Family Farm: Ecological Farming, value added and Fresh Market Vegetables
Today we visited The Farm Connection, which was a bit different from the rest of our stops, this trip. The Farm Connection is a family farm operated by Allan, Mary and Kate Yegerlehner and has been in their family since 1860. Both Allan and his daughter Kate attend Purdue University to study agriculture and both came home to the farm after graduation. After returning from school, Allan decided to transition the farm to follow organic practices.
This dairy farm is small compared to Royal Dairy Farms that we visited with 6600 head of cattle there are only 30 milking shorthorns crossed with Jersey and South Devon in an eight-swing parlor on this farm. The cows are milked once day and only during the summer, as they are dry in the winter in an open-faced parlor. The cattle are always out on pasture unless they are being milked and while in the barn the cattle are checked for any health concerns such as mastitis. If a cow does develop mastitis it is treated with essential oils and herbs, as the family does not believe in using antibiotics. This summer some cattle had a hard time with the heat and there was less milk production. During a normal year average production would be 1 ½ gallon per day. The reason for shorthorns is that they are a dual-purpose cow for milk and meat. They are breed every year and the calves are kept on the mom for 8 – 10 months following calving.
Some genetic traits that Allan and Kate look for in their cattle are that they are low maintenance, they give an acceptable level of milk, have some heat tolerance and has good body length and girth.
For the cattle’s pasture everything present is naturally grown and nothing has been added. Some of the grasses that grow are bluegrass, orchardgrass, and reed canary grass and white and red clovers. Fescues that grow are undesirable in the summer due to endophytes that have negative effects on the cattle but they are desirable in the winter. There are 200 acres of pasture that are divided into 25 sections. For soil management, sea salt and some organic compounds are used as well as apple cider vinegar has shown an improvement in digestibility of some grasses.
All the milk that is produced is processed on farm and has been since 2000 when they installed the processing equipment. Most products are labeled as pet food due to the USDA regulations about selling unpasteurized milk. The products that they sell are milk, butter and cheese as well as pasteurized ice cream. There are also a variety of beef products like beef jerky and salami. The products are also labeled as grass fed, local and having organic principles as the Farm Connection is not certified organic. The trend in customers that Mary has seen is that the vast majority are young mothers and people with health concerns.
Along with having the dairy, on farm there are also some chickens and hogs that are both pasture fed as well along with some grain supplements that are non-GMO. The hogs are also fed the skim milk that is produced from the cheese making process and when Allan fed them they seemed to really enjoy it.
Overall this visit was definitely different from the other farms that we saw on our journey across the states but it gave us a different opinion to contemplate. In the afternoon we continued our journey west to visit Melon Acres.
Once we arrived at Melon Acres we were met by Norm the project manager. Melon Acres has 2800 acres of irrigated vegetables. The main crops that are grown are watermelon, mini watermelon, cantaloupe, asparagus, cucumber, eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, bell peppers, sweet corn and tomatoes. Cantaloupe and watermelon are the most valuable crops grown and make up a combined 1000 acres total.
In terms of management of the crops and soil they have a 3-year rotation other than for the asparagus as it is a perennial crop and lasts a minimum of 14 years. Depending on the vegetable crop, some years they will plant soybeans as a double crop if they harvest the vegetables in time. For crops that benefit from mulches, black plastic mulch is used most often as it heats up the ground earlier in the season. Other than using mulches chemicals are required for weed control and for control of other pests and diseases. For pollination both honeybees and bumblebees are brought in but there was a decline in the local populations due to disease.
A new project that Whitney undertook who is one of the owners was to put up 16 high tunnels for tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries and peppers. Whitney made the tunnels a limited liability corporation (LLC) to see how profitable they would be. Along with the high tunnels being under that LLC Whitney also created a community supported agriculture project (CSA).
On the business side all of their vegetables grown by Melon Acres are sold as wholesale and the idea is to get the product out of the storages as fast as you can. For products that are not sold they are given to local food banks as Melon Acres found it was cheaper to give the produce away rather than dumping it. All of the produce from the LLC is sold as retail to local consumers who order their boxes and then pick them up at scheduled drop offs.
This visit was really interesting because we got to talk to two younger women who were in charge which we did not see a lot of on this trip. The theme of today was about family farming and differentiation. Both farms had very different approaches to the way in which they farmed but each had their own individualities that worked for them. My first learning point for the day was about not being afraid to try a business idea, as you never know what might work. My second learning point for the day was about how you value added products can increase you profitability but also allow you add some educational aspects that sometimes wouldn’t otherwise be there. My third learning point for the day was about how to label products to get around the law.