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.

Red Fern Farm

Red Fern Farm

Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl of Red Fern Farm. Credit: Sustainable Iowa Land Trust

Tom Wahl & Kathy Dice

Red Fern Farm

Midwest Region | Grandview, IA

Main Product: Fruit & Nuts

Scale: 15 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to perennial polyculture, integrate livestock/mob grazing, add irrigation/tree shelters.

Story coming soon!

New Forest Farm

New Forest Farm

Mark Shepard, New Forest Farm. Credit: Restoration Agriculture Design

Since we’ve been here our longest drought was two calendar years where we had snow in winter time, but almost zero measurable rain in the summer. Then in 2018 and 2019, we had twice the annual amounts of rainfall. Seventy-five inches of rain one year to zero inches of rain the next year. That’s a challenge.

Mark Shepard

New Forest Farm

Midwest Region | Viroqua, WI

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 106 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to perennial polyculture, integrate annuals and livestock.

When Mark Shepard and his family first visited the land that would become New Forest Farm almost 30 years ago, they looked out over a Midwest landscape of degraded croplands typical of late twentieth century industrial agriculture. Gazing across the treeless property covered in empty corn and hayfields, the Shepard’s could see a different future for the land, one that would heal the land with a special kind of agriculture modeled on nature’s patterns. They could imagine how the landscape could evolve into something that was not a farm or a forest. Something completely new, yet rooted in the ancient wisdom of the place.

Drawing inspiration from native ecological patterns common in the region prior to European colonization, the Shepard family began to carefully place trees, shrubs, vines, canes, grasses, forbs and fungi throughout the 106-acre farm to create healthy plant communities designed to produce food, fuel, medicines, and beauty. Because they needed to produce income while waiting for the perennials to produce marketable products, the farm design also included areas of annual crops like vegetables, hay, small grains and pastured livestock. “We got started by selecting perennial plants that mimicked the oak savanna plant community that we could sell, feed to an animal or eat ourselves,” Mark recalls. “As things have matured through the years, we can afford to do less and less annual cropping. The products that we actually sell haven’t changed much over the years, but the proportions of each have changed through time.”

Today, New Forest Farm is a nationally recognized model for the successful transformation of an industrial grain operation into a commercial-scale, locally-adapted, perennial agriculture system. Hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, apples and elderberries are the primary woody crops on the farm. In the alleys between a diverse mix of trees and shrubs, livestock — cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, pigs or chickens — graze pastures of mixed fescues, clovers and wild plants grown in rotation with annual vegetables. The farm’s principal products supply regional and national wholesale markets through the Organic Valley cooperative and the American Hazelnut Company. Small volumes of a diverse line of fresh and locally processed fruit, nut and livestock products are sold in local direct markets. The farm has been certified organic since 1995, is entirely solar and wind-powered, and farm equipment can be powered with locally-produced biofuels.

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

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Jim Koan, pictured with daughter Monique Lapinski and son Zachary. Monique and Zachary represent the fifth-generation of Almar Orchards. Credit: Monique Lapinski

Two years ago, the whole state of Michigan had a ten percent crop of apples. Worst freeze since nineteen forty-five, I believe. Then this last year, again the same thing occurred, and we had another significant freeze. Two years in a row of those extreme freezes have never been seen before in my lifetime or even by fruit growers who started growing in the thirties and forties. Spring frost is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem.

Jim Koan

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Midwest Region | Flushing, MI

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 300 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to organic, integrate livestock, add on-farm processing and retail store.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, with 2019 update.

Jim Koan has been growing apples at Almar Farm and Orchards in eastern Michigan near Flushing for more than forty years. Although the soils in eastern Michigan are heavier and the climate more variable than the ideal fruit-growing conditions found in western Michigan, Almar is Jim’s home and he wanted to continue the Koan tradition of growing apples there. When he took over the family business in the mid-eighties, Jim grew apples using industrial methods like his father before him. But after a decade managing the farm he became interested in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a way to cut costs and reduce environmental impacts. Early success with IPM encouraged him to make the transition into certified organic production.

