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Each Voice Matters

The United Fresh Washington Policy Conference was held in Washington DC last week. This is an annual conference that brings together the entire produce industry to share its voice with the government. It brings together growers, packers, shippers, packaging companies, transportation companies, commodity associations, and everyone else involved with putting fresh fruits and vegetables on the table. It is where the industry learns about day to day issues as well as issues that are going to impact the future of the industry. It is where individuals march on Capital Hill and have face to face conversations with Representatives. The industry voices their concerns, their hopes, their successes, and their ideas that will help shape the industry and keep the farms, the companies, the sellers and American families healthy and viable.

In order to ensure our businesses are here tomorrow and around for the generations to come, companies and individuals have got to make a commitment to participate. A conference like this costs money and daily duties to businesses and families are left behind. However, this is critical – It’s what has to happen to be successful in the future.

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Have a Voice

We can discuss and debate issues all day. However, if we want something done about them, we have to do more than just talk to each other in the coffee shop every morning. We need to be talking to the people that we voted for in order to really get things done. We have an obligation to make sure that the decision makers are educated and understand the ramifications of their decisions to our industry.

How are our elected Representative supposed to know how these issues affect us? How they affect jobs? How they affect the environment? How they affect health? How they affect national security? How will they know – - – If we don’t tell them.

The Issues

Immigration policy – Millions of dollars of fresh produce won’t be harvested this year because there is not enough labor. Reform is urgently needed in the form of a guest worker program. This has been an issue for years, and there has yet to be any progress.

National School Lunch Program/Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – The mandatory 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable serving per meal has a chance to be repealed this year as many schools have issues with the execution, cost and limited choices for students. However, as this policy stands now, many children have access to fresh fruits and vegetables who otherwise wouldn’t.

These are just a few of the hot button issues that we were able to discus with lawmakers – knowing there are no easy answers and many sides to each story. The Representatives and their teams were eager to listen and ask questions. Some issues they were passionate about, and some we had to push – which is our job. The folks in Washington have a lot on their plate, and many factors for each issue to take into consideration. As we were told in an opening Keynote presentation, if we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.

3 of many: Alex Jackson of Friedas Specialty Produce, Kami Weddle of Rousseau Farming Company, and Leah Brakke of Black Gold Farms marched The Hill.

3 of many: Alex Jackson of Friedas Specialty Produce, Kami Weddle of Rousseau Farming Company, and Leah Brakke of Black Gold Farms marched The Hill.

We are made up of many

“We” is made up of individuals. It’s not made up of other people who have more time on their hands to do “this sort of thing”. In order for our industry to thrive during challenging times, WE have to make our voices heard. It’s up to us. We have to be a team of many. We don’t all have to agree on the specifics of how everything is handled, but we do have to understand that we can each, individually make a difference.

Over 500 Produce Industry professionals traveled to Washington DC to support the industry.

Over 500 Produce Industry professionals traveled to Washington DC to support the industry. (Photo Credit: United Fresh)

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Posted in: Culture
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Farming with Integrity

It’s difficult to watch the news and social media without seeing commentary from popular bloggers, ads from chain restaurants, messages from big grocery retailers, comments from the agriculture sector and even claims from Dr. Oz regarding the right or wrong way to produce, source, label and eat food. It’s exhausting. It’s confusing. It changes every day. All of these conversations, accusations, and rhetoric make consumers question the integrity of experts, retailers and farmers. And, why wouldn’t it?

The Sexy Food Messaging Chipotle Effect

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Chipotle claims they have “Food with Integrity”. What they fail to mention, is that the integrity they talk about happens when it’s convenient, and when it’s profitable for them. From a business perspective – there’s nothing wrong with that. However, they don’t talk about what’s really going on. It’s a dangerous campaign that contributes to consumers not trusting the message of where and how the ingredients in their burritos are produced. Fortunately, consumers and producers have a voice. They asked some questions, provided proof and now Chipotle’s sexy food source messaging integrity has come into question. More recently, they are under-fire due to their procurement of beef from Australia instead of the U.S.

The Is It Really Gluten-Free Effect

A few weeks ago, there was a thread on Facebook regarding gluten-free oats. It started as a “gluten-free is just a hoax and dumb trend” type of discussion. Then, a grain producer spoke up saying it was not financially feasible to produce 100% gluten-free oats in a typical operation, and he was confident that even if a producer claimed that he had 100% gluten-free oats, there were probably some disinfecting short cuts that occurred. This upset a mother, who has a gluten-free house due to actual medical reasons. It was proof enough for her to be leery of growers and messaging. Her take-away was, what else are farmers hiding? It had nothing to do with her gluten-free choice. It had to do with integrity.

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Farmers and Integrity

Farmers take a massive amount of pride providing safe and plentiful food. If there is a short-cut on the farm like mixing some seed to finish a field, using an off label input application, filling a heavy truck, using a planter that’s not as clean as it should be because the rain is coming and there just isn’t time – it all seems small and justified and has been done 100 times before. The farmer sees the big picture, and understands the risks, most of which are extremely minimal. However, consumers don’t know that. They don’t understand why these thing happen, they don’t understand the consequences and it’s scary to them. And as farmers, we need to respect that.

Telling our own story, authentically. Showing what we really do, what we really have, and how we really work.

Above, is our booth at the United Fresh Produce Show in Chicago this past month. Telling our own story, about what we really do, who we really are, what we really have, and how we really work.

Consumers not only see through the short cuts and questionable messages and labels, but they are now in the business to call out producers and companies who waver in the slightest. Consumers don’t care about the impact of the farm, of the retailer or the restaurant if they find out that they’re being deceived.

