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Commitment to soil health remains priority for Grain Place Foods CEO

“How your food is produced does matter.” Dave Vetter, CEO of Grain Place Foods, firmly believes in his company’s slogan.

Every choice he has made as an organic farmer on his family farm, The Grain Place, in Hamilton County, Nebraska, emphasizes the principle that healthy soils naturally produce more nutritious food. He has invested his life to regenerating the soil on his family’s land through organic farming.

Now, the Grain Place Foundation is developing local and regional opportunities to improve organic farming as a whole.

It recently signed a contract to be an administrator of programs for the top National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a division that helps farmers in their transition to organic.

Grain Place Foundation was established in 2015 to continue the research and focus on soil health that originated with Dave’s parents, Don and Mary Alice Vetter, seven decades ago at The Grain Place.

Farm experiment begins at Grain Place

The Vetter family farm initially began in 1953. Don and his father George Vetter bought 280 acres together, the same land that Dave still cares for today. A World War II veteran, Don intended to use the farming practices he had learned at GI school. This included the conventional farming methods of applying herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Don immediately observed signs of distress in his fields. Notably, wildlife populations decreased and physical properties of plants changed after being sprayed. As a result, Don adopted organic farming, which was unpopular at the time.

Don’s ability to farm was nearly stripped away in 1959. He suffered a recurrence of malaria, which he had first contracted during World War II while serving in southeastern Asia.

While recovering in the Veterans Affair hospital, Don studied accounting.

“They thought that would be better for his health than trying to farm with malaria issues,” Dave said.

The Vetter family leased out the farm. Dave went to college, first as a pre-med student for three years before switching to agronomy. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in agronomy and soil science. Instead of returning to the family farm, though, Dave went to graduate school. Over the course of the next five years, he worked toward a Master of Divinity from the United Theological Seminary at Dayton, Ohio.

During this time, Dave combined his seminary training with soil research. He took part in a land reclamation project with Ohio State University to examine worn out soils in a regional park system in southwestern Ohio. In southeastern Kentucky, Dave participated in a mission project. He also worked at a prison farm during his time at seminary.

All of these experiences influenced his perception of soil health. He learned how to approach weed pressure without the use of chemicals, integrate cropping systems and add cover crops to enhance soil health.

One of his college advisors helped Dave find direction in life, pointing him back to agriculture. After graduating from seminary in spring 1975, Dave returned to his family’s farm, and the Vetters again began farming their own land.

With Don’s commitment to organic farming and Dave’s newfound knowledge, there really was no question about how the land at The Grain Place would be managed. Their mission was to regenerate the soil.

“The focus is on soil health. That’s been the focus since we came back to the farm,” Dave said.

In 1977, they certified part of the farm as organic. The following year, the remainder of the land was certified. They also adhered additional certification requirements with other organizations in an effort to improve quality.

The Vetters approached management of the farm as a big experiment.

“We wanted to see if we could develop a cropping system that was self-regenerating and self-renewing, without being dependent on outside inputs other than seed and fuel,” said Dave.

Their ideas have proven successful. For 20-some years, the only outside inputs have been seed and fuel.

Crop rotation within small plots is part of the experiment. Originally, the fields measured 40 to 80 acres. In stages, he downsized to 18 fields of about 12-acres each, allowing him to increase diversity and manage pests more effectively.

The system relies on a nine-year crop rotation. The first year, the field is broken out of pasture and planted into soybeans. The subsequent year is corn, followed by heirloom barley with a heavy cover crop mix of five or six varieties.

Soybeans are again planted in year four, then a season of popcorn. Year six marks the beginning of the pasture period. The pasture is seeded but not grazed until the following year, unless ideal conditions allow grazing in late fall. The field is grazed for three years before the cycle restarts.

When grazing, each 12-acre field at The Grain Place is sectioned into 2½- to 3-acre paddocks for intensive rotational grazing. Dave believes integrating livestock is important to soil health. He raises cow-calf to finish, selling grass fed beef. The calves are harvested at 28-29 months of age.

“The calves are finished on grass for the best nutritional density and quality, especially on the fat profiles,” said Dave.

This year, he will also be raising a group of hogs, which he has not done since losing his feeder pig supplier a few years ago.

This will be Dave’s 49th growing season on his family farm. He is still experimenting, with desires to try more intensive cover crops with a mix of 10-15 varieties.







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More importantly, he is still learning how regenerative agriculture is impacting the soil.

“Our testing methods and what we have learned about soils has changed a lot, but the bigger picture and how we understand soils gives us clues as to how to approach management on a more general basis,” Dave said.

Their irrigation methods, for example, are conducive to the rotational cropping system. Center pivots would not work for their management style, so they rely on furrow irrigation and a few fields with subsurface drip irrigation.

