Tom Murphy, a Northwest Indiana farmer, partners with Shirley Heinze Land Trust on the Agricultural Land Program, developed with local farmers and agricultural organizations in order to surface resources and planning guidance to preserve NWI farmland for generations to come. Murphy has been instrumental in helping Shirley Heinze reach farmers and strategize effective means to get the word out about how easy, cost-effective, and practical it is to incorporate new farming practices that benefit both farmer and farmland.
Murphy generously offered to sit down with us this month to answer any questions we (and our social media followers) have about what farming looks like in Valparaiso and the greater Northwest Indiana region.
Shirley Heinze: Where are your farms located, and what do you grow?
Tom Murphy: Our Farm is located in Porter County: Valparaiso/Chesterton area. I farm acreage from Burns Harbor to Crown Point.
SH: What might someone be surprised to learn about your farming practices?
TM: It may surprise someone that a farm of this size could be run by only 3 full-time employees and 2 part-time employees (who assist in Spring Planting and Fall Harvest).
SH: What does your typical yearly schedule look like? (from prepping, to planting, to growing, to harvesting)
TM: The farm stays busy year-round. As soon as harvest is done in the fall, I start planning and working towards the following year’s crop. This includes ordering seed, fertilizer, and chemistry. January and February are spent working on equipment and hauling grain. Our goal is to be in the fields working by March and planting soybeans by the middle of April. Corn planting starts the end of April to early May, depending on the weather and temperatures. Following planting, I am scouting fields to begin fertilizing and spraying as the need arises. This continues through August. The month of September is preparation for harvest. Harvest could run from the first week of October until the end of November.
SH: Do you always plant the same thing or rotate? If rotate, what are the factors you consider in choosing a different crop?
TM: We rotate between corn and soybeans, sorghum/milo. Each year we have to determine what is better for the soil and what crop will be more profitable. It is usually beneficial to rotate between corn and soybeans because they use each others’ byproducts. For example, the soybeans make nitrogen which corn utilizes. It is important to sample soil and know what the soil needs are. Some soils will produce a certain crop yield better than another. While corn may grow well on certain soil types, soybeans may struggle or be more “high maintenance,” requiring extra input to increase yield.
SH: Where does your crop go after harvest?
TM: Most of our corn crop goes to Cargill in Hammond for starch. We also grow non-GMO specialty corn for Cargill. Our soybeans go several places. Some go through Cargill Burns Harbor, others are shipped out anywhere in the world. The soybeans that go to Louis Drefus Claypool are made into Biodiesel. The soybeans that go to Cargill Lafayette are used for soybeans byproducts.
SH: What’s your favorite part of being a farmer?
TM: Planting in the spring and watching the growth of crops is rewarding. It is always a sense of accomplishment to see your hard work growing in the fields and be proud to harvest what you planted. I set new goals for myself each year to attain and strive to continue to use evidence-based practices to reach these goals.
SH: What was farming here like 20 years ago? What do you think it will be like 20 years from now?
TM: 20 years ago, there were several small farms in existence. This area in particular was much more rural. As the population has grown, farmland has become houses and businesses. I hope in 20 years there is still available land to farm. As farmers, we have had to increase efficiency and change the way we farm in order to adjust to population growth and changes to the land. I hope that young children will still want to grow up to be farmers and be able to enjoy farming like I have.
SH: Why are land conservation and sustainable farming important to you?
TM: Land conservation is extremely important. The farmland that is left needs to be kept healthy so that farming practices can continue into future generations.
SH: Has it been a burden to take on some of your conservation practices, or has it been easy?
TM: Through education and farming best practices, most farmers and landowners have been accepting of conservation practices and strategies. The biggest obstacle for us is being able to fly in cover crops over some of the fields we want to grow them in.
SH: What advice would you give to farmers who are interested in using conservation practices?
TM: Keep an open mind. Talk to other farmers who are already using conservation practices to develop an attainable plan.
SH: Is there anything local residents or businesses can do to help you employ some of these practices?
TM: Try not to overfertilize. Over fertilization of yards and land around farms is a major contributor to nitrates in the soil and ground water.
Questions from the Shirley Heinze Land Trust audience:
Would you consider solar panels on your farmland?
TM: I would consider solar panels to decrease use of natural gases if the cost and output of production was sustainable for our farm. (For example, maybe having enough solar power to run a corn dryer in place of natural gas?)
Do hay farmers need to wait until a certain date before mowing to help protect ground nesting birds?
TM: We do not raise hay on our farm. I do know that certain states, like Iowa and Illinois, have specific dates for mowing practices.
If you use those big sprinklers during the day, how much of the water evaporates before it gets into the ground?
TM: Our farm does not use irrigators. I know farmers who use them. The irrigators have ground sensors that ensure the pivots only run when necessary. The newest irrigators are very efficient.
–Tom Murphy, Northwest Indiana farm owner
& Shirley Heinze Land Trust staff