Trusting The System

Here is Hawkinsville, GA as well as every load we deliver on every farm goes through a vigorous Quality Control check. It's our final way to make sure we're sending customers what we're telling them we're sending them.

In Hawkinsville, GA as well as every load we deliver, on every farm, goes through a vigorous Quality Control check. It’s our final way to make sure we’re sending customers what we’re telling them we’re sending them.

It’s not that a production practice or food choice is better or worse. It’s about being open and honest – and doing it with 100% integrity. It’s not always easy – the sale might be missed, the days might be long, some yield may be lost, the margin might be down and customers might be upset. With that said, it’s much easier to sleep at night when you know you did the right thing. It’s much easier to look in your customers eyes, and in the consumers face when you explain the real process and real reasoning of how your product was produced – even if it’s not perfect. Honesty is always more important than perfection when it comes to food information.

You also can be at ease when these smart and ambitious consumers – who have a copious amount of information (some of it is questionable at best) at their finger-tips can no longer poke holes through your claims. Eventually, with some hard work and complete diligence and transparency on our part, consumers might actually start to trust the system.

At the end of the day, you say what it is, and it IS what it IS.

Above is in Live Oak, FL.  There are many moving parts. However, what we put in that truck, is exactly what we say is in that truck - grown exactly how we said it was.

Above is in Live Oak, FL.
There are many moving parts. However, what we put in that truck, is exactly what we say is in that truck – grown exactly how we said it was.

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Posted in: Culture, General Black Gold
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Keep Swimming, Keep Farming

Is it possible to just stop swimming? If you do just stop swimming, you’re probably by land, or in shallow water. If there is no land, and only deep water, only one thing can happen if you stop swimming. You have no choice, but to keep swimming.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to keep swimming. We also have no choice. We can’t freak out and complain or make excuses and just stop. We know we’re not even close to safety – or in our case, completing the season. We need to buckle down, keep calm, and just. keep. swimming. We need to just keep farming.

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Snow in the late spring is a possibility, and this year, a reality. We could, and did get several inches of rain when we have diggers in the field during harvest. We could and will have unexpected orders from a customer due to unforeseen circumstances. We could, and are just about done plating, but will get hit by a huge storm. We could be, and are, dog tired, exhausted and just completely burnt out – but we need to get those loads out at a particular time in a certain way – so we do it. We keep farming. We don’t have shallow water to save us.

We’re swimming all over the place. Some things are in our control, some things aren’t. What we do have control over, is that we just keep swimming.

Pearsall, TX – Harvest is continuing for both chips and red potatoes. The crop is about 1/4 harvested, so there’s still a ways to go.

Live Oak, FL – Harvest is underway here as well. There were some rain issues, but they kept digging and got the loads out. There should be good weather the next couple of days to help with the continued harvest.

Sometimes it's not easy - but even in the rain, if at all possible, they keep on digging.

Even in the rain, if at all possible, they keep on digging.

Hawkinsville, GA – There is great growing weather in Georgia. Irrigation is running on both potatoes and corn. Soybeans are also being planted. The harvest kick-off meeting happened early this week, and everything is ready to go!

Delhi, LA – Field work such as disking, chiseling, and bedding are all happening  to get ready to plant sweet potato slips soon.

Plant beds will soon be ready to be transplanted.

Sweet potato plant beds will soon be ready to be transplanted.

Arbyrd, MO – The crop is bulking with good vines so far. Plants are in full bloom with some tuber initiation. The sweet potato slips should arrive shortly as well for planting. There is a lot of action at the farm in Arbyrd.

The red crop is progressing and will be ready to harvest in about 4 weeks.

The red crop is progressing and will be ready to harvest in about 4 weeks.

Columbia, NC -  The potatoes are being taken care of with some fungicide and herbicide when and where necessary. The grading shed is about ready to go, and the harvesters are also freshly painted and set.

A beautiful chip field in Columbia planted about 2 months ago.

A beautiful chip field in Columbia planted about 2 months ago.

Charleston, MO – The crop is coming along in Charleston. Sweet potato ground is being bedded, the wash line is being put together and the new storage building is being worked on. The corn is up and soybeans will be planted tomorrow.

Rhodesdale, MD – There is excellent growing weather here. The crop is looking good this early. Irrigation is running and the plants about about 12″ – 14″ high. Corn is also being planted this week.

Winamac, IN – Red potato planting is complete, and chip planting should be wrapping up this week! It all depends on the storm that’s supposed to hit if it’ll get done!

Chip potatoes - 30 days after planting.

Chip potatoes – 30 days after planting.

Sturgis, MI – Planting before the storm is the focus in Michigan. The early Atlantics (a chip variety) are up, and the new crop is coming along.

Red River Valley – This will be a late planting season in the Valley. As soon as it’s dry, there seems to be more rain. The forecast looks promising for the next week. Planting will be double-time to try to manage the schedule.

Swimming is different than going for a run, or bike ride. You literally cannot stop. You can’t take a break until your safe. You can’t finish it later. You have to keep at it – regardless if the water is cold, if fish are biting your toes, or if you think your body can’t take it. You just keep swimming.

We can’t take a break either – until we have all of the potatoes in and then out of the ground. We have to keep farming when the weather is bad, when we’ve come across less than stellar conditions, when we think our bodies can’t take it, when our families haven’t seen us for a few days in daylight, and every other challenge along the way. We have no choice – we just keep farming.

Thanks Dory for the great advise.

