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Soper is building vertically integrated farm system

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 10/16/2012 2:15 PM

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EMMETSBURG, Iowa — Harn Soper calls it a work in progress.

The work involves building a vertically integrated farm system. Soper manages the family farm that spans four generations. They used to be just landowners, but are taking an active role in reshaping the farm.

About one-third of their land is farmed conventionally and another third grows organic row crops. The final third of the operation includes livestock, vegetables and a store. The transition started in 2010.

"The status quo is always easier, but not necessarily better," said Soper. "Land stewardship is a big reason to change to organic practices. Unintentionally, our once rich soils have been mined out, requiring farmers to replace these critical elements with imported nutrients and minerals that are in ever shrinking supply."

Soper Heritage Farms is experimenting and learning on a big scale. They shared their experiences during a recent Practical Farmers of Iowa Field Day. That large scale creates interesting loops, explained on-site farm manager Dennis McDonald.

"There is a big learning curve," said McDonald. "Building all from new, getting the infrastructure there, dealing with equipment not arriving in time, and finding markets."

He realizes the need to stay flexible, change and adjust with the weather and other variables.

Jarret Herke manages the livestock enterprise, which involves raising and marketing pasture-raised beef and chicken.

"The Angus beef cattle were purchased from a ranch in Nebraska," said Herke. "Arriving December 15, they spent the winter in a hoop building. In June, the cattle were put on pasture."

The cattle were pulled back in when they began to lose weight and to allow for the pasture to develop.

Broilers were raised outdoors with electric netting fence and hoop shelters. Predators and hot temperatures caused bird loss. The birds were moved to new pasture every three days. The farm raised more than 7,000 pastured broilers.

Soper Heritage Farms has a market for the meat, which is processed at B & B Poultry in Hospers. In the future, processing may be done on the farm.

Vertical integration means growing food and delivering it to the customer with as few as steps in between as possible, said Soper.

Much of the food served at the New Shoots Farm Store, Bakery and Cafe comes directly from their farms. One hundred acres are devoted to growing vegetables. This year 90 varieties were grown and sold to local stores and restaurants through weekly delivery.

Cabbage, kale, mixed greens and herbs were still being harvested fresh in mid-September. This past year a 16,000 square-foot building was constructed along with a greenhouse. Their goal is to produce all their own energy.

"A goal is to contribute more energy back to the grid than we take," said Soper. "We could do this by installing solar voltaic or wind turbines, but we decided to begin by using a byproduct from our own farms first."

Soper Heritage Farms, working with Rick Schuler, PFI energy consultant, is developing their own composting system that can harness and integrate both aerobic and anaerobic composting to create hot water and biogas that can both heat the greenhouses and operate equipment. The system is almost ready.

"After building three proof-of-concept models we have already achieved 2 plus-to-1 ratio of efficiency whereby for every single energy unit we put into the system, we are getting 2-plus units of energy out," said Soper. "Our goal is to achieve 3-to-1 or better. What is beautiful about this is that the waste product is rich compost to the gardens."

Soper is convinced that agriculture will look nothing like the last 20 years. Farmers are in a unique position to shape this conversation and to better manage the predicament of our economy, society and environment, he said.