Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tanglefoot Ranch thrives through diversified agriculture

Tanglefoot Ranch thrives through diversified agriculture
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One day in spring of 2011, Grover Webb was out discussing a new project on his farm with Jeff Kindhart, a U of I research specialist based at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. As Kindhart’s gaze came to rest on a gently sloping pasture nearby he said, “Grover, that’s the best peach orchard site I’ve ever seen in southern Illinois.”

The following spring, Webb planted 300 peach trees there, using a mix of five varieties. Some of these ripen faster than others, so harvest and marketing stretch out longer than they would with a single variety. That’s good for consumers, because it allows them to buy local peaches over time, and good for the farmer, since picking can be done by a small crew of people on hand rather than a large crew brought in all at once.

Webb’s peach orchard is part of a larger operation, Tanglefoot Ranch, a highly diversified farm that he and his wife, Shirley, run in partnership with his brother, Richard, on 950 acres in Pope County. The orchard provides a good example of Webb’s willingness to try things other than corn, soybeans, and cattle, and the relationship he has cultivated with the applied agricultural research programs at Dixon Springs.

Tanglefoot Ranch is also one of the places I mentioned in a recent commentary about a field trip with U of I undergraduates; we go there to investigate what “sustainability” means in the real world. Webb tells them, “The first thing the farm has to sustain is the farmer.” So he chooses innovations carefully and he sticks with them only if they’re profitable.

Take, for example, prawns, which are also known as freshwater shrimp. Fifteen years ago Webb used help from the State of Illinois Alternative Agricultural Land Program to begin raising them at Tanglefoot. They now have an indoor prawn nursery and six “grow out” ponds.

In a normal year each pond produces between 450 and 600 pounds of harvestable prawns. Many of these are cooked and sold at the Golconda Shrimp Festival, an annual, weekend event that draws roughly 7,000 tourists to the Ohio River town for which it is named.. In addition, Tanglefoot’s nursery supplies juvenile prawns for spring stocking to six other local farms that have established grow out ponds of their own.

Our tour at Tanglefoot also included stops in the farm’s two “high tunnels,” which are greenhouse-like structures made of tubular steel covered with translucent plastic. The high tunnels are not heated, but they trap enough warmth from the sun to provide tomatoes grown there a two-month head start over their field-grown counterparts as well as a number of other benefits, especially natural checks on pests and diseases and the opportunity to closely control and monitor inputs. According to Webb, Jeff Kindhart calls them the best innovation in horticulture of the last 20 years.

This brings me to a sour note that affected our visit to Tanglefoot. The week before our arrival, the U OF I Department of Crop Sciences announced it would be ending support for many applied research programs at Dixon Springs and three other facilities around the state, including the programs and people with whom Webb has collaborated over the years. Obviously this is a story of its own, and for now I have nothing to report other than that efforts are underway to find alternative sources of funding.