Monday, April 15, 2013

Lara Durben and Minnesota Turkey Growers!

Please help welomce Lara Durben of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. Lara grew up on a farm and her passion for agriculture has led her to an exciting career promoting the poultry industry in her home state!

Greetings from Minnesota – home to more turkeys than any other state in the U.S.! I grew up on a crop farm in western Minnesota and knew absolutely nothing about raising turkeys (or chickens, for that matter) when I applied for a job nearly 18 years ago with the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. In fact, I had never even been close to a poultry barn. But, I had a couple of things going for me – I was a farm girl, which provided an instant connection with the turkey farmers hiring me, and I loved communications. Nearly two decades later, I’m still working for Minnesota’s turkey farmers and I love to help share their stories in a variety of ways.

As the Communications Director for my organization, I wear (as the saying goes) many hats. Truthfully, it’s probably too many to count some days, but that’s why I love my job – the variety is amazing, I am always learning (seriously – every day!) and I feel like my extended family has grown over the years to include so many of the farmers I work on behalf of.

I coordinate all of the communications efforts for Minnesota Turkey as well as two other poultry organizations – the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota and the Midwest Poultry Federation. I often refer to our office as “Poultry Central” because, well, it is – at least in Minnesota.

On a daily basis, I am trying to keep with all of our social media tools, including (deep breath, here) four Facebook pages, three Twitter accounts, one Pinterest account and two YouTube channels. Plus, we have three different websites to maintain and keep updated. From a sheer time standpoint, it can be daunting (I won't lie about that!), although I can tell you I am ridiculously enthusiastic about social media and love trying to keep up with it all.

Lara in her office. 
I also coordinate a monthly printed publication, Gobbles magazine, for our Minnesota Turkey members that’s been around since 1945 and a weekly email newsletter for nearly 1,000 of our members and friends of poultry who like to receive updates about what’s going on in our organizations along with various links to poultry and general agriculture news from around the world. I am also the first point of contact with reporters who call or email, looking for stories and answers to their poultry-related questions. Because Minnesota ranks #1 for turkey production in the U.S., we do get media calls from all around the U.S. – especially in November.

Oh, and did I mention that at Thanksgiving, my job rocks?

Beyond that, I have several other career passions, including coordinating an annual trip for some of our members to Washington DC to meet with our Congressional leaders and attend the National Turkey Federation’s Summer Leadership Conference. I actually get energized every time I visit our nation’s Capitol and I find it gives me a much broader perspective when I am able to meet with our leaders to talk about the issues that are important to us, both turkey-related and agriculture in general.

My other big passion is coordinating the details for the largest regional poultry convention in the U.S., the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention, held in Saint Paul, Minnesota in March every year. Our office works with many volunteers to bring over 2,100 people together to learn from experts on a variety of poultry-related topics, network with other farmers and colleagues, and visit with companies in the exhibit hall. The details that go into making this show a success are mind-boggling and I am so fortunate to work with amazing team of four other people in my office to get the job done. We love this show – and we especially love to arrive onsite and see all of our industry friends connecting with each other. Farmers, I have learned - both from my own father and from the poultry farmers I work with on a daily basis - are constantly learning and evolving and improving what they do.

My newest adventure is the debut of my blog last fall – It’s been a personal goal of mine for a quite a while, but it wasn’t until I attended a conference with some amazing role models – the AgChat Foundation’s Agvocacy 2.0 Conference last August – that I truly realized I could make this happen. It’s always a work in progress, of course, but I like to include a mix of topics – from living life as “MNGobbleGal” (my Twitter handle, by the way) to sharing “my other more exciting life” as a wife and mom who is a bit shoe-obsessed; loves running, gardening, wine and shopping (not necessarily in that order); and also happens to Instagram way too many photos of our senior citizen pug dog named Earl. I think a blog is a great way to connect with a variety of people about poultry, agriculture and my daily life – and I love how I can show all the different sides of “me”.

