Clay City, Oaktown and Ft. Wayne, Indiana...
Biological and Produce Farms
By Ryan Van Dam, Emily Franken, Laura DeKlein, and MacKenzie Mahon
Our final day occurred in Clay City, Indiana starting at The Farm Connection, owned and operated by Alan and Mary Yegerlehner and their daughter Kate. The land has been farmed on since 1860 with Swiss roots, but Alan had begun partnership with his father in 1976 cropping corn, wheat, soybeans, and hay with a dairy farm as well. Although they had a diverse rotation, Alan was more focused on stewardship and further diversifying his farm. This focus was at a time when there was a lot of expansion of cropland and destruction of fence lines as well as an increase of use in chemicals (beginning of much larger farms, urban migration). Alan didn’t feel pressured to continue the future of his farm this way. Allan’s father gave him responsibility and freedom to alter the farms future and follow his gut feeling. This gut feeling in 1980 that led Alan to want to farm ecologically on his land and through their dairy herd. Although gaining a lot of theoretical experience at Purdue University, he credits a lot of his knowledge to networking and research conducted at Rosendale Institution provided in magazines and more recently to the Internet. At the time of this transition, there was no access to Internet and resources, as organic farming was also in a pre-development stage. In 1998, he discontinued row crops on the farm and concentrated on perennial grasses and pasture management because the commercial market was not for them. It has been a 25-year learning curve, however, they would not have it any other way. It was difficult for them to pick out the things they could’ve changed because it helped them learn and progress, especially being differentiated in the market with no others to acquire information off of
Follow your dream don’t run at it
Alan acknowledged that his main faults while developing the farm over the years happened at the start. Mostly from over investing in new markets before having much of a plan developed. In order to be financially stable and efficiently managed, you can’t have it all at once. This is extremely important when young adults are developing their career and future in agriculture. Alan also mentioned how it is key to optimize before expanding insisting farmers should focus on making the most of what they have before growing in size. With this method comes a lot of research within a market in order to be both competitive and successful in the market. There are a lot of value added products to this farm as a result of the holistic production views including; cheese, butter, and ice cream. These products are considered value added because they are specialized in the market and allow for them to be competitive with the knowledge of where the food comes from and how it’s produced. The Yegelehner’s are price setters versus price takers, which also allows them to be competitive in such a large market. They create their worth through demonstrating their unique production to consumers. By setting their market price it allows the farm to thrive through higher profit margins on smaller quantity. This gives them a unique advantage in the market place due to the holistic production. Overall, Yegelehner’s passion for high quality natural product has allowed them to be successful with less.
“It’s more than food… It’s life”
The focus on how the operation affects the community as a whole is just as important as the product produced. This is solely due to the passion that goes into the family farm and adding products with their holistic view on farming. This holistic view of farming is valuable to the consumers, as they believe it adds to the product itself. Allowing the consumers to know where their food comes from is very important to Alan but is just as important the consumers. Currently, modern agriculture is reliant on economies of scale and is less focused on positively marketing agriculture. This is a problem because it creates a lot of segregation between the farmer and consumer’s. This increases misconceptions about how food is brought from farm to table. A lot of methods Alan practices can potentially open market potential and decrease stigma in agriculture. Some of these practices are allowing consumers to visit the farm, develop relationships at local farmers markets, and developing business entities and utilizing untapped productivity of his land. The farm is his way of life and he expresses this by managing his dairy on intensively managed pastures. He cares more about long-term sustainability opposed to short-term increase in productivity. He does so by caring for his animals grazing on perennial grasses and allowing them to eat the top third of the grass, as it has the greatest amount of energy. Simplicity and flexibility allow Alan and his family to enjoy their daily lives by developing their spirituality in what they love; farming and people.
Networking is crucial to the survival of family farms
Farmers markets, personal relationships and online are crucial tools for survival of small-scale family farms. Direct marketing is the main method used by The Farm Connection because it allows them to express themselves in the market through the food they produce. Their consumers’ approval of their unique methods has created strong consumer connections versus isolated marketing strategies. Although the direct market is a lot of work and time consuming, sharing their story and allowing the consumers to understand and come to them is most important. The consumer is their ultimate inspector using their judgement to guide their production and show it’s value. This allows them to directly impact the local economy through the multiplier affect that can stretch to over 1000x the initial purchase. Advertising and marketing food in a communicative yet open approach helps build trust and allows family farms to grow. This greatly helps maintain and grow small communities. The value in the food they sell locally is a reflection of the relationships they’ve built through quality and safety of the food.
The students alongside Liz Lee and bus driver Ken MacKenzie thoughtfully surprised Clarence with many thanks and gifts. A cake was bought from a local bakery with the addition of ice-cream generously donated by The Farm Connection. The students had also made a scrapbook of pictures and memories from past and current Midwest Crop Tour experiences that also surprisingly led Clarence speechless. Many thanks to each farm visited along the 14 days that supplied paraphernalia from each farm towards his farewell gifts. These farms have graciously hosted the course over the years and these relationships have been built through the advisement of Clarence Swanton.
