Thor Oechsner: Connecting Farmer to Baker
by Jennifer Lapidus, CFSA’s Infrastructure Research Coordinator
We, here at CFSA, are very excited to be bringing in Thor Oechsner of Oechsner Farms to keynote this year’s Organic Commodity and Livestock Conference, taking place in Rocky Mount on February 15th (with on-farm workshops Feb 14). Thor’s farming operation, located in Newfield, New York, encompasses close to 1,000 mostly leased, certified organic acres (more than twenty fields within a twenty mile radius ranging in size from 8-148 acres). He has a thriving grain and cover crop production with corn for feed and food grade; wheat for milling– both bread and pastry (hard and soft) — and distilling; oats for feed and seed; rye for flour and seed; buckwheat for flour and seed; red clover for soil building and seed; a handful of heritage grains for niche markets; plus grass hay and straw. Thor is also founding partner in both Farmer Ground Flour, LLC, and Wide Awake Bakery, closing the gap between farmer, miller, and baker (and inspiring us down here at Carolina Ground Flour Mill. And yes, Farmer Ground Mill inspired the name Carolina Ground).
I first met Thor on his farm. With funding from Organic Valley, which allowed me to visit farms within the Carolinas, as well as get outside our region to do-on-the-ground research and networking, I landed in Newfield, NY. It was the summer before last and instilled in my memory of that first meeting was that the apprehension I often feel when approaching a farmer on his farm–because I am asking a farmer for his time, and there’s never enough time in the day. My fear was immediately expelled by Thor’s warm welcome. This was once he emerged from under the immense Deutz-Fahr tractor he was repairing. Hands covered in grease, he re-surfaced with a bright smile and an offer to provide a tour of his operation.
We began with his newly acquired (used) Crippen S-54 four screen seed cleaner. The towering machine resembles a legless All Terrain Armored Transport, Star Wars, Circa: the Battle of Hoth. The Crippen was not yet fully set up, and he pointed to his Sidney 123 BE 3-screen cleaner, which is what they were currently using to clean grain and seed at two-tons an hour. The Crippen can clean six tons an hour.
He then guided the way to his grain bins– 11 bins lined up, ranging in size from 1,500 bushel capacity to 13,000. I wanted to know how he managed to acquire such a fleet. He said he bought the first couple bins used and cheap, but the energy and time spent setting them up convinced him of the value of low- interest loans and new bins, and so the other nine bins were purchased through FHA loans.
Next, we were on to the combines– a John Deer 9500 with a 15ft head, and a Gleaner S-3.
Having launched the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project with the simple, naive notion that the Carolina farmer and Carolina baker should be doing business together, only to be faced with the towering obstacle of rebuilding infrastructure, Thor’s set-up had me feeling like a kid in a candy store. The answer to my looming question, “How did you get here?” was simple: one step at a time and lots of resourcefulness. And not so simple– the ongoing challenge of working with diverse markets and diverse rotations. And then there’s infrastructural upkeep. Thor worked as farm equipment mechanic out of college, and later ran an Audi/VW repair shop. He also taught diesel mechanics at the local community college until he made enough money to take on farming full-time in 2003. And so he has the skills. And I suspect, most importantly, it all works because he loves to farm and he’s having fun doing it.
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