Keith Waris’s farm is steeped in history.
One of the three majestic white oak trees at the edge of his Ashtabula County property has a circumference of 19 feet, making it about 360 years old, according to an age-estimating formula from the International Society of Arboriculture. The original farm house – from which Waris watches bald eagles perched in the oak trees, ready to swoop down for fish in Pymatuning Creek – was built in the early 1800s, around the time Ohio became a state.
And lifelong farmer Waris himself is a throwback to an earlier time.
“(Farming) is the only thing I’ve ever done, and I love it,” he said.
The soft-spoken Waris started farming the property well before he graduated from Andover High School in 1965. Once a dairy farm, Waris sold his cows in 2001 – “It is a tough life, and it is hard on your knees,” he said – and now grows hay, corn and beans, raises rodeo stock for the Professional Bull Riders tour and has his own excavating business.
Today, the original 103-acre farm acquired by Waris’s grandfather during the Great Depression has grown to 525 acres. Waris has made a huge commitment to the future of farming on his property by permanently preserving about 351 acres with conservation easements held by Western Reserve Land Conservancy. The most recent easement was put in place in 2011.
Waris’s motive was simple.
“I like to see farmland stay farmland,” he said. “I think this is a unique area, and it ought to stay that way.”
Waris and neighbor Richard Thompson, who has preserved nearly 3,700 acres in partnership with Western Reserve Land Conservancy, have become conservation ambassadors in the Pymatuning Creek corridor, according to Scott Hill, the Land Conservancy’s eastern field director.
“Every neighborhood has someone who acts as the glue that holds things together,” Hill said. “On Underwood Road, that person is Keith Waris. Keith is the guy that helps out others, from digging a trench for a friend to pulling the township truck out of a ditch because he has the only local tractor big enough to get it done. We once called people like Keith the pillars of the community. And on Underwood Road, they still do.”
Hill said that while the vast majority of Waris’s property is tilled, a 15-acre wet meadow habitat there is home to sandhill cranes, the endangered clubshell mussel, river otters, black bears and Trumpeter Swans. Waris loves his front-row seat for this nature show.
“I like being outside, and I like watching wildlife,” he said.
Waris said he has gained a sense of fulfillment from the preservation of his own farmland and the collaborative efforts of his neighbors to protect Pymatuning Creek. “I feel good about it. I hate to see anything destroyed. I feel we have done the right thing,” he said.