 

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Posted in: Harvest, Planting
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Locally Grown

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where all of your food is grown right by where you live? Food grown locally is a great option, however, it’s not always possible at all times at all places with all foods. Unfortunately, food is not able to be grown fresh, everywhere, 12 month out of the year. Therefore, produce has to be shipped, stored and use innovative packing technology to ensure that it is available, fresh, and safe, everywhere, at any time. There are times, however, when food is fresh and local – and we’re excited to be a small part in the locally grown movement.

What is Local?

So, what really is local? Is it when it’s grown within the state boundaries? Is it within 500 miles? 200 miles? Is it in a specific geographic region? From what we’ve experienced, there is not one standard by which all companies, consumers and producers follow – however, we all agree that the more local, the better.

Locally grown food production does a lot of things. Mostly, from an environmental and economic sustainability perspective, it reduces “food miles”, which is the transportation it takes to move food across the country. To reduce those miles, saves those dollars and is much more environmentally sustainable. Locally grown food also is socially sustainable as it keeps the money and jobs in the local community – which is always a benefit, especially in smaller, agricultural communities. Locally grown food is also fresh, it has been handled fewer times, and the thought of eating something that grew in your backyard (or a state over, or 300  miles away) makes it just taste better.

We are a farm with 11 production areas, and an office in North Dakota. However, that doesn’t prevent us from growing locally as much as we can. We can’t do locally grown all the time. Here’s what we’re doing…locally.

Pearsall, TX – Harvest is underway in the chip and red fields  -  Here is where we currently have locally grown potatoes and are excited to expand the offerings when other locations start harvest!

Special bags so people know where their food is grown.

Special bags so people know where their food is grown.

Live Oak, FL – Harvest is just starting slowly in Florida. Chips should be going full steam in the next few days and reds shortly behind them.

Hawkinsville, GA – This crop is a little later than we’d like it to be, but nothing that we can’t handle. The crop is progressing, and the team is ready!

Arbyrd, MO – The weather hasn’t been exactly perfect in this area. There should be a much needed dry spell in a few days so the potatoes can catch up. Harvest preparations are in full gear with equipment checks and yield sampling taking place daily.

Beautiful chip field in bloom in Arbyrd. Complete row closure is expected by the end of the week.

Beautiful chip field in bloom in Arbyrd. Complete row closure is expected by the end of the week.

Delhi, LA - It’s full speed ahead in Delhi. In the fields, they are removing plastic and getting slips ready for planting in a few weeks.

Columbia, NC – The potatoes aren’t quite 2″ in diameter in NC. Everything is looking great. With some hot and dry weather along with proper care, this should be an amazing crop.

Chip potato plant in full bloom, 69 days after planting.

Chip potato plant in full bloom, 69 days after planting.

Charleston, MO – Warm weather and rain has been ideal for the Charleston crop. Harvester maintenance and repairs continue and the storage building construction is ongoing for the upcoming storage crop.

Rhodesdale, MD – Tuber initiation hit Rhodesdale last week. The late planted fields should start to emerge shortly as well. Crop progression is on schedule.

Early Atlantics (a chip variety) in Maryland.

Early Atlantics (a chip variety) in Maryland.

Winamac, IN – Hooking and emerging is happening through the production area in IN with both the chip and red crops.

Red River Valley – The seed has been cut, now the ground just has to dry out in order to plant. Everything is at a relative stand still until the weather warms up and it stays dry.

Grand Forks, ND – With harvest starting up, the Grand Forks office is in all out support mode. The transportation team is ensuring that there are trucks for each load, the sales team is making sure customers know what is happening, and everyone is doing their part to keep this operation going.

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Not everything we do is local, but that’s okay because that’s reality. Not everything people eat is local, and that’s okay, because that’s reality. However, we’ve managed to find a way to be a small part of the ginormous food system and keep what we do as local as possible – red potatoes, seasonally, locally, where and when we can.

 

 

 

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Posted in: Black Gold Farms in the news, Harvest
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A Lot Can Happen

We’re at the cusp of harvest (and planting). This weekend, we get the diggers in the field – work out some regular pre-harvest kinks, and we’re officially in harvest mode – and we will be for 5 solid months.

In the months prior, even prior to planting, there have been meetings, classes, research, and details that we’ve gone over and over. We have a plan – that we think is even better than last years plan. We plant. We grow. Now, we’re about ready to harvest. Right now, the crops look great. The forecast is generally favorable for the last few days/weeks of the growing season. Our equipment is in tip top shape. Our customers have even checked out the fields, and are excited to get the fresh crop in their systems.

So, from now until the end of harvest, we just have to go through the motions and get the work done. Yeah. Right.

We know, based on experience that now is not the time to sit back and just do the fun harvest stuff. This is actually the time, where everyone has their eyes pealed, their cell phones charged, the weather stations on 24/7 and pick-ups are on the road checking fields & pivots. A lot can happen between now and harvest…regardless of location. Weather issues, unforeseen equipment breakdowns, accidents, home life that needs to be a priority, illness, the market drastically changing, are just a few things that could, and probably will happen.

A lot is happening on the farms right now:

Pearsall, TX – All of the fields continue to look very good. Harvest should begin officially on Sunday, April 27, 2014.  “We are excited about bringing in a very good crop this year.  Quality and yield should be above average if Mother Nature can just be good to us for the next 60 days.” – Lorenzo, Pearsall Agronomist

A chip plant at 81 days after planting. This plant needs about 20 more days. A lot can happen in 20 days.

