By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader
Since 1919 the Vorwerk family has been farming in Henry County.
“In 1919, my great grandfather, Henry, moved here from Defiance County,” said Kenneth Vorwerk. “The story goes that there was some farm swapping among a couple families. The farm Henry originally bought was a little east of here. It was an 80-acre farm with some woods that had not been completely cleared. This farm was a clear 60 with a little better soil. The family that was here wanted great grandpa Henry’s farm because it adjoined another farm of theirs. This farm was all clear and was a little closer to town, so they swapped.”
Regardless of the specific details of the transaction, in 1919 Henry Vorwerk began farming in Henry County. Vorwerk Farms has been in the family for four generations, with Henry purchasing it in 1919. Henry’s son Alvin took ownership in 1928. Alvin’s son Donald took ownership in 1973, and Kenneth took ownership in 1991. Kenneth’s son Mike will be the fifth generation, and Mike has a son that may become the sixth generation.
The farm that Henry finally settled had a house and barn on it when he arrived.
“In 1929 when my grandpa Alvin took over the farm from Great Grandpa Henry, they actually moved and turned the big barn 90 degrees. Originally it ran east and west, parallel to County Road S. They raised it up and rotated it 90 degrees to run parallel to County Road 11. At that same time, they built a second barn of the same size and connected the two with a granary in the middle,” Kenneth said. “Grandpa built a small grain leg inside that carried grain up to five different bins in the mow.”
Vorwerk Farms is currently a multi-family, multi-generational farm. Brothers Kenneth, Dick, and Tom are all in the fourth generation. They are all sons of Donald. Each of the brothers now have a son (fifth generation) involved in the operation.
“Ken is retired, Dick is getting ready to retire, and I am just tired,” joked Tom, who is the youngest of the three brothers involved in the operation.
Ken’s son Mike, Dick’s son Andrew, and Tom’s son Greg are the sixth generation and have taken over much of the daily operations.
“They all have their talents and unique skill sets that they bring to the farm,” said Dick, speaking of the next generation. “Andrew works more on the mechanical side in the shop and with equipment maintenance, while Greg and Mike handle a lot more of the bookwork and marketing and agronomics. Like all family farms, everyone pitches in to do whatever is needed to get the job done.”
Vorwerk farms began, like most farms in Northwest Ohio in the early 1900s, raising a diversity of crops and livestock, but over the years began to specialize, and more recently to diversify within that specialization.
“Dad (Donald) was more interested in raising crops, but grandpa (Alvin) still wanted to keep a few cows around,” Kenneth said. “In the early years most everyone had crops and livestock. Sugar beets were also common crops around here.”
Vorwerk Farms began raising vegetables in the early 1970s.
“The first year we grew tomatoes, Dad insisted that he did not want any trucks in the field, so we had to load all the full tomato hampers onto wagons by hand, and then take them up to the barns and restack them on the trucks by hand,” Ken said. “Dick was away serving in the military, so Tom and I had to do it all by ourselves. We told Dad the next year they needed to be loaded directly on the trucks and only stacked once. That was a lot of work.”
Early on, the tomatoes grown by Vorwerks were for Foster Canning and Campbell Soup (both in Napoleon), as well as a few other local tomato processors.
“Cucumbers were added as a specialty crop at about that same time,” Ken said.
“The migrant labor would come in the spring and help transplant the crop, they would weed it in the summer, and harvest in the late summer and fall,” Dick said. “Having both tomatoes and cucumbers provided plenty of work to keep the labor busy.”
Over the years, Vorwerk Farms has grown to nearly 4,000 acres and has raised field corn, popcorn, soybeans, green beans, wheat, oats, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and sugar beets. “With the exception of the field corn and wheat, all the crops we raise are specialty crops, or are raised for a premium,” said Greg Vorwerk. “Our soybeans are non-GMO soybeans, and this year are growing triticale for seed. In the late 70s and early 80s we raised field corn for seed for Pioneer. We raised seed beans for them until about 4 years ago. The popcorn, and green beans have specialty contracts. We raise three types of peppers: bell, cherry and jalapeno. We raise cucumbers for pickles. This year for the first time we raised some cucumbers that were mechanically harvested. In the past, all the vegetables were hand harvested by the labor. This year we worked with a neighboring farm, and we purchased a mechanical cucumber harvester.”
Popcorn is one of the specialty crops that Vorwerk Farms has always grown.
“I still remember back in the early 50s the popcorn was harvested on the ear, and we would pick it and store it, then haul it down to Wyandot Popcorn,” Tom said. “I can remember the old straight truck Dad owned didn’t have a very good heater, and I would need a blanket when riding with Dad on the way down to Marion to keep warm in the winter.”
“Dad (Donald) always worked on the farm until he passed away in 1989. He managed the T.V. Time Popcorn facility we had in those later years,” Dick said.
Vorwerk Farms raised sugar beets until the late 50s. For a few years in the late 50s they also raised sweetcorn. They started raising tomatoes and cucumbers in the early 1970s. They added peppers in the 1990s.
Growing seed corn and seed beans led Vorwerk Farms to build a grain storage facility.
“We put up two 10,000 bushel bins in the early 1980s. Since that time, we have added more bins to segregate the specialty contract grain crops. We now have close to 300,000 bushels of on farm storage,” Ken said. “Crop quality is critical, regardless if it is a vegetable crop, or a specialty grain crop. We only use the leg for the field corn and wheat. We handle the specialty grain differently to avoid contamination and damage. We have the ability to dry with low heat to protect the integrity of the crop, and quality of the popcorn. We also have installed the ‘BinManager’ system on the newer bins to help monitor the temperature, moisture and quality, and to control the heat and fans.”
Technology is something that Vorwerk Farms has embraced and capitalized on over the years. “In the early years, Grandpa (Alvin) had a steam engine and threshing machine. He would go around and thresh grain for the neighbors, as well as his own,” Kenneth said.
Fast forward to the present, and Vorwerk Farms uses GPS RTK guidance for autosteer on their tractors, they have variable rate prescription planting technology on their planter, and the BinManager system on their grain facility.
“The other day we looked at a drone spraying a field,” Greg said. “It is important to keep our eyes open and be willing to try new things and see if they have a fit.”
“For a few years we were involved in organic crop production,” Ken said. “We had the bins and ability to segregate the crop, and the equipment and labor to make it work.”
Vorwerk Farms located just a few miles north of the Maumee River and participates in the H2Ohio program.
“We want to do our part, and do things right,” Greg said.
Vorwerk Farms uses strip-till with fertilizer placement for their corn crop. They also utilize cover crops where they fit into the production system. Dick has served on the county soil and water board, and Kenneth has been on the Farm Service Agency county committee.
What is the secret to running a century farm that is multi-family and multi-generational in this day and age?
“Learning to work together,” Ken said.
That is what has made Vorwerk Farms successful since 1919.