Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 001 – Land Based Livelihood featuring Dan Kuebler and Emily Wright.
Dan Kuebler: What I do know is probably at least 20 years ago, it just was like, it came to me. It’s like I don’t want to ever part with this, but then the realization is that I will part with it some day when I die. [chuckles] But I don’t want to part with it being an operating farm. I’m not ready to cash it in. I don’t think I’ll ever cash it unless it’s a total emergency, and so I wanted to continue to produce good healthy food, organic, using organic principles for my community. That’s my vision for the future.
Host: Welcome to our farms, our future, a podcast to raise up voices in sustainable agriculture. I’m your host Mal, and that was Dan Kuebler of the Salad Garden in Ashland, Missouri. Each episode will highlight a conversation between two folks invested in the wide world of sustainable ag. This week, you’ll hear more from Dan as he talks with his neighbor, Emily Wright, who runs Three Creeks Farm with her partner Paul Weber about 10 miles down the road. Both farmers think it’s important to talk about their roots. Here’s Dan again.
Dan Kuebler: I did grow up in a small community too. Hermon, Missouri and my grandparents, nothing better than going to the farm every weekend with 15 other cousins and, and jumping up and down and horses and riding the pigs and picking blackberries with grandmother and enjoying jams and jellies and breads and, and I, I don’t know, just kinda, I think it set the tone because we were constantly in the woods, in the creeks in nature. And I think as much as anything that really influenced me in terms of wanting to do something that was not inside all the time but outside and I just, I saw an appreciation of other people for the different foods that were grown on the farm and produced locally or out of the garden. It just kind of fascinated me. So even though I became a physical therapist and continued to do that part time and farm the other time, I think my roots are just very much connected to nature and to farming, producing things, seeing them grow and in some ways trying to figure it out.
Dan Kuebler: When I first started growing organically, the definition of organic for me was no pesticides, no herbicides, no synthetic fertilizers. Nothing about the soil, absolutely nothing. And that was like in 1977 when we bought the farm. But through the years, after all these years, it’s like I have a much bigger picture now and vision of how it is really the web of life system and how things are connected and that we’re part of that. We’re not separate in that. And that’s what kind of fascinated me. But I think a lot of that came from introduction very early on as a small child. I still today, my grandchildren come to the farm, and they love to run around and do things. F or whatever reason I think that helps us understand farming better if we want to go into it. And even if we don’t want to go into it, we understand our world better.
Dan Kuebler: It sounds like you’ve had some of that going on too.
Emily Wright: Yeah. A rural upbringing and a lot of time in the woods and the fields and chopping wood, chasing chickens, those sorts of things. And then subsequently academic background primarily in ecology and environmental sciences. And one of the things that I love most about farming is the learning curve. So it’s a complex ecological system and you can never account for all of the variables that are a part of that system. So really the learning curve never drops off. And for me there’s never a dull moment. Right.
Dan Kuebler: And that’s what I’ve found too. Now I know some farmers, that’s not the case, you know, they’re in it, this for the bottom line, you know, how to make a living. And I totally get that and I understand that. But I think the future for us as a civilization and us as farmers and us as stewards of the land is more in tune with what you’re talking about, of always beginning to see the connections and to build on that. I think if we can have that in our communities of growers, then, then we’re going to have a much stronger community with people and with our environment. So I’m still very much excited about that even though, you know, I can’t physically do the work that I used to do, but I want my farm to stay a farm. I’m not ready to cash it in. I don’t think I’ll ever cash it unless it’s a total emergency. And so I wanted to, to continue to produce good healthy food, using organic principles for my community and for me because it’d be doing it for me too. So that’s my vision for the future.
Emily Wright: So you’ve spent nearly three decades on that particular piece of land and that is part of your legacy in this community. And you talked a little bit about your vision for that property. It’d be interesting to learn more about that, but you also have a legacy in the community in a leadership role. You’ve worked on the broader local food system here in mid-Missouri and statewide. And I’m curious what you envision for the future of the local food system in mid-Missouri.
