Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 005 - Farming as Heritage featuring Travis Krause and Nathan L'Etoile

Travis Krause: Those initial years, I really started to doubt whether or not it was going to work. You know, whether it was actually financially sustainable or even feasible, what we were trying to achieve with the multi-species grazing and all that good stuff.

Mallory Daily: Welcome to Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. I'm your host, Mal. About 10 years ago, Travis Krause picked up Joe Salatin’s book Pasture, Poultry, Profits. Travis was working as a biologist in India at the time, with no real interest in returning to Texas to operate the ranch that’s been in his family since 1846. The cover of Salatin’s book says, 'Net $25,000 in 6 months on 20 acres.' This idea got Travis thinking. And soon he found himself back on the ranch, raising his first group of broilers. But in those couple of first years, success did not come easy.

Travis Krause: But you know, I sort of had this idea in my mind, I was like, if I ever meet Joel Salatin, I'm going to pop him in the nose 'cause I'm like eating rice and beans and it's been six years now, you know, like we're just dying here. And, you know, little did I realize like the focus really needed to be turned to, like, the business side of it. We figured out the grazing and the poultry and all that stuff. I mean, we were producing, we were selling everything we could and when we started to really focus on the financial side of it and using that as a decision-making tool, all of that, it just like changed everything.

Nathan L'Etoile: Travis will be talking with Nathan L'Etoile who works in off farm job while helping to operate Four Star Farms in Northfield, Massachusetts with his wife, brother and parents. Farming has been in Nathan's family for 15 generations, but similar to Travis, he spent most of his early-adult life actively avoiding a career tied to the land.

Travis Krause: So did your parents, they didn't fully expect you to come back to the farm? Or were they sort of hoping so or?

Nathan L'Etoile: No, I think that they were very open and willing for my brother and I to do whatever we wanted. The deal was that we had to go to college and we had to get an education in something other than agriculture. And then if we wanted to come back, we were more than welcome to come back. But we had to have something else that we could do. You know, if farming didn't work out, if the family farm didn't work--whatever it was, they wanted to make sure that we got an exposure to something else, but they support us fully in coming back. But they never really tried to encourage us too strongly to do it or discourage us from doing it. It was just a kind of very hands-off approach. And we worked on the farm in the summers growing up. I think I was probably one of the most overpaid farm employees in New England at $5 an hour growing up. We were pretty useless employees, but we got a bit of the sense of what it took to just go out there and drive the tractors or do the basic functions. And I don't think we were really in the right place to understand what farming was about. You know, farming isn't driving a tractor. Farming isn't pulling weeds. Farming isn't just selling a product. It's so much more involved it's so much more intimate than that. And we just weren't really ready to figure that out growing up. So both my brother and I really grew up not wanting to farm and not wanting to get back to the farm. But once we got older and we came back for a little while, for various reasons, we kind of latched onto it and really enjoyed it. So yeah.

Travis Krause: I mean my story sort of parallels with that. The only difference is, my father was definitely a rock and a hard place as far as being able to come back to the farm. He was still a running a cow-calf operation on the ranch and that was part of his income. And the, the way that my story sort of shifts away from yours is my dad and I definitely didn't have a very good relationship growing up. My mom was like the person who was just really supportive of whatever we wanted to do. Sort of like what you're saying with both of your parents, you know. She was just always the one like, do what's best for you and we'll be supportive. And so when I first came back to the farm in 2010, I think my dad pretty much figured that I would like, you know, sort of fail at it because he had. He went through the '80s and '90s when commodities just collapsed, especially in the beef market, and they lost a pretty serious amount of money with the farm. And I don't think he ever was successful with it. And now, you know, I could argue all sorts of reasons why he wasn't, but I just don't think he ever like fully gave himself to it and tried to explore new things. He kind of just did everything status quo at the time. Whatever was recommended, like really heavy chemical use and, you know, not rotating the animals very well. And the generations before him, they always had so much land, like thousands of acres that they didn't have to be like really careful about what they did. They just threw a bunch of cattle out there and made money, right? And it worked.

