Gunthorp Farms

Gunthorp Farms

Greg Gunthorp, Gunthorp Farms, La Grange Indiana. Credit: Kristin Hess, Indiana Humanities, Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest.

The weather appears slightly more variable, not significantly more, but slightly more variable. I was still farming with my dad during the severe drought in ’88. The drought in 2012 was worse, but I guess we were due for another one. I don’t know, but the weather does appear a little bit more variable. We’ve always had to deal with these weather extremes. It seems like we just have to deal with them a little more often.”

Greg Gunthorp

Gunthorp Farms

Midwest Region | LaGrange, IN

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 225 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to on-farm processing and direct marketing, multi-species pastured livestock, on-farm charcuterie.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Greg Gunthorp has been raising pigs for as long as he can remember on his family farm near LaGrange, Indiana. The Gunthorp family has always raised pigs on pasture, resisting pressure to modernize when confined animal production really took off in the pork industry in the 1980s. Just after Greg and his wife Lei took over the family pork operation in 1995, pig prices hit historic lows following an especially intense period of consolidation in the industry. At that time, with pork processors paying fourteen cents a pound for live hogs, Greg found himself selling hogs for less than his grandfather had decades ago.

Greg did not want to be the last in a long line of Gunthorps to grow pigs, so he began thinking about how to reach higher-value markets. Greg believed that the growing consumer interest in local foods and pasture-raised meats on both coasts would eventually spread to the Midwest. Greg knew he could raise high-quality pork on pasture and he knew he could market it. He also knew access to processing would be a challenge, because of the concentration in the pork industry. So in 2002, Greg built a USDA-inspected processing plant on his farm, one of only a handful in the country.

Today, Greg grows and processes pasture-based pork and poultry on 225 acres of farmland managed as perennial pasture, annual forages and grain crops. Pork and poultry are outside year-round and are protected with portable huts and electric netting. The livestock are rotated through pastures, the forage and grain crops, and a small woodland. Feed grains are grown on the farm or sourced from neighboring farms, including those of his parents and a brother. The woodland and standing corn also provide some shelter and forage for the pigs in late fall and winter and Greg encourages mulberries in the woodlands and along fence lines because of the high feed value of the fruit.

The Gunthorp Farms production system is designed to work with seasonal weather patterns. “We try not to start too early in the spring on the birds,” Greg explains, “and we don’t go way too late into the fall because of how difficult it becomes for us to make sure that they’ve got water. We try to focus production during the time of year when the pasture and forages are growing well so that the animals are on better pasture. We try to time our production to what nature does.” Greg views the high soil quality on his farm as an additional plus for production as well as a buffer against more variable rainfall. “We raise a few crops, but our soils are relatively high in organic matter, even though we’ve got sandy soils, because we have so much pasture. Our soils are more resilient to heavy rainfalls and more erratic rainfall patterns.”

Although the processing plant has been the key to the success of Gunthorp Farms, Greg admits it is a lot to manage at times. “I always tell people we really have three businesses,” he says. “We have a farm, a processing plant and a meat distribution company. In order for our model to be successful, all three of them have to function relatively efficiently and work together. We slaughter and process our own pigs, chicken, ducks and turkeys. Depending on the time of year, we have eight to twelve full-time employees for our processing plant. We do slaughter, raw fabrications of chops, roasts, steaks, chicken breast and primals. We also do ground products and sausages. We have a smokehouse and we do our bacon in there, as well as some smoked hocks, a few smoked hams and smoked sausages.” Greg also does some custom slaughtering for other local livestock producers on occasion. Gunthorp Farms meats are direct marketed through an on-farm store and weekly deliveries to more than 150 high-end restaurants and meat markets in Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit.

The processing plant has a number of energy and environmental conservation features, including a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment, solar thermal preheating for the hot water used in processing, heat recovery from the refrigeration units and geothermal space heating. Solid waste from the processing plant is composted with crop residues and returned to the pastures and croplands. Greg is pleased with his efforts to recycle wastes and conserve energy in the processing plant. “We really work on it,” he says. “We’re doing a few interesting things. It’s kind of neat actually and it is a lot of fun. I like to play around with alternative energies.”

