Soper Farms - Back to the Future of Farming

Monday, December 20, 2010

NOW HIRING - Vegetable Manager Job Description

Job Opportunity – Organic Vegetable Manager, New Shoots Farm

About Soper Farms – We are a family-owned farming group spanning 4 generations and 71 family stockholders. We are absentee landlords working with farming partners. We are in the middle of transitioning our 1,000 acres near Emmetsburg Iowa from commercial corn & beans to sustainable organic systems with the desire to grow healthy food for our local and regional community. Our second organic transition program under way is our newly established New Shoots Farm.

New Shoots Farm – New Shoots a 260-acre vegetable and livestock farm. Over a four-year schedule, we are building a closed nutrient cycle organic farm with 100 acres of vegetables and extended season green houses as well as cow/calf operation with an annual harvest of 160 grass fed cattle and 9,000 broiler chickens. Our customers range from patrons in our in-town farm store with a bakery and deli, to farmer’s markets, CSA members and institutions. We also have plans to develop branded value-added food products from the farm.

We need you – We are looking for a great vegetable manager to help design and deploy our 100-acre gardens from the soil up. The position will be filled by March, 2011. Build-out and partial production will begin in 2011 with full production by 2012. If you have ever dreamed of building a larger-scale organic vegetable farm with strong support and resources behind you, this is your opportunity.

Job Description:
• Two or more years in-field experience growing fresh market produce
• Well organized and with great people skills
• A passion for all things fresh and organic
• As a member of the management team, you will plan and execute all field planting
and harvest activities and schedules.
• Familiar with biological pest control
• Familiar with green house management and production
• Enjoy being a hands-on mentor to your staff that will grow to 12-18 full-time and
seasonal field/harvest workers.
• Detail oriented towards organic records management, financial accountability and
interest in following organic standards
• Produce daily and weekly planting and production schedules
• Willing to cross train to help support the other aspects of the New Shoots Farm
• Basic tractor and equipment operation
• Quality control and post-harvest product management

Other management team members you will work with include a Livestock and Facilities Manager, Sales and Marketing Manager along with accounting and other support. Your salary will be determined by your experience and includes full health care benefits. For areas where you may lack experience we will support you with training.

You are a special breed of farmer. If you are interested, please contact me at your earliest opportunity. I prefer email but welcome all forms of communication. Please include a cover letter and resume.

My best,

Harn Soper
Deep roots, new shoots
Cell: 650-804-0198

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Food Fight ... Not

There is a real food fight going on between two camps; those who support industrial, GMO-based agriculture that produces food that can only be manufactured with a bar code label on it and those who prefer local fresh and organic food that can be eaten right off the farm. Often the battle cry is over who can better feed the world. Only humans would pick this fight. All other animal species know exactly what to eat compared to humans who make food choices that put their health at risk. The CDC estimates over $147 billion is spent each year in America to treat obesity related diseases like heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes, due to our high fat diet associated with a high consumption of meat.

Before we get sucked into all the rhetoric I think we would be wise to dispel this myth about which camp can best feed the world. Whose idea was it that the world needed us to feed them anyway? The most strident voices are advocates for industrial GMO agriculture such as Monsanto who routinely reference this myth that says we need to increase global food production 50% by 2030 and to double it by 2050, something they claim only their industrial GMO agriculture can do. This assumes our population grows from 6 billion today to 9 billion by 2050. This “fact” has been quoted by scientists, politicians, big agriculture and the GMO industry so often you might think it is true … not so says the Soil Association, a UK charity and organic food advocate founded in 1946.

In an effort to find the basis for these claims, the Soil Association tracked one source back to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and its 2006 report. Based on a list of assumptions that are debatable to begin with, the report stated the overall shortfall in production was only 70%. To achieve that the FAO report does indicate the need to double grain production, most of which is fed to livestock, not people. Maybe that’s where the doubling food production myth started. The report also assumes that the demand will come from developing nations who want a Western style diet filled with much higher meat consumptions. But what country in their right mind would want to abandon their own food culture for our $147 billion per year health care bill?

