Last month, Kyle went to a party. Really.
Every year, Kyle joins hundreds of other pumpkin patch owners/operators at a conference called the Corn Party. Owners of farms like ours from around the nation join together in different locations to discuss new things in the industry, learn from each other, and tour farms in that area.
This year, Kyle, Bruce, and Judy went to Dallas, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, touring places like Orr Family Farms, Mainstay Farm Park, and Yesterland Farm. He even went to a farm with a helicopter pad. Sweet bridal party arrival, right?! They also checked out the Canton, Texas flea market and even went to a rodeo (although Bruce didn't wear a big cowboy hat and boots, to my disappointment).
Even though I was most interested in the flea market (which looked awesome...it's the world's largest!), of course the most interesting stop they made was to a gas station, called Buc-ees (pronounced Bucky's), which is a Texas-sized chain of gas stations. You know the saying "everything is bigger in Texas"? Well that's true for gas stations, too. This place has everything. This location had 88 gas pumps and the store was over 40,000 square feet. You want real vintage trucks filled with candy? You got it. You want an entire wall full of stuffed animals? You got it. You want six or seven soda dispensers with every single soda or every single flavor option imaginable? You got it. Kyle, This was the most magical gas station any of them had ever been to.
Kyle has been going to the Corn Party for about 10 years now. Every year it is held in a different part of the country. He's part of a group called the MAiZE Group, which provides support and community for people in the ag tourism business and is owned by one of the first guys who got in the corn maze game. This group is also who designs our corn maze every year!
Kyle loves almost every part of this conference - the community and the exchange of ideas - but the neatest part for him is the farm tours. At farms in Texas to New York to Chicago to Arizona, Kyle's seen so many different ways to run a business like his and so many different set ups for the farms. The inspiration of many of our local farm activities has come from these tours. We have this conference to thank for the zip line, the tire mountain - even serving food, including apple cider donuts! (For which I am so, so grateful.)
This year, he got a few more ideas from these Texan farms, and you'll have to visit us this fall to see he has in store (he hasn't even told me!).
If we're going to start to answer the question How We Farm, I think we need to understand what exactly is our farm. Not the history, but the parameters.
The whole farm is 200 acres. The part everyone is used to and knows about is about 40 of those acres. On those 40 acres are the activities area, the main barn, parking lot, berry and pumpkin patches, and corn maze. The rest of the farm that you see but don't play on is field ground for alfalfa, corn, and soybeans, or whatever the farmer who is renting the land decides to plant that year.
The 40-acre difference is made up on a parcel of ground that the family owns just down the road. This is hilly land, with a stream running through it, that is primarily used to grow corn and silage. This gets cut into a salad that feeds dairy cattle at a local farm.
Those are the straightforward stats of the farm, but if you want to learn all about the farm's history and past, check out our blog Celebrating 118 Years of Vesperman Family History!
This month, Kyle is back in school. But it's, like, a REALLY cool school.
Kyle is currently enrolled in a program called Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. Goldman Sachs (you know, investments, banking, all the money stuff?) has a foundation that is focused on giving some of this wealth (not just money, but experience, knowledge, and energy) back to the business community. This program is a partnership between Goldman Sachs and Babson College, located in Massachusetts, which is the #1 school in nation for entrepreneurship, ranking ahead of those Ivys like Harvard and Yale. And the program is all about helping small business and small business owners.
What this organization has found is that there are many small businesses out there that have reached a certain size and success without their owners, operators, or presidents having formal training in management, entrepreneurship, or any of the seemingly "necessary" job skills normally associated with a small business owner. This very specific need has the potential to not only affect the lives of the business owners themselves, but they also know that helping them helps others: A thriving business provides more employment opportunities, stimulates more economy, and can give back in many ways to the community is belongs to. Their goals for these organizations are threefold:
This is an exclusive program that only admits a limited number of people a session, so it's pretty incredible that our local business owner is now a part of it. In the short time since its establishment, only 7,300 business owners have graduated from the program across all 50 states in the US, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. But the impact has been massive. Two years after graduating from the program, 47 percent of participating businesses grew their revenue by more than 77 percent and 56 percent of business added jobs in their communities. Not only that, but 88 percent of participating businesses have found new business partnerships, oftentimes with those in the alumni network to which they now below.
Kyle discovered this program during a rainy October day when our fall season crowds were low. He was reading the Telegraph Herald and discovered an article featuring the 10,000 Small Businesses program. After doing more research, Kyle was definitely interested. This program seemed way beyond the jumpstart business classes he'd been a part of before, and he felt that there was a lot of potential for both him and his business here.
