By DOUG GRAVES
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — Chillicothe is known for its peaceful, rural setting among the rolling hills of south-central Ohio. But one day each October the farm of Larry and Betsy Moore becomes the site of the annual “Down on the Farm Run”, a low-key cross-country meet that has become quite popular among eight small high schools.
The event, which draws runners from Ross, Pickaway and Fairfield counties, is the brainchild of Moore’s daughter, Jennifer Johnston, who is an agricultural education teacher and cross-country coach at nearby Zane Trace High School.
“I started coaching cross-country at Zane Trace in 2000 and I would take some of our runners out to the farm to run as practice,” she said. “It became a tradition and the kids really liked it. Then one of them said it would be neat if we had a meet here. She thought it would be fun to run around the cow pasture.”
Four years later the idea became a reality and a 3.1-mile course was laid out, one that today takes runners across a harvested soybean and corn field, through woods on the premise, around a hayfield and finally to the finish line near the farmhouse. Spectators park in a cornfield and sit on a bluff that overlooks the course.
With emphasis on making this a fun run, times are not recorded even though there is a time clock present. And to keep things light rather than highly competitive, fancy engraved trophies with elaborate figurines have given way to hand-built, hand-painted wooden trophies adorned with plastic farm animals.
“We wanted to do this on the cheap that first year, but it has become tradition every since,” Johnston said.
Members of her agricultural education program in school are assigned the task of building the trophies using scrap wood and other material available in the ag shop. Plastic farm animals come from the local Tractor Supply Store. Wooden trophies are awarded to the top three schools, and individual winners receive little green John Deere tractors.
When choosing which schools to invite, Johnston decided to go with the area schools that had the highest rural student populations.
“One year my uncles were actually combining at the time of the meet, so they parked their combines next to the field, and the winning teams had their pictures taken next to it,” she said.
Liability issues were of concern, but Johnston’s parents learned they could get a one-day insurance policy to cover any mishaps that might occur the day of the race.
There’s no better setting for this race than at one of Ohio’s Century Farms. The Moore homestead has been in the family since the late 1700s. The existing farmhouse was built in 1829. The smokehouse, springhouse and summer kitchen are original structures and still standing. It’s a working farm, as the Moores raise beef cattle and hay.
“My parents were skeptical about having a meet on the farm, but after the first year they were sold on it, because they saw how much fun it was,” Johnston said. “Grandma comes down, sits in her chair and is the resident farm historian, and Dad enjoys socializing with all the people and meeting the kids.
“Best of all, the kids can race in a fun atmosphere without the pressure of points.”