As a farmer applying both industrial GMO and organic farming systems, the jury is still out for our Soper family farms. We farm industrial corn & beans and organic row crops. Up next is a farm plan that raises grass-fed livestock and organic vegetables, all integrated into one farming system. It’s like one big farming science project. The grade we get is to be determined. But I assure you it has nothing to do with this feed-the-world myth. Let’s not get into this silly food fight at all. It is a waste. Wait, that brings up another subject of food waste. I’ll save for later. Stay tuned.

My best and don't forget to chew carefully,

Harn Soper
Soper Farms, Emmetsburg, Iowa

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Job Opportunities – Vegetable & Livestock Farmers

Soper Farms is a family-owned operation spanning 4 generations and 70 family stockholders. As absentee landlords we are developing programs to transition our 1,000 acres in Iowa from commercial corn & beans to sustainable organic systems with the goal to grow healthy food for our local communities. Soper Farms Fresh is our second transition program.

Greenfield Farm - Planning is nearly complete for this 260-acre vegetable and livestock farm near Emmetsburg in Northwest Iowa (near Spencer and Lake Okoboji). Over a four-year schedule, Soper Farms is targeting a cow/calf operation with an annual harvest of 100 grass fed cattle and up to 9,000 broiler chickens. Also included is an extended season vegetable operation with several hoop houses and 40+ acres of outdoor gardens. Additional livestock and vegetable products will be added as markets develop.

A go/no-go decision on this Greenfield enterprise will be made in early August, 2010. To support this plan I need to know the talent pool that is available. Salaries and benefits are yet to be determined but they will be fair and reflect the applicant’s background and experience.

As the enterprise evolves, both retail and wholesale markets will be pursued including an extended season 500 CSA membership, institutional food service sales, farmer’s markets and wholesale channels for value added products to include but not limited to baked goods, cheese and meat products. The mix of the above will reveal itself over time as the enterprise gains expertise.

With the exception of wells, there is no other infrastructure on this farm. Imagine this Greenfield site as an opportunity to join a team building a 21st Century farm from the soil up. It includes building fencing, hoop houses, gardens, livestock handling facilities, maintenance facilities, sales & marketing offices, living quarters, on-site energy generation and a farm store with retail space and bakery.

Staffing will grow as the enterprise grows and include full-time and seasonal personnel. The farmers needed must be multi-talented and interested in cross training in all areas of the farm. Talent areas sought include:
  • Rotational livestock management and labor
  • Pasture management and labor
  • Facilities management and labor
  • Vegetable management and labor
  • Vegetable and livestock production management and labor
  • Sales & marketing management and labor across all media platforms
  • Office management and labor
  • Retail management and labor
  • Value added food products development management and labor
  • … to name a few
If you are interested, please contact me at your earliest opportunity. I prefer email at this time but welcome all forms of communication. Please include a cover letter and resume. I can be reached at:

Harn Soper
President – Soper Farms, Inc.
1270 Cedar Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301
h/ 650-321-9375
m/ 650-804-0198

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Polyface Farm, Swoope, VA, April 2009

