Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 019 - Sustainability on the Farm featuring Eric Klein and Wayne Martin

Wayne Martin: Whether alternative or conventional, we are still susceptible to the laws of efficiency and supply and demand and competition and cost. All of those factors go into making sustainability work.

Mallory Daily: Welcome to Our Farms, Our Future. A Podcast by SARE, The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. That was Wayne Martin, an Extension Agent at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in alternative livestock systems. Wayne will be speaking with Eric Klein of Hidden Stream Farm in Southeastern Minnesota. In addition to raising grass-fed beef and deep bedded pork, Eric and his wife operate a small local food distribution business in the Twin Cities. He has some advice for farmers trying to make a living:

Eric Klein: Don’t follow what the market price is. Figure what your cost of production is.

Wayne Martin: Know what your costs are.

Eric Klein: And say, this is what I need. You know, that’s why we do what we do. That’s why we direct market, and we call on restaurants, and we deliver twice a week. Because I knew from the beginning, selling to the commodity system—even if I raised a high quality product, was not going to make you any money. We had to set our price, be the middle man, and go after those customers.

Mallory Daily: Although it’s a big one, profit isn’t the only aspect of a sustainable operation that Wayne and Eric discuss. Curbing erosion, improving water quality, and reducing chemical runoff are among the other elements in the equation.

Wayne Martin: You know, I think I got interested in sustainable agriculture before it was called "sustainable ag". I've been around for awhile. Back in the '60s when I was a kid and growing up and getting ready to go out into the world, of course the whole environmental movement had just really gotten underway with Silent Spring and, you know, the concern about pesticide use and its impact on the landscape. And I was farming part-time with my family and I also worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Iowa. And so became really aware of the issues related to soil erosion, soil loss, you know, all the good soil going down the Mississippi and also filled with pesticides and of course the impact on water quality. So it's been on my mind for a long, long time. And when eventually sustainable ag became kind of the descriptor word for it, it seemed like it really made a lot of sense. But yeah, I've been interested in this for a long, long time.

Eric Klein: So that had to be kind of an awkward time because isn't it, the 70s is really when they came in, you know, when they went fence row to fence row and all the chemicals came in.

Wayne Martin: Well yes. And to the same time there were people who were really starting to begin the organic movement without having given it a name of "organics" completely. But just knowing that they wanted to do things differently. And so that was a very small but radical kind of group of people who were, you know, saying this is not good. This is not good for the environment. We need to do something different. And then at the same time, of course you have, especially with this idea for conventional ag, of expanding markets forever, tear out the fence rows and tear up all the land that's in conservation and put in that corn and soybeans.

Eric Klein: I mean, that's good that people saw that it was, you know, that they saw the writing on the wall before it even happened. And now 40 years later, people are still wondering--

Wayne Martin: You know, and it's even, it's intriguing from a many, many aspects. And one is that there was a rural sociologist doing his graduate work in Iowa on farmers and their adoption of modern technology practices. And so he actually is the one who created these categories of defining a farmer by his willingness to adopt technology. So this guy then taught after he got his PhD at Stanford for many years. And anyway, the categories are: the innovator, the early adopter, the late adopter and then the middle group, and then eventually, the laggard. And the laggard is the guy who never, who didn't adopt modern technology at all, somebody who would never get with the program. So this guy wrote at least three versions of his book, the Fusion of Technology. And it's famous in the world of rural sociology. In his third book, he said that in the beginning he would have called people doing the organic stuff laggards. But by the time he did the third edition in the '80s, they were innovators because they were doing something that really had a market, a lot of people interested in it, and they had a different way of taking care of the land.

Eric Klein: Wow, cool.

Wayne Martin: So things changed over time,

Eric Klein: That's pretty, pretty interesting how it has all evolved.

Wayne Martin: Yeah. How things change over time in our perspective. And you see, you know, the organic movement and just in general, the search for alternatives to conventional agriculture increasing all the time. People know that a lot of the things we do while they produce a lot of food aren't necessarily good for the longterm.

Eric Klein: Right, right. Yeah. But not everybody gets that, I guess.

Wayne Martin: Not yet.

Eric Klein: You know, it's a lot of what we start working towards with our direct marketing, so that's kind of what our niche has been in direct marketing. We're providing a product that's clean, raised sustainably. Our hogs are in a deep-bedded system, lots of straw, lots of room to run. We started out with the pasture-based system, being in Minnesota and Minnesota winters and rain and it just never was a good fit and not a scalable fit for us.

Wayne Martin: How do you define, I guess we should go back and just a bit in and first of all, define "sustainable ag"--what it means to you or me at this point.