Thinking about weather challenges, Greg says that extreme weather is pretty much a normal part of farming in his region. “Blizzards would definitely be on the list of weather challenges,” he says, “along with drought, summer heat waves and very heavy rains. Excessively high winds can make it hard to keep our shelters from flying away, but blizzards top the list, because they can make it really difficult to get to the animals and make sure that they have feed, water and a dry, draft-free place to sleep. It’s more the getting to them than anything, because the snow and then the drifting snow can cause us to get stuck going out there. Then it gets cold enough that you can only stay out in it for a little bit.”

Although Greg thinks other farmers believe the weather has become more variable over the last decade or so, he can’t say that he has noticed any significant changes in patterns over his lifetime; however, he does think the spring warm-up pattern seems to be changing. “My grandpa’s rule of thumb was you didn’t throw pigs out on pasture until the last week of April because you might get a little bit of snow after that, but it wasn’t going to stick,” explains Greg. “And that is still somewhat consistent. I remember growing up, when I was really little, my grandpa always said you ‘freeze the frogs three times.’ He meant that after the frogs started singing in the spring you would get a thin layer of ice on the mud puddles and the ponds three more times. And this is the thing that is getting really weird right now. In the last twelve years, one year the frogs froze twenty-one times, and another year it was like twenty-three times. Otherwise, the frogs are just about always right on. Maybe the frogs know something we don’t.” Although some of these changes in weather have caught Greg’s attention, they have not required any changes in production practices at Gunthorp Farms.

Greg says that one of his biggest challenges with weather right now is longer and more intense summer and fall dry periods. He thinks this change may be connected to the increase in center-pivot irrigation in his region. “I’m 100 percent convinced that when all these guys around us turn on their center pivots, our rain becomes very, very intermittent,” says Greg. “It is almost like the rainfall just goes around us. I have no data to support it whatsoever, but I’m convinced that once they turn their center pivots on, the precipitation variability increases drastically. I think the humidity from the center pivots is changing the direction of fronts and precipitation. My dad used to say it all that time and lots of people used to think he was crazy, but there’s a lot more people starting to believe it.”

Thinking about the future, Greg is pretty optimistic about the continued success of Gunthorp Farms, mostly because of the high-quality natural resources in his region and on his farm. “I think we’re in a part of the country that is going to be one of the last places to be severely impacted by more weather variability,” he explains. “This is mostly because we have easy access to a lot of good-quality water. We don’t have the issues that the Western Corn Belt has with worrying about whether they’re going to end up running out of water.” In addition, Greg believes that the rolling landscape on his farm and the high-quality soils created by rotational grazing and diverse cropping help to buffer the farm from extreme weather events, as does his use of standing corn and woodlands to moderate extremes in temperatures and winds.

Greg also appreciates the accumulated wisdom developed by his family over many generations of raising pigs on pasture at Gunthorp Farms. “I think we know how to deal with weather variability in animal production,” Greg says. “We’ve always had thunderstorms. We’ve always had blizzards. We’ve always had high wind events, high rain events. We haven’t had them at the frequency that we have now, but we’ve always had them.”

Greg goes on to explain that pastured-based producers have a really different mindset compared to producers who raise animals indoors. “Pasture-based livestock producers had to build production systems that took weather into consideration from day one,” he says. “The people that put up confined livestock operations were the ones that never wanted to figure out how to deal with weather challenges in the first place. It’s a very different mindset when you are growing on pasture, because you’re managing a system that cooperates with nature rather than trying to just build something that works regardless of whatever nature does. It’s 180 degrees on the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Greg Gunthorp is active in sustainable agriculture and rural social justice issues and speaks regularly at agricultural conferences, particularly on pastured-livestock production and extreme concentration in the livestock industry, and has collaborated in research on his farm. Gunthorp Farms was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

 

Humble Hands Harvest

Humble Hands Harvest

Humble Hands Harvest

Hannah Breckbill and Emily Fagan, Humble Hands Harvest. Credit: Cory Eull

I actually thrive in change and that’s really good for adapting to the unexpected. Emily is a very diligent and very forward-thinking planner. She thinks of worst-case scenarios and she plans for them. So those two personalities together are able to deal with whatever is coming in different ways. When one of us is struggling, the other one usually has it covered. – Hannah Breckbill

Hannah Breckbill & Emily Fagan

Humble Hands Harvest

Midwest Region | Decorah, IA

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 22 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Cooperative land access, worker-owned farm, no-till raised beds.

