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.  

Quinn Farm and Ranch

Quinn Farm and Ranch

Bob Quinn, Quinn Farm and Ranch, Big Sandy, Montana. Credit: Kamut International.

All the time I was growing up in the decades I can remember, we have a more or less an eleven year drought cycle. We would have a drought, one or two years in eleven. The drought that started in the late nineties, and went to ’05 or ’06 was not followed by a wet year until last year. That seven-year drought, that’s extremely unusual. And then last year was extremely wet. I mean like almost double our normal rainfall. And this winter has been quite cold again, more like what we used to have, thirty-five, forty below zero. We haven’t had a winter like this for twenty years probably. This is the kind of variability that I’m talking about.

Bob Quinn

Quinn Farm & Ranch

Northern Great Plains Region | Big Sandy, MT

Main Product: Grains

Scale: 4000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Drop sensitive crops, shift to fall-planted crops, continue to adjust crop rotation sequence, add cover crop cocktails and livestock, explore potential for no-till.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

The Quinn Farm and Ranch is near the town of Big Sandy in the “Golden Triangle” of north-central Montana. The climate in this shortgrass prairie region is cold — temperatures can drop as low as forty below in winter — and dry, averaging between eight and twelve inches of rainfall, which falls mostly in May and June. Bob Quinn grew up working on his family’s 2,400-acre wheat and cattle ranch established by his grandfather in 1928. After going away to college, Bob returned home with a PhD in plant biochemistry to take over management of the farm and ranch in 1978. Disenchanted with unstable commodity prices, he established Montana Flour and Grains in 1983 and begin direct marketing his wheat to bakeries. Two years later Bob sold the cattle business so that he could focus on grain production and marketing, purchased a grain mill to add wholegrain flour to his product line and began marketing grain for his neighbors. Requests from buyers for organic grains got him interested in developing organic production methods for dryland grains and in 1987, Bob harvested his first crop of certified organic grains. Just two years later, the entire Quinn Farm and Ranch was certified organic.

Today, Bob owns and manages 4,000 acres of certified organic land producing food grains in a full tillage dryland production system. He manages a diverse nine-year rotation designed to build soil quality, produce crop nutrients and manage pests. The rotation includes five years of cash crops (barley, winter and spring wheat, Indian corn seed and safflower) and four years of cover crops (alfalfa, clover, peas and buckwheat). The grains and pulses produced on the farm are marketed through Montana Flour and Grains and the Kamut brand to national and international wholesale markets.

An active researcher throughout his life, Bob has worked for many years to develop new organic farming methods and crops in collaboration with Montana State University and at his own research facility on the Quinn Farm. In the 1980s, he successful commercialized Khorasan wheat, a heirloom variety, under the Kamut trademark. Current research at the Quinn Research Farm is focused on ways to enhance the food and energy self-reliance of north-central Montana. Bob is developing a certified organic dryland cropping system that produces locally-adapted, vegetables and fruits as well as the fertilizer and fuel needed to produce and process the vegetables and fruits. Other investigations currently underway include community-based biofuel production, novel oilseeds for fuel and lubricants, improving grain crop rotations and weed management, and developing salt-tolerant vegetable cultivars.

Thinking about production challenges over the forty-plus years that he has been managing grain production at the Quinn Farm, Bob has seen some changes in weather over the last two decades. The growing season has lengthened, temperatures and precipitation are more variable, temperatures are warmer and dry periods and heat waves are more common. These changes have disrupted an eleven-year drought cycle that has long been typical for the region. Bob explains, “There are more dry periods and drought, more warm temperatures and more heat waves, and there’s less cold temperatures until this winter [2013–14]. In the last thirty-six years, we’ve had three pretty bad droughts and two pretty wet seasons, extremely wet. So we skipped one of our wet periods in the eleven-year drought cycle.”

These changes, particularly the longer periods of drought and more frequent heat waves, required Bob to replace alfalfa, the main cover crop in his rotation for many years, with more drought-resistant species. “We started out using only alfalfa as a soil-building crop, and it worked out just fantastic until we entered our first major drought,” Bob recalls. “We were affected by the drought a whole year earlier than all of our neighbors because alfalfa sucks so much water out of the ground. For one year, the drought actually wiped us out, so we gave up on alfalfa and went to peas as a green manure crop.” Peas seemed like a good choice because they will grow enough, even in a drought year, to cover the ground and protect the soil from wind erosion and loss of water through evaporation. But after the switch, weeds began to increase and grain protein content started to drop, says Bob. “So then we went to a combination of peas and alfalfa and then we also added clover and buckwheat. The clover is a two-year biannual crop, alfalfa’s a three-year crop, and peas are a one-year crop. We added buckwheat to the rotation as a plow-down green manure crop, so now we have as much diversity in cover crops as we do in our cash crops.” Bob also dropped one cash crop, lentils, from his crop rotation, because of its sensitivity to high temperatures and drought.