Dan Kuebler: Well, my vision really it has grown through the years. But I think even early on it was like, we should be able to have a lot of small farms all around the state. That is growing actually edible food, you know, for families, you know, right from the farm to the plate. Not relying on imports, not relying on commodity foods and processed food. I know that’s possible. I’ve known that from the beginning. Political will hasn’t been there. The bigger vision hasn’t been there, but that vision is growing. I mean, I see more and more consumers buying into that, wanting that I’m delighted to see more and more young folks like you who I think see that same vision and see it as an opportunity, but also like an actual new lifestyle that you’re more interested in pursuing instead of just the corporate or the university or, you know, the typical sort of like careers that I was encouraged to pursue, you know, and go to school, get your degree and then work for 40 years. And so I see the food system, you know, it’s moving in the right direction. I have a feeling it’s always going to continue to move slowly, but as long as it’s moving from grassroots, which is what I really like about what we’ve been doing locally, then I think it has great potential. And I think it’s going to continue to move with folks like you and Paul also seeing that. At least, at least I think that’s what I’m seeing. You tell me what your vision is.
Emily Wright: So spending time outside of the Midwest, whether it was Colorado or the West Coast or the East Coast. I found that a lot of people have sort of written off the Midwest as fly over country or as you know, just infinite corn and soybean fields. And what I see in the Midwest is something very different, basically an amazing potential to produce food for both our region and beyond. So, you know, when we first started talking about farming, we looked at other places outside of the Midwest, and ultimately decided to come home because of a few reasons: the availability of water, the soil, obviously there’s an amazing potential for farm productivity around here, but we also wanted to be able to be part of a conversation about what it would look like to transition some of Missouri’s cropland from commodity production to diversified vegetable production.
Emily Wright: So less than 1% of Missouri crop land is used currently to grow vegetables according to the 2012 ag census. And we think that there’s a potential to increase that. What we demonstrated was a mid scale, low input production system, for potatoes, sweet potatoes, black beans and watermelons and butternut squash. We did lose our black bean crop due to herbicide drift, but everything else survived and was productive. And what we were able to show with that project is sort of a higher level of income per acre. But in addition to that, higher demand for labor and for some people that’s a negative associated with diversified farming. You need more labor, you need more time and effort to produce vegetables over the traditional commodity systems. But we would argue that it’s a benefit. You have the potential to create more jobs and allow for more people to have land-based livelihoods in the region than if the entire system is mechanized. Obviously. There is a place for large-scale commercial commodity production. It’s an integral part of agriculture worldwide, but we thought that it might be of interest to existing land owners and beginning farmers to set aside a little bit of that land to move toward vegetable production.
Dan Kuebler: Yeah, I’m so glad you guys did that and so glad that you’re working with more than just your own farm. Like you’re looking at rebuilding rural communities and I see that potential, too. I’ve never explored it directly like that, but I’ve realized all these years I can’t do the farm by myself. I never could, even though I tried to, you know, and you’d wear yourself out. So factoring in that labor is critical, but yet labor, when you create jobs, that’s good for everyone, and it’s good for your community and that gives you more fallback, too, In terms of like, okay, I want to leave this weekend. You know, my employees can step up and take care of the greenhouses while I go to visit my parents or something.
Emily Wright: Yeah. And we tracked the labor by individual crops, so everyone logged every minute that they spent on each of the fields. And what we found in the end after we completed our crop enterprise budgets is that in all cases we’d beat minimum wage for Boone County. And in a couple of the fields we even managed to make more than a living wage on those. We didn’t have ideal systems. We learned a lot from that project. It was our first year as a cooperative of four people farming in the bottom lands. And so we had a lot to learn, but you know, all of those numbers are out there and available. And the models exists now to share and to have a conversation about what it could look like. We already had a local farmer offer us a potato digger for the potatoes to do the project over again because in our season we actually dug, we hand harvested all of the potatoes from an acre plot.
Dan Kuebler: Yeah, that’s hard work.
Emily Wright: Yeah.
Dan Kuebler: Yeah, there is so much potential, especially like in the Missouri River bottoms. You know, it’s just unbelievable. For years, you know, I would go back-and-forth between my farm and my hometown, Herman. Down Highway 94 and I would just imagine if you had tomatoes and cucumbers and squashes watermelon. Actually, when I was growing up, some of the farmers would have watermelon patches, but they were watermelon patches for their kids that they would then sell on the side of the road to make extra income.
Emily Wright: Yeah.
Dan Kuebler: They did wonderful down there. So the potential is great.
Emily Wright: Yeah. I think that one of the lessons learned from that project was that it would require a lot of communication between neighbors. You wouldn’t be able to farm sort of in isolation when you’re surrounded by the landscape of corn and soybean farms. There would have to be agreements about pesticide management, herbicide management. That would be the primary thing. One of my hopes for that project was actually thinking about the next generation of farmers, thinking about younger members of families who felt like they didn’t have a role on the farm any longer and that their only choice was to pack up and leave the farm. Well, we wanted to demonstrate was that different members of the family could potentially have different enterprises on the landscape, on the farm, for different revenue streams and diversify production while still making sure that everyone had a job to do.
