Herding goats with success

Goats do well across the world — and that includes on the Lee & Marilyn Brockmueller farm

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in March 2017 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

by Lillie Eisenbeis

Life is abounding on the farm this time of year for Lee and Marilyn Brockmueller, whohave been taking turns checking for newborn lambs and calvesin the middle of the night. Sleep is an afterthought during the month of March. In fact, fifteen lambs were just bornin the span of fifteen hours, with more on the way. The Brockmueller farm,located near the gulches southeast of Freeman, is home to a variety ofanimals. But it is the goats, an animal considered unconventional in this part of the world, that Marilyn seems most passionate about.

Brockmueller first became interested in goats when she spent six years in Bangladesh, one of the top goat milk-producing countries. Whereas we typically use an animal for either its milk or meat, the Bengalese used their Black Bengal goats as a triple-purpose animal—for milk, meat, and leather. Inspired by what she saw, Brockmueller started a small herd of milk goats of her ownupon her return to Freeman in 1989.

Birth of the Boer

Dairy goatswere the only breeds available in the United States until 1995, when the Boer goat was first introduced. Bigger in muscle and heaver in frame, Boers originated in South Africa and were selected for meat production rather than milk production.“Boers are like Angus to the cattle industry,” says Brockmueller. Since she wasn’t keen onthe idea of constantlymilking goats, Brockmueller began crossing her Nubians with Boers to develop a herd of meat goats. Meanwhile, demand for goat meat in the United States has been growing along with the proliferation of ethnic and specialty markets.

Brockmueller’s herd swelled to fifteen at its peak. She would sell to the Sioux Falls Regional Livestock market in addition to filling some local demand, mostly from townsfolk who lived abroad and grew accustomed to goat meat. It takes only five months to bring a meat goat to the market weight of 60 pounds. Ethnic groups such as East Africans and Asians, often Muslim,are the biggest consumers of goat in the United States.

These days Brockmueller is down to four goats, scraggly in their shedding winter coats. “I’m slowing retiring.”

A Global Perspective

Given the fact that 63% of red meat consumed worldwide is goat meat and that more people in the world drink goat’s milk than cow’s milk, it seems odd to feature goats as a “rural alternative.” But the reality is that goats are just not usually sold in traditional marketplaces in the United States. Pork, chicken, and beef all rank higher in popularity than sheep or goat.

Goats are among the earliest animals domesticated by humans and they remain ideal for much of the world’s population.They are small animals who do well in arid climates. They provide both meat and milk and are easier less expensive to manage than cattle. Furthermore, goats are browsers—they eat broadleaf and woody plants in addition to grass—which is ideal for less-than-fertile patches of land.

Here in the Midwest, we like to do things big, including our agriculture. We like to specialize by having Holsteins for our milk and Cornish Crosses for our chicken breasts. We like to standardize. Goats have not seemed to fit the style or taste of American agriculture in many ways, but that’s beginning to change as goat meat and milk gain traction.

Goats in 4-H

Brockmuellerhas been promoting goats from the beginning, and nowhere has that been more evident than her quest to bring goats to par with other livestock species in 4-H.

Before goats appeared at the county level, she helped organize a regional goat show that rotated between counties in the area. At that time, all you could show were dairy goats, but in 2005, the regional show expanded to include boer meat goats. This new class of goats required an additional show division and a separate judge, but with goat popularity on a steady rise, there were enough entries to fill these new divisions.

The state extension service re-organized in 2012, and now each county is responsible for their own goat show every year. Brockmueller joined the Turner County Goat Committee to help get the Turner County Fair goat show off the ground. “We had to fight the fair board on a lot of things,” recalls Brockmueller. “People wanted to lump all the goats together. They didn’t understand the difference between milking and meat goats or breeding and market goats.” Some insiders thought that Brockmueller was promoting goats too much and that goats shouldn’t get the same attention as the more popular and established shows, like beef cattle or swine. All her persistence payed off, however, because now as many as 34 milk goats are entered between five families at the Turner County Fair on a given year. Because of their small size and social nature, goats have proven to make excellent 4-H projects for young people.

Challenges and Opportunities

Goats are often seen as hobby animals. While they do provide excellent company and a good deal of entertainment, the market is ripe to begin integrating goats into livestock operations at the commercial level. Between the growing ethnic food market and the swell of health-conscious consumers, these untapped markets provide promising opportunity. According to the president of the U.S. Meat Goat Association, “the U.S. market could support a herd of 15 million animals and the demand for goat meat will continue to grow.” There are currently only two million meat goats.

For beginning farmers with fewer resources, goats might be the perfect fit. A herd of six adult goats can thrive on the same area of land as one beef cow, and their feed conversion rate is much more efficient than larger-bodied animals. Furthermore, goats are a great tool for achieving self-sufficiency on the farm. They provide sustenance in the form of meat and milk, which can be converted to cheese, and they can be used as effective control for undesirable plants like leafy spurge and burdock. In fact, goats are often rented out to control invasive species in national parks or to mow down vacant lots.