The Family!
As long as we're on a personal note here, I live in Buffalo, Minnesota – about 25 miles west of the Twin Cities – with my husband (“Teacher Man” so-named in my blog) and our nine-year-old son. I am still a farm girl at heart and am glad to see my brother continuing the crop farm in my family, along with my Dad who isn’t quite ready to retire fully yet. They raise nearly 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in western Minnesota and we visit often. My mom is a former home economics teacher, gourmet cook, quilt designer and master gardener - she keeps the farm looking beautiful all year-round and I like to think my green thumb for gardening comes from her.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has jokingly asked me, “Do you want to talk turkey?” or “Are you the princess of poultry?” But the truth is, I never get tired of it. When I was in college, the professor of my very last journalism class found out I grew up on a farm, pulled me up in front of the entire class (mostly urban kids) and told the class: "Farmers are true gamblers. They gamble every year on the weather, on the bank, on their animals and on their crops. What they do is amazing." To be honest, I had never really thought about it in quite that way and I am quite sure, at that time in my life, I took my own farm upbringing for granted. But his comments struck a chord with me then and I've never forgotten what he said. I'm very glad I am able to work in agriculture today, and I am grateful, after all these years, for the opportunity to help share the stories of an amazing group of farmers.

Lara on the farm as a child. 
Thank you Lara for the great feature! You can learn more about Turkey production by visiting Minnesota Turkey Growers Association webpage and the Minnesota Turkey Facebook page. You can also follow Lara on her personal blog, twitter(MNGobbleGal) and check Pinterest account!

How are you involved in agriculture? We need your story next!

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mark Anderson - Anderson Harvesting LLC

Good Morning! Today we welcome Mark Anderson. Mark is the owner of his very own harvesting business!

Greetings everyone, my name is Mark Anderson. I’m twenty-seven years old and run my own custom harvesting operation in Western Nebraska also known as the Panhandle of Nebraska. My business is headquartered out of Bridgeport Nebraska, a town of about 1,500 people where I went to high school.

I have always had a passion for farming and I’m sure that comes from my family’s history in the business. My great-great-grandfather homesteaded along the North Platte River in the late 1890’s in an area South-east of Broadwater, Nebraska. However, when he settled in the area the town of Broadwater had not been established yet. Broadwater did not come into existence until the railroad came through in 1909 and was on the north side of the river.

In those very early days, my great-great-grandfather had to travel via horse to the town of Sidney, Nebraska, about 40 miles south. I can’t even begin to imagine what things were like in those very early days. Over 100 years later the original Homesteaders dead hangs in my grandfather’s office and the land is still part of the family’s farm, ranch, and feedlot operation. Today the family operation is run but my grandfather, my dad, and my uncle. Two of my brothers, one cousin, and I are also involved with the family business.

After I graduated high school, I went to a technical college in the Denver, Colorado area. For about five years I lived and worked in the Denver area. I spent about four years working a corporate job which was a very good learning experience for me, but it was obvious to me that I missed the farm. Growing up I watched my grandfather dad and uncle make the big decisions for our operation over coffee every day. I was never able to grasp the seemingly endless meeting process it took to get equivalent decisions made in the corporate world.

In 2009 one of the individuals that had been cutting silage in Western Nebraska retired. This was the opportunity I had always been looking for. With a loan from my dad and John Deere I started Anderson Harvesting.

Growing up in the area helped me get on my feet because I knew most of the feedlot operators in the area. The first few years were definitely a learning experience for me. Learning how to manage people as well as my time took some time. I had taken classes in college related to time and people management, but nothing really prepares you for managing both in harvest. Those of you in agriculture I’m sure can relate to what I’m saying.

In 2011 I added a second forage harvester to my operation which brought on a completely new list of challenges. I soon found out that trying to manage one machine from the cab of another was a brand new game. I still enjoyed all most every minute of it because now it was a new level of logistics management. Plus both machines were always in different locations.

In 2012 my business continued to grow and I upgraded my original machine to my first Claas forage harvester. With the onset of the drought that we are still currently suffering from the demand for silage was incredible. For the first time since I started the business I had to turn work down. I never thought I would utter those words,“I’m too busy.” I had lost jobs in the past because the competition got there first, but never had I told someone that I couldn’t get there.

