2017 Winter Green-Up Conference Builds Connections

By Troy Bishopp

Latham, N.Y.-When Indiana farmer and guest speaker, Blaine Hitzfield, suggested that adopting a new belief system in agriculture was needed for success, 140 fellow farmers took notice. “Timing is on our side, as the consumer is actively seeking an authentic story from their community. But will you change your position and climb the value chain in the market?” asked the marketing manager for the Seven Sons Farm operation.

This year’s 9th annual Winter Green-Up grazing gala hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County and Black Queen Angus Farm, LLC. featured making these connections with customers, the land, realizing the animal’s role in the grassland ecosystem and creating financial stability for the future.

Douglas Carmichael, manager of the Lake City Research Center at Michigan State University kicked off the one day bonanza by chronicling their 7 years of grass-finishing beef and adopting holistic management grazing principles. “It’s all about management”, said Carmichael who oversees 810 acres of the center’s land and 180 beef cows in a geographic area suitable for forage-based livestock enterprises.

“We have raised our organic matter levels one full point by managing cows; nothing more-nothing less, said Carmichael. With our sandy soils, trampling forage is as important as grazing it, for ecosystem health.  Moving cattle daily with portable fences helps us capture the 6 weeks of rapid spring growth and create a stair-stepped planned grazing rotation which yields over 2 pounds of gain/day/animal; crucial for finishing livestock.  We are looking for maximum rumen fill and season long grazing, usually up to December.  It makes for tender beef that local customers are looking for.”

Dr. Rachel Gilker, self-proclaimed soil fanatic and editor/contributor of the online grazing publication, OnPasture, delved into the topics of soil compaction and maximizing soil health. “Soil aggregates are the coolest things ever.  They are the glue that holds the world together and give us resilient soil, said Ms. Gilker.  The “squish” factor of pasture compaction can result in an over 42% loss of production the next year.  Factors that can help include: Keeping a good plant residual, move animals to a sacrifice area, plant a diverse mixture of deep taprooted plants (tillage radish) or consider mechanical means if it’s too extreme.  It’s really important to have a plan, on what to do, when less than ideal soil conditions and animal impact intersect.”

The good doctor prescribed soil resiliency as “Clorpt”(climate, organic activity, relief, parent material, time) and how learning about your soil’s potential will help your decision-making. A key part of her soil health strategy was enhancing the active part of organic matter in the substrate.  She offered these choices:  Armor the soil, don’t disturb soil, add compost, keep lime levels up, add or manage for diverse plants and integrate livestock.

Phyllis VanAmburgh from Dharma Lea organic dairy farm in Sharon Springs, NY gave the audience a glimpse into using holistic resource management on a farm. “Our wealth is tied back to our resource base, she said.  Managing holistically has given us an effective way to implement our knowledge, based on our goals.”  She described the 3 chains of production as being resource, product and market conversion as well as explaining the 4 ecosystem processes in defining the context of what you want to achieve, environmentally, financially and socially.  “All processes must be highly functional”, said VanAmburgh.  She took farmers through real life examples in dealing with herd health, soil fertility, calf raising and planned grazing, which has increased their grazeable days from 73 days to 162 days.

Marketer extraordinaire, Blaine Hitzfield from Seven Sons Farm in Roanoke, Indiana inspired farmers to be a “price-maker not a price-taker” in describing the details of their 550-acre pasture-based operation which direct markets their grass-fed beef, bison and lamb, pastured pork, and pasture-raised poultry. The family and their close-knit team connect with their 5000 plus customers on a daily basis. “I believe wholeheartedly in Allan Nation’s poignant words, “The highest return for pure knowledge is, has been, and will always be, marketing”.  We have to compete in 3 economies; quality, authenticity and convenience to be successful.  Our (farmers) number one barrier is changing your position in the market to compete,” emphasized Hitzfield.

In using a 3 legged stool model, he described his convenience seat with the legs of visibility(online presence), accessibility(buying clubs & on-farm store) and availability(lots of freezers & 45 pound standardized bundles of meat). “My job with marketing and distribution is intrinsic upon knowing what the customers truly want and learning trends.  We track everything and consider being online as a crucial area to be in telling our story or posting videos about our production system”, said Hitzfield.  Seven Sons has even created its own e-commerce system to accommodate its unique buying club model called GrazeCart. He shared his Google analytics showing 152,000 people spent over 10,800 hours engaging their media platforms which he figured was worth over $193,000 in marketing time, he didn’t have to hire.

The marketing mogul mesmerized the farming group with a personal message on team building and waxed philosophical about the importance and strength of the farm family. “My parents inspired us by their personal journey to persevere through family health difficulties and develop a passion and vision to change their farming methods and pursue practices that would help heal and nourish the land and those who would eat of its harvest. As a result, Seven Sons Family Farms was founded in 2000 with the goal of reaching individual consumers with nutrient-dense pasture-raised foods,” shared their 2nd son. 

“I can get more land, could get other work, but can’t live without a team of people. The most mined resource plaguing agriculture today is the mind of the farmer.  When I see a farm beating the odds, I always see a leader who inspires relationships and the passion for people comes first.  In our operation we like an intellectual human polyculture that work toward a common goal,” said Hitzfield.  He concluded his insight by quoting Henry Ford:  “Coming together is the beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success”.

Jennie Kapszukiewicz of Stone Hill Farm in Plainfield Connecticut was moved by Blaine’s personal story about his family’s success. “I liked the way his dad changed their mindset and mission when things weren’t working and empowered his children.  My confidence is restored that we have the power to influence our children to consider a career in agriculture”.

To learn more about the Hitzfield family visit www.sevensons.net.  Questions about future grazing events including The Grassfed Exchange Conference in September 2017, contact Morgan Hartman at morgan@blackqueenangus.com

Published by Country Folks