A chip plant at 81 days after planting. This plant needs about 20 more days to get to its potentual. A lot can happen in 20 days.

Live Oak, FL - We had another 4 to 5 inches of rain this week with cool weather.  We are really looking forward for the Florida sun and heat this week. Yield sampling and keeping a close eye on the crop are daily activities. Harvest preparations are in full effect.

Hawkinsville, GA – We have been dealing with strong gusty winds and cool temperatures, totalizing about 5 inches within 2 events on our fields. April 2014 will be remembered as a wet month with anywhere between 8 to 9 inches of rain so far.

Water is standing in the rows. No damage, but anytime we get a 3" rain event, we know that there is a potential for a lot to happen.

Water is standing in the rows. No damage, but anytime we get a 3″ rain event, we know that there is a potential for a lot to happen.

Arbyrd, MO - The potato growing season is really starting to kick off. The young crop is progressing nicely. Corn planting started last week. We will have to wait for fields to dry out to finish bedding before we can finish up. We will also start bedding sweet potato fields and start planting dry-land soybeans.

Delhi, LA - The Easter rush kept the Delhi crew really busy shipping out sweet potatoes for a few weeks in the packing shed. They are also managing slips in the field.

Columbia, NC - It is wet in eastern North Carolina, and it looks to be wet for the next few days. The potato crop is looking great, with about a 90% stand.  Corn planting started last week, however, it looks like much of our production could be planted in May this year due to the wet weather.

Chip crop, 52 days after planting. A little over half way there - with this wet season there's a lot that can happen.

Chip crop, 52 days after planting. A little over half way there – with this wet season there’s a lot that can happen.

Charleston, MO – There was a light frost a few days ago, but now, winter looks to be completely over, and the crop is loving the 70 degree weather. Harvesters have recently been pulled into the shop for repairs and prep for a target harvest date of June 8th.

The pivots are tested regularly to ensure they are as efficient as possible.

The pivots are tested regularly to ensure they are as efficient as possible.

Rhodesdale, MD - Planting has been a little bit delayed due to the wet weather. The seed has arrived, and it’s just a wait to dry game. “We are hoping for continued favorable weather to speed the last remainder of planting.” – Henry, Rhodesdale Agronomist

Winamac, IN - About half of the crop has been planted. There’s still a lot that can happen during planting for the last half. Seed is still coming in, and so far, things are on track.

Sturgis, MI - Hopefully they saw the last of the snow in Michigan, so they can continue on on schedule with planting. We’re in week 3 – there’s a long way to go until harvest.

Grand Forks, ND - At the HQ office, there are probably more “consistent” days as compared to what happens on the farms. However, everyone at the office is always on the look out as to what all COULD happen, and how will we respond. What happens if a farm gets rained out? What happens if there are no trucks available? What happens if our customers need more product ASAP? What happens if we have to hire an entire new crew? There’s a lot that can happen that the team in the Grand Forks office are prepared to handle.

A lot can happen. We can plan and have our checklists completed – but there are still some things – even if we’re “so close”, that can happen which could completely alter our chances for success. So – for now, we make sure we control the controllables, plan for the unplanned, and do what we do best….plus a little prayer every now and then doesn’t hurt either. A lot can happen, and a lot is going to happen.

 

 

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Posted in: Harvest, Planting, Quick & Dirty
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Is It Worth It?

What we’ve set out to do, has taken a lot of dedication and commitment from a lot of people. Sometimes, at the end of the day, we ask ourselves: Is all of this worth it? Is the time away from home, the sore backs, the scouring of the spreadsheets, and the late nights watching the weather – is it worth it?

Here’s what we think is worth doing this week:

Pearsall, TX – The crop is looking great, and the potatoes are bulking up nicely. Help will be coming soon to get ready for harvest set-up.

Tuber set in early fields are averaging 8 to 10 tubers per plant.

Tuber set in early fields are averaging 8 to 10 tubers per plant.

Live Oak, FL – Everything is planted, pivots are running, the weather is cooperating, and the crop is looking to be exceptional.

Hawkinsville, GA – Planting is complete, and there are about 3” sprouts on the chip potatoes.  In the shop they’re getting harvest equipment ready to go!

Chip potatoes, planted about 45 days ago - just about half way there!

Chip potatoes, planted about 45 days ago – just about half way there!

Arbyrd, MO – Got caught up on planting from some not so great weather. Still working on getting reds and chip potatoes planted.

Columbia, NC – They are busy planting through the rain when they can. It’s just a weather waiting game for now.

Charleston, MO – They are also busy planting, as well as planting trials. The last of the seed should be there this week.

The planter going in Charleston.

The planter going in Charleston.

Rhodesdale, MD – There is a little bit of planting going on through the snow. All of the seed should be cut this week, and things are pretty much on schedule.

Delhi, LA – First official week on the new expanded farm! Everyone is getting acquainted but the field work has not slowed down. Seed beds are being put in the ground, and a lot of other cleanup and work is being done. The transition is going well, and we’re all excited to see where this takes us!

Planting sweet potato beds.

Planting sweet potato beds.

Sturgis, MI – Getting ready for planting once the weather lets up. Seed will be coming in this week. They are ready to get in the field!

Winamac, IN – Snowing off and on. Getting ready to get seed in this week, and planting equipment is ready to go.

Red River Valley – The last few loads of seed is headed out the door. The weather still looks like it’s the middle of winter, so it’ll be a while before any field work will take place.

Grand Forks, ND (HQ) – In the office, everyone is eagerly awaiting the chaos of harvest. The last of the off-season meetings are wrapping up, and now the focus is making sure all of our plans are able to be executed.

