Striking a balance
Family learns that good farming is like an evolving dance.

By Deborah A. Hyk
Posted December 13, 2007

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 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 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 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 the dance.