The MOSES Board of Directors are pleased to announce the farmers of the Grain Place, the Dave and Don Vetter families, as the 2011 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year.
Driving on highway 14 east of Grand Island, Nebraska, you might think that field corn and soybeans were the only crops that could grow in the large fields unbroken to the horizon. That is, until you approach the Vetter family farm, known as The Grain Place. A windbreak of mixed conifer trees surround the farm, offering protection from wind and pesticides as well as providing an oasis of habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. This 280 acre farm, with its small fields and diverse rotations, is ever evolving and changing as the Vetter family is continually improving their systems.
The Grain Place History
Don Vetter, the patriarch of The Grain Place, took agriculture courses at the University of Nebraska after returning from World War II. Starting farming in 1948, he was one of the first in the area to try out the new technologies of pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. While the yields did improve, Don’s keen sense of observation told him that things were not quite right in his fields. He saw negative effects on the soil and wildlife. He also noticed that the crops themselves were more susceptible to insect damage and to damage from the ever present prairie winds. He started to read materials published by Rodale Press, and some Biodynamic publications. Don’s son Dave remembers growing up with Sir Albert Howard’s literature around the house when he was in Junior High School. A holistic view of the farm as an independent organism that was developed in these early years is one that still guides the family.
The Second Generation
Don’s son Dave attended the University of Nebraska and received a degree in soil science and agronomy. He attended United Theological Seminary in Ohio where he enrolled in a dual career training program directed by Fred Kirschenmann. His work with Fred led him back to the family farm. This mentorship has lead to a lifelong friendship between these two visionary men. The understanding
that without ecological justice, there cannot be human justice, underscores their belief in respecting the interdependency of all life.
A Diverse Farming System
Dave returned home to farm and started the organic conversion in 1975. Building a strong economic base for the farm has been a priority, and has led to continual experimentation with new crops and rotations. Mike Herman, Dave’s brother-in-law, currently does most of the farming, while Dave and Don are still involved in much of the decision making.
Over the years the Vetters have grown a wide range of crops not typically seen in the region, such as edible soybeans, edible dry beans, blue and white corn, popcorn, heirloom barley, flax, amaranth, lupines, sunflowers, and pasture. Though the acreage has not changed the Vetters have expanded from 6 fields to 18 fields on the farm, all separated by buffer areas. Fruit and nut trees are being planted in the buffer zones to increase biodiversity and add additional income. Pastures are rotated around the farm to support a cow/ calf herd of direct marketed grass finished beef. The pasture breaks annual weed cycles for the subsequent row crops. Returning the land to row crop after a few years of pasture as part of a nine-year rotation breaks the pasture’s perennial weed cycle. Crop pests and diseases are managed effectively by the ecological services that the biodiversity and smaller fields provide.
Walking the land and seeing the soil tilth improve enforces the Vetters’ belief that they are doing right by the land and their family. As a model of sustainability the Vetter farm has hosted numerous farm tours for local, regional, national, and international groups. Nebraska agriculture and economic development agencies recognize the gem they have in their midst and they consider a tour of The Grain Place a must when they have international visitors.
These visitors can see how the soil soaks up water and is resilient through all kinds of climatic extremes. While neighbors have heavy clods and significant runoff after rain, the Vetters’ soil is resilient and absorptive. To work the soil they use a buffalo cultivator, spring tine harrow, and rotary hoe, and also do some ridge tillage, depending on the situation. They strive to manage their weed seed bank, but also see the benefits of having some weeds for nutrient recycling and biomass production. They have found that the benefits gained from having some weeds, and the accompanying biodiversity they bring, does more good than harm to their yields and overall profitability.
The Vetters continue to experiment with different irrigation methods. While center pivots are now the norm in their area, the Vetters have been able to use less water with surge irrigation. However, as soil texture and structure has improved they have questioned the effectiveness of the surge system to reduce water use and provide uniform water application. This has led them to experiment with about 60 acres of subsurface drip irrigation. The underground distribution system for irrigation is also used to deliver fresh water for the rotational grazing program. They are dedicated to doing more research to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their irrigation methods.
Value Added Products
A very important part of the farm is the grain processing plant, Grain Place Foods, located on the homestead. Over 3 million pounds of organic popcorn was cleaned and bagged onsite in 2010, some of it also grown there. This small but very diverse facility also processes other whole grains and manufactures a full line of rolled organic grains. Grain Place Foods also produces a variety of specialty pet foods including a full line of organic companion bird diets. Dave and Grain Place Foods work closely with customers on new product and process development. Long time employees say that if others say that it can’t be done, Grain Place will try to do it. The business employs many members of the local community as well as members of the Vetter family, and patriarch Don still goes into the office every day.
Dave has been a leader in the development of organic standards and the certification process, as an early president of OCIA International (Organic Crop Improvement Association). Many of the current NOP regulations started with standards that OCIA developed. Dave points out that the “95% Organic” and “70% or more organic, Made with Organic” labels were originally put in place by OCIA. In addition, this writer remembers Dave teaching a class of novice organic inspectors all about a new idea, the Transaction Certificate (TC) system. This was put in place to not just track the farm’s organic certification, but also the specific lot numbers and organic certification of each shipment. This system goes a long way to preventing fraud and providing transparent tracking of organic commodities. Dave says folks can either thank him or swear at him, depending on what they think of TCs. This type of system has been recognized by both the European Union and Japan as bringing integrity to the international trade of organic products. Dave encourages farmers just transitioning to organic to put a strong focus on building their soils, since the farm’s success depends on that major resource. As the farm begins to mature into a functioning organic system, increasing biodiversity both within the crops and around the farm will continueto enhance the resources needed to provide healthy crops and profitable yields. Dave reminds us that if a farmer feels they have the perfect management system in place, they will probably fail. He recommends that we never stop observing, never stop experimenting,
and never stop building upon the good work of enhancing your ecosystem, both below and above ground. There is nothing static about organic!
Congratulations to the Vetter family of The Grain Place for their commitment to the true spirit of organic farming, and for being selected as the 2011 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year.