These mischievous animals are not without their challenges, however. Goats require tight fencing. They will jump over any enclosure if they get scared, and a guard animal may be necessary to fend off predators if the goats are out on pasture. Another challenge Brockmueller has encountered is the lack of proper veterinary care. Many local vets are not trained to work with goats, so one must be prepared to do a lot of research in order to keep a healthy herd.

Despite these drawbacks, goats are catching on. Aside from theBrockmuellers, several community members have discovered the enjoyment and practicality of rearing goats. This worldwide staple has big potential to be the area’s next rural alternative for farms of every shape and size.

 

Midwinter Grazing?

Absolutely — at Happy Grazing Dairy, anyway

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in January 2017 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

S. Roy Kaufman – FOR THE COURIER

Tim and Anita Eisenbeis came to the farm with a broad life experience. They both spent growing up years in Brazil in missionary families, and returned there as a young married couple to do rural community development work with Mennonite Central Committee in depressed northeastern Brazil in the 1990s. They came back to the U.S. in 2001 with their two young sons, André and Gabriel, to take over the family farm east of Freeman.

From the beginning, their intention was not simply to make a living on the farm as a place to raise their family, but to further the revitalization of this local rural community by intentionally seeking the health of the natural and human community on the land. Tim’s studies at Michigan State University and his subsequent agricultural experiences convinced him that grass-based animal enterprises would further this purpose. It would provide high-quality meats, eggs and dairy products for consumers with significantly higher nutritional value. In addition, it is an agricultural system that helps sequester carbon in the soil. With agricultural tillage being a leading contributor of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming and climate change, Tim felt it was important to implement agricultural practices that reverse the trend and actually help sequester carbon in the soil, as grass-based animal husbandry does.

In his first years back at Freeman Tim experimented with a number of grass-based animal enterprises — a beef herd and free-range chickens and hogs. Tim’s father, Larry Eisenbeis, had already transitioned the farm to certified organic, and Larry was also beginning the private sale of raw milk from several dairy cows on his “retirement” farm. Although Tim hadn’t originally planned for a dairy, the consumer demand for raw milk from grass-pastured dairy cows led Tim and Larry to establish a dairy in 2008. Happy Grazing Dairy currently has milk routes in the Sioux Falls area four days a week, and that along with off-farm sales provides milk for 290 households on a regular basis. Urban consumer demand for raw milk and getting to know the customers is what keeps Tim engaged in the labor-intensive dairy even though it ties him and his family down for long hours week after week.

But, there was a problem! Although there are health benefits to dairy products from a grass-pastured dairy herd, the South Dakota climate only offers green pastures for grazing about half the year. How can the benefits of a grazing dairy herd be extended to the winter months? And with this being an organic operation, how could a reliable supply of high-quality feed be found that was also affordable? And would even high-quality dry hay alone be an adequate substitute for grazing on green grass?

Tim’s reading and research led him to discover a dairy feeding practice invented and used in Australia — the production of fodder, which is the name for sprouted seeds of grain, in this case, barley. Using the same idea that makes alfalfa or other sprouts popular for human salads, the grains of barley are soaked and laid out on trays, irrigated, and allowed to sprout and grow for eight days. By that time a pound of grain has produced 7.5 lbs. of green germinated fodder, a carpet of roots and shoots of green about 8 inches thick. This nutritious carpet of green has enzymes and vitamins and minerals that mimic, to some degree at least, the grasses growing in a pasture. It provides an exceptionally rich animal feed and energy source that supplements the dairy cows’ diet through the long, cold winter months, allowing the cows to maintain milk production and body weight.

Tim is now in his third year of utilizing this feed production system on his dairy farm, providing about 25 pounds of this feed daily for each of the 35 cows in his herd throughout the winter months.  Tim remodeled an existing building on the farm into the “Fodder Shop.” The shop utilizes five germination units, with room for two additional units, each with 24 trays 11 feet long and 10 inches wide. The building is heated but requires little else beyond the germination units and trays. Tim feeds 15 trays of fodder each day, beginning the germination process again as the trays are emptied, so that after eight days all the trays have gone through the rotation.

The grain is first soaked for 10 hours and then drained before being spread out on the germination trays. The trays are irrigated for two minutes every four hours, with water flowing through the grain from one end to the other. The irrigation water is recycled for 24 hours before being replaced with fresh water. After eight days when the fodder is ready to be fed, the mat of green is put through a home-made shredding machine, producing what Tim says looks a little like cole slaw. This enables the cows to eat the fodder with virtually no waste. The fodder comprises about 10 per cent of the cows’ daily feed intake (dry matter), so high quality organic hay is still needed. As for the barley seed, it too is a product of the farm, with a 12 acre field producing enough barley to provide year’s supply of fodder. It’s a pretty integrated system!

