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.

Fair Share Farm

Fair Share Farm

Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri, Fair Share Farm. Credit: Fair Share Farm

This year may have been an average year in the end, but what really happened was that we had a big rain event and then no rain for a month and then another big rain event, so we got 12 inches in July and then nothing in August and September. So, if you just look at the average, it looks like an average year, but we basically seem to be fluctuating from drought to flood and back again.

Rebecca Graff & Tom Ruggieri

Fair Share Farm

Midwest Region | Kearney, MO

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 10 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Carbon farming, vegetable ferments, Master Line earthworks.

Rebecca Graff and Tom Ruggieri own and operate Fair Share Farm, a diversified vegetable farm located in rural Clay County, Missouri. Together they manage about ten acres of annual and perennial vegetables and fruits, culinary herbs and a large flock of laying hens to feed people in the Kansas City metro area. They market fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs from their farm through a CSA and produce vegetable ferments for direct wholesale and farmers market sales. They also coordinate with other producers in their area to offer meat, cheese and bread options to their CSA members. This farm-based food hub/food circle model allows them to provide a more diverse group of products to their CSA while also cultivating a diverse network of local food production capacity.

Rebecca and Tom met back in 2001, just a year after each had left unsatisfying jobs to look for a better way to support healthy community by working in sustainable agriculture. Their paths crossed at Peacework Farm, an organic vegetable farm in western New York where Rebecca was working as a first-year apprentice. “Tom came out to one of the first member workdays,” Rebecca recalls. “It was mid-May and I had been there just about a month. I admired his leek-trimming skills as we were preparing vegetables for market. We went on our first date a week later. We apprenticed together the following year and we’ve been farming together ever since.”

After another year working as apprentices at the Micheala Farm in southeast Indiana, Rebecca and Tom headed back to Missouri to begin farming on land that has been in Rebecca’s family for four generations. The Graff family farm, like most farms in the area, produced corn, soybeans and cattle using conventional commodity production practices. “I grew up on a farm,” says Rebecca, “but I did not learn how to grow crops of any kind, so it was all new to me when I started my first apprenticeship.” Using holistic farm planning and biological farming practices, Rebecca and Tom worked over the years to create a farm sustained by healthy soils and healthy community.

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

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm

Harmony Valley Farm co-owners Raphael Morales Peralta, Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder. Credit: Harmony Valley Farm.

In August of 2007 we got hit really hard with some really weird flooding caused by 18 inches of rain in a less than a 24-hour period. A lot of crops were peaking just then, like tomatoes. We had pretty big losses because a lot of our farm land is along the Bad Ax River. They called that a thousand year event. And then we had another one nine months later. That was when I said, ‘There’s no such thing as normal anymore’.

Richard DeWilde

Harmony Valley Farm

Midwest Region | Viroqua, WI

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 200 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Social recovery reserves, add cooling, low growing cover crops, shift from compost/cover crops to fertilizer w/crop testing, retreat from floodplains.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, updated in 2020.

Harmony Valley Farm is a diversified farm that spreads out over 200 acres of cropland, pastures and forest near Viroqua in southern Wisconsin, about two hours northwest of Madison. Richard de Wilde and Andrea Yoder, the co-owners manage the production of about 100 acres of organic vegetables and berries at the farm and on some leased land nearby.

Richard is a cofounder and master grower at Harmony Valley Farm, established in 1985, and applies his forty-plus years of farming experience to the integrated management of a healthy natural growing environment on the farm. Richard has always made managing for soil health a priority, believing it to be a key contributor to the success of the farm. Over the years, he has developed a system of cover cropping with green manures, applying natural rock powders and incorporating compost to maintain healthy soils. He controls pest by managing perennial habitat and nesting sites for beneficial wildlife including raptors, songbirds, bats, wasps and insects. Harmony Valley Farm is best known for its season-long, high-quality salad mix, sauté greens and spinach, as well as root crops harvested in the fall and distributed throughout the winter. The farm also produces grass-finished beef using intensive grazing practices.