Last year was the first year that I really ever had a major problem with one of my forage harvesters and over the course of a week I had a major problem with both of them. On Monday my machine had a bearing failure. Not that uncommon on these high horsepower machines. By Tuesday the issue was resolved. Tuesday night as I was relocating my machine a piece of weather stripping went through the radiator fan on my machine taking ever blade off of the fan. Buy Wednesday night we had a new fan installed and got back to work on Thursday. Friday my machine had an engine failure and had to be shipped back to my dealer for repair. Sounds like a rough week, but unfortunately, the week wasn’t over. On Saturday my second machine fell in a sinkhole and broke the front axle. It too had to be sent in to the dealer for repairs.

In the course of two days I had gone from two machines to only one. I still had my second machine from the year before and with the help of my dealer, I had a loaner machine by Sunday to replace mine. That week was probably the most trying week I have had since I started this business. Looking back now it’s funny to laugh at it and smile knowing that we made it through.

A typical day in harvest begins around 5-6 in the morning. Having serviced the machines the night before we normally like to be in the fields cutting by 7-8 a.m.. Most of my mornings involve calls from customers wanting to know when we’ll be at their place and truckers trying to figure out how to get to the next field. By mid afternoon everything settles down and a natural rhythm to harvest sets in. The trucks are all in sync and everything just flows. This is the time of the day I absolutely love. The main reason I wanted to be in this business, to drive forage harvesters. At the end of the day the equipment is blown down, fueled up, and service ready to go again the next day.

The one thing I hope people understand about my operation and farming/ranching in general is how much time, effort, and money people in these business have to devote to their operations. Ranching especially is a year round job. There are no holidays, sick days, or vacations. The livestock have to be cared for by someone every day. The work involved in raising a successful crop, be it food or livestock, is tough work. It commonly involves long hours and tough conditions. It has to be done in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The money involved in agriculture is also a factor. It takes large investments every year in the hope that it pays out in the end.

I really hope that by telling our stories that we can give people a better understanding of where our food comes from and what it takes to get it to your table. That’s why I’m proud to share my story in hope that it gives you a better picture of modern farming practices and encourages you to thank a farmer when you have the opportunity. Thank you for reading.

Thank you Mark for a great feature! We wish you much success! You can learn more about his operation by checking out his Facebook Page , Youtube Channel and visiting his website.

How are you involved in agriculture? We want your story. YOU could be the next FOA feature! Contact us today!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Love Crosses Borders - Alyssa's Story

Today we welcome Alyssa. Alyssa is a Colorado native who lives in Mexico with her fiance on their 15,000 acre cattle ranch!

Hola from north Mexico! My name is Alyssa; I am 25 years old, a Colorado Native and author of, Love Crosses Borders. Much like the title suggests a fairy tale story led me to Mexico and to a 15,000-acre cattle ranch I now call home. My fiancé and I met years ago, and were great friends, while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. However, that is not when we started dating. Some time after college we ran into each other while he was in Colorado for a summer vacation in 2011. Since that summer day bumming into him, after not seeing him or talking to him for four years, I knew instantly I was going to marry him. So that is more or less of the, how I got here and involved in the cattle industry, as sappy as it may sound! With that said, if you are further interested in our story you are welcome to check out my blog and go under the “Our Story” tab. It is quite cute if I can say so.

Let’s get down to the real topic at hand: cattle, agriculture and my life. Until I moved to the ranch in January of 2012 I had no previous experience or knowledge of ranch life. I grew up a city gal, lived in the suburbs of Denver, and enjoyed my morning Starbucks visits. Needless to say those days are long gone. The nearest city is an hour and a half away from us, we totally live of the grid, meaning we have no electricity and actually operate solely on a generator and batteries. Some folks might think that sounds scary, but it is actually not bad at all and things are quite normal. We even have the internet! We only run the generator at night so often times during the day we are without power, which is fine because if you know anything about ranch life there is plenty to do! Since day one of stepping foot on the ranch it has been an adventure! The whole reason I developed my blog was to more or less document my day-to-day life and to be able to share it with my friends and family. Not to mention I have taken a real knack for photography and use my blog to share some of my favorite pictures.