Dan Kuebler: Now, um, in my case, you know, in the last four or five years I’ve begun to diversify, you know, with making fermented vegetables.
Emily Wright: Yeah.
Dan Kuebler: One of the reasons was just because I thought it was a good idea and I had German heritage and it was kind of like, I wasn’t too threatened by it. But yet I also thought it was a great health benefit, you know, fermented foods. And so I started moving into that, trying to grow it all myself, but it worked for a couple of years and it was like I can’t, I can’t do both. When I first started growing, it was: just grow the vegetables. Thirty years ago it was like no real of value added sort of production to speak of, but that’s changed. And so like in your vision for–let’s say your own farm–do you see the diversification and value added as opportunities? Are you still kind of focused on strict vegetable production?
Emily Wright: Yeah. In our first year we actually looked into doing some lactofermentation ourselves and we struggled with navigating food safety laws and asset plans and that sort of thing in Missouri. So we did sort of fall back on just vegetable production. We just wrapped up our third season, we’ve added perennial herbs, we now do cut flowers and flowers for local florists. And just this past year we actually added a pasture pork operation. So we don’t own the land where we farm, but we have operational control of 27 acres on a ridge top in the Missouri River hills. And we actually actively farm less than an acre of that. And from our primary intensive field, it transitions into grasslands and then out on the ridge into hardwood forests. So we’ve been looking for opportunities in all of those spaces. And the pasture pork was an addition this year. We’re looking at planting a wide variety of native shrubs and wild flowers to market and sell to some of our chefs and florists in the region. And we’ve definitely looked also at other systems that might sort of fall under the banner of agroforestry. So multistory cropping systems in the hardwood forest. Things like ramps in the understory. And you know, one of the really cool opportunities about farming in Missouri is that recently, the NRCS EQIP program added 1% of the total funds for agroforestry production. And so that’s supporting things like chestnuts and elderberries and perennial plantings of native plants.
Dan Kuebler: Yeah. And it is good to see that they are starting to see the value of that. Yeah. I’m working, tried that on my property, too. So the question I have, especially for young people, because it’s different than when I was, you know. I bought my piece of property, I’m not ashamed to say it: 30 acres for $32,000 with a mobile home on it and a barn on it and a little cabin on it in 1977. Yeah. Okay. And I thought, with my wife, “Oh man, I don’t know if we can do this or not.” We both had full time jobs. Once we did it, it was no big deal. We paid it off pretty quickly actually. But now that same piece of property is worth over $300,000. And it’s like, if I were a young person, I would go, “I don’t think I can afford this.” I know I can’t afford this unless I keep working my full time job off the farm. So are you as a future farmer looking at owning? What kind of ideas do you have in mind to sort of overcome that big obstacle?
Emily Wright: Sure. So one of the ways that farmland preservation is successful in areas outside of Missouri is through agricultural easements. Basically, the landowner can sell the development rights to a property and ensure that it will always remain as an undivided working piece of land. Missouri doesn’t have an active agricultural or farm land easement program in place. The state has laws that allow for these systems to exist. But to date, as far as I’m aware, there’s not a single agricultural easement through the NRCS in the state of Missouri.
Dan Kuebler: That’s amazing.
Emily Wright: Yeah. And land trusts are looking at ways not only to pursue conservation easements for more traditional open space preservation, but they’re looking at ways to also get easements to support the rural character or the working lands or the land-based livelihoods in communities because they recognize that farms are an integral part of the communities where they’re operating.
Emily Wright: So that’s sort of one example, but there are a lot of different models out there. There are examples of land that’s held in public trust that’s used as incubator properties for beginning farmers or as land for farmer collectives to share. So as to that question of ownership, I don’t feel a deep need to own land. What I do feel a need for is to have some assurance that I can be there in the long term, that I can plant trees and invest in the soil and allow myself to feel like I have a place and a home in the long term. So as you are transitioning away from actively farming your land, you’re offering up this opportunity for the next generation to farm in the land that you’ve stewarded. And I would say that’s a rare opportunity somewhere where the history of the land is known. There’s existing infrastructure, there’s even potentially housing on site. What led you to offer that opportunity rather than just falling back on the property as a way to cash in for retirement? I would like to know more about what future you envision for that piece of property.
