraguay here,” Steve says, “like producing as much of my own food as possible.”
Steve’s plans involve saving up to buy at least 40 acres of his own land to make the work he envisions possible.
“Cooking, buying local, hunting, and working to save up for land for your own farm teaches you one key element and that’s patience. You can’t just go buy a farm the next day. Just like all that goes into self-sufficient living, you’ve just got to have patience and understand that it cannot be instantaneous.”
Thinking of his future, Steve’s gaze stretches out across the fields of Clinton County, past Cherrybend’s land he has grown so familiar with and beyond the acres of hunting ground he has covered. He knows this land, touches it every day, understands its natural cycles. He has a love and respect for this land that is a part of him.
Hunting season starts September 1 and runs until March 31. Open 7 days a week. Reservations recommended.