Produce farm seeing success in expanded greenhouse operation
HENSLER -- Dwight Duke farms hard all day without worrying a wink about sliding commodity prices up on the board of trade. He grows peas, beans and corn just like the big boys with the big farm "toys." But his crops go from field directly to tabl...
HENSLER - Dwight Duke farms hard all day without worrying a wink about sliding commodity prices up on the board of trade.
He grows peas, beans and corn just like the big boys with the big farm “toys.” But his crops go from field directly to table, unlike the processing plant versions grown on mega farms. It is he, not some futures market analyst, who sets the value of what he grows. Duke, 66, is so far from that realm of futures-trading farming it’s like another planet, and he is proof that a sustainable living can come from 25 acres and four greenhouses, instead of 25,000 acres and four green “Deeres.”
Skyline Ranch Produce is located just outside Hensler not far from the Missouri River. Duke has been raising produce there on a full-time basis since 1994, steadily diversifying and expanding the greenhouse side of the operation. Most of his produce, ranging from ferny fennel to gigantic red peppers, to Yukon gold potatoes and sweet corn, is grown in the great outdoors. He is as dependent on weather and as wary of hail as any farmer, with the exception of a drip watering system that aids, but doesn’t replace, rainfall.
“The Lord makes this stuff grow. All I have to do is tend to it, and I’m happy to be able to get up every day and do it,” he says.
Most of the labor at Skyline Ranch Produce sans machinery, including the sales from his hands to customers’ hands at six area farmers markets in Beulah, Hazen, Washburn and Bismarck. He also supplies produce to the new Bisman Food Cooperative. There is money in the produce business - he grosses six figures annually on food he sells by the pound - but physical labor is involved in every penny.
“You have to be fast, love hard work and be able to put up with some weeds,” he says.
Vegetable farming isn’t for everyone, but it is for a growing number of people, says Jamie Good, local foods specialist with the State Agriculture Department.
He keeps a local foods directory of 125 to 150 participants, most of them selling raw produce, though some sell jellies, jams or flour ground from small grains at about 50 farmers markets around the state.
Good said Duke is a go-to guy for others interested in making income off the land from smaller-scale produce production rather than a full-on farm or ranch.
“Duke’s customers are buying quality week in and week out. His produce is just phenomenal,” Good said. “He’s one who others look to as someone who’s doing it right.”
People generally are becoming more aware of where their food is sourced and enjoy buying locally grown produce when they can, according to Good.
Duke says there is a relationship between good health and eating produce enriched with minerals from home ground and acclimated specifically to North Dakota. No chemicals of any kind are applied to his produce, including herbicides to hold down the weeds that have sprouted like, well, weeds in the recent rains.
“Most of the time, it’s just hoe, hoe, hoe,” he said.
Duke experiments every year, adding produce that catches his interest or is requested by customers.
“I love this,” he says, opening the door to one of the greenhouses, where the opalescent light illuminates sprawling green sweet potato vines.
Digging into the soil, he pulls up a few of the orangey tubers, still lanky, but gradually filling out as harvest comes on. It’s likely he’ll be among the very few growers selling fresh sweet potatoes later this fall to roast for an autumn dinner.
Good said local growers are always looking for a niche and says, like any farm operation, no matter how big or small, it pays to “not put all your eggs in one basket.” Diversification is as important in produce as in any crop production.
“There is no magic bullet, but there is value in fresh,” Good said.
He urges anyone interested in growing and selling local foods to contact him at the ag department and check in with the local public health district to be in sync with any codes and other growers.