Tim estimates that the total cost of installing the fodder system was about $55,000, with the germination units and trays costing about $20,000. As with any technology, there are learning curves in the use of fodder for the dairy herd, but it does allow Tim to provide his dairy cows with a succulent salad in the long cold winter months, and his milk customers with the quality dairy product they have demanded from him and come to expect. It’s a way of working with Nature in a scale and manner that enhances the health of the environment, the animals, and the community he serves and in which he lives. Who says cows can’t graze in mid-winter?

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America. The author, S. Roy Kaufman, is a member of the group.

Return to Heritage

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in November 2016 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

Waltners bring sense of renewal to family farm

LILLIE EISENBEIS  | FOR THE COURIER

Six years ago, Kyle and Polly Waltner had a decision to make.

Having newly acquired a farm of their own, they could either continue the Waltner family line of business — dairying — or they could blaze a new trail. Some may have scratched their heads when in 2011 Kyle and Polly chose to convert 80 acres of cropland to paddocks of grass, but the low-input model of grass-fed livestock fit their vison better than taking out big loans for a dairy operation. They were diverting from the conventional norm and blazing their own trail. The following year, they switched from dairy to beef. Over time they’ve created an efficient herd by slowly breeding out the Herefords and adding hearty breeds like Irish Black and Aberdeen Angus that do well on grass.

Kyle attributes much of his inspiration to go grass-fed to a holistic management course he took three years ago, where he learned that all business decisions should be based on a defined holistic goal. All the possible outcomes of every decision you make are considered, and the decision you choose will lead you closer to your holistic goal. Given that Kyle values making decisions that benefit the land, and in particular soil health, rotational grazing was the right fit. Former rancher Randy Holmquist, who led the seminar, still occasionally drops by the Waltner farm to chat and consult.

Although grass-fed beef continues to be their main enterprise, low beef prices forced them to consider adding other alternatives to their farm. The Waltners have always appreciated the local foods model and wanted to try direct marketing — now was their chance. Since others in the community were already marketing alternatively raised chicken and beef, heritage pork was the clear choice. “For years, I always wanted a large black hog,” Polly confessed. “It sounded so delicious, and I wanted that food for our family.”

One may wonder what’s so different or alternative about heritage hogs as opposed to the standard conventionally raised ones. Heritage breeds were popular before World War II, when pigs were typically raised outdoors on family farms. Their high fat content and more robust diet not only helps them survive winters, but also contributes to the flavor and marbling heritage breeds are prized for. Kyle and Polly’s two sows, one boar, and nineteen piglets roam in and out of buildings on the Maynard Yoder yard that they farm south of Freeman along Highway 81. The pigs are off of concrete with access to grass and are fed a non GMO diet. They’ve been able to harvest and sell 16 pigs already, which are sold directly to customers in halves or wholes. The next harvest date is set for February or March.

The Waltners have three young children — Sam, Estelle, and Elise — so they stay busy juggling their various animals, extensive garden, and occasional work outside the farm. But that doesn’t stop them from getting the whole family involved in the life of the farm. The Waltners want their kids to learn life skills and to know where their food comes from by helping on the farm. They envision the direct-market model of raising heritage pork as something the kids can take ownership of in the future.

Raising good, wholesome food is important to Kyle and Polly, who make time to preserve and creatively prepare the fruits of their labor, whether it’s rendering lard or making jam. That has always been a part of farm life for them, even growing up. They feel it’s important to eat fresh and local food not only because of how it supports the local economy, but for the health benefits as well. That’s the draw of raising heritage pig breeds over conventional ones — the fact that they are raised outdoors and eat grass in addition to grain makes for better flavor and nutrition.

Raising food this way comes with its challenges, though, and the Waltners are still learning the ropes of direct marketing their pork. Thanks to the convenience of grocery stores, many people are not equipped to accommodate so much meat at once. Discerning the most effective marketing platforms has also been a learning curve. A facebook page, postcards, and word-of-mouth are all current methods the Waltners employ to sell their pork. They are exploring some retail opportunities, but while their family is young, they will continue to focus on the lower-input method of direct marketing, and they are appreciative of the local support they’ve already received.

Faith is an integral part of the Waltner Family Farm. It is what motivates their desire to live simply and make decisions that benefit the health of the land and those who live on it.

“We talked a lot about our faith and life meshing,” says Polly. “One little decision can affect many things.”

Faith is part of the holistic management that lies at the center of their farm. When asked what aspects of their farm bring them the most joy, Kyle and Polly agreed — plants growing and animals being born. Nowhere is this joy more abundant than on intentionally diverse and nurturing family farms such as this, and these are the farms of the future.

 

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America. The author, Lillie Eisenbeis, farms with her husband, Andre.

 

 

Hebda’s building brix

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in October 2016 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

Ancient technology produces profitable produce

NATHANIEL PREHEIM – FOR THE COURIER

It was one of those lovely fall days. The kind of day that is dreamed of during the hot summer struggle of daily life. It is the kind of day where the layers of clothes started with at daybreak end up in a messy pile on your seat. A day where the chills of the night cling to your bones in the early morning shade.

