Stakeholders, board members attend 2012 summer meeting

Members of the Soper family, stakeholders and board members attended the 2012 annual meetings in early August. The agenda included tours of both the vegetable and livestock farms.


Without the hand of man getting in the way, nature very effectively creates, balances and evolves. It does so with all life forms interacting together. As farmers we have a choice between manipulating nature and managing nature in our pursuit to feed ourselves.
Our current farming model has evolved over many years onto a path of manipulation using GMO seeds and oil-based fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides as substitutes to nature’s abundant ability to nourish. As we’ve learned, this path, however well intentioned, has had a debilitating impact on our environment, our soil and the water upon which our farms depend.  The plan that we are buildiing today follows the restovative path to manage nature as a partner so we too may create, balance and evolve.
Our Goal
Our goal is to identify the components necessary to launch a livestock and vegetable operation starting from scratch.  We seek to establish a schedule and sequence of events … from first spade in the ground to production and delivery.  The final outcome of this effort will be a business plan with all the rational, data and associated costs with which to make a “go forward” decision. Key to this plan is the market conditions and opportunities that will guide our commitment of resources.
The ground we are focused on is named Walnut 22 (160 acres) and Emmetsburg 1 (100 acres). If the business plan resulting from our work is accepted, the clock for this project starts in September 2010.
The Sites
Walnut 22 is near the West Fork of the Des Moines River about 6 miles north and west of Emmetsburg, Iowa.  This 160-acre quarter section is accessible from a maintained county gravel road and a private dirt road. The sandy nature of this ground requires irrigation for corn & beans. It seems well suited for pasture and, because of its sandy soil, good also for growing vegetables.
Current Operator
Est. Market Value
Est. Value
Walnut 22
$3,000/Gross Acre
Emmetsburg 1 has the tenant’s own irrigation gear on this sandy ground.  It is about 3 miles northwest of Emmetsburg, Iowa.  Access is from a county maintained gravel road. The ground is split in two parts by a diagonal RR track.

Current Operator
Est. Market Value
Est. Value.
Emmetsburg 1
$2,160/Gross Acre

Soil Development
In all cases we are creating a soil farm upon which all things in this plan depend. This is a high priority.  The plan needs to describe strategies and their cost for N-P-K balance and growth in the soil and the development of micronutrients that will result in the highest quality of our food products. Questions to answer:
Q. What are the best legumes to encourage growth?
Q. What are the weed abatement strategies?
Q. How might the irrigator accelerate pasture development?
Q. When can livestock be put into this new pasture?
Farming Practices
While targeting organic certification, we are to look “beyond organics” into farming practices such as biodynamics to support both livestock and vegetable farming. Permaculture design of the farm is another process to consider.  These choices may not be an either/or choice but a hybrid of the two as they apply to this ground. With a farming practice model in mind, it will guide us towards understanding the equipment, staff and facilities needed on site and our time scales to get into production.
The only infrastructure on Walnut 22 is a center pivot irrigator. The intention is to use this for delivering water and other potential uses such as pulling animal shelters.  Using the water to accelerate pasture development is the primary goal.
This diagram is a proposed layout of Walnut 22. The blue areas labeled A1, B1, are the grazing paddocks under the irrigator. The numbers from 1 to 16 in the A and B paddocks determines the rotation order. Eight water tanks are needed to support all paddocks. The farm infrastructure is laid out on the periphery of the irrigator. Movable electric fencing is suggested.

Questions to be addressed include:

Q. Is this proposed grazing cycle practical?
Q. What are the best rotation intervals?
Q. Assuming livestock go into the plan first and vegetables second, what kind of structures are necessary?
Q. How should these be laid out?
Q. How do all the buildings integrate together?
Q. What about human waste management?
Q. Access to clean water at all buildings?
Q. Internal roads?
Q. What about power (grid, solar, wind)?
Q. Movable electric fencing?
Q. Plumbing from center pivot wellhead to 8 tanks?

Emmetsburg 1 has a center pivot irrigator on the east half of the ground. The current tenant owns the irrigator.  There appears to be a well head on the west half of the ground but there is no irrigator on it at this time.
Walnut 22 & Emmetsburg 1 are within 6 miles of Emmetsburg located in Northwest Iowa (A). Looking to markets within a four-hour footprint of Emmetsburg are urban centers including Sioux City, Omaha, Des Moines, Iowa City, and Minneapolis.

