Digging in with Ethan Meissner, FFA Entrepreneurship Winner

We spoke with Ethan about how he started from the ground floor, cleaning the facility and assisting customers, where he is now, and what he hopes to do in the future. He is currently a sophomore studying agricultural engineering at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and hopes to stay involved in the processing side of the industry since there are many processing-related careers, such as creating new equipment and machinery.

Working from the ground floor up, Meissner’s responsibilities started with cleaning the facility and assisting customers in loading up their purchased products. His on-the-job performance has led to experience in mixing, stuffing, and grinding the product, as well as cutting fresh product for retail sales. Meissner also engaged in the smoking, curing, packaging, and labeling processes.

Since meat processing takes many years of experience, he is looking forward to continuing to learn the trade, he said. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for him.

Jupiter Ridge: Regenerative Stewards of the Land

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Nestled on a bluff atop a 1,200-foot-high ridge in Iowa, surrounded by dense forest, Jupiter Ridge Farm is an ideal landscape for growing all types of mushrooms, vegetables, and perennial flowers.

The Importance of Regenerative Agriculture

Will and Adrian farm on land leased to them by the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). The land was donated to SILT by Steve Beaumont (on far right in above photo). To farm here, Jupiter Ridge – and all SILT farmers and ranchers – are required to have third-party certification to affirm that their agricultural practices are regeneratively grown.

For Jupiter Ridge, this means applying environmentally-responsible growing methods, like healthy soil building, cover cropping, crop rotation, compost amending, using all-natural fertilizers, and minimizing chemical use for pesticides.

These measures ensure that their farming practices give back to the land in some way. As Will explains, they are only temporary stewards for this land, and they will eventually pass it along to another farmer. It is critical that their operation continues to improve the soil, making sure it is full of nutrients and microbes.

It’s important to note that the term, “regenerative agriculture”, does not have any globally definitive guidelines that state whether one operation is effectively regenerative or not.

But operations like Jupiter Ridge use these farming practices to make real and lasting changes.

When we asked Will and Adrian why regenerative ag was important to them, they did not hesitate in their response:

“We are honored to be able to grow whole, healthful food for our community while ensuring the sustenance of those who eat it, but also the health of the land it came from.

We have always felt a ‘beyond organic’ spirit when it comes to farming, taking it a step further and always making sure we’re putting life and health back into the soil after every crop.”

– Will Lorentzen, Adrian White

By cover cropping and crop rotation, Jupiter Ridge re-injects micronutrients back into the soil. Rather than ripping up the root system after every harvest, rotational planting allows them to nourish the soil with a variety of new nutrients. Furthermore, cover cropping provides protection against soil erosion, maintains healthy topsoil, suppresses weeds, and deter pests.

This promotes biodiversity and ultimately reduces soil compaction, allowing for better CO2 sequestration in the root system.

Regenerative Ag Practices

At Jupiter Ridge, Will and Adrian don’t just farm mushrooms, they also grow a variety of vegetables and perennial flowers. They believe this not only promotes soil health but encourages large pollinator habitats on the native prairie lands to thrive and expand.  Will explains that by applying regenerative farming practices like planting perennials, it can increase biodiversity, and ultimately serves as a tool on the farm.

“If there is wildlife flourishing around our farm every year — monarch butterflies, beneficial pollinators, pest predators — then we feel we’ve done a good job, too.”

– Adrian White

 “If you look at studies and research, the health of the soil is directly tied to the actual health of the plant foods that grow in it. Abundant soil life is critical for adequate nutrient uptake into fruits, vegetables, etc.”

Will continued, adding that with soil health comes flexibility, explaining that resilient soil allows them to keep their products and production methods varied. Healthy soil increases water absorption to protect against droughts.  This flexibility, he says, is imperative in an ever-changing world.

One of the coolest things to see on the farm are the tangible results of these efforts: when farmers help the land, the land then helps farmers.

“We had a pest problem take care of itself this year with no needed actions taken from us because of the flourishing perennial environment. Soldier beetles that thrive in the surrounding prairies fed on the pest and took care of the job! If we didn’t grow sustainably or regeneratively, this wouldn’t have happened,” Adrian White commented.

Measuring the Success of their Hard Work

While the most formal method of measuring success in regenerative ag is to measure carbon sequestration, Jupiter Ridge has identified other ways to realize the effects of its regenerative practices. With carbon sequestration measurements not yet scalable and mainstream, Jupiter Ridge measures their increased yields, decreased inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as increased resiliency of the crop — like in the example of the soldier beetles.

“The subjective feedback we get is from our customers. Returning customers, chefs, and CSA members say it all—they want more of the quality food we grow, which keeps them coming back. If people are pleased with the quality, beauty, and flavor of the food we grow, then we feel we’ve grown regenerative food very effectively.”

