Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 018 - Sustainable Agriculture: Nourishing Communities featuring Jim Freeburn and Hannah Smith-Brubaker

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: It’s through the relationships that anything changes. I’m a firm believer that people don’t really don't change their mind based solely on data. They have to have a relationship and just a personal way of relating to people as people. And that’s slowly how things start changing over time. And agriculture is one of those rare places where we have a lot of opportunity to just get to know our neighbor. And see each other as human beings.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Today on the show, two farmers from different regions discuss how sustainable farming practices can impact small town environments and economies. Hannah Smith-Brubaker farms in Juniata County, PA and serves as Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA. She’ll be speaking with Jim Freeburne. He raises cattle on 200 acres near Fort Laramie in Southeastern Wyoming. Jim says investment in agriculture goes a long way in small, rural communities.

Jim Freeburn: I’m an ag economist by training, and the University of Wyoming has some data that says those ag dollars turn over seven times in your local economy.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: I believe it.

Jim Freeburn: So if somebody is making money in ag, they’re going to spend money at the hardware store, at the grocery store, at the gas station. And it stays there and it just turns over and over and over. In that sense, agriculture is a great foundation upon which to build your economy. And it can certainly be the fiber of a lot of communities.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: I'm wondering, Jim, what it is about sustainable agriculture is of importance to you? And why did it come to play such a role in your life?

Jim Freeburn: Well, that's a really good question. The answer is, I'm not sure. I was raised on a small ag unit where we had irrigated pasture and some tree crops. But as I've gotten older, I always gravitated toward agriculture. I don't know why I was. I've always had a passion for ag and natural resources. And I think the thing that made me gravitate toward the sustainable ag is it's more about sustaining agriculture. And as I mentioned to you earlier, one of the things that really strikes me is the loss of our small communities and our small towns. And then the loss of land and agriculture. As I said in our luncheon conversation, from 1983 to 2012 there were about 42 million acres of ag and forest land in the United States that was lost forever for ag production. It got subdivided or put into shopping malls or paved or something like that. Forty-two million acres is an area larger than the state of Iowa that we lost in 30 years. And if we're going to continue to feed the world--and I think you probably heard the projections, there will be 10 billion people by 2050--we've got to save that good land and we've got to conserve those resources for the future generations. And that's kind of my goal. I want to be buried on a place where I live and I want my grandkids to be able to be there and I want that land to stay in a very productive and well conserved state. How about you? What brought you to sustainable ag?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: I had the type of childhood where I was afforded great liberties when it came to exploring the natural world around me. My siblings and I would head out at dawn on a Saturday and not come back until the glass factory whistle blew at four o'clock telling us it was time to head home. And we spent hours and hours just exploring nature. And it's something that is forever embedded in me and so important in the way that I raise my own children. We recently at PASA underwent a rewriting of our mission statement and there are three terms that are used in that statement: economically just, environmentally regenerative and community focused. And I think those three themes of sort of the financial, environmental, and social sustainability of the lives that we live is so important. It's important to our families, it's important to our communities. It's honestly important to our future. You talk about how important diversification is for mitigating risks, all sorts of risks. And so the farms that we have that really focus on diversifying what we're growing, how we're marketing it, who we're welcoming into our community. Those are the things that when I think about an uncertain future, make me feel a little bit more secure. When you're talking about in particular the risks that are associated with climate change and the diversification in terms of habitat, grasses, crops, you know, on our farms though, those are the things that are going to best prepare us to be able to face, the extreme weather that we tend to be continuing to be experiencing.

Jim Freeburn: You mentioned PASA in your statement there, I am a little bit curious about the Pennsylvania sustainable ag group that you work with. Can you tell us something about them and what they're doing? And you know, you just mentioned the mission statement, but give us a little broader perspective on PASA.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: Sure. We're headed into our 28th year, and we have about 5,000 members in the Association. Most of them are farmers.

