Sustainability Is A Way Of Life For Vegetable Producer Okray Family Farms

A few years ago when the word “sustainability” was first tossed around, its definition was a little ambiguous, meaning different things to different people. Today, things couldn’t be more clear. Sustainability is a way of life for growers who want to see their businesses continue to grow and prosper. To be sustainable, growers must remain profitable and operate their farms in a way that preserves resources and creates efficiencies.

Sustainability is a key component at Okray Family Farms in Wisconsin. Pictured here (from left) Jim Okray, vice president of operations, and Rich Rashke, farm manager.
Sustainability is a key component at Okray Family Farms in Wisconsin. Pictured here (from left) Jim Okray, vice president of operations, and Rich Rashke, farm manager.

Top 100 Grower Okray Family Farms in Plover, WI — a farm that has been growing potatoes, sweet corn, and other cash crops for more than 100 years — is no stranger to this concept or what it means to the future of the operation. Rich Rashke, who is in his 10th season as farm manager, says virtually everything Okray Family Farms does encompasses sustainability.

When the farm first embraced the concept, Rashke says avoiding crop loss was one of the biggest goals, but that has since expanded to include everything from planting preparations to postharvest field and equipment maintenance.
“Sustainability is crucial and completely [determines] how we maintain our fields [throughout the year], our equipment, and our facilities,” he says.

Precision Tools
To become more efficient with field operations, which includes tilling, planting, and fertilizer and irrigation applications, the farm uses precision agriculture products from Trimble. According to Rashke, the tools paid for themselves in about two years by eliminating variables and improving efficiencies.

The farm began using precision technology about seven years ago with the addition of steering systems to two large articulated tractors used for tillage work. Since that time, a Trimble Autopilot system has been added to six more tractors used for field work.

“We find with the help of Trimble and other GPS systems, we can diversify our tilling program to accommodate multiple field operations simultaneously and maintain consistent repeatability for every field and every application — every year,” he says. “Plus, using the steering function reduces operator fatigue, which allows [him] to be more attentive to the equipment and the current application. We’re able to streamline processes in the field, which reduces our overall operation costs and, ultimately, our carbon footprint.”

To apply fertilizers, the farm uses variable rate application along with broadcasting. As a result, Rashke says with precision tools, they can be within 2% to 3% of the target application. “Using the right amount of product and getting the fertilizer only where it needs to be reduces the risk of overapplication, which helps avoid leaching through the soil and reduces costs,” he adds.

Similarly, variable rate irrigation enables the farm to apply water at different rates for a field, depending on specific soil conditions.

“With computerized irrigation systems, we take advantage of the variable rate technology for each specific field and soil condition so we are more precise,” he says. “Plus, our water management has improved and resources are preserved.” (See “Competition For Water Resources.”)

Other Sustainable Tactics
In addition to using precision technology, Okray Family Farms employs other tactics to increase its level of sustainability. In 2012, the operation created a carbon footprint map and devised a plan to reduce carbon emissions during the next decade. The Cool Farm Tool (CFT), developed by Unilever, was used to make the map. (For more information on the CFT, go to coolfarmtool.org.)

Upgrading equipment is helping them achieve this goal. For example, using tractors that use biofuels decreases emissions, and the addition of Tier 4 engines in new trucks is a step toward reducing the farm’s carbon footprint, explains Rashke.

He also cites the Central Wisconsin Windshed Partnership as another sustainability effort. The program was started at the Hancock Agricultural Research Station in 2000, and since that time the farm has added more than 25 miles of windbreaks along field edges.

“It started out as a windbreak to reduce field erosion,” Rashke recalls. “Along the edges of fields, [the windbreak] not only helps with erosion, it adds to wildlife habitats that harbor along field edges. We feel continually adding windbreaks benefits our operation and restores some of the natural resources.”

Reducing soil erosion with cover crops is another sustainability tactic employed by the farm.