Wecome to Polyface farms. On April 11th I rolled into Swoope, VA to meet up with Joel Salatin.
Swoope is a beautiful wide spot in the road in the Shenandoah Valley. The ladies at the post office were helpful in getting me turned around in the right direction. Finally, here I am driving into Polyface Farm.
As you’ll learn, Polyface is a family operation running for many decades. Joel and his family focus on raising organic (and beyond organic) cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits and vegetables. These cows greeted my arrival with great enthusiasm. You can see it in their eyes, really excited!
I joined Joel that day as he gave a tour to about 20 local college students from James Madison University. All his livestock are pasture-raised meaning that they spend most of their time foraging on grassland. Polyface is 550 acres with 150 in woodland.
Our first stop on the tour was at some movable rabbit hutches.  Meet Joel (in the hat) and his rabbits (in the hutch).
Polyface rabbits were started by Joel”s son as a 4H project.  Starting with commercial rabbits who’s genetics were not forage-based, it took 5 years of line breeding (no outside genetics) with up to 50% mortality rates until he achieved these forage-based commercial rabbits who could thrive, as wild rabbits do, on grass. Joel is a believer in developing stock that is acclimatized to the farmer’s specific region rather than just depending on heritage breeds, most of which were developed in Europe hundreds of years ago.
Joel supports building North American breeds to add to the cornucopia of choice for his grandchildren because every breed carries genetic memory of its bioregion. Notice how inexpensive the infrastructure is. The hutch is moved daily providing new forage for the rabbits and adding their effluents to fertilize the ground over a large area. In the winter these animals are housed in a hoop house with the chickens. When the hoop house is emptied in the spring and the chickens and rabbits hit the pasture, Joel plants corn inside utilizing the nutrients from the chickens and rabbits and getting a jump on the corn season.
Pasture poultry is a centerpiece of Polyface Farm. This picture is of Joel’s “broilers” (meat) chickens.  They are “industrial” chicks compared to the “layers” that are heritage chickens for egg production. They are started indoors at a few days old.  At three weeks they come out to the pasture, weather permitting.
These (again, not fancy) shelters are 10’x 12’ by 2’ high and house up to 75 birds per shelter. At 8 weeks old the chick’s growth will fill the shelter area. Because the chick have juvenile immune systems they stay on one area of pasture for just one day and then are moved so no pathogens can build up. That spot won’t see another chicken for one year giving it a good long recovery cycle. The shelters are designed so as to be easily moved by only one person each morning.
One person can move 5,000 birds in one hour. There is no manure to haul, no odor, no flies, just healthy chickens.
Joel believes the creation of this food should be aesthetic, aromatic, and a sensual romantic pleasure. After all isn’t that what you would like in a meal when you sit down at the table. Instead, our industrial food system has an obnoxious affect on the human olfactory and sensory system to such an extent that we have to hide livestock confinement production as far out of site and out of mind as possible … and then expect people to have an integrity relationship with a plate of food.
Here Joel shows that he isn’t a Luddite, farming only like grandpa used to, but takes advantage of technology like this lightweight and portable fencing with built in electrical wires to keep out predators.
Like we hear about crop rotation for vegetables, Joel does the same with animals where his chickens follow the cows so they can eat all the goodies the cows leave behind as well as forage in the grass for grubs.  Joel will also supplement their feed with some grain.  Joel makes the point that his broiler chickens come from commercial stock, as they are the breeds of choice for consumers.  It is after all, a business … but these birds are healthy, happy and after one bad day … taste great.
Joel raises other hens (layers) for their eggs. Here is one of his movable egg-mobiles.
Again, nothing fancy.  For the same reason he keeps moving the broiler chickens, he moves the layers as well so they add to the bio diversity of his pastures and they benefit from the grubs, worms and fly maggots in the ground. 
Joel uses nocturnal guard dogs that are working dogs. The dog bonds with the chickens and keep predators away.  This pup is a cross between an Anatolian Sheppard and an Ockbosh. 
These hens add about $30,000 to Joel’s operation per year.  Joel warns not to move the coop in the daytime because the chickens might get lost coming home.  He moves the coop at dusk when they all have come home to roost.  Keep in mind how small a chicken’s brain is.
The pigs on Polyface farm also are pasture raised.  There are a lot of forested areas on Joel’s 550 acres, which turns out to be great grazing for pigs.  They eat weeds and root around for acorns, which clears out the area for new pasture under growth.  These pigs live behind a double row of electric fence and, like the other livestock, are moved around at intervals.
