Farm to table: The best produce at the best restaurants in town was likely grown by Sallie Ransohoff

It all started with a field full of basil

Sallie Ransohoff’s farm does not have a name, but among area chefs, it’s famous.

Raised in Clifton, Ransohoff has been farming in the area, using organic practices, since the mid-1980s. She may have been the first sustainable farmer of her time to deliver her own produce directly to restaurant kitchens.

Julie Francis, chef-proprietor of Nectar, one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in Cincinnati, started buying from Ransohoff in 2006.

“I don’t know of any other farmers (in Cincinnati) that were specifically growing for restaurants, going to restaurants with what they have for the day,” she said. “It’s just a very European kind of shopping experience. It came right to your door, and it was a great niche that she started. She drums up a lot of interest with the chefs because of the quality and the unusual offerings that she has.”

If you’ve eaten at Salazar, Jean-Robert’s Table, Bouquet, Nectar or any of a number of Cincinnati-area restaurants that focus on seasonal, fresh ingredients, you may have enjoyed vegetables that were grown specifically for that establishment on Ransohoff’s farm in Batavia, or her annex in Brown County.

Asked about her clients, Ransohoff did not want me to list them for fear that someone would be left out.

“A lot of them consider us their personal farmers, so to not mention them, they might get mad,” she said, then, when pressed, rattled off a long list. The “us” she refers to is herself and her son, Jacob Kreines, 27, who is following in her footsteps.

“She’s part of the family,” said Jean-Robert de Cavel, chef-proprietor of Jean-Robert’s Table. “She has a connection with the chef. It’s not just dropping (off) the product and walking away. She can tell you everything about where the products come from.”

De Cavel described the product in these terms: “If she comes with a truck and then she opens the truck and then she shows you the products she’s got, no chef would not take it. And even if you don’t have any idea what to do with the Swiss chard and you don’t plan to have Swiss chard on the menu, but if she shows you that Swiss chard she has picked, you’re automatically going to take it and do something with it. … You take it because your heart is telling you to take it because it’s a beautiful product.”

“Sallie was one of the first (farmers) in Cincinnati who actually did understand (the chef connection),” he said.

“We don’t really sell to restaurants; we sell to chefs,” Ransohoff said, “because often a chef will leave a restaurant, and sometimes we keep the restaurant and sometimes we don’t. We’ll often follow the chef to another restaurant.”

As Ransohoff tells her story, it all started with a common umbrella house plant.

“My sister knocked the top off a Schefflera plant when we were 6 and 7 years old, with one of those tiny baseball bats you get from a Reds game, and I felt sorry for it. So I stuck it in water, and it grew roots. That’s what started it.”

Within a few years, her passion for plants led her to dumpster-diving behind Durbin’s Greenhouse near her house in Clifton. She’d find plants that had been tossed and bring them home to give them a second chance at life.

Fresh radishes from Sallie Ransohoff’s farm.

Appreciation for the beauty of plants notwithstanding, she said it was her father, Daniel Ransohoff, a professor who taught in the University of Cincinnati’s design and social work schools, who really inspired her to farm.

“I can quote my father,” Ransohoff said. “He said he blames himself for me getting into farming because he romanticized it. He used to tell us when we were children, because we did a lot of driving around in the back of a Chevy wagon, and he would point out the windows at all the (farms): ‘Know your land and what it can do for you. Leave the earth a better place than you found it. Farmers are the backbone of America, and America is the breadbasket of the world.’ And for some reason, when I was 10 years old I wanted to be a farmer.”

She was raised by her father. Her mother lived in Virginia, where she had her own small, diversified farm.

Ransohoff said she knew she wanted to farm, “but my father wanted me to get a college degree. It took me nine years to get a two-year degree in ornamental horticulture. I did get good grades in flower arrangement, but I never did anything with it.”

While she was a student at Cincinnati Technical College, as Cincinnati State was then known, Ransohoff needed a summer job related to her field of study. She found one at David Rosenberg’s farm in Wooden Shoe Hollow.

Her first experience in growing food in her own name came in the 1980s.

“My friend Scott Durbin,” of the Durbin Greenhouse family, “approached me one day and said, ‘How would you like to grow basil for sale?’ So we rented an eighth of an acre or something like that from David Rosenberg and filled it full of basil. And I think we were pretty much the first commercial basil growers in the area.”

They sold basil to Anita Cunningham, a chef at the Netherlands Plaza and later the Cincinnatian Hotel.

“People would say, ‘Why should I buy your stuff?’ and I would say ‘Anita Cunningham does,’ and that set the standard, because if she liked it, it had to be good.”

Next was courgette (baby zucchini) and the lease of another mini-parcel, followed by yellow pear tomatoes.

“Then it just kept going,” Ransohoff said. “‘Can you grow this? Can you grow that?’ I rented land out in Trenton, Ohio, and I put in 3,000 squash plants. And then Scott quit.”

The list of vegetables grew and grew. In 1993, she bought her farm in Batavia, moving there in 1997.

Sallie Ransohoff, left, and Julie Francis walk across the farm with Sallie and son Jacob’s dog, Luna.

Ransohoff and her son now grow a wide variety of produce, cultivating between five and 10 acres in Batavia and in a second location, in Brown County. Chefs remain their only customers.

“It’s personalized,” she said. “I ask them what size potato they want. That’s what they get. Some people want big potatoes, some people want little potatoes, and so everybody gets a potato” of their choice.

“If you want your baby squash with a flower on it, then you get your baby squash with a flower on it. If you want the flower to be the same size as the squash,” she paused, laughing, “well, I’ll do my best.”

It’s hard work, and it isn’t going to make her rich, but she is surrounded by plants and open sky.

“It’s a lifestyle, basically,” Ransohoff said. “You’re working your ass off so you can step outside at night and see the stars.”

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