#5 | Luke Peterson - Going Beyond Organic Farming
In this episode, I speak with Luke Peterson, a regenerative farmer based near Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
By mimicking nature, Luke believes that his farm improves the health of the soil and healthier soil grows healthier food. And healthier food means healthier communities, which in turn lead to healthier economies.
On a grander scale, regenerative agriculture goes far beyond the importance of pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies flourishing on his farm: regenerative agriculture can actually have a direct impact on the strength of a country’s economy.
You can follow Luke and his farm on Instagram - https://bit.ly/2KrI5RS
Carmen Fernholz is Luke's mentor - https://bit.ly/2Mt8JfI
5 Principles of Soil Health: Armor the soil, Minimize soil disturbance, Increase plant diversity, Keep living roots in the ground all year, Integrate livestock grazing - https://bit.ly/2MDPosq
US Farm debt is at levels seen during the 1980s farm crisis - https://reut.rs/2EBsD1X
Luke works closely with a local bakery called Baker’s Field - https://bit.ly/2MwvcbC
Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil - http://bit.ly/2HVdtqc
Mark Shepherd’s book Restoration Agriculture - http://bit.ly/2QOjeZt
Daniel Hartz: Hey, did you know that out of the almost 1 million known species of insects, only about one to 3% of them are ever considered pests? This is Daniel Hartz with Sustainability Matters Today, a podcast where I showcase sustainability experts and discover their journeys. The aim of these conversations is to share ideas from leaders in the field on the financial benefits of adopting eco-friendly methodologies. Can it really be cost-effective to go greener through these talks, we also discuss ways you as an individual can incorporate environmentally friendly practices into your daily life. Let's jump in.
Daniel Hartz: I'm excited to be speaking with Luke Peterson, a regenerative farmer based near Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. By mimicking nature, Luke believes that his farm improves the health of the soil and naturally healthier soil grows healthier food and healthier food means healthier communities, which in turn lead to healthier economies.
Daniel Hartz: On a grander scale Regenerative agriculture goes far beyond the importance of pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies flourishing on his farm. Regenerative agriculture can actually have a direct impact on the strength of a country's economy. So, Luke, the purpose of this podcast is to ask sustainability experts like you about the impact of the work you're doing and to get your advice on how regenerative agriculture is not only important for the environment but also cost-effective for our society in the long run. So I'd like to ask about how you got started. The environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture, the financial benefits this type of farming provides to individuals and governments and or suggestions for simple things people listening to this podcast can do today to support regenerative agriculture. How does that sound?
Luke Peterson: Sounds great.
Daniel Hartz: Awesome and thank you very much for joining me here and really looking forward to talking with you about all this.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, thanks for having me on.
Daniel Hartz: Cool let's start from the very beginning. So can you tell me a bit about how you got started in farming and where you came from?
Luke Peterson: Yeah, so maybe not so much how maybe how and who. I think who is really important that helped me along the way. Yeah, the journey has been very random, maybe in away. My wife and I got married pretty young at the age of 19 and 18 and two weeks after graduating high school, we left for Soldotna Alaska.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: I apprenticed the chainsaw wood carver for a summer by the name of Scott Hansen and Scott is a very wise, and he's a very generous man, but he asked very deep questions of me and cultivated in me a passion for creativity and purpose. After that summer, I got started in farming as a job to pay our way through college while living in Fargo, North Dakota while my wife was studying to be a nurse. There I worked for a man by the name of Joey Bishop and for three years we managed 2,800 acres of conventional soybean and wheat. On his farm, I kind of learned the mechanics of working with farm equipment and growing crops. Joey was a businessman and taught me how to work with what we had and make the most of it. He was very patient and trusting. He allowed me to operate his machinery, which was very expensive and I learned by failure and he was just a type that would all hug your shoulders and light a cigarette and try to make a joke if I ever made a mistake.
Daniel Hartz: That's cool.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, he was a very unique guy and kind of a short story there when I pulled up to the farm, he'd asked if I knew anything about farming or running any equipment. I flat out lied to him and said, yes, I know how to do this, that and everything else. And that's kind of how I got hired and he was soon to call me out on my bluff and telling me that I really don't know much. But anyway, it got me the job, so whatever.
Daniel Hartz: Perfect.
Luke Peterson: And then we moved back to my home area. After my wife graduated, I took a job with the department of natural resources traveling around Minnesota, working on prarie restoration. There I learned that in nature, diversity is key to the ecosystem's survival and I was fortunate to work with a progressive boss his name was Walter Getter. He valued people and acted with intention and how we carried out our efforts in land management. And though I didn't realize all of this at the time working with these different people and going to different places, all of these things kind of were just pieces to the larger puzzle of kind of where I'm at now, where I'm, where I'm headed to her. So while I was working for the DNR, I had the opportunity to begin farming, which allowed me to be flexible, to be home more with my new daughter.
Luke Peterson: So, that was the reason for leaving the DNR was we had Ester and we were working on the road a little bit and living in the country, it was kind of difficult for my wife to be in the country in the wintertime and me being gone every now and again. So, I took the opportunity to farm and I became involved with the industrial side of agriculture through conventional farming, corn and soybean. And for a short time, I was selling Monsanto seed at the local coop and I quickly began to ask some difficult questions, which no one really wanted to answer. And it was there that I learned the politics behind the seed fertilizer and the pesticide and fungicide sales. I really felt like me and my fellow farmers were simply being played as pawns for big agriculture. I realized a direct correlation between these practices and the decreasing population in my rural community.