Eric Klein: You know that word sustainability has just so many meanings and connotations. For us being a family farm and that full-time family farm, no off-farm income. Sustainability is yes, the soil and taking care of the land and raising animals. But the big picture is: will it provide for your family? Are you sustainable enough to not have to work off the farm because that's kind of goes against what you should be doing. You shouldn't have to work a second job to support your passion or what you want, what you feel is right?

Wayne Martin: Certainly ideally that's the case.

Eric Klein: And that's a lot of work.

Wayne Martin: And that's tough for a lot of people. A lot of people end up working--even on a large-scale operation, they may end up having a, you know, non-farm income just to pay for health insurance. That's just a reality that we have to live with.

Eric Klein: It's like how they define entrepreneur, you know. You work a hundred hours in a week just to avoid working a 40 hour job.

Wayne Martin: I mean, that's the wonder and beauty of having your own business. You get to work 24/7, right? You know, but you enjoy it.

Eric Klein: But you can also take breaks and go to kids' things.

Wayne Martin: I guess, you know, for me, I guess I see there's a lot enough definitions of "sustainable agriculture", but one that's very common and one that I am comfortable with is the kind of, the three legs or three pillars of sustainability being, of course, taking care of the environment and taking care of the crops and the land. Being profitable is part of it as well. If it isn't profitable, it won't work. And then of course, taking care of the farmer and the community. The farmer needs to have a good life and it needs to be in some way a contribution to the overall health and survivability of the community.

Eric Klein: Great.

Wayne Martin: So those are all key elements of it. The profitability part cannot be underestimated.

Eric Klein: Community brings up a good aspect to it, you know, because so much goes out with the big, we'll call them "the big guys". We actually, you know, we kinda think about that when we need a part of something. Okay, can I go to the local hardware store and get this or do I have to drive into Rochester? You know, I always go there first and give them the opportunity and say, "Hey, can you help this?" And they're like, "No." I said, "Well, okay, you are my first choice." I physically tell them I want to give you guys the business. I don't want to go to the big box. And there, I know I can get it, but, one, I'd rather not one take an hour out of my day to go do it or two hours. You know, when you can just run down and get it and support them. Yeah. You pay a little bit more, but--

Wayne Martin: It keeps them local and it keeps people in the community, which keeps the schools going, keeps the hospital open, maybe. All that kind of stuff.

Eric Klein: It's a full circle.

Wayne Martin: Yeah, very much so. Well, what's your vision for the future of agriculture? What do you see unfolding or what would you like to see unfold?

Eric Klein: There's so much going on, you know, being a farmer and dealing with it every day and seeing which neighbors are selling out. The future is both scary and exciting. You've got farmers that are buying up more and more land, but then at the same time, you know, in our work with LSP and the Farm Beginnings Program and other organizations, it's also very exciting to see all the young farmers and all the interest and initiative of people that just want to start something somewhere, you know, even if it's only an acre. They don't need 160 or 240 or thousands, you know, they're very resourceful. So that's really positive to see, you know, all of our kids are interested in agriculture. We must make it look like it's going to be a viable option for them. They enjoy that. They enjoy being outside. So I think it's going to be a good, good transition. We got some rough roads to get through. Not on pork, but there's a lot of dairy in our area and it's pretty sad to see what's going on right now in the dairy industry. There's a lot of people struggling. And that's the trickle-down to back to community. You know, they're not making any money for their milk. They're not paying the feed store. They're not paying the equipment dealers. So they're all carrying that, the farmers, the guys who service the milking equipment through the robots, they're all carrying it. They're wondering how long Farmer John's gonna be around, you know, am I going to get paid? The whole farmer economy is really in a bind right now.

Wayne Martin: Yeah, and it's been especially tough for the dairy people. I guess my ideal world would be, you know, a dramatic reduction in soil erosion. That's something that we've really got to somehow get under control, and because all that soil loss in every way is bad for farmers and it's bad for the environment with all the soil going down the Mississippi. It affects everybody down the stream. And of course that affects water quality as well. And so you have these situations arising where you have like the lawsuit coming from the Des Moines water supply or water quality people suing the counties upstream because of the expense they have in trying to clean up the water so people can drink it. So these are things that we really have to deal with in agriculture. Agriculture is a major contributor, not the only one, but certainly a major contributor to poor water quality.

Eric Klein: Right. And at the same time, they're the contributor to feeding the world.

Wayne Martin: We've got to have both, right?

Eric Klein: Right.