Harmony Valley Farm sells organic produce, berries and beef through direct and wholesale markets, including a 1500-member CSA that runs from May through January with deliveries locally and to Madison, WI, and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The farm also sells at the weekly Dane County Farmers Market, and to retail grocers and wholesale distributors throughout a large area from the Twin Cities to Madison. It employs a large team that varies from fifteen to sixty members, depending on the time of year, to produce and market its products.

Starting about seven or eight years ago, changing weather began to require some changes in production practices at the farm. More frequent heavy rains and stronger winds, more variable springs, warmer summers and longer falls have complicated vegetable production, according to Richard. “River bottom land is the best kind of land for growing vegetables in our area. And it’s great in dry periods, because we can irrigate out of the river.”

But the farm’s million dollars in losses in 2007 and 2008 as a result of unprecedented flooding really got Richard’s attention. “Not many people understand that vegetable farmers have little to no insurance against weather. We can participate in the USDA’s NAP program and we do. N-A-P is the abbreviation for Noninsured Agricultural Production. Noninsured meaning it’s not corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat. It’s not a commodity. NAP is a poor program. It is. It’s totally inadequate and we really don’t have much else. After the flood in 2007, USDA did not help us out. But if you’re a corn farmer, you can buy government-supported, 90-percent-guaranteed income on the corn crop. It’s gross. We should care more about feeding people than raising corn for export and ethanol and corn syrup.”

Richard remembers when weather used to move pretty predictably from west to east. During the 2007 flooding, he noticed for the first time a weather pattern that he associates with severe weather. “Something that I had never seen before the 2007 flood is a pattern of southerly flow bringing moisture up the Mississippi River Valley. The moisture turned in a circle before it hit the Great Lakes and then it just looped back on us and didn’t stop. It just didn’t move off and that’s why we got eighteen inches of rain. Now we have these weird looping events. I’ve seen it several times since and now it just scares me when I see that loop.”

Other than the extreme flooding events, most of the changes in weather Richard has observed are more severe expressions of familiar seasonal patterns. For example, extreme swings in the timing of spring are more common these days. For many years, spring planting at Harmony Valley Farm began reliably in the first week in April, but in the last decade it has begun to vary by almost a month, which increasingly complicates spring planning and transplant production. Falls generally are longer but more variable, so Richard has extended the fall production season “knowing that we are going to get burned sometimes.”

Richard also has noticed that winds seem to have become more frequent and intense. “Strong winds have definitely become more of a factor in the last few years. We have more wind and stronger wind. We lose row covers more often now. We’ve had more problems with row covers — even if they’d stayed on, there were so much wind that the movement of the cover abraded the leaves and so we have crop damage even under the cover, even if the cover stays on. In the winter, it used to be that the winds died down at night. This winter we’ve had an amazing amount of night winds and that brings more risk of wind chill.”

Looking back on the years since 2013, Richard recalls that 2014, 2015 and 2016 were “pretty good years” at Harmony Valley Farm and he was able to “save money for a rainy day.” And it was good that he did, because over the next four years, Richard says the weather took a turn for the worst.  “We’ve had four extremely cold, wet springs in row,” he explains, “and every single one set a record for the latest first day in the field. But then, not very long after that, it turned so hot that it was unbelievable.”

Three of these four years, flooding repeatedly damaged creek banks and low-lying fields, including one storm in 2018 that washed away five acres of top soil from one of Richard’s best fields. This combination of cold, wet conditions and extreme temperature shifts in the spring, plus heavier rains late into the fall created a number of disruptions in crop nutrition, crop pollination and harvest operations.

Richard has managed the crop nutrition challenges by making a shift from providing nutrients to his crops with fall-applied compost and winter cover crops to applying fertilizers during the spring and summer growing seasons based on regular crop testing. “We were seeing nutrient deficiencies that just did not make sense. We had problems that we’ve never seen before, fertility problems that shouldn’t have been there because there was plenty of nutrients in the soil. We were able to correct it pretty easily by applying fertilizers through our drip (irrigation) tape, but we have almost twice the fertilizer bill in these really heavy wet years as what we normally would.”

