Published Nov 26, 2014

Field Day Recap: Early Morning Harvest

By Liz Kolbe

A cold, wet, blowing snow Saturday… the 65 brave souls who ventured to Panora for Jeff and Earl Hafner’s field day at Early Morning Harvest found sanctuary and lingered for hours in the warm, humid greenhouse (and even the 45 F grain mill!).

The Hafners, who farm 2,000 acres of organic row crops and grass-fed beef, opened the doors on their rapidly growing “hobbies” for a PFI field day.

The certified organic grain mill is Earl’s (Jeff’s Dad) enterprise. He started with a 3 in. stone mill to make breakfast cereal, and now his grains are sold in stores around the state and are used for 90% of New Pioneer Coop’s bakery items (you can also find them at the farm store or online). Products include various types of wheat flour, rye flour, wheat bran, cornmeal, and corn polenta (and more!).

Speaking of polenta, Chef Donna Prizgintas was on-hand cooking up a batch of cheesy polenta with smoked cheddar. She’ll show you how to make it – watch the video or show up at her back door (like I plan to do…). Early Morning Harvest polenta is very coarsely ground, which provides a rustic texture you won’t find anywhere else (or at the farm store that weekend, because we bought every bag in the place!).You can also catch her on the Donna Lonna Kitchen Show on KHOI with PFI farmer Lonna Nachtigal.

Sorry, I was drooling there. Back to the field day.

Earl and Paula Terrones showed field day attendees around the mill, which is housed in a building connected to the aquaponics greenhouse that also contains a certified test kitchen, greens washing area, egg washing station. Earl walked through the milling process, while Paula explained the storage, bagging, and logistics of the operation.

Back in the aquaponics greenhouse, Jeff Hafner and his employees, Rachel and Andrew, answered questions and toured people through the various bed and tank styles. Jeff is very up-front about his novice status in aquaponics production. “We were cattle  and row crops. We had these hobbies… I had to expand mine to fix mistakes I made. Now we’re into vegetables and milling. We are not perfect. I am not an expert, but I’ll tell you where I’ve failed.”

Jeff uses media bed and raft bed systems. He likes the media bed for its versatility, especially with fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers – the media system has more P and K than the other. The rafts work well for greens like kale and chard, but he had more downy mildew problems on cucumbers in the rafts. He noted that larger growers will use rafts exclusively, but he likes the flexibility of the two systems. He has also experimented with NFT (nutrient film), but found that the water small tubes (about 1/4 in. diameter) were hard to keep warm in the winter and in the summer could fry lettuce in two hours if unchecked.

The aquaponics requires heat and electricity, in quantity. Jeff uses gas to heat the 5,000 gallons of water in the system to 72 F, which then radiates to the air. That is enough to keep the greenhouse air temperature at 50 F through a 0 F night. He also uses about 500 kWh per month for electricity when running grow lights. He is interested in using compost heat or solar, but has not yet found a system he likes.

The produce in the aquaponics system accounts for about 90% of the profits, the tilapia, financially, are a wash (they are for most aquaponics systems). Jeff harvests around 1,200 pounds of fish annually, with a grow up time of 11 months. Each 300 gallon tank (he has various sizes) can hold 100 1.5lb fish; he takes off 10-20 fish at that size and then brings the rest up to 1.75lbs. “We’ve found they have a nicer filet at that size, but if you go any larger you’ll start to lose some efficiency.”

If you’re interested in talking with Earl or Jeff about their “hobbies” they often have people visit the farm. They also welcome FFA groups, 4-H, and classrooms to come out and have a look, and hopefully start a systems of their own.

This was also the last field day for Tomoko Ogawa, who is moving back to Japan. A PFI staff member for the last five years, she worked on small grains marketing and has been close to the Hafners as their business has grown, making this field day a good closing event for her tenure. We’ll certainly miss her quiet efficiency and skill around the office and in the field, as will many PFI members!