Luke Peterson: The increase in the number of acres needed to be profitable and the government subsidy that fueled big agricultural engines. So, at that time in raising our one-year-old daughter and my wife and I was exploring the environmental effects in our waterways and wildlife the nutritional quality of our food and human health. And my wife was involved with health care obviously, so she was constantly asking questions and had concerns. And for quite a while I'd kind of bluff it off and say, well, I had my same comebacks that, that are just kind of floating around out there that are easy to come back with. But it kind of appeared to me that something I should look into. So, it just became impossible to ignore the effects of my actions. And we decided together that we were going to make a switch to start farming organically and we were going to do it on my great, great grandpa's farm.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: And very fortunate to have lived only two miles from there. So I only moved two miles away from where I grew up.
Daniel Hartz: That's really nice.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, so with the 80 acres, it's an 80-acre farm. 80 acres is not much in terms of today's agriculture, but going into organics, it’s kind of felt like I was growing an 80-acre garden and I knew how much work gardening can be and I just had a little garden plot. So, it was kind of overwhelming at first. But now I realized that there are ways of getting around all the, your job cicles. But it was kind of me against the weeds the first year, I felt really big, I felt like really good, I had a mission and a purpose for the first time. I really felt worthwhile. I just remember the feeling that I had and going into that first year and I just felt so good about it and so pumped up and I begin pulling dilapidated machinery from the pre chemical era out of groves and ditch banks, some machinery literally had trees growing up through it.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: I had an old rotary hose, old cultivators, old drag and then I had YouTube which is a great tool and I used the older generation of local mechanics around me and I got an effective fleet of equipment up and running. I would call Carmen Fernholz who was a veteran organic farmer who was conveniently located only about seven miles from me and he would coach me through the ins and the outs of organic production. This is the reason for being successful in raising a crop organically having that knowledge to my disposal and he handed me 40 years’ worth of trial and error the dos and the don'ts.
Luke Peterson: Because going into this, do you have a lot of ideas and I think most organic farmers going into its kind of have the same ideas they run into the same problems, kind of in the same order sometimes. I would always run it past him and it was usually a simple yes or a no, which was really, really nice at the time. I didn't have to go through all of the stuff that didn't work. I just simply could do what worked kind of right off the bat. Levy Jane, my greatest farming mentor and is a dear friend as well. He led by example and still is a positive force who leads me to believe that at the end of the day the rest of the world really doesn't matter and all that matters is if I show up, I will succeed in farming an organic system. The soil has inspired me to do more and working on Carmen's farm, I quickly noticed the difference in his soil texture. They were very different coming up over the farm that I was working on.
Luke Peterson: He was very soft and moist; it was very porous and had a lot of structure to it. And I noticed this immediately when I started cultivating on his farm haul, the dirt would flow through the shanks and I didn't have any slabs rolling on top of my crop. Getting into the field in a timely manner was another thing I noticed, getting into the field early enough in the spring was a challenge on my farm but on Carmen's, even though the soil was wet and moist, it still was very workable. And his farm, the soil has been farming with grain for over 45 years. And you know, I'm just a few years into it on my farm, but I have seen a lot of life return to my soil as well in the last five years.
Daniel Hartz: Just to clarify, by soil you mean like earthworms?
Luke Peterson: Yeah, on Carmen's farm the earthworms, they're out of this world, you don't need a shovel to go fishing to find earthworms. You just scrape away the top dry matter on the soil and pick up your nightcrawlers and where's, because they're everywhere.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: And even, well I guess on the home place there that my mom owns that structure in the last four to five years has come back significantly also. And the earthworms are, are starting to build there also, so seeing that and seeing that the change can happen fairly fast. I mean even if it's small, I can see a change that is pretty significant and I'm not looking through a microscope even like this is just what I can see with my eyes. I can see that things are definitely changing. So this has kind of led me into my next pursuit and that's to pursue a regenerative environment.
Daniel Hartz: So, what exactly is regenerative and how's that different than organic?
Luke Peterson: In a way, the regenerative kind of movement is kind of going back to what organic started out as I feel like. And it's just kind of having a few more principles that kind of have been taken out of organic maybe over the years. But I can maybe just start with the five principles of soil health are a good example of what it is, to kind of name it. But one of those five is limiting the disturbance of the soil, which is minimum tillage and we've accomplished that. I feel like on our farm already where we have eliminated fall tillage completely and in organic while being certified organic, I can't use any herbicides so I'm stuck with either using herbicide, which I can't use or tillage to decimate like a perennial crop, like we grow alfalfa, which is a three year perennial, so I have to use tillage every once in a while.
