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.”

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