Humble Hands Harvest is a worker-owned cooperative farm growing organic vegetables, organic grass-fed and finished lamb and pastured pork on 22 acres in northeast Iowa near Decorah. Hannah Breckbill is founder and co-owner of the farm with her second cousin Emily Fagan. Over the last decade, Hannah has worked to cultivate the resources, skills and experience needed to own and manage a successful farm business through participation in the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings and Journeyperson programs and the Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Savings Incentives Program. Along the way, she innovated a new cooperative model of farm ownership that cultivates the resilience of community-based food and farming.

After graduating from college with a degree in mathematics, Hannah was drawn to farming because it offered an opportunity to combine her passion for social activism with her love of the land. After working for other vegetable farmers in her first three growing seasons, Hannah established Humble Hands Harvest in 2013 and continued to farm on leased land in several locations in the Driftless area of southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa. Hannah celebrates the experiences of each new season and location — both good and bad — as important steps towards her goal of establishing a permanent farming enterprise. “I’ve grown a lot through running my own farm business,” says Hannah, “but in order to really begin caring for the land, really investing in soil building and perennial crops, I needed a permanent place. The question was, how will I attain that?”

In 2014, Hannah participated in a cooperative purchase of a farm near Decorah that was initially motivated to protect the land from development. As a shareholder in the farm, Hannah successfully encouraged the owners to shift their goal from farmland protection to farmland access. In doing so, she found the answer to her question. Using her own savings, a family loan and matching funds earned through the LSP’s Journeyman’s Program, Hannah purchased eight acres of the farm in 2016. A year later, Emily joined Humble Hands Harvest as a co-owner. Since then, Hannah and Emily have worked together to raise the funds needed to develop vegetable and livestock operations on the farm through events like a farm-raising party and a Go Fund Me campaign.

Today, Hannah and Emily produce diversified vegetables, lamb and pork using mostly hand labor on about two acres of cultivated ground and 20 acres of pasture. Vegetable production infrastructure on the farm includes a well, a drip irrigation system, a deer fence, a moveable high tunnel, a greenhouse, a cooler and a pole building that includes a packhouse and storage. They own a small tractor they use to cultivate ground for cropping and to mow pastures and headlands, manage a small flock of sheep to produce grass-finished lamb and finish about ten feeder pigs each year on pasture. Hannah and Emily direct market their vegetables and meat cuts at twice-weekly farmers markets in Decorah and through on-farm sales of lamb and pork halves and wholes.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Orange County Produce

Orange County Produce

Orange County Produce

A.G. Kawamura, Orange County Produce. Credit: A.G. Kawamura

I would say that our weather is both “predictably unpredictable” or “predictably predictable.” We’re generally dry from April all the way until December. We’ll get a few storms every now and then, a kind of monsoon that comes up the coast in the fall, but generally we have some of the most predictable weather anywhere on the planet. In my experience, nothing’s changed that much.

A.G. Kawamura

Orange County Produce

Southwest Region | Irvine, CA

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 1000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Urban soils restoration, precision mgt., growers’ network.

When A.G. Kawamura heads out each morning to check on his crops, his route is an unusual one for a vegetable grower. He drives into residential developments, onto military bases and through city parks, schools and abandoned orange groves to get to his fields. His family didn’t set out to be urban farmers, but they started farming early enough and stayed in business long enough that the city eventually grew out to reach them. “We are definitely urban producers or farmers in an urban area,” A.G. says. “It was a rural area when we started farming here. The city came to us and then it surrounded us. We’ve just never left.”

A.G.’s grandparents came to southern California from Japan around the turn of the last century and made their living in the agriculture of their new home. They did whatever work they could find in those early days, one set of grandparents picking and packing oranges, sharecropping and landscaping, and another grandparent starting a small fertilizer and farm supply company. After the Kawamura families were released from an Arizona internment camp in 1945, they returned home to the Los Angeles area to rebuild their lives. Over a decade later, the family moved farm operations to Orange County, growing and shipping produce in the area, which was well-known at the time for growing oranges, walnuts, tomatoes, lima beans, asparagus, along with other vegetable and horticulture crops.