Luke Peterson: But the idea is to minimize that as much as possible. Armor on the soil, I feel like we're accomplishing this. Also cover crops, keeping the soil covered at all times and no fall tillage also keeps the soil covered with the cash crops residue. I kind of feel, like the armor on the soil, is just not human in away.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: Mother Earth doesn't like to be naked and to me bare soil kind of looks like an open wound in a way. To me, it looks worse and worse every year in the more and more that I learned about soil, I feel how important it is to keep it covered. Something very simple, but yeah, it is a challenge when you decide that we're going to farm. I mean that's kind of farming, you know the idea of taking over Mother Nature's ideas and kind of implementing their own on her, so it’s a push, shove type of a thing. And I feel like we just have to do the best we can so that we can stay competitive.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: But yeah, we're experimenting with, well I shouldn't say we're experimenting; we've been very successful growing cover crops. But another thing would be building diversity so cash crop rotation and the few things that I'm growing in my farm this year are dent corn, yellow field corn, soybeans, barley, oats, golden flax. We have three different wheat varieties, Redeemer, Forefront and Emmer possibly even einkorn and a small plot of peas that we put in. We have diverse cover crop mixes, which are 70 species in themselves.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: We have pollinators, pollinator habitat around the border of our fields. We have native Prairie on our land, restored prairie on our land ever started wetlands. So just like the amount diversity, I like all of those things like restoring Prairie and taking it out of crop production probably wasn't ... upfront wasn't the most profitable thing to do. But in the long run, the diversity, I mean will be key to our success.
Daniel Hartz: And that's what you mentioned in terms of what you noticed on the prairies when you were doing the restoration, that diversity is really the key to the ecosystem survival.
Luke Peterson: Yeah! So, like if you use that prairie for example, in a way we could say that that's our pest management because we were creating a home for all the beneficial insects to live in and which is right next to our fields, so...
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, those wetlands. or everything you've just described, is that all on that 80-acre farm?
Luke Peterson: No. No. So, like on the 80-acre farm we kind of just started on that four years ago. So, on that farm we have a small piece of restored Prairie and then we have a pollinator mix that we planted around the edge and then we planted a few rows of flowering, not fruit trees, but they're kind of like fruit-bearing trees for wildlife. And then like the restored wetlands, they're on Carmen Fernholz’s farm and his farm is one that I'm transitioning into.
Daniel Hartz: Okay.
Luke Peterson: And he has kind of spent his entire life working in this direction and he has a restored wetland. It's kind of right in the center of this I suppose it's about a 200-acre farm and you can almost see it from all directions. It's just an ideal ...it's such a nice farm. It isn't a perfectly flat square, but it has a lot of diversity on it.
Daniel Hartz: That's really cool, sounds beautiful.
Luke Peterson: Yeah and another principle of soil health and the regenerative system is keeping living roots in the soil is always having plants in the field not leaving the soil bare once again and black over the winter. And then the fifth main one is integrating livestock. I guess this is something that we are working on slowly. They haven't done this yet, but we are definitely in the process of making this happen. And that's simply because there's just no animalist ecology. But yeah, so that's kind of the five principles that we're kind of working on and trying to move the farm forward on.
Daniel Hartz: That's an important element of how you actually think about farming using those five principles and making sure you're always staying true to them.
Luke Peterson: Yup, those are kind of my five commandments in away.
Daniel Hartz: Got it. And are those five principles for organic farming or is that for regenerative farming?
Luke Peterson: Yeah, they are definitely for either or. But I think that organics name is, organic in a way is kind of being pushed off in a different direction because it may become industrialized at one point; it may be already is. So I think regenerative is kind of saying, you know, this is where organic started we're taking back these principles and we're gonna actually implement them on the land, on each farm in order to be called regenerative. And that's it. ...It does get really sloppy, and a lot of this, I mean, the best way to kind of police it is by just knowing your farmer in away.
Daniel Hartz: Right. It makes sense of asking them questions at farmer's markets about how they actually do, how they grow things and what their processes are.
Luke Peterson: Yeah. Yup.
Daniel Hartz: What you've described so far, I'm not a farmer myself, so I don't know the specifics, but it sounds very different than conventional farming where I'm guessing you're using a lot more herbicides as you mentioned, is something that you don't use on a certified organic farm. That sounds like fall tillage is something that's common practice on a conventional farm. So removing all of those things that you would see on a conventional farm, is it challenging to make that transition to stop using all of that?
Luke Peterson: Yeah. It is at first, I can't say it's difficult. It's really not. It's really not difficult. I feel like at first, it seems like it will be, but actually, every step that you move in the right direction towards how nature works on its own, things do get easier. It's just everything that has to do with how you think about it and your attitude towards it. So like instead of a herbicide, you just have to kind of change your approach a little bit. And I guess an example when you, when I eliminated herbicide, I just had to swap that out for a cultivator, tine weeder, rotary hall. And then there's also the benefit of not spending money on, on some of these things. All of these come from uptown, from a salesman, once I buy my cultivator and my tine weeder and my rotary hoe, they're kind of onetime expenses and they have minimum maintenance on them. If they're taken care of them, they can last 20 to 25 years or longer. And the herbicide will only last one application one time and when it's applied, your money's gone, and you have nothing to show for it. What you're saying is let nature do all the hard work
Daniel Hartz: What you're saying is let nature do all the hard work and it'll sort of taking care of itself as long as you allow it to.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, and like what you just said there, as long as you allow it to with the not spending money or not buying insecticides, whether that's hard or not it's not hard because the insecticides kind of just create these superbugs and we kill all of the beneficial insects that normally would kill our pass. So once again, we're kind of just stepping back and allowing things to kind of manage themselves in away. I mean, not managing themselves, but in a way kind of,
Daniel Hartz: Yeah. Yeah, it makes sense. It's kind of like yeah, I mean, if you're killing the beneficial bugs that would eat those pests, then you have to kill the pests because there's nothing there to otherwise eat them and get rid of them naturally.