Today Jim, his wife Karen and three of their five children work together on Almar’s 500 acres, producing thirty varieties of organic apples in a 150-acre orchard as well as pumpkins, corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and pasture. About 30 acres of apples are intensively managed for fresh market sales, while the rest are processed on-farm into hard cider and other apple products. About 150 pasture-raised hogs are farrowed and finished each year on the farm. Jim uses a Swedish sandwich system to reduce soil erosion and enhance soil quality in his orchards and manages native wildflower planting to encourage beneficial insects, reduce pests and improve apple pollination.

Jim has been recognized over the years for a number of innovative practices on his farm, but most recently he has received a lot of attention for the successful integration of livestock — pigs and poultry — into his apple production system. Jim pastures heritage-breed pigs in the apple orchards to clean up fallen apples that harbor the plum curculio, a weevil that is one of the most destructive pests of organic apples. The pigs also help to build soil quality and manage weeds. Jim feeds them on apple pomace, the paste left over from pressing apples for cider. Jim direct markets his finished hogs as pasture-raised, apple-finished pork and sells a number of other value-added products from the apples he grows on the farm, including apple cider, apple cider vinegar and an award-winning hard cider that has been made on the farm since the 1850s. The hard ciders are distributed nationally, while fresh apples and the other processed products are sold directly through an on-farm store.

Over the last decade, Jim has noticed a number of weather changes that have increasingly complicated his farm management. Weather extremes are getting more extreme and disease and insects seem to be getting harder to control. “With the changing weather that we have now,” Jim says, “every year the extremes seem to be getting more extreme. If we’re going to get rain, we’re going to get a lot more rain than usual. We’ll get deluges, not the three or four inches of the past, but we’ll get five or six inches. Or we’ll get snowstorms, or extreme heat, or droughts, and so forth. Those are very disruptive to the natural balance of nature, of insects and disease.

Variable spring weather has always been a significant factor in tree fruit production in Michigan and elsewhere, but as Jim explains, the risks have grown. “Recently, the biggest challenge has been the warmer weather in March. Normally we’ll get several days in the 60s and then we’ll drop down again to some 30-, 40-degree days, while the nights drop to freezing or below freezing. Now, instead of getting a few days of 60, 65, it will be 75, 80 degrees. Well, it doesn’t take many days of those kind of temperatures to accelerate our trees waking up and then we end up with earlier bloom even though we still usually have a few significant freezes in the later half of April or early May. Two years ago [2012], the whole state of Michigan had a 10-percent crop of apples. Worst freeze since nineteen forty-five, I believe.”

Jim wonders if part of the trouble has to do with the Great Lakes not freezing over in winter like they used to. “Michigan has always been a great fruit growing area for cherries and apples and peaches and what not, your perennial crops,” Jim explains. “Because the Great Lakes, that ice was a huge cold sink. So in March, when we did get these little warming trends that might wake the trees up, we had that ice all around us to help buffer that. The Great Lakes haven’t been freezing over like they have in the past and therefore we have lost that buffering.”

Heavy rainfall and storms are becoming increasingly destructive, according to Jim. “Two years ago [2012], in August, we had the most rain in a hundred years,” says Jim. “Broke the hundred-year record, okay? In one night we got six inches of rain — unheard of. The orchards and everything was all flooded over. The water overflooded the banks for the first time that I can remember and ripped out a bunch of trees and fences. The animals were all running around the farm. It seems like we are getting one snowstorm after another now, followed by extreme temperatures and windchills, and then warming trends. It’s not just one event every ten years anymore. It’s just going from one extreme to the other and those changes are extreme within the weather cycle.”

In an effort to reduce the risks associated with more variable weather, Jim has made several adjustments in production and marketing. He has added more drainage to his orchard, transitioned to more disease-resistant varieties and diversified his product mix. Jim began installing tile drainage in his orchard about fifteen or twenty years ago. Initially he laid tile drains every fifty feet: “In any new orchards before that, nobody tiled orchards. Now on my new orchards, I tile every twenty-eight feet. It’s not just that I’m tiling, but that I’m actually having to get them closer together to get the excess water out of the soil more quickly.” Jim is quick to point out that not all growers in his region have had to add additional drainage. His orchards are on heavy soils with poor drainage to begin with, but more extreme rainfall events have made drainage even more important.