Nathan L'Etoile: Yeah.

Travis Krause: So, you know, the first couple of years, we started producing the birds and we were selling at the farmer's markets and stuff like that. And we were doing some grass-fed beef. And I think the changing moment from my dad when he finally decided, like, I'm going to hand the torch off to me, was we ran the Sunday market and it was our first year to produce turkeys. This was in like 2012, probably. And we had just got home from a Sunday market right before Thanksgiving and we made like $25,000 that day, right? I mean we delivered, like, several hundred turkeys, sold beef, stuff like that. This was before square and all that. So it's all cash. And I was living in my parents' house at that time. I hadn't built my house on the farm yet. My wife hadn't moved back yet. We weren't married yet. And I counted my money from that day on the dining room table right in front of my dad, just to spite him. And I mean, we're talking like $25,000 cash, you know, and for him, I think it speaks a lot for that generation. Like, to him that was success. For me, it's not necessarily. The financial side of it's great and all, but of course, I see the many benefits of it. So the soil and the land and the greater community at large. But that was a defining moment for my father and I's relationship. And at that point he sold out his part of the cow-calf operation within about six months to me and leased all the land that he owned to me. That's what we're still doing.

Nathan L'Etoile: Is he involved at all in your current farm operation?

Travis Krause: Not at all. And it's just better that way. We just don't get along good enough to, I think, to be involved as business partners. So it's just my wife and I, and our employees that run the show and we're doing some collaborative projects with other farmers as well that are, you know, where we're sort of expanding our operations and stuff. So it's going to be interesting future, that's for sure. And it's great because now I have control over the destiny of our farm and ranch. You know, versus before it was very much up in the air, what was going to happen. In those early years of our business it was hard to say where the future laid, you know?

Nathan L'Etoile: Yeah. So you went to school for biology and you are now farming. How did you learn how to farm? Was it just by doing it and trial and error? Was it just growing up doing it?

Travis Krause: I grew up doing it. I mean, my parents, um, expected us to be involved in the day-to-day operations of everything, whether that was running a tractor, plowing--which we no longer do--or just working the cattle, or building fence, or, you know, all the day-to-day things on a farm. And then I also worked for other farmers when I was really young, just to make money. Cause my parents didn't pay us ,unfortunately, which I totally disagree with, by the way. I think if we really want to encourage kids to stay on the family farms for the next generations, we certainly need to, at some point, pay them a worthy wage and emotionally encourage them to go whatever direction they want to, whether that is to stay on the farm or not.

Nathan L'Etoile: So for somebody who is looking to get into agriculture, what would you advise that they actually go to school and learn how to do? You know, we both went to school for other stuff. We learned how to farm on the farm. But for somebody who grew up like us or for somebody who didn't grow up farming, what would you consider somebody who wants to go to college? What would you tell them to go to school for? If they wanted to farm?

Travis Krause: If I was going to tell somebody that wanted to go to college and be a farmer some day, I'd tell them to study business, business management, finances, something in the business realm. Because I 've personally found the most success and our farm by focusing on the business side of it. And whether that was marketing or the month-to-month financial analysis that we do now. Because that has been the biggest shift in our farm as a business is really spending the time working on the financial side of it and the marketing and stuff like that, which we did about, we started about three years ago. It has changed our lives. I mean, like, you know, we are paying ourselves a living wage now. All the things that most farmers dream about doing, which is mostly just being able to do what they love and making money doing it, we're actually doing now. It's sort of the light at the end of the tunnel for me personally because I will say that we started with nothing. We started with a rundown ranch having to make a lease payment on it every year and no money in the bank and just organically grew that out. And you know, I guess I had a lot of doubt in my mind in those initial like five to six years. I mean, thank God my wife was working a job and I was able to commit myself fully to building the farm and the business around it because those initial years I really started to doubt whether or not it was going to work. You know, whether it was actually financially sustainable or even feasible with what we were trying to achieve with the multi-species grazing and all that good stuff. I sort of had this idea in my mind, I was like, if I ever meet Joel Salatin, I'm going to pop him in the nose. Cause I'm like eating rice and beans and it's been six years now, you know, like we're just dying here. Little did I realize, the focus really needed to be turned to like the business side of it. We figured out the grazing and the poultry and all that stuff. I mean, we were, we were selling everything we could and when we started to really focus on the financial side of it and using that as a decision-making tool, all that, it just like changed everything.