Like the pigs on Herrmannsdorfer Farm in Germany, they come up to you for a good scratch and the off chance you might have something in your pocket for them. This is a 2-acre lightly forested pasture divided into quarter acre paddocks. In addition to their foraging the pigs are fed local GMO-free grain. After they eat a ton they move on to the next paddock. What keeps the area from smelling at all is the continual paddock rotation. Compare that from being down wind from a hog confinement facility. The formula for keeping pathogens out of your heard is to go 21 days host-free (no pigs on the ground) to break the pathogen cycle … thus there is no need for antibiotics. This formula is the same for cows, chickens, rabbits (maybe even people).  This area gives the pigs a chance to wonder and play and to eat what ever they want to express their full pigness. No wonder they are so content. Man is probably the only creature on earth you have to tell what to eat.
At 200 pounds the pigs are moved further into the forest where their consumption drops in half as they forage for the grubs, acorns, and forest clutter.  This causes what is described as a “disturbance” in the ground that is essential for the health of the forest.  Again, the natural cycle of interdependency between animal and plant life is essential to a healthy ecosystem and tasty pigs. They are 200 pounds at about 6 months of age and ready for harvesting around 8 months after their last romp through the forest.
Salatin Philosophy
Successional movement always comes on the heels of a disturbance.  200 years ago the buffalo would have come through a million at a time, caused massive disturbance to the ground and forest from which the Great Plains and healthy forests grew. Think about the universality of this as relates to life and relationships.  When you have a difficult conversation with your mate, a new plateau can be reached in your relationship which otherwise wouldn’t have happened without working through that problem (disturbance).  Joel is a farmer’s philosopher as well. 
This view is of Joel’s neighbor’s pasture (top left) that hasn’t been grazed on since last November when the cows were taken in for the winter. That is all the growth for the past 5 months. In the foreground is Joel’s pasture where the pasture is much healthier. Why you ask?  Because Joel’s rotation cycle puts his cattle on his pastures 3 times a year instead of the traditional once per year.  In this picture this is the third growth cycle on Joel’s field. In his county, the typical cow days-per-acre is 80.  Using Joel’s program, he averages 400 cow-days-per acre and the ground is better off for it and produces more. 
… and the ground hasn’t been plowed, seeded, disked, or added any chemical fertilizer in 50 years. In his forested areas, every acre offsets $500 in pig feed costs and his forests are made all the healthier for it.
Cow Manure & Carbon
During the winter when he shelters the cows, Joel optimizes everything. The cows eat local hay and every day each cow drops 50 pounds of material out their backside. As this waste builds up, he simply raises the hay-feeding trough with pulleys as the bedding beneath their feet builds up.
The manure is highly soluble and as it gets dry it will vaporize with all the associated odor.  If it gets wet it will leach into the ground and into ground water. The problem is that in the winter months all the bacteria are hibernating and can’t eat the manure, die to then pass the nutrients on to plants.   So Joel adds wood chips, junk hay, straw (all stored carbon) to create a massive bed of mulch.  The result is very warm (90°F) mulch that has no smell and is ready to be spread on the fields in the spring. To finish off the mulching process he moves the cows out and puts his pigs in for several weeks where they root around looking for corn he has mixed in to tempt them… mixing it all up with their snouts.
Size & Philosophy
Joel rents another 1,000 acres where he places former Polyface interns who follow his practices to grow organic products and sell through the Polyface CSA channel, offering more products to market. In order to stay within the ecological constraints of their farming practices yet still grow, Polyface has developed a multi-point convictional business protocol to prevent them from going from a good small business to becoming a bad big business. Polyface contrarian business protocols include:
1.     They can never have a sales target. Why, because they then begin to look at their people differently, their practices differently in order to meet the goal and in so doing, loose sight of their core values.
2.     No public stock or IPOs. Why, so as not to be tempted with a large chunk of cash to blur your core values.
3.     They only sell 4 hours from the farm. Why, so they don’t get distracted from being local and serving their community.
4.     They are not in the transportation of waste products business. All their waste has to stay on the farm. Why, to keep their wastes within the ecological limits of their farm and not to become someone else’s problem.
5.     No trademarks or patents. Why, because this forces them to be innovative and stay ahead of the copyists.  Wow, imagine having enough confidence in yourself to know you can stay ahead of the competition without building legal walls around yourself.
Like Polyface farm, it is important for Soper Farms to maintain its principles as well … in soil we trust and being good stewards of the earth.  If our size (974 acres) seems incongruous with the smaller size of many organic farms, Joel would beg to differ … just don’t loose sight of the reasons you are organic and/or sustainable in the first place and have a plan. Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm is an example of leveraging the natural interdependence between plants and animals with a farm that incorporates them all together.  It is like going back in farming time to create a sustainable future.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wallace Farms Beef - Keystone, Iowa - December 2009