As I said our ranch is 15,000-acres and is located in north Mexico. We live in a desert climate that is very similar to west Texas or New Mexico. With that said, the drought that the States has been experiencing has also drastically effected us. We are going on year four of hardly any rain and things are bone dry. Before the drought began we had 800 female cows. That figure does not include the bulls, steers and female yearlings. However, over the last few years the drought has forced us to destock little by little.

My fiancé is the 5th generation to take over and manage the family ranch. The ranch has predominately been a cow calf operation. We export all of our yearling steers to the United States and keep all of our females as replacements. We put our females into production once they are two years old. We then sell our cull cows, which are usually not pregnant, old, or in rough condition, to a local butcher. We have a saying that once a mother cow does not get pregnant her time at the ranch is up, they must pay their rent and there is no free lunch here.

When my fiancés father got the ranch from his father nine years ago it was a bit of a mess. There were wild cows everywhere and no one knew how many animals were on the ranch. Not only were the cows wild there was no uniformity at all. The ranch had every breed imaginable, some cows with horns and some without. There were also 75 wild donkeys roaming the land. It took almost three years to get things cleaned up, cows herded, donkeys sold, ect. So our operation is fairly young under our management style.

We utilize Holistic Management, which is a decision making tool, and it has helped us turn things around rapidly. Over the last six years we have been focused on genetics, animal handling, pasture and land improvement, intensive pasture grazing and rotation, and fencing/dividing the ranch into several small paddocks. Holistic management has also helped us establish several goals and shapes our quality of life.

The breed we are focused on is Beefmasters. Beefmasters are a cross between Herefords, Brahman and Shorthorn. We have found that they are very heat tolerant and also a good meat-producing animal. Not to mention, I find them to be particularly adorable with their brown and white coloring. The calves are absolutely divine. We still have a mixed herd because we have used the animals the ranch inherited. We purchased a few Beefmaster females and bulls four years ago and through natural breeding our herd is becoming predominantly brown and white. Now all of our bulls are Beefmasters. We only keep them for four to five years. We find that bulls are most productive and effective when they are young.

Our rainy season is cyclical and dependent on storms in the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, July thru September are usually our wettest months. We find that a pregnant cow needs the most nutrition two months before calving, which leads to the next topic. Our breeding season begins in November and lasts for 60 to 70 days. We separate the bulls from the ladies in January, then just like clockwork we can expect calving season to begin in August. This allows the mother cows to get the nutrition she requires in July and to be in great condition when she gives birth. We also time calving around the rainy season so there is plenty of grass and vegetation for the lactating mother. Our expectation is also that there is plenty of grass and feed for the calves to eat. We do not supplement or give feed to our animals they are strictly free-range animals.

We keep our bulls and steers separate from the female mother cows and heifers. We have five smaller pastures we use and rotate the bulls and steers on. We then have nine larger pastures we rotate the females on. As I mentioned fencing and separating the ranch into smaller paddocks is a huge goal and project for us. When we inherited the ranch there was only one fence that separated the mountain area from the flat land. I guess you could say there was two pastures. In the last six years we have divided the ranch into 14 paddocks, the five for the bulls, and the remaining nine for the females. Fencing is quite a task especially when the ground is rock hard. Our goal is to continue to divide and separate the pastures. Ideally we would like to have around 25 pastures. This will help with our management style and we can better utilize an intensive grazing and rotation system. We also find that having more pastures allows us to give parts of the ranch a break and they are able to rest and recover for longer periods of time. Needless to say, land management and improvements are also a big objective for us and we find fencing to be a great tool to help us achieve this. Or as my fiancé says, “Cows are the best bulldozers I know.” We also try to use animal impact from the cows to help us with land management and grass growth.

We really value and pride ourselves on calm animal handling practices in the corrals when we are working cattle and also when we are rounding up animals in pastures. We try not to yell and scream at the animals, because as those in the industry know, it does no good anyway. We also do not use lassos or ropes. We find that eliminating some of the old practices of roping an animal has really made our cows and herd calm and approachable. Over time this makes herding, roundups, and pasture rotations a lot easier. In fact, some times the cows just walk strait into the corrals with little struggle because we have eliminated the stressful aspects and experiences in the corrals as best as we can. We have doctors and veterinarians comment on how well our animals, herd, system, and animal practices are. Many of the vets love working with us because we are very efficient. This is also due to a very well thought out corral design. We find it to be much more effective, accurate and less traumatic to use a cattle chute and press when working cattle instead of roping the animals.