Nathan L'Etoile: So that was the shift for you?

Travis Krause: Yeah. That was the shift for me. So if a person's going to get into farming and go to school, learn business.You could teach anybody to farm. Literally. Anybody willing and able, you can teach them to farm. But most farmers that you will learn to do those things from cannot teach you the business side of it. And that's what I've learned. The real difference between the very successful farmers and the ones that are mediocre and not very successful is they really know the business side of farming, the financial side, the marketing and stuff like that.

Nathan L'Etoile: Yeah. I think your comment about that shift where it seemed to really turn your farm around is what--I think a lot of people grow up on farms and learn the farming side of it perfectly well. And there's a generation of agriculture where the business side just happened on its own. There were local businesses that would buy your product, whatever you produced and the market ebbed and flowed a bit. But the business side of a farm just kind of took care of itself and that doesn't happen anymore.

Travis Krause: Absolutely not.

Nathan L'Etoile: It just doesn't. Not in today's day and age. The marketing side of it is so much more important. So much more important.

Travis Krause: Yeah.

Nathan L'Etoile: So how do you, and maybe you don't do it very well, but do you think you balanced the work and the life side of what you do well? And how do you balance that work and the life side of what you do?

Travis Krause: I do not do it very well.

Nathan L'Etoile: Do you try?

Travis Krause: As a full-time farmer, I try. My wife gets really mad at me about these things and especially having a three-year-old son now, it's something I really think about a lot. I think it's a big challenge for most farmers that are full-time. I think the best thing that we've done to mitigate that is to hire employees to do these things for us and turn my focus away from the day-to-day grunt work and spend four hours in the morning in the office and maybe a couple of hours in the afternoon working outside with the guys, you know, and just trying to let them take over the day-to-day operations. Let them learn everything like I did and it sort of works and it sort of doesn't because, I guess you wish you could clone yourself and it would be like the perfect world, right? Because I know how to make the system function. That's a tough one for farmers. You know, we all get into farming because we want this particular lifestyle, right? I mean, it's more than a career choice. It's like this lifestyle choice to get into farming because of all the great things that it can provide for us as a lifestyle. And one of those that I envisioned initially was that it would give me this freedom to spend time with my family all the time. And which, yeah, I'm home 24 hours a day most of the time. But you know, I may only see him for like 30 minutes in the morning when they wake up and then, you know, like at lunch and then I get in at nine o'clock at night and eat dinner and go to bed. And I see my family probably and get to spend less quality time with them, less than people that have eight-to-five jobs because when they leave that job, you know, I mean, they're coming home and that's it, you know, and then they don't have to face their job the rest of the day.

Nathan L'Etoile: How does it work out for you? I mean, you're, you're working a full-time off-farm job, and then work in the farm, too. That's a lot. You're almost taking on this same amount of responsibility as myself, just in a different way.

Travis Krause: Yeah, it's enjoyable because it provides me a very broad mix of activities. My wife, it's tough to balance it with her. She's not from a farming background. Her mother worked in a factory. Her father was in the military. They didn't own family businesses. They weren't in agriculture. And she married into this family where my brother works on the farm full-time. My parents are on the farm full-time. My mother grew up in a farming family and when we get together for Easter dinner, what do you talk about? You talk about the family business. You talk about what everybody did. And she just, it's: I want to talk about something else. I want to do something else. I don't want to talk about--that's what I did all day. I want to do something different. And when I come home from my regular job and okay, you know, can I help out with something? Can we do stuff? Her attitude is often: but that's just what I did for eight or nine hours, 10 hours. I don't want to go and do more of that. I don't want to talk about that, even. I'd rather just talk about something else. It's not easy to balance that's for sure. Um, yeah.