Luke Peterson: Yeah. And I pretty sure that there's one, oh, I'm not sure about the numbers here, but out of nearly 1 million, no one insects, only about 3% are considered pest, so--.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: That's pretty significant numbers if you think about it.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: And I and I have a hard time believing that all these insects are here to our food system and just to torment us, you know?
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, absolutely. And so how have you found by taking these certified organic, or I guess we can just call it organic and regenerative agricultural practices, that you're actually increasing your yields as well?
Luke Peterson: I don't think we're increasing our yields at all right now if as a farmer, that is the one thing that gets pounded into your head is the yield, yield, and yield and there are consequences for that yield. It's not, that you're better... It could be that you're a better farmer, I guess, in a way, but it's not that you've got all this yield. Well, it had to come from somewhere. I mean, if you watch those semis after semi after semi hall away loads, of corn off your field every single year, you've got to think about how many loads the semis worth of minerals does that feel to have in it and how many years can we do that? So, don't really, ...we don't ... it's not that we don't focus on yield and we have a responsibility to grow food of course since we have access to this nutrient-dense black soil and some people don't.
Luke Peterson: But when we were focusing on this farm is the nutritional value of the food that comes off the farm and the taste of it. So, with a yield not only are you in a sense not, I mean there's not talking about anything specific here, but you can deplete the soil by taking too much yield too often. It's, a difficult question, but I would say no. The answer is no we haven't seen an increase in yield, but we have different goals other than you--.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I see what you mean. Just out of curiosity, have you seen a decrease?
Luke Peterson: Well in a sense I suppose it's hard because you'd have to look at one specific crop, like you could say, well, we're gonna look at corn this year and then say, yeah, maybe it was five or 10 bushels less than the conventional neighbor or whatever. But then if you look at, if you look at our small grain yields, they, I mean, they could be better in a sense. And I guess kind of back to where we started by not using synthetic fertilizer, that's, I don't know how many millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels that's been turned into synthetic fertilizer. So kind of the difference is, our fertility source and our rotation and all of that. Over time, I think our yields will pick up as a difficult question. But yeah, the short answer is no.
Daniel Hartz: Sounds like what you're saying is that although the numbers may be a little lower, the quality of the food is significantly higher.
Luke Peterson: Yes.
Daniel Hartz: So, you're getting more bang for your buck nutritionally speaking.
Luke Peterson: Yeah. I think I read this article, it's called no free lunch and food scientists have compared the nutritional levels of modern crops with historic and generally lower-yielding ones. And today's food produces 10 to 25% fewer iron things like protein, calcium, vitamin C. There are researchers from Washington state who analyzed 63 spring wheat varieties grown between 1892 and 2013 and they found an 11% decline in iron and 16% decline in copper and 25% decline in zinc.
Daniel Hartz: Oh Wow!
Luke Peterson: So yeah, there's definitely a quality issue that's a direct result of soil losing its nutrient holding ability, from mining it for yield.
Daniel Hartz: That's what you were mentioning earlier about all the semis, just taking all that away and there's no real way to replenish.
Luke Peterson: Yeah.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah. So switching gears a bit, because I'm one of those five principles of soil health is to use livestock to fertilize.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, that is kind of the hope and the dream right now for the right now we're buying are fertility offsite. And if we could have our own livestock within the rotation that one thing it would do is it would allow me to sell this for a job to farm and this is kind of crucial to the organic or regenerative system. Also adding livestock, it would allow us to graze those cover crops that we talked about earlier. Right now those cover crops are kind of an expense. And if we can graze them, that would possibly make them profitable. And there are things like having the saliva and hoof faction and that's been proven that that's very beneficial to the land and the material in the urine, well beyond sight and it will cut back on the transportation and the application costs.
Daniel Hartz: So, when you mentioned that your cover crops by having livestock can become profitable, what exactly does that mean?
Luke Peterson: So we use, we use cover crops for different reasons one example right now is if we have like a compaction issue in our soil, we'll plant a tillage radish in using its taproot to penetrate the hardpan in the soil instead of hooking up a 300, 400 horsepower tractor, dragging steel shanks vertically through the soil each fall. So that's what we're using them for now and they're accomplishing our goal that way. But on top of the soil, they have all their leaves on the greens and everything. If we can... and that's what we're going to be working on this fall is fencing in our fields. So, we can turn livestock out on to the cover crops that are right now working for us below ground, but to turn livestock out there to use up the forage that's above ground and I'm using that forage by, running it through an herbivore. We'll take that forage and turn it directly into manure and then leave it on site. So, we're accomplishing the tillage with the tillage radish and that's just one example. But we're also, now we're able to sell the beef off the farm by grazing the cover crops. We'll take that forage and turn it directly into manure and then leave it on site. So, we're accomplishing the tillage with the tillage radish and that's just one example. But we're also, now we're able to sell the beef off the farm by grazing the cover crops.
Daniel Hartz: So now the cover crops not only do tillage, but they make beef.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, exactly.
