Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 025 - Building Resilience featuring Laura Lengnick and Don Teske

Laura Lengnick: I know farmers and I know that they care more about the land. And how is it that environmentalists and farmers got on different sides? Because it seems to me that the folks who know the best about land and have the most vested interest in how that land is cared for would be the people that are cultivating that land.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Today on the show: valuing the family farmer’s role in our food system. That was Laura Lengnick, a soil scientist and the founder of a consulting firm that offers ecosystem-based climate risk management and planning services. She’ll be speaking with Don Teske, a 5th-generation farmer in Northeastern Kansas. Don is currently transitioning from cropping to cattle grazing. Throughout his career, Don has seen the livelihood of the average family farmer come and go.

Don Teske: The family farmer is a centerpiece for community quality of life in rural communtiies. And so once that’s gone, then you have what I’ve witnessed in the panhandle of Texas where the county seats are boarded up and hospitals are boarded up and there’s huge modern farms that don’t need local community to support them.

Mallory Daily: Part of this loss stems from added difficulties small farmers face when experiencing extreme weather events and increased temperatures related to climate change. But Don says these farmers aren’t just victims, they can also be leaders in efforts to mitigate the effects of global warming.

Don Teske: I am passionate about climate change, for the last 15-20 years National Farmer’s Union was actually administering the largest carbon sequestration program in the nation where we had eight million acres enrolled in carbon sequestration practices that improved what they were already doing. And so I can see what role agriculture has to play in dealing with climate and part of that is the opportunity to sequester carbon but part of that is also our responsibility of our more contaminating practices that increase climate change. So we have both opportunities and challenges. And I was honored to have had the opportunity to testify before congress in 2007 about concerns of climate change. It’s not anything to be proud of, but everything is coming true faster than our concerns were at that time. So climate resilience is important. And it’s neat that you’re making a living doing that.

Laura Lengnick: Yeah. Well. I don’t know that I’m quite making a living yet, but I certainly think there’s a need for folks. There’s a lot of questions right now. The way I like to approach it is to think, to understand that agriculture, and our food system—this is really bigger than agriculture—is part of the problem of climate change. But I also think that agriculture and the food system, very uniquely, is a source of solutions as well. And it sounds like the work that you did with the soil sequestration carbon trading earlier was a great step forward. The other thing that I get real excited about is other work National Farmers Union is doing around the Climate Leadership program and the Climate Column. All of that is really bringing together and really creating a place for farmers to get into this issue of climate change, and to start talking about solutions. I really appreciate that program as well.

Don Teske: Yeah. And Tom Driscoll is doing just a wonderful job of that. And I thought he’d be good at that, and I thought he would get a lot of dialogue going. But I never dreamed to the extent it is. And I’m proud of what the young people are doing in our organization. I’m really proud as a major farm organization, the stance that Farmer’s Union has taken on climate change. That just really enforces why I’ve been proud to be part of it all these years.

Laura Lengnick: As a farmer, I’m really curious, do you see climate change as a game-changer for agriculture? Or are there other issues?

Don Teske: Absolutely.

Laura Lengnick: Yeah? In what way? What have you seen?

Don Teske: Well, you know, what I’m seeing in my part of the nation is more dramatic climatic events. I was certified organic for 13-years and farming organic. I had 500-acres certified that I was farming between my travels with my job. As my travels with my job got tighter and then climatic weather events starting happening more bang-bang-bang, I wasn’t able to get into my operation and work the ground and get it prepared back for a seedbed and get planted between the weather events. And my neighbors that were no-tilling were and so it led me, it was one of the deciding factors to drop organics at that time. The other being the fact that I’m weaning myself away from cropping and focusing on livestock. But that was a factor for me, personally. And you can see that. And planting dates were getting earlier and the heat is making more of an effect on the crops in the Midwest and what you’re seeing in industrial grain industry, they’re building the terminals in the Dakotas now in Southern Canada instead of Texas or Oklahoma.

Laura Lengnick: So you’re seeing the grain moving north?

Don Teske: Yeah. One of the major corn producers and soy producers in the nation now is North Dakota. And that wasn’t many years ago all they could raise was durum wheat. And lentils. And yeah, this is climate change face on. And then all the weather events are getting worse. I imagine in your consulting you have to deal with this a lot. What’s your role?

Laura Lengnick: Well the kinds of stories you just shared, I’m hearing all over the country from farmers. The specific challenges may change depending on the region they’re in. For example, in New England or in the Northeast, they’re really challenged by flooding rains and floods in general. In the Southwest, obviously, it’s mostly drought. But one thing you described, having trouble getting into the field and getting the work done when you needed to get it done. I think of that as narrowed fieldwork windows. It’s getting much more difficult to get in he field. and that sort of issue has really been nation-wide. So I’m interested and farmers have had different ways to adjust and to adapt to that. I’m interested in hearing a little bit more about why you’re moving toward livestock and was that—sounds like it was— a decision based on climate change or some of the weather you were seeing? And whether or not livestock may be a more resilient kind of production system in your area?