We do all of our dehorning, branding and castrating. Typically we wait until the animals are six months old and have been weaned before we start working them. Once again their health and condition determine the timing of the necessary steps. For example, this year we just finished weaning and branded the calves from the fall season. We will wait a while to dehorn and castrate because the condition of the land and grass supply is not great and the next three months will be the most difficult and we do not want to put any additional stress and strain on the animals.

On a relevant topic for some ranchers affected by the current drought, we have found it to be a blessing at the same time. With our grass supply and capacity of the ranch decreasing over time we have had to destock. We have used this opportunity to keep the best of the best. Our thoughts are that it will of course help us speed up our genetics and help us have a very strong, hardy, and heat tolerant herd in the future. Essentially you could say this is a “natural” selection process. We have gradually been selling all the old cows that are in poor condition, and did not have a calf. Ironically enough, the breed that seems to look the best and is repeatedly pregnant are the Beefmasters. This is great news because all of our old Charolais, Angus and Brangus, amoung other breeds, that we inherited with the ranch are disappearing.

Even though times are tough we have stuck to our guns and model when it comes to our operation. We have continued to export our yearling steers, sell our old mama cows and retired bulls, and have kept all of our female calves as replacements. We know several ranchers in our area that have not been so luckily and have had to destock and sell almost their whole herd. Including their female replacements. In my opinion this is very scary for the future of the cattle industry because cattle prices will be too expensive in years to come for ranchers to buy back heifers and establish a herd again and that’s if there is any cattle available.

Fortunately because of our management style, we did not have to start selling at the first sign of the drought. We actually had enough grass and reserves to host the herd for a while and we continue to have enough natural grass to host our current herd of 220 mother cows. We have tried to be very conservative and conscious on the capacity of the land and to make sure we are not keeping too many animals and that there is enough grass for the animals to be comfortable and meet their nutrition requirements. 

One last comment about the drought that I find interesting and maybe those in the industry might be able to relate or learn from, is how the price of beef and sticking to our model has really helped us financially. We have been able to stay afloat in these difficult times and actually reinvest in a few winter ranch improvements. What I mean by all of this is that we have not seen a huge financial burden during the current drought because we have been able to sell our cattle at record prices. As most know cattle prices are almost double what they were two or three years ago. Therefore, we have continued to see a steady source of income from our exported steers, and selling our old cows and retired bulls to a local butcher at outstanding prices. In fact we just sold 30 animals last week to our butcher and he is already begging us for more animals. There are no cows left in our region and our animals, considering the tough times, are in great shape. Not only have we profited during this tough time, we have kept our animal count and inventory steady. We also have replacements for all of the old cows we are selling. Thus, we have not had to see a huge decrease or loss in our herd. The only loss has been planned and we consider it to be “destocking.” Plus, we will not be struggling to find heifers in the future when times get better. Great management practices and planning for natural disasters and to credit for this!

That is more or less our cattle operation summed up. I briefly wanted to talk about our lifestyle and upcoming projects. Like I mentioned holism has become a life style for us and we really value our quality of life on the ranch. Therefore, we have a large garden and grow most of our own vegetables when the seasons allow. Once again, gardening was a totally new concept for me, but I quickly got the hang of it. You name the vegetable and we grow it, have grown it, or have tried to grow it. Desert gardening can be a little tricky and you really have to plan things out and plant them at exact times because there are three months during the summer that it is to hot to grow anything except for melons and squash.

Some of you might be wondering how the heck we can grow anything in the desert. Luckily, there is no shortage of manure around here and we also compost and have a large worm “farm.” We have a large bed lined with plastic and filled with corral dirt that we cultivate earth worms in. We also use the bed to burry our compost. We then put the worms into our garden beds and also collect some of the liquid moisture the bed collects and use it as fertilizer. This project has been very helpful and successful for us.

