A Commitment to Caring for the Land

Okray Family Farms

Rainfall doubled in Wisconsin over the past two years. While the rain was pouring down in massive sheets in Wisconsin, fires were blazing across much of California. These changes in climate are impacting the flora and fauna across the U.S. Climate change remains the number one threat to global food systems.
So how is your food supply being impacted by climate change?
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The EPA released a report in 2017 outlining the major challenges that will be faced by all food industries, including agriculture. Migrating pests, changing rainfall levels, plant health and threats to non-food supply species such as bees and butterflies are challenges all farmers must take on. Meanwhile, those in the business of food supply like brokers, supermarkets and transportation providers should be doing everything they can to support farms that are making tangible efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Farmers face a unique challenge in today’s changing climate. “Farmers are the only occupation that cannot move,” explains Dick Okray, President of Okray Family Farms. “We cannot relocate land.” Situated in central Wisconsin, Okray Family Farms has been growing potatoes and other vegetables since 1905. Okray is taking these challenges very seriously, and its efforts have been producing results.

In 2015, Okray was awarded the Environmental Stewardship Award by the National Potato Council and Environmental Protection Agency. It was awarded after Okray substantially reduced pesticide use without decreasing crop yields. This award is only a small part of what makes Okray one of the largest sustainably-minded farms in the country.

A top 100 grower in the United States, Okray Family Farms primarily grows and packs potatoes that are sold to small and large companies across the United States, such as Wal-Mart, Kroger and Aldi. Russets, reds and yellows are harvested and packed in bags as small as 3 lbs. all the way up to 50 lbs. 8,000 acres of land are split between potato operations and other vegetables like sweet corn, snap peas and beans. Okray handles the potatoes while contracting parts of its land for other vegetables – which Okray grows, but the contractors harvest.

“The potatoes are grown and handled through the entire process, including shipping,” says Mark Finnessy, Okray’s Secretary. “We grow the potatoes, then we’ll pack them in the bags you want, hire trucks, and ship them to you.” Once potatoes are harvested, they usually reside in storage for less than three days before being shipped out. Potatoes are stored in a constant, low-humidity, cool environment to ensure freshness. Costing only pennies a day, air-curtain technology is utilized to keep temperatures consistent. This ensures a high quality product, and is an added protection against climate change. With the changing climate, foods are more vulnerable to mold and contamination, but quick turnaround times and monitored, consistent storage techniques circumvent this obstacle completely.

Customers appreciate the fast delivery as well. “We pride ourselves that we grow a good crop and we deliver it fast,” continues Mark. “We get an order on Friday at noon and we can get it out by Friday afternoon and delivered the next morning.” Alex Okray, Chief Financial Officer, agrees. “We’re pretty much open 24 hours a day with cellphones and computers.”

For companies that harvest other products like snap peas and beans, Okray can help with that process as well. 5,600 acres of the Okray farm are contracted to companies who are free to grow what they like. Alex explains that, “At the beginning of the year the canning companies come to us and they tell us what they want… it’s all in our hands until it’s time to be harvested, and the company decides when they want to harvest what we’ve grown.”

Getting the full quality of the potato from farm to table requires expert handling, and the potatoes coming out of the Okray Family Farm are among the best in the country. To ensure this quality, Okray has sought outside verification through voluntary third party annual audits. This year, Okray was audited by Primus Global Food Safety Initiatives, the largest globally recognized food safety audit. The company achieved scores of 97 percent on the preliminary and 98 percent on the final audit scores for the current calendar year.

A long-standing relationship with the land and ability to harness new technologies is a big part of Okray’s success. It’s not science or societal trends that are driving its work in sustainability, but a long-held philosophy. Four generations of farmers have tended the land since 1905. While they technically own it, they don’t exactly view it that way.

“We don’t really see ourselves as owning the land, as far as we can talk about it in agriculture,” Dick explains. “I tend to think of all agriculturalists as environmentalists. There’s no other position where you have this ownership of something that your entire life has to be dedicated to maintaining sustainably. And, if you’re not dedicated to that, then you’re really not doing this in the right way.”

Essential to the company’s sustainability push is research. “We work very closely with the University of Wisconsin to help us to battle what we feel weather patterns are going to be like. The most recent pattern for the past three years is we’ve been getting almost double the amount of rainfall that we normally get.” Too much rainfall can wash the nutrients out of the soil and hurt yields. According to the EPA, rising CO levels, while potentially increasing some plant growth, can reduce concentrations of proteins and essential minerals in plants, decreasing their overall nutritional value. Keeping an eye on soil health is paramount to continuing to provide reliable, hearty crops.

To this end, since 2000, Okray has been working with the Hancock Agricultural Research Station on finding innovative ways to reduce soil erosion, such as 25 miles of windbreak placed at the edges of production fields to reduce wind erosion. “Hancock research station is run by professors and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” Currently the Research Station is focusing on “climate change and how to stay sustainable in a time of pretty rapid climate change. We need to constantly be on the cutting edge of technology.”

Since 2012, Okray has been monitoring its CO2 emissions using the Cool Farm Tool. Developed by Unilever, the University of Aberdeen and Sustainable Food Lab in Hartland, Vermont, the tool is helping farmers set and achieve goals for emission reductions.

New technology is also helping to accurately measure water and pesticide use. “All of our fields have been sampled, so when our irrigation pivots make their full circle they can change their rates and the amount of water they use depending on the soil type,” explains Alex. “In addition to that, we measure the groundwater levels on all of our fields throughout the year and those measurements show we’re not depleting the groundwater,” he says.

Okray is also using low-tech solutions, such as implementing a four-year rotation schedule between potatoes, corn, beans and peas to give the soil time to recover from the previous crop. Furthermore, it decreases pest populations by altering their food supply, so fewer pesticides are needed. This approach also helps to incorporate different nutrients into the soil each year.

Okray works to reduce overall chemical use through the Healthy Grown Program. This program is part of an initiative from the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, which Okray has been member of for over 40 years. It’s “a program that utilizes less toxic chemicals and less fertilizers in order to continue to grow a good quality crop of potatoes and other crops. But it also has components of restoration of wildlife areas,” says Dick. “The issues of sustainability aren’t only about potatoes, but the entire ecosystem.” This is doubly important as climate change creates new stresses, such as new pests that can threaten crops. Many farmers have adapted to this by increasing pesticides, which has threatened other important members of the ecosystem such as butterflies and bees.

Alex explains how the farm is adapting to this reality. “We’re looking at planting more habitats and flowers for bees,” he says. “There are a lot of pollinators out there so we’ve been researching and looking into trying to build more favorable corners to bring the pollinators back – bees and butterflies.”

In today’s changing climate, everyone should be doing their part. As a purchaser, sourcing from Okray is a big step in the right direction. Okray Family Farms delivers the full picture: a quality, high-value, reliable product grown in a sustainable manner. Potatoes are harvested to adapt to fast, short-term orders but are grown using a long-term perspective. “It’s an overarching bigger picture view of what agriculture is and how farmers are the ultimate caretakers of the land,” Dick explains. “We’re charged with that and we accept that… we will always be looking at this as something we need to protect and care for.”

June 25, 2019, 12:32 AM EDT

The Road Ahead

While there is no single hard and fast definition of self-driving cars, The Union of Concerned Scientists – a non-profit group founded by scientists and students at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology “to use the power of science to address global problems and improve people’s lives” – considers self-driving vehicles to be those where human drivers “are never required to take control to safely operate the vehicle.”