Day 13 - Friday
theme: Family farm - Ecological Farming, value added; Family farm - processing, value added
The final leg of our journey brought us to two small family farms that have added value to their businesses. Each system, pursuing different philosophies, has made a place for them by servicing niche markets. The Yegerlehener family farm has incorporated ecological values into their products, whereas the Ray Brothers and Noble Canning Company market directly to the food service industry.
Our first stop of the day was at the Yegerlehner Jegerlehner "Swiss Connection" farm, owned and operated by Allan, Mary and their daughter Kate. They currently operate a 7th generation, 45 head cow herd. When Allan took over the farm in 1976, he became interested in harmonizing the push for larger economies of scale and sustainability. By the 1980's the family started moving away from conventional agriculture and in 1994 they implemented a full time, pasture grazing system. Although he was using sustainable practices Allan felt he was not getting proper remuneration for his product on the open market. They began directly marketing their products at local farmers markets as well as on farm in 2000 after implementing their own processing facility. In this facility, they began bottling milk and making their own cheeses, cottage cheese, curds, butter, ice cream as well as various beef products from their cull cows.
Some of the most popular products they produce are their raw milk dairy products. These products are marketed as pet food in order to get around regulations that make the sale of raw milk for human consumption illegal in the state of Indiana. Since these products are licensed as pet food, the operation is inspected by the State Animal Board of Health. However, the raw milk cheeses are inspected by the FDA.
The farm practices intensive, rotational grazing based on ecological principles. This uses a long term approach to improve pasture and soil biodiversity through the use of mature stands. This ecological approach to pasture management is used to provide higher quality forage to their animals while improving soil health, fertility, productivity and biodiversity. One tool used on this farm is trampling, by using high density stocking rates and quick rotation periods to stimulate new growth and maintain the rooting systems. This system proved resilient against the drought this year as their deep rooted plants rebounded quickly in comparison to neighbouring pastures.
The Yegerlehener family have a closed herd and are interested in breeding for both milk and meat characteristics where the "ultimate profit of the herd is more important than the production". Their genetics consist of Guernsey, Holstein, Ayrshire, Dutch belts, beef and dairy Devon's. This combination of genetics has been acquired to ensure an animal that does well in a grazing system to produce high quality milk and beef.
To transition from yearlong production to seasonal grazing, the Yegerlehener's had to switch from fall calving to spring calving. The purpose of this transition was to synchronize the seasonality of the pastures and the biology of the animals. This reduces the impact on the grasses and removes farm dependence on external inputs. This system of husbandry has the animals outside 24-7, 365 days of the year, drying off for 120 days from late fall and throughout the winter months. A typical cow on this farm that is milked once a day yields 25-30 pounds of milk.
The holistic practices used in the pasture management of this farm also carry over to herd health care. The Yegerlehener family prefer to use natural treatments such as essential oils and homeopathic medicine and do not utilize typical treatments such as antibiotics. They believe that the health of the animal is in God's hands and their outcome will determine their purpose in the farm production. They also believe that low technology practices such as peasant wisdom has largely been lost in the farming community and are interested in using some of these techniques to predict pregnancy and animal health. An example of this is the idea of tracking reproduction based on the swirling of patches of hair on the animals. This eclectic management plan is a result of their continuous search for natural, well rounded production.
The guiding principles for this farm's production include a holistic resource management approach including passion for the community, love of their location, faith, family and the resources at hand. All of this, in the minds of the consumers, delivers a higher quality product. The Yegerlehener's philosophy of simplicity and sustainability allows them to add value and service a growing market.
The second stop of our day and final stop of the tour brought us to the Ray Brothers and Noble Canning Company in Hobbs, Indiana. This tomato canning facility and farm is owned and operated by various generations of the Noble family.
This family operation has been in tomato processing for 85 years. Over the years this family has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of small processors in the state of Indiana. In the 1950's there were approximately 150 tomato processors in the state with only 3 in production today. Much of this processing has been taken up by large centralized facilities capitalizing on the economies of scale. The Nobles have adapted by leveraging their 12 different products by supplying niche markets in the food service industry such as prisons, schools and restaurants on contracts. In addition, they co-pack for other processors. Examples of these products include whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, seasoned products and juices all in a range of sizes.
Some of the major buyers of Noble tomatoes are other tomato processors. Ray Brothers and Noble Canning Company provided canned and graded tomato products to these large companies thereby filling shortages in the market by meeting consumer demands for specific brand labels. In essence, regardless of brands or labels, all canned tomatoes have the same specifications.
The original family operation was based on the production of tomatoes and other field crops. In order to add value to the operation the family diversified vertically by opening a small tomato processing and canning facility with one brother running the farm and the other in charge of the processing plant. The farm and processing plant are mutually beneficial to each other; they are separate corporations that are linked by family ties. The processing facility supplies a guaranteed market to the farm and in turn, the farm reduces the risk of not filling the processors contracts in bad years and greater control over operating costs. The farm operates 2000 workable acres of which 200 are planted in tomatoes and the facility is able to run approximately 200 tons per day for approximately 50 days of the year. This arrangement benefits both parties by managing their risk.
This partnership has shown its merits especially in this chaotic year. Despite the dry conditions, the tomato yield this year was respectable at approximately 30 tons per acre in comparison to an average production of 27 tons per acre. This is due to tomatoes ability to withstand hot and dry conditions. The ability to process this bumper crop within the family increases the bottom line for both parties.
In order to make this operation a success, it requires many hands to ensure top quality products. The work force consists of 12 year round workers and 37 seasonal migrant workers. These seasonal workers migrate from tomato producing regions to corn producing regions throughout Indiana. These employees work as graders, sorters and general machine operators to ensure consistent products. The number of hours the employees work varies from 40 to 100 hours per week. Although this job is labour intensive and uncomfortable at times, the turnover rate of employees is relatively small. Usually no more than 2-3 new seasonal employees are hired per year and there is essentially no turnover rate in fulltime employees. This low turnover rate has allowed relationships to evolve between employees and management. These relationships have helped them overcome language barriers by learning each other's dialects. This improves safety procedures in the processing plant. In addition, the employees contribute to the local economy and the community.
Both of these family operations have cornered very different niche markets using different technologies and different philosophies to add value to the businesses. By constantly adapting, innovating and diversifying, they have survived and succeeded throughout the generations.