It was on a glorious morning such as this that I went to visit Mr. Dale Hebda, currently propagating and building a growing business at his farm, Hebda Produce. Located in the picturesque Jim River Valley, just a stone’s throw northeast of Yankton, Hebda operates on the farm formerly know as the Garrity Orchard.

I sipped a steamy cup of coffee as I entered the compound via a long driveway, lined with evenly-spaced Fir trees, pruned as only an orchard man can. I drove past red-tinned buildings, an old farmhouse, a retail space adorned with exotic pumpkins. Near the center of the property, I reached the main residence: a large home with a black lab trotting with his favorite stick.

Dale Hebda, 56, rolls up in his white cargo van, back from a trip to his retail location at the Yanton Mall.  He explains to me how he initially got started in local food production.

BOOMING BEGINNINGS

“Well it kind of all started because I grew up in agriculture and I always liked to garden. Our older children were always in 4H and we were growing vegetables on an acre and half west of Yankton. We started out with fresh produce at the farmer markets.”

He continues, “We found that we were processing vegetables at 10 or 11 at night. I thought maybe if you did it for a living, you might not be doing it at that time of the day. But here we are, still working with the produce at that time of the day.”

Dale explains that when the Garrity place came up for sale, they had the opportunity to purchase it. Ever since then it’s been a foot race to keep up with all the new segments of the business.

Hebda Produce started with fresh vegetables and has since expanded into jams, salsas, sauces, applesauces, apple cider and a variety of other products.

CHANGING CHALLENGES

Of course, the toughest part of running a food production farm is addressing the constant demand for labor.

Hebda tells us, “We have two ladies full time, three part-time employees, and a few volunteers,” Hebda continues, “The hardest part of having the employees is self-direction, getting them to the point where they can see two-three steps in advance and take the initiative to do the jobs in the right order at the right time.”

Another major challenge Hebda faces is the pattern of increasingly early initial warm-up in spring, followed by a killing frost in late April or early May, which destroys the blossoms on the apple trees. This changing pattern of weather has caused significant failures in the apple crop in 7 of the last 12 years. He is working to identify a strategy to hedge against the risks presented by the early-warming phenomenon.

SWELLING SOIL

Everything comes from soil and everything eventually becomes soil. The invisible life of soil is the primary focus for Hebda Produce. The methodology for measuring the success of the program is hinged on sugar production and content in the produce. Sugar is expressed and measured in units known as ‘brix,’ one brix unit equates to one gram of sugar in a 100 gram solution as a percentage of mass. Building brix is at the core of the business.

Brix units are easily and quickly field-tested by extracting the liquid from plant tissue using a small handheld press, and then measuring the solution using a small handheld refractometer to evaluate the refractive index and measure the brix units present in solution.  The more brix units that are present in your crops, the better they will taste, the longer they will stay fresh and the less desirable they are to pests.

Hebda explains the roots of his philosophy on soil, “About 9 years ago I got an invitation to go listen to a presentation by SoilWorks LLC, a local company here in Yankton, dealing with how to do things naturally,” says Hebda, as we gaze at his huge hot house brimming with perfect peppers and tangy tomatoes, “If you balance your soil, you increase your sugars, weed pressure will go down and bugs will go away. Through this process you can produce a nutrient-dense product or produce.”

Through the SoilWorks program, Hebda has been able to balance the minerals in his soil to create an environment that is ideal for soil microbes. The soil microbes are fed through the incorporation of organic matter into the soil. The more microbiological activity present in the soil, the more nutrients and energy become available for the plants.

Plant nutrition rests on the foundational ability of the plant to mineralize nutrients to yield sugar in the living plant tissue, acting as the carbohydrate engine for plant growth.

NATUROPATHIC PEST CONTROL, ANCIENT TECHNOLOGY

The pivotal moment for Hebda was when he learned that bugs can’t digest sugar. Hebda reviews one way he measures the success of his soil program, “What we have seen happen with our vegetables is that there are no [insect] bites, we don’t even see as much as a potato bug until the plant dies down. Because there is so much sugar in the vines, leaves and produce, pests will not eat them.”

As I’m sure many of our readers in the Freeman area already know, the bugs were bad this year, especially early in the year. Hebda’s early season crop was largely unharmed due to the high level of sugar in the plant tissue of his produce. In the event they do have a particularly tough pest, it is addressed by dusting a naturopathic dose of diatomaceous earth over the problem area.

Diatomaceous earth is a finely crushed powder form of fossilized marine algae, known as diatoms. To bugs, this soft powder might as well be an ice storm of broken glass. Hebda explains how the killer crystals work, “Pests have an outside layer of oil which protects them from the elements and from disease. When they crawl across the diatomaceous dust, it slices through the protective oil layer and they are exposed to the environment and quickly die due to infection or dehydration.”

