Quality and variety make the difference to Schwarz Family Farm’s success
Although prices for farmland in the Midwest stand at near-record levels, don’t get the idea that all farmers are rich or that they can stop innovating ways to increase the value of their products and improve their return on investment. For many big corporate farms, increasing ROI might mean introducing additional fertilizers, pesticides or GMO seed; for the Schwartz family of rural Smithfield, NE, it means introducing more praying mantises, lace wings and lady bugs.
Schwarz Family Farm is owned and operated by the sixth generation of Schwarz’s, Tom and Linda Schwarz, their daughter, Becky and their son, Alex. Prior to 1998 the Schwarz land had been cultivated in conventional ways, but in an effort to convince Becky and Alex to return home to work on the family farm after college, Tom and Linda began to consider ways to increase profits from the same number of acres. Producing organic grains and vegetables appealed to them because organically certified grains and vegetables sell for higher prices than conventional crops, and crops grown with organic principles conserve natural resources.
“My grandpa taught me to value the land,” Tom said. “He was the original conservationist in the family.”
A learning experience
To learn about organic certification and farming practices, Tom and Linda joined the Great Plains Vegetable Growers and Nebraska Fruit and Vegetable Growers Associations, and traveled to conferences from Michigan to Missouri and many farms in between. They learned that American consumers actively want to buy and eat organically grown foods and will pay more to do so.
In 1998 they began the three-year process to transition parcels of their farm into certified organic acres producing blue corn, yellow corn and alfalfa. A few years later, Tom and Linda discovered research by Eliot Coleman in his book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, that led to their next phase. Coleman describes extending the growing season for cool weather plants like lettuces and Swiss chard by growing them in pipe-frame greenhouses covered with double layers of plastic. The air trapped between the layers insulates the green house and protects the plants through the cold winter months in Nebraska.
Becky and Alex join in
After graduating from college with respective degrees in theater and political science, Alex and Becky ultimately saw the wisdom of the creative option of growing and marketing fresh produce. They joined the family business and in 2009 they set up low-tunnel structures to grow early beets, Hakurei turnips, lettuces and bok choy. They marketed their organically-grown products in nearby grocery stores.
An opportunity to acquire a high tunnel greenhouse via a Natural Resources Conservation Service Equipment Grant allowed the Schwarzs to set up their first high tunnel in 2010. Today, Schwarz Farms grow organic produce in three high tunnels, 72’ x 30’, 50’ x 30’, and 100’ x 30’ as well as several low tunnels. The entire greenhouse set up takes less than two acres of farmland.
Being successful at organic farming is all about learning ways to fine-tune the operation to improve ROI.
“I’m the one who goes to the bug sessions at our annual conference, and I research natural methods to solve the problems we have with high aphid populations,” Becky said.
During winter months, aphids collect on the plants and because Schwarz Farms is certified as organic, the methods to protect plans from these voracious insects must be organically approved. During the winter of 2013, Becky ordered packages of praying mantis egg cases, lace wings and lady bugs. These insects are now well established in Schwarz greenhouses and the aphid population is under control.
“Among the lessons we learned back in in 2010 was that the customers in rural Nebraska were unimpressed with Asian greens, and we either needed to open up new markets or grow more common produce,” Tom said. “Since that time we have developed markets for our produce in Omaha and Lincoln, and our new customers really like the exotic and interesting new varieties of vegetables we offer.”
A lot of variety
One of the advantages organic farmers enjoy compared to their conventional counterpart is the ability to grow a wide variety of different products. Here’s a list of some of the less common vegetable varieties grown at Schwarz Farms.
Matt’s Wild Cherry
Joe’s Long Cayenne
Miniature Chocolate Bell, Red Bell and Yellow Bell
Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas
Some of the tomato varieties are so delicate that they need to be placed in tubs of water as they are picked because their skins would burst on contact with a conventional bucket.
“We grow the sweetest, most flavorful and tender varieties for our customers because from harvest to store shelf is often less than 10 hours,” Alex said. “Contrast that with the travel time of a week or more for produce that is delivered from Mexico and California.”
Schwarz Family Farms delivers to markets in Kearney, Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha as well as to independent restaurants in Kearney including the Tru Café, Alley Rose, Flippin’ Sweet Café, and the Eagles Club. Chef Zach Nelson at the Alley Rose alone buys 20 to 30 pounds of Schwarz micro-greens and lettuces weekly. Schwarz Farms also grows basil, mint, thyme, rosemary and parsley in pots that are marketed in Hy-Vee stores.
The demand for organically-grown Schwarz Family Farms produce continues to increase.
“We know we can sell more of our produce to grocers and restaurants in Omaha and Lincoln,” Tom said, “but we must have the capacity before we commit to more customers. “Our location in Nebraska is fortunate. Schwarz Farms is midway between Denver on the west and Omaha on the east, and we can deliver the highest quality of fresh vegetables to customers in either direction.”
“We can sell as much produce as we can grow and we haven’t tapped the Denver market yet,” Alex adds. “I would like to see us add two more 100’ by 30’high tunnels.”
Organic farming is labor intensive and requires careful thought and planning. Maintaining organic certification comes with its own costs and many who try growing organically abandon it a few years later. But after 15 years, the Schwarz family has already dealt with many of the challenges they’ll face and proven they have what it takes to face the future and be successful. We can’t wait to see where they go from here.