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.

 

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.”

Peregrine Farm

Peregrine Farm

Alex and Betsy Hitt, Peregrine Farm, Graham, North Carolina. Credit: Kate Medley, Southern Foodways Alliance.

We have a creek that runs by our property. Back in the 1700’s, they built two mills and mill dams on this creek. You don’t put that kind of effort and energy into a creek unless it is a perennial stream that runs all the time, so it seems likely that the creek has always had pretty good flow all through the summer. We have seen it run dry in some historic droughts, like in 2002, but that was a very rare occasion and the old-timers said they had never seen it run dry. But in the last 6 years, it has run dry every year at some time in the summer between June and September.

Alex & Betsy Hitt

Peregrine Farm

Southeast Region | Graham, NC

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 5 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Improve water capture, shift growing season, shift to heat tolerant cultivars, drop sensitive species.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Alex and Betsy Hitt established Peregrine Farm on 26 acres of pastures and woodlands in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina in 1981. Although the Hitts initially started a pick-your-own berry enterprise, they eventually moved into five acres of mixed vegetables and cut flowers to improve profitability and meet local market demands. Since 1991, the farm has supported them without the need for off-farm employment, and they also bring in two full-time employees during the growing season. They have never participated in any government program supporting agricultural producers. 

Today, Alex and Betsy grow about four acres of vegetables and cut flowers in rotation with a diverse mix of warm- and cool-season cover crops. Production takes place on drip-irrigated raised beds in the open or under about an acre of high tunnels and hoophouses. Extremely diverse crop rotations and intensive cover cropping are key management strategies at Peregrine Farm, with more than two hundred crop varieties grown in a given year, plus about half an acre of blueberries. For more than a decade, Alex and Betsy also rotationally-grazed about a hundred turkeys through the croplands each year, but they stopped in 2014 when a local processing plant closed. The Hitts sell most of their produce at a twice-weekly farmers’ market in Carrboro, about fifteen miles from the farm, and to local restaurants and a co-op grocery store.

In the thirty-three years he has been in the farm, Alex says that changing weather patterns have caused some major shifts in crop management. “Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” he recalls, “we had a number of years when it rained like hell, particularly in early spring, and we many times wondered if we were ever going to get anything planted or weeded. This is when we developed our system of raising our beds up in the fall, so they would drain and warm up fast the following spring when the heavy rains would come. We had so many floods in our creek-bottom fields that we finally had to stop using those fields, even though they have the best soil on the farm, because we couldn’t afford to lose the crops. But after Hurricane Fran in 1996, the tap turned off.”

Since then, weather patterns seem to have shifted significantly, while extremes have become more intense, creating new challenges and some new opportunities. “In the last fifteen years or so, springs have become much drier and there are more dry periods and longer periods of drought in the summer,” according to Alex. “Summer high temperatures now seem to extend into the late summer and fall, so summer is longer than it used to be and much drier. But fall weather is also extending longer and is better for growing.”

Alex started noticing a decline in production of some crops, particularly tomatoes, as summer temperatures increased and drought became more common. He explains, “In 2012, high temperatures were near 100 [degrees Fahrenheit] for more than two weeks in early June. We’ve had some heat-related pollination problems in tomatoes, squash, beans and cucumbers. Temperatures were just too hot for fruit set.”

High fall temperatures as the crops mature have also caused some problems, sometimes actually cooking the fruits on the vine. Drought has also interfered with normal plant development, causing time to maturity to become more irregular in growing seasons with more frequent dry periods and droughts.

Water availability for crop irrigation is now at the top of the list of weather-related concerns at Peregrine. Water comes from two ponds on the farm, both of which are spring fed. But the springs have not run much for some years now, so Alex pumps water out of the creek and into the ponds as a backup. He says that the creek running dry in summer has raised concerns about having enough water to continue to grow crops in the summertime. As he puts it, “If we don’t have the water, we can’t grow vegetables in summer.”