Welcome to Wallace Farms

On December 11, 2009 I had the privilege to tour Wallace Farms and meet with Steve Wallace and his son Nick. They are into a multi-year program to produce grass fed livestock with their primary focus on cattle. Meet Steve (R) and Nick (L):

Their sustainable livestock operation has been under way for about 5 years on 160 acres and as Steve says … “it is a work in progress”. In addition to cattle, Steve and Nick have also raised chickens and turkeys. They also do conventional farming.

Cold Weather on Cattle

Two days before I arrived in Iowa they had received a record blizzard with temperatures dropping below 0o F. As Steve explained, the cattle did fine only given wind shelter from the south side of their high wall hoop building with additional bedding on the ground.

Calving Season

Their calving season is May/June though their first groups of pregnant heifers were spread out from May through July. Steve has since narrowed that window to May/June and expects to narrow the window more.

The finishing cattle (above) and yearling steers, were being finished on bailage this winter and separated from the yearling heifers to be bred and the cow/calves. Wallace has their own bull. The cattle seen above are around 1,200 pounds and about ready for market after about 18 months.

Meat Processors

Nick commented that in some parts of Iowa, it was becoming a problem getting a kill schedule from lockers as they are in decline because a good local work force is becoming more difficult to find. Wallace however hasn’t been affected because of their ongoing relationship with plants in southern Minnesota including a USDA slaughterhouse about an hour from their farms that does lamb, pigs and cattle. Nick mentioned that Sioux City might be an exception. There is an outfit in/near Sioux City that does a lot of processing for Whole Foods. The small lockers are not federally inspected so Wallace can’t do business with them. 

Regulations state that a non-regulated locker can only do “custom” work where the customer takes back the entire carcass for their own consumption. Iowa State inspected processors can sell their meat to the pubic within the state of Iowa. Wallace uses Federal USDA meat processors that allow them to sell their meat across state lines. They work with Lorenz Meat Processing in Canon Falls, Minnesota described as cutting-edge and is doing well as a USDA processer. Nick processes about 10 cattle a month there.

Sales & Marketing

Nick does the selling and Steve does the raising. Nick’s business includes working with other small grass fed producers whose cattle are sold under the Wallace Farms label. Nick indicated he could sell more if he could find the grass fed cattle. Lorenz processes and hangs the carcasses for 7 to 12 days and does the cutting to Nick’s specifications to meet the preferences of his customers. The meat is put on pallets and shipped to Des Moines Cold Storage where it is frozen and stored. Nick uses Des Moines as his hub but is thinking about building his own locker on-site using a Morton building where half of it would include a 20’ x 30’ walk-in freezer.

In addition to selling meat, Nick also sells fresh wild fish he gets from Alaska. This gives him a broader offering for his customers. Wallace Farms can be found at ( Nick has been successful by establishing his own “buying clubs” with three in Des Moines, one in each of Ames, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and four in Chicago. He meets his customers in each buying club once a month and in Chicago every six weeks. His buying club members get an email the week before with a list of what Nick has to sell and then he meets them the next week at a designated spot from 4 to 6 pm where the buyers come to pick up their order.

Nick’s first buying club started with five buyers and grew from there. Growth has occurred through word of mouth and after registering with where customers could find Nick and Wallace Farms. On Nick’s last trip to Chicago he met with 107 buyers … it was a good day selling. Nick uses a pull-behind freezer trailer he bought last year and now it is already looking too small. Great marketing Nick!

Not All Grass Fed Beef Are the Same

Some larger companies Nick competes with compromise for expediency and will take grass fed cattle that are finished on DDGs (dried distiller grains) which is a high protein mash that is a by-product coming out of ethanol plants. There are many food brands whose marketing is less than honest when labeling their products. The more strict standards for “organic” and “grass fed” are being corrupted with marketing labels such as “natural”, “humanely raised”. The consumer has to be careful not to be confused. A trend that Nick is part of is selling “local” where customers can know their farmers and know their farming practices.

Constant Evaluation

Steve and Nick are continually working on the best formula to cost effectively raise cattle in the winter. They don’t use grain or DDGs, just high quality pasture. They have grown sorghum and Italian Rhys grass. It is critical to their efforts to extend the grazing season from October into December. They do that with oats, rape and turnips, that are planted twice, the second planting in July is then ready for grazing in November and December.