Travis Krause: it's really not. It's really not. It's always a challenge. Just to shift a little bit away from what we're talking about and go back to something with your farm. Do y'all, within your family who runs the farm, which is your parents and how many siblings?

Nathan L'Etoile: One sibling, my brother and then my wife is there full time as well?

Travis Krause: Do y'all all make collaborative decisions? Are you the primary decision maker or how do y'all work that out?

Nathan L'Etoile: So my parents still own the majority of the farm business and they own the farm land and the structures. And my brother and I are minority owners in the business and my wife manages all the sales and marketing for the farm. My brother manages a lot of the field production side of things. So it's tough to tell necessarily all the time, you know, who makes the decisions. If the decision is about whether or not we borrow another $150,000 to do some project, we all have a say. My mother who does all the books, who does the, not just does the books but is the one that over the years has been most responsible for the financial side. She's the one that has the most say on an item like that. If it's purchasing some new piece of equipment, my brother might have more say on that cause he's kind of leading up the field side of the operations. What we try to do, and it doesn't always work, is have a monthly--I say monthly, we try to have it be a weekly thing, but it never happens weekly. It usually happens at least once a month, but just kind of a management meeting when we all get together and we talk through some of the big issues that we're facing. I'm there for all of those. But it is a weird dynamic where my brother, myself, and my parents are the owners. My wife often has far more involvement on a day-to-day in both the management and the actual operation of the farm than I do because she's there and because she's the one doing a lot of the work on a much more regular basis. So it's not awkward, it's just different than a lot of a lot of operations. I'm kind of one of the owners, but she's the one actually making more decisions and has more influence than I do on a lot of this stuff, which is great cause she's there doing it so she should have more influence on it. But it's a different arrangement, but it works pretty darn well. It works pretty well. Yeah.

Travis Krause: Do you and your brother, the second generation on the farm right now, have a different vision of the future than your parents? Or what is that vision?

Nathan L'Etoile: Yeah, it's tough to figure out what that vision is right now, to be honest with you. That's a place that we have active conversations now about it. We are talking about it, but that's as far as we've really gotten. My father's dream has always just been to have a farm he can give to his kids, If his kids want it. That's kind of his vision. He grew up in the city. He grew up not in agriculture at all and growing up, though, he really wanted to be a farmer. I don't know how a little French Canadian kid growing up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island got this bug in his mind that he wanted to be in farming and wanted to be in agriculture. But he did. My mother's side of the family was the one that was farming for many, many generations. Thankfully the two of them met. He's always just wanted to give a farm to his kids, if his kids ever want it. He'll die on the farm, one way or the other. I mean, whether he does it in two years or he does it in 30 years. He's not gonna do anything else with his life, except farm. If it was up to my mother, she would have retired five years ago. She's at a point in her life where she'd rather do something else. Yeah. My brother really just likes to grow things. He doesn't care what he's growing. He doesn't care where it's being sold. He just likes to grow stuff. If it was up to him, I think our farm would be like a lot of prior generation farms and the economic side would suffer greatly just because it's not really an interest of his. He recognizes that he shouldn't run a farm because of that. You know, he can run the field side of it but he needs somebody with a strong business understanding, because he lacks that. My wife is a perfect salesperson because of her training as a social worker. She listens to people. She doesn't go out to them and say, well you should buy this because I'm telling you this is why you should buy it. She goes up to somebody and learns about them and talks to them and understands what they want and then helps to see if she can solve some of their needs with what we have. Perfect social worker. If you ever want to hire a good sales person, find a social worker, they make really, really good salespeople. Myself, I like the business side of it. I like helping out on the farm. I don't know what our future direction will be perfectly. So that's something. You ask if it's the same vision--we're not really sure what that vision is yet. We're still trying to shape that. We've got some products that work from a financial side. We've got some ideas about where we might want to go in the future with some other ideas, but I don't think we have that vision yet and we're hesitant to go forward with any other ideas until we really figure out what that vision is. So that's kind of where our family and our farm--the position that we're in right now. So, yeah.