To combat the worms and grasshoppers that graze and munch on cabbages, Hebda uses an impossibly simple technology, sugar water. What?! Hebda testifies, “Every three or four days, we would just mix up a big batch of sugar water, and go spray it. That’s all we’d use, sugar water.”

STORAGE AND MARKETING

Storage is always a big issue for small-scale produce farmers and freshness is key to maintaining highly desirable harvests for delivery to market. Hebda has a large cooler, costing nearly $1000 a month to keep at a constant temperature of 35-40 degrees. The cooler is big enough to utilize pallets and to house up to five semi loads of product. When Hebda’s apple crop is heavy, it will fill this temperature controlled enclosure, allowing him to extend the life of the crop through to March of the following year if necessary, when they make their final press of premium cider.

Hebda markets his products at the Falls Park Market in Sioux Falls, and works with a couple non-profit fundraisers to provide product for their campaigns. He also sells at the Vermillion Farmer Market, at the Yankton Mall and to a handful of wholesale accounts including Breadsmith and Pomegranate Market in Sioux Falls.

WONDERING WHY?

But why would someone leave a successful insurance career to toil laboriously in a less profitable business?

Hebda left a lucrative career in the insurance industry to start Hebda Produce. “I was trying to find a way for our children to learn work ethic; if you instill it young, it is there for a lifetime,” Hebda says, “Out of all the industries I’ve been involved with, this [direct-marketed food production] is the toughest by far to be profitable in.”

“The labor investment is so huge, you have to carry the cost of labor, material, storage for up to 8-12 months.”

What advice would you give to someone starting out who wanted to do small scale food production and doesn’t have a lot of money? Hebda advises, “Start small, keep your overhead low and don’t plan on a lot of sleep.”

PROLIFERATING PRODUCTION

We stroll past Aronia berry bushes toward a large high tunnel. It’s abundantly evident that these high tunnels were master-planned. The tunnels rest on a rail system allowing the tunnel to be rolled by hand between three growing areas. Frostless hydrants and electrical boxes are strategically placed at each of the three stages. Hebda is able to extend his high tunnel harvest well into November, most years. As other producers’ vegetable crops wane in late season, the high tunnel system extends the season, enabling high quality produce to be harvested for many additional weeks and giving him an edge over competitors at the markets.

We walk into the ‘hot house’ and the abundance of the crop is quickly assessable. Even in late season luscious, immaculate tomatoes hang from heavily laden vines and an eclectic mix of peppers of every shape and variety hang in wait for eager hands to harvest.  Fans purr and move air above our heads and neatly arranged trellises reach for the heavens. Each square foot of ground inside the high tunnel produces 2x the harvest of a square foot outside of the tunnel.

As the high tunnel is moved to new ground each year in a three-year rotation, water and electric boxes are waiting. As the resting plots are taken out of primary production, winter greens or cover crops are planted. This incorporates organic material into the soil to feed the microbes. When in cover crop and winter greens, snow and rain push the salts down and out of the idled production plot. Hebda has the ability to scale his high tunnel operation to up to 30 additional tunnels.

While the ambitious dreams of local producers continue to inspire the next generation to consider this labor intensive lifestyle, ultimately the power to make more farms, like Hebda Produce, a reality is with the consumer.

Will the people in our communities choose to save a few dollars a week by selecting nutrient deficient goods trucked in from 1000 miles away, or will they align their values with the reality of what ‘voting with your dollars’ means?  Is saving a few dollars each week worth the cost of shortchanging the futures of our local producers? Are a few bucks a week worth the cost of funneling our grocery money out of the community and into the corporate coffers of a handful of enormous producer conglomerates, the very conglomerates that some say oppress working class people? Of course local, small-scale production will never realize the economy of scale that huge producers operate within, it is simply impossible. Local goods will always be more expensive; please consider the reasons why, and why large-scale goods are so cheap.

In closing, I’d ask that you consider carefully your grocery purchases. If there is a local option, invest in your neighbor and the community by buying it regularly. If there isn’t a local option, ask your grocer to carry it, because they will if you buy it. Consumer demand absolutely, undeniably and fundamentally results in what gets stocked at the store.

If you promise to keep the community you love in mind when you buy, we’ve got a great shot at building a growing future.

 

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America. Nathaniel Preheim, who raises bison east of Freeman, is a member of the group.

 

Keeping Those Fields Covered

TIM EISENBEIS – FOR THE COURIER

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in January 2017, as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

For Ortmans, crop diversity & rotations are essential

When Paul and Charity Ortman moved to East Freeman back in 2010, it was a trial period to see if farm life was indeed for them. Having grown up here on the farm, Paul had been away for several years after college and now was coming back full of idealism for the vocation.

He knew he needed to learn the realities of modern mainstream agriculture so he settled into working with his dad while also working off the farm. He soon realized that the farm his parents had managed for decades was a well-oiled machine, not obviously in need of changes. Paul began to wonder if he’d have any special energy, practice or approach to make it better.