This past month we had a shift in our business with the acquisition of new sweet potato acreage that will increase our sweet potato offerings significantly. This was a big decision, it was a lot of work, and it will cause a lot of people to spend a lot of time and energy to make it a success – and the question will be – will it be worth it?

It’s hard to grasp what it means when we look back at the end of the year when we see everything we were able to produce and what all we were able to ship out to customers. It’s unreal to think about the amount of food we grow and how we work toward producing more with less, year after year. We’re so excited to be able to hire and retain the best in the industry, and to help our communities thrive where we live and work. We are able to  do all of this with just a few late nights and some sore muscles.

So, is it worth it? Yes. Yes it is.

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Posted in: Quick & Dirty
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The Image of Agriculture

People have an image in their head of what they want certain things to look like. An image of vacation to one may be skiing on the mountain and to another it’s sitting on the beach. Some people’s image of the perfect meal is steak, red potatoes and asparagus with a nice red wine, while others is pizza and a Bud Light. Neither of these images are right, nor are they wrong – they’re just different.

So, why is there an expected and perceived perfect image of farming? Some farmers have huge farms with multiple locations. Some farm just a few acres by their homes. Some farmers involved in animal ag production have huge facilities. Some farmers are totally organic. Some farmers grow one crop, while others have several crops. Which of these images are correct? We would argue, that there is no one perfect image of agriculture. We would also argue, that we don’t want one. We want choices. We want choices of where we go on vacation and choices on what we have for dinner.

Who Defines That Image?

There is a romantic image of agriculture that companies are trying to, and successfully leverage. The image of “back to the way we used to do it” farming methods make people feel good. In reality, it’s damaging to farmers and ranchers when there are consumers who believe that the old romantic image is the way that agriculture needs to revert back to. It’s additionally harmful when powerful and trendy companies are bolstering that romantic image while attacking all other relevant and realistic images of agriculture.

One of the first images of our farm. This is the way we used to do it.

One of the first images of our farm. This is the way we used to do it. Open cab, multiple times across the field, lots of disease, low yields. It looks romantic, but it’s not realistic…or sustainable.

Chipolte has produced what they call, “an original comedy series” named “Farmed and Dangerous” which is a follow-up to their “Scarecrow” campaign. It continues on with the story from a corporate farmers perspective and how Big Ag responds to criticism,  yet they continue their unsustainable way of producing and marketing food. The image they are perpetuating is that farmers are large, corporate entities who have no moral backbone, and just sit around in suits in big offices. It also goes on to condemn the progressiveness of today’s food producer while making fun of the fact that farmers are now starting to work to protect their image – individually as a farm, and as an overall industry.

More on their website http://www.chipotle.com/en-us/Default.aspx

Paying close attention to how others are leading the way in defining their own romantic image of what they believe food production should look like, will help those actually involved in agriculture be better at telling their stories and shaping a realistic and authentic image. Yes, watching these videos might help their analytics and reach a little bit, but it’s your choice as to where you buy your super-sized burritos. (Hint: Qdoba)

The Image of Sustainability

There are many non-farm people that are uncomfortable and don’t understand when they see different images of today’s farmer or rancher. The images of expensive machinery, people in slacks and Polo’s, huge facilities, nice offices, and science-based research programs being run on the farm, are not as romantic as the image of the guy in overalls and a pitch-fork. That image of all the “big, expensive, science-y stuff” to consumers represents corporate farming, large profits, a disconnect from the land, and an unsustainable and unethical farming operation. Understanding what’s actually going on in these images equates to progress, efficiency, better farmers, and being able to farm year after year – which yes, also requires a profit. It’s not a wrong image, it’s just a narrative that needs to be told by the people living it.

Trucks & tractors. This is what we spend our money on to increase our sustainability efforts.

Trucks & tractors on our farm. Come and visit and you’ll see a lot of equipment. You’ll also hear why we need all of it.

What about the millions of dollars that went into producing and promoting this “entertaining comedy” about factory farmers being unethical, money hungry corporate-types who are unsustainable? What else could the corporate burrito factory have done to be progressive in their sustainability efforts? Could they also find a more sustainable way to make and sell over-sized stuffed burritos without insulting an alternative option?

Perhaps they could vertically integrate where they farm their own ingredients how they want, locally, by cities they have a stores in. Another option would be to support organic and urban farming research to develop ways to increase yields and find ways to grow in non-traditional growing regions and seasons. They could start a scholarship fund for their employees to go to collage and get a better understanding of agriculture and how food production works.

A huge part of our sustainability efforts have included expanding so we grow potatoes where our customers are, doing continuous research for non-traditional growing situations, and encouraging continual education and training. We have been able to do this, without insulting others.

None of that is happening, that Chipolte talks about. However, it looks like they threw an epic premier and launch party that they proudly showed off on Facebook.

F&D_3

Support What You’re Into

When a ginormous burrito making factory  entertains their customers, who don’t have a clear and accurate image of what agriculture is, at the expense of farmers with crazy, disrespectful, critical, harmfully misguided messages for entertainment purposes, it’s hard not to get defensive.

There is not one perfect image of agriculture. There is not one perfect image of what everyone should eat. There’s not one perfect image of a burrito shop. People have a right to eat what they want and support how they want it to be produced – it’s a choice, and they support it every time they decide to purchase something.

So What?