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Building the ridges for furrow irrigation requires working up the soil, so no till is not a viable option. Dave follows a “minimum till” mindset. Frequent, shallow cultivation at a depth of 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch minimizes weed germination and growth. While weeds are a concern for Dave, he likes to capitalize the diversity that weeds offer to the environment. He noted that a field can have “quite a few weeds” before it becomes economical to invest in treatment.

“If your objective is to control weeds, you are not going to win,” Dave said. “We try to ‘manage’ weeds.”

His farm management also relies on careful seed selection.

“Varieties are selected for end use, not so much yield,” he said, adding that the main crop at The Grain Place is the soil.

Organic market created through Grain Place Foods

Given the size of the farm and the small organic market, Don and Dave understood the need to diversify. They devised their own niche market.

“We had to be able to generate more value out of what we produced rather than working on conventional market values,” said Dave.

Thus began Grain Place Foods, a specialty grain cleaning and storage company located on the farm. It was one of the first on-farm operations of its kind in the region.

In the 1980s, the Vetters began selling organic bulk wholegrains to organic food distributors and processors. Value-added processing materialized in 1987. This included whole grain cereals, many of those common ingredients seen in granolas and snack bars.


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Ancient grains are another hot commodity sold at Grain Place Foods. The Vetter farm supplies naked barley and popcorn, but the majority of the products are contracted from other organic growers in the U.S. and Canada.

As Dave said, “We aren’t good rice country.”

Products are available in select local grocery stores, at the warehouse on the farm, and online at www.grainplacefoods.com.

Just as the Vetters’ farming techniques can be considered groundbreaking, their marketing strategies were equally revolutionary. In 1978, they began the first commercial-scale production of certified organic popcorn. Ten years later, they introduced the first organic microwave popcorn in the market.







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One of the first to sell commercial-scale certified organic popcorn, Grain Place Foods also introduced the first organic microwave popcorn on the market.




They were also the warehouse for the man behind the principle for chia pets in the late 1980s.

“We were one of the first in the whole central U.S. to do anything with chia,” said Dave. Almost all of the chia was wild crafted when they first began. “It was a mess when it came in, but we cleaned, packed and warehoused it.”

Product development is mainly done on-site at Grain Place Foods. Dave combines knowledge from his pre-med era about physiology and nutrition with his agronomy education to augment both soil health and food quality.

He also gained invaluable experience as chairman of the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) international certification committee in 1986. Organic standards were just being developed at the time, and Dave was exposed to a wide variety of product development and food processing techniques. He worked closely with researchers and food scientists during this time.

“We looked at all kinds of things like fats, oils and coffee from all over the world, so I had to learn about products I never would have before,” Dave said.

He applies this information to new products at Grain Place Foods, doing much of his own research and development.

Grain Place Foods has more processing capacity but lacks the manpower. It’s currently looking for another five to 10 employees.

Dave is devoted to providing quality products for consumers, which essentially starts with healthy soil. To him, “how your food is produced does matter.” Conventional farming practices are stripping the soils of nutrients, he said, and in turn, the food consumed by both humans and livestock lacks nutritional density.

“A lot of the grains we are commercially producing are not the same food we started working with years ago,” Dave said.

The more he reads and studies about food systems relative to nutritional quality and soil health, the more important his company’s slogan becomes.

Legacy continues through Grain Place Foundation

Because “how your food is produced does matter,” the work of the Grain Place Foundation will continue Don and Dave’s quest for regenerating and renewing the soil. Dave said they are in the process of transferring ownership of the farm to the foundation “to continue the research and focus on soil health.”

Each July, people can explore the Vetter’s farm and Grain Place Foods in-person at the annual field day. This year’s event will be held Saturday, July 15. The Grain Place Foundation Field Day includes morning tours of the farm and the on-farm processing facility, an all-organic lunch prepared by Native American Chef Anthony L Warrior, keynote speaker Keith Berns of Green Cover Seed and other activities.

Tickets can be reserved online at www.grainplacefoundation.org/fieldday/.

The organic way of life seems to be gaining traction. Decades after being ridiculed for their ideologies, the Vetters are now being credited for their merit and worthiness. The documentary “Dreaming of a Vetter World” by California filmmaker Bonnie Hawthorne praises the work of Don and Dave as they struggled against “Big Ag” to farm their most important crop: soil.

The documentary can be viewed at www.dreamingofavetterworld.com.

A newly published book also embraces how the Vetters and Grain Place Foods have taken a revolutionary approach to sustainability. “Working to Restore: Harnessing the Power of Regenerative Business to Heal the World” by Esha Chhabra was released this spring.

Dave Vetter remains committed to regenerative agriculture and the work his father began in 1953. Farm management practices change over the years, but the basic premise remains the same to Dave:

“Healthy soil. Healthy food. Healthy people. It really is as simple as that.”

Reporter Kristen Sindelar has loved agriculture her entire life, coming from a diversified farm with three generations working side-by-side in northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at Kristen.Sindelar@midwestmessenger.com.

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