But hard times have a way of showing you things, if you’re paying attention. Along came the drought of 2012 and it hurt on the Ortman farm, too. They noticed, however, that some fields fared far better than others. Paul saw that those more resilient fields had had livestock on them, had been well-manured and/or had grown more of a crop rotation than corn and soybeans.

The following year, Paul grew a fantastic corn crop on some newly-purchased land that had been in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The problem was that the corn would not dry down; “the plants are too healthy” was his agronomist’s explanation. This drove it home for Paul: crop rotations and diversity are essential.

That fall, he planted his first cover crop of winter rye on 20 acres right after harvesting corn silage. The following spring, he was alarmed by the rapid growth of the rye but no-till planted soybeans directly into that mass of 3-foot-tall vegetation. Soon after, he killed it with glyphosate and watched closely what the beans would do. Would they have the soil contact to germinate? Would they be too shaded by the still standing rye stalks? Over the summer he was delighted to see the soybeans come up just fine and grow, while the rye slowly became a thick carpet on the soil surface.

That soybean crop showed a definite yield advantage over other soybean fields without the rye cover crop. Although it is hard to know precisely why, it stands to reason that several factors had a part to play: the increased moisture retention, soil surface temperatures remaining fairly constant, and the proven herbicidal qualities of substances released by dying rye roots.

Pleased with the results, Paul saved some of his own rye for seed and the following year planted cover crops on 100 acres and by 2016, most of their fields had grown or were planted to some type of cover. He has diversified his crop rotations to include wheat and barley, thus creating more time in the growing season for cover crops to flourish. He inter-seeded clover with his wheat crop and then after wheat harvest, sowed a 7-species mix (radish, lentils, sorghum, etc.) for fall grazing. Their beef cattle enjoyed the substantial salad for weeks and gained weight right on into mid-December.

Reflecting on where he got inspiration for all of this, Ortman was quick to mention Dan Harnish, a local farmer and agronomist with Mettler Fertilizer who has broad experience with and a deep passion for cover crops. Specifically, Dan advised him on what seed to choose for his multi-species mix. All along, Paul was motivated by YouTube videos by Gabe Brown (ND farmer and cattleman) and Duane Beck (research farm manager near Pierre, SD). He also compared notes with a few local farmers who have also been experimenting themselves with various uses of cover crops.

All this requires more management and flexible decision-making. The benefits of increased yield and weed suppression are not always there and other goals are long-term, so what makes it worthwhile? For Paul, the goals are a mix of the practical and philosophical. Obviously, he wants higher crop yields, maximum use of the growing season to produce cattle feed and to reduce the need for off-farm inputs, all of which translate into economic advantage.

But more profound, he is aiming for “regenerative agriculture”: improving the soil he farms. Primarily, he wants to build carbon in the soil, thus increasing the soil organic matter. Admittedly a long-term goal and multi-faceted, but it jives squarely with his theology and worldview about the roles of humans in the created order. He finds that he is most satisfied when observing diversity in growing things. To focus on promoting growth brings him far more joy than figuring out how to kill this or that undesirable.

Besides, he adds with a grin, “I might as well provide community entertainment while I’m at it,” a reference to people’s reactions when seeing him no-till drill something directly into that sea of green rye just starting to head out.

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America.

 

 

Rural Revival Display at Schmeckfest

This year, Rural Revival will again have a display

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table at Schmeckfest. This year, the display will be in the Heritage Hall Museum building instead of Sterling Hall as in years past. All are encouraged to visit the display to learn more about Rural Revival. Local producers will also have information at the table. The theme of this year’s display is “Beekeeping”,

and there will be an informative video playing during the festival. Glen Wollman, a local beekeeper and member of Rural Revival will be in charge of the display.

Schmeckfest is a cultural heritage festival benefiting the Freeman Academy in Freeman, SD. The dates this year are March 21-22, and March 28-29. For more information on the festival, such as hours, directions, other attractions, or information on the play or meal tickets, please visit www.schmeckfest.com .

Farm Transitions

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in February 2014, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

A recent issue of The Land Stewardship Newsletter (No. 4, 2013) featured articles highlighting a new initiative of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the well-established, Minnesota-based “rural revival” effort to keep “land and people together.” The initiative is “farm transitions.” It is designed to counter “current land consolidation trends,” and provides tools to assist farm owners and would-be farmers transition land to the next generation.

LSP and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) have developed a Farm Transitions Toolkit for this purpose which

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can be accessed by calling 800-909-6472 or at www.landstewardshipproject.org/farmtranstionstoolkit. The Toolkit “contains resources, links to services and practical calculation tables to help landowners establish a commonsense plan for farm transitions.” MISA executive director Helene Murray says, “The target audience for the Toolkit is those people who want to pass their farm on in a way that supports healthy rural communities, strong local economies and sustainable land stewardship. Too often retiring farmers or people who find themselves in possession of family land feel pressured to make decisions that go against their own values. The Toolkit can help people align those values with the decisions they make as far as their land’s future is concerned.” (12)

“FarmLASTS Project is a national research, education and extension project funded by the USDA National Research Initiative. In 2010, FarmLASTS produced a special report on farmland success, succession, tenure, and stewardship.” (3) Here are some of the findings.

