Harmony can be elusive, and
maintaining balance can seem like a constant dance. Yet Jim
and LeeAnn VanDerPol might say it’s better to join the
dance than to remain a wallflower.
The VanDerPol farm in Kerkhoven, Minnesota, announces its
part in that dance with a sign that reads “Pastures
A Plenty.” Any visitors can easily read the sign, but
they may not know that it represents an underlng philosophy.
The farm has come to rely on pastures, Jim says, because the
pasture paves the path to the future.
“It isn’t perfect,” says Jim, who is quick
to point out the uncertainty of farming. Yet, he says: “There
exists a potential or an inclination toward harmony in all
things. Part of that harmony includes the critical balance
between animal health, human health and environmental health.
The dance includes new questions and new possibilities always
presenting themselves to be answered.
The process has been integral to the VanDerPol farming journey.
Initially, Jim and LeeAnn moved the pigs outside because the
animals were struggling with health problems that seemed to
be caused by confinement. The animals’ health quickly
improved. Then a new possibility presented itself. “The
sows in particular seemed to be able to take advantage of
the grazing provided by a pasture-based system,” says
Jim, adding that the animals now get about half of their food
from the pasture.
Thus, the first piece to fall into place was the move to
outdoor production and grazing. During the spring, summer
and early fall, sows farrow in portable huts bedded with straw
that can be moved from one paddock to another. A waterline
and movable electrified fencing contain the animals and bring
water to each paddock. The VanDerPols move the fencing to
segregate the pigs into groups of sows that farrow at approximately
the same time.
Initially, the VanDerPols decided to put pigs and sheep on
pasture. Although Minnesota does not have a climate suited
to raising hogs on pasture year-round, Jim noticed that even
Minnesota pigs benefited from the seasonal pasture time. Weaned
litter sizes were larger when the sows farrowed outdoors,
he said; the sows were generally healthier, as well.
This was the first significant step away from a cropping
system as a way to support livestock. The farm still includes
crops as part of the rotation—alfalfa and orchard grass
hay for two years between small-grain crops, with corn or
soybeans as occasional visitors to the mix. The crops occupy
one half of the farm; the other half is permanently in pasture.
Here Jim and LeeAnn find the animals graze successfully on
grass/legume blends that include white clover, bird’s
foot trefoil, meadow fescue and orchard grass. They occasionally
plant brome grass or reed canary grass, as well.
Pastures clearly proved to be a more harmonious option. At
the very least, the paddocks would be a seasonal gateway to
sustainable and successful livestock production. Perennials
would now serve as a foundational source of feed for the farm.
Jim describes the first choice of moving to pasture as a
change that touched every aspect of the farm. “It was
almost like knocking over dominoes,” he says. At annual
open houses, visitors can’t help but notice the calm
demeanor of the animals. The farm records show these happier,
healthier animals to be more productive, with a weaned pig
average of about nine per litter. While this may seem low
compared to a confinement system, the sows are doing the right
thing, according to the VanDerPols.
“We don’t want big litters,” says Jim.
He sends sows that have too many piglets down the driveway
to the butcher's block. The Berkshire-Duroc crosses boast
a superior meat quality that is desirable to the VanDerPols’
customers. Plus, they do well in pastures, farrowing smaller
litters of heartier piglets that thrive outdoors. The successful
sows know when to introduce their litters to the other sows
in the paddock, where they mingle safely—even venturing
occasionally into a hut that doesn’t belong to their
Despite the smaller litters, Jim and LeeAnn knew the pasture
was succeeding. They also knew they wanted to keep the farm
an intergenerational success. “I grew up here,”
says Jim. “But I’m one of the last few still farming
the family farmstead from the years when I was growing up.”
Across Minnesota and across the country, farmers with large-sized
acreage have acquired farms but haven't had an opportunity
to pass them onto the next generation. Jim and LeeAnn wanted
their farm to be one of the exceptions.
To make that happen, they needed to make certain their acreage
was as productive as possible. Maximizing pasture clearly
seemed to be the key. Not only did the animals seem healthier,
but the land itself seemed to keep a better hold on its fertility
and productivity, as well. “I could feel the difference
just walking on the land,” says Jim.
Unfortunately, feeding hogs for market primarily on pasture
isn’t feasible. Finishing animals cannot grow to market
weight without a supplemental ration. Those animals feed on
grains from the farm and some purchased grain to reach market
size. Unlike the sows, the market hogs can only obtain a maximum
of about 20 percent of their nourishment from pasture.
In addition, by late fall the grass has lost its nutritional
value and the Minnesota nighttime temperatures have dropped
toward freezing. Then, the animals spend most of their time
in open-hoop buildings on deep straw. The fresh air and open,
spacious buildings are a far cry from confinement, yet they
are a must for the pigs during the large temperature swings
and bitter cold that still characterize Minnesota winters.