There was a three-step process to get involved: The first was a paper application with all the business information and a description of Kyle's goals and aspirations for his business. Next was a whole series of financial documentation. After Kyle made it through these steps, he participated in an interview panel to see if he was a good fit for the program and dedicated to seeing it through. They were particularly focused on making sure Kyle was community driven - this program is not only interested in the business itself, but what it gives back to the community it belongs to.
In early February, he was accepted!
Kyle is now part of a 10-week program. He takes 2 online classes each week and twice he will travel to Massachusetts to participate in 4-day intensive classroom experience. Throughout the whole program, he will learn more about leadership, sales, financial documents, managing people, forecasting, supply chain management, and identifying opportunities within his own business. He will also have opportunities to practically apply these new job skills within his classes and within his business. He will leave the program with a comprehensive growth plan that he plans to apply and implement within the next couple of years.
Once Kyle is done with his classes, we'll be posting another blog that describes some of his experiences and we'll hint about what's next for the farm - a lot of exciting things. We'll also reveal his grade...hopefully he's a diligent student!
Until then, if you're interested, you can learn more about the program at the Goldman Sachs website.
While I was out riding in the pumpkin wagon this past fall, a few people asked me why our pumpkin patch had moved. I sort of fumbled an answer about what I assumed was crop rotation, but I realized I really didn't know. And when I don't know things, I bother Kyle. So I asked him: Why do our pumpkin patches move?
Crop rotation in a nutshell can accomplish four major things.
First, it improves soil nutrition. Crops take a lot of nutrients out of the soil, but they also put some back in. And each crop will take and put different kinds and levels of nutrients out and in of the soil. Moving the crops around can replenish nutrients in the soil, give the land a break from certain crops that can very quickly deplete essential soil nutrition. Rotation also helps keep soil erosion under control, which also helps keep the land healthy and able to continue supporting crops.
Second, it help slow down bug and insect infestation. Rotating the crops keeps bugs confused - what was once their preferred food has now moved - and therefore they don't find the crop as quickly or infest as rapidly if you keep them off their game. It can also disrupt the reproductive cycle of breeding insects, meaning that they struggle to either lay their eggs properly or newly hatched insects awake to a different or unacceptable food source.
Third, it helps fight agains fungus and virus in plants. Much in the same way that rotation fights insect infestations, it can ward off fungus and virus, too. When fungus finds a plant and a virus inhabits an area, continuing to plant the same crop will encourage the growth of these problems, while switching the crops can slow or even stop their progress through a plant community.
And, finally, it helps to control weeds. Rotation makes for healthier crops that will out-compete infestations of weeds and other invasive plant growth. It can also disrupt weed growth that will occur more frequently and rapidly in a mono-culture, which is a long-term growth of the same plant in the same area.
Basically, how I understand it, is that moving the crops keeps the problems that plague and pest both crop and farmer guessing and off their toes, which means the crops have a much better chance of survival and the farmer a better chance of a successful crop.
Now that I understood the basic premise, I had a few other questions:
Why do the pumpkins move every year and the strawberries stay in one place for a couple years?
The short answer is they have different growth cycles. The long answer is the berries are a perennial crop and the pumpkins are an annual crop. Annual crops start from a seed, grow, mature, multiple, and die all in one growing season. Perennials like strawberries start and grow in one year, multiple and reproduce in the second year, and continue reproducing and maturing in the years following. For annual crops, moving them around is essential and logical: they are restarted every year and so they are able to be moved frequently. Production of strawberries drops off after 3-4 years of keeping them in the same spot - after this time, the nutrients in the soil have dissipated and bugs and fungus have often found the plants. This means it's time to give the field a break and move the berries to another location.
Does rotation cut down on the use of fungicides and herbicides?
Yes, it can. But so much of this also depends on other growing factors, like the condition of the soil, the weather patterns, and the health of the seeds and young plants, so rotation doesn't always guarantee that these aren't necessary for a healthy crop.
Do farmers have to plan out their crop rotations years in advance?
Depending on the size of the crop land and the number of plants in rotation, yes. Smaller farms can often undertake less planning, but more the more you have to consider, the more complicated the rotation plans get. Ours are pretty simple, so we plan a couple years out.
For more blogs about how and why we farm, check out our How We Farm tag. And if you have any questions, drop them in the comments!
Fun on the farm...in blog form!