    • Over the next two decades, 70 percent of the nation’s farms will change hands.
    • Two-thirds of retiring farmers have not identified successors.
  • Ninety percent of farm owners neither had an exit strategy nor knew how to develop one.
  • Only three percent of farmland buyers are new farmers.
  • Four percent of farmland owners own nearly half the land.
  • In 2002, 34 percent of farmland owners in Iowa were investors, double the proportion in 1989.
  • Over 40 percent of U.S. farmland is rented. (3)

These statistics confirm that there is indeed a “big land grab” going on in the United States. The same trends are occurring locally. A study I did in 2009 on the sixteen square miles surrounding the Salem Mennonite Church in Childstown Township showed that the land was owned by 84 property owners. Seventy-six of these parcels were farmland properties, with 55.3 percent being farmed by local farmland owner/operators, though not all of these farmers resided on these properties. This means that 44.7 percent of the parcels were rental properties. Half of these farmland owners were non-resident landlords, usually heirs of the family farms on which they had grown up.

In this study I did not correlate the ages of the farmland owners and operators who owned and worked this land. Anecdotal evidence would indicate that many of these farmland owners were near or over retirement age. Quite apart from questions about the types of agricultural enterprises involved, the future of this rural community depends in large measure on whether these farmland owners will choose to transition their land to a new generation of local farmers, or whether the trend toward corporate ownership of land fostered by investors and misguided government policies will continue.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

February 18, 2014

Tending The Margins

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in January 2014, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

The margins in mind are those boundaries between human habitation and cultivation and the wild places of nature, those intersections between settled places

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and wilderness. It may be nothing that more than that patch of weeds in the corner of the garden or field, or the few scrub trees and bushes springing up along the fence lines. It may be the roadside ditches on country lanes. Or it may indeed be the boundary between farmland and a state park or between the field and the creek or river or prairie or forest.

How that boundary is tended says a lot about the health of both nature and the land, and the human community that lives on that land. Nature, you see, establishes its boundaries so seamlessly that we are rarely aware unless we pay close attention that we have moved from one ecosystem to another. And farmers do quite well at marking the boundaries of their fields. But the margins between wilderness and settled land are another matter. Here it isn’t clear who is in charge, or how things are being managed. At the margins we discover how healthy both the natural and the human systems living on that land really are.

I recently re-read a tribute I had given at the memorial service for my much loved sister-in-law some 24 years ago. She was, as I described her then, a refined and cultivated lady whose life led her to be transformed into a farm woman. It was she, more than anyone, who taught me as a young man what I have come to know of elegance, culture and taste. And yet, it was also she who would later teach us so much of what we knew, Loretta and I, of nature and its workings, of sustainable living on the land. And in that transformation of her life, Sally revealed herself to be “a lover of the wild within and around us.”

As I said on that occasion, “I speak of the wild not as the grand mountain reserves of wilderness, but as the lurking wild-flower outside the door, the native glories which so many of us, in our haste for the exotic on a grand scale, never see. Sally knew, as Wendell Berry says in Home Economics, that, ‘We need to go now and again into places where our work is disallowed, where our hopes and plans have no standing. We need to come into

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the presence of the unqualified and mysterious formality of Creation’ (146). Sally knew the importance of the margins, and observed the margins carefully. For as Wendell Berry says, ‘These margins—lanes, stream sides, wooded fence rows, and the like—are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention. . . . They enact, within the bounds of human domesticity itself, a human courtesy toward the wild’” (151).

The measure of our humanity and our communal life may well be found in how the margins between wilderness and settled land are allowed to thrive, how they are tended, not by our management—God forbid, but by our notice and our care. And if the margins are offensive to us, perhaps it is because we have made them so. But it need not be so. As I said about Sally, “Countless spots on the land where she lived will miss the nurturing care of her touch, the wise and helpful arrangement of her hands, and most of all, the awe-struck wonder of her gaze.”

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

January 15, 2014

Wasn’t This a Treeless Prairie?

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in November 2013, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

So why should it be troubling to see more and more shelter belts and fence lines and pioneer wood groves being bulldozed and burned and buried? Or hasn’t anyone else noticed the disappearance of landmarks that have graced our landscape for some 100 years now? Even those of us native to this place find ourselves lost on familiar country roads when we come to intersections that used to mark a farm or a grove of trees, as my brother who now lives in Michigan and I discovered when we were out for a drive a few weeks ago.