As the area population grew, rising costs and skyrocketing real estate prices forced many Orange County growers to sell out. Those that remained continued to grow on ground leased from several large private landowners and military bases. “We don’t own any of the ground we farm on here in the county,” A.G. explains, “and that’s a challenge because we rent ground from the utilities, from a school district, from cities and counties, from the military and from private developers. We will farm any vacant lot that’s over four or five acres. If I can see the weeds are growing well, and I can see that there’s a fire hydrant or recycled water connection nearby, then we look at those as viable places to farm.”

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Kole Tonnemaker, Tonnemaker Hill Farm, Royal City, Washington. Credit: Kole Tonnemaker.

Sometimes the challenges of this year keep you from noticing the long term trend. I think that could be true in our case. I mean, truthfully, looking at the long range, I don’t know that we’ve really seen a big climate change effect here yet. It seems like our struggle is the variation from one year to the next. It just seems like that has overshadowed any long-term effect. Every year seems to be so different.

Kole Tonnemaker

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Northwest Region | Royal City, WA

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 120 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add annuals, shifted to direct markets.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Tonnemaker Hill Farm is on the north slope of the Frenchman Hills near Royal City, Washington, a semi-arid region in the central part of the state. Brothers Kole and Kurt Tonnemaker are the third generation to own and operate the 126-acre farm, established in 1962 as one of the original farm units in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. The farm is home to 60 acres of orchard, 20 acres of vegetables and 40 acres of hay, all irrigated and certified organic.

Kole, his wife Sonia and their son Luke manage the production of more than four hundred varieties of apples, peaches, pears and other fruits and vegetables. Kurt manages direct sales to restaurants, a CSA and as many as fourteen weekly farmers’ markets in the Pullman–Moscow area, Seattle and along the I-5 corridor. Farm products are also marketed year-round at the Tonnemaker Farm’s popular retail store in Royal City. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, the farm sells a variety of value-added products made from farm-grown produce including apple cider, fruit leathers, dried and frozen fruit and dried peppers.

When Kole took over the management of the farm in 1981, like many other farms in the region, Tonnemaker Hill specialized in apples, cherries and pears grown for wholesale commodity markets. Faced with falling wholesale prices as the fruit industry transitioned into corporate ownership during the 1980’s, Kole began to diversify into higher-value direct markets to maintain farm profitability.

In 1992, Kole’s brother Kurt took on marketing and sales for the farm full-time and began to expand direct market sales. He also encouraged Kole to consider using organic practices as a way to add value to Tonnemaker Hill products. Kole started the transition to certified organic production in 1997 and a decade later all of the cropland on the farm was USDA-certified organic.

Kole can’t say that he’s really noticed any change in weather variability over the thirty-plus years he has been managing the farm; however, he believes that the fall season has lengthened. “We figure on our farm, if we can get past the tenth of October without a killing frost, that’s a great year. It’s been about ten years since we had a killing frost in September.” Because winter kill and spring freezes and frosts are standard risks in tree fruit crops, Kole wonders if year-to-year variability has made it harder for him to see any clear trend over the years.

Another factor influencing his perception of weather patterns may be the farm’s north-facing aspect, which makes the production of stone fruits particularly challenging. “The cooler conditions on these slopes just increase the winter kill and spring frosts challenges,” he explains. “That’s been an ongoing issue for a long time. We grow stone fruits, which are more sensitive to variable weather in the winter and spring. They bloom earlier and they’re more susceptible to winter kill, so that’s always something that’s on our mind. Once the stone fruits — cherries, peaches and nectarines — have broken dormancy and started to lose their cold hardiness, they cannot reacquire it. They’re very vulnerable to temperature variability. If you get a warm week in January and they start to lose dormancy, and then all of a sudden you get a cold spell in February, damage to the fruit bud is a big concern. The apples and pears, which are pome fruits, are less sensitive because they can reacquire cold hardiness if temperatures fall again after a short warm period in winter or spring.”