Jim Freeburn: Has it grown a lot? You say 5,000. Now and through the years, what has that trend been like?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: I would say the last few years there's been a lot more attention being paid to sustainable agriculture and our membership has really deepened in terms of not only the farmer composition but how active our farmers are. We really focus on on-farm research and so the whole citizen scientist approach to agriculture is embedded in what we do. So we do a lot of work where farmers are enrolled in research studies on their own farms, which of course is a great compliment to the work that SARE does. A lot of our farmers have received SARE grants over the years and we all know that even though we have sort of this gut feeling on our farm about what works and what doesn't, when we can use an evidence-based approach and really figure it out--hey, I was right about that hunch that I had. And not only is it going to benefit my farm, but benefit other farmers as well. That's a pretty powerful thing. And so our farmers at PASA, we're finding, we're in the third year of a soil health study on vegetable farms, finding that our farmers have nearly doubled the rate of soil organic matter of what's expected for soils, if you look at NRCS expectation for their soil type, And that they keep their ground in cover about a hundred days longer each year than what's typical for Pennsylvania farms. So knowing that and sort of projecting out what the implications are, not only for soil health but for water quality. It's pretty exciting work.

Jim Freeburn: Yeah, it is. You asked me earlier about what brought me to sustainable ag and maybe more important question for me personally is what brought me to SARE, because I've been working with and for SARE for 20 years now. And I love working with the SARE Program. It's the best job I've ever had. And by far the best, most wonderful group of people I get to be around. I think the thing that I like about SARE, and I remember in the beginning I learned two things, that SARE is not business as usual and SARE affects change through competitive grants. And the thing that has struck me through the years about SARE's level of creativity and the innovation that we see in the grants that we get. It doesn't matter whether it's a researcher or an ag professional, but especially the farmers. I think sometimes we get some, what I'd call almost harebrained ideas from farmers on some of their grass, but nobody else will fund those things. So it's a little bit like venture capital. And I think that's one of the things that I love most about SARE. You see people trying to do things differently in an unafraid manner and embracing kind of an unknown future, but trying to do the right thing for the longterm benefits of that three-legged stool that you mentioned. The economics, the environment, and the social fiber of our communities. And I love hearing about that three-legged stool. And I care deeply about SARE and kind of who we are and what we do. So anything that about you personally being on the AC as far as SARE is concerned that, you'd like to share with respect to the Program?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: Yes. I mean, of course it's for the same reasons that you've listed that I care about SARE as well, but I think I would add to that that probably the most important aspect of SARE that's a match for my own personal beliefs is that it's a "big tent" approach. SARE tries to be welcoming of farmers regardless of their type of farm, size of farm, location of farm, as long as what they want to do is focus on sustainable agriculture, everybody's welcome. And so the idea that we could welcome a conventional farmer who is maybe just trying one thing on their farm, but also have farmers who have been practicing a whole compliment of sustainable agriculture practices for decades, but they're sort of on an even playing field. They've just got this question that they want to answer. And the answer to that question could benefit both of them. That type of approach, particularly today, is really important. That we're welcoming. We're not only welcoming people to the table, but we're making them feel that they have a valued role. It's irreplaceable.

Jim Freeburn: I agree. I think SARE has a wide umbrella and a lot of people can come and stand under it because I really believe that. And a good example of that is that three of the last five chairs of our Administrative Council have been farmers, but they're richly diverse. One was a farmer from New Mexico who was strictly organic and a vegan himself, and, a wonderful guy, but I think his total farm is about two acres, but really small, really creative marketing, high use of hoop houses, high tunnels and high dollar crops. Things like asparagus, in particular, that he grew. And the person that's going to be our new chair-elect farms11,000 acres in Northern Montana. But he uses cover crops and he might, I think this year he said he's going to plant 4,000 acres of cover crops. 