The performance of the new crop rotation over the last decade has reinforced Bob’s appreciation for the benefits of crop diversity. “I’m very, very solid and sold on the importance of diversity as the weather has become more erratic. Some crops will do better than others, depending on when the rains come, and when the heat comes, and when the cold comes. It is all becoming more erratic, so you never know which year it’s going to be. All those crops will react a little differently, some will do better, some will do worse, but if you have a big diversity, then you can save a lot of your income and your harvest overall.”

Although Bob is satisfied with the performance of the mix of his crop rotation, he continues working to fine-tune the order the crops appear in the rotation to enhance yields and soil quality. “We’ve designed the crop rotation to have all types of different crops feeding and taking from the soil over the course of nine years,” he explains. “Now we’re working more on the order, trying to work out which crop best follows another crop. We’re also starting to look at some companion cropping and the use of no-till on the farm. All of this ties into soil health. We believe if you have good soil health, then you’ll have good plant health, and if you have good plant health, you’re going to have good people health.”

Thinking about the future, Bob is concerned about how more variable precipitation might affect crop production on the farm. “I’m a little bit worried about the water,” he says. “The long-term climate models show us getting warmer and wetter, but I don’t see the wetter happening yet for our region. Water is always a challenge because we’re in a semi-arid region. That means we’re always short. Normally that’s the limiting factor in crop production here, so we’re always looking for ways to conserve water, to catch more water that falls in the land.”

Bob appreciates the increased infiltration and water holding capacity achieved with his soil-building program, but is actively looking for ways to capture and store more rainfall, particularly during summer thunderstorms. He is also looking for different ways to conserve water because he believes that conflicts over water supplies are likely to grow in coming years. “I think that water is going to be the next big battleground. It’ll make the fuel crisis look like Disneyland. If we can figure out how to grow at least some basic food crops, grains, vegetables and fruits, without a lot of water, that will be a huge benefit, because we may be forced into that at some point.”

Bob also sees many potential opportunities in changing climate conditions. The Quinn Farm moved from zone 3 to zone 4 in the new USDA growing zone map released in 2012, opening up some new fruit-growing possibilities. Bob explains, “I’m pretty interested in seeing what plants can survive on the prairie and what we can do with fruit juices and that sort of thing. We are more than a thousand miles from the nearest orange tree, so why are we drinking orange juice every morning? That’s what I ask my friends.”
Bob has been experimenting with a new fruit juice drink that makes use of sour cherries, a fruit that can be grown locally. Sour cherry juice has as the vitamin C and antioxidants of orange juice, but is too sour to drink alone. “A mix of sweet apple cider and sour cherry juice makes an amazingly robust and zesty breakfast drink,” says Bob. “People don’t think about growing cherries out on the prairie, but we get a huge production from our hardy sour cherry trees. Canadian researchers have shown that if you protect fruit trees with some kind of a shelterbelt, some kind of protection against direct winds, which are pretty fierce on the prairie, you can have success with them. That’s what we’ve done and we are showing that to be true.”

Years of active research and development work has left Bob a little frustrated at the slow erosion of support for government technical assistance programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Cooperative Extension Service. “My biggest complaint is that they do not have time to help with inventive projects. There are no provisions to help people that want to try something completely different or in a different way. They’re way overloaded with these programs that someone else has designed. They don’t have any time for ingenuity and something different, and I think that’s too bad. They didn’t use to be that way. They used to be a resource for any kind of soil conservation project that you might want to dream up.”

“I wish that we could send that message to Washington somehow,” Bob goes on, “that they don’t have all the answers, and by pretending that they do, they really stifle imagination and response to some of these future challenges. Especially now, when things are obviously changing, we need to really be thinking of as many different solutions as possible, not trying to apply a solution that worked in the last decade. Many of those old solutions were fine, but they might not work in the future nearly as well as something that some people are only just starting to think about now, or something that hasn’t even been thought of yet.”

Bob has long been recognized for his innovative leadership in sustainable agriculture and organic farming research and business development. He is a recipient of AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Award (1988), was honored for a lifetime of service by the Montana Organic Association (2007) and received the National Organic Leadership Award from the Organic Trade Association in 2010. In 2011, Bob was named a Good Food Hero in recognition of his work with ancient grains, organic production and improving food quality and in 2013, the Rodale Research Institute recognized him with a national Organic Pioneer Award. Quinn Farm and Ranch is one of sixty American farms and ranches selected for the USDA-SARE publication “The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.”

