Category: Farming Practices

A Sad Farewell to Iowa Farm Families

We learned this week that the existence of a fellow producer and local CSA, Small Potatoes Farm, is being threatened by the proposed building of a 5000 head hog confinement operation within 1 to 2 miles of their farm by Brelsford Pork. As Small Potatoes Farm owner Rick Hartmann puts it:

Iowa both leads the nation in hog production and contaminated water. We have some of the worst levels of bacteria, nitrogen, and phosphorous pollution. Between 1992 and 2004, there were more than 450 manure spills from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Iowa. These spills have killed millions of fish and have jeopardized public health by contaminating surface and ground drinking water. There is also ample evidence of the destructive social and economic impacts on rural communities and family farms from CAFOs.

Pigs in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)

I don’t know much about Brelsford Pork other than they build large hog confinements and the owner does not live on the facility. Brelsford Pork may be the exception to the commonly held perception of corporate farms. Maybe they are good stewards of the land and are able to control odor. Maybe they build a 10000 head facility and fill it half full to reduce crowding. Maybe they provide cheap food to people who otherwise would go hungry. I don’t know much about Belsford or their practices.

What I do know is that corporate farms exist because they take advantage of economies of scale and, it seems to me, are driven by a passion for profits. Environmental stewardship is too often treated as merely a cost of production. Most local producers like Small Potatoes, on the other hand, appear to be driven by a passion for environmental stewardship where profits, unfortunately, are a cost of production.

In the livestock business economies of scale are generally achieved by spreading costs over larger and larger livestock outputs (i.e. more animals units produced per square foot/man hours/month). Accomplishing these increased outputs can sometimes lead to negative environmental impacts like the ones described by Rick. And sometimes accomplishing these increased outputs can lead to another type of environmental impact… the loss of local producers!

We also learned a few days ago that a fellow local producer, Iowa Farm Families, is closing it’s doors. Iowa Farm Families produces phenomenal hormone free, gluten free, and antibiotic free pork products.

We are a small group of Iowa farm families determined to remain independent pork producers. We are dedicated to producing the best pork you can buy. The owners of our company have combined their talents to naturally select animals that consistently have ideal meat PH values and instramuscular fat levels. The result is pork that is consistently tender, with more internal marbling and moisture than commodity pork.

Little piggies on a family farm.

According to a spokesperson, Iowa Farm Families’ can no longer compete in today’s economy. Once supported by 47 pork producing farm families, Iowa Farm Families now struggles to provide its quality pork product from 4 pork producing farm families. Is it coincidence that the downward trend of Iowa pork producing farm families is inversely proportional to the increasing trend of CAFO’s?

Just as we must all do our part to preserve fragile environment, we must all do our part to keep our fragial local farms alive. Do your part by supporting our markets and cooperatives that offer local products.

For more information on the Small Potatoes Farm “Call to Action” initiative, contact farmer Stacy Hartmann at 515-677-2438. As for Iowa Farm Families, we may be too late. But next time you have the opportunity to buy quality local pork… don’t complain about the price!

Why Some Of Our Cattle Never Get Made Into Beef Sticks

His voice was weak over the phone.   He said that he had purchased 3 heifers from Gene Wiese and wanted them bred to a Wiese bull.  Since I had just purchased three young Wiese bulls, Gene had suggested to him that I might be willing to rent him a bull.  Of course, I would do about anything for Gene Wiese.

What Goes Around…

Gene Wiese's Cow Herd

You see, Gene is an icon in Iowa agriculture.  He has accomplished things in his lifetime that most of us can only dream about.  Driving to his Carroll County farm for the first time, I was amazed to find a 1200 acre oasis of grass, hay, and trees in the heart of Iowa’s corn and bean country.  He along with his son and daughter, David and Helen,  have set the standard for environmentally sustainable agriculture practices while building one of the most successful Hereford breeding stock businesses in the country.

I once commented to Gene “I’ll bet you have seen a lot of changes in this industry over the years”.  Indeed he had, and he told me some details of his journey.

In the 50′s he had a request to send several bulls to South Africa.  He loaded them on a train where they were railed to New Orleans, put on a ship and sailed to South Africa.

In the 70′s the Soviet Union wanted several hundred of his heifers.  He put them on pot belly cattle trucks, trucked to Chicago where they were put on 747′s and flown to Russia.

Since the 90′s he has been shipping several thousand units of semen annually around the world from his Iowa farm via UPS.

And, in the 2000′s he hauled three heifers to an aging bachelor farmer, Olin Hamman,  just south of Corning, Iowa.  Because that is what an icon does!

Olin was the person who called me looking to rent a Wiese bull.  That year I delivered my bull to Olin in late October.

Olin lives alone on the same farm and in the same house where he grew up.  It is a rough farm.  Like Olin, small patches of row crop live between rolling hills of hay and pasture.  His house is modest but neat with a small barn behind.  This is where he asked me to unload the bull.  As I backed my trailer up to the gate, I could see in my side-view mirror the white faces of three curious heifers poking their heads around the side of Olin’s barn.

” I don’t know what I would have done without these girls around here this year”, Olin told me as if we had been friends from childhood. “You see my dog, Murphy, died last New Year’s Eve and it has been pretty lonely around here since then.  These girls have given me reason to get out in the morning… how much do I owe you?” Olin said, quickly changing the subject.

Since Olin fed the bull all winter and his neighbors (Fred and Beth Berggren) returned the bull the next spring, no money changed hands.  When Olin called last fall to again make arrangements for the bull, I learned of the crippling health issues that he had been struggling with the past year.  “The new calves did just fine, but, I’m not gettin’ around so well”.

…Comes Around

Several months had passed when Kenny Hamman, Olin’s nephew, called to say that Olin was taken to a nursing home in Red Oak and could Fred and Beth bring the bull back?  Upon learning that the three heifers also needed to go, we settled upon a price and the “girls” were put on Fred and Beth’s trailer with the bull.

Lottie, Grace, and Cinderella at Timber Ridge

Last week, Beth backed the trailer up to my barn gate.  When Fred stepped around to the rear to let the girls out, he said, “We’ve gotten kinda attached to these girls since chore’in for Olin.  Now that first one is Grace, the little one is Cinderella, and Lottie is the big one.”

In the perfect world, Olin will recover, buy back the “girls”, and Fred and Beth will pick up all four next fall.  But until then, these girls will give me “reason to get out in the morning”… and for that, Olin, I’ll owe you.  Besides, I think that is what Gene would call sustainable agriculture.