Daniel Hartz: Very cool. It's like I was watching a talk by Gabe Brown and he mentioned that you use the waste from one production process to fuel the profit of another.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, it, does, it's, this is going to be kind of a sidetrack, but when you're just talking, it makes me think about just the amount of possibilities that could be happening on the land. When you think about what was here before, that's where I always go back to was what was here before and what's here now. So kind of starting when I started transitioning a farm to organic and then into regenerative, eventually it starts out as a clean black slate of more than likely very sterile soil. Where even in the soil there is very little life. And if you think about what was here before, we decided to do this thing called farming. That just in one way it can really make you kind of depressed and upset in away. But then, on the other hand, I'm starting to look at it as well, look at all the possibilities that we have. We got to start fresh and we need to move on. And if you think about it, they were the herds of Buffalo and antelope and elk and moose and the insect diversity had to be insane. The soil microbes had to be insane. The birds like all of that diversity were working together very closely and very intricately. So just like adding the cover crops is one small piece and then adding the livestock herd is going to be the next piece. We’re kind of starting from the ground and then working our way up, but everything else will follow in behind that. But yeah, super interesting.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I'm noticing that there's definitely a lot of interest in this kind of mimicking nature to restore, basically the health of the soil both on farmlands and just kind of in nature in general, especially using livestock. Because that's a big part of, as you said what was there before? You'd have Buffalo and moose and all sorts of big animals with hooves running back and forth basically fertilizing and plowing up the land a bit. Makes a lot of sense logically just to go back to that and if you're able to not only bring the soil health back to the farm and therefore make healthier food, but also they work together on your farm from a business point of view, in order to make it even more profitable, it just makes so much sense.
Luke Peterson: It does make a lot of sense we're gaining the benefits that are already here if we would just allow them to happen. Instead of going to town to buy everything that we need.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah. Speaking of financially making sense, I read a Reuters article from February 2019 where the US agriculture secretary, Sonny Purdue said that US farm debt has soared to levels that haven't been seen since the 1980s farm crisis. Do you have any ideas why that could be happening?
Luke Peterson: Yeah, Like I just mentioned, if we have a pest problem, we go buy pesticides. If we have a weed problem and they go by herbicide, if we have a fungicide problem, we go buy fungicide spend, spend, spend and you know, when will the spending end?
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: And then so just basically every decision that is being made on inputs comes from someone else that sets the price on them, like the seed chemical fertilizer. Another huge part of it it's hard to tell which one comes first, what we just talked about or the marketing side of things. But you know, when we sell, when we market our crops when you market these things that we sell-off of these farms, we can use corn as an example. Let's say we're going to sell the Cargill, and this is just my opinion, but this is just how I feel about it.
Luke Peterson: Cargill is just the huge corporation and as farmers, we don't go into Cargill as a group and market collectively and say, we have a product that you want and what you need. And remember, without our product, Cargill doesn't have a business.
Daniel Hartz: Right!
Luke Peterson: And as a group, you know, we don't go to them and say, all right, we have this product and we have decided what we need as far as how much money we need for this product that is going to make us profitable and allow us to keep farming sustainably or organically or regenerative. We all go in kind of as Mavericks in a way either thinking that maybe we'll outsmart Cargill or maybe what we're thinking is that by going to Cargill and getting that $3 corn, under the cost of production for our product that maybe we'll undercut the neighbor. That way if I can grow corn or whatever at this price and my neighbor can't, then essentially, he'll go out of business and I'll take over where he left off. I mean that's kind of the race to the bottom mentality that we have in a way right now and I don't believe that it's Cargill's fault that they're making huge profits year after year and farmers are struggling. They are grain buyers and they are really good at their job. Their job is to buy a green as cheap as possible, you know, so I mean that's their job. They're really good at it. We as farmers are grain sellers. So, I guess the question is, how are we doing at our job? We really do need to stop and think about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Luke Peterson: The community needs ... In a way you can kind of get looked at as greedy in a way to say, I need so much from my product. I'm asking, for more money for my product when food is already supposed to be really expensive. But you got to look at the externalizations that go along with cheap food; and then is it really cheap? Right now I'm working with a bakery in Northeast Minneapolis and they make a loaf of bread, they're seeded bread, it's wonderful and they sell it for 5.50 a loaf, I think that's maybe a buck 50 over what you can buy a country hard for. And the difference that that buck 50 alone, if the consumer is willing to pay for that, of course, as part of this is a, it makes a huge difference in the landscape. But when they buy grain from me, they pay me fairly for it. And so that allows me to farm the way ... Moving the direction that I'm moving now, which is in the opposite direction of selling $3 corn to Cargill, at a loss.
Daniel Hartz: So, by selling to this bakery, you don't sell at a loss.
Luke Peterson: Well, that's a complicated question too, because like right now getting started, it's a very slow process. In a sense, we're kind of creating a new economy I like to think of it that way.
Daniel Hartz: That's cool.
Luke Peterson: And I guess the short answer is no, I'm not selling it to them at a loss. We're kind of just working together and I'm trying to sell it to them at a price also where they can still make money because they're consumer... And right now it's small quantities. So if you add up the amount of work that goes into it and the additional infrastructure that's needed to market this way and the time and everything else that's involved. It's kind of just at the beginning stages. But I didn't want to say that I'm working at a loss, but at the same time, I'm being fair in my price so we can move forward with this idea.