The Black Gold Farms image is completely different from other farms. It’s different then the potato grower down the road. It’s different than our friends who have animals. It’s different from our neighbors who only grow organic produce. Because of these differences, people are able to have options. There is no right or wrong option and there is no right or wrong image. So, as food producers, we have to keep celebrating these different images.

Black Gold Farms in Texas. This does not look like our farm in Florida. There's not 1 image to represent who we are.

Black Gold Farms in Texas. This does not look like our farm in Florida or our corporate office in Grand Forks or anywhere else. There is not one image to represent who we are as a farming organization.

Our CEO in the corner office wearing a suit* will be happy to tell you anything anyone wants to know about what we do and why we do it. He’s not big on creating one perfect, definite image. He just wants to grow potatoes, and to make sure we are able to do it for years to come.

The CEO drove this truck with the attached planter 1,000 miles from ND to MO in 1986, the first year we had a farm that wasn't in North Dakota.

Our CEO drove this truck with the attached planter over 1,000 miles from North Dakota to Missouri in 1986, the first year we grew potatoes outside North Dakota. One image, we’re very proud of.

* His suit = Pants from Wal-Mart and a Polo from 1995. He also probably needs a haircut. But, the coffee pot will be on.

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One Shot

The Winter Olympics are here! All eyes are on Sochi (Except for Bob Costas’s). The Olympic Games bring out the best in people from all over the world. It allows us all to take a step back and see that regardless of where we’re from, how we talk, and what we believe – that if we put in the time,  work hard,  are passionate, and have the needed support, along with a little God-given talent, it’s possible to be the best in the world.

The athletes competing in the Olympics have worked their entire lives for this opportunity. Some of the athletes have been in multiple Olympics, and for some, this is their only chance to compete on a world stage. From the age of 5 or 6 years old, these athletes dreamed that one day, if they worked hard enough, they would be on that podium, and their National Anthem would play.

One shot…That one shot is often won or lost by less than a second, by one slight wrong move of a foot, or by a faulty piece of equipment. Their game and focus could be off due to an illness, due to an injury, due to conditions that they’re not prepared for, or any other unforeseen outside events.

We’re not representing our country for the Olympics, we don’t have to wait 4 years for redemption if we miss, and hopefully we’re never going to be too old to try again. While we may not (all) have superior athletic talent, we think farming is very similar. However, our One Shot isn’t the Olympics. Our One Shot is at planting.

We have one shot, every year to get it right. Our shot may not be affected by working out in the gym or focusing on our diets – but we do study our competition, we develop different strategies for different situations, we work in the office in the off season, we go to classes, we work in the shop to perfect our equipment, and we have the best support team we can find to coach. A gold medal is always the goal. We won’t know if we achieve that gold medal until the last load is shipped to our customer and they’re happy.

The opening ceremonies are over – Now, we take our One Shot for the Gold:

Pearsall, TX – Planting is COMPLETE for the year. In Texas, they had their shot, now it’s just a waiting game.

2-10-14 Elizondo

Red Lasodas in Texas are just about ready to emerge.

Live Oak, FL – Planting is continuing in Florida. Everything is on track despite some wet weather. The first planted field already has 2″ sprouts.

Chip potatoes, 18 days after planting

Hawkinsville, GA – Planting started last Friday. They did have to take a few days off due to rain, but should get back on track with a little extra work this week.

ATL in GAH seed shed

Seed potato pieces

Arbyrd, MO – Seed is coming in and once the temperatures are right, they’ll start to cut, and planting will be underway!

Columbia, NC – The winter weather has everyone here just trying to stay safe and warm. Seed is starting to arrive and they’ll be ready once the weather lets them.

Charleston, MO – A crew from Charleston spent the week in Louisiana for Sweet Potato Agronomy training. They are also in the shop putting the final touches on planting equipment.

Rhodesdale, MD - They are dealing the winter weather and doing projects in the shop for now. The final agronomy planning meeting for the year is this week as well.

Sturgis, MI – Shop work is being done to keep everyone warm. There are also several conferences that people are attending this week.

Winamac, IN –  Hopefully this next week it will start to thaw-out. They were at a career fair in Purdue and got a lot of work completed in the shop this week.

Oak Grove, LA – The entire sweet potato team was in Louisiana this week for the annual sweet potato agronomy training and planning meetings.

Thank you to the LSU Agronomy Center for being our hosts.

Red River Valley - Seed is being shipped out to the other farms when the weather allows. Equipment is being shipped down to Texas for the season.

Grand Forks, ND - Everyone in Grand Forks is anxiously preparing for the season to be in full-gear. Our computer systems are being upgraded, people are being hired and trained. We're making sure our customers are taken care of and that we can service them.

We get one shot every year to win the gold. Olympic athletes get one shot every 4 years. We do what we can to prepare, they do what they can to prepare. Blood, sweat and tears go into this one shot - on the playing field, and in the potato field.

 

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A Lifetime of Learning

There is a short amount of time between the end of harvest and the beginning of planting. This is when where we are able to take a step back, and reflect, plan and learn.

Field Work Gap

This “field-work” gap is when several industry and educational opportunities are available to participate in. There are annual meetings, trade-shows and other events that help us learn what’s new in the marketplace, what the industry is doing, what’s worked, and what hasn’t worked. More importantly, these experiences let us connect with other producers where we can all learn from each other.

TEPAP: The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers This is an intensive week long program that different producers from all over the U.S. are able learn from the best professors in the U.S. Everything from Strategic Management, to Human Resources, to Financial Ratios, to Marketing and PR and everything in between. The sessions are packed full of usable information, and the networking is something you could never get anywhere else. These are producers who understand that they can never stop learning.