So you have one person that might make a change on the entire farm that's significant, but another person that might make, like going, he said, I think he went to no-till, almost 20-years ago. And that changes soil structure. And now he's found that in the last four years by going to cover crops, between the two, he's increased his soil organic matter from a half percent up to almost 2 percent during the time that he's changed those production practices. So we get people from all walks of life. We added another chair from Northeast Washington in the Palouse Country that was a dry land farmer, but he was one of the early innovators and adopters of no-till and tremendously changed the erosion rates and the soil structure in that area. And one of the other great things about SARE is we do get those innovators that I just mentioned and they're the ones that the neighbors look over the fence at and they're kind of considered the risk-takers and the venture capitalists, more or less. They'll spend their money on some things that other people may not. But then other people tend to adopt what they do. But like everything else, change takes time. And especially in agriculture, people get accustomed to doing things a certain way and it's hard for them to see how to do it or another way. It has to be proven.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: I couldn't agree more. And if we don't make room at the table for all of that diversity, we're really selling ourselves short. We're the ones who are going to suffer as a result of it. I'm always amazed if I'm able to go into a conversation with a farmer with whom, maybe, I have some significant disagreement, but we're able to find those one or two areas where we look at the world in the same way. There's this new openness. It can be pretty exciting. I remember once a friend saying to me that, you know, she said, "Look, if my barn were burning down my next door neighbors not going to not come help me out because we have differences in our practices." In particular if you live in a rural area in those situations you're going to help each other out. And you just have to remember that it's through the relationships that anything changes. I'm a firm believer that people really don't change their mind based solely on data. They have to have a relationship and a personal, just a way of relating to people as people and that's slowly how things start changing over time. And agriculture is one of those rare places where we have lot of opportunity to just get to know our neighbor and, yeah, just see each other as human beings.

Jim Freeburn: We do. There's a lot of room for getting along there. One of the things that concerns me about sustainable ag and I guess you mentioned the families and communities and the social fiber that. I travel a lot in the West as part of my job and I'm what I call a road warrior. I drive a lot of miles and there are an awful lot of towns that are just dying on the vine. They're drying up. People are moving to the suburbs in the cities because for the most part, that's where the economic opportunities are. But as I mentioned, there are some places in the West where we have problems with labor pool for ag as well. But I really, I don't know what we can do with some of those changes that are happening in Wyoming. I think our population has gone up by about 100,000 people in the last 40 years, which is not much. We went from 450,00 to 550,00, a little over half a million people in this state. It actually went down in the last year because oil prices dropped and some of that. But I'm worried about the future of our country as far as that rural nature. Because a lot of people want to raise their families in those rural places. And I don't really have the answers, but I think that's one of the areas where I think SARE could address that. Have you any comments or any feelings about those small towns and how that works in the Northeast region?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: Well, the one aspect of the more sociological end of SARE's work that I'm always interested in is where a project is focusing on direct-to-consumer sales. And from a financial perspective, we know that at least in the U.S. the typical farmer retains about 16 cents on the dollar. And that's often because of how many people there are between the farmer and the consumer. And where farms, particularly in rural areas, are able to do direct to consumer sales, the farmer is retaining the dollar. And often we know that that dollar gets spent locally and it means a lot to a local community to have local businesses spending their money locally. We have some folks on Northeast SARE's AC that come from more from the sociology end of the spectrum in our land grant university. In particular, I'm thinking of Penn state and the work that they do focusing on rural communities, rural economies. The discoveries around the importance of direct sales and local markets, I think, is the only thing that's going to keep our small rural communities going.

Jim Freeburn: And it's a tough situation. As I mentioned to you, I think by Wyoming standards, we're not that rura., But it's still 60 miles to a Walmart or McDonald's. And somebody asked me this morning, we went into Starbucks and I said, I've never been in a Starbucks before and they go, "Don't you have one in your town?" And I go, "I don't even know where there is one. But I know there's not one within a hundred miles of where I live." And they're like, "You live a hundred miles from Starbucks." I go, "Yeah, I do, but I don't feel like I'm shortchanged. I have other things that I appreciate. I love the wide open spaces." But again, one of the dilemmas I have with that is, for example, that that friend that's in Northeast Montana, he's about 30 or 40 miles from town, but when he gets to town, the town is Malta and I think it's only about 1500 people. And like where I live, the people that want to have fresh vegetables, there's always enough land or yard space, so they have a garden. So it's hard to direct market when you have a small population. 