“We try to do what we can, knowing that there are times of the year where the ground is bare,” Rashke explains. “With cover crops, we try to protect as much land as possible from erosion. It helps us with weed control and it helps rebuild the soil.”

Quality Packaging
In the packing shed, the installation of a new box machine that cost upwards of $700,000 was a big addition to the farm’s sustainability efforts. The state-of-the-art equipment looks for internal defects in potatoes and has seven lanes for sizing and boxing, which increases production volume capabilities.

As there are not many packing sheds with this type of equipment, Rashke says that it gives the farm an advantage: Only high-quality potatoes are being packed and delivered. The farm also packages potatoes in many different sizes, and very few suppliers in the area can offer that flexibility, he adds.

“Our current customers are confident that they will receive a higher-quality product and our quality assurance,” he says. “We try to focus in on what people want. It isn’t just about the quality of the product; it’s about the quality of the product and its desired packaging.”

Topics: , ,

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Sustainability Is A Way Of Life For Vegetable Producer Okray Family Farms

  1. […] Successful farmers must operate their farms in ways that preserve resources and create efficiencies. Earlier this year Vegetable Grower magazine featured Okray Family Farms, near Plover, Wisconsin. My brother Rich has been farm manager there for 10 years, and he described the methods they use to sustain the farm. Virtually everything about the 100 year old farm encompasses sustainability, including planting preparations, managing the post-harvest field, and equipment maintenance. “Sustainability is crucial and completely [determines] how we maintain our fields [throughout the year], our equipment, and our facilities,” Rich said. If you are interested in reading the entire article about Rich and the Okray Family Farms click here. […]

