During much of the growing season at Indiana’s McClure’s Orchard and Winery, 60- to 70-hour workweeks are typical. Come fall, however, Jason McClure and his family find themselves putting in 100 hours each week.
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
The family has spent the past two decades operating the orchard, expanding both the products and opportunities. What began as a few dozen trees planted by a previous family around World War I is now 6,500 trees strong, boasting 130 apple varieties. On top of that, McClure’s grows peaches, pears, cherries, asparagus, rhubarb, pumpkins, and grapes, and has honeybee hives. They’ve expanded, too, into agritourism, doing what they can to bring people to the property and experience it’s offerings.
“A big part of what we do is try to get families outside,” said Jason, a graduate of Wabash College.
The orchard has U-pick apples and pumpkins and an on-site cafe and gift shop offering food, hard cider, and wine.
Schools have long come out to do field trips — currently the McClures see about 2,000 kids each fall. In addition to some of the hands-on activities, horseback rides are offered.
“Every weekend from Labor Day to Halloween, Dad saddles up a horse and gives rides,” Jason said.
McIntosh are common apples for the ciders produced at McClure’s, while many Jonathan apples are sent to nearby schools for the kids. Other varieties are sold in the store or made into pies — or fed to the hogs and calves on site.
“We believe in local,” Jason said, “and we believe in growing fruit and doing it all right here.”
There are major moments in life that are unforgettable: graduation day, getting married, the birth of a child. Grant and Kristen Strom have another to add to that list: the day the American Farm Bureau Federation selected them for the Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award.
“That was an unbelievable feeling,” Grant said. “It was hard to describe. It was very emotional. Outside of the family stuff … this is one of those moments we’ll never forget.”
The couple from Knox County, Illinois, were selected in January 2017 after a rigorous application and interview process that looks deep into the numbers of their business and their resume. Years of hard work and expanding their 5,000-acre operation was on full display in front of the nation’s marquee organization for farmers. In addition to applause and recognition, they were given the keys to a 2017 Chevrolet Silverado.
The Stroms grow corn, soybeans and some wheat and hay, and operate a 20-head Angus cow/calf operation with other family members. The corn is used mostly for ethanol production, while the soybeans go toward seed production and commercial processing.
Grant, who is the third generation to work on the farm full-time, has long worked with his father to be progressive with testing new technology, whether that was with GPS usage and auto shut-offs 15 years ago or more recently with no-till, sidedressing, and other conservation strategies. Their farm has been in conversion phases for more than a decade, and some of the new structures include a shop and office — things that have helped make them more efficient with their business.
“The margins are so much tighter and smaller and more erratic than they used to be,” Grant said of the industry. There’s so much pressure to find ways to be more efficient.
“Success in farming today is considerably different than what it was for my grandfather, or even my father,” he said. “Back when my grandfather started farming, him and his brother started from scratch, and it was all about how hard you worked. The harder you worked, the more money you made. And it was all about hours. Now, it’s all about efficiency of the work. You can have one guy who can work two hours, but if you can do that same job or do more in an hour than he did in two hours, then that puts you at a competitive advantage.”
Sounds like the recipe for achievement.
Despite being the sixth generation to live on his family’s land, Austin Heil didn’t have much passion for agriculture while he was growing up. Lots of people in his part of Northwest Ohio had farms, so being a part of the industry and growing corn, soybeans, and hay with his father didn’t really make him stand out.
The opportunities and excitement of farming didn’t set in until Austin landed at The Ohio State University.
“Through college and seeing the advancements that we were making with technology, I saw the opportunity to start my own business,” he said.
He’s never felt hemmed in by the “way things were done before.” Austin, 32, pushed to use data and technology in the ways that so many young farmers do. He spent a few years after college working for a farm machinery dealer, during which he took note of things that he would like to help farmers do differently. In 2014, not long before his 30th birthday, he pulled all of those ideas together with the hope of improving Ohio agriculture.
