Hoffman Certified Organics receives USDA grant

October 25th, 2018

By Louis Wyatt | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Although it’s just a “part-time hobby” for them, the family behind Hoffman Certified Organics is stepping up their operation. The certified-organic farm off Chapman Road received a grant from the USDA this fall that will fund the construction of a new compost facility and greenhouse, allowing the business to expand their market offerings.

“It took me probably three years to get the approval for that compost facility — three years of trying and trying, resubmitting every year,” owner Ben Hoffman said.

Ben and his brother, Don, along with their mom, Dotsie, have raised organic chickens on their farm for the past five years. The property has been in the family since 1978, and though the Hoffmans have owned horses and bailed hay and alfalfa over the decades, it wasn’t until a handful of years ago that the two brothers decided to turn the land into a full-fledged farming operation.

“It’s a learning curve,” Ben said. “We were never farmers, we just decided one day to get 400 chickens and it’s been interesting ever since.”

Most of the Hoffman property had become overgrown with small trees over the years, until Ben and Don decided to clear it out over the course of a whole season. It now contains 22 acres of tillable pasture and about 40 acres of woodland.

The new compost facility, which will allow the farm to expand its organic operation, is situated in front of the barn where the family breeds its poultry. The building represents a $20,000 investment, but 75 percent of that is being funded through the Farm Bill. Though Ben, a general contractor by day, and Don, an employee at Asphalt Drum Mixers in Huntertown, have little in the way of free time, they chose to construct the building mostly on their own in order to further cut down on costs.

The two brothers, with the help of a neighbor, laid the concrete walls earlier this month, and the roof and other materials were delivered last week. Once completed, the facility will house between six and 10 tons of compost the farm generates each year. While the Hoffman farm has an organic certification, since their compost is exposed to the elements, its allowable use is limited.

“To be able to call it certified organic, you have to monitor the time it’s in there and the temperature,” Don explained. “As the compost decomposes, it heats up. You have to maintain it at 135-150 degrees for a two-week period, and once the bacteria is broken down and the microbes get done doing their thing, it starts cooling back down. Your moisture has to be at a certain percentage too.”

Once they’re able to monitor those parameters, the Hoffmans will be able to use their compost to grow organic vegetables, which is where the new greenhouse will come in.

“Now we can choose to sell the certified-organic compost (to other farms) or we can use it in our new greenhouse to grow local, organic vegetables, which is kind of a win-win for us,” Ben said, adding that he plans to partner with another retired farmer in the area who will maintain the greenhouse.

“He’ll have two or three varieties of tomatoes to start with and then get into the spinach and lettuce side of things — greens — and then maybe branch off into some specialty items,” he said. “I would like to be able to give our customers at the market inside Parkview Field vegetables year-round because 90 percent of the vegetable vendors, at the end of October they’re gone. The customers come down there and there’s no variety.”

The bulk of the Hoffmans’ business comes from farmers markets in the area, including the aforementioned Fort Wayne Farmers Market at Parkview Field. They also sell items through Market Wagon, a recently developed online service that allows Fort Wayne-area residents to have groceries from local farms and artisans delivered to their front doors. Soon, Hoffman will also provide chicken to an online market that Sweetwater is developing.

While farmers markets have also opened the two brothers up to working with local restaurants, that world can get a bit tricky.

“The people you sell to face-to-face at a farmers market, those are the prime customers,” Ben said. “When you get into the restaurant business, they try to beat you down on cost because they’re running a business for profit, and they always like to mix things up if things on the menu aren’t selling. So, it’s not the raising of the bird that’s most difficult, it’s the processing of the bird into the correct cut. That’s the hardest logistic to try to figure out because you’ll have a restaurant that might want something for four months where you never know how much product they’ll want.”

All of Hoffman’s chicken is processed at a certified-organic facility in Ohio — a shorter drive than traveling to Colfax, Indiana, just southeast of Lafayette, which is the only certified-organic processor in the state, Don said. As an added benefit, since the Ohio facility is federally inspected, the Hoffmans can sell their cuts anywhere in the contiguous U.S.

The family gets its feed from Wolcottville Organic Livestock Feed Co-op, a subsidiary of Honeyville Feed and Farm Supply and the only organic feed mill in northern Indiana. In addition to grant opportunities, the USDA also provides Ben and Don with all the money they need for cover crop seeds.

Hoffman Certified Organics is home to about 1,000-1,200 meat chickens and 50-100 laying hens at any given time. Over the past five years, the family has also branched out into turkey and pork. Their farmland currently houses about 26 pasture-raised pigs who, like the chickens, enjoy much longer life cycles than they would on a larger, conventional farm.

The Hoffmans raise their chickens in a breeder room for about three weeks before putting them out to pasture for the remainder of their 46-to-52-day life cycle. In the case of factory farms, that life cycle is accelerated to about 32 days, Don said, adding that most commercial pigs are 3 to 6 months old when they’re butchered, while Hoffman’s pigs stay on the farm for about a year and a half.

“They’re a lot slower growing, but you don’t have the intensive inputs of feed, we don’t dock their tails or clip their ears. There’s no antibiotics, no steroids, no hormones,” Ben said.

About a month prior to butchering, the pigs feast on acorns that fall from trees on the edge of their enclosure, which “intensifies the flavor in the meat,” Ben said.

That kind of natural touch is something the family sees as a blessing in an area where accelerated housing development is eating up affordable farmland. And, being able to maintain an organic operation is that much harder, since it also depends on land use on adjacent properties.

“The only reason this farm can be certified organic is because ACRES Land Trust owns the land to the west, and the Izaak Walton League and the Girl Scouts own to the south of us,” Ben said. “Even if you’ve got a piece of property, if you’re next to a conventional farmer that sprays, they deny you (organic certification).”

“We’re very fortunate,” Don added.

Ben expects the new compost facility to be finished by the end of the month, and he hopes to complete the greenhouse in March to be able to add this year’s compost to it in the spring.

Though the farm doesn’t produce as much compost as you would expect, Ben said it will be plenty to sustain the greenhouse throughout the year.

Come spring, the Hoffmans hope to see area residents enjoying their new produce.

“Now they can get organic vegetables as well as organic chicken, pork, whatever they need,” Ben said.