Our last stop of the Midwest Tour, which has been an incredible learning opportunity for all 46 students, was at Melon Acres the only vegetable farm toured. We were graciously hosted by owner/managers Norm, Whitney Horrall and Melanie. Melon Acres started in 1975 and continues to thrive as a family owned farm. Melon Acres primarily focus’ on produce, but incorporates rural crops for rotation. They have 4000 acres in total, 1000 of which are used for produce, while 3000 are used for row crops in part with a rotation for the vegetable production. It was great to hear the successful use of OAC Millennium asparagus variety being used on their farm as the main variety, 160 of 225 acres. Last year they had a record production on asparagus of 5,000 lbs/acre versus an average production of 3,800 lbs/acre. Other crops within their produce rotation include cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant, sweet corn, cantaloupe and watermelon. The other side of their production includes the use of high tunnels. The students were given time to walk through the high tunnels and see an abundance of tomatoes, peppers, blackberries and raspberries. They take part in a unique market called CSA- community supported agriculture.
Community Supported Agriculture
To support bringing Melanie into a manager position, the girls figured building a Community Supported Agriculture boxes were the way to guide them into the community and adding value to their farm business. They wanted to introduce a value added product into the business and promote locally grown food. With selling produce towards wholesale with little risk, they took a leap of faith in order to better interact with the consumer and discover what their true demand is. They do not involve the community in the actual production and caring of the fruits and vegetable. They do support the local growers by including products that they personally do not grow such as fresh eggs, potatoes, and apples in the CSA boxes to expand there basket diversity. They maintain their demand by delivering these boxes to pick up spots within an hour and half radius at public establishments such as hospitals and schools. Each box is valued at $25 and the customer has the ability to decide their personal demands. Getting to know the customer is a key part of the marketing strategy. They consistently adjust their supply strategy to maximize the value of the CSA boxes to their consumers through direct interactions. They value their conversation and evaluate what gets swapped in order to satisfy consumers and build relationships.
Quality versus Quantity
When exploring new market opportunities, Whitney and Melanie took the go big or go home approach. Installing high tunnels over 3.5 acres without a market analysis or business strategy, they took a huge risk in a relatively new and emerging market. They started by growing a wide variety of crops and varieties to explore what works in the new systems and what markets they can expand and find most profitable. They quickly found that tomatoes are by far the easiest to manage within their system and are the most profitable per square foot. They realized that working towards a high quality product to match demand and time management schedules was required to continue building a new niche market. They started the CSA program aggressively accepting any and all subscriptions totalling over 800 boxes per week. They found that hiring out positions to fill this demand ended up with inconsistencies with the product and feedback from their customers. They decided to reduce their customer base and take upon themselves the whole program; developing their personal relations with their customers and ensuring the quality of product they deliver. They strive to reflect well in their community by participating in school fundraisers and farmer’s markets. They donate 30% of the revenue from the CSA boxes purchased through the fundraiser to help support the education and learning of the next generation. Refining their CSA customer base allows them to be successful and further value their produce and community.
Successful management allows high intensity production- the use of high tunnel systems
Melon Acre Farms use management strategies to improve the efficiency of their business. They do this with the use of high and low tunnels on their crops. This allows them to get the crop in sooner, allowing the plant to be ready for harvest sooner giving them an edge on the competition. The tunnels also extend the growing season which allows them to produce as much as possible on the land available without purchasing more acres. Melon Acre Farms also manages their workplace efficiency by bringing in different produce varieties to spread out the workload throughout the year so there is continuous work. This is crucial as the farm employs 25 locals alongside 160 immigrant workers through the H2A program. This was a great chance to see the importance of delegating workloads as a business grows. Their differing experiences as women in ag also opened our eyes to the workplace environment. Especially in lesser developed areas women are less empowered in agriculture and even their livelihoods. Seeing them manage and have respect is more traditionally male dominated but it was a great to see that agriculture is transitioning otherwise. Our class had 18 male students and 23 female, so the rise and interest in managing farms is shifting alongside niche markets.
Both Melon Acres and The Farm Connection displayed a lot of similarities despite their different operations and ethics. The most common themes today that were accumulated from both operations were: the importance of consumer and farmer relationship, the value of adaptability to changing demands, and maintaining passion for unique commodities in agriculture. This was a great final stop of the trip because it allowed us to keep an open mind that agriculture is not a singular commodity or form- it is an interconnected and symbiotic relationship that work together like no other industry. It is a bittersweet ending to our travels and class studies, as a lot of memories and knowledge have been accumulated in just a short two-week period.