And that’s when Homestead Precision Farming was born.
“Homestead Precision is all about solving the unsolvable,” he said. “Farming is so variable — there’s always a variable to solve.
“By utilizing technology, we can start to understand those variables.”
His services include data aggregation and strategies, water-management solutions, UAV applications, and custom farming. Austin and his father even refurbished a used John Deere corn planter, installing current planting technology to better its productivity.
Austin knows that there are so many different nutrients and factors in the soil that it’s imperative farmers study the data and see what’s going on.
The Heil farm was founded in the 1830s when Nicholas Heil came to the U.S. from Germany. He chose this land in Hardin County because the variety of trees on the property suggested that it was particularly fertile for crops. The operation has thrived, and it now officially classified as a Century Farm.
The opportunity for business growth is almost always there. And young ag professionals such as Austin often face the challenge of introducing technology to the previous generations on their farms.
Austin is the kind of person to embrace such as challenge (not only does he farm, but he has also competed for several years in half Ironmans). Helping every generation in the ag industry improve their productivity is a one he accepts happily.
St. Paul, Indiana
Though the Central Indiana community that Andrew Fansler grew up in was heavily invested in agriculture, Fansler himself didn’t come from a farm family. He was 14 when he first began working on farm, and only a few years later, he began renting land — a mere 42 acres.
Today, Andrew, 38, has grown his operation into one that now seeds well over 4,000 acres annually and employs four full-time people. The farm produces soybean seed for national companies, conventional beans for exports, yellow and white food-grade corn, and commodity corn.
“One big thing that I really stress is that we are a family, and this is a family farm,” the St. Paul farmer said. “We are a larger farm, but we work as a close group.”
As a first-generation farmer in a state where ag roots run deep, there was a lot of initial skepticism about whether he’d make it. Yet the reach of his land continued to expand; he acquired more equipment; and more structures such as grain bins were added to the site. His efforts caught the attention of Bayer Crop Science, which in 2015 awarded him the Young Farmer Sustainability Award.
“They just couldn’t believe that I was a first-generation farmer and doing some of the things that we’re doing,” Andrew said.
Fansler Farms uses cover crops, field tile, and variable-rate fertilizer applications. It also practices no-till farming and does annual soil tests.
“For the long-term, finding that balance of financial sustainability, social sustainability, and agricultural sustainability — that’s what Bayer really liked when they looked at my background. We’re trying to find a way to put all those things together.”
Slagel Family Farm may be the epitome of a diversified operation. LouisJohn and Leslie Slagel harvest beef, veal, pork, lamb, chicken, rabbit, and goat meat — plus they grow much of the feed for their livestock on site.
This, in addition to having a family processing facility nearby, cuts down on their carbon footprint, while the relatively small size of the farm gives LouisJohn optimal quality control.
“What our customers really appreciate is the hands-on, somewhat ‘older’ techniques that we use on our farm,” said LouisJohn, who is the fifth generation in his family to farm.
Most of the Slagels’ customer base is chefs in the Chicagoland area. There is a particular focus on the finished quality of the meat, working with a refined genetic base and feed program to reach the perfect level of marbeling and taste. Judging by the demand there is in Chicago for LouisJohn’s products, he’s adeptly filling a market need.
On the farm’s website, it notes, “We pride ourselves in the quality of our work. Every carcass is broke down by hand into primal cuts which are then carefully cut into the desired steaks, roasts, and chops our customers’ request. A variety of homemade sausages, burgers, and patties are produced here as well.”
“I studied meats in high school. Back then, we were a small, diversified operation, but we weren’t doing any of our own slaughter or direct marketing,” LouisJohn said.
Things really changed for the operation about a decade ago, when he began running a USDA processing facility. That gave him the opportunity to cut fresh to order, and opened new avenues. Soon afterward, a few cold calls to high-end restaurants, some meetings, and word of mouth, LouisJohn found himself on a path that led to his successful operation today.