“We also use responsible forestry techniques to source the logs for our shiitake and other mushroom production. We also use things from off the waste stream as much as possible.

We’re also planting more and more perennial crops each year that require less maintenance and tillage. Some of our practices are sustainability requirements in our one-of-a-kind land lease with SILT and encourage good soil erosion prevention techniques.”

 Challenges and Misperceptions to the Operation

Farming regeneratively does not come without its challenges. Will and Adrian both note that the timing and terminating of their cover crops is difficult. Furthermore, perennial crops are expensive when they are not sold. He points out that growing regeneratively demands labor, time, and investment.

“Even if people can charge more for regenerative to compensate for their labor and time, the process of making a considerable profit margin is far more challenging than most other businesses.”

While Will and Adrian don’t think that any misperceptions exist at this early stage in regenerative ag, they want people to know that it is more than a buzzword. It is a way of connecting eco-friendly farming practices to climate change and soil health.  This, they believe, is another incredible and impactful step in the sustainable movement to better our world.

But so much of what goes on at a farm is invisible to the consumer, leaving many of us out of touch. That’s why Jupiter Ridge supports ongoing traceability efforts and believes the best way to know where your food comes from is to shop local. An added benefit? Regenerative operations are often started without immediate financial rewards, so shopping directly from the farm helps to offset these financial burdens.

Five Reasons Why I Started Using Conservation Practices On My Farm

This article was written by Keith Mears, who farms with his family near Delphi, Indiana, and is a Conservation Steward with America’s Conservation Ag Movement.

Implementing farmland conservation practices is no easy feat, but the results are well worth the efforts. Keith Mears gives us five solid reasons why the time is now…

The most important step to making a change on your farm is determining why you are going to do it. Without a firm understanding of why, it will be too easy to lose motivation and change your mind when challenges arise.

To encourage other farmers to get started, I want to explain five reasons why I started using conservation practices on my 110-acre corn and soybean farm.

  1. Being the best steward I can be. One of my favorite free-time activities is kayaking on the local streams and rivers. It is sad and concerning to me how muddy-brown our streams and rivers are. I want to take responsibility for the farmland I am called to be a steward of and make sure I do my part to keep my soil on my farm. The legacy I want to leave for my community and my children is one of cleaner water and richer soils, allowing them to produce healthy, reliable food and enjoy the environment for generations to come.
  2. Increasing soil organic matter and, in turn, increase water holding capacity. The art of farming can be boiled down to using soil and water to capture energy from the sun to produce food fuel and fiber. Considering the factors I can manage, I realize that the sun is going to come up every day and there is not a lot we can or need to do to manage that. My farm relies on rainfall for all of the water for the crops and while there is absolutely nothing I can do to change the rains, I have come to realize that I can improve the water-holding capacity of the soil by increasing organic matter and improve yields by holding more of the rains we do get on my farm for my crops to produce higher yields. A 1% increase in soil organic matter will increase the water-holding capacity in the top 6 inches of an acre by 27,000 gallons. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of water in a 1-inch rain.
  3. Improving overall farm efficiency. To win in a commodity business a farmer must produce high yields at the lowest cost possible. Reducing tillage and, therefore, reducing trips across the field reduces the costs of growing a crop and improves efficiency. Two to three tillage passes are eliminated, resulting in less time, labor and fuel required to produce crops. Eliminating these tillage passes saves between $35 and $40 per acre.
  4. Reducing the amount of equipment I need to purchase and maintain to operate my farm. I do not own a chisel plow, disk or field cultivator. I also do not need to own a high-horsepower tractor to pull these implements. Further savings are realized by not having to have a larger barn to store these extra pieces of equipment. I am able to farm using only one tractor on the entire operation. Not having to buy a high-horsepower tractor, a chisel plow, disk and field cultivator saves my farm tens of thousands of dollars of capital costs.
  5. The support I receive from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). When deciding whether to transition to a no-till cover crop system, I reached out to the NRCS for ideas and support. The conservationists at the NRCS shared ideas and practices that had the highest likelihood of success in our area. I applied for and received three years of per-acre payments for no-till and cover crops through the EQIP program. These payments covered the cost of my planter pass and all costs of using a cover crop, including seed and planting. These payments reduced the risk of trying something new and gave me the confidence to get started.

I encourage anyone reading this to consider how to improve stewardship on their own farm in addition to how their management decisions impact the community and the legacy they want to leave for future generations.

I also encourage you to reach out to your NRCS office and/or connect with other farmers in your area to discuss conservation practices.