Farm Management Stories
Citrus
April 26, 2017
Perdue Sworn in as Ag Secretary
USDA launches Twitter account to help promote the industry. Read More
Judi Whitson, 2016 Florida Woman of the Year in Agriculture
Citrus
April 24, 2017
Who Will Be Florida’s next Woman of the Year in Agriculture?
Nomination period now open for longstanding recognition from FDACS. Read More
GenNext Growers
April 22, 2017
Next Generation of Leaders Gets Yearlong Almond Immersion
Almond Leadership Program enters its ninth year with the 2017 class. Read More
Washington Capitol building
Citrus
April 21, 2017
Alliance Stepping Up Efforts to Protect Specialty Crops
The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance has kicked off its efforts to communicate to Congress its priority needs for the Read More
farm labor pic for web
Citrus
April 20, 2017
Farm Labor Is in Crisis
To have a great crop potentially rot in the field because workers can’t be sourced is probably worse than a weather event taking out production. Read More
Apples & Pears
April 19, 2017
Young Apple Growers Meet with Lawmakers
Apple leaders from across the country discuss ag issues such as labor, trade, and research. Read More
Barnes Farm cabbage field in Hastings, FL
Citrus
April 18, 2017
Florida Growers Seeking Inspiration Need Not Look Far
The firsthand experience of speaking with farmers and actually seeing all the hard work, knowledge, ingenuity, and people behind where our food comes from is invaluable. Read More
Citrus
April 18, 2017
Citrus Growth Path Uncertain as Florida Real Estate Surges
According to the latest Lay of the Land Market Report, the waiting game for a solution to greening has tempered groves sales. Read More
Farm Management
April 18, 2017
Survey Says New York Growers Lost More than 70% of Crop Last Year
Growers say they suffered more than 50% crop losses in Western New York. Read More
Vijay Kumar giving TED Talk on ag innovation
GenNext Growers
April 17, 2017
TED Talks Take on Agriculture Innovation
The popular short-form presentations address the future of food production. Read More
drought management; irrigation; water management
Citrus
April 17, 2017
Florida Flush with Water Shortage Warnings
Conservation practices preached throughout the state as exceptionally dry pattern persists.  Read More
Specialty vegetable farm market display
Citrus
April 14, 2017
How Florida Growers Are Agritaining and Gaining
Come one, come all — big and small — there are multiple ways to benefit from Agritourism. Read More
Farm Management
April 12, 2017
How California’s No-Drought Status Affects Growers
Find out which previous orders are rescinded as a result of the drought being declared over — and which ones are not. Read More
Food Safety
April 12, 2017
No Need for Hysteria Over Reports of Listeria in Romaine Lettuce
A recent Purdue study says current food safety practices aren't killing listeria in romaine lettuce tissue. Rutger's Richard VanVranken says the report isn't as alarming as it sounds. Read More
Felipe-Gallardo-harvesting-collard-greens-at-Buurma-Farms
Farm Management
April 12, 2017
Take the Stress out of Food Safety Inspections
Buurma Farms has a low-tech, common sense system in place that keeps its produce as safe as possible, and makes passing inspections easy. Read More
The Latest
Citrus
April 29, 2017
Florida Ag Commissioner Pushes for Probe…
With a focus on Mexico, letter sent by Adam Putnam to the U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary stresses need for level playing field. Read More
Citrus
April 27, 2017
Trump Creates Agricultural Task Force
Panel to examine issues facing today’s growers including labor, food safety, and regulations. Read More
Citrus
April 26, 2017
Perdue Sworn in as Ag Secretary
USDA launches Twitter account to help promote the industry. Read More
Citrus
April 24, 2017
Who Will Be Florida’s next Woman of the …
Nomination period now open for longstanding recognition from FDACS. Read More
Citrus
April 21, 2017
Alliance Stepping Up Efforts to Protect …
The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance has kicked off its efforts to communicate to Congress its priority needs for the Read More
Citrus
April 18, 2017
Citrus Growth Path Uncertain as Florida …
According to the latest Lay of the Land Market Report, the waiting game for a solution to greening has tempered groves sales. Read More
Farm Management
April 18, 2017
Survey Says New York Growers Lost More t…
Growers say they suffered more than 50% crop losses in Western New York. Read More
Citrus
April 17, 2017
Florida Flush with Water Shortage Warnin…
Conservation practices preached throughout the state as exceptionally dry pattern persists.  Read More
Farm Management
April 12, 2017
How California’s No-Drought Status…
Find out which previous orders are rescinded as a result of the drought being declared over — and which ones are not. Read More
Farm Management
April 12, 2017
Take the Stress out of Food Safety Insp…
Buurma Farms has a low-tech, common sense system in place that keeps its produce as safe as possible, and makes passing inspections easy. Read More
Citrus
April 10, 2017
BASF Licenses CRISPR-Cas9 Technology for…
Genome-editing from Broad Institute has potential to be a more precise tool to improve ag products. Read More
Citrus
April 6, 2017
Mild or Wild? Here Is Your 2017 Atlantic…
Possible return of El Niño climate phase could sap strength out of any stormy scenarios. Read More
Citrus
March 23, 2017
Count Down the World’s Top 30 Agricultur…
Familiar names and several new faces among annual ranking’s elite. Read More
Business Planning
March 22, 2017
How HortTech Is Solving Grower Challenge…
Dozens of tech companies are looking for solutions to real-world problems vegetable growers face. We take a look at what it could really mean for you and your business. Read More
Citrus
March 21, 2017
Industry Groups, Ag Leaders React to Pro…
New plan would slash USDA spending by 21%. Read More
Farm Management
March 17, 2017
Unfair Trade Taking Its Toll on Florida …
Local grower community hopeful over President Trump’s announced intention to renegotiate NAFTA. Read More
Citrus
March 15, 2017
Group Wants To Streamline Food Safety Re…
There are 15 federal agencies implement more than 30 different food safety statutes. A team of experts believe they have a solution. Read More
Citrus
March 14, 2017
Can Your Farm Survive If the Grid Goes D…
Even in a plugged-in world, the basics are needed now more than ever. Read More