Clay City, Oaktown and Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Department of Plant Agriculture

Day 13 - Friday

THE FARM CONNECTION AND MELON ACRES

September 8, 2017 

By Trisha Flury, Rebecca Nagle, Garett Chesney and Christian Willemse 

The Farm Connection

Our last day of crop tour began by travelling from Illinois to Indiana to visit two family farms. In the morning we had the privilege of learning from Allan Yeherlehner and his daughter Kate, in Clay City, Indiana.  The Yehnerlehner’s operate a small dairy farm that is antibiotic, hormone, and chemical free where the cattle are dual purpose animals for milk and beef which are solely grass fed.  The farm operates as ‘The Farm Connection’ that sells value added milk products such as different cheeses, ice cream, and raw milk which sold as pet food through various different markets.  The Yehnerlehner family farm has never been certified organic due to personal philosophical reasons and therefore considers their products to be better than those organically labelled.  The Yeherlehner’s vision is to become a completely self-sustained family farming operation that produces high quality products to help close the gap between the farmer and consumer.  After an eye opening morning, students got the opportunity to enjoy some of the on-farm processed ice cream made from pasteurized milk

: Allen Yerherlehner and his daughter Kate discussing their farming practices with UofG students at “The Farm Connection”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Pictured above: Allen Yerherlehner and his daughter Kate discussing their farming practices with
U of G students at 'The Farm Connection."

One of the most important aspects of this family farm was their ability to set the price of their products.  Due to the fact that everything from the farm to the store shelf is done on-site, they are able to control the price in such a unique market.  Setting the price requires Allan to look at other organic producers and work with his customers to ensure they are paying fair value.  The Farm Connection has strong relations with their customers which is why they want to see them treated fairly.  The themes presented today revolved around family farms; value added products and ecological sustainability and will be the focus of this blog. 

Ecological Farming  

Allan and his father Kenneth had similar feelings regarding conservation, which is why they sought to make the farm more sustainable in the 1970’s by adopting different tillage and conservation practices and integrating different animals into the operation.  Achieving 100% sustainability means creating products for end-use that would make this operation less reliable on off-farm sources for things such as inputs, packaging and transportation.  Growing non-GMO (genetically modified organism) crops and 100% grass-fed cattle to create their retail products has made great strides to becoming more sustainable.  The family farm currently operates on approximately 200 acres of land from which they are able to produce a wide variety of foods including meats, cheeses, milk, vegetables, and other produce that are marketed and sold at the retail level.  These products are sold based on the element of trust between the consumer and the Yegerlehner family; The Farm Connection is not certified organic because they do not agree with what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has done with the organic label.  The Yegerlehner’s believe their products are even better than certified organic which is why they allow every stage of their operation, from growing to processing, to be seen by the public.  The Yegerlehner family actually encourages consumers to come to their farm and see how they make their amazing products. 

Upon visiting The Farm Connection you will notice the large diversity of cattle.  The cattle are dual purpose producing both milk and meat and are kept on pasture year round.  The health of the herd is maintained using natural remedies, such as essential oils and clay mixes which draw toxins from the animals. The cattle are bred to make sure they calve on schedule between March and April so milking only occurs during the summer months.  During these months the cattle are milked once a day in a double eight swing parlour.  As the summer progresses and the calves nutritional demands increase, the amount of milk the lactating cow can provide at milking decreases to a point where they are simply left on pasture with their calf.  When winter sets in and the cattle have dried off they are moved to an 80 acre winter pasture that is located down the road from the home farm.  This pasture was once stripped of its topsoil and mined for coal under the agreement that it was to be restored to its original status.  Ever since the land was given back to the Yeherlehner family it has been their goal to restore it and increase its overall health.  Allowing plant material to grow up and be chopped down has increased soil and plant health which has provided the cattle with a pasture that can supply them enough feed for the winter.  Besides grazing the pasture in the winter, the cattle can also be supplemented hay to increase the dry matter content of their diet.   