Wayne Martin: We've got to continue taking care of people. But that also I think then means using resources that we've never considered resources in the past, like food waste. So suddenly we're beginning to appreciate that food waste that all goes into the landfill may be anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of all the food we produce, which is phenomenal to think about. And so if we can in some way take that and use it as a resource to feed, you know, to further enrich soil or to feed animals. And so for example, I know that in some countries around the world where they don't have access to achieve supply and protein for livestock feed, they're using insects. Two insects that are being used are mealworms and black soldier flies. They take the larva and however they're processed, they turn them into a meal and then add them to a feed ration and they're full of protein. So they're really a good source of protein for pigs and poultry.

Eric Klein: Wow. I can't imagine what that looks like.

Wayne Martin: Yeah, imagine!

Eric Klein: I guess I don't know, is that a big fly or a little fly, or?

Wayne Martin: It's a little fly. The black soldier fly and they just prolific at producing eggs and the eggs turn into larva, larvae eat the food waste and bingo. They take care of that problem and then suddenly they're a protein source for other animals.

Eric Klein: You know, the erosion brings up a good point that, you know, so much happens, I forget a lot. But this last spring was just awful in our area for runoff and rains as the weather patterns are switching.

Wayne Martin: And you're from southeastern Minnesota and of course I work in Minneapolis, Saint Paul area. I work at the University, which is close to the Southeast. And so I spend a lot of time in that area and it's hilly, beautiful country and I'm still just amazed at the amount of land that is tilled in the fall. And you know, is being put into corn and soy that clearly should not be farmed heavily and it's farmed every year. And I'm just thinking, oh my God, why do we do this?

Eric Klein: Because that's the only thing they can sell.

Wayne Martin: Yeah.

Eric Klein: You know, the elevators won't take any other crop. They won't. They won't give bin space to oats or wheat or anything. They won't sell hay. They won't do nothing.

Wayne Martin: Well, and people, a lot of people have just lost the ability or desire to do livestock on the landscape.

Eric Klein: Right.

Wayne Martin: Those hilly areas clearly should be in pasture most of the time, but people just don't do livestock anymore in those settings. It's because we've put chickens and pigs inside, for the most part.

Eric Klein: You know when you can work six weeks a year doing crops, why do you want to mess with, in 40-below fixing waters and feeding livestock? Let somebody else do it.

Wayne Martin: Right. Yeah, that's a real concern. But I know right in that area there's a big impact just locally because Southeast Minnesota has all these wonderful trout streams and, you know, the natural resources people talk about how they're filling up with silt affects the trout population. And so that's just one small example of how agriculture not done well can negatively impact the landscape.

Eric Klein: Yep. They just built a mega fertilizer plant adjacent to our property.

Wayne Martin: You're kidding.

Eric Klein: Nope. It sits up on the hill and if there was a spill, you know, if something happened, it would run by us and our stream in our woods. We're Hidden Stream Farm, so we have a branch of the Whitewater behind us. You know, that was actually just designated as a trout stream. So for how long, who knows? We'll see what happens. But yeah, it's just evolving and changing. All we can do is keep encouraging the small farmers.

Wayne Martin: So when you went back to the farm, you started out raising pigs, but using alternatively, what are considered alternative methods. And I think maybe we should explain to people first of all what we consider to be conventional and then talk a little bit about alternative pig production and what it entails.

Eric Klein: Sure. I mean, I imagine in your work you see a lot more of both sides of everything. You know, for me the conventional production is the confinement barns that hold several thousand.

Wayne Martin: And slatted floors. Liquid manure storage.

Eric Klein: Correct. You know, the alternative is more--so we started out, we started out very small. Just a young family., You know, we did everything on pasture. We had no room for anything, no capital to build anything. So we farrowed on pasture, we finished on pasture or bought feeder pigs when we didn't have sows, you know, and had huts and tried to build shade systems, but you're constantly fighting--we did have the old dairy barn, which we could use in the winter time, but you know, we didn't have much equipment to clean that out. And so you did what you did and pasture was always the best system at the time. But pasture is also the most destructive system.

Wayne Martin: Well, in what, in what way? In what sense do you mean that?

Eric Klein: Just the destructiveness. If you're finishing hogs, you know--there's a lot more research now it seems, but before it was just toss them out in a lot, fence them off and when they're done, load them up if you could and haul them away to the local market or whatever. Now it's more about rotating, rotational grazing of your hogs. And that's a lot of work, you know, cause fences don't like to touch grass and that's where the pigs noses are. They're very smart. They can get the nut off of a bolt before you can even go get a wrench to tighten it. They're very creative.

Wayne Martin: I think that over time this whole movement of alternative pig production has, you know, modified itself to some extent, just by necessity. Because as people begin really talking about this in the post-1998 period when the whole hog industry collapsed in this country because of low prices and people were looking at alternatives, there was a lot of discussion about why not raise pigs on pasture and how beneficial it could be, et cetera, et cetera. But it really depends on the environment and climate that you're in because it's a lot easier in the Southern states to farrow in pasture than in Minnesota. We still have snow in the area in Minnesota, you know, in May.

