ONALASKA, Wis. — Diversification, soil health and quality crops are the goals for Patrick McHugh of Onalaska, which he is achieving one field at a time. McHugh has 140 acres of his 2,000 acres in alternative crops.
When McHugh took over the family farm in 2010, he said he realized he wanted to produce great-quality crops for sale while diversifying — so he wasn’t dependent on one product.
“I have a different frame of mind,” he said. “I want plant quality and soil quality.”
To achieve his objectives he concentrates on a proper rotation, using organic methods and cover crops.
“I am not a market chaser; soil health comes first,” he said. “(Planting alternative crops produces) more income so I’m not so dependent on price and can concentrate on soil health.”
One way he can do that is by custom-growing rye and corn to supply the needs for manufacture of bourbon, gin, whiskey and vodka at La Crosse Distilling Co.
Small craft distilleries have doubled in the past five years, creating a market for particular varieties of small grains and corn.
“People are willing to pay for it,” said Chad Staley of La Crosse Distilling Co. “It starts in the field. We have the highest regard for the farmers.”
The distillery is selling all the workers can make; there are plans to expand.
McHugh receives direct input from Staley about what to plant. Price for the crops is agreed to between the two, based on their respective costs. The distiller likes to keep the dollars as close to local as possible. By contracting with a local grower the owners can avoid the hassle of sourcing ingredients.
The corn that La Crosse Distilling Co. uses for bourbon comes down to planting for flavor, which the older varieties can provide. This year, to meet their needs and for next year’s seed, McHugh planted 30 acres of Waspi heirloom open-pollinated corn. It has been a challenge with this year’s wet weather.
“(But) rain makes grain,” he said.
The corn used in distilling needs to be consistent size; this year he planted medium-sized. He uses more seeds, planting at 23,000 to 27,000 seeds per acre. The acreage is organic, so he uses a flame weeder and a Kinze cultivator for weed control. He tries not to disturb the soil any more than necessary. Weed control is not perfect.
“Embrace some weeds,” he said. “You aren’t going to get them all.”
McHugh said he prefers using poultry-based fertilizer to avoid the weed seeds found in cattle manure. He uses variable-rate lime. Even though it takes 10 to 15 years to balance the soil, he said he believes it’s more consistent across the farm. This year he’s hoping for a corn yield of 100 bushels per acre, but said he would be happy with 75.
His other distiller’s crop is rye, used for making light whiskey. In October he planted 30 acres of Aroostook rye, although he said he prefers September. Weather and harvesting prevented an earlier start.
The rye is cut between 8 and 10 inches with a swather because combines don’t like anything green.
“If I have a two-bushel-per-acre loss, I am happy,” he said.
Ideally his yield goal is for 30 bushels of rye per acre.
McHugh’s overall rotation for his specialty crops consists of soybeans, cover crop or small grain, legume silo crop and corn. He also leaves between 40 and 50 acres fallow each year — where he plants a cover crop of winter peas, cereal rye, vetch, oats and radishes.
That has allowed him to build his organic matter from 3 percent to 6 percent. The soil now looks like coffee grounds.
“We don’t have to go fence row to fence row,” he said. “We know tillage and chemicals do harm. Using the right tools can get us over the human effect.”
The newest venture on the McHugh farm is an acre-and-a-half plot of hemp. He said because hemp is in its infancy as a crop, learning to plant, harvest and handle the hemp is all a learning process. Added to his other crops, it’s a challenge he said he’s enthusiastically embracing.
Visit lacrossedistilling.co for more information.