Peregrine is not in a rapidly growing area, so increased competition for groundwater does not seem a likely explanation for the reduction in summer creek flows. “There are no subdivisions or industrial uses, and, thank god, no fracking or anything yet,” says Alex, “so I don’t see any large users of water. The area is still mostly in woods.” He thinks the summer dry-up may be related to a decline in winter precipitation, which has reduced groundwater levels. “We used to get really good, regular, steady winter rains which kept things moist and green,” Alex explains, “but for a number of winters now, you can go out and till soil almost anytime you want. It’s not soppy wet. Once the trees leaf out and start drawing down the soil moisture, the creek flow really starts to drop.” Two or three summers ago, the creek went dry so quickly that Alex walked its length to the headwaters to see if someone was actually pulling water out, but all he found was that none of the springs that feed the creek were running.

The changes in water supply, coupled with higher summer temperatures and more frequent drought, have got Alex and Betsy thinking about ways, both old and new, to reduce summer crop production risks. For example, soil management, always a priority on the farm, has taken on new importance. “Because we are so conscious of ground water and the creek,” says Alex, “we’re trying as best as we can to build soil organic matter levels in order to improve soil water-holding capacity. We have a sandy loam, so it dries out pretty quickly.”

They have also begun to reduce production during peak summer heat (late June to early August) and focus on production during the cooler fall, winter and spring seasons. This shift away from mid-summer production offers a number of advantages, including reduced water needs, less field work in high temperatures and the production of cool-season crops well-adapted to the longer falls and warmer winters. “From 2000 to 2010, we marketed produce from April through about mid-October,” Alex explains. “In 2011, we tried some winter marketing and that worked well enough that we planted a full array of fall and winter vegetables and some flowers to bring to market in 2012 and 2013. It’s an exciting new direction for us.”

Warmer winters and a lengthening fall season made the shift in production pattern easier, but brought some challenges too. “As we were trying to get fall crops established last year,” Alex says, “I realized why we stopped doing that so long ago. The insect pressures and disease pressures are so high in the fall. It is a struggle. But if we can get to October, we’re okay as far as the establishment of crops…. After that, we can go all the way to Christmas easily, without any real additional work. And January and February are much easier than they used to be, because it is warmer.”

Another new weather-related challenge is changing crop disease pressures. Downy mildew and powdery mildew seem to be coming in earlier in the year than they used to and more novel diseases are challenging production. “This year [2014],” Alex says, “I’ve talked to a number of growers who planted winter squash at the normal time but because the mildews came in so early they did not get a crop. We fortunately planted ours really early and we got a good harvest, but if we had waited any later, I’m not sure we would have gotten much. So part of it is earlier arrival of some old diseases and part if it is new diseases. For instance, this year the downy mildew that has been infecting basil, which we have never had any trouble with — it finally got into our place somehow, and we lost all of our late basil.” Alex adds that some diseases that used to cause losses, like bacterial leaf spot on peppers, have not been a problem over the last few years at Peregrine.

More intense extreme weather, in particular more intense wind, has caused significant damage to the farm. “The intensity of the storms is getting bigger,” says Alex. “Snow is more, wind is bigger and weather comes all at once instead of being spread out.” One extreme wind event in July of 2012 damaged 90 percent of the high tunnels on the farm. “In the ranking of storms we have weathered over the last three decades this relatively small thunderstorm stands at number two in intensity and number one in monetary damage,” Alex explains. “Of course, Hurricane Fran will (or hopefully will) hold the top spot forever in wind speed, flooding, trees down and length of power outage, but we had no serious damage to any building or equipment from Fran and not too much crop loss. We have seen record rainfall events [ten inches in an hour and subsequent flooding], we have seen the record snowfall [twenty-plus inches], huge ice storms and hailstorms but most of those just resulted in loss of power. This storm was fast and hard. The big straight line winds came screaming from the west and from our experiences in Fran [80-mph winds for hours] and other hurricanes like Isabel [60-mph winds for a long time] we estimate these winds at 65–75 mph, but for only about ten minutes. The rain lasted maybe forty-five minutes, then it was over.” Six of the eight high tunnels on the farm sustained major damage because the winds exceeded their design limits and the suddenness of the storm caught the Hitts unprepared. The losses from this storm have got Alex and Betsy looking into how they can manage tree lines for improved wind protection in the future.

