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
“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 mother.
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
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 things better.”
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 it on.”
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