Jim says that other fruit growers in eastern Michigan have adapted to more variable spring weather by adding wind machines for frost protection, and many are abandoning high-risk areas. Jim explains, “Almost all the apple growers in Michigan that can afford it have bought wind machines to protect against frost. If they had two wind machines, they bought two more for other sites where they weren’t needed before. They’re also looking at replacing fruit crops with grain crops in the poorer sites and only using the very best sites for fruit crops because the input costs for fruit production are so high today that you can’t afford not to get a full crop.”

Jim used to grow sixteen different kinds of fruits, but today he grows only apples. Increases in production costs, weather-related risks and changing consumer preferences have all played a part in his decision to reduce the diversity of fruit types at Almar Farm and Orchards. “When I first started growing thirty years ago,” Jim explains, “it was nothing to sell two hundred bushels of peaches in a couple of days from the farm store. A housewife would come out and buy a bushel or two of peaches and then take them home and ripen them and can them and then two or three days later come back and get another batch, and come back a third time maybe three weeks after that and still get another half bushel to eat out of hand and maybe make some peach pies and cobblers and whatnot. But now, people can go to the store and buy fresh peaches to eat on the table, put in their fruit bowl and eat almost year round. Those peaches are going to be from Chile or whatever, but at least they can buy them. So they don’t can them anymore. People quit canning pears, same thing with peaches. So I don’t grow peaches and I don’t grow pears. Now I don’t sell two hundred bushel of fresh fruit in the whole season, you know?”

While he still maintains a diverse mix of apple varieties in the orchard, Jim says it can be difficult selling them in a market defined by year-round availability of a limited variety of apples. Like Steve Ela, Jim finds direct marketing gives him some flexibility to select apple varieties that are well adapted to the changing climate conditions on his farm. As the weather has become more variable, Jim has transitioned to more disease- and insect-resistant varieties, which sometimes require some consumer education. Jim explains: “I’m planting varieties that are more disease- or insect-resistant, but consumers don’t want them because they’ve been programmed by advertisements to think that Gala is a wonderful apple or Red Delicious or Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Fuji or whatever. More than two thousand commercial apple varieties have been grown in the United States in the past. We’re down to just a few varieties now because consumers have been brainwashed that these are what tastes best.”

Jim tells the story of how he successfully sold his customers on an apple variety that he is particularly fond of growing, called Gold Rush. “It is a fantastic eating apple, but it is ugly,” he says. “It has these big pores in the skin called lentils and people didn’t think it looked good. If I took a Gold Rush apple and put that in a grocery store, the grocery store couldn’t sell them because consumers don’t know what a Gold Rush is. They know what a McIntosh is, so the Gold Rush is not going to get sold sitting next to a McIntosh. But that’s a big problem, because it is extremely difficult to grow an organic McIntosh. We grow four, five thousand bushels a year, but they’re extremely difficult to grow. But the Gold Rush is a more sustainable apple. So I put up a sign in our farm store one year, a really big sign that said, ‘Gold Rush, the ugliest, best-tasting apple in the world.’ That aroused customer curiosity. People went and bought them and they came back and bought more. Now we’ve got a really strong Gold Rush consumer demand in our area. I introduce the people to these other varieties and they love them and they come back and buy them for eating fresh out of hand. But it’s an education. I’m educating a consumer in order to sell these apples. You can’t do that for thousands of bushels of fresh apples. You don’t have the time to do that, you know?”

Jim has increasingly focused on marketing processed products in an effort to build a sustainable business model. He has sought out products that allow him to avoid competing in international and national commodity markets, as well as allowing him to continue to use sustainable practices like the integration of livestock into his orchard production system. Jim saw the federal food safety regulations like GAP and the FSP as a real threat to his freedom to farm sustainably. So he began thinking about how to transition from fresh products to processed products that would allow him to meet new regulations without having to change production practices. Jim explains, “We raise pigs because they’re part of the system. I use them for insect and disease control and I can sell their meat as a protein source. Almost all of our apples are processed on the farm and made into juice. Fifty percent of that bushel is still food. Even though the juice is taken out and fed to humans you’ve got all this other good nutrition left in the pomace. That goes to feed our pigs and then we use their manure for fertility in the orchard. We work as a team. It looks like with the GAP and new food safety regulations I won’t be able to raise livestock on my farm anymore. For a sustainable farm you have to have an integration of livestock and crops. It’s not like CAFO operations where somebody’s got a thousand head of swine locked up in the barn and they’re pumping corn through them for six months and then selling them.”

