by Sally Colby
Fifth-generation farmer Ralph Kurtz tells the story of an older gentleman who visited the Kurtzs’ family farm during autumn. “The barn doors were open and he wanted to go up to see the inside,” said Ralph. “After I walked up into the barn with him, he stood in the middle of the barn, looked around and declared, ‘It’s just as I remember – I used to come out here with my grandpa to get potatoes in fall.’”
Although Kurtz Produce no longer grows potatoes, the New Haven, IN, crop and vegetable farm is thriving, and this year marks 150 years of continuous farming by the Kurtz family. The farm is currently operated by fifth generation farmer Ralph, his wife Diana and their son Matt.
Matt said there wasn’t much doubt he’d return to the farm to become the sixth generation. “I decided one year into school that I was going to come back to the farm,” said Matt, who studied ag business at Purdue. “I had a pretty good idea that’s what I wanted to do.” Matt oversees vegetable production while his father manages the overall farm operation. Diana handles office work and manages elementary school tours on the farm.
In addition to produce, Kurtz Produce grows 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans. Corn is sold at a local elevator and most soybeans are raised for seed. The family dedicates 60 acres to growing produce for summer and autumn, using a crop rotation schedule to help limit disease and enhance soil. “We don’t let any ground remain idle for a year,” said Ralph. “Our rotation (after vegetables) will be into corn and soybeans. We like to be out of growing pumpkins a minimum of three years, or even four or five years, before we return to that field. We also rotate summer produce.”
The Kurtzes focus on popular vegetable varieties. Summer vegetable crops grown on plastic are drip irrigated while other crops are grown with overhead watering. Summer vegetables include green beans, sweet corn, eggplant, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, cantaloupe, watermelon and an assortment of hot and sweet peppers.
“Matt is very good at planning ahead and laying out seven acres of plastic for tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon and other crops,” said Ralph. “We buy seed and send it to a commercial greenhouse to start plants. When it’s time to plant, Matt has already made the rows. We have to time everything we plant, and Matt does an excellent job organizing and keeping detailed records so we can do it all correctly.”
Crop selection for each season is based on previous years’ sales. Matt recalled last season when several plantings were a bit too close. “We have a record of each harvest,” he said. “We know when the surplus happened so we can adjust the next year.”
Each year, the Kurtzes select four or five different sweet corn varieties to grow, planted in nine successive plantings about one week apart. With experience, they’ve found it’s best to not announce when specific varieties are ready and use all bicolor varieties to make it easier for customers.
“We try to plant the early varieties only once,” said Matt. “To get early corn, we’re giving up either plant height or ear size so we want to move into full-season varieties. Once we’re past the early corn, we can plant the full-season varieties multiple times.”
Ralph said the only way to get earlier sweet corn is to plant it under plastic. Although production costs for equipment and land use are high for only half the normal yield, he’s open to starting sweet corn under plastic in the future.
Autumn produce includes pumpkins and a variety of hard squash. Customers also visit to purchase decorative items such as gourds, corn shocks, Indian corn and straw bales. Matt grows at least 25 varieties of pumpkins and squash, and adds varieties each year. Some pumpkins are sold to wholesale customers who use them for decoration, and a large amount go to the Indianapolis Art Museum for their month-long fall festival.
Pumpkins are planted at the end of May or early June. “The earlier, the better, so they’re ready in early September for a healthy crop that lasts through into October,” said Matt, adding that it’s easiest to stick with Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins rather than planting more varieties.
Two years ago, Matt added sunflowers as a crop – several rows for cut flowers the first year and a larger patch last season. This year he established successive sunflower plantings to ensure flowers throughout autumn. He plans to continue adding fall activities to keep customers interested in returning to the farm.
As an experienced teacher, Diana has developed a seasonal, on-farm learning experience for children in preschool through second grade. “A good portion of the lessons include plant growth,” she said. “We talk about how corn and beans are grown, harvested and stored in grain bins and farming in general. Then we take a ride up to the pumpkin patch and they pick out a pumpkin.” The farm has hosted as many as 6,000 children over five weeks of tours.
A popular autumn attraction at Kurtz Produce is a corn maze planted in a 24-acre field. “I come up with a design,” said Matt, adding that about nine acres within the larger field are devoted to the maze. “The image is sent to a company that uses a GPS map so we can walk the maze and mow the design when the corn is about 18 inches tall.” The 2022 maze features an image of the original barn.
During high school, Matt sold Christmas trees as an FFA project, and has continued that enterprise. Each year he sells about 220 cut trees and a selection of potted trees. He said it was difficult to find a steady supplier after his first supplier went out of business, but he’s found three reliable sources for a good selection of tree sizes and varieties.
In addition to Matt, Ralph and one additional full-time employee, Kurtz Produce hires five high school students in summer and adds more as the season progresses. “In fall we’ll hire up to 20 high school students for pumpkin harvest,” said Matt, adding that it has been difficult to find migrant workers who can work a partial season. “Home-schooled students work well for us because they have more flexible hours. When school starts, they help pick up the slack because they can work in the morning and do school in the afternoon.”
The Kurtzes have found that customers are still interested in sweet corn and string beans into autumn, although harvesting those crops means adjusting the labor workforce during the height of pumpkin season. Diana has noticed that with school starting in August, people tend to cook less at home, which has changed buying habits.
In autumn 2020, the Kurtzes harvested more than half a million pounds of pumpkins with just high school help. “Most of harvest takes place after school in a two- to three-hour time period during the week,” said Ralph. “We also harvest on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons, and we get a lot done in a small amount of time.”
A large local food bank purchases produce at bulk prices during the season, then volunteers visit the farm to glean whatever remains after the season. “We try to make this a no-waste farm,” said Diana.
Matt explained the farm’s longstanding relationship with the food bank over many years. “My grandfather worked with the local food bank to donate produce throughout the summer,” he said. “The food bank has also worked with other local farms to purchase products at a reasonable price. It’s been a great relationship.”
Visit Kurtz Produce at kurtzproduce.com.