Last year I even gave canning a shot, which was once again a first, and a total success! We made some incredible dill pickles, hot peppers, salsa, marinara pasta sauce, and a tomato broth that I use to make Spanish rice. Cooking is also one of my passions and the guys at the ranch are very grateful for my skills. We have planned this year’s garden around some of our favorite canning recipes and experiments from last year. I also grow all of my own herbs that I use for canning. Last year I had more dill than I knew what to do with. In fact, I tried drying it in one of our bedrooms and the poor room still smells like dill!

A ranch, or farm, would not be complete without chickens or dogs. I absolutely love chickens and often joke that I am the mother hen around the ranch. We currently have 27 chickens and continue to expand our flock. We are interested in selling the eggs to a local store to continue to supplement our income and help us live of the land as best as possible. I also have three black labs that I refer to as, “The Boys.” Their real names are Wrangler, Stetson, and Levi. A ranch dog had a litter of puppies last summer and I kept three of the males. We also have a family yellow lab named Max and he is the father of the boys. So it is never a dull moment around the ranch with four dogs.

One final project that is in the making is an orchard, vineyard, and larger garden. With the current drought it has really forced us to think outside the box and brainstorm other ways we can continue to diversify ourselves and continue to be fully self supporting and sufficient. Therefore, we recently cleared an acre of land and just planted 34 different fruit trees. It is more or less of a pilot to see what desert fruits do the best. We planted figs, pomegranates, apples, pears, apricots, peaches, quinces, and even a pecan and olive tree. In the same area of land we will be planting seasonal vegetables that do well in the area. Our ambition is to sell our produce to a local market. In fact, we will be planting 1,000 sweet corn plants next week. We are very excited and look forward to the results of the plants and what does.

Like I said, I am new to this lifestyle and one thing is for sure, I would not trade it for anything in this world. I am very grateful the family has let me get my hands as dirty as I want and has been very patient and encouraging of my involvement. I adore every minute on the ranch from collecting fresh eggs to helping the guys in the corrals to gardening and everything in between. The serenity, simplicity, and genuine life I have found at the ranch is one that I can not describe. The morals, values and lessons you have the chance and opportunity to experience are so precious. I speak for my family and myself when I say we treasure our life on the ranch and love working together. We would not trade it even in the toughest of times because we love the freedom it gives us. At the end of the day we are solely responsible for the consequences of our choices and decisions. Anyone that knows a thing or two about ranch life knows there are good times and bad times, mistakes and triumphs, highs and lows but we are accountable and remain open minded and learn from all experiences. My family and I work hard to persistently improve our livestock, land, and quality of life because we cherish and take great pride in them and want to make sure the ranch and its future is around and in good hands for years to come.

Thank you Alyssa for telling us about your life!!! You can follow her story on her blog "Love Crosses Borders" - and Like her on Facebook!

Do you suddenly find yourself on the farm and ranch? What is your story? Contact us today on how you can be the next FOA feature!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Blake and Julie Hurst - Missouri Farming Family!

Today we welcome Julie and Blake Hurst of Northwest Missouri. This farming family owns and operates a thriving greenhouse! Julie and Blake are very passionate about agriculture and their way of life. Blake is currently serving as president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.'s suppertime in many households this April Fool's Day; the sunlight is diffuse through the two layers of plastic and the air is cooling outside. I'm at the business end of a water wand and a 150'piece of 3/4 inch garden hose watching the spray fizz out from 400 tiny holes. The greenhouse is in that magic quiet moment between the clatter of the ventilation fans and the roar of the propane heaters. Yes, Virginia, solar power will warm you only....when the sun is shining!! This is one of the questions I answer ruefully: 'Do you need heaters in your greenhouses?' I'm afraid so. Winter is a long dark season and Spring is just a breath for us bedding plant growers in Atchison county, in the very northwest of Missouri.

Lewis and Clark came through:
The Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along the Missouri in what is now Atchison County, 1804, and Clark, impressed by the bare hills rising from the river plain, named the area "Baldpated Prairie." Lewis explored nearby Nishnabotna (Indian--Canoe making) River and call the country handsome.(from the historical marker in Rock Port, Missouri)
Geologically, our landscape is just a babe. The Missouri River is lined with those striking "bald pated"bluffs William Clark mentioned; they are cliffs of loess, an undifferentiated soil profile of wind blown silt gathered up in the last glacial age. When the Indians were in charge of the landscape, these bluffs were prairie grass from bottom to top, but without the cleansing torch of prairie fires, trees have dug in and forests have grown up.