 

Brown’s Ranch

Brown’s Ranch

Gabe Brown, Brown’s Ranch, Bismarck, North Dakota. Credit: Brian Devore.

There is so much variability now that you really can’t plan on anything. It seems that every year is an extreme. Really, I can’t honestly say there is anything that we really plan on as far as the weather anymore. There is definitely more variability and precipitation from year and more variability in temperature.

Gabe Brown

Brown’s Ranch

Northern Great Plains Region | Bismarck, ND

Main Product: Grain

Scale: 5000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, shift to diversified rotations w/livestock integration, grassland restoration w/intensive grazing, livestock adaptation to local conditions, shift to direct markets.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Gabe Brown has been producing cattle, feed and food grains near Bismarck, North Dakota, for more than thirty years. When he began farming on the ranch, natural resource quality was poor. The cropland had been intensively tilled for many years, soils were very low in organic matter, and light rains of as little as a half inch an hour caused surface runoff and soil erosion. Weeds, insects, low soil moisture and poor fertility all seemed to be holding down crop yields and the ranch’s extensive native grasslands were in poor health too.

After he and his wife Shelly purchased the ranch from her parents in 1991, Gabe knew that he wanted to make some changes. He began transitioning the ranch to no-till, to diversify crop rotations and to management-intensive grazing in order to build soil quality. In 1993, Gabe converted all of his cropland to no-till and the following year he added peas, a legume crop, to the spring wheat, oats and barley that had been grown for many years on the ranch. Encouraged by the improvements he saw in soil quality in those first two years, Gabe planned to continue making changes to build soil quality and biodiversity on the ranch, but extreme weather caused near total crop losses at Brown Ranch for the next four years in a row.

“Back in the mid ’90s,” Gabe recalls, “I went through three years of hail and one year of drought. After you lose your crops four years in a row, the banker is not going to loan you money.” Short on operating funds, he didn’t have much of a choice except to continue working to improve resource quality on the ranch. He didn’t have the money to purchase fertilizers or pesticides for the croplands. “Since that time I’ve really focused on the soil resource and on improving the water cycle, energy cycle and nutrient cycle using holistic management practices,” Gabe explains. “It has been a journey, one long learning process.”

Today, the Brown Ranch includes about 2,000 acres of native rangeland that has never been tilled, 1,000 acres of perennial introduced forages and 2,000 acres of no-till, dryland cropland producing corn, peas (grain and forage types), spring wheat, oats, barley, sunflowers, vetch, triticale, rye and alfalfa, plus a great diversity of cover crops. Throughout the year, as many as seventy different species are planted in various fields. The grains, sunflower seeds, peas and alfalfa are sold for cash while cattle, poultry and sheep are rotationally grazed through the grasslands, cover crops and forages. No insecticides or fungicides have been used on the ranch for over a decade, herbicide use has been cut by over 75 percent and no synthetic fertilizer has been used since 2008. Corn yields average 20 percent higher than the county average.

Water management is no longer a big issue at Brown Ranch, where Gabe has seen first-hand the benefits of soil quality for reducing weather-related risks to production. “After no-till for twenty-plus years, very diverse crop rotations, cover crops, plus livestock integration, we’ve improved the health of our soil to the point that the infiltration rate, the water-holding capacity and the nutrient cycle are totally different now. Our average annual precipitation is about sixteen inches. Before, when we were only infiltrating a half of an inch per hour, we got very little of that water into the soil profile. We were always fighting a lack of moisture, whereas now, virtually every raindrop that falls we’re able to hold.” Over the twenty years that Gabe, his wife Shelly and their son Paul have worked to transition the ranch to a more sustainable production system, soil organic matter levels in the croplands have more than tripled and the soil infiltration rate has increased from one half inch to eight inches per hour.

Gabe really noticed weather extremes getting more frequent starting somewhere around 2006 or 2007. Flooding in parts of North Dakota seems to have become the norm rather than a rare event and more variable weather has complicated fieldwork and made crop production more difficult. “It used to be we knew we had a window of time when it’s usually dry and we can harvest some forages or plant a crop,” says Gabe. “We could plan for harvest during that dry period and plant crops according to a plan. That’s no longer the case.”