Don Teske: I can certainly address that. I want to get back to one other thing that’s really dramatically affecting the Midwest that most people don’t realize, but we’re seeing it in more parts of the country, is the wildfires. And so we have a situation now that we’ve had up already this spring. It’s already so dry this spring the firefighters have been out fighting wildfires at a time of year where that doesn’t happen. I’m in a part of the country where we do controlled burns to control the vegetative weeds, and so we’re almost coming up to burning season and I’m afraid to light a match because it’s so tinder-dry out there. And they’re coming up out of Oklahoma, they’re running 65-70 mile an hour. They’re just devastating cattle and fences and farmsteads. and people have lost lives. This is not something normal for Kansas. You’ve heard of it in the Texas panhandle and the Oklahoma panhandle and in some of the western states but these out-of-control wildfires like that is not a common situation in Kanas. And it looks like it’s going to be a continuing part of our management system now. As far as my own operation in the transition to grass is—where I’m at in Potowatami County is where the glacier ended, and so it’s really rough country and deep ravines and you’re kind of on the hilltops or the river bottoms but it’s really all crappy ground. It should have never had a plow taken to it. It’s all gumbo and poor quality. And so the ability to make a profitable cash flow on cropping is more challenging in our area than it is in other parts of the country. And so it should have never have had a plow taken to it. We’ve actually gotten some of the best grass on the earth, that God ever put on the face of the earth. And our native Blue Stem prairies and so a little management, grazing with that makes the best stewardship on my farm to turn it over to the next generation in the best shape possible because, you know, erosion’s a problem. Soil quality is a problem. And a lot of this isn’t a problem under managed grazing systems.

Laura Lengnick: I call those kinds of solutions a win-win-win solution. You’re improving the resilience of your business, your agriculture business. But you’re also sequestering carbon. So we’re providing a solution, part of that looking for solutions in agriculture, and you’re restoring a resource that was degraded through the use of the plow, as you described. So you’ve got these win-win solutions, and there’s a whole lot of them, I think, in sustainable agriculture, different sorts of practices like managed grazing. I also wonder, I hear in your story, maybe your farm reached a tipping point with the changes in weather and your decision to go from annual cropping to more perennial cropping, if you will, if you think about that as grasslands. Was there more in your decision than the changes in weather or was that a big factor?

Don Teske: That really is a big factor, although in a perfect world, that’s where I’d like to be. I’m getting to that stage of life where I can be and I never thought I could before. My wife and I have always been around cows. We dairies for 20-years. I was raised on horseback and you know, I have a good personality for cows. We get along together. I don’t have that good of a personality for iron and when you look at today’s investment in iron, to have any type of—you know, my newest tractor right now is 1973 model. mean, you don’t need a fancy tractor of feed cows in the wintertime. You put up bales of hay. And so you know I contemplate investing in the iron it would take to compete it today’s world and it’s just a move that I refuse to do. Not even when you’re talking the technology of it. I mean, I don’t want a tractor that’s smarter than me. And I want to be able to fix it with what I got myself. I’m good at fixing things. And so I guess I’m used and washed up, but I have no desire to enter the age we’re being led into. And so what I see as a future is: know your farmer, the relationship between producer and consumer, and that’s what I hope to eventually do is sell my production directly.

Laura Lengnick: Direct. Yeah.

Don Teske: And things like SARE is what helps lead me to that. So what got you started in it?

Laura Lengnick: I was a suburban kid. I got started my first year in college. I was going to be a landscape architect. Obviously I enjoyed plants. From my experience, I knew plants as objects in a landscape. In my first year, I took a soil science course. It was required in the landscape architecture program. And I never looked back. Soil is just the most fascinating thing for me. A 3-D environment where gravity doesn’t always do the things you think it’s going to do, for example, to water. Biology. Chemistry. Physics. It integrated all the sciences in this 3-D living thing that feeds the world. So, you know, as a young, impressionable person. That just hit all my boxes and really got me excited. From then on I studied soils and wanted to understand them and how to take care of them. Feed ourselves and take care of the environment at the same time.

Don Teske: Yeah. So what for me what made my shift was I sold the dairy herd in 1994 and I started working off the farm part-time. And part-time I was with Kansas State University as an ag-econ farm analyst. But the other half time I was with the Kansas Rural Center. They were fairly new to me. I was a field-man for the Clean Water Science Project. So I worked with farmers around the state on improving water quality and hosting tours there and it was just a win-win for everybody, and fun. But that’s what got me started and what eventually led to my conversion to organic and sustainable ag. I still sit on the Board of the Rural Center, and I’m proud to do it. That’s a good bunch.

Laura Lengnick: Yeah. I’ve always wondered why there’s so much conflict in the ag community around these issues of environmental quality. It seems to me a lot of it is generated. In other words, I know farmers and I know that they care more about the land and, very often, if they’re more than one generation on the farm, there’s all that heritage and pride in the land. And how is it that environmentalists and farmers got on different sides? I’ve always walked that line, because it seems to me that the folks that know best about land and have the most vested interest in how that land is cared for would be the people that are cultivating that land. What do you think about that? I even heard it this morning, one of the comments was: “We need to talk with eaters, eaters don’t understand farmers.” I think if I had to characterize my work in the past 30 years it’s always been about trying to bring those groups together and help the eaters understand the feeling farmers and ranchers have for the land. Just figure out how to make that conversation more collaborative.