Getting technical with conservation

We found Keith’s conservation practices fascinating, so our team followed up with him to get some specifics on how he applies these farming techniques. Here’s what he had to say:

In terms of emission reduction, have you seen a decline? If so, how are you measuring that on the farm?

I have been able to replace 3 tillage passes with one cover crop planting pass for a net gain of two fewer passes across the field.

A conventional tillage system would be (1) chisel plow, (2) disk, (3) field cultivate, (4) spray, (5) plant, (6) spray, and (7) harvest; versus a no-till cover crop system of (1) plant cover, (2) spray, (3) plant, (4) spray, and (5) harvest.

This can be measured in diesel fuel savings of about 29%, or about $9 per acre.

Do you use any solar or wind technologies for energy offsets on the farm? If so, what do these systems look like?

No.  My energy requirements are the same on still, cloudy days as they are on sunny, windy days.  However, solar and wind power are essential for the farm.  Each corn seed I plant in the spring turns into approximately 560 seeds in the fall and each soybean seed turns into approximately 300 seeds.

The energy for these returns comes almost exclusively from the sun through the miracle of photosynthesis.  Additionally, the wind is vital to bring in rains, my only source of water, and cool and aerate the plants.

What does your typical rotation look like? If you are rotating, which crops do you grow on a single set of land, what does that look like, and how do you decide?

All of my acres are in a corn cover-soybean cover rotation. Usually, I use cereal rye as the cover crop.

I decide based on crop budget spreadsheets which factor in the market prices of inputs and each grain and calculate expected profit based on historical yields.

I have grown corn after corn and soybean after soybeans to increase expected profits.

photo credit: Brooke Sauter

Have your conservation ag practices helped with pests, diseases, invasive weeds, etc.? And if so, that must also equate to cost savings. But has it? And to what degree?

Not yet. I expect an improvement in soil health to lead to an improvement in pests and diseases long term.  Short term, during a transition to no-till, disease and pest pressures have increased. I am learning how to manage cover crops to reduce invasive weeds and have seen signs of fewer weeds where covers are planted, but after subtracting the cost of cover crop seed; I have not realized any consistent cost savings yet.

What about yield? Has there been a “regrowth period” once some of these practices were put in place as the soil acclimated? 

A transition to no-till caused a 5-10% reduction in yield.  After factoring in the capital and operating expenses of saving tillage passes I did not experience a change in profit per acre.  After implementing no-till and covers for about 4 years the yields come back up and seem to become more consistent.  This drives a long-term increase in farm profitability.

What’s happening at our local grocers during COVID-19?

These are some of the pressing questions we addressed during an interview with Jake Heinen, a fourth-generation family member of Heinen’s markets, who is helping to run a 90-year-old grocery business.

History of Heinen’s

Started in 1929 by Jake’s great grandfather, Joe Heinen, the original store was a small butcher shop on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. But Joe, who emigrated from Germany, had bigger dreams. Back then, stores were separate markets: you visited bakeries for breads and pastries, butcher shops for meats, farm stands for produce, and so on. This structure forced consumers to run all about town to get what they needed.

By 1933, Joe’s plan for a one-stop shop was in motion, carrying staples like butter, pickles, and donuts, in addition to his renowned meat selection.

Now, four generations later, Heinen’s has 23 stores in the greater Cleveland and Chicago areas and employs over 3,500 associates. One of the many things that distinguishes this business is their close relationships with suppliers and employees. Also, as a smaller independent grocer, they can quickly change direction to meet business and customer demands – a serious challenge for larger operations.

Specialty Suppliers in Produce & Meat

Heinen’s strategy is to truly ‘partner’ with their organic and conventional farmers. They are in constant communication about growing specs, pricing, and produce distribution. This assures Heinen’s of their supply while giving the farmer a reliable customer. By working directly with more than 75 Ohio and Illinois farmers who ship almost exclusively to Heinen’s own warehouses, they cut out the transportation middleman, therefore “limiting room for disruption and ensuring fresher quality,” as Jake calls it.

These relationships allow them to expand certain popular purchases, like heirloom-variety produce. In the summer they are 70% local but, to assure year-round supply, they also source from the U.S., Mexico, and Chile using large-scale suppliers, such as Western Growers and Driscoll Foods, also a family business.

Heinen’s promotes both conventional and organic foods. Entire quality control teams are dedicated to inspecting all products entering the warehouse to ensure their customers get the best products around. 

In discussing the big picture of the produce industry with a Driscoll employee, they casually mentioned Heinen’s as a grocer that focuses on freshness, consistency, and packaging. They observe that Heinen’s devotes more floor space per square foot than most retailers. Furthermore, their produce team is very well-trained on the sourcing, nutrition, and value of all produce, something that’s also shared with their customers who buy more produce than the average grocer’s customer.