Gabe says the most effective climate-risk management tool he has is the capacity of the ranch’s healthy soils to buffer more variable rainfall and temperatures. “If you can improve your soil resource and make these soils more resilient,” says Gabe, “you’ll be able to weather these extremes in moisture and temperature much more easily. I can easily go through a two-year drought and it does not affect our operation to any great extent because the soil is so much more resilient. Now you’re still going to have some swings in yields with annual precipitation, but it does not affect crop yields to the extent that it used to. If you have a healthy resilient soil resource and a functioning water cycle then your crops and livestock are not nearly as susceptible to these extremes.”

Gabe appreciates the flexibility his diverse crop rotation allows him in variable weather conditions. Because he plants throughout the year, he can make adjustments to fine-tune the crop rotation plan to current weather conditions. “That’s the beauty of the diverse system of ours,” Gabe explains. “At times, we want to plant the cover crop and then if the weather conditions change, maybe it’s dry, we’ll change the mix of that species a bit for more crop types that can handle drier conditions or vice versa. We have a really big toolbox to choose from.” This ability to switch out crops gives Gabe more ability to adapt his crop rotation to weather variability and extremes than other producers growing just a few crops, a point that has not been lost on the conventional producers that visit the Brown Ranch to see for themselves how Gabe’s farming system works. Gabe explains, “I tell people this when I speak in the Corn Belt. Those guys plant either corn or soybeans — that’s all they plant. If corn and beans don’t work out for those guys, then they’re going to have a poor year, whereas we have the ability to switch in or out of so many different crops. It just makes management so much easier.”

Gabe has also made changes to his livestock production to better fit it to the ranch’s natural environment and to improve natural resources on the farm. He uses management-intensive grazing techniques and grazes his cattle on native prairie, improved pastures, and annual cover crops. Gabe explains, “The way we manage our livestock operations, there are very few weather-related events that will affect our animals. We used to calve in February and March, so shelter, animal health and feeding during the cold were all a problem. Now, we calve in late May and June out on grass and that is a healthy environment for them. Due to our selection process the cattle are now more adapted our environment. We raise cattle in a much more natural way now. The environmental extremes do not affect our livestock as much anymore.”

For more than a decade, Gabe has been a popular speaker at farming conferences throughout the country. He also hosts thousands of visitors to the ranch each year and is proud to say that he has hosted visitors from all fifty states and sixteen foreign countries over the years. As weather variability and extremes have increased, Gabe has noticed a groundswell of interest in his methods from farmers and ranchers with a more conventional mindset. “The weather is always brought up at every meeting, because they are seeing more extremes and more variability and they are asking, ‘How do I buffer that?’ Every place I go these days I am speaking to full rooms of people because they are realizing that the conventional agriculture model just isn’t working. They’ve been through a period here the last several years of very good commodity prices, but it’s rapidly changing and they realize they can’t keep going on the way they are.”

Gabe is also heartened by new connections being made between soil health and human well-being. “People are starting to see how the conventional production model is contributing to the human health crisis in this country. I think that a lot of this relates to the soil and how we’ve degraded it. This has led to the destruction of the water cycle, and that’s severely affecting society. People are seeing they have to change. That’s why soil health and regenerating our resources is so important.”

Gabe expressed concern about the barriers created by crop insurance in grain production. “The current program is antagonistic to healthy soils,” says Gabe. “Farmers are now making planting decisions based on crop insurance guarantees. This leads to lower diversity which negatively affects soils and it is terrible for the consumer. Ideally, I would like to see all federal subsidies for crop insurance eliminated. If this were done producers would quickly learn that the success of their operation depends on a healthy soil ecosystem. If we truly want to regenerate our soils, crop insurance subsidies should be eliminated.” Gabe believes that programs to reward good soil management would be an effective way to encourage changes in farm management practices, but he acknowledges that such programs could create a whole lot of bureaucracy too.

Asked about the future, Gabe is confident that the resilience he has cultivated on his ranch will serve him well as climate change intensifies. He is optimistic, too, about the increased interest in his production system. “No matter what the reason,” says Gabe, “weather, economics, or a little of both, there is growing interest among conventionally-minded grain producers in how soil health can increase production system resilience.”

Gabe Brown is nationally recognized for his innovative work in soil quality and integrated production systems. He is a popular speaker at farming conferences throughout the country and regularly hosts tours and workshops at the Brown Ranch. He has actively participated for many years in soil quality research on his ranch in collaboration with university and federal scientists. Brown’s Ranch won the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2006 and Gabe was named the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year in 2007. He is the recipient of the 2008 Honor Award from the Soil and Water Conservation Society. In 2012, Gabe was honored with the Food Producer’s Growing Green Award by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gabe was a featured speaker at the 2014 National Cover Crop and Soil Health Conference, a landmark event that brought together three hundred agricultural leaders and innovators to explore how to enhance the sustainability of American agriculture through improved soil health.