Annual vs. Perennial Pasture

I asked about their thinking between planting annuals or perennials. Steve explained that when he plants perennials he gets about half a crop the first year because he can’t graze until the pasture gets established. The following year he gets a big crop and then thereafter it gets a little lower. They are deciding on whether it is better to do annuals or perennials, perhaps a combination but not necessarily in the same pasture.

Steve’s expertise on forage comes both from his having his own herd and his off-farm job as Territory Manager for Barenbrug USA. Barenbrug is a plant breeding, seed production and seed trade company ( Steve is a great contact for grass farmers in his territory.

Steve’s observation is that sandy (light) soil like Walnut 22 is easier to establish pasture in than the heavier soils. Sandy soil has a rating of 5 or 6 while heavier soil has a rating of 20 (I’m not sure what the scale is). Steve is a grass farmer. What he then grows from his grass are livestock. All agreed that it is ALL about the soil … poor soil, poor quality livestock, great soil, high quality livestock.


The day I visited they were feeding their cattle bailage. Steve believes that this is the best forage you can feed a ruminant animal to finish. His bailage is mostly hay (tall fescue) that is cut green to get high moisture. We discussed the logistics of bailing. One thought is you cut late in the day when the sugar content in the grass is highest. The sugar levels in grasses depend on the type of grass, the time of year and when you cut it. That said, logistics and weather rule most timing decisions.

To make his bailage for winter he cuts in October using round bails that are covered with plastic to keep moisture in to retain moisture and promote fermentation. One differentiator between bailage and silage is that bailage isn’t chopped.

They graze as long as possible until winter weather makes it difficult and then use bailage to offset lower winter forages. Steve’s belief is that cows were designed to eat foliage rather than corn and that is the best way to get good results and great tasting product. We discussed that our plan for livestock on Walnut 22 included an irrigator, Steve pointed out that irrigation changes everything. With water, we have a broader choice of forages to choose from.

About Poultry

Both Nick and Steve had great things to say about including poultry in the livestock rotation. In their experience chickens are good but turkeys are even better because they take care of themselves. Turkeys eat grass and chickens don’t. Steve estimates as much as 70% of a turkey’s diet could be grass. Steve and Nick think poultry is a key part of a pasture program. By their observation, three weeks after the poultry leave the paddock, the grass grows “like hell!” It is labor intensive but makes money and is great for the soil.

Wallace and Organic

They first started out on an organic path but became frustrated at not having enough nitrogen in the system and the pasture was poorer. So they decided to put ammonium sulfate on for nitrogen but that eliminated the “organic” program. As a result they market their beef successfully as grass fed, no artificial hormones or antibiotics. Having their beef being local and sustainably grown is what their customers want. Steve went on to explain that modern farming techniques over the last 50+ years has fundamentally changed the soil between the use of anhydrous ammonia, high tillage and oil-based inputs used as part of GMO crops.

The Grass Fed Beef Market

Steve explained that grass fed beef is $2.00+ a pound (hanging weight) compared to organic beef at $2.25 maybe $2.40 a pound hanging weight. Organic equates to about an extra $150 difference per animal. In their program Wallace Farms makes more money selling grass fed beef versus organic beef. Nick pointed out that Organic Valley (a large organic distributor) only want to take cattle like theirs that have been grass fed, then finish them on grain to get, in their view, a more consistent product. Funny how the term “grass fed” seems to get more “flexible”.

The Land and Long Term Commitment

For Steve and Nick, restoring our soil to sustainability is a long term effort but well worth the effort.

  Their view is that land, sustainable land, will soon become the most important thing. They don’t buy gold, they buy land.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Soper Farms Phase II Plan


Without the hand of man getting in the way, nature very effectively creates, balances and evolves. It does so with all life forms interacting together. As farmers we have a choice between manipulating nature and managing nature in our pursuit to feed ourselves.
Our current farming model has evolved over many years onto a path of manipulation using GMO seeds and oil-based fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides as substitutes to nature’s abundant ability to nourish. As we’ve learned, this path, however well intentioned, has had a debilitating impact on our environment, our soil and the water upon which our farms depend.  The plan that we are buildiing today follows the restovative path to manage nature as a partner so we too may create, balance and evolve.