Travis Krause: Anything particularly that interests you of those enterprises that y'all are currently pursuing?

Nathan L'Etoile: We've kicked around the idea a little bit to see if there's a way that we could have a brewery involved in the farm. Whether we find a brewery to come and locate at the farm. Whether we got into the brewing business. Whatever it is, to try to do more value-added. We have these three different crops that are very distinct. There's not a lot of overlap at all between them. I don't think we would want to do more of any of those particular--we wouldn't necessarily want to expand the crops that we're growing. And I don't know if we can necessarily get into additional crop just because there's only so many things you can manage on a farm. And one of our challenges is for the region of the country that we're in, we're quite a large farm. The average farm in Massachusetts is about 70 acres. We're about 300. And for the crops that we grow, we're too big to just dedicate to any one of those. Our hops operation is 17 acres on 300. Our turf operation is about 100 acres. The grains that make up the balance. But at the price point we're at and doing direct sales of flower, we would have to grow our marketing side astronomically in order to be able to expand that side of it. So maybe we look at a value-added side on either the grains or the hops. We're not really sure yet. And without identifying really what that vision is, what we want the farm to be 20 or 30 years from now in the big picture, it's tough to figure out what next step gets us towards that vision.

Travis Krause: Has your father or any particular person been a mentor of yours throughout all this journey?

Nathan L'Etoile: I had a grandfather who was a very good farmer. He grew potatoes on a very large scale and in one year he was the largest supplier for Sun, Frito and Lay. All of them. And just his ability to, first, very early on grasp that idea that you mentioned that almost anybody can farm, you know. Growing stuff for people who grow things is not that hard. Selling it is where most people fall down. You know, he used to say any fool can grow a potato, it takes somebody to sell it. That's where he really made his mark is figuring out how to sell the products. Figuring out that if he can, if he can take charge of that aspect of his business, if he can figure out a way to take control of the sales process, not just bring it to the commodity market and sell it at the local commodity market. That's where he could really transform his business. And his father grew 40 acres of potatoes. He, at one point, had 20,000 acres of potatoes being contract grown for him and growing them themselves. And made that shift just in one generation by really recognizing that difference between just growing something and selling it. And that distinction really had an impact on us growing up and seeing the power of it. I think my parents directly, both of them, in showing how family can work together in a business, that's a hard thing to balance. When you go to work full-time with somebody, you go home with that same person, it takes a lot to balance being in business with family. And my parents have shown that you can do that and they still get along wonderfully well after 40-plus years of farming side-by-side and living together in a good relationship. So I've tried to really take some of that to heart as well.

Travis Krause: Yeah, I've found the farming with my spouse to be especially difficult at times. Yeah. You know, we have different visions. We're both boneheaded, but somehow we have, you know, stayed alive when we wanted to kill each other. But that's the hardest challenge I've had with working with my spouse versus family because I sort of cut family out of the picture very early on because I knew it wasn't going to work. I mean, I come from like this, you know, heavily German background where everybody in the family just kind of hates each other's guts. Typical German family. Our community where I come from, you know, it's just that they just do not know how to work together. Very good, hardworking people. Smart, intelligent. But God, nobody knows how to work together. So my wife and I, we've made it work out though. I just find it very challenging though at times for sure.

Nathan L'Etoile: It is, but it's important.

Travis Krause: It's a big day-to-day challenge and it is important. It is important to figure it out. So that's great that you had that, you know, to be able to look at and emulate. That's cool.

Mallory Daily: That's it for this week's show. You were listening to Travis Krause in conversation with Nathan L'Etoile. If you'd like to learn more about their project, take a look at our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in beautiful downtown Columbia, Missouri. 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 the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA or SARE. Thank you for listening!