Eric Klein: Right, right.

Wayne Martin: It can be really cold and nasty and that's a tough way for young pigs to get started.

Eric Klein: Right. And now the advent of hoop barns or hoop structures, when they came out, I'd say, what was it, 2000 when they really came on the scene or was it before then?

Wayne Martin: Yeah. About 1999, 2000 is when the hoops were really introduced to in a big way from Canada.

Eric Klein: Sure. You know, that just opened up a whole world for everybody that was trying to do a sustainable system for pork. And you know, the pasture system was working, but not great, not really scalable.

Wayne Martin: Certainly not in a Northern climate. There are clear limitations that we have to deal with that people in other regions maybe don't. And so it seems that people who are into it, and really working at making it be sustainable and making it work are figuring out that they just can't, for example, farrow in May or farrow in October, November out in the landscape and make it work really well. Probably what we see more than anything at this point is putting gestating sows out on pasture because they're on a diet that is a limited feed intake, limited caloric intake because that helps actually increase the number of pigs they're going to have is being on a limited diet, but they're so hungry and so they want to eat. And so having that forage accessible gives them some extra nutrition and provides some gut fill as well. And so that works really well for gestating sows, not so much for farrowing pigs. Depending on the season.

Eric Klein: Right.

Wayne Martin: Yeah. One thing also I think the people have discovered over time is that, whether alternative or conventional, we are still susceptible to the laws of efficiency and supply and demand and competition and cost. All of those factors go into making sustainability work.

Eric Klein: Right. I think a lot of these young farmers have to think outside the box and you know, you've made it this far without taking the path of least resistance. Don't stop now, you know. Go zig when everybody else zags. Find another alternative, get that profit, get what you need. I tend to tell people, you know, don't follow the market prices. Figure what your cost of production is.

Wayne Martin: Know what your costs are.

Eric Klein: Yep. And say, "This is what I need."

Wayne Martin: If you don't make money, you won't be in it for long.

Eric Klein: I've seen people that put business plans together that come out with numbers that are pretty extraordinary. They're going to make their whole year's living on raising 10 pigs and they think they want X number a pound for their pork. Well, there is a reality factor in there. But at the same time, you know, that's why we do what we do. That's why we direct market and we call restaurants and we deliver twice a week because I knew from the beginning selling to the commodity system, even if I raised a high quality product, was not going to make you any money. We had to set our price, be the middleman and go after those customers. That's basically Lisa's full-time job instead of going into town. You know, she's on the phone with chefs all the time and stores and stuff.

Wayne Martin: Where you're market is.

Eric Klein: Right. And the customers and the farmer's market and, you know, she's dealing with people nonstop.

Wayne Martin: It is really encouraging to see more young farmers getting involved in pig production, you know, even on a small scale on a small acreage. And I think there's more interest on the part of the consumer to connect with farmers and especially young farmers. And then that desire to support them in a variety of ways. It just makes sense to have meat connected to a CSA or be direct marketing meat in other ways. But also there's that interest in meat quality as well. And I think people are looking for some something that is not sold in the large stores. Right.

Eric Klein: What kind of breeds do you, you know, with all the small farms that you work with, what kind of breeds are becoming the predominant for these small farms?

Wayne Martin: Well, I think still people are doing Duroc and, you know. Berkshire, of course, is a big one. And then Chester White still, but also you have people doing Tamworth and, Large Black and Red Wattle and there's just so many different breeds of pigs that you can do that. Some that are true heritage breeds, others are kind of a mix of having been conventional commodity animals, but also with lines that can be considered heritage. So people are really trying a lot of different things. And then in the whole area of producing charcuterie, you know, sausage, meats, people are doing breeds like Ossabaw Island pigs or Mangalitsa. Things that are really out there, but it's fun to see.

Eric Klein: Right. Yeah. They're interesting pig to look at. Those "wooly pigs", they call them.

Wayne Martin: Wooly pigs from Hungary.

Eric Klein: Is that where they're from? I didn't know that. Yeah. So it's pretty interesting to see all the different things that are rejuvenating.

Wayne Martin: That's one of the beautiful things about sustainability is it also means diversity and you have that with all of these different breeds of pigs.

Eric Klein: Right, right.

Wayne Martin: Fun to see.

Mallory Daily: And that's a wrap for this week's show. You were listening to Wayne Martin of University of Minnesota Extension. And Eric Klein of Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, MN. You can check out links to their projects 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. We'll catch you next time.