Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 002 – Everybody Eats featuring Greg Judy and Adam Saunders
Greg Judy: Well, the one of questions people ask me: what’s the most important lessons I’ve learned through farming. One is invest in livestock, not machinery. That’s a huge one and it’s usually the opposite and you go into farming their, their machinery heavy. They got all kinds of machinery and I ask to see their cows and they got eight cows out there. I’m like, what? You’ve got a $50,000 tractor, and you’ve got eight cows. That’s not going to work. You’ve got to reverse that. You get, you need $50,000 invested in livestock. Cause my question to them is how many tractors have you ever seen that had a baby calf.
Mallory Daily: Welcome to Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. That was Missouri Farmer Greg Judy, and I’m your host, Mal. There are a lot of ways to be connected to sustainable agriculture these days. You could be a farmer, a gardener, a researcher, a teacher, a student, a consumer. The list goes on, and chances are you’re on it. Because regardless of your profession or your education on where you live, everybody eats.
Adam Saunders: Everybody has a connection with food. And if you start asking people about that and trying to learn where they’re coming from, you see that there’s a commonality.
Mallory Daily: That’s Adam Saunders, cofounder of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture in Columbia, Missouri. Each episode, we’ll bring you conversations between two people immersed in the sustainable ag community. The point is that members of this community are in conversation with each other. So you won’t hear much from me for our first show. Adam will talk with Greg Judy, founder of green pastures, farm in Rucker, Missouri. Greg does rotational livestock grazing 100% grain-free.
Greg Judy: When I started out, Adam, I was a conventional farmer, as far as a grazer.You know, I went out and bought the land. I bought the equipment. All right, let me back up. The bank bought all this and I had, you know, I had this loan, but I had a good job in town and I thought, you know, this is the way you gotta do it, you know? And so I was following what all the professionals told me to do. And after about two or three years of that, it wasn’t going very well for me. So I started looking at different alternatives. I knew I had to find a different niche than commodity agriculture cause I wasn’t making any money. I loved the lifestyle. I mean I really did. I loved working out with the land and the livestock, you know, building, trying to build each year and make the land better. But I just couldn’t get myself out of the hole. And I read an article and in the article, there’s one sentence that said your sole purpose in life should not be to own the land but to control the land. And that one sentence changed my whole life. And I’m like, well, wait a minute. The title of the article is leasing: lease, don’t tie all your capital up in buying farm land. And so that’s what we started doing. I started looking around the neighborhood, and my gosh, there was land all around me. Nobody’s doing anything with it. All absentee land owners, they bought it for an investment or to play on or retirement or whatever. But they’re not there. And I was. Long story short, today we’ve got 16 farms. They’re all within five miles of our house and I mean it’s really been a fun ride, but you’ve got to look for the unfair advantages. Unfair advantages: leasing versus owning on land. There’s a lot of people that have a lot of ground, they don’t know how to put to do with it. They really don’t. They may have had the money, they bought it as an investment or whatever. And I think that’s a weak link in our chain. We need to get the young people skilled where they can go out onto this land and improve it. And that’s what we’re all about. We call ourselves ‘landscapers’. That’s what we do. We take an idle piece of land that looks like crap. And with our management in our livestock, in our farming, in our silvopasture and the shiitake logs–you know, you name it–we’re turning these farms around and they look like showplaces and we’re done. That’s what we teach. And I think there’s a huge opportunity out there.
Adam Saunders: I would agree with you that the opportunities in agriculture are huge. Everybody eats and there’s a huge economic driver. And what we’ve seen is that food is a great unifier of people and it speaks to everybody. I do a lot of fundraising and outreach and talk to a lot of people. And with our programming, all different backgrounds, income levels, ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, and everybody eats and everybody has a connection with food. And if you start asking people about that and trying to learn where they’re coming from, you see that there’s a commonality. And especially with gardeners, we have bank presidents who they love to talk about how they trellis their tomatoes and we have immigrant families and we talk about, how do you trellis your tomatoes? And it’s the same problems and the same commonality that really brings us all together. And that just creates a community and a trust and understanding between people that make people want to work together. And it opens doors when you build that common ground.