Even though summers in the Piedmont have been a bit cooler since 2012, Alex and Betsy plan to continue their efforts to enhance the adaptive capacity of their farm to changing climate conditions. “I think we have been lulled into a little calmness here these last two years,” says Alex, “at least on the heat end. I keep waiting for it to come screaming back.” Even with the retreat from mid-summer production, securing water for crop production remains a top priority. “We continue to go back to thinking about water capture,” says Alex. “Are there any other ways that we can control water before it leaves the farm so that we can have it to use? Some of that has to do with windbreaks so we have lower evapotranspiration. We also have places for more ponds so that we can store all the water that does fall on our farm.” They also continue to select for crop cultivars that are well adapted to their farm conditions and believe that protected growing space — under row covers and in hoophouses and high tunnels — will become even more important for successful production as climate change effects intensify in coming years.

In 2019, Alex and Betsy scaled down their operation to just one half an acre – they were looking for more time off and less time in the heat – and finally closed their business in 2021 after 36 years in farming.  Today, they grow for themselves and simply enjoy living in the beauty of Peregrine Farm.

Both Alex and Betsy are longtime, active participants in their community and regularly participate in and lead workshops at sustainable agriculture and regional food conferences and events throughout the Southeast. Both have served on the board of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Peregrine Farm 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, and Alex and Betsy were nationally recognized for their innovative sustainable management with the 2006 Patrick Madden Award from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. In 2010, Peregrine Farm was profiled in the NAS publication Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century.  

Peacework Farm

Peacework Farm

Elizabeth Henderson, Peacework Farm, Newark, New York. Credit: Elizabeth Henderson.

When I started farming there was a pattern to the weather, one year was kind of like the one before. I think it’s more challenging to be a farmer now. No two years are alike. You have to be more flexible, you can’t rely on a plan. You have to learn as many tricks as possible, because it might be dry or it might be wet. You have to be so nimble these days.

Liz henderson

Peacework Farm

Northeast Region | Newark, NY

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 20 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add wells/irrigation, shift work to cooler hours, agricultural justice.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Elizabeth Henderson has grown organic vegetables for more than twenty-five years in Wayne County, New York, and is a founding member of Peacework Organic CSA. Peacework is located on 109 acres of prime farmland that has been protected from development in a unique community collaboration that enabled the Genesee Land Trust to purchase the farm and then lease it back to the farmers on a twenty-five-year rolling lease. The farm grows more than seventy different crops on 20 acres, including a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers. The produce is marketed through a 300-member CSA over a six-month harvest season.

Designed to maintain soil quality and reduce pest pressures, cropping systems on the farm focus on summer and winter cover crops, organic mulches and some purchased compost. A greenhouse and hoophouses are used to produce vegetable transplants and extend the season in the spring and fall and ample water is available for drip irrigation from three wells on the farm.

Managing the effects of heat, drought and excessive rain on the crops and people of Peacework has got Elizabeth Henderson wondering about the challenges facing new farmers these days. Hotter summers, heavy rainfall, drought and novel diseases have required some adjustments to the farm’s management practices. “When we started farming, we didn’t have any irrigation. We could rely on the rain and the soil’s organic matter to get us through. There would sometimes be a couple of dryish weeks, but then there would be rainstorms in July, you know, thunderstorms and we could get through a season. Since about 2000, no two years have been alike. Really wet years, dry, dry drought years — and you never know at the beginning of the season what to expect. With the really erratic weather we found that we had to install trickle irrigation and dig a well in each field so we could have reliable water. And then when you have to use irrigation, about a quarter of your time goes in to managing that.”

Elizabeth experienced her first severe drought as a farmer in 2005, a year that the Farmer’s Almanac predicted would be average rainfall. “There was a quarter inch of rain between the beginning of May and the third week of September that year. One quarter inch! We had never had that before. And then it rained every day in October, so it WAS an average rainfall year!”