Daniel Hartz: It sounds like conventional farmers and farmers who are selling to companies like Cargill, a big part of the reason that they are in debt and it's higher now than it has been for almost 40 years, is because of this race to the bottom. And it's because of that kind of debt hamster wheel from buying insane amounts of inputs that you don't need to buy from, from buying the latest, shiniest machinery that is required. Whereas you're going and finding tractors that have trees growing out of them. And it almost sounds like the way the farming is currently being done is almost designed to make farmers go into debt. Whereas by what you said is, you just go and do what you want to do and you do it the way you think is right. And It is actually allowing you to set your own prices which are fair to you and to the people that you sell to and it's also good for the environment and for your health.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, and in a way, it does kind of raises the question is it designed to keep farmers in debt? It is very interesting, especially as a farmer, that has seen like how the credit side of it works, how the subsidy side of it works, how the, politics that we talked about earlier with the seed chemical and fertilizer, how that all kind of plays together in this very competitive world, very competitive mindset. And you wonder if it's set up that way, which sometimes honestly do wonder. But then at other times, you have to look at the other side of it and like I'm not blaming Cargill but also just the farmers in general; I'm speaking very loosely, I'm not knocking anybody specific. But if a piece of land comes up for rent or for sale, it's every man for himself. The farming community, I would say in the big picture right now obviously as anybody can see, isn't working together for the greater good of, you know, in the community. If they were, I don't think my hometown would be deciding on what school I should say in my home County is deciding on which school they're going to shut down next.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: Or which hospital is going to be low on funding or which county road is going to be graded or add gravel or which bridges are going to get.
Daniel Hartz: So that local economy, which is the bakery that you're working with, and that's the one that's in the, in the food building you were telling me about before the call.
Luke Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, on the flip side of this new economy, as I like to call it. What it is it's just a group of very passionate, selfless deep-thinking people who can kind of see the underlining causes of our faltering economy, and they have decided to do something about it. They understand that with the food we can have a healthy community, a healthy economy, and a healthy ecosystem. We can have all of those, but it does start with as I said, they pay us fairly for our crops. And another thing that's really important and very unique with what they're doing, which, to answer your question earlier about being profitable or not, I should say maybe not immediately, but in the long haul, this type of marketing or buying and selling is crucial because they buy alternative crops from me and earlier we talked about the diversity is going to be key to the survival of the ecosystem.
Luke Peterson: That means my survival financially as a farmer because I depend on that ecosystem for my finances, just them looking at alternative crops that allow me to have that diverse rotation that we talked about. That allows me to get creative because if I grow one or two crops year after year, financially and sustainably or whatever you want to call it, that's it's going to be very difficult to move in an organic regenerative system. So them buying something like flax, I was able to grow flax, so that added a whole other crop to my rotation. I would have not ever planted flax if I didn't have a market for it. So having to market for these alternative crops is huge.
Daniel Hartz: That's a really good point. It doesn't make sense from a financial standpoint for you to grow any crops that you can't sell. It's very much of a balance where you need to be able to sell it somewhere in order for you to actually have a reason to grow it. So there has to be a demand for it.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, correct. That's for sure. And that demand. Yeah. So when a customer walks in to their food co-op or their grocery store, it's their responsibility to hold whatever it is they're buying in their hands and ask the question, is this the world I want to live in? Where did that food come from?
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that's kind of a lot of pressure when you think about if you're just going into the store.
Luke Peterson: And this great, because I think about this all the time, like as a farmer what a lot of pressure to get from, the public where farmers need to do this, this, this and this it's, you know, like as a farmer on the other side of it, we're looking back and saying, well, how can you expect me to do that when you're not supporting me in your buying decisions so, it goes both ways. When the public says, hey, we want this to happen in our environment, or hey, we're sick of dirty water and eroding land and climate change and then they swing into McDonald's on their way home. That is very, very frustrating as a farmer.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, very counterproductive supporting the exact opposite of what they were just saying.
Luke Peterson: Yeah and wherever the market is, is where the farmers will move. If there's a market, I do have faith that most farmers will move in that direction and that market I think is coming; it's just coming very slowly. Education is a huge part of this. And then like if you look at what we're doing with the bakery, the demand is there at the same time, we kind of have to build all the infrastructure to get them what they want. So right now we're building things on the farm. The bakery's name is Bakersfield, by the way, they have to build the infrastructure to have the warehouse, have the bakery have to figure out how to store this green. I have to figure out how to clean it. They have a mill. They mill onsite, so they have to mill it, they have to package it, they have to get it to all the stores, in the surrounding area. And so we have to do,...oh another thing is they have to figure out how to use it. So like the grain consistency changes from year to year, just depending on the weather. General mills or whatever they'll, get grains from all over the country in mass quantities and they can make this perfect blend to make your perfect bag of all-purpose flour.