The dual purpose cows at the 'Farm Connection'
Pictured above: The dual purpose cows at the "Farm Connection."

Value Added

The Farm Connection sells 100% grass-fed beef and dairy products. All of their dual purpose cattle are raised on a grass pastures with free-choice supplements such as salt and minerals.   All of the milk that is produced is made into products that are sold directly to consumers. All of the milk they produce is marketed and sold to consumers as pet food which allows them to work around regulations regarding the sale of un-pasteurized milk in the state of Indiana.  Since the family isn’t milking cattle during the winter, enough butter and cheese will be made and stored during the summer months to maintain supply for this time period. The butter and raw milk are stored in freezers as winter surplus.  Cheese products are sold for $9-10/lb and raw milk is sold for $7/gal. Being surrounded by stores that sell the same certified organic products keeps The Farm Connection's prices in check.  Allan and Mary set their prices by comparing them to the same certified organic products and working with their customers to reach fair value.  The Farm Connection does set its prices very competitively from a business perspective considering the unique quality products they produce

Cheese and beef products sold at the 'Farm Connection's on-farm store
Pictured above: Cheese and beef products sold at the "Farm Connection's" on-farm store.

Cattle that are not, or are no longer fit, for milk production are turned into beef; these are the culled cows, bulls, and heifers.  The cattle that are kept around are very hardy animals that can make use of all types of plant material within the pastures.  Chickens too make use of these pastures as well as organic grain to produce eggs.  110 chickens are contained within live fences to control pasture grazing. These chickens lay an average 100 eggs/day in the portable nesting houses that Allen built himself.  These nesting houses are rotated amongst the pasture every 2 to 3 days to ensure there is enough food to keep egg production up. 

Allan and his wife Mary have now included their daughter Kate in the operation to look after the dairy/beef cow breeding and chickens.  Doing all of the processing and packaging on-farm requires more attention from Allan and Mary which is why Kate is there to lighten the work load.  On-farm processing and direct sales are what make the money at this operation; creating these retail products has allowed them to obtain more products off the same amount of land and therefore expand their margin of profit.  The wide variety of products has also expanded their niche market because it allows them sell merchandise year round.  Other products such as buttermilk and cottage cheese are marketed seasonally because of their inability to store for lengthy periods of time; unlike milk and other products that can be kept in the freezer. 

In recent years, they have adopted a new marketing technique that incorporates the use of an online store, in addition to their existing on-farm store.  Creating a store website has allowed them to the increase their customer base and eliminate some of shipping costs and food waste because it allows them to only ship what is pre-ordered online to the drop off points located in nearby urban centers. 

MELON ACRES – Oaktown, Indiana  

Our second stop of the day was another family owned farm; Melon Acres in Oaktown, Indiana.  Melon Acres is a diversified field, vegetable, and fruit crop operation. Here we spoke with Norm Conde, a retired high school teacher who works full time as Melon Acres’ project manager, about various topics including their migrant labourer program H2A, crop rotations, markets and pricing. Later on we also spoke with Mike Horrall's daughter and niece; Whitney Horrall Nichols and Melanie Horrall, about their tunnel houses, the CSA program, and women in agriculture

Whitney and Melanie Horrall describing the CSA Program answering U of G student's questions at "Melon Acres."
Pictured above: Whitney and Melanie Horrall describing the CSA Program and answering UofG student’s questions at "Melon Acres."

Melon Acres is a family farm that began in 1976 and focuses on food safety, innovation and exceptional quality.  To uphold their family name and provide consumers with guaranteed exceptional quality, every process from growing to packaging is done on-farm which increases food safety by decreasing the risk of contamination. To build consumer and retailer confidence, Melon Acres is part of the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association (ECGA) which requires growers to adhere to strict food safety standards. With integration often comes reduced quality; being part of the ECGA allows Melon Acres to produce and market high quality melons with every stage of production occurring at their facilities.