But there are some people that moved into Wyoming a few years ago near where I live. They have a farm called Meadow Maid farms and they have a CSA. They have to run the product, I think it's about 80 miles each way to Cheyenne. And they might make a run to Fort Collins, Colorado, which is another 40 some miles from there. But they do that. And then they have a direct marketed grass-fed beef that you alluded to. There's a high demand for that, because it's organic, antibiotic, hormone free type situation and they market it very well. So there are some niches you can carve out if you're willing to make the sacrifice. But it's tough. I'm an ag economist by training. University of Wyoming has some data that says those ag dollars turn over seven times in your local economy. So if you can get, you know, somebody who's making money in ag, they're going to spend the money at the hardware store and the grocery store and the gas station and it stays there and it just turns over and over and over. So in that sense, agriculture is a great foundation upon which to build your economy. And it can certainly be the fiber of a lot of communities.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: It certainly worked for us. The name of our farm is Village Acres Farm. And that's how we view everything is just that we're, this, we're this village. Our mission is connecting people to their food, the earth and each other. And that connecting to each other is as important as connecting people to their food. We, too, have had, in the past, we've offered a free community breakfast once a month. People can just come and it's all farm-sourced and we've tried doing little farmer's market on the farm and we've had people say, "Thank you, but I go to Walmart on Saturday for my produce. That's just my routine." But we're still glad that they can come and get to know our farm a little bit. And slowly over the years we've gotten more and more local people to pick up their CSA share on farm. And that's probably the most important thing that we can do is that feeling of a connection between our farm and our local community. Because, yes, we do have to take our product far away from our farm to sell it in more urban centers, but it's the work that we're doing around our farm and knowing that our neighbors are being nourished by what grows off of our farm. I can think of almost nothing more important that we could be doing.

Jim Freeburn: One of the great things again about sustainable ag and SARE--you alluded to the breakfast but we've got to mention earlier you talked about the chickens that you have. Do you want to talk just briefly about your chickens? Cause I'm thinking you have a lot of breakfast eggs that you're going to be given away once a month.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: We do have a lot of chickens to give that free community breakfast. We have about 650 laying hens all out on pasture. And that's actually the aspect of our business that, that I am paying the most attention to with my off-farm job. It's the chickens that I'm able to manage. I can't keep up with the vegetables the way the rest of my family can. But yes, I'm very passionate about eggs. So we cook a lot of eggs for our neighbors.

Jim Freeburn: Do the eggs go into the CSA, too?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: We have an egg CSA and then we sell through a food hub in Harrisburg, which is our closest urban center.

Jim Freeburn: So how many eggs do you produce in a month or a year?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: Oh, a month or a year? I know that we're harvesting about 45 dozen a day right now. And we're not up to capacity because we're just getting out of the winter months.

Jim Freeburn: That's a lot of eggs to handle. I laughed when you talked about your CSA, too, and I just, I can't imagine doing the record keeping for 180 to 250 members of the CSA and all the deliveries and the billing and all that sort of stuff. That's a lot of work.

Hannah Smith-Brubaker: But you know what, when you see the face of your customer and especially their children and they really value what you're growing for them, it's the best in the world. It is the best.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Hannah Smith-Brubaker of Village Acres Farms in Pennsylvania. And Jim Freeburn, who raises winter cattle and irrigated hay in Southeastern Wyoming. Both Hannah and Jim are involved in their regional SARE networks and programs. You find more about their projects through the links 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 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. Thank you for listening!