After talking to Randy Hughes of Janesville’s Blue Farm Chip Company, it’s easy to justify his self-proclaimed status as a rock star of corn. His knowledge and excitement about not just growing corn, but the development of the seed, the preparation of the soil, and precision-timed harvesting techniques is obvious.
After being raised in a chemical farming environment, Randy left Janesville to study agriculture at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. After graduating, he returned to the family farm and brought with him the technical expertise to change the direction of the farm and to return the land to organic. The land, granted from President Polk to his great-great-grandfather, had been swept up in the synthetic chemical revolution of the 1950s. “In 1848,” Randy says, “my family was all organic and then in the late 1950s they changed, and in the ’60s and ’70s they got worse and then it stayed about the same and then I came along.” Randy was inspired to go organic after contracting to grow identity-preserved seeds for a local seed company in the 1980s. Through that process he found a species of corn that he found fascinating, and he sought to grow that and more value-added crops on particularly challenging but otherwise beneficial soil conditions.
To begin doing that, he first accepted the help of renowned agronomer Bob Tracey who took Randy’s corn seeds to Chile and, in their near year-round growing season, was able to refine and enhance the blue corn species naturally in half the time it would have taken in Wisconsin. In three years, through a process of open pollination with its own genetic material and other select breeds, Randy was able to begin growing his own hybrid blue corn.
Starting out with only 18 acres in organic production, Randy now manages 1,000 acres organically and uses his expertise to help other farmers who are considering converting to organic as well. “When you farm it organically,” Randy explains, “first of all you have better tilth and better permeation of water, so those crops handle drought better than conventional crops anyway, for the most part. Some guys have gone overboard with the deep till and all those kinds of things, and they might have fluffy soil, but the critters are pretty well beat up in the soil. But what we do, because we’re plowing down rye and doing those sorts of things, the soil just gets this moist, hummus-y kind of feel and smell to it, even on some of this lighter ground. It takes a few years to get that to happen, but that has better water utilization.”
There are choices each farmer must make in order for each generation to succeed during their stint in running a family farm. To get better often means getting bigger in farming and the Blue Farm facility shows every sign that the choice has been made here. Particularly from the view in Randy’s busy office where, through giant plate glass windows, one can see miles of farmland as well as an arsenal of heavy farming equipment. Randy spoke about that transformation from becoming a farmer to creating a business from the farm and becoming more involved on that level. He said, “I don’t know how you can separate them anymore. I don’t have calluses on my hands. I am probably more of a businessman than a farmer anymore. Part of it is that you get to where it’s working pretty well with Dad and his operation, but then in comes me and my wife and kids and so, yeah, maybe we did need to expand a little bit to keep everything going. But one thing I did notice, coming out of college, was that there were some real economies of scale with farming. There’s no question about it. We are now at a number where I’m not looking to expand much. We’re just about right.”
By 1991, Randy had become certified by OCIA and began growing organic blue corn. At the time there were some but not a lot of buyers for this unusual crop. Partnering with another local business owner, Dave Reimer, the two began grinding the corn and experimenting with tortilla chips. They consulted with Peter Roang, former owner of what was to become Basics Cooperative in Janesville who aimed them towards using healthier oil for frying the chips before they began looking for a producer to make and package the chips. Blue Farm chips are still made with only four ingredients, organic blue corn, organic safflower oil, salt and a hint of lime.
The chips are made by a Midwest chipmaker, but Randy’s proud to claim, “You’re dealin’ with the guy where we’ve done it from start to finish. We’ve developed the variety. We planted the corn ourselves right here in Rock County. We’ve harvested the corn ourselves. We’ve cleaned the corn ourselves. We’ve hauled the corn ourselves. It gets processed by somebody; it comes back to our facility in the bag and is distributed by us.”
After each harvest, the corn is tested for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before being used by the chipmaker who stores the kernels in 2,000-pound bags and freshly grinds the corn before making each batch throughout the year.
Currently, Randy’s trying to use up a large supply of the 4-color (blue/yellow/red/white) tortilla bags he had printed before the USDA seal was approved. After that happens, he’ll be able to incorporate the green ink needed to print the organic seal. But for now, he’s printing “Certified USDA Organic” on the front of the bags until it can be redesigned and reprinted.
Though Randy admits that he does still farm some other fields conventionally, he understands the benefits of an organic operation as he describes some of the differences in the two methods, “You got your kids out there when you’re planting your organic crops, and you aren’t having to watch them for fear they’ll get into anything. The dog can hang out. You don’t worry about it licking its paws and dying. None of the neighbors are mad at you. It’s just easier. And when you win and it works and you do it right, you really feel like you’re shaking hands with Mother Nature, and you’ve got a deal rather than trying to sneak in and beat her at her own game with tons of this and that and the other thing.”