Dan Kuebler: What I do know is probably at least 20 years ago it just came to me. I don’t want to ever part with this. But then the realization is that I will part with it some day when I die. But I don’t want to part with it being an operating farm and and organic one. It was just sort of part of my nature because it was, I was intimately part of it and it was a part of me. I think after all those years of being on it, since 1977, I’ve been really for 20 years going, how can I do this? How can I in some ways retrieve some of the value out of it, but yet preserve it, you know, for future people who want to farm, who want to do things organically, who want to continue to build a diversified sort of 30 acres, you know, like, uh, seven years ago we started to tap some maple trees. Okay. So we get started doing that. We’d hadn’t done it before. And then like probably tomorrow I’m gonna plant another eight chestnut trees as part of the NRCS EQIP program. Probably next year I’ll plant maybe some elderberries or some briars, you know, in the pasture area on the hillside where it’s not very good farming, you know. So I think a vision that I’ve always had in my head, but I never had enough energy and time because I was doing two professions. I would like to see someone else in a way join with me and build it up and make it productive for them and for future generations. And it’s, I don’t know, I don’t know where it comes from. It’s just, it’s just there. I remember back in 1991 or ’92, a year or two after I started, I had to make a decision. It’s like, am I going to be a full-time farmer or am I going to be a half-time farmer and a half-time physical therapist? It was really hard to answer that question. I struggled with it for over a year. And finally I said, I think I could do both, because I was like 42 years old and just as fit as could be. So it was kind of like: sure, I could do all of this because I could work 80 hours a week and it didn’t bother me. You know? And I don’t regret that, but yet if I were to do it over again with what I know, I’d kind of go, well, you know, I went 27 years without a Saturday off, summer or winter, almost, especially summer. So every Friday, Saturday, Sunday was to the market and everything else. And I go: maybe I pushed it a little too hard. You know, I probably would have wanted more balance, but I was afraid to throw away the sort of golden parachute. I knew what I can make another profession. And I knew that if I didn’t make it farming that would cover me. And I was scared, but it’s a tough decision to make.
Emily Wright: Yeah. You know, I think of my degree as a little bit of a safety net. But at the same time, that decision to pursue a master’s degree has resulted in a situation where the student loan factor is definitely in play. One of the things that’s on the horizon that I think is really promising is the National Young Farmers Coalition. They are pushing for the Young Farmers Success Act. And so that was a bill that was introduced, I believe in the house in 2015. It adds farming to the list of professions that are considered “public service”. So it would include student loan forgiveness after 10 years of farming, when the farmer is doing that as their primary occupation.
Dan Kuebler: Wow. You know, in our society there’s always a lot of challenges for men and women, but in the agricultural world, there’s not a very big percentage of women that really enter it. I think there’s increasingly more as I’m seeing, especially with a diversification of ideas, like the creative ideas, and I see more women coming into play. But how, what’s your take on that? What’s been your experience for yourself and looking around you in different parts of the country that you’ve worked in?
Emily Wright: Yeah, so women represent 14% of principal operators of farms in that 2012 ag census. But that number, it can be a little misleading because if you look at the secondary operators, it’s 67%. So one of the things that is a struggle for me, and I’m not sure whether it’s specific to my gender or maybe more related to my personality, is that even though I share equal ownership of my farming operation, our tasks do get divided along lines that, you know, might have gender associations. And so I’m doing a lot of that behind-the-scenes work, the record keeping the taxes, the grant applications and reporting, the social media, paying the bills, keeping up the website–all of these things that, sort of exists in the background of the farming story, and maybe the less romantic things. And my partner, he’s out there doing the deliveries and is primarily responsible for the marketing.
Emily Wright: And so one of the things that’s frustrating on some level and partially due to the fact that farming can be an isolating profession is that he functions as the face of the business to some extent. And you know, when I dream of being a part of bigger community conversations about the local food system or the future of farming in this area, I feel a little bit, sort of, left out of the bigger picture conversations just as a function of the way that we run our business. And I would say that, I would venture to say that I’m not the only woman farmer who feels that way. And I think you could even sort of extend that to women’s work on a broader scale. It’s the tasks that are holding operations together, whether it’s a family or a farm that are often overlooked and underappreciated.
Dan Kuebler: Thanks for that take on it.
Host: That’s it for this week’s episode. You were listening to Dan Kuebler in conversation with Emily Wright. If you’d like to learn more about our guests, take a look at our show notes. That’s 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 Mal 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, invest 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.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. Thank you 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