"Melon Acres" establishment
Pictured above: "Melon Acres" establishment

Melon acres used to market the majority of their products through brokers located around the country with only a small percentage sold from their on farm market. In recent years they have increased the amount of sales preformed personally between themselves and wholesalers.  Conducting more business without the use of a middle man (the brokers), Melon Acres is able to increase profit margins to support a growing family.  Over the last decade the number of family members that have become involved in and dependent on the company has increased. 

Fresh Market Vegetables 

Melon Acres has become more sustainable through the diversification of the crops that they produce. They grow a wide range of crops consisting of asparagus, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, sweet corn, bell peppers, cantaloupe and watermelons.  The wide range of different products allows them to spread their risk across many different crops and survive crop failures during years of bad production. They have also diversified into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program which allows them to grow a wide range of additional vegetables under hoop houses to be directly marketed to the consumer. In order to preform all the field work the family employs over two hundred people annually. They hire a wide range of employee’s, including a large amount of Mexican migrant workers, a few local migrant workers, and a small number of local people as managers. They have found that the best and most consistent workers are the Mexican migrant workers. Hiring a wide range of individuals allows them to spread out any labour force associated risk or other labour disruptions that would completely shut down their operation. 

One of the Hoop Houses that Whitney and Melanie manage at "Melon Acres."
Pictured above: One of the Hoop House that Whitney and Melanie manage at "Melon Acres."

The packaging lines at Melon Acres add a lot of value to their products.  We learned that the majority of their vegetable crops are packaged on the farm, with exception of tomatoes and squash that are packaged directly in the field. In order to become more profitable in the cantaloupe sector and protect themselves during bacterial breakouts, Melon Acres and several other producers created a separate entity by the name of Oaktown Processing Depot. Several years ago there was a listeria outbreak which caused sickness and large amounts of produce issues with other producers. The packaging plant being shared amongst producers ensures that these breakouts will not occur; this overall is better for the bottom line of Melon Acres. When Norm was asked whether or not a similar entity or cooperative could potentially be formed for the other crops, his answer was not anytime in the near future because their current on farm system works very well for them. 

CSA Program

In 2012 Melon Acres became the first producers in their area to work with the CSA program. Consumers who sign up to be members receive fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables once a week for 13 to 14 weeks during the season. The biggest driver behind joining CSA was that Melanie and Melon Acres as a whole wanted to increase their retail sales since the majority of their revenue came from wholesaling. This program provided an excellent avenue to accomplish this goal, while still focusing on the commercial wholesale business. So far the program has been successful; year to year the average number of members has been around two hundred and the record number being seven hundred. Melanie however is very comfortable supplying weekly boxes to two hundred consumers because a higher volume becomes too labour intensive. Not only is this a value added product, it also adds to the diversification to the farm which will help to sustain the family farm for future generations to come. No other producers in the immediate area offer a similar product which makes Melon Acres unique and gives them opportunity to offer a healthy, value added product to consumers. 

The 3.5 acres of Hoop Houses where the fresh produce for the CSA program is grown at “Melon Acres.”
Pictured above: The 3.5 acres of Hoop Houses where the fresh produce for the CSA program is grown at "Melon Acres."

Conclusion 

Up until today, the main focus of our Midwest Tour was 'big agriculture'; large operations, input and output companies. The broad theme of today was the family farm and how it can still survive in the American agricultural markets. A key take away point from our first stop this morning was that, sometimes you have to try alternative practices and be creative in order to stay a viable operation without growing in size. Since there is no supply management in the U.S.A. a dairy farm the size of the Yeherlehner's would not be economically sustainable without the value added products that are apart of their marketing plan. Another key take away point from our time at The Farm Connection was how using herbal and natural medicines can also treat infections in cattle successfully, a completely foreign concept for the majority of students on the trip. A third learning point was learned from Whitney and Melanie at Melon Acres regarding returning to your family farm. In order to make returning to the family farm a successful transition it is important to make sure that each family member is responsible for their own part of the operation and that each of them is a value adding member.  Overall today's stops were very different from the rest of the tour, however it gave students a good reminder that a smaller farm and a family operation still has its place in American agriculture!