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Making It In the Muck

ENDEAVOR, Wis. — In the muck fields of southern Wisconsin, the newly emerged potato, onion, carrot and mint plants burst forth in a brilliant bright-green hue against the backdrop of black, nutrient rich muck soil. Since the early 1990s, brothers Roderick and Richard Gumz have owned Gumz Farms, which also grows corn and soybeans as rotational crops. But the farm’s history runs as deep as the muck fields themselves. Their great-grandfather immigrated from Germany in 1892 and began muck farming in Indiana. The operation expanded in the 1940s when the second generation added several satellite farms in Wisconsin. Today, the brothers are the fourth generation of Gumz to farm in the United States.

Apart from cultivating specialty crops on 6,000 acres, Gumz Farms also packages various potato and onion varieties for retail consumption, accounting for approximately 40% of Wisconsin’s onions, and handling about 20% of the state’s fresh-market red potatoes. They also distill mint into oil for flavoring in products like chewing gum and toothpaste.

“Growing in muck soil is very different,” Richard explained. “Muck contains up to 60% organic matter originating from former lake beds that have gradually drained over time either naturally or through human intervention. One challenge we face is that muck soil retains a lot of moisture. With a high water table, we’ve implemented ditching and sub-surface tiling to remove excess water.”

To address these challenges and improve efficiency, the Gumz brothers embraced innovation in both field operations and the packing shed.

“We truly believe where there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity,” Roderick said. “By adopting different approaches, we aim to enhance effectiveness and create a better workplace experience for our employees."

To optimize field operations, Gumz Farms extensively employs guidance and precision agriculture practices, especially for crops requiring multiple passes over the rows during the growing season.

“These practices simplify tasks for our operators and shorten workdays,” Richard noted. “We’re getting more accurate work in the fields and reducing frustration for our employees.”

In the packing operation, investments in storage facilities and automation have enhanced productivity, reduced employee fatigue and ensured the delivery of high-quality products.

“Adding climate controlled storage facilities for our onions and potatoes enables us to extend the marketing season,” Roderick said. “This allows us to offer more year-round and full-time positions, which is key in retaining employees.”

Richard added that many of their innovations in packing revolve around labor savings. “We have automatic balers that can weigh out and assemble 3-pound packages of onions, which are then placed into 50-pound master bags for shipment to retailers,” he explained. “Our automatic palletizer robotically stacks our produce, which makes for a nice presentation while significantly reducing manual labor for our team.”

To further maximize automation, the operation has also incorporated an auto-grader for onions.

Partnership Fuels Growth

Investments like this take capital, and Gumz Farms partners with Compeer Financial to help make these opportunities a reality.

“Richard and Roderick are very forward thinking,” said Cathy Schommer, VP of food and agribusiness at Compeer. “We’ve worked with Gumz Farms for more than 20 years, and they’ve excelled in managing risk and looking for ways to improve production, processing and marketing. They have clear goals not only for their own success but also for the well-being of their employees, business partners and the local community."

Roderick noted that Compeer understands the intricacies of agriculture, including the inherent adversities and challenges.

“When we look at opportunities to make investments — whether it’s investing in buildings, equipment or people — it takes capital. Compeer not only provides the necessary funding but also offers education, shares experiences and imparts knowledge to guide us in a productive direction. We’re grateful for this collaborative relationship.”

Food & Agribusiness of the Year

In recognition of their dedication, innovation and leadership, Gumz Farms has been honored as Compeer Financial’s 2023 Food & Agribusiness of the Year. The award recognizes businesses in the food and agribusiness supply chain, encompassing processors and manufacturers in the food and beverage industry, fiber production, biofuel, grain merchandising, ag inputs, logistics and more. The award celebrates excellence in innovation, agricultural advocacy, community outreach and client service.

“Gumz Farms is a leader in their field,” Schommer observed. “They’ve not only ventured into growing specialized crops but have done so on highly specialized soils. Compeer takes pride in recognizing and applauding their achievements as the Food & Agribusiness of the Year. Businesses like Gumz Farms enhance the vitality of rural America by providing diverse employment opportunities and supporting rural development, fostering resilient rural communities.”

For the Gumz brothers, telling the story of agriculture also plays a vital role in their success. “Being advocates for agriculture is crucial because if we don’t tell the story, who will?” Roderick said. “There are fewer and fewer of us to share this story, and producers like us are best suited to do so because we are directly involved with agriculture. We contribute to the story by actively participating in a variety of state and national industry associations and engaging with our local community.”

The brothers hope that this narrative will continue for generations to come. 

“The future for Gumz Farms is bright,” Roderick added. “The crops we grow are in demand, we’ve got a great team and the next generation of Gumz Farms is stepping up. As long as we continue to evolve and look for opportunities, Gumz Farms will undoubtedly be a part of the agriculture community for years to come. The future is unlimited and we are excited!”

This article was originally printed in the Fall 2023 edition of Compeer Financial's Cultivate magazine.  

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