TEPAP: The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers
This is an intensive week long program that producers from all over the U.S. learn from the best professors in the U.S. Everything from Strategic Management, to Human Resources, to Financial Ratios, to Marketing and PR and everything in between. The sessions are packed full of usable information, and the networking is something you could never get anywhere else. These are producers who understand that they can never stop learning.

Being committed to a lifetime of learning is the key to being better. Without that commitment, we won’t be able to be more efficient, more effective, or grow more food. Doing what we did yesterday just because it worked does not mean that’s what we should be doing tomorrow.

Lesson 1: We Have One Shot

One lesson we have learned – through classes, conferences, shows and by experience, is that each year, at each farm, on each acre – we only have one shot. It takes a lifetime of learning, not to screw up that one shot…that one shot to get the right ground, to use the right seed, to use the proper inputs, the right equipment, the right pricing, the right timing and with the right people. We have learned (sometimes the hard way) that this one shot has got to be perfect.

Here’s what we’re doing this week, because of what we’ve learned over a lifetime.

Pearsall, TX -  We finished planting the first field of chip potatoes and we’re on the second red potato field of the season. Besides potatoes, the rotational wheat crop is planted and fertilizing and land prep like bedding is being done.

Planting potatoes in Pearsall, TX

Planting potatoes in Pearsall, TX

Live Oak, FL – It’s been a little too wet to do much in the field, but fumigation will be wrapped up once we’re able to get back out there. All of the seed cutting equipment is ready to go, while seed will be showing up the end of this week. Planting should start next week.

Hawkinsville, GA  - The potato ground is getting ready for planting. It has been wet, but it’ll be ready in time for seed to arrive in a couple of weeks. Soil sample results are coming back, and field assignments are being finalized.

Arbyrd, MO - The annual crop planning meeting was last week. We will be at the corn and soybean conference this week to learn about how to improve our commodity crop production.

Columbia, NC - In the shop, the seed equipment and the planters are being set up. The new tractors are in and the old ones have moved out.

Charleston, MO – Equipment from Winamac is starting to come in for the season. The crop plan is about done and seed cutting and handling equipment are about ready to go. The last few sweet potatoes are being hauled out to make room for potato seed.

Rhodesdale, MD – It’s been too wet to do much outside. Inside, they are working on inventory, equipment rental arrangements and reviewing soil samples.

Sturgis, MI – The shop has been busy with equipment repairs and rebuilds. The acreage and the team for the season is getting finalized.

Winamac, IN – It’s been cold and snowy in Indiana, so the shop has been full of rebuilding and equipment repair. Several pieces of equipment are being prepared to be shipped out to other locations.

Oak Grove, LA - It’s been pretty wet, so there really hasn’t been much field work going on. Most of the crew will be at the Annual Sweet Potato Conference in New Orleans learning about the new innovations in the sweet potato industry.

Red River Valley - A harvesters is being shipped to Arbyrd, and the planting equipment is getting ready to be worked on. Seed is being shipped out on a regular basis to the farms, and that will last for several weeks. It’s been very cold, so the potatoes in the bins need some extra care.

Grand Forks, ND – Everyone at the Grand Forks office is in full on service mode, making sure the farms utilize their one shot, and get the season off to a great start.

Potato Expo

There were several people who attended the Annual Potato Expo in San Antonio, TX last week. This event has taken place for years, and many of the same people attend year after year – however, it’s a part of that lifetime of learning.

A few things that we learned at Potato Expo that will make us better and more prepared for our next One Shot:

“The GMO conversation will continue to be a topic of discussion.” – Gregg Halverson, CEO

“Category data is more important than ever , suppliers must know the data to connect with consumers and distributors. Fact based decision making is powerful.” – Glen Reynolds, National Director, Produce Sales

“New technology, specifically the use of new types of data, will drive productivity increases in potato production.” – Eric Halverson, EVP

“There is a lot of work and money being spent to get GMO potatoes commercially available in the US. The biggest hurdle will be getting the Processors and public to accept and buy GMO everyone is scare to commit.” – Chris Hopkins, Southeast Group Manager

There are several sessions at the Annual Potato Expo that people can go to - some sessions are specific to certain segments, and some are overall industry related.

There are several sessions at the Annual Potato Expo that people can go to – some sessions are specific to certain segments, and some are overall industry related. (Photo credit: US Potato Board, on the Potato Expo Facebook page)

A Lifetime

It’s taken us a lifetime to get where we are. It’s taken trial & error, an investment in education, and even time out of our personal lives to attend events, and learn from the best. This isn’t something that will stop either, at least, not in our lifetime. Things are always changing and there are always different and better ways to do things – we just have to learn how.

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Top 10 of 2013

Another year is in the books – and what a great year it was! We worked hard, we learned a lot, and even had a little fun along the way. A big congrats and thank you to everyone in the Black Gold Farms family along with our partners, our suppliers, and customers.

Here are just 10 things of slight significance that occurred this year. This doesn’t come close to the amazing work that happened everyday on the farms, in the sheds, on the tractors and at the offices. The list could go up to 100, however we don’t have time because we have to get seed shipped to Pearsall, TX and start all over again.

TOP 10 Things that happened at Black Gold Farms in 2013

10. Blogger Fun -  Telling our story is something that we love to do, and it’s our responsibility to do it. This summer, we had seven food bloggers come out to Arbyrd, MO and experience potato harvest. The conversations ranged from what it’s like to farm with your family to GMOs and chemicals. Everything was on the table, and the bloggers became a little more connected with where their food comes from – but more importantly, we learned what information we need to talk about and how to talk about it.