Heinen’s takes pride in its specific criteria to meet beef, pork, and chicken products. The company follows Joe Heinen’s advice that “we must buy the best to sell the best”. All their suppliers follow the practice of humanely raising and handling their animals and never treating them with added hormones or antibiotics.

By working with these trusted family businesses that allow exclusivity on their goods, products get to their stores faster and fresher. Because Heinen’s is comparatively small, they must have their own supply and not ‘stand in line’ behind the bigger chains. This, Jake says, has been a critical component of Heinen’s ability to be “flexible” during uncertain times, like COVID-19.

How has the Coronavirus affected Heinen’s?

“It has flipped everything on its head!” Jake explains. “It has made us rethink the way that we distribute, how we are buying goods and how we can quickly change direction within our current supply chain. We are living one day at a time – everything is fluid.”

Jake attributes Heinen’s trusted supply chain and lean management style to provide a nimble foundation for special situations, like COVID-19. What do we mean? Let’s start with their safety at the store level, because Heinen’s believes their associates’ health and safety is top priority.

Being deemed an essential business has its pros and cons.

On the upside, the grocers continue to make a profit and keep their employees working. However, every day these employees come to work, they put their health at risk, something Heinen’s considers top-of-mind.

Because they have just 23 stores, all of which maintain a level of what Jake calls “managerial autonomy,” they can address the needs of the associates quickly and precisely. When COVID was deemed a pandemic, Heinen’s installed plexiglass shields at its registers. Recently, Heinen’s was able to purchase face shields and masks for their associates who felt they needed these to work safely.

They also gave their associates the first ‘dibs’ on Lysol, toilet paper, and hand sanitizers. Furthermore, Heinen’s is allowing its staff to take a three-week furlough or, if they need more time, to use their paid time off consecutively.

As new state laws rolled out with the evolution of the pandemic, Heinen’s quickly placed signs in their stores to remind employees about hand washing, social distancing, and to avoid touching their face. Markers on the floor remind shoppers of what a safe six-foot distance looks like when waiting at the checkout line, and signs posted on the shelves politely remind customers to limit purchases of paper goods and cleaning products.

Changes from Suppliers during COVID-19

“If we didn’t have our long-term relationships with our suppliers, we would be in trouble,” said Jake. “Large chain grocers such as Kroger’s and Costco get fed first – we would be at the bottom of the food chain in procuring some products.”

While grocers like Heinen’s make necessary changes, so do suppliers. Grocery product manufacturers are experiencing a lag in production and are unable to keep up with unruly demand during this crisis.

Major packaged goods companies are shifting their focus from 20 choices to eight. For instance, Barilla used to have around 20 types of pasta, but now they are putting all their production toward just eight varieties. But once-choosy customers are now just happy to have any kind of pasta. However, even with limited product production, companies still can’t keep up with the demand – just consider the shortages on toilet paper.

Because of this, Heinen’s previous schedule of buying products to ensure a plentiful supply to customers has gone out the window. Being nimble and patient during this time pays off when orders are finally delivered to the warehouse. And to make things a little smoother during this disruptive time, the company is loyal to its devoted brands and accepts goods as they come in, not giving a particular vendor undue priority.

Consumer Behavior Changes

But all that is behind the scenes. Once in the store, Heinen’s is known for being a bright, cheerful place with quality meats, cheeses, pre-made meals, and fresh produce. Their flagship store even has a nice bar on the second floor – a feature many patrons are eagerly awaiting during this pandemic.

The biggest shift in consumer behavior Jake has experienced thus far in the pandemic is their online delivery business. Online grocery sales typically make up 3-4% of Heinen’s overall sales, but with coronavirus, their online business has tripled. This leaves questions about consumer experience and satisfaction. Sometimes online shoppers don’t pick the right things they’re looking for…what does that do to their experience? Will they use this platform more going forward? How can we maintain that in-store connection while our customers are shopping online?

Jake’s Major Takeaways

  • Trust our food supply. This situation is unique and there are plenty of quality goods. They will continue to be available and handled in a safe way by producers and retailers. From the farm to the food manufacturers, everyone is working hard to bring quality food to the grocery store.
  • Don’t hoard. Help your community by only buying what you need. Those who buy up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizers, and paper towels when they already have enough at home are putting their community at risk.
  • Continue social distancing while shopping and take precautions. As much as we all want to get out of the house, grocery shopping should not be a family outing activity. Stay in and stay safe at this time, unless necessary.
  • If anyone at Heinen’s store were to test positive for COVID-19, know that the store would immediately close and management would take all precautions to properly decontaminate and isolate. Furthermore, a third-party cleaning company with FDA-approved products would also disinfect the stores before re-opening.