Higher summer temperatures and particularly heat waves have challenged both the plants and people at Peacework. “People who live in the South are used to really hot weather, but my partner and I are Northerners and heat just makes us totally miserable. We just have never experienced weather of over two weeks in a row over 90 until the past two years. That just makes the working conditions extremely difficult, and of course you get up earlier so that you can try and do harvesting during cool weather, but when it never goes down below 90 degrees there isn’t any cool weather for really good harvesting. It’s much harder on our people. It’s grueling.”

Elizabeth is thinking about how to apply some of the crop management practices she observed in South Korea and Taiwan to manage crops in the heavy downpours that have become more frequent at Peacework. “It’s getting harder to manage water on our farm. When rain comes, it isn’t just gentle rain, it comes in two or three hour downpours of three inches. When I visited Taiwan the first time, I noticed that they have tomato trellising that was three times as sturdy as I thought you would need, not just a tripod with three bamboo poles, it would be a tripod with eight or nine bamboo poles. And then I saw a typhoon, and I saw that their tomatoes were still standing, because they have learned how to make trellises that can stand up to a typhoon.”

“The kind of rain I saw while I was in South Korea and Taiwan explained why they use hoophouses in the summertime to protect their crops. Rain coming down so hard that it washes the crop out of the ground, or flattens it. Or if it’s seed, it could bury it or wash it out. They’ve been managing heavy downpours a long time.” Peacework has four hoophouses that have been used in the past for season extension and disease management, but recently there is talk about how to use them to protect crops from heavy rains.

There is also discussion about returning to some water and wind management practices that were used in the past. “We are lucky that we have sandy loam over gravel. We used to have it set up with grass strips between the beds, and that was a pain in the neck because you had to mow those strips. So we took most of them out, and I’m thinking that was a mistake. With the grass strip you can get on a bed way earlier, because the whole field doesn’t have to dry out. You can ride your tractor on the grass strip and do light tilling of a bed, where it would be too wet if there weren’t the grass strip there.” Because the Peacework property is level, water erosion is not a concern, but the soils, plants and people are exposed to wind. “In a very dry summer there can be a lot of real painful wind erosion, with the wind whipping through the sand. So I think being careful to have grass strips and windbreaks of bushes or trees is essential for a changing climate.”

Like other growers in the humid East, Elizabeth has seen a startling increase in crop disease with the changes in weather over the last decade. “In my first fifteen years of farming we never lost an entire crop to a disease. You would have some disease on some of the crop, or some pest, but in the past ten to fifteen years, we’ve had things like powdery mildew blow in and entirely wipe out all the cucumbers. Or late blight totally wipe out the tomatoes and potato crop. That was just not an experience that I’d had before.”

Elizabeth expressed concerns about the lack of federal crop insurance programs for diversified vegetable growers faced with managing the novel risks she has experienced from climate change effects on her farm. “The crop insurance that is available is not appropriate for our farm. It’s getting better. They have some new policies that are more accommodating to a farm growing seventy crops, but for the most part up until now they haven’t had that. You get the insurance, you pay by the crop. It hasn’t been a good fit. And it is very irritating to me, that despite the hazards for farmers, insurance companies consider crop insurance really a nice profit area, because they get subsidies from the government. They are subsidized by the federal government. Their guaranteed profit is higher than any farm ever gets.”

Looking to the future, Elizabeth believes we have the knowledge we need to sustainably manage soils and crops in a changing climate. She believes that efforts to improve the adaptive capacity of farms are best focused on the human dimensions of agriculture. “I think we’ve paid plenty of attention to soil and crops and not enough attention to people. The past ten years I’ve been working on the Agricultural Justice Project, which addresses issues of domestic fair trade. It’s developing standards for fair payments to farmers that fully cover production costs and fair labor standards on the farms, so the people who actually do the farm work are treated better, given more respect and are involved more in the farming. I think that’s what we need to understand better because in these very, very challenging times, having one manager is not enough. Everybody on a farm has to be constantly observing, trying to understand, and working out how to be nimble together.”

