Crop Tour Day 2 - August 28, 2023
Our first visit was to Farm Connection near Clay City, Indiana where we were hosted by Allan and Katie Yegerlehner. This multi generation family farm specializes in pasture raised dairy and poultry products. The farm name stems from their connection with surrounding farms that allows them to procure additional products for resale. Upon arriving we received a warm welcome and a tour of the farm. The tour started with a general overview of the farm history and the decision to implement non-traditional practices. One of the reasons for utilizing rotational grazing for both poultry and dairy was in large part due to the overhead costs of conventional farming such as purchasing and maintaining equipment. We learned their inspiration came from seminars, articles, books, and networking connections. Next, we had a short walk to the pasture where there was poultry housing. Continuing on, we moved to the pasture where the dairy cows were grazing. Finally, the group moved through the milking and processing facilities. At each of these stops the family welcomed all questions to learn about each specific part of their operation.
Initially upon arrival, stewardship of the land may not have been the first impression for many as we may have had a different view of how stewardship visually appears. By the end of the tour, it was apparent that stewardship was at the heart of their decision-making process. All decisions revolved around carefully maintaining the land for animal health and product quality as well as ensuring future sustainability. A unique and sustainable water management strategy implemented was a key line system. The goal of the key line system is to slow the movement of water on hilltops by digging small trenches along natural slopes to redistribute water across the slope. A sustainable pasture practice being used was rotational grazing. The dairy cows on this farm are rotated onto new pasture almost every day which promotes less harsh grazing that leaves the growing point and improves microbe health. Intensive grazing was also used as an on-farm experiment to reduce the less desirable fescue, however this resulted in flushes of many unpalatable weeds such as cocklebur. These sustainable practices are examples of on-farm stewardship. First impressions can be deceiving and a lesson that many of us learned is that there are many different ways to approach stewardship.
Although many organic practices are followed, and this could probably be considered an organic farm in many regards, the certification has not been completed. This is mainly due to complex application process that would require more work than they are able take on due to the limitations of on-farm labor. This has not hindered their sales with many customers taking the time to tour the farm and ask any and all questions to make them comfortable. Allan was sure to mention that this farm is an open book. Customers to the farm store value the ideology this farm follows with regard to its farming practices. The Farm Connection sells many products listed as dog food which allows them to sell unpasteurized milk and other products to their customers without having to deal with regulations and inspections from the United States Department of Agriculture.
This stop challenged us to think beyond the conventional farm practices that we are typically exposed to. A main learning point from Farm Connection is how important it is to cater to the specific market where you are selling your products. A key example from this farm was their decision to utilize a specific breed of chicken that produces brown eggs. Allan shared that public perception of every product is important and as an example, through personal experience, he learned that brown eggs are typically associated with organic practices and sell better. This farm also raises their animals without the use of hormones, antibiotics, or vaccines. This is important because their customers will occasionally ask and confirm that their animals are not raised with the use of hormones, antibiotics, or vaccines. This farm grows their animals this way because customers online and at their on-farm store will source out their products for these particular reasons.
And that is why to meet the OAC class of 2024’s consumer demands, multiple flavors of ice cream were available to us for purchase.
On the second farm stop of the trip our group was welcomed to Melon Acres. Melon Acres is located in Oaktown, Indiana and was founded in 1975. Melon Acres specializes in asparagus, cantaloupe, sweet corn, watermelon and high tunnel tomatoes which totals around 1000 acres with 1500 additional acres being conventional grain crops. Interestingly the asparagus they grow is OAC Millennium which was developed at University of Guelph. Upon arrival our group was met by the head of food safety who gave us an overview of general food safety practices including record keeping of chemicals, fields, rotations, visitor logs, and general administration items related to their operation. The group was then brought to their pack shed for watermelons where Melon Acre’s employees were loading busloads of watermelons for packaging in under 10 minutes per bus. We went on a tour to view the migrant workers accommodations and their many fields in production for grain and produce. After the tour we ended at the Big Peach farmers market where we tried some of Melon Acre’s watermelon.
Melon Acre’s location is unique with a sandy loam style of land that allows the farm to produce melons and vegetables on top of conventional crops. Melon Acres utilizes plastic mulch systems with drip irrigation for watermelons and cantaloupe and pivot irrigation for the majority of their conventional land along with their asparagus and sweetcorn. Water for irrigation is pulled from underground aquafers from the Wabash River which is 3 miles away.
H2A Migrant workers
One key point that stood out to the group for Melon Acres was the use of H2A migrant workers from the Mexico region. Melon Acres employs approximately 100 workers each year to assist with planting, management, and harvest. Through the H2A migrant worker program, workers receive higher pay based off roles they do on the farm such as truck driving, crew leading and other management positions. Crews also receive pay incentives for unloading melon busses quicker which is distributed between all crew members. Regulations on migrant workers in the United States was a large topic during the groups visit to Melon Acres. New legislation each year makes it harder for some produce farms to afford increased costs associated with migrant workers and wage increases. Melon Acres makes great strides to ensure each one of their employees gets treated fairly and enforces the time of their employees is valued. This is to ensure employee retention, which can reduce complications with finding employees and training costs with some employees.
Food safety is a large part of Melon Acre’s operation to ensure their products meet government standards for consumption. Melon Acres constantly keep records of everything that occurs on their farm from field records, pesticides, and employee training to water tests and quality control. During the group's visit, Melon Acres was in the process of packaging watermelon for retail. During the packaging process, they are taking an extra step to ensure quality and sanitation of their product by washing and disinfecting their products before being delivered to retailers. Melon Acres picks a field 9 times before a field is finished in production to ensure proper ripeness and size for consumers.
On the Road With Ken
Enroute back to the hotel we stopped at the Big Peach farm stand where our fearless driver Ken Mac dissected a watermelon for consumption with his multi-tool.
Overall, the OAC Class of 2024 had a great official first learning day of Crop Tour. We are looking forward to what else we can learn for the remainder of the trip!