9. Facility Expansions -  In East Grand Forks, MN, our facility got a major facelift – from an old potato storage facility, to a potato storage facility with state of the art ventilation and monitoring equipment with multiple packing options. It has changed the landscape of what all we can do in the Red River Valley.

Red potato harvest in the Red River Valley - Potatoes are washed, stored and pack in our renovated shed in East Grand Forks, MN

Red potato harvest in the Red River Valley – Potatoes are washed, stored and pack in our renovated shed in East Grand Forks, MN

The other major project was expanding our space in Arbyrd, MO. This location can now handle a significantly larger volume as well as new permanent office space. This expansion sets us up for our anticipated growth and also will put us in a great position to be a year around supplier in the red and specialties markets.

These are just 2 of many major projects across the farms. Each location has had projects that will help us diversify, help up protect our inputs and crops as well as help us be more sustainable.

8. Black Gold Gardens -  A project called Black Gold Gardens was launched this year in a few locations. A small space by the farm was selected to grow a garden. With the help of local youth groups, such as FFA and 4-H, we were able to plant and harvest the gardens, and donate all of the fresh produce to local food pantries. Our goal is to replicate this project at other farms, and help our communities as well as get kids involved with agriculture.

BG_Gardens_4c

7. Information Technology -  We have made a commitment in regards to data and information technology. All of our systems as well as our processes and procedures from an IT perspective, are going through a major over-haul. There are multiple sources where we get and provide data, and now we need to ensure that we use that data to be better farmers. It’s an innovation – with information.

6. Emphasis on Safety -  Every week, on our all-company conference call, the last thing that is said is “Be Safe”.  Safety now has dedicated resources to ensure our people, guests and everyone else is safe while they are on, or around Black Gold Farms working areas. Each location has safety committees and they also hold weekly safety meetings.  This is a huge area of focus, and will continue to be.

5. Global GAP Certification -  The GlobalGAP certification processes covers issues like traceability, fertilizer application and containment, responsible water usage, pest management, soil management, and everything in between. Being GlobalGAP Certified makes sure that what we have in place meets or exceeds the standard for safe and sustainable food production. We went through this process and made all necessary adjustments on the farms. In 2013, we became 100% certified – after each farm was audited. This is just the one way for us to prove our commitment to sustainability.

GlobalGAP

4. The Black Gold Farms Culture -  Black Gold Farms has always had a unique culture, but it was never defined. During a strategy retreat this summer, the leadership team dug deep and defined 7 Aspects of Culture at Black Gold Farms based on our history, our present and where we want to be in the future:

At the Annual Planning Conference, each Aspect of Culture was described, along with an example of someone from Black Gold Farms living that aspect.

At the Annual Planning Conference, the Aspects of Culture were described, along with an example of someone from Black Gold Farms who lives that aspect everyday.

  • Values – This is where loyalty, community service, family focus, and kindness come in. These values along with others are who Black Gold Farms is.
  • Customer – Without our customers we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. It is our main focus everyday to make sure our customers are taken care of, and successful.
  • Excellence – Sometimes it’s easy to look the other way or to take short-cuts. At Black Gold Farms, Excellence needs to be a standard and not an exception. Do it right, do it better, the expectation is excellence.
  • Passion – Not everyone is passionate about the same thing. Some are passionate about data, some are passionate about agronomy, and some are passionate about being outside.  There can be some long days and frustrating moments, but it’s the passion that keeps us going and keeps us coming back. We love, that we love what we do.
  • Team Our business model cannot be successful with just one person doing the work. There are so many components, geographies and specialties. Teams are critical. We work as a team, and we succeed as a team.
  • Transparency –Everything that happens affects something else. There is no room or reason for anyone to keep information to him or herself. Transparency is something that we expect, and is expected of us – internally and with our customers. Being transparent and knowing that there are no surprises helps everyone be successful.
  • Innovation – If we don’t innovate, we don’t get better, we don’t become more efficient, or more profitable, or more sustainable. This must be a part of everything, and we must always look to be better – from our business model, to equipment, to agronomy, to finance, and every other piece that touches what we do. Innovation at Black Gold Farms started in 1928 when Hallie Halverson planted his first crop in Forest River, and has continued ever since.

3. Value Added Potatoes -  Our first ever value added potato product was launched this summer: a clamshell container with petite potatoes and 3 different McCormick Produce Partners seasoning options. This project involved many teams – from agronomy to packaging facilities to sales and marketing and even accounting. We have been so excited about the success and customer feedback as well as McCormick’s commitment to partner with us for other exciting projects. We were also very honored to be nominated for a PMA Impact Award. This was a big highlight this year, and we see it as an exciting opportunity to be a leader is this market.

BlackGoldMockUp_021213

2. Giving Back -  This is the second year each farm team was encouraged to give back to their communities. This is only a small part of what each group does and it doesn’t even show what each individual does on their own time. It is our responsibility to ensure our communities thrive.

1. Setting Up For Whatever Is Next -  We’ve always been known for the chances we take. This is what we thrive on. There are so many things that we’re looking forward to in 2014 that we already have a jump start on –new varieties that we’re testing, new partnership opportunities in development, promotional programs we’re creating with customers to increase potato consumption, consumer research we’re conducting, industry events that we’re going to be involved in and so much more. We’re ready and set for whatever comes at us. It’s our culture, and it’s who we are.

What else happened in 2013 that was significant and not on this list?

Related: Top 10 of 2012

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