Elizabeth has been an active organizer, advocate and author for organic farming, sustainable agriculture and food justice for many years and represents NOFA on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project, which offers Food Justice Certification. She has been nationally recognized for her work as a recipient of the Spirit of Organic award (2001), Cooperating for Communities award (2007), a NOFA-NY Lifetime Achievement Award (2009) and, most recently, the Ecological Farming Association’s Justie Award (2014). She co-authored the book Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007), which has helped many farms connect directly with supportive customers willing to share the risk with their farmers. Although Elizabeth retired from full-time farming in 2012, she remains active as a mentor, food justice activist and author.

Frasier Farms

Frasier Farms

Mark Frasier, Frasier Farms, Woodrow Colorado. Credit: Mark Frasier.

I think historically a person would be hard pressed to say that the drought we’ve been in recently is any more severe than what my father experienced in the 1950’s or my grandfather in the ’30’s. When you look directly at any one aspect of weather – variability, precipitation, temperature, length of growing season – those are always in flux. In the environment where we live, 40 degree fluctuations in temperature are not uncommon any time of the year. Our precipitation comes in concentrated periods of time and it’s not necessarily predictable. There is an inherent unpredictability about our environment.

Mark Frasier

Frasier Farms

Southwest Region | Woodrow, CO

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 29,000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, dynamic stocking, cow-calf plus stocker operation, long-term weather forecasts, subsidized production insurance.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Frasier Farms is a family owned and operated ranch that spreads across 44,000 acres of rolling native shortgrass prairie in Eastern Colorado, where the land is dry and the wind is almost always blowing. Brothers Mark, Joe, and Chris Frasier manage the ranch in two divisions, one near Limon and the other near Woodrow. Frasier Farms produces cattle with an 800 head cow-calf and stocker operations and offer hunting leases and custom grazing. The rolling hills of native grasses such as blue gramma and buffalo grass are managed using planned grazing practices that improve soil health and the health of the grassland, recycle nutrients and enhance biodiversity on the ranch.

Mark Frasier has managed the Woodrow division of Frasier Farms for more than thirty years. In addition to the calves produced on the ranch each spring and fall, Mark buys stocker cattle each spring to run about 5,000 head when fully stocked. The cattle are split into three large herds and moved through 125 pastures on the 29,000-acre ranch, leaving 90 percent of the ranch free of cattle at any one time. Cattle produced on the ranch are marketed to feedlots through value-added natural beef and source-verified programs. Mark also sells into higher value markets by planning production to catch seasonal high prices and retaining ownership of a portion of the cattle sent to feedlots.

Mark says that year-to-year variability in seasonal weather patterns, dry periods, drought and winds are the most significant long-term challenges to dryland ranching on the eastern Colorado plains. Particularly critical is the timing and type of precipitation through the year, because grassland response to weather conditions changes throughout the growing season. Mark explains, “Let’s put it this way: A two-inch rain in September doesn’t have near the value of two inches of rain in April or May. We just get a lot more bang from an earlier precipitation event. Spring rainfall tends to be a drizzling, all-day sort of affair in the best case. When we have the same amount of precipitation in the late summer months, it’s more likely to come in an afternoon thunderstorm, so it is not as effective in terms of capturing that moisture into the soil because there is more runoff.” Wind can also present some challenges to cattle management. “On the plains, especially in the spring,” says Mark, “we can have some very strong winds and we can have winds in the summer as well. If it’s hot, those summer winds can just whip moisture out of the soil and have a very great drying effect on the plants and the soil.”

Weather variability and extremes have always been a part of life in the Great Plains region, and Mark doesn’t perceive that there has been any change in these challenges in his lifetime. “Our operation is entirely native forages,” says Mark, “and the production that we get from that varies year by year per the growing condition that we experience. It has everything to do with temperature and the amount and timing of precipitation. In terms of first day frost, in terms of wind, in terms of how long the grass stays green, all those kinds of things vary year by year. No two years are the same and they never have been. So that’s really one of our challenges is trying to manage in a highly variable environment. We develop a plan but that plan has to have significant contingencies in it because the conditions will always change.”