Greg Judy: Well, Adam, I think what you’re doing, you know, I’ve been to your field day that you have here in town and just to expose town people to food. It was an amazing event for me. I mean, I was just awestruck nd by the amount of people you’re affecting at that field day. And I was like, man, we need more Adams. You know we need an Adam and every major city in the United States that teach people how to raise food and soil and where this food comes from. So y’all are doing some awesome things out there. And I’d recommend anybody that hasn’t been to your urban agriculture site. Can you tell people where that’s at, by the way?
Adam Saunders: Thank you, Greg. I appreciate that. Yeah, we have an acre and a third on a Smith and Fey street. We’ve been there for the last eight seasons here in Columbia, Missouri. We showcase the feasibility of growing food. All the food we raised, we take to the food pantry. We have thousands of kids that come through with their school groups that have never seen food grow and they learn about the parts of the plant you can eat and they eat some food and it changes their relationship of how they think about food and how food is grown. And that’s going to ripple through what they see at the lunch line, what they do at home. I have talked to a lot of parents that say, “My kid came home and wanting to put a garden in and that came out of nowhere. But I’m like, yeah, let’s do that. This sounds like a fun thing we can do together.” So that ripple effect is really impressive.
Greg Judy: And the way you affect young people is when they’re kids.
Adam Saunders: Right.
Greg Judy: It’s when they’re teachable.
Adam Saunders: Those habits get established.
Greg Judy: Exactly.
Adam Saunders: And the curious mind gets going. Traveling up to your farm and seeing your passion for the animals and the land is inspiring for me. And I know a lot of other people. So how has your work with training young people, beginning farmers, how has that affected your operation and where do you see that as a potential multiplier in the future?
Greg Judy: Well, I think it’s been a real plus for our operation, because we do one-year internships and so we bring people in, we keep them on the farm, we have housing, we feed them and get a stipend every month. You know, it doesn’t cost them anything and they come and learn how to ranch and do grass fed beef and lamb, custom grazing. Everything that we do after we try and teach them. I think there really is a need and a demand out there to get young people back on the land, not off the land.
Adam Saunders: Greg, you do really awesome work with your land there. And you’ve seen big impacts on the ground and with the animals. Tell us more about the methodology you use with your grazing and how that’s impacted both the animals and the land and all aspects of your operation. Well, we switched to a holistic high density mob grazing back in 2006. Before that we were just in a plain rotation where we moved the animals about every two to three days. When we went to mob grazing, we put all the herds together. So we have one large herd and we’re trying to duplicate what happened for centuries before white men arrived. We have a large herd of Buffalo. Ours are cattle, but they could be buffalo, and we’re moving them across our landscape and we don’t come back. When those cattle come onto that paddy, all we’re taking is the top third of that plant where the energy is the highest and so the animals are getting a premium diet. They’re pooping and peeing and trampling that grass on the ground. Now we don’t come back. We have enough land. With one mob before we come back, we make sure the grass is fully recovered and the feces is all gone. The earthworms, the dung beetles are moving all of these nutrients down into the soil, and this is what happened for hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years. Animals moved. We invented barbwire across the American West and we started building all this barbwire and locking animals down. That’s what destroyed the West. Now, you got all these prairies and the cactus and all that. They said, you know, even in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there was grass there as tall as a man riding on a horse back in the day. Can you imagine? Today it’s nothing but a desert. They overgrazed it. They put the animals on it and they didn’t move them and everybody blames the cow. Oh, it’s the cow’s fault. No, it isn’t. It’s our management! Cows, ruminants — it’s the only thing we have that can save this planet. And you talk about global warming. We can sequester so much carbon in the atmosphere and put it right back in the soil with the animal, the herbivore. We need herbivores and we don’t need them in feedlots. It’s the herbivores, not a grain-a-vore. When we start feeding these animals grain, it makes her gut upset and we wonder where that comes from? Cows, specifically, and sheep –those are herbivores. They’re designed to eat forages, so we’re sending all this affluent down our creeks and our streams in the rivers and it’s ended up down in Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. I’m talking about nitrogen. All these chemicals that we spray on our crops. Why are we raising all these crops? To feed animals! Why? They can feed themselves. We don’t need to be raising all this grain. Those guys, I’ve talked to them down in the Gulf of Mexico, the fishermen, they aren’t very happy with us. They don’t appreciate all this nitrogen coming down the streams. Y’all realize that we’ve tiled the whole Midwest? We’ve got tiling now underneath the soil. These crop fields, all the rainwater, all the affluent, the nitrogen, the Roundup – it’s all going into the creek. After every rain, we got to get the water off the fields quickly. There’s cost-share still today. We’re still paying for those practices to get the water off the land. Why? Why? We need the water on the land! We don’t need it down the Gulf of Mexico. So, here’s the deal. I think as a nation, a farmer, if we’re going to do subsidies, a farmers should be paid on his organic matter. Have a baseline, and if he’s growing organic matter in his soil, he’s a good farmer. He’s a good farmer! Reward him. And if your organic matter is going down, well then you’re not going to get anything. We don’t have a water problem in the United States. We have a water infiltration problem. And that’s because we’ve taken all the organic matter out of our soils with our farming practices. You know what the organic matter was pre-settler time? 17 percent.