Luke Peterson: And it's always the same week in, week out, year in and year out, but when Steve Horton gets my flour or my wheaten, this is where it’s kind of becomes a craft. He has to...he mills it and then he kind of has to experiment with it. And then with his expertise of baking, he decides what's it's going to be best used for and what other grains he might need to blend with it to kind of get his final product that is going to be desirable to the customers. So, we're trying to build all of that all while trying to meet demand. So, everybody, even the consumers, armors and like the bakery, we're all on the same level; we're all moving in the right direction. It's just really slowly, we just have our obstacles.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah. It sounds like once you figure out what infrastructure you need and then you start building it once it's there, that's when it becomes easier, but as always it's the hardest part is just getting started. So, now that you're becoming aware of the challenges of growing food this way or going growing grain this way specifically, and Bakersfield is starting to understand, well, here's what we need to be ready for every year. I'm guessing it becomes easier and easier and faster and faster because you learn as you make the mistakes and go through it every year.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, yup, yup. I think we've been working together for four years now and they are buying significantly more grain now than when they started, so definitely working and they're successful.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, really glad to hear that it's working, and the partnership is blossoming. Hopefully, it can be a model for other farmers and other bakeries around the country really and around the world. Switching gears, we were discussing earlier that regenerative agriculture is far more than just that feel-good factor of seeing bumblebees and butterflies floating around. Those bees and butterflies are actually indicative of the health of the land and therefore the health of the food that you're growing, as we've talked about. So the way I've seen it, healthy food means healthy people, healthy people means productive communities, productive communities mean productive economies and countries. So if we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, how would you look at the food you're growing is actually saving taxpayers money to a certain degree because by growing healthy food, you're keeping people healthy and people are healthier. They, able to work more, they're not sick. So, people don't need to pay, for healthcare. How would you look at that?
Luke Peterson: Yeah, simply could be put as pay the farmer now or to pay the doctor later.
Daniel Hartz: Fair enough. I like that.
Luke Peterson: It's much more fun visiting with your local farmer and talking about food and farming and chickens and cabbages and, like looking at purple carrots, we buy all of our carrots from a small vegetable farmer, they're called Tony Hill farms. And we can go over there and we can just kind of look at the carrots and the cabbages and they tell us how they're farming. They raised our chickens for us and there are chickens running all over and there's turkey standing at your feet clucking or whatever they do you. And it's kind of a, it's very sensational. Like there's a lot of things going on. So being there is much more fun than sitting in a doctor's office once again, looking for somebody to fix something that could be prevented.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to invest upfront for higher quality in order to prevent needing to fix things on the other side. Do you encounter folks who say that it's, you know, it's all well and good to encourage people to eat organic food, but that dollar 50 extra of that loaf that Bakersfield makes, it's just too much. So, what do you typically say to that?
Luke Peterson: To me, I just simply go right to the externalities of where the food came from. And then once you go there, you can start adding on the true costs of your food. It's so easy to stand in the bread aisle look at the two loaves and say, well, I'll get the cheaper one because it's cheaper and well, it's cheaper immediately, but long term it's gonna be very expensive. But yeah, run into that all the time and sometimes it just isn't worth the battle. What I and my wife do is just try to lead by example in away. And the best thing that we're doing is we're trying to grow as much food as we can for ourselves as possible. And then we're getting really close to sourcing all of our food from local regenerative farmers or organic farmers, and we're buying that food from people. So, us spending the money locally in the long term, even that side of its gonna make us a more profitable in the future because there'll be more money in the area. I mean, they'll buy something back from us down the road.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that's really cool. I would imagine if I were one of the only people in my local area doing organic and regenerative agriculture and everyone else around me as doing it conventionally, it could get a little bit lonely almost. You know, there was no one really to boost you up and say Hey, you're doing it right and because everywhere you look, people are doing it differently and they kind of disagree with the way you're doing it. So creating that community where you're trading and buying and selling to people who are growing in the same way you are, that must be really encouraging and refreshing, I would imagine.
Luke Peterson: It is, and it took a little while to find those people, but it didn't take very long. It was incredible to see who you would stumble upon next or who someone would recommend that you go visit with and pretty soon you create this small, the camaraderie is awesome.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: The small people that get together and you don't have to talk about anything or argue about anything. Everybody there is just on the same page and it makes for a fun place to be. It's just that you definitely need to find your tribe, that's for sure.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that must be so nice. It's like you, your little safe zone where you can go and just be yourself really
Luke Peterson: Yup, and you're not always on guard, you know?
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, do you think anyone can really use the techniques that you use on your farm on a daily basis?
Luke Peterson: Like as far as a large commercial farm, like Gabe Brown's is a good example of how it can be done, but then there's also that reason why large farms and commercial farms are large and commercial. You know, and it isn't because they're paying attention to the detail. When I worked in Mapleton, North Dakota, there is a farmer that had 48,000 acres.
Daniel Hartz: Wow!
Luke Peterson: It's pretty hard to pay attention to the details.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: And it's amazing that the details that are out there, when you go walk in the field and stand in the field, you might have to stand there for a while before you realize something and you can't do that on large amounts of acres. I think I could step up and say that it's not possible. But like with the Brown's operation, he's doing it and then he's one of the most successful farmers that there are.
Luke Peterson: And the farmer that is my mentor here is Carmen Fernholz and he's done it successfully for 45 years and it isn't on a large scale, but it definitely is large enough. And like vegetable farmers Davis and Tobin do this very well at their farm, they use all these practices and they're successful. And as far as like a home gardener when I'm gardening at home to me, seeing all sides of this issue when I'm in my garden, and the birds are sitting on the fence next to and you have this little plot that's going to supply most of your food for the year. It was really kind of takes you back a little bit and you think, boy, what could it be like, I'm just surrounded by fields that go on forever and black dirt with nobody on them, no animals on them. And I sit in my little garden plot and there's all this commotion and it doesn't take that much space to produce food for a family. There are all these other factors that play into that why this isn't happening. But yeah, small home gardeners is, I mean that's a perfect place to do these practices. Probably the place where you really, really can pay attention to the details and kind of take on the vastness of how vast nature really is, how big it really is.
