Van Thuyne Farms (BoCo Beans)
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About Us
Jules Van Thuyne was born at home on his parents’ farmstead 1/2 mile away from where he now lives and farms on Monarch Road. Jules’ grandparents first began farming in the Longmont area in 1917 for the Ludlow family, first at the Wilke property, then on a farm on Niwot Road. When Jules’ father was a boy, the Van Thuynes bought the family farm located just south of Longmont on Highway 287, and in 1992, the family sold one of the first conservation easements in Boulder County to the Parks & Open Space Department.
When asked if he always wanted to be a farmer, Jules explains that farming “was a passion for me at a really young age. I just kind of got hooked on it really, really early, probably when I was 7 or 8 years old.” Jules practices the same type of large scale commodity crop production as his father did, and in a typical year he will raise corn, sugar beets, wheat, barley and alfalfa. However, just because he has farmed the same crops for 32 years does not mean that he is not always looking for better ways to farm and bring further efficiencies to his operations. In recent years, Jules has added five center pivot sprinkler systems to his properties, making the delivery of water vastly more efficient than a ditch-fed system. In a drought year such as this one, a center pivot is “worth its weight in gold.”
This year, Jules also used a strip-till machine to plant his sugar beets. Unlike in years past, where he may have had to plow, disk and heavily till a field, Jules planted directly into the field using the strip-till and leaving the residue on top of the ground. The process uses much less fuel and water, and so far, the sugar beets are thriving despite the hot and dry conditions.
Jules sees the work of Boulder County’s Parks & Open Space in an extremely positive light. One of the farms he initially leased from a private land owner was later put under a conservation easement by the county when Jules purchased it in 1997. In 2000, Jules also bought the farm house he has lived in for the past 32 years from the county and purchased the surrounding farm in 2008.
Being an experienced and skilled farmer, Jules was able to lease property from the county. He now farms a total of 1800 acres that are both privately owned and owned by the county. In reflecting on his experience with the Parks & Open Space Department, Jules explains that his career ran in parallel with the county’s program, and he was afforded many opportunities to grow and develop as a farmer. As Jules concludes, “It’s been a good relationship, it really has.”
A crop rotation benefits from diversity by reducing pest pressures and inviting a supportive growing environment. The pests (including weeds, insects, and fungi) that inflict pressure on the growing of one crop or plant are not always the same for another. A winter wheat rises early in the year, competing with and reducing the abundance of other undesirable cool and early plants, then after a midsummer harvest, the land opens up for later and warmer plants to take over. Corn, sorghum, or beans are planted and harvested later, creating a different window of opportunity that allows cool and early plants to thrive. Pests and fungi that feed upon certain crops and seeds like corn rootworm aren’t so keen on other roots and plants so their populations dwindle in the between times without their preferred food (and abound when their favorite crop is grown year over year). Some plants like rye or buckwheat are commonly grown as cover crops because of their allelopathy--the active reduction of undesirable plants through chemicals they exude through their roots. This concept of breaking weed, insect, and fungal cycles with strategic management of plants and their life cycles is often referred to as Integrated Pest Management; a diverse crop rotation is the central pillar to this approach to cultivation that reduces the need for chemical pesticides like glyphosate and neonicotinoids and mechanical disturbances like plowing and tillage.
Similarly, plants create an environment above-and-below-ground in which certain beneficial plants and soil biota (all living things like bugs, worms, fungi, bacteria, mycelium, etc) can thrive and support the current crop or the next by replacing what has been used in the prior crop phase.
Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the air and typically the most scarce in the soil; we know that plants utilize atmospheric carbon, so why don’t they just grab the nitrogen they need through photosynthesis also? Elements bond to one another through their electrons as if holding hands. Remember the game red rover in elementary school where you break through the line of classmates holding hands? Imagine if that line was three people deep instead of just one or two... much harder to break! Atmospheric nitrogen is triple bonded so it takes a whole lot of energy to break those atoms apart into a form that plants can utilize and later turn into amino acids and proteins (plants need a balanced diet, too!). There are basically three ways that atmospheric nitrogen becomes plant-available: lightning strikes, human generated fission (think N-bombs and A-bombs, literally), and a few very special and important types of soil bacteria. Fritz Haber is credited with developing the reactive process which turns atmospheric N2 into plant ready NH3 ammonia that is commonly used for plant fertilizer. The process has enabled incredible gains in productivity but requires a ton of energy to initiate the process and the resulting product is highly volatile (see the recent port explosion in Beirut as an example). Leguminous plants (like beans!, peas, peanuts, clover, and alfalfa) engage in a mutualistic relationship with bacteria of the Rhizobium family, that can also break the airborne nitrogen gas into a form that plants can use. These bacteria often reside in little white nodules on the roots of leguminous plants (dig one up and look!).
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Plants transform atmospheric carbon (CO2) and water (H2O) into carbohydrates and sugars like glomalin that seep out of their roots. These miniscule areas around the roots of plants called the rhizosphere are perhaps the most biodiverse points on the planet from a species-to-area perspective. Plants give bacteria the carbohydrates they need in exchange for the nitrogen that bacteria bring into the underground soil economy. Dr. Christine Jones points out that this exchange between plants and soil biota often includes a whole package of elements including micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, and iron that plants and humans need for healthy functioning. When plants get nitrogen for “free” from synthetic fertilizers, they can grow quickly and are disincentivized from having to create excess sugars (think solar Carbon dollars) to participate in the soil economy. In doing so, plants don’t receive the micronutrients piggybacking on the trade, and as heterotrophs that eat plants (or animals that eat plants) for our energy, we also miss out on these important micronutrients. Instead of getting these nutrients from carrots and beans, we end up adding them into our diet in vitamin and supplement form, much like farmers today often add these micronutrients to the soil as amendments from outside the system. Like nitrogen in the air, these micronutrients abound in the soil, plants just can’t use them on their own and must participate in the soil economy to get them in the compound structure they need. In our currently pervasive chemical-industrial (extractive) agricultural methods, this underground economy is often disrupted by chemical and industrial impacts and sparsely nourished by crop rotations and animal exudates (pee, poo, and saliva). Which brings us back to how beans bring diversity and health to the land....
A balanced and diverse crop rotation utilizes this sequence and variety of time-between-crops to place a given plant into a setting in which it can thrive, and bringing certain structural and chemical characteristics into the soil so that all the life below ground can thrive also. Beans are part of a crop rotation that makes sense for the colorado climate, and make sense as part of a balanced diet that makes sense as colorado cuisine.