WILLARD — One woman touring the massive, multi-faceted Buurma Farms complex south of this Huron County town described the operation as a ballet.
Given the constant whir and motion of sorting and packing machines mixed with the constant movement of workers and steady hum of forklifts zipping back and forth, it seemed an apt adjective.
Which is exactly what the 118-year-old family-owned 2,500-acre farm is — a well-oiled machine that produces an impressive array of produce that makes its way into major supermarkets and wholesalers, as well as seasonal farmers markets sponsored by Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio.
The Lorain-based food bank leans more on Lorain County farms in late summer and autumn for apples and other fruits and produce, but Buurma Farms is a major supplier of fresh produce including radishes, beets, lettuce, green onions and celery for Second Harvest’s annual summertime farmers markets that distribute food to those who need it at various locations in Lorain County and beyond, said Julie Chase-Morefield, Second Harvest executive director.
Members of the Buurma family, who have owned and operated the farm since 1896, led tours Thursday for Second Harvest staff, donors and others of the operation that employs about 400 seasonal workers, most of whom are migrant families who live a few miles away, and receive medical care at an on-site clinic.
“We’ve got a lot of fourth-generation migrant workers,” Chad Buurma said. “That says something for our operation that we’re pretty proud of.”
While area farms are known for their bountiful apple and corn crops, Buurma Farms has a distinctive reputation, Chase-Morefield said.
“They have the craziest soil I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s black. It looks like potting soil.”
“We’re essentially farming a compost heap that has decomposed over time,” Bruce Buurma said. “It’s so organic that it’s like peat moss that is burned for fuel in some places.”
Bruce Buurma noted how the soil makes for “good, tasty vegetables,” while noting “weeds love it, too.”
Known as “muck,” the exceedingly rich soil is gradually disappearing due to erosion, Bruce Buurma said.
“In the 1980s, they said it would last 100 years or better, but now it will probably be gone in 50 to 60 years,” Bruce Buurma said. “After that, it’s going to be a real struggle to grow vegetables.”
Buurma Farms and its neighboring farms are longtime suppliers of produce to Second Harvest through the Ohio Food Program and Ohio Agricultural Clearance Program, two state-funded efforts coordinated by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
The farm’s array of produce numbers some 30 crops including radishes, beets, varieties of lettuce, sweet corn, green onions and celery.
All of the big Willard area farms were begun by Dutch immigrants whose expertise with field drainage and canals in the water-filled Netherlands proved a boon to their efforts in Ohio and elsewhere. About 30 Dutch-run farms gradually shrank to today’s four major operations that include the Buurma, Wier, Holthouse and Stambaugh families.
“There was this swampy area near Willard and they (the Dutch) found it had this amazing soil that was perfect for growing vegetables,” Chase-Morefield said.
Buurma Farms encompasses more than 5,000 acres including the Willard farm as well as major farms in Michigan (which produces the firm’s radishes) and Georgia.
Crops are rotated on a regular basis at all farms to maintain nutrients in the soil and reduce problems with destructive insects.
Bruce Buurma noted a radish crop holds the record for fastest trip from seed to harvest of a mere 16 days.
“We harvest six days a week and plant four,” Bruce Buurma said.
In a series of buildings, workers manning conveyor-belt machinery separate and “grade” good produce before it is washed beneath showers of 36- to 38-degree water, hand-packed, shrink-wrapped and boxed, Chad Buurma said.
The farm’s major operations include four ice machines capable of producing 60 to 65 tons of ice on a hot day to refrigerate and preserve fresh-packed produce, Chad Buurma said.
“On a hot summer day, we push these machines to their limits,” Buurma said.
Employees manning forklifts whiz past stationary work stations with loads of boxed produce on their way to waiting trucks to be delivered daily to wholesalers, and major grocery chains such as Kroger and Meijer, both of which are major supporters of the farm’s “home-grown produce” credo, Chad Buurma said.
At its peak, the Willard operation sees about 200 people working in fields, another 100 packing produce and another 100 manning machinery and performing other tasks during days that last 14 to 15 hours.