This isn't the case in the eastern part of the county, where we farm. The glacial soils thin from the Missouri River eastward, but we are still blessed with a marvelous landscape of rolling prairie soils that encourage the roots of our corn and soybeans to venture as deep as they care to grow. Yes, you can pick a few rocks as you combine, but most of the rocks left by the glacier are immense pink quartzite erratics that either wind up in someone's front yard as a landscape feature...or are pushed into a ditch so they're out of the way of tillage implements.

We are western Corn Belt through and through. Sure, over on the Missouri River bottom, the water table is close enough to the surface you'll see some circle rigs as you drive through. But our rotation of corn and soybeans must prosper on what falls from the sky during the months of June-August....and some of the years we've been farming, that's been a pretty iffy proposition. The land in Atchison county is as good as much of the land in Iowa....but the rains aren't.

It was partly the risks of crop farming, partly low corn prices, and partly youthful indiscretion that led Blake and me to build a small greenhouse on the farm we had purchased with his family. Many of our friends who graduated from college when we did were leaving farming or agriculture altogether. High interest rates, crushing debt loads, low crop prices, and brutal droughts left agriculture's next generation battered and discouraged. Diversification was the newest game in town; with nothing but sweat equity and weekend work, we built a couple of homemade greenhouses on the hill south of our house and declared ourselves in business.

Our first sign - Blake and our son Ben.
Thirty years later, our kids tell us, teasingly, that they are planning an "extravaganza" to celebrate the survival of Hurst Greenery. After some artful bulldozing, we have 2 1/2 acres of assorted freestanding and gutter-connect greenhouses on top of the hill. The whole hill thing was rather short sighted on our part; what Lewis and Clark neglected to mention, but other settlers certainly noticed, is the unrelenting wind . In the winter, it plunges down from Canada or sweeps in from the Front Range of the Rockies. From late spring into summer, the prevailing south easterlies bend the trees to the north: viewed from the side, our trees often resemble Elvis' pompadour. That wind is damaging to 48x100 foot pieces of poly. When the spring winds howl, the baskets hanging overhead sway like they are at sea and the plastic coverings of our greenhouses shake, rattle and roll.

In so many ways, a greenhouse business like ours is what many people imagine farming was like in some long ago era. Instead of precision farming, think imprecise farming, or, as we prefer to describe it, growing as an art form.....Well, in truth, putting together the pieces of our greenhouse year is more akin to a puzzle in 3D than the 2 dimensional landscape of our crop farm. Our growing year begins in January, when we first fire up the propane heaters, hook the alarm system back up, and thaw enough potting mix to fill trays for the unrooted geranium cuttings that arrive the second week of January. We buy 10 foot tall compressed bales of peat and perlite and tip them into a bale grinder which tears them up and delivers the expanded mix to the 'dirt machine' Day after day from January through April, this machine runs while we fill hanging baskets, 606 flats, 804 flats, 1801 flats, 4"flats, gallon pots, two gallon pots, three gallon pots! Thousands and thousands of containers are stacked into crates made of old pallets, then delivered to a greenhouse where someone will carry them inside (out of the wind!) and tuck in some infant plant with a bright future.

But I get ahead of myself. What makes our greenhouse business a throwback? Like farming in the bygone days, it is very very labor intensive. Despite a transplanter, two irrigators, a skid steer, and modern transportation, most of the elemental factors of growing are done by human hands: transplanting, watering, picking orders, delivery. The bedding plant business is over built, suffering mightily from the slow economy, and highly competitive; we are small, personal, and willing to grow what you want, when you want it, in whatever size container you desire...and then we'll pick it up, put it on our trucks and help you unload it. Planting it .....your job. Our rural county has a mere 5000 people; to have a viable business, we do what American agriculture has always done to expand; we export.

