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Local Farm Thrives Thanks to Immigrant Customers

Twenty one miles south east of Columbus as the land starts to roll lies Blystone Farms . A red brick farm house and a couple barns sit in the middle of 80 acres of pasture. The farm has been in Katherine Harrison's family since her great grandparents bought it in 1927 and her family wants to keep it that way.

"It's a struggle to keep it in agriculture whether it's to sell it off for housing or use it as a hobby farm," she said. "We wanted to keep it in our family as long as we possibly could."

The farm Katherine Harrison manages has changed over the years. It's grown grain crops and it's raised sheep for meat and wool. Over the decades the farm has faced increasing competition. The local wool market lost its profitability in the 1950s, and lamb imported from Australia and New Zealand has driven down prices.

But Columbus's changing demographics have given Blystone farms a successful niche market. Katherine Harrison lists her customers' homelands like football fans can rattle off the schools in the big ten.

Back around 2000 Harrison and her family realized they had a new market when Somali refugees started coming up their drive way and asking if they could buy a lamb or a goat, which by then had joined the sheep in the pasture.

"These individuals are seeking the foods they grew up with," said Harrison.

So not only did Blystone farms expand its sheep and goat herds, it built a meat processing plant - a small slaughterhouse - to butcher meat for individuals, restaurants and groceries. To satisfy religious requirements of its Muslim customers, the farm hired a Muslim butcher. And each Tuesday, it invites the owner of a West Columbus Moroccan grocery store, Said Mazouz, to butcher his own lamb and goat.

"We have to slaughter by way of the god. That's why I have to come here today," Mazouz said.

One this Tuesday, Mazouz helps load a total of 22 lamb and goats into his truck. They will feed his immigrant customers.

"We have some Arabs. We have some Africans. We have some Somalis, Indian, Pakistanis and some American too."

Most of Blystone's customers are individuals. They drive down to the farm, pick out a lamb or a goat and it's processed as they wait. Blystone's meat is more expensive than imported frozen lamb and goat, but the farm's customers are willing to pay extra for freshness and personal service. On average, the farm sells or processes about 100 animals a week.

This new market has provided farm workers with an education. Katherine Harrison says they've had to learn the different holidays and customs of their new clients.

"I learned that Ethiopian customers we deal with value the gall bladder because they needed a few drops of the bile to use as a spice."

But Harrison had a head start. Some 20 years ago, this Ohio farm girl who excelled in Four-H went to college and studied something very different.

" I studied history and world religions. My primary focus was on Islam.."

But Harrison had no idea she'd be using that knowledge on the farm. "This was not on our radar whatsoever."

And now that knowledge and Columbus's growing diversity is helping this local farm succeed in a tough environment.