Hoch Orchards using grant to integrate animals, crops

Farm Forum

LA CRESCENT, Minn. – For the last few years, crops and animals have lived in natural harmony at Hoch Orchard.

Hogs, chickens, geese, ducks and sheep all share the land, providing mutual benefit. Now, their harmony is getting $15,000 in state-funded support.

With the help of a Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program, the farm will be measuring the impacts of a more permanent fencing system in order to make the system sustainable, and potentially provide a blueprint for other farmers.

The orchard lays tucked in the bluffs, with 60 acres of rolling orchards of apples, cherries, apricots and numerous other fruits. Using the animals as tools for their farming endeavors for a few years now has been only natural, said owner Harry Hoch.

“This kind of thing has been done for thousands of years,” Hoch said. “We’ve been diversifying our orchard here over the years.”

Hoch and his wife, Jackie, are heading the project with partners including Jody Padgham from MOSES, local University of Minnesota Extension educator Jake Overgaard, Wayne Martin from the University of Minnesota, Ken Meter from the Crossroads Resource Center, and Heidi Eger, an animal management intern.

Each has a specialty, Hoch said, such as Overgaard helping the orchard set up a system of record-keeping, while Meter guides the orchard through the economics of the system.

Eger will be providing the grunt work and data collection based off Hoch’s advice and observations of when animals need to be transitioned to different parts of the orchards. They’re creating temporary fences for the moment, and will build permanent ones when the system is complete.

For Eger, a born flatland city girl from the Twin Cities turned farmer and baby animal wrangler, the process feeds a passion she has for sustainable foods.

“There’s a lot of intriguing possibilities with putting together animals and fruit,” Eger said. “And this is a good place to be, and they’re doing a project and constantly trying to improve and try new things, which is fun, too.”

By implementing the fencing system, Hoch is hoping to creating a more innovative process that requires less busy work and more time spent nurturing their land and animals.

For example, in June, Hoch typically moves his hogs into the apple orchard when the trees experience “June drop,” where their branches naturally thin and pests cause their branches to fall. With their new fencing system, Hoch said he is hoping the process can become more efficient.

According to Overgaard, it is a way to utilize existing landscape and features to be more productive.

“It’s a challenging landscape to move hogs around, so they’re really trying to figure out an improved way that will be effective and really reduce the amount of time that they have to spend moving pigs doing the fencing,” Overgaard said.

Through economics, record-keeping and new practices, the ultimate goal for Hoch is to provide a template for permanent pasturing systems for fellow farmers.

The project workers are looking to have their work published in journals because, according to Hoch, while using animals in plant fields is a tried-and-true practice, this type of research with a more efficient fencing system is still fairly new.

With state-supported funding for a possible innovative farming practice and food supply technique, Overgaard said he knows farms like the Hochs’ are the perfect hosts for a project like this one.

“They’re farmers’ ideas, so I think there’s value in that,” Overgaard said. “There’s a certain level of practicality and creativity that farmers bring to this kind of project.”