Jim wanted to find a way to keep the pigs in the production system under the new food safety regulations. He started thinking about processing apples into an alcoholic beverage that would eliminate any food safety concerns. In 2009, just a few years ahead of the boom, Jim developed a line of hard ciders under the JK Scrumpy’s label. The new product allowed him to keep pigs in his apple orchard and provided other unexpected benefits as well, like expanding his customer base. “Now I sell interstate all over the United States,” Jim says. “I have distributors for my product. It’s shelf-stable so I don’t have to worry about having to sell it right now.”

Jim also learned that a shelf-stable addition to his product mix provided a buffer to weather variability and extremes. “In 2012, as an example,” he explains, “we had only had 10-percent crop of apples. I had half a million dollars invested in those apples. That was not as big an issue for me as it would have been if we hadn’t had JK Scrumpy’s, because the year before that I had had a huge crop. I had fermented a whole bunch of those apples and they were just sitting there on the farm, in the bank, so to speak. I still had a non-perishable profit from the year before, so 2012 didn’t disrupt my cash flow too much. I can walk away comfortably saying that I actually made a profit in 2012, not only because of the surplus I had stockpiled from 2011, but also because I was forced to think out of the box and do things differently. I really came out ahead of the game.”

Jim appreciates the opportunities that recent weather challenges have created for his business. He says they have forced him to think out of the box, anticipate what could go wrong, and plan for the worst-case scenario. He has focused a lot of attention on developing a business that is robust to what he views as both political as well as climate risks. Thinking about the future, Jim is confident he can handle the biological challenges, but he is concerned about political and regulatory challenges to sustainable agriculture and local food production. “I’m better prepared than people who just go along thinking everything is business as usual,” says Jim. “You could say I have developed a sustainable business plan that protects me from both political and weather extremes.”

Since 2013, the Koans have continued to develop their business in response to changing weather patterns as well as changes in labor availability and customer behavior. The farm now supports 10 year-around full time employees, plus 12 seasonal experienced apple pickers for the apple harvest season from late August to November. For the last five years, Jim has participated in H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers to recruit experienced apple pickers that return to the farm each year.  Jim says the program is “expensive, but workable.”

The hard cider operation, now managed by Jim’s son Zach, has been expanded and automated and a new tasting area and on-farm store has been developed, complete with seating and a children’s play area.  “We’ve moved back into giving more attention to the agritourism end of our operation,” Jim explains, “because more and more families seem to understand how important healthy food is to their long-term health and they are seeking out fresh organic food. Since we last talked, we’ve seen a big change in our customers – now most of the customers visiting our farm are buying apples to make their own apple sauce and other products just as they did 25 years ago. And people are curious about our unusual varieties. They want to know the history of each variety and how they taste. I would never have believed we would come full circle and get back to eating homemade food together.”

Weather has become the most important factor in the success of the farm, according to Jim. “It used to be that about once every 7 years we could expect less than half a crop of apples because of a late spring freeze. We’ve had these kinds of losses 4 out of the last five years. We are surviving because we’ve cut our orchard size down from 150 to 80 acres, we’ve quit selling our apples to big companies, and we’re focused on growing only the very most profitable varieties.”

Jim was the first apple grower in Michigan to transition to certified organic production. He has been actively involved in the leadership of many sustainable agriculture and organic farming organizations over the years and is a longtime collaborator in on-farm experiments with Michigan State University faculty and staff. In 2013, Jim’s long years of dedication towards the improvement of the Michigan fruit industry was recognized with a Distinguished Service Award from the Michigan State Horticultural Society.