Kole remembers his first decade or so as farm manager went pretty smoothly weather wise, although major crop losses in 1985 and then again in 1991 and 1992 from extreme weather got his attention. “We’re growing perennial crops that are susceptible to just being totally wiped out by freezing weather,” he explains. “In 1985, we had a terrible freeze in early November. I mean, it was 25 below zero in the first half of November. The trees were not ready for winter yet and it killed all the fruit buds. We had lost all our stone fruit crops for the 1986 season and we weren’t even in 1986 yet. And then, in both 1991 and ’92, we lost most of the fruit crops again.” Abnormally low temperatures in December 1990 caused massive winter kill that devastated the 1991 crop. One of the warmest winters and earliest blooms on record in 1991–92 set the orchard up for total crop loss from the most devastating spring frost ever experienced in the region. “We just thought, oh my goodness, we have got to have something to plant that’s not a perennial. We need something we can harvest when we don’t have the fruit crops. Also, we started getting insurance on the most risky of the crops after the 1992 frost.”

Because Kole had already begun to diversity markets and Kurt was able to take on direct marketing full-time, the decision to diversify into vegetable crops in the 1992 season was relatively easy. Looking back, Kole appreciates the complementary nature of the vegetable enterprise to overall farm performance. The short-season annual vegetable crops allow them to change planting date, crop mix and production volume in response to variations in the fruit harvest and seasonal weather conditions. “We’ve seen these extreme variations, and that was the killer for us. With fruit production, you need a constant. That’s why we went to vegetables. You have some room to modify the production of the annual crops to fit your needs and the season. For example, although we like to plant vegetables in the field starting the first of May, if it’s cold, we can just wait.”

Access to ample water supplies, industry changes in the 1980s and the back-to-back crop failures in 1991 and ‘92 that pushed Kole to diversify production and marketing all served to enhance the adaptive capacity of Tonnamaker Hill Farm. Although access to water has not been an issue in his region, Kole has some concerns about future water supplies. “Sixty years ago, this region was just desert. Nobody lived out here. Nobody. The land that our farm is on used to be a massive cattle ranch that went fifty miles one way and sixty miles another way. Now it’s a big fruit-growing area. We all get our water out of the Columbia River. Right now, we basically have all the water we need. But already in the Northwest now, there is a struggle to make sure there’s enough runoff for the salmon to migrate. One thing they talk about here is if we do get this global warming, it is possible that the Pacific Northwest will get drier. There’s been talk about that.”

In 2013, Kole and Sonia Tonnemaker were named Farmers of the Year by the Tilth Producers of Washington for their leadership and innovation in “ecologically sound, economically viable and socially equitable farming practices that improve the health of our communities and natural environment.”

Abanitu Organics

Abanitu Organics

C. Bernard Obie, Abinatu Organgics. Credit: marleymarles

I can say that for us, the main ingredient is being connected to the Earth and the forces, angelic and otherwise, that govern the growth of plants. We will accept what nature gives us and we’ll be grateful. We’ll do our part to try to keep it in balance and healthy. I think in the long term, that’s really all we can do as Mother Nature will have the first and the last word about our existence here.

C. Bernard Obie

Abanitu Organics

Southeast Region | Roxboro, NC

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 12 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add no-till raised beds/heat tolerant crops, shift growing season.

C. Bernard Obie, known as “Obie” to his family and friends, grows certified organic vegetables, fruits and herbs on his family farm in north central North Carolina near Roxboro. Obie founded Abanitu Organics on the land that has nourished his family since his great grandmother, Ms. Lucy Obie, purchased the farm in 1906. Lucy’s son, John, was a widely respected farmer in the area. Obie’s father, Bernard, continued the family’s farming legacy, even as all of his siblings left the farm for city jobs. “His was a really pivotal decision,” says Obie, referring to his father’s decision to become a farmer, “because he could have very well done the same thing. For a lot of folks, that’s the time when the connection to the land was broken.”

Obie’s earliest memories include helping out with farm chores along with his six brothers and sisters. “I call Person County ‘the land that time forgot for a while,’” says Obie, “because we were still doing things in the 1950s the way folks had done them a generation earlier. We did not have a tractor, we still ploughed with mules. Our cash crop was flue-cured tobacco. We kept hogs and chickens, had a milk cow and grew corn and wheat for our own food and to feed our animals. That’s how we came up.” Most of the farm’s produce was for family use, but the tobacco and hogs were sold for cash income. Obie values the unique perspective on life gained by growing up on his family’s farmstead.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.