Jim and LeeAnn also decided that making the most of their
pasture meant adding a custom heifer grazing business. Pastures
A Plenty connected with Cedar Summit Farm, a grass-based organic
farm in New Prague, Minnesota. The owners of this dairy knew
full-well the health benefits that grazing imparts to heifers.
Jim and LeeAnn’s son, Josh, and his wife, Cindy, joined
as partners in the family farm in 1996. Josh and Cindy now
manage the hogs, and Cindy helps LeeAnn run the meat business.
This means transporting meat to buyers and running the on-farm
meat store. Jim manages the grazing heifers, and the two share
responsibility for raising 1,000 chickens that move each summer
through the farm’s rotational grazing paddocks. The
chickens, like the pigs, have portable shelters that allow
them to graze in different paddocks throughout the summer.
The next place Jim decided to focus on was the soil. He’s
now working on boosting and balancing nutrients such as calcium,
magnesium and potassium to help restore soil health. He knows
this will improve the nutrition of the forage and the health
of animals that eat it. Ultimately, he knows that the meat
that his customers will eat will also be more nutritious.
The soil is where it all starts, he says.
“Our customers are people who appreciate the locally
grown, environmental sustainability of our products—and
they are folks who like the taste, as well,” says Jim.
He adds that people won’t buy something if it doesn’t
taste good. But he says for many of his customers, their loyalty
is derived from the pleasure they get in seeing a family farming
the land. The growing meat business seems to have tapped into
a market where supply for the commodity—at least of
the quality they provide—was missing. Jim and LeeAnn
say word of mouth is the primary source of all their business.
Cafés like Java River in Montevideo and Chester Creek
in Duluth feature meat from Pastures A Plenty. Local convenience
stores, food co-ops around the state, the farm store and a
frozen meat delivery service also provide customers with access
to the chicken and pork from the farm. Soon, the farm will
sell to the food service at St. Olaf College. Currently they
sell to the food service at the University of Minnesota at
Morris. Belgrade Meats processes roughly 15 pigs per week
for the farm and helps keep the supply of good-quality pork
flowing to customers around the state.
An effect like that of falling dominoes has determined the
future of the farm and has elevated it to a place of beauty.
Knowing that production must be maintained year-round to keep
the meat store, co-ops and restaurants supplied, the VanDerPols
are considering a building project that would allow a modified
Swedish deep-bedding system to shelter sows for farrowing
in the winter. The family has built sturdy wooden enclosures
that allow the sows to move out the door but prevent the very
young piglets from following them.
“When I’m looking at trying something new, if
it seems as if it is going to make the surroundings more pleasant
for all the residents of the farm as a whole—if it seems
like it is going to make life more pleasant for the hogs,
cattle or me—then I began to be suspicious that there
must be a way of making it work,” Jim VanDerPol says.
He says he’s been trying to get away from the compartmentalization
so many of us have in our brains, offering the example of
a person hoping to make their lawn beautiful while disregarding
the numerous consequences of obtaining and using chemicals
to accomplish that goal. “That’s compartmentalization,”
he says. His own realization has been that, somewhere, there
exists a key to the unity and harmony of the farm. “There
is the genesis of our farm,” he adds.
Part of the questioning path of the VanDerPols’ journey
led them to a class about holistic resource management. The
class had quality of life as a goal for its students. “Once
you start making that fundamental change, it leads you into
another change and another,” Jim VanDerPol says. “None
of that would have happened if we hadn’t tried to make
The European-style farming American settlers brought with
them was a method from which the VanDerPols needed to depart.
“We’ve learned that our farm needs to embrace
a different logic, a different calendar, a basic biology.
We’re learning it all over,” says Jim. With biotech
seeds, farmers manage the land by using two annual crops.
When a farm like Pastures A Plenty starts over with pasturing
and hay in a climate like Minnesota’s, Jim says the
farm should be pleasing to the farm community. And if the
farm succeeds, he knows he will become what he calls “a
hander down”—one who shares the knowledge with
the next generation. “Things need to be learned and
passed forward: We’ve got to generate wisdom and pass
This is the journey. Jim and LeeAnn, along with their children
and grandchildren, continue to question why there should be
any conflict between what is useful and what is beautiful.
Ultimately, they conclude there should be none. “The
question that is always on my mind is how can we make things
more beautiful and more pleasant,” says Jim. He says
seeing the sows with piglets on pasture, or in their deep
bedding in the winter, is a thing of beauty. In the harmony
of the pasture, with grazing chickens, pigs and heifers, the
music of balance and sustainability will sing for at least
another generation of the VanDerPol family as they continue