Adam Saunders: Wow.
Greg Judy: Know what it is today? Nationwide on farmed land? Less than half a percent.
Adam Saunders: Wow.
Greg Judy: So every one percent increase in organic matter holds 25,000 gallons of water per acre. What if we could go from zero to 5%, which is what we have done in a period of seven to 10 years. What if every farm United States could do that? Oh my gosh, we wouldn’t have a water problem. It’d all be on our farms where we can grow food with instead of down in the Gulf of Mexico, a 10,000 square mile dead zone down there.
Adam Saunders: So how have your farming systems like yours, how do you feel like those are perceived by your peers? And do you think that your type of farming will become more conventional and more the norm in the longterm?
Greg Judy: Well, I’m starting to get a lot more people that are opening their eyes to what we are doing. We have a website, um, I’m out there quite a bit writing articles. So there’s a lot of people coming to our farm. People as a general rule, we have to see it to believe it. We can read about it all day long, but until you actually put your two feet out on the land and see it in practice, that’s when people go, “Aha! This is how it works.” And so I think we are a hands-on type people, we’re really wanting to learn. And so yeah, there’s starting to be a lot more people that are being open-minded or you know, even older people that used to laugh at me because I did all that grass-fed stuff. “Oh that’s like shoe leather.” And I’m like, well I’m making a full-time living on it. You can call it what you want, but you know, I’m doing this every day. And you know, that’s one of the questions people ask me: what’s the most important lessons I’ve learned through farming? And one is: invest in livestock, not machinery. That’s a huge one. And it’s usually the opposite. And you know, you go into a farming, and they’re machinery heavy. They got all kinds of machinery and I ask to see their cows and they got eight cows out there. I’m like, what? You got a $50,000 tractor, and you got eight cows? That’s not going to work. You’ve got to reverse that. You need $50,000 invested in livestock, because my question to them is: how many tractors have you ever seen that had a baby calf? Baby calves keep you on the land. They’re the things that are eating grass and making you money. Tractors, all they do is break down and cost you money. So, you know, very little inputs. Stay out of debt as much as you possibly can and I think that’s part of our success from the very start was I just focused on things that ate grass, period. I don’t know. An old guy told me that, he said, if you just focus every day on growing as much grass as you can and keeping something out there in front of that grass to eat it, you’ll come out, you will come out. That’s the best insurance there is, this grass. And he was right. Ten years ago, if you heard somebody mentioned the word grass-fed beef, they’re like, oh, that. Well, now you starting to hear even the big boys are coming in on that, you know, and they’re trying to source it. And so there is getting to be more concern and a lot of it’s being driven by health. You know, the baby boomers are starting to retire now and we have a health issue in this country, in our food. I mean, it’s coming out of soil that doesn’t have any life in it. It’s very nutrient poor. There’s not a lot of nutrients in our food. And we call ourselves, you know, we have a safe food supply. Well, is it? I don’t think so because when I was in school, we had one kid in the whole high school that had diabetes. You know what that ratio is today? It’s like one in seven. What’s going on here? I mean, let’s change. It’s our food! And we can’t keep degrading our land with these terrible mining practices. I mean, we’re leaving bare soil all winter along on our crop fields. We don’t have cover crops out there. We need to be better farmers, you know, more respectful of our soil ,because any nation that has destroyed their soil in history has ceased to exist. I think that’s a warning shot for us. We need to wake up.