Our Goal
Our goal is to identify the components necessary to launch a livestock and vegetable operation starting from scratch.  We seek to establish a schedule and sequence of events … from first spade in the ground to production and delivery.  The final outcome of this effort will be a business plan with all the rational, data and associated costs with which to make a “go forward” decision. Key to this plan is the market conditions and opportunities that will guide our commitment of resources.
The ground we are focused on is named Walnut 22 (160 acres) and Emmetsburg 1 (100 acres). If the business plan resulting from our work is accepted, the clock for this project starts in September 2010.
The Sites
Walnut 22 is near the West Fork of the Des Moines River about 6 miles north and west of Emmetsburg, Iowa.  This 160-acre quarter section is accessible from a maintained county gravel road and a private dirt road. The sandy nature of this ground requires irrigation for corn & beans. It seems well suited for pasture and, because of its sandy soil, good also for growing vegetables.
Current Operator
Est. Market Value
Est. Value
Walnut 22
$3,000/Gross Acre

Emmetsburg 1 has the tenant’s own irrigation gear on this sandy ground.  It is about 3 miles northwest of Emmetsburg, Iowa.  Access is from a county maintained gravel road. The ground is split in two parts by a diagonal RR track.

Current Operator
Est. Market Value
Est. Value.
Emmetsburg 1
$2,160/Gross Acre


Soil Development
In all cases we are creating a soil farm upon which all things in this plan depend. This is a high priority.  The plan needs to describe strategies and their cost for N-P-K balance and growth in the soil and the development of micronutrients that will result in the highest quality of our food products. Questions to answer:
Q. What are the best legumes to encourage growth?
Q. What are the weed abatement strategies?
Q. How might the irrigator accelerate pasture development?
Q. When can livestock be put into this new pasture?
Farming Practices
While targeting organic certification, we are to look “beyond organics” into farming practices such as biodynamics to support both livestock and vegetable farming. Permaculture design of the farm is another process to consider.  These choices may not be an either/or choice but a hybrid of the two as they apply to this ground. With a farming practice model in mind, it will guide us towards understanding the equipment, staff and facilities needed on site and our time scales to get into production.
The only infrastructure on Walnut 22 is a center pivot irrigator. The intention is to use this for delivering water and other potential uses such as pulling animal shelters.  Using the water to accelerate pasture development is the primary goal.
This diagram is a proposed layout of Walnut 22. The blue areas labeled A1, B1, are the grazing paddocks under the irrigator. The numbers from 1 to 16 in the A and B paddocks determines the rotation order. Eight water tanks are needed to support all paddocks. The farm infrastructure is laid out on the periphery of the irrigator. Movable electric fencing is suggested.

Questions to be addressed include:

Q. Is this proposed grazing cycle practical?
Q. What are the best rotation intervals?
Q. Assuming livestock go into the plan first and vegetables second, what kind of structures are necessary?
Q. How should these be laid out?
Q. How do all the buildings integrate together?
Q. What about human waste management?
Q. Access to clean water at all buildings?
Q. Internal roads?
Q. What about power (grid, solar, wind)?
Q. Movable electric fencing?
Q. Plumbing from center pivot wellhead to 8 tanks?

Emmetsburg 1 has a center pivot irrigator on the east half of the ground. The current tenant owns the irrigator.  There appears to be a well head on the west half of the ground but there is no irrigator on it at this time.
Walnut 22 & Emmetsburg 1 are within 6 miles of Emmetsburg located in Northwest Iowa (A). Looking to markets within a four-hour footprint of Emmetsburg are urban centers including Sioux City, Omaha, Des Moines, Iowa City, and Minneapolis.

Closer local markets are much smaller and include Spencer (pop. 10,500) and a major tourist area, Lake Okoboji with a large summer vacation population.

