Monthly Archives: February 2017

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.