Adam Saunders: indeed.
Greg Judy: Adam, how has agriculture rippled into other aspects of your life?
Adam Saunders: Well, I eat every day and I try to think about that. Where can I get my food from? Ask the questions. That’s the same thing that we teach: think about the many hands that touched your food and how did it get to you and can you do some of that yourself? And so part of that is how I purchase food, how I grow food and how I eat food. I had for many years, and still to a degree, am part of a dinner club where we have about 12 people who rotate, who cooks dinner. And rather than having 12 people all cooking food at home, just a fried egg sandwich or something simple, you have one person cook a really nice meal and everybody gets access to it and it saves a lot of time, enables everybody else to be lazy or go pursue other hobbies when they don’t have to cook. And then when it is your turn to cook, you can really cook up something nice and really celebrate the food. And that has created a community of people who are great friends. Many people have come and gone in that over the years. And it’s a super simple model that has done wonders at building the social capital and the friends network. We have people who move to town and they joined dinner club and suddenly they’ve got 12 friends. So that agriculture and that food just kind of becomes part of the culture, and the reason to get together and the reason to get together for the holidays. And I think that’s part of agriculture that I think is the easiest thing to love is the community that it creates, both between people and with the land. And thinking about the younger farmers and how to get into it. It’s easy to love agriculture because there’s so many fun things. The hardest thing is how do you make a living out of it? How do you sustain yourself and save money and raise kids and have something that your kids want to inherit. And so that’s something I wanted. What are your thoughts on that? How do we create an agricultural system that our kids and grandkids and the younger generation wants to inherit and carry the torch further?
Greg Judy: It’s tough for young people to get started in agriculture today because of the cost, the startup cost. And I mean, if you look at the costs on land and then you look at the costs to get the land set up. I don’t care if you do whatever, whatever it is, you’ve got to get a piece of land. And you know, for young people to start out, I would recommend that they seek out a mentor, somebody that’s already doing it, doing it well, and see if they can get their foot in the door with that mentor and learn from them before they jump in the water so to speak, and learn how to swim. Get out there and get some life skills. Find something that you’re good at. Well, I don’t care if it’s raising carrots or raising grass-fed beef or pastured pigs or laying chickens or whatever. Find something that when you wake up in the morning, that’s all you want to do. I mean, you’re so passionate about it, you just, that’s all you can think about. Even when you’re going to sleep at night, it’s in your mind. And if you’ll work at that and be the very best at that, you can be. Like, seeking out mentors, read everything you can read, attend conferences, get together a group of people that are like-minded. You need the support of other people to bounce ideas off of because two brains are always better than one.
Adam Saunders: Right. I think those connections to get people in a position to learn and in a position to jump in whenever the time is right to say, oh, this is more than just a hobby. This is now a career. And that’s kind of a line that I’ve towed. I’ve done several farming projects the last several years where it’s not my main job. It’s maybe 10% of my time in the year, and it’s just the extra I add onto my full time job because that’s where I learn. And I figured out, you know, I went to college, I paid a lot of money to learn, and if I can learn by farming and then make eight bucks an hour, I’m getting paid to learn because I think the value that I pull out of those experiences in knowledge and experience is more than the eight bucks an hour. The 1,000 bucks I make here and there is nice, you know, it’s easy to say, well, this is a lucrative hobby. It’s not like golf where you have to go spend thousands of dollars. I’m making money and I’m learning a ton. I’m making new friends and getting those experiences. I see that as the connect-the-dots with the land that’s there and the capital that’s there and the experts that are there to relay that knowledge and expand that knowledge is something that we need to grow. Greg, I really commend you for your work with bringing on those, the apprentices, in sharing your knowledge with the field days, and the books you’ve written that get that out there, because that’s so critical at this time. There is an opportunity, a huge opportunity in our agricultural lands and there’s a lot of land that’s in monoculture and that’s, I think, the biggest opportunity is diversifying that land into multiple crops and higher value crops. It’s opportunity for the landowners to collect more value. It’s opportunity for the food system to get more product. It’s an opportunity for our region to export products around the country and around the world. And all of those take