Mark goes on to explain that the natural environment in eastern Colorado is well adapted to the weather variability and extremes typical of the region. “For example, the grasses are extremely opportunistic,” Mark says. “They don’t have a narrow window within which they need to grow or to put out seed or perform some other function. They will stay in near dormancy until conditions are just right and then they’ll just explode and we’ll have a significant amount of growth in a very few days. Plants have evolved in the sense that they are adapted to an environment that is unpredictable. Our environment is not ungenerous, but the plant has to be ready to grow when the conditions are right.”

This same kind of preparedness to take advantage of opportunity when it comes is a central feature of Frasier Farms management. “Personally, I don’t understand when people complain about not getting rain and then when it does rain oh, now it’s too muddy,” says Mark. “We constantly prepare for the next rain, because, generally speaking, our most limiting factor is soil moisture. If in everything that we do, we can create an environment that is receptive to precipitation, so that whenever it does come we can take advantage of it, we will just be that much more efficient and more effective. It’s an attitude or a philosophy that’s grown over time. It is something a person experiences in the sense that, after you’re unprepared a time or two, you begin to think ahead a bit more. So it’s just a function of maturing and management, I think, as much as anything else.”

Mark draws on many resources to enhance the capacity of Frasier Farms to weather variability and extremes, but the use of adaptive management strategies have proven key to his success. He explains, “I look at that key word, variability. You’ve got to have adaptive management to respond, both in terms of knowing how to respond, but also anticipating what a change will bring. Oftentimes making a timely decision is key, either in a cost-saving sense or in a sense of conservation of natural resources.”

Managing both a cow/calf herd and a stocker operation gives Mark the flexibility he needs to respond to changing weather conditions. “We have the two components.” he explains. “The cowherd is actually a smaller piece of what we do. We’re bringing in most of the livestock on the ranch. If conditions are not favorable for the growth of grass, we don’t bring as many cattle to the ranch or we can destock early or in some other way change the number of cattle on the ranch. That’s our control valve. We have certain performance expectations for the cattle. If conditions are not good, then we don’t meet those expectations, and on the flip side, if conditions are very good, we exceed them. It’s not a doomsday situation for us to pull the cattle from the grass because they’re destined for a feed yard anyway so the fact that they may be going to the feed yard forty-five days earlier than normal or weighing fifty or a hundred pounds less than what we expected is not good, but it’s not a complete disaster.”

Mark also uses some other tools to reduce weather-related production risk. He finds that long-term weather forecasts — one or two months ahead — can be helpful when making stocking decisions if conditions are dry. He is also trying out a new type of federally subsidized insurance that insures the livestock producers against a large deviation from normal precipitation. This “rainfall insurance” is a pilot program of the USDA Risk Management Agency and at present is only available in a few locations.

Thinking about the future, Mark is fairly confident that he has the resources needed to keep Frasier Farms healthy, productive and profitable despite weather variability and extremes, although his confidence is related to the particular situation, as he explains. “I’d say it is really situational. It depends on what the extreme is and when and how it presents itself. There are times when I feel very compromised just because there’s not much I can do at the moment. And there are other times that situations unfold more slowly and if you have the capacity to understand what’s happening, you can modify the resources you have or take advantage of opportunities to mitigate risks.” He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn how to successfully manage grasslands and cattle in the more variable climate of the Great Plains. “I’ve seen extremes in almost every sense and so I know what comes next. I know what the end result is likely to be. I have been through it and I am prepared to deal with it. Although no one likes to be in that position, I’d say I’m comfortable with it.”

Mark is active in the civil life of his community and has provided leadership over the years to a number of community-based and agricultural organizations. He consults with other ranchers on holistic range management and is a regular speaker at agricultural events. Mark currently serves as the president of the Colorado Livestock Association. In 2003, Frasier Farms received the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Regional Environmental Stewardship Award, which recognizes the outstanding stewardship practices and conservation achievements of cattle producers across the United States. Frasier 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.