Daniel Hartz: That's interesting how big it really is on a small scale. You can see the vastness even in a small garden.
Luke Peterson: Very well said. Yes. Yeah.
Daniel Hartz: That was cool. You mentioned this earlier, but aside from going to the supermarket and being very careful with what you choose on a day to day basis as a consumer, is there anything else or is that really the thing that people listening to this podcast can do to support regenerative and organic farming?
Luke Peterson: I think right now with where we're at, the easiest thing that people can do is to go find that local farmer and just choose that over something else. And going to look for that local farmer can I make an emission in a way, once you meet these people and you get more educated, you'll realize the impact that you really have and how much they love you come into their farm buying what it is that they want to do and that grows food. I would say buying from a person is right now the easiest thing that we can do. And it's so easy to do and more fun.
Daniel Hartz: Absolutely, Yeah. I mean here in London, there are farmer's markets everywhere. You know, the farmers come out here and they're happy to talk to you and you can ask them a thousand questions and each question they answer patiently and you can just see that they're really excited to talk to you and happy that there's someone who actually cares and who wants to learn about how they did it. You know, where exactly did the cheese come from? What kind of grasses is cow eating?
Luke Peterson: Yeah, and it's an excitement it comes from, you know, not your specific question, but that you had asked that question. And in their mind, they have a million things going on and there's a reason why they're so excited about something like cheese.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah.
Luke Peterson: You know, they're so excited why they're selling you this, a little bag of wheat that you can mill at home. It's not that they really love the wheat or that they really love the cheese. It's, the world that, that they're creating by, by selling you that cheese. So yeah, that part to me is, I mean, I love that part, I love talking to other farmers about how they would grow their food, that I buy from them or I love telling people about how we are due on our farm.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, That's really cool. Do you also sell it at the farmer's market or you have more of these partnerships?
Luke Peterson: With the grain, it gets kind of difficult because there isn't much with like home baking right now or home milling. So with the bakery, that's very local as far as grain goes. And I do sell flax online to individuals, in five, 10, and 25-pound packages. I just kind of do it over email or Instagram or whatever and use PayPal in those ways.
Daniel Hartz: Got it. I think it's great to be able to use technology and the internet to actually sell people things that are grown with love and in a way that works well with nature.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, the technology it's all there waiting for us to use it. Right.
Daniel Hartz: Exactly. Absolutely and so do you have any books or even just one book that you could recommend for people who want to learn more about regenerative agriculture or organic or getting started in farming at all?
Luke Peterson: Yeah and besides the book, I just would walk out and just walk out in nature. Where you can't see anybody or anything that anybody, who's kind of disturbed and stand there like an hour. And that would be probably the best thing you can do to understand regenerative agriculture. But as far as the book goes, Gabe Brown has 'Dirt to Soil and Mark Sheppard has 'Restoration agriculture,' sorry and they're two different farmers; they have the same goals. But two very different farmers and it just gives me a good perspective on what could be happening.
Daniel Hartz: Cool, well I'm definitely a big fan of Gabe Brown I haven't heard of Mark Sheppard so that's one to add to the list. If someone wanted to buy some of your flax or if they were interested in reaching out and chatting with you to learn more about what you do, where can people find you?
Luke Peterson: Please to reach out and to find would be on Instagram at aframefarm and that lower case, there are no spaces.
Daniel Hartz: Excellent and do you have a website or anything?
Luke Peterson: Not currently, no I just kind of been using social media like Instagram.
Daniel Hartz: Cool. Very modern.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, it's in real-time, you know, showing true transparency is kind of the idea behind it. Kind of creating my own label instead of just, associating myself with organic or regenerative or whatever. I can just have those principles and be certified in those things, but I'm really using Instagram as a way to create my own label and to say, this is who I am and this is what I'm doing.
Daniel Hartz: Yeah, that’s cool I've been watching some of the videos that you've been posting on Instagram, just showing how you're doing day to day life of being Luke on your farm. It's really cool just to see what you've been up to and how it all works. Because I think it's impossible for someone like me who's living in a city to know what goes on. So those kinds of videos really bring it all to life and make it very real.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, yup. Just trying to bridge that gap between the city and the rural areas and trying to bring everything full circle.
Daniel Hartz: Excellent. I love it. Well, cool this has been great. I've learned a lot. It's very interesting to talk with you, so thank you so much for your time and I hope the bakery keeps growing and you're able to provide as much grain to them as you possibly can.
Luke Peterson: Yeah, I appreciate it and thank you for the opportunity.
Thank you for listening to episode five of Sustainability Matters Today. You can find links to the books and the organization's Luke mentioned in the show notes, which you can see on my website, sustainabilitymatters.today. If you enjoyed this episode or any of the other SMT episodes, I'd really appreciate it if you could take the time to give a five-star review. To be the first to know about new episodes. Please subscribe to the podcast, talk to you soon.