labor and expertise in management. And so it’s a win-win-win all around. It’s just that switching cost. How do you switch from the system you’re in to something that’s more complex? It’s kinda scary as a landowner and especially look at the demographics of where our landowners are. If they’re in their older age, they’re not going to take this big project on. So I think that vision is where you can bind the youth and the energy and the wealth that’s in our older generation and the risk tolerance of calving being financially secure so that everybody can kind of take a little risk together and we see that we can create a lot more value. We can create community in our rural settings where we have more people and then creating transportation networks to connect them easily and housing that that is suitable and affordable. There’s a lot to that. Once you’ve kind of interpreted that out further, just thinking about Boone County of Missouri, but it’s like this all across the country, all across the world. There is natural capital in the soil and healthy soils. If we bring the soils back to life and plant the native crops and the crops that do well and the diversity that can get a good yield, it’s possible. And I know there’s lots of people working at it every day in the urban setting and in the rural settings to piece these things together. And so, you know, my advice to people who want to jump into this is find a mentor and talk to them, help them, learn, ask questions, read books, but get out there and do it. I mean, there’s only so much you can do in the book. And once you get out there and you have to start making decisions, it can be intimidating. That’s where that mentor really helpful at making that decision making process faster. What would your advice be to someone who is taking those baby steps and their next step is a pretty sizable step that they’re thinking about?
Greg Judy: I think the most important step they can make is–and I understand starting out, you don’t have a lot of equity–and so I would recommend as little debt as possible. And what I mean by that is, if you’re getting into agriculture on the animal side, if you’re fortunate enough you have relatives or maybe you can lease a piece of ground, run somebody else’s animals on it. That’s what I did. I was a custom grazer. So I got paid to graze other people’s animals and I learned my grazing profession by doing that. And then I got paid. I got paid every month just like I had a job in town. I got paid so much a month for every cow. That’s called custom grazing. And by doing that, we were able to ramp this thing up. And so, you know, one time we were running over 500 animals for other people on all these different farms.
Greg Judy: And so it got us out of debt. That’s key folks. I mean, you’ve got to get out of debt as quickly as possible because as long as you’re paying interest, it’s pretty hard. You know, I remember, I’ll never forget it: the first year I went into my bank and I made money, I made a payment twice a year. I went in at Christmas to make my payment for the end of the year. And he’s like, Greg, we had a pretty good year. And I’m like, we did? I said, “Well, you did. But I sure didn’t.” There wasn’t anything left. I gave him all my money. I immediately saw, okay, this interest this is going to kill me, you know? And I had a lot of debt and so I had to removed that. And so that’s the biggest thing I could say is: very little debt. Invest in knowledge. Invest in knowledge. Go to work for someone who is doing it if you can. Even if you have to work for free, it’s worth it just to get that knowledge because knowledge is something that nobody can take from you. Period.
Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week’s episode. You are listening to Greg Judy in conversation with Adam Saunders. If you’d like to learn more about our guests, take a look at our show notes where we have links to their projects. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Missouri. Tim Pilcher is our producer and I’m your host, Mallory Daily. You can stay in the loop by subscribing to our show on iTunes. We’ll release 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 and sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students, and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at sare.org that’s s-a-r-e.org. 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 views of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
Table of Contents
- Land-based Livelihood
- Everybody Eats
- Water Challenges
- Creative Succession Planning
- Farming as Heritage
- The Early Years and Lasting Impact
- Building Community in Rural America
- Quality of Life in Farming Communities
- Maintaining Values While Making a Profit
- Finding a Better Way: Engineering On The Farm
- Making A Difference: Teaching Sustainability
- Production on Pasture
- Accessible Food Systems
- The Heart of Our Farms
- Serving Our Land: Veterans in Agriculture
- The Fight for Equal Rights in Agriculture
- Sustainable Agriculture: Nourishing Communities
- Sustainability on the Farm
- Advocating for Sustainable Agriculture
- Finding a Catalyst for Change in Agriculture
- Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide
- Women in Agriculture
- Protecting Our Pollinators
- Building Resilience
- Why On Farm Research Matters