Fortunately, what we have NOT had to export is our family. Our crop farm has grown to accommodate not just a third, but a fourth generation of Hursts with great grandchildren a plenty for Blake's mom to cuddle and spoil. Blake and I are fortunate souls to get up in the morning and work with our children, then watch our grandchildren get off the school bus and come out to play and work with their parents...and their grandparents. Four of us work day in and day out in the greenhouse, Lee and her husband Ryan,son in law Matt, and me while Blake splits his time between overalls at the farm and his work as president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and our other daughter Ann joins in after hours to help in the busy season. We do hire help; the crew changes from year to year, but we rely heavily on the ladies who come back to work long hours every spring.

The whole process is a ballet of sorts. Ryan divides early spring between filling containers in the "dirt shed"and fixing whatever part of the critical heating and ventilation happens to have malfunctioned. Matt runs the transplanter, a contraption with fingers for picking, dibbles for punching and electric eyes to tell each when to do what. He'll look at the spread sheet of this week's plug order, separating one customers' pre-order from another, choose his plug trays of flowers, from alyssum to zinnias, tag the flats, push the button, fill the misses the machine leaves, then stack his flats of 606s high and tight on hand carts. 

 Some of the flowers are already sold, but a certain number are what we call "ours", meaning they are for "spec"and will be waiting 5, 6,7 or 8 weeks from now for Lee and I to pick them up and put them on a rack for Ryan and Matt to deliver to garden centers or grocery stores from Norfolk , Nebraska to Kansas City, Missouri and even the stadium of a certain sports team in red in St. Louis. Lee and I are in charge of the "art"part: deciding how many petunias the good people of Lincoln will desire on April 21st this year or when the masses around the Midwest will flow like lemmings into garden centers to purchase and plant their tomatoes? Some years the season starts in March; more often cold temperatures linger well into April. Part of living in this continental climate is the abbreviated, compressed nature of the season, spring. 

 Everyone, and I mean, EVERYONE, buys all their flowers and vegetables between April 1 and Mother's Day. This is a marked contrast to raising corn or soybeans; semi imperishable product can be sold throughout the year; it can also take us three months to harvest . But not only is time of the essence in the toasty atmosphere of a greenhouse in February, space is too. Early in the winter, we make elaborate logistical plans...these baskets here, these gallon vegetables there. Perhaps we can open up this house a week later and save that much propane...or maybe we'd better assume we have more time now than we will have in May. Alas,' the best laid plans of mice and men oft run awry'; at Hurst Greenery, flexibility is right up there with godliness.

That's what I'm finding out this evening. In response to last year's drought, we invested in a 15,000 gallon concrete reservoir. I've always wanted a water tower of my very own, but this is the next best thing. Two acres of greenhouse flowers under plastic, on a sunny 80 degree day, can develop a powerful thirst. Unfortunately, our stoneless glacial soils have a dirty little secret; they are dry. No rock; no aquifer. Our wells cluster in sand points at about 60 feet below the surface. We are fortunate to have a well on our farm that will comfortably support a household and garden. But that volume is so very far from the 10,000 gallons we can easily use on a sunny day in April. Our little corner of Missouri is starting 2013 with no water in the soil profile and that translates into the news I dread to hear: the wells are dry.It has been ten years since we had to haul water to get through the peak demands of spring. Over that time, we've accumulated an eclectic number of tanks, pumps and even an old Westboro Fire

Like farmers under open sky, we growers under polyethylene are subject to pests, diseases, disasters and deprivations. We watch the sky for hail in the summer and ice in the winter; we worry about our customers'satisfaction and credit worthiness. We epitomize the pursuit of beauty and happiness with what we grow, but to do that, we need the most basic elements to survive and thrive: sun, heat, nutrients.....and water. This year I am singing those old dry weather blues at the end of my rubber garden hose; a love hate relationship in three quarter time.

Thank you Julie and Blake for the great feature!! You can learn more about their greenhouse on their website Hurst Greenery and be sure to follow their blog Dirt Under My Fingernails.

Do you have a passion for agriculture? How are you involved in ag? We need you for the next FOA feature!!! E-mail Elizabeth and Jamie at to learn how you can be our next feature!