It’s hard to believe that nearly all the trees that grace our landscape were planted since pioneers from Europe settled this land in the 1870s. Many groves were planted as part of the terms for claiming a homestead on this land, and they sheltered the homes and farmsteads established by these settlers. While my parents banked the furnace with coal for the cold winter nights, most of the fuel used to heat their home through the 1930s through the 1960s came from the grove of trees behind our house. One of the tasks each fall was to drag out the dead trees and branches from the grove and cut them up with a bucksaw for the winter’s fuel.

Of course, I understand the dilemma of farmers who have to work around shelter belts and fence lines and groves of trees. With today’s modern equipment, how much more easier and more pleasant it is to work straight across an 80 or a quarter section (or more) without having to work around the trees. Plus, the trees sap moisture from the crops planted near them,

reducing the yield in those fields. Still, I confess that it seems somehow shortsighted to me to bulldoze the trees for the sake of convenience and profit, in order to raise a few more bushels of corn for a few short years until this ethanol balloon bursts.

Can we even begin to understand what we are losing with every tree destroyed? Few use them

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for fuel any longer, as my parents did. But, oh my, what those trees represent in terms of erosion and climate control! What those trees represent for wildlife habitat! It’s incalculable! Unless we are climate change deniers, we worry about global warming that happens because of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. But the trees through photosynthesis absorb some of that carbon dioxide and give off life-giving oxygen in exchange. And when the winds blow across the prairies, as they do, the trees buffer the wind and prevent erosion. Perhaps no one cares any longer for all the diverse animals and birds that share our landscape, or the wild berries and chokecherries and plums that grew along the fence lines, but everyone’s lives are impoverished when all this diverse life is driven out and replaced by monoculture fields.

It is not a new story. Even in this land, the farmers of the 1920s neglected a diverse landscape only to be enveloped by the dust storms and droughts of the 1930s. Many of the shelterbelts we see in the Midwest were planted in response to that catastrophe. There are, to be sure, incredible financial pressures driving the current uprooting of the trees, given the price land is selling for these days. Still, I have to wonder how long this fragile, life-giving earth will be able to withstand the devastation we are bringing to bear upon it.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

November 20, 2013

Land, Crops, Livestock, Family: An Integrated Agricultural System

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in October 2013, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

Last August, Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, died. Thompson was an “alternative farmer” before that came to be a common thing, as it is today. A founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Thompson and his wife Sharon believed strongly that a healthy agriculture/rural community involves an integrated system of land, crops, livestock and family. I remember him speaking at rural life conferences in Iowa during the farm crisis of the 1970s, though it isn’t clear to me that that crisis has ever stopped.

In honor of Thompson’s life, the Leopold Letter, the newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, reprinted a short piece Thompson wrote in 2004, and I’d like to quote from that too.

“Since we lost the cow—since we lost animals and livestock as an integrated part of the farm—the fabric of rural life has been steadily unraveling.

When we lost the cow, we stopped

planting oats and hay, we lost our crop rotations, and we lost the best source of our soil fertility—animal

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manure. We gained costly inputs, eroding soils and impaired waters.

When we lost our animals, we turned our grass, our pastures and our meadows over to row crops. We gained lower grain prices, greater weed and pest pressure, and a less diverse and resilient landscape.

When we lost our livestock, we lost much of the hard work of the farmer; we lost chores for the kids, and lost a cooperative spirit with our neighbors.. We gained outside jobs, aimless youth and the need to gobble up our neighbors’ farms to stay in business.

When we lost the balance of crops and livestock, we lost a farm that needed a whole family to work together. We gained farms that could be run by one person and lots of equipment. We gained boredom and fragmentation of the family.

When we concentrated the livestock, farms began to struggle economically; we began to lose more and more farms, and we lost the vitality of our small communities. We gained boarded up main streets, empty churches and consolidated schools.”

 

We are fortunate to live in a landscape that counters and mitigates to some extent the agricultural imbalances Thompson describes in this quote. The rivers and creeks of our larger community—the Vermillion and James rivers, Wolf and Turkey Ridge creeks, and Turkey Ridge itself, require diversified farming in many areas and for many farmers—a balance of crops and livestock, in order to utilize the often rolling hills and bluffs with their pastures and hay fields.

Yet it seems to me that our community too is suffering from the imbalances Thompson describes.

An integrated agricultural landscape is to me a thing of beauty. In contrast to the barrenness of endless corn and soybean fields with the occasional hog or poultry confinement unit or beef feedlot, a balanced agricultural landscape features a patchwork of livestock roaming on a rotation of small, diverse fields supporting many small farm families all involved in the production of food for their own community and nearby urban centers.

But more than

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being nostalgically beautiful, an integrated agricultural landscape is the key for guaranteeing sustainable and viable rural communities like Freeman. Nature is built on the principles of diversity, uniqueness and interdependence. Industry thrives on efficiency, uniformity and autonomy. Agriculture is torn between nature and industry, with industry currently having the upper hand. Until nature replaces industry as the paradigm for agriculture, rural communities like Freeman are likely to continue to struggle and decline.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

October 16, 2013