The rain may have dampened the ground but it certainly had no impact on Chuck Mohlerâ€™s spirits the day AVG came to visit his farming operation in Millersburg, IN. Aptly called Sweet Corn Charlieâ€™s, the 100-acre farm has a rustic feel to it, with a red barn housing the produce stand in the foreground and a field of sweet corn behind it.
But donâ€™t be fooled by the country flavor of the farm. Behind this rural charm is a man who has made it his business to learn advanced growing practices so he can offer consumers top-quality vegetables and melons early in the season.
Mohler didnâ€™t start out in the vegetable growing business. He was introduced to farming via his father Budâ€™s dairy farm. The two later opted out of the dairy business, and, in 1986, Mohler began producing vegetables. Now his fresh produce is sold at six satellite markets.
To help him produce crops, Mohler enlists the help of his family. In addition to his wife Tami, his sons, Sammy, 14, and Danny, 12, help out on the farm.
The Early Bird
Willing to share the secret of his success, Mohler has found a way to keep the local folks coming back for more. So how does he do it? The answer is simple: He offers fresh, high-quality produce in his markets before other area growers do. How he is able to produce crops very early in the season, however, is far from simple.
â€œWe are the doctors of early,â€� Mohler explains. â€œWe do things before we have to.â€� To bring product to market before the competition does, Mohler employs the latest production technology that he has learned from taking annual trips to Israel.
He made his first visit back in 1982 and saw vegetable production done quite differently from the way it is done in the U.S. â€œI saw things in Israel that I can employ on my farm and get an advantage in this business,â€� he says.
What exactly did he see? Things like low tunnels, drip irrigation, the use of plastic mulch, and fertigation â€” just to name a few.
Keep It Simple
Most of the techniques Mohler employs, however, are not done with lots of technical and expensive equipment. In addition, he had to learn how to adapt what he learned in Israel to the climate in North America.
â€œWe have more disease pressure here with rainy summers and cold winters,â€� he says. â€œThe Israelis have to deal with rainy winters and hot, dry summers.â€�
When he decided to grow vegetables, Mohler knew changes were coming. â€œI knew that if I was going to farm, I was going to have to do something different,â€� he explains. â€œI thought that growing vegetables using some Israeli technology might work.â€�
By 1987, Mohler was using low tunnels to get a jump on the growing season. He typically begins production in April, before anyone else in the area is planting. In the low tunnels, Mohler grows zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce, and kohlrabi.
He opted to put up his first high tunnel in 1990. Now, he uses high tunnels for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and strawberries.
â€œWhen we put up the first high tunnel,â€� says Mohler, â€œI told my father, â€˜Today, Iâ€™m doing this as an experiment. I donâ€™t need to do this to survive, but 10 years from now, if I donâ€™t do this, I wonâ€™t survive. So I must start to learn now.â€™â€�
Also in 1990, Mohler began transplanting sweet corn. He now grows 7 acres of transplanted sweet corn that he starts in the greenhouse and then covers with a low tunnel.
â€œPeople often ask me if we transplant all that corn by hand,â€� he says. â€œI laugh and say, â€˜No,â€™ we use Speedling flats and a carousel planter. I think that I was one of the first people in the U.S. to transplant sweet corn,â€� he adds.
In addition to the 7 acres, Mohler seeds and covers 20 additional acres. For his efforts, he sells the sweet corn at a premium: $6 per dozen. â€œWe were afraid to advertise too much, because we didnâ€™t know if our supply could keep up with the demand.
â€œWe pick the best and leave the rest,â€� Mohler continues. â€œWe pick by hand and put the corn on a conveyor that we purchased in 1989 from Harvest Products in Michigan.â€�
Another technique he learned about from the Israelis is grafting. Mohler began grafting his own watermelon about three years ago. Recently, he has started grafting tomatoes and peppers.
The first time Mohler grafted plants, he started out small with just 200.
He now produces seedless watermelons that weigh between 22 and 30 pounds. He purchases the rootstock seed from Seminis Inc. to produce melons that are not only rather large, they also have improved fruit quality and plant vigor.
Mohlerâ€™s son Sammy is producing giant watermelon, which are also grafted, weighing between 180 and 199 pounds. Sammy typically sells these watermelon on Labor Day weekend.
In Northern Indiana, Mohler begins harvesting the grafted melons in mid-July and continues to pick the same plant until late September when frost comes. Even then, he says, he sees baby watermelon just starting.
â€œThe Israelis did not invent grafting, but they certainly have taken it to a new level,â€� Mohler states. â€œAmit Dagon, president of Histil Nurseries, Ltd., in Israel, told me that they are the â€˜high tech of low tech,â€™ and with that I would certainly agree. They understand the light, temperature, water, fertilizer, and timing better than anyone else, because they are producing a superior grafted plant.â€�
Down The Line
A family business all the way, Mohler hopes to continue to work with his two sons. Sammy really enjoys farming in addition to being a beekeeper and taking flight lessons, he says. His younger son, Danny, likes designing, and last fall, he helped engineer the construction of a new cooler.
What it all comes down to, however, is a love of farming. â€œWe depend upon honesty and a love for what we do to be the base for how we conduct our business,â€� he explains. â€œWe borrowed no money for this farming operation. We expanded as God provided. If you deal with a small amount of money, you make small blunders. Small mistakes are easier to recover from.â€�
Thatâ€™s a lesson we all can learn.