In the long run, Heinen’s believes that their consumers will appreciate transparency in all that they do, because being a boutique family business puts them in the unique position of connecting with not only their associates to address their needs, but their loyal customers, too.

Cork & Cow: FFA Spotlight on Emily Matzke

The Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture. In an effort to spread the word about the inspiring efforts of leading FFA members, Dirt to Dinner will be highlighting some participant stories.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce Emily Matzke. Her passion for ag was rediscovered in FFA and now she’s developing a business plan to tie her love of ag and local food products together to make a unique frozen treat! Here is her story told from her unique point of view.

I am Emily Matzke, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I am studying Animal Science and Life Sciences Communication with a business emphasis. I became interested in these areas of study due to my interest in agriculture from a young age.

I got my start in agriculture on my grandparents’ dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, where I learned to find value in working the land. When I was in third grade, my grandpa passed away and my family made the ultimate decision to sell our herd of cows. At that point, my one true connection to production agriculture was lost.

Reconnecting with the farm

As I grew up, I found other ways to become involved in agriculture. I joined 4-H to participate in projects such as veterinary science, photography and showing dairy cattle. Through this, I was able to spend time on a family friend’s farm, which helped return me to my roots. Once I was old enough, I joined my local FFA chapter, which is where I like to say that I had a “light bulb” moment.

My experience in FFA made me realize that the agriculture community was where I was meant to be and where I would build a life and career.

In FFA, I participated in speaking contests, equine and poultry judging, attended numerous leadership conferences, planned field trips and much more. I felt the greatest joy when I had the opportunity to share my agriculture story with younger students. While in high school, I also began working on a farm, where I fed calves and assisted with field work.

A fine idea with wine

My experience in FFA and working on this farm is what truly sparked my idea for a future business. My goal is to produce wine ice cream from a small herd of cows using local Wisconsin wine. This business venture would allow me to stay true to my roots of involvement in the dairy industry, while also finding a unique way to stay afloat in this tough agricultural economy. I am hoping that my studies in college will provide me the necessary knowledge to be successful in this business opportunity.

Additionally, I would like to have a “side hustle”, as they call it, where I work with elementary students to educate them about agriculture, as well as blogging and speaking about agriculture with consumers.

Evaluating the specialty dairy market

I have always known that I had an interest in production agriculture, but knew that it was going to be next to impossible to find my place considering today’s economy. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a town that has one of Wisconsin’s largest and most successful vineyards and wineries, which is where I drew my inspiration from. I knew that the wine industry was growing in Wisconsin, and with our proud dairy heritage, I decided to pursue this opportunity.

I began my research and learned that there is alcoholic ice cream on the market, but not much that is specifically made from wine. My goal is to market this product towards young millennials “foodies”, as market trends indicate this group is most interested in trying new food products. I plan to sell my products in the southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois markets, specifically in larger metropolitan areas.

My current biggest challenge is figuring out the supply chain that will help me reach my ultimate goal of bringing my product to market. I am hoping that my experience at the FFA New Century Farmer will help guide me down the right path for accomplishing these goals.

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org. If you’re a fellow FFA and want to share your story, or tell us more about an inspiring FFA member, please email us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your stories!

Fair Oaks Farms: Taking Responsibility

Fair Oaks Farms

What happened on Fair Oaks Farm is surprising, unacceptable and horrifying. Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) videotaped five people, four of whom were employees, severely abusing calves. Fair Oaks had previously terminated three of these employees before the videos were released. The fourth, who was behind the video camera, was terminated after the videos were released. Additionally, there was a truck driver involved who worked for Midwest Veal, a company that picks up and delivers calves between farms or for delivery to processors. He is now banned from any Fair Oaks Farm.

A few years ago, I was so excited to hear about the partnership between Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana and Coca Cola. They created a new technology that gives us healthy nutrients, such as DHA and more protein, while reducing the sugar and fat compared to other milks.  They have committed to traceability and sustainable farming – which includes exceptional cow care.  I have never looked back.

CEO Takes Full Responsibility

It is not the challenges that define you as an individual or a company, it is how you handle them and prevent them from occurring again.

Mike McCloskey, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, immediately took control and made a statement:

I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort. The employees featured in the video exercised a complete and total disregard for the documented training that all employees go through to ensure the comfort, safety and well-being of our animals.

While they already have a strong policy which adheres to each animal’s welfare, Fair Oaks Farms has now strengthened it further. It is due to their existing policy of “if you see something – say something”, they were able to fire the three criminals well before the videos came out. His additional policies not only will make Fair Oaks cows more protected, but this will most likely filter out to other large dairies, thus making animal welfare an even more significant focus on his farms.

McCloskey guarantees this will not happen again at Fair Oaks Farms, as he has already implemented the following protocols since the incident:

  • Invested in a 24-hour camera system at each point where animals and personnel interact. This will stream live into the public domain and the Fair Oaks Adventure Center.

  • Contracted with a third-party animal welfare company to perform random audits on his facility and expects that they will be on his facilities every other week. They will report directly to McCloskey.

  • Hired an animal welfare specialist to continually train all employees at all locations and be responsible for reporting on animal welfare. All employees will continue their animal welfare training upon hiring.

  • Working with an attorney to prosecute the employees in the video and any future animal abusers.

Changing an Industry for the Better

This fallout has caused some grocery stores to pull Fairlife from their shelves. Some people have elicited a ban on Fair Oaks dairy products, or even dairy itself, saying that the entire industry abuses their animals. This is not true. This is not the first time some twisted individual has infiltrated a company in an attempt to spread rhetoric like this.

How many of us take Tylenol or other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories? If you recall the Tylenol scare in 1982, someone replaced extra-strength Tylenol pills with deadly cyanide-laced capsules pills inside the Tylenol bottles, resealed the boxes and put them on pharmacy shelves near Chicago. Seven people died. Jim Burke, the CEO, immediately pulled all Tylenol bottles off the shelves and set the new standard for safety. Johnson & Johnson was the first company to implement triple-sealed tamper-resistant packaging. We, the consumers, didn’t reject all anti-inflammatories as a result of this disaster.

Who’s Next to Take Responsibility?

In the Fair Oaks case, there are a couple of unanswered questions:

  • If ARM has the best interest of the animals at stake, why didn’t the person behind the video camera report the abuse immediately? It is difficult enough to watch the video – how could someone film this without saying something?

  • Who was the person behind the camera? Was it one of the three employees who was fired?

  • The videos ended in October of 2018; why did it take nine months to report such abusive behavior?

We might never know the answers. What we do know is that workplace violence is a form of terrorism, in this case, on animals.

Supporting the dairy industry is more important than ever. 95% of American dairy farms are family owned. The U.S. dairy industry employs, directly and indirectly, almost 3 million people with over 40,000 farms and 1,300 facilities. Banning an entire industry because of five violent individuals just doesn’t make sense.

The Farm Babe: An Ag Love Story

michelle miller, farm babe, doug sass

L.A. Girl Meets Iowa Farmer

Recently, the D2D team took a trip to Iowa to meet Michelle Miller and learn about her life on the farm. Did you know the Farm Babe once worked on the famed Rodeo Drive at Gucci? Hard to believe, right?! Not only that, but she ascribed to the “healthy” lifestyle of many Los Angelenos: was against GMOs; consumed lots of organic products; had a fear of hormones and antibiotics in her food and believed many other misconceptions about the U.S. food supply system.

Though her roots were in the Midwest, Michelle Miller’s love for travel has taken her near and far. After LA, she moved to Florida, where her fate as The Farm Babe began. While serving drinks one day in a local Pensacola beach tavern, her eyes connected with a handsome guy across the bar.

That guy’s name was Doug Sass, a 6th generation Iowa farm boy. While Doug loves the farm life and all that it brings, Iowan winters can be harsh! So Doug dodged the north winds and headed to his sister’s place in Florida for a few weeks. It was on that trip where Michelle met her “Prince Farming” and Doug his “Farm Babe”, and their lives haven’t been the same since.

After that chance encounter, there was no looking back. Michelle packed up her things and moved to Doug’s farm, where her real education in modern-day agriculture began. It started with a few blog posts about what she was seeing, smelling, caring for and living with on a real farm. Her early posts went viral, and the seeds for The Farm Babe were planted. Today, she is the voice behind the Farm Babe and works tirelessly as an “agvocate” for farmers and ranchers by tackling controversial issues and the facts behind our food.

“I just want consumers to be informed,” Miller says. “Nothing makes me happier than knowing I eased food fears for people about hot topics like GMOs, pesticides or ‘factory’ farming. If you want to talk about GMOs, talk to genetic scientists. If you want to talk about food production, talk to farmers. If you want to know about hormones, talk to a veterinarian. There’s this amazing science that happens in our industry that is something to be proud of. It kills me to know it’s drowned out by misinformation.”

New Life Experiences On The Farm

Case in point for fleeing Iowa for the winter: imagine it’s the early hours of dawn on a -50°F February morning. To make sure the newborn lambs stayed alive, Michelle brought them into her kitchen to keep them from freezing to death. Going the extra mile for her ‘babies’ is just one of many new joys of farming life.

And on another day, Michelle watched in jaw-dropping disbelief as a TV warned of a local tornado, which then ripped through their farm and decimated 50% of the buildings on the property. This is considered a normal weather hazard in this part of the country, but not something Michelle thought would ever happen to them.

But there are also the blessings of the 16th hour of the day in a combine during harvest, exhausted and proud of the long day’s work. Michelle and Doug bask in the spectacular light of a full moon in a perfectly clear sky. A take-your-breath away view that neither of them would trade for the world.

Doug’s philosophy: “A bad day on the farm is better than a good day in any other job.”

The Business of Farming

Doug and Michelle manage about 250 head of cattle every year. That means that they purchase weaned ”feeder” calves in the fall, care for them through the winter and following spring, and sell them at market late in the summer.

In addition to their cattle and row crop operations, they run BuckingLamb Palace, which is comprised of approximately 100 ewes that birth lambs every year. Michelle considers the sheep her “queens”, as they deserve a “palace” for being such gentle and kind animals that help feed us so well. Keeping the sheep business all in the family, Doug’s uncle mentored Michelle in the raising of sheep…lessons that she will always cherish. She was able to purchase her first few ewes from him and, thus, BuckingLamb Palace was born.

The ewes are impregnated by the on-site rams in late summer, and after a 5-month gestation period during the coldest part of the year, twins and even triplet lambs are born around Valentine’s Day. They are sold to market later in the summer, when they reach about 160 pounds.

The sheep are rotated through barns depending on their age, gradually introducing the lambs to a larger crowd. By the time warm spring air starts to reach the farm, the ewes are anxious to wean their young and get back out to the fields to graze until their next cycle.

Michelle took us to the barns for the fun experience of bottle-feeding the eight “orphan” lambs, as their mothers didn’t properly care for them. As sad as that might sound, taking care of these lambs is Michelle’s favorite part of the job! She has been the orphan mother for dozens of sweet baby lambs over the years.  She and Doug feed the lambs cow colostrum when they are first born, then move them to milk replacer, and then gradually to a diet of oats and grass.

Farming Through Volatility 

Though farming is a tough job with many economic ups and downs, Doug and Michelle believe their farm’s diverse operations of livestock and staple crops help them stay afloat during difficult times. For instance, while today’s price of soy and corn is down, sheep prices are up, offsetting the loss. He also mentioned that among most farmers he knows, at least one of the spouses has a job in town for additional income and health care insurance.

Furthermore, they maintain a small farm operation and haven’t over-invested in expensive technologies with no real potential for return on investment. Doug and Michelle are very hands-on with their labor, diligently adding to their workforce only during peak weeks in harvest season.  An impressive task that only dedicated farmers can achieve!

They also reduce expenses and increase yields through cover-cropping. Doug’s brother, Neil, is a soil scientist for the USDA, and twenty years ago started working with Doug and his parents to adopt this method. By rotating his cropping schedule and utilizing this method, Doug runs a no-till system wherein he plants the cash crop directly into the cover crop. This reduces emissions and leads to healthy soil, less erosion, reduces the need for expensive fertilizers, and ultimately increases yield.

Managing 2,200 acres and 400+ head of livestock as a single operator is quite a task. But by keeping the operations efficient, it is manageable, although at times even he wonders why there aren’t more hours in the day!

As for Michelle, if she isn’t tending to her flock of sheep one day, she may be off to Los Angeles to be a guest on the Dr. Drew Show or to Australia to talk about farming techniques to farmer groups.

As an advocate for farmers and ranchers, Michelle believes that our collective voice is stronger than our individual voices, which motivates her to work with blogs like Dirt-to-Dinner, whose missions are to educate consumers about myths surround our food!

Rallying for our Flooded Farmers


At Dirt-to-Dinner, we love working with farmers and telling their story. We want to take a moment to not only inform others of the flooding’s magnitude but also to consider a few ways to help those in need.

Floods sweep away livestock and buildings

Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and Iowa have been suffering through a natural catastrophe that has yielded unprecedented damage. The flooding that began in March was so strong that it literally swept away cattle and other livestock, never to be seen again. But the devastation doesn’t end there. As flood waters continue to roll in, farmers’ losses are compounded as time eats away at what would otherwise have been used to plant crops for the upcoming harvest.

“The extensive flooding we’ve seen…will continue through May and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream.”
– Ed Clark, Director of NOAA’s National Water Center

The timing of these floods couldn’t be worse for farmers and ranchers, many of whom currently struggle to keep their farms in operation. Farmers have been working on very slim profit margins with historically low commodity prices and punitive export taxes in ongoing trade wars. When this flood rushed in, it hit our farm belt like a tsunami.

The flooding also wiped out farmers’ reserves. Many farmers strategically store last season’s crops to protect against a downturn, like a rough trading climate or a bad storm. In fact, because of tensions with China, farmers stored more of their harvest last year than in previous years for such protection. Sadly, all those efforts – and lost income – went to waste.

Damage is in the billions

Nebraska and Iowa were hit the hardest by the flooding, with initial damage estimated at $1.4 billion and $2.0 billion, respectively, and these estimates exclude long-term damage, which can multiply the loss, especially when you consider all the unplanted and unharvested crops this year. Furthermore, other affected factors like feed, soil quality, and water supply, will have a profound ripple effect throughout the system that lingers far beyond the current flood.

“This flood isn’t just bigger; the effects will last longer. Long after waters recede, the sand and debris left behind must be cleaned up before planting. But the equipment to remove that debris is not always available quickly and fields may not be ready in time for farmers to get a crop in at all this year.”
– Sam Funk, Iowa Farm Bureau’s Senior Economist

More than 500,000 acres of land were flooded in total, mostly comprised of corn and soybean crops. That’s the equivalent of the area of 35 Manhattans! While floodwaters are now receding in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, river levels are increasing across the northern Plains, with more flooding likely. In Nebraska alone, $400 million worth of livestock have been killed or displaced. This affects not only the ranchers’ operations and livelihoods, but also our dinner plates as the market seeks to find a new balance, leading to beef price fluctuations.

Additionally, with 81 of the 93 counties in Nebraska in a state of emergency as of March-end, many of the roads, bridges, and tunnels are in disrepair, leaving farmers unable to get their goods to the market or transportation hub. For instance, what normally took one Nebraskan farmer around 15 minutes now takes more than three hours to bring his food to market, increasing costs during an already extremely challenging economic time.

A farmer’s limited protection

Our nation provides protection in such disasters at both a federal and state level that farmers can utilize. Of particular aid to farmers in need is the Farm Bill, which significantly extended disaster assistance as of 2014 to include livestock loss from weather events, livestock emergency assistance, and other relevant programs. Also, farmers and ranchers not previously signed up for protection prior to these catastrophic events now have access to coverage.

Despite the breadth of programs offered to those in need, they can still leave the farmer vulnerable to massive loss, as many of these programs only cover a fraction of the damage, if even at all. For instance, with the stored crops we mentioned earlier, neither insurance nor the Farm Bill will cover the loss. In more typical weather events, farmers would have enough time to relocate their grains and seeds in the event of flooding. However, the recent flooding filled the fields too quickly, leaving farmers with no time to relocate their millions of dollars’ worth of stored crops. Any farmer depending on selling those crops for necessary operations and taxes will likely go out of business.

Given the magnitude of loss and the lack of farmer protection in particular issues like stored crops, we expect that new legislation may be proposed in the near future to cover such devastation. But, for many hurting families and communities in the Midwest, those funds can’t come soon enough.

Humanity at its finest

For those who have lost so much, not all hope is lost. Thanks to the compassion of many individuals, companies, and organizations, these farmers and ranchers can find more relief from the storm. Addy Tritt, a recent college graduate, found a remarkable way to help: she purchased a stores’ worth of shoes to donate. Now some may think she must have pretty deep pockets to donate over 200 pairs of shoes, but she used her ingenuity to provide relief. Knowing that Payless was going out of business, she called the corporate office and negotiated over $6,000 worth of inventory down to $100. Talk about a good deal!!

Ralco, an ag tech company, has donated over $15,000 of their animal feed and wellness products to farmers in need. With products that help cattle overcome high-stress situations, Ralco’s donation will go far with livestock that may have temporarily suffered from malnutrition and trauma.

And organizations like Farm Rescue are continually seeking ways to help farmers and ranchers by providing the necessary equipment and manpower to plant or harvest their crops. They also provide livestock feeding assistance and other services.

What can we all do to help?

For one, know that it’s never too late to give. And two, every little bit helps. Even providing a can of beans, donating $5, or just sending a hand-written note of support and warmth will go far. You can donate money or other services at Farm Rescue which has locations throughout the farm belt.

Nebraska Farm Bureau established a Disaster Relief Fund, where 100% of the donations will be distributed to Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and rural communities affected by the disasters. And if you are a farmer in the area and have hay, feedstuffs, fencing materials or equipment to spare, please consider donating to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, where they will provide supplies to those in need.

Should your spring cleaning leave you with extra gently-used clothes, the United Way of the Midlands’ Omaha office at 2201 Farnam Street in Omaha, NE 68102 is set up for donations. They have established the Nebraska & Iowa Flood Relief Fund to help people who lost homes or suffered other setbacks in the flooding. 100% of every donation will be given to nonprofit programs that provide shelter, food and other services in the area.