Adding diversity to farms

January 25th, 2016

News Coverage:

January 24, 2016 1:03 AM

Adding diversity to farms

Instead of focusing on just crops or livestock, doing both is encouraged

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

A century ago, area farmers raised the pigs and chickens that put bacon and eggs on their families’ breakfast plates. They also grew the wheat and churned the cream that became their buttered toast.

But agricultural operations typically have grown larger and more specialized, said Greg Slipher, Indiana Farm Bureau livestock development specialist.

Slipher is on a mission to remind farmers of the benefits of raising both crops and animals. To do so, he has teamed with Ben Wicker, Indiana Pork’s director of producer outreach.

Slipher and Wicker travel the state working with farms interested in diversifying operations. The two made a pitch to farmers this month during the Fort Wayne Farm Show at Memorial Coliseum’s expo center. 

Their case could be compelling at a time when corn and soybean prices are relatively low and crop farmers are breaking even or losing money after factoring in costs.

One Adams County farmer started raising turkeys a year ago and is already crediting the birds for a quarter of his operation’s income.

Room to grow

Wicker backed his argument with facts and figures from a 2013 Agralytica Consulting study titled “Indiana Animal Agriculture: Regional Economic Impact Report.”

Each year, the state’s livestock production accounts for $7.3 billion in economic output; $1.3 billion in additional household income; 38,219 in jobs; and $298 million in tax receipts, the study found.

Looking specifically at northeast Indiana, annual estimated sales are $583 million; economic output is $1.1 billion; household income $175 million; and jobs 5,480.

The data demonstrate how important livestock farms are to the local economy, he said.

But Wicker contends there’s room to grow. 

Global demand for beef, pork and poultry is increasing, he said.

As more people in developing countries enter the middle class, more families want to include animal protein in their meals. 

A World Health Organization report on global consumption of animal products found that people living in developing countries consumed 22.5 pounds of meat on average each year of the mid-1960s. That number more than doubled to 56 pounds in the late 1990s and is projected to reach 81 pounds by 2030, the report said.

The demand for milk from dairy cows is on a similar trajectory. Consumption averaged 62 pounds per person in the mid-’60s, grew to 98 in the late ’90s and is projected to reach 145 pounds per person by 2030.

“Urbanization is a major driving force influencing global demand for livestock products,” the WHO report states. “Urbanization stimulates improvements in infrastructure … which permit trade in perishable goods.”

The WHO report acknowledges critics’ contention that livestock production isn’t the best use of farmland. “It has been estimated that the number of people fed in a year per hectare ranges from 22 for potatoes and 19 for rice to one and two, respectively, for beef and lamb,” the study states. One hectare is about 21/2 acres.

U.S.-raised meat is highly regarded globally, Wicker said, because inspection and production processes are trusted by consumers and governments in many countries.

Adding diversity

Advantages also abound closer to home.

Northeast Indiana’s various food processing plants create demand, Slipher said. He cited Edy’s in Fort Wayne.

“You can’t have ice cream without cows in a reasonable transportation distance for the milk,” he said.

Indiana lies within one day’s drive of 75 percent of the U.S. population, which reduces the time it takes manufacturers and food producers to get products into consumers’ shopping carts and makes the Hoosier State a popular location for operations. 

Even though they can demonstrate strong demand for animal products, Slipher and Wicker aren’t advising farmers to ignore their crops.

Like all other busi­nesses, ag operations benefit from diversification, they said. Farms that produce both corn and cows reduce risk in years marked by too much or too little rain, for example.

Expanding into livestock also creates jobs, which might be important to families who want to create full-time positions for their children as they graduate from college and return to the farm, Slipher said.

And diversified farms can take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between grain and livestock. After livestock eat grain, the animals’ manure can be spread on fields to help future grain plants grow, Slipher said. 

As a result, farmers with diversified operations can spend less on soil additives.

“That’s real money we’re talking about,” he said.

Craig Fruechte added turkeys to his Adams County property last year. But before launching the four-barn operation, the 33-year-old turned to Slipher for advice on how to navigate the approval process. 

The Decatur farmer raises 24,000 turkeys on about five acres and raises cash crops on the other 1,500 acres. 

As a contract grower for Cooper Farms in Van Wert, Ohio, Fruechte houses the cage-free birds from ages 5 weeks to 22 weeks in large, heated barns that receive fresh air. He also built and maintains the barns and pays for electricity, as well as rodent control. Cooper pays for the animals, feed and transportation.

The turkeys’ manure is one benefit, reducing the amount Fruechte has to buy. Add in the fees he’s paid by Cooper, and the livestock operation is already contributing 25 percent to 30 percent of his total farming income.

“It’s hard to put a number on it,” he said, adding that he’s just getting started and still paying off loans for the buildings.

Fruechte, who is married with two young children, said he makes decisions based on how well they’re expected to pay off over the long term. Both he and his wife, Mindy, are sixth-generation farmers.

“To us,” he said, “there’s no better way to raise kids than on a farm and with old-fashioned hard work.”