Generally wetter conditions through much of the growing season got Richard and his management team thinking about how to protect the soil from erosion during heavy rains and at the same time improve conditions for fieldwork. “We are developing a whole new system of low growing ground cover for the area in between our beds,” Richard explains. “Our beds are raised a little, and that’s a good thing because the water runs off the bed right away, but we were losing so much soil off of almost level fields with all the heavy rain. We went to this system of planting a mix of the shortest white Dutch clover we could find and the shortest grass that we know – creeping red fescue – in between the beds.” Richard says that they still have a few challenges with this new system to figure out, but it has reduced soil erosion, plus “for harvest, it’s really pleasant. You’re not walking in mud, you’re walking on the lawn.”

Damaging flooding has required more attention to cleaning up the creeks and dry washes that run through the farm to reduce the chances of water building up behind floating debris and overflowing into adjacent farm fields during heavy rains. Richard has abandoned several fields that have repeatedly flooded over the last five years and converted one flood-prone field from annual vegetable production to permanent pasture which is leased to a neighboring dairy farmer for custom grazing. “We said no more, three strikes and you’re out,” Richard explains. We are just not going to farm it anymore if it floods.”

Richard has always viewed good management as the most important part of cultivating climate resilience at Harmony Valley Farm. He appreciates the energy and enthusiasm for figuring out how to manage new weather challenges that the younger farmers on his management team bring to their work. “They’re not set in their ways,” Richard says. “They don’t have a preconceived notion about how it’s going to be. They are just learning and they are willing to try anything. I’m not sure I’d keep doing it if it wasn’t for them.”

One of these younger farmers, Raphael Morales, recently became the newest partner in Harmony Valley Farm.  After working 10 years on the farm as an H-2A temporary worker, Richard sponsored Raphael for a permanent visa. “Now he can be here year-around,” Richard explains, “which is what you need to be able  run a farm.”

Richard de Wilde has received national recognition for his long record of success as an organic grower and as a CSA marketer with a Sustie Award from the Ecological Farming Association and a Farmer of the Year award from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, both in 2003.  Harmony Valley 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.

Rid-All Green Partnership

Rid-All Green Partnership

Rid-All Green Partnership

David Hester, Keynah Durdan, Damian Forshe, Randy McShepard and Marc White, Rid-All Green Partnership. Credit: Gary Yasaki.

A year ago, we had this polar vortex, when it was minus 40 degrees for a week and a half straight. Then, this year we’re in late November and it’s 60 degrees. Early this year, it rained almost all spring and all early summer. It’s so unpredictable. So we have to be very adaptable to extreme weather changes and, excuse me, it’s sad to say, but we know it’s not going to get any better, it’s going to continue to get worse.

Marc White, Keymah Durdan & David Hester

Rid-All Green Partnership

Midwest Region | Cleveland, OH

Main Product: Vegetables

Scale: 15 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Urban soil/community restoration, 20 social enterprises, improve recovery reserves, growers’ network, carbon farming.

From the Public Square in downtown Cleveland, the trip out to the farm is an easy ten minutes by car on a Saturday morning. Head southeast on Ontario St. and continue onto Orange Avenue, then take a slight left onto Woodland Ave. and head due east out of town. Take a right on Kinsman Road, a left onto 81st St., then a right on Otter Ave and you’ve arrived at the Rid-All Green Partnership’s city farm. Although just a short drive from downtown Cleveland, decades of disinvestment have left the Kinsman area so isolated that it was nicknamed The Forgotten Triangle. It’s a problem faced by many post-industrial cities in the Midwest. Factories closed and when the white middle class took flight into the suburbs, they took investment capital, new industries and jobs with them.

The Rid-All farm began as a vision shared by three men who grew up together nearby, left home to find their fortunes in other places and returned to give back to the community that raised them. They came home to transform the land and people that they loved while sharing a gospel of soil: heal the soil, heal the people, heal the community, heal the planet.

“Our thing has been to see how far we can push this,” says Marc White, a founding partner and project manager. “To see how much we can do as urban farmers to help our community. It’s profound to see the effects of what we have created grow and change on a daily basis, year after year, season after season.” Marc’s many years in fashion design inform his work as the farm’s general manager and lead value-added product developer. He uses his design experience to create beautiful landscapes on the farm that produce healthy foods designed to promote the health and beauty of the people that enjoy his Urban Farm Doctor’s line of regenerative superfoods juice and food products.

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