Cattle Processing Facilities
Livestock processing facilities will be necessary. In some cases that could include custom plants, mobile on-site and FDA approved processing facilities. These need to be identified and the economics of each studied. In addition to selling meat, other specialty meat products like sausages should be considered.
Cattle Genetics and Herd Development
In all cases, the target is to produce Prime or Choice quality beef only. There are a number of approaches to the cattle plan to be considered. Alone or in combination, these include finishing grass-fed animals brought in from outside and/or developing our own herd.  As herd development implies a longer-term strategy, the two may be used in combination at the beginning. For herd development and growing a cow/calf operation, genetics are a key to success.  There may also be an opportunity to sell premier breeding livestock to other beef operations.  All forms of breeding should be considered.
Livestock Rotation and Herd Size
Open for study is a livestock rotation that would include cattle for meat production and could also include sheep or goats followed by chickens. The size of these herds compared to the pasture ground available is important.
Sales, Marketing & Branding
This business plan will include the details of selling and marketing Soper Farms products within the distribution footprint of four hours shown previously. Options include CSAs, wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants, Soper Farms storefront, farmer’s markets, etc. 
Renewable Energy
Wind and solar power can provide this farm with cash flow benefits and long-term income, reduce on-site energy costs, while mitigating global climate-change. This farm will have a renewable energy plan to farm the wind and sun as well as livestock and vegetables. In addition, opportunities to pursue the creation and use of bio fuels are to be considered.

An example to study is Wyn Evans from Pembrokeshire West Wales who runs a mixed farm of 170 acres, has been trying to reduce his dependency on fossil fuels since 1977. He has installed an anaerobic digester, a wind turbine, solar panels and a ground-sourced heat pump. He has sought wherever possible to replace diesel with his own electricity. Instead of using his tractor to spread slurry, he pumps it from the digester onto nearby fields. He’s replaced his tractor-driven irrigation system with an electric one, and set up a new system for drying hay indoors, which means he has to turn it in the field only once. Whatever else he does is likely to produce smaller savings. But these innovations have reduced his use of diesel by only around 25%.

We have an opportunity to create an integrated farm that leverages the natural interdependence between animals and vegetation. Having both vegetables and meat to sell leverages our brand and can attracts customers by offering more choice.
To be studied is both field vegetable crops and hoop house vegetable crops for an extended season of growing and selling. The business plan will determine the size of the opportunity and the scale necessary to meet the opportunity. From this, facilities, staffing and rollout plans can be proposed.
Added Value
One key element to the success of many organic/local/sustainable farms has been adding value to their crops and selling as directly to the consumer as possible. Hermannsdorffer Farms in Germany are a prime example of this. In addition to the hog meat and vegetables they also add value by making sausages, beer, bread and go so far as to serve prepared meals to diners visiting their farm. They also have their own retail store that features their products as well as other organic products.
Building a restaurant and/or a commercial kitchen in which to prepare added value products will be studied. 

Legal & Insurance
As this plan studies selling food direct to the consumer it raises the need for legal structures and insurance that typically go beyond what is normal for our current practice of raising commodity crops and then selling them to brokers and manufacturers. Examples include:
Livestock – Because of food safety laws and the litigious environment we live in today, it will be necessary to shelter SFI assets from potential law suits. Having separate incorporated legal entities should be considered. An example of one structure is Soper Farms Inc. (who owns the farm and operational assets) and raises livestock under contract to Soper Farms Marketing, Inc. who owns the livestock and sells the meat products on to the public. To fund Soper Farms Marketing, Inc. Soper Farms Inc. could make a loan SFMI and be in control of the revenue and profits.
Farmer’s Markets Insurance – Most farmer’s markets require the seller to have liability insurance. Sometimes these policies are hard to get and can be expensive for a small farmer. The few claims that do occur usually are tied to accidents like a tent blowing over and causing damage and not food safety.

Challenges in Planning
The choices we may follow will be numerous offering multiple opportunities in each area. This is a big subject to cover. Just imagine the complexity of the industrial food enterprise beginning at the farm to wholesalers, to manufacturers to distributors to outlets from grocery stores to restaurants and institutions. What we are planning is a microcosm of this. Every effort will be made to keep this plan within a reasonable scope, leaving future opportunities to unfold over time.