Closer local markets are much smaller and include Spencer (pop. 10,500) and a major tourist area, Lake Okoboji with a large summer vacation population.

Cattle Processing Facilities
Livestock processing facilities will be necessary. In some cases that could include custom plants, mobile on-site and FDA approved processing facilities. These need to be identified and the economics of each studied. In addition to selling meat, other specialty meat products like sausages should be considered.
Cattle Genetics and Herd Development
In all cases, the target is to produce Prime or Choice quality beef only. There are a number of approaches to the cattle plan to be considered. Alone or in combination, these include finishing grass-fed animals brought in from outside and/or developing our own herd.  As herd development implies a longer-term strategy, the two may be used in combination at the beginning. For herd development and growing a cow/calf operation, genetics are a key to success.  There may also be an opportunity to sell premier breeding livestock to other beef operations.  All forms of breeding should be considered.
Livestock Rotation and Herd Size
Open for study is a livestock rotation that would include cattle for meat production and could also include sheep or goats followed by chickens. The size of these herds compared to the pasture ground available is important.
Sales, Marketing & Branding
This business plan will include the details of selling and marketing Soper Farms products within the distribution footprint of four hours shown previously. Options include CSAs, wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants, Soper Farms storefront, farmer’s markets, etc. 
Renewable Energy
Wind and solar power can provide this farm with cash flow benefits and long-term income, reduce on-site energy costs, while mitigating global climate-change. This farm will have a renewable energy plan to farm the wind and sun as well as livestock and vegetables. In addition, opportunities to pursue the creation and use of bio fuels are to be considered.

An example to study is Wyn Evans from Pembrokeshire West Wales who runs a mixed farm of 170 acres, has been trying to reduce his dependency on fossil fuels since 1977. He has installed an anaerobic digester, a wind turbine, solar panels and a ground-sourced heat pump. He has sought wherever possible to replace diesel with his own electricity. Instead of using his tractor to spread slurry, he pumps it from the digester onto nearby fields. He’s replaced his tractor-driven irrigation system with an electric one, and set up a new system for drying hay indoors, which means he has to turn it in the field only once. Whatever else he does is likely to produce smaller savings. But these innovations have reduced his use of diesel by only around 25%.

We have an opportunity to create an integrated farm that leverages the natural interdependence between animals and vegetation. Having both vegetables and meat to sell leverages our brand and can attracts customers by offering more choice.
To be studied is both field vegetable crops and hoop house vegetable crops for an extended season of growing and selling. The business plan will determine the size of the opportunity and the scale necessary to meet the opportunity. From this, facilities, staffing and rollout plans can be proposed.
Added Value
One key element to the success of many organic/local/sustainable farms has been adding value to their crops and selling as directly to the consumer as possible. Hermannsdorffer Farms in Germany are a prime example of this. In addition to the hog meat and vegetables they also add value by making sausages, beer, bread and go so far as to serve prepared meals to diners visiting their farm. They also have their own retail store that features their products as well as other organic products.
Building a restaurant and/or a commercial kitchen in which to prepare added value products will be studied. 

Legal & Insurance
As this plan studies selling food direct to the consumer it raises the need for legal structures and insurance that typically go beyond what is normal for our current practice of raising commodity crops and then selling them to brokers and manufacturers. Examples include:
Livestock – Because of food safety laws and the litigious environment we live in today, it will be necessary to shelter SFI assets from potential law suits. Having separate incorporated legal entities should be considered. An example of one structure is Soper Farms Inc. (who owns the farm and operational assets) and raises livestock under contract to Soper Farms Marketing, Inc. who owns the livestock and sells the meat products on to the public. To fund Soper Farms Marketing, Inc. Soper Farms Inc. could make a loan SFMI and be in control of the revenue and profits.
Farmer’s Markets Insurance – Most farmer’s markets require the seller to have liability insurance. Sometimes these policies are hard to get and can be expensive for a small farmer. The few claims that do occur usually are tied to accidents like a tent blowing over and causing damage and not food safety.

Challenges in Planning
The choices we may follow will be numerous offering multiple opportunities in each area. This is a big subject to cover. Just imagine the complexity of the industrial food enterprise beginning at the farm to wholesalers, to manufacturers to distributors to outlets from grocery stores to restaurants and institutions. What we are planning is a microcosm of this. Every effort will be made to keep this plan within a reasonable scope, leaving future opportunities to unfold over time.