Don Teske: That’s a wonderful observation and a commendable effort. After working three Farm Bills, I noticed firsthand the influence that industrial ag and agribusiness have on the development of the farm policy and the Farm Bills. It’s never to the betterment of the family farmer. My goal in my life is to advocate for the family farmers, as is Farmer’s Unions’. And so I wasn’t born and bred Farmer’s Union member, it was an organization that found me because we had the same beliefs. And it was ironic because back when I was half-time a K State and half-time at the Kansas Rural Center, on staff at both places, I’d go to K-state meetings and listen to them tell Kansas Rural Center jokes and then I’d go to Kansas Rural Center staff meetings and listen to them tell K-state jokes. You know, it was like, I’m kind of in the middle of this never-never land. It was kind of fun. I don’t know who I ended up defending more or how bad of an example I set, but it was a wild environment to live in. But it’s exactly true, There’s no reason conventional agriculture has to be defensive at sustainable agriculture. And yeah, a lot of the things that are going on right now in conventional agriculture threatens their own existence. Not only weed resistance and the mining of the soil up to this point, and then also the fact that there’s just so much mass overproduction that they’re going broke doing it. Explain it to me again: I’m going broke conventional farming so I just need to plant more acres? So in my areas, we’re all really clannish, we’re all related. We’re all uncles or cousins and so if I’m going to get bigger, I’m taking out family members to get bigger. And I’m trying not to do that. That was one of the things when I converted from conventional agriculture over to organic agriculture was I seen that as a possible opportunity to maintain a living on the farm without having to expand, without taking out my friends and relatives while at the same time using a lot of the equipment that I was raised around and familiar with. For me, it was a very selfish purpose but I think the family farmer is the center-key, the centerpiece for community quality of life in rural communities . And so once that’s gone, then you have what I’ve witnessed in the panhandle of Texas, where the county seats are boarded up and the hospitals are boarded up and there’s huge modern farms that don’t need local community to support them.

Laura Lengnick: Yeah. Well and from my work in resilience and resilient agriculture, it’s that family farm that is the center of resilience as well. Thinking about that and thinking about the next 30-years, what excites you about whats happening in your region that you think is pointing to new solutions?

Don Teske: Well, I see a new generation that’s not afraid to start standing up for themselves, and that’s a really good thing. I’ve seen too much brainwashing going on through the young people in agriculture through the development process, and all at once I’m starting to see people start to think for themselves. And I like that. But what I’m really excited about is the fact that a lot of our food systems that were taken for granted are loved now because we’ve been taught to like them. And beef, which my passion is beef, most of the world has grass-fed beef. The United States has become accustomed to and addicted to corn-fed beef. And so I eagerly look to the time when we can look our way back to what’s good for you food-wise and what’s good for the environment because I don’t think personally that there is very much climate issue with the beef industry until they get into the feed lot system that they’re not made for.

Laura Lengnick: Yeah. I’m very excited to see the food being brought more and more into agriculture conversations. Bridging, again, kind of an artificial division I would say in issues of food and ag that I’ve wondered about for a long time. Working with farmers over the last 5-years or so—farmers and ranchers—I hear this new issue of food quality coming up, nutrient density of food, providing more fresh, whole foods in ways that make them very healthy foods. That excites me. I think we’re really finally starting to see the whole picture: how food is raised, how it affects people’s health, public health and really getting back to, in a very practical way, this idea that’s been around for a long time in organic farming which is that soil health makes healthy crops. Healthy soils make healthy crops make healthy livestock makes healthy people makes healthy communities. As a soil scientist in particular, I am so excited at this renewed interest in soil health, and a much broader understanding and appreciation for the many benefits that healthy soils bring to our communities.

Don Teske: Yeah. Even in cropping, we’ve got a lot to learn. We’ve been shamed by our coffee shop neighbors into thinking you can’t have a weeding in the whole field, and this monoculture is not good for Mother Nature at all. And so I think it’s a wonderful opportunity now for the young generation that’s asking the right questions to start taking on the task of creating a responsible food system that we can all be proud of.

Laura Lengnick: And so in that way, as an elder sitting back and looking at the last 30- or 40 -years, and looking forward to the future, I’m really proud of what the sustainable ag movement has done in terms of laying a foundation for some of these more dramatic changes in just the way we think about food and agriculture in this country. And so I’m hoping that just the work that you and I have done, and many others, have really set a stage for us to see a transformational change in the food system, one that includes—brings along—the family farmers and recognizes family famers as an important component of the food system in general. So I guess we’ll just have to see where that goes.

Don Teske: Very well said.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Laura Lengnick of Cultivating Resilience, LLC, and Don Teske, Kansas-based cattle rancher. You can check out links to their work in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host, Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening!