Sustainable agriculture will not work on a large scale in the Missouri Valley without the active support urban consumers and investors. But how can this support be organized, and who will lead?
With the right marketing strategy and sufficient funding, we believe that consumers will support affordable, locally raised products that offer real health benefits along with measurable environmental and economic returns. We are also convinced that farmers and ranchers are in the best position to lead on product and market development in the Missouri Valley. History is on our side.
Environmental and Health History
Critical losses in soil fertility and wildlife habitat can be traced in large part to long standing public policies that favor energy and water intensive farming methods. For a brief summary of these choices and their effects on our food system, please see Why the Milk Train Stopped. For more details, the Rodale Institute conducts research and offers education programs on organic crop rotations and biological diversity.
On human health, Daphne Miller, M.D. the author of Farmacology and Dr. Mark Hyman in Why Human Health Depends on Soil Health have much to say about how the medical professions deal with diet and illness.
From long experience in organic agriculture (see below) we know that the vast majority of farmers and ranchers who use direct sales methods (CSA’s, Internet, farmers markets) do not generate the free cash required to compete with big food retailers and distributors. Although there are notable exceptions, most never earn enough to increase their production efficiencies and pass their land to the next generation.
If any of these key factors (profits, competitive unit costs and farmland succession) are missing, the dollar value of local, sustainably produced foods sold at retail in our big cities will not increase, and may even decrease. As a result, young producers must leave farming, stay on as low-income producers or work as hired hands. For more on this subject, please see this recent NPR story.
Next, we know that Wholefoods, Sprouts, Trader Joes and others make their money by importing high value organic, non-GMO and other specialty foods. Big Food will NOT negotiate long-term supply contracts with low and middle-income farmers and ranchers near Missouri Valley cities. This 2012 NYT story has more.
Pasture Based Food Systems
As farmers and ranchers, our goal is to enlist consumers and investors in support of efficient and biologically diverse food systems that produce affordable, nutrient-dense foods. In other words, we are building a specialty food system based on cattle, rangeland and permanent pasture.
Depleted soils can recover their fertility in a relative short time if cattle (large ruminants) are part of systematic crop rotations. Since we are already in the beef business, we intend to start with pasture-raised specialty beef. Regional organic dairy production offers a second path to biological diversity.
However, cattle are only one part of our sustainable food vision. In time, our local crop rotations will support fresh fruit and vegetable production along with small grains for pork and poultry.
Consumer Research and Cooperative Marketing
On the business side, we are developing a series of farmer-controlled production cooperatives that will increase our economies of scale at the local level. Consumers and investors are invited to work with us through a separate regional marketing cooperative. This producer-controlled cooperative will own the Raised Free brand and handle marketing and finance for the local production co-ops.
A summary of our planned grassfed beef market test is available here. We will use the project results to develop business plans.
The ideas offered on this website start with my late father, Bob Steffen. He was the farm manager for Father Flanagan at Boys Town for thirty years and a leader in developing commercial-scale organic and Biodynamic farming methods in the Midwest. He introduced me to many holistic thinkers, including E.F. Shumacher, Wendell Berry and Alan Savory.
My own interests are in attracting qualified investors to farmer-controlled food brands. These brands must be tied to pasture-based food systems that are big enough to supply upscale grocery stores and restaurants in near-by cities. On financing, Woody Tasch and his Slow Money Movement along with Michael Shuman, the author of Local Dollars, Local Sense offer excellent information on the economic potential of local food systems.
Our challenge now is to find the economies of scale that lie between “to small to make money” and the realities of the established food system – all without ignoring the real needs of land, labor, capital and management.
Please contact me:
Posted 1-30-17, Revised 05-13-2019