This week on Rootstock Radio we talk to Vince Hundt, organic farmer, expert grazier, and owner of St. Brigid’s Meadows farm. Vince represents the fourth generation of farmers in his family living and working the land around Coon Valley, Wisconsin. He and his wife Dawn raise grass-fed beef, laying hens, pastured poultry, and pastured hogs on their bio-diverse farm in the beautiful hills of Driftless Wisconsin. They have been farming purely organic since 1989.
Vince shares that one of his biggest motivations to farm organically came from a realization that, put frankly, “everywhere people looked ill.” He firmly believes that “as a farmer, you should be part of the solution. You should be trying to solve this problem of a population that looks ill—and is ill.” For Vince, this solution comes in the form of good food. Not only are the Hundts invested in bio-diversity and farming the way Vince’s ancestors did prior to pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics—that is, organic before organic was cool—they are also invested in the practice of grass-based agriculture and rotational grazing. He explains that the adoption of rotational grazing practices in the mainstream agriculture sector could very well be the catalyst to dramatic environmental overhaul, from mitigating harmful algal blooms in our waters, to neutralizing carbon emissions in the entire United States.
Interview with Vince Hundt
September 5, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Vince Hundt, who is an organic farmer and owner of St. Brigid’s Meadows. Vince is also an expert on the subject of grass-based agriculture and shade for grazing. The Hundts have been farming organically since 1989 on a farm near Coon Valley, Wisconsin. They raise grass-fed beef, laying hens, pastured poultry, pastured hogs on their biodiverse farm, and market their products directly to consumers through their brand, St. Brigid’s Meadows. Welcome, Vince.
VINCE HUNDT: Thank you for having me.
TM: Yeah, that introduction I just gave you kind of made me hungry. I bet that you guys don’t go out and buy much food, do you? (Laughing)
VH: (Laughing) No, we don’t. As a matter of fact, my wife is a wonderful cook, on top of it all, and so we have the privilege of eating very, very well. And that’s one of the better privileges to have in this life, isn’t it?
TM: It sure is. I bet you think that word locovore is kind of silly.
VH: Well, no, I understand it. I understand it, and one of the things that really motivates me as a farmer was just the realization in the last, especially like back in the 1990s, that you just started to notice that everywhere people looked ill. It was really something. Something was clearly going on. We were poisoning our population. And we were—and still are, I guess. But the solution was to turn our attention to better farming techniques, organic farming, getting away from using harsh components and poisons that don’t necessarily contribute to human health. Because at the bottom, that’s what we’re after.
TM: Well, I think we’re going to probably return to that topic. But I’d love to have our listeners get a little bit of background. I think what I just heard you tell me before we started, when we were talking, is that you’re the fourth generation of farmers in Coon Valley.
VH: That’s correct. My great-great-great-grandfather came over from Germany in the 1880s, and the farm that I grew up on was the farm that he homesteaded. And as a matter of fact, when he was forty-three years old, he was building a new barn on the farm, fell off the barn, had a compound fracture of his leg; it turned to gangrene and he died. He left a widow with seven boys and a girl. And the legend is she went to the back porch and grieved for three or four days, and when that was over she put the boys to work. And when she died, every one of them owned a farm in the neighborhood.
VH: And many of those farms are still in the hands of those original descendants.
TM: Oh, but interesting story. I bet you have a lot of stories that have been passed down from the generations of farming.
VH: Yeah, they’re good ones, too. And we were, all those generations were organic farmers until about 1960.
TM: Before they called it organic.
TM: And you know what else is, I think, so interesting when I read and see about grass-fed beef, laying hens, pastured poultry, pastured hogs, I bet you have a similar farm today as your ancestors had. It’s very diverse.
TM: It’s so unlike, isn’t it, most of the farms around you?
VH: Yeah, really, we modeled our farm after the farm that I grew up on. And a healthy farm—first of all, you can’t even call it a farm, in my opinion, if you don’t have animals. If you’re going to have animals, the more animals you have, the more diversity you have, the more, you know, the different crops you have, the healthier the farm is—and the more interesting it is.
You know, one of the things about farming is being a farmer, and the joy of being a farmer, you know. I don’t want to be critical of my neighbors, but some of these guys are nothing but truck drivers anymore. They just drive and drive and drive and drive and drive, but they never get out of the cab. It’s the combine or the corn planter or the semi. And having animals and just having the sounds and the smells and the dirt and, you know, just the manure, the fences, the weather—it’s just all beautiful, it’s just all very satisfying and invigorating. And, if it’s done right, with a rotational grazing in particular, it can be profitable as well.
TM: Well, in 1978, when you went organic, did you have to change much to be organic? Or were you just already there?
VH: Well, my wife and I started farming in 1976 and we went organic in the early ’80s, 1984, ’85, something like that. And the answer is no. The only thing we had to do was, we used to use antibiotics to treat mastitis in our cows. We stopped doing that. And we used to use some atrazine on our corn; we stopped doing that. And that’s the only things that really were required.
TM: Every, just about every well in Wisconsin is polluted with atrazine now.
VH: Yeah, just about every drop of water on the planet. I mean, it just doesn’t go away.
TM: Yeah, it doesn’t. Actually, I understand that we actually have some floating around in our bodies. And you’re saying about all the benefits of the biodiversity, and particularly of rotational—what did you call it? You called it rotational gra—?
VH: Rotational grazing.
TM: Grazing. And I’d love to have you talk to our listeners more about rotational grazing, which I know is very, very popular and done a lot in New Zealand and Australia. Did you learn it there? Or did you have people around you?
VH: I started rotational grazing about ten years ago. I’m really a late bloomer. There are a lot of people that were doing a wonderful job of rotational grazing in Wisconsin starting in the ’80s and got really good at it in the ’90s. It did come from New Zealand, but it really came from…you know, it’s modeling nature; it’s modeling herds of animals.
And you know, the classic herds of animals, buffaloes and wildebeest and that sort of thing, they stick together as a group for protection. And you get 100 or 200 animals in a group, or 2,000, I guess, and they’ll move as a group. They will completely dominate a spot for a day. They’ll trample the grass, they’ll eat the grass, they’ll manure everything up—and they’ll move on. Then they won’t come back maybe for…maybe till next year. And what happens to the soil is all these plants are able to completely recover. They’ve all been fertilized, and you just get a tremendous growth in soil life, in root systems, and it builds soil.
And my own story, actually, first of all it all starts with the desire to produce good food—this feeling that as a farmer you should be part of the solution. You should be trying to solve this problem of a population that looks ill and is ill, and can be treated, better than anything else, by good food. So omega 3 fatty acids are one of the things that everyone now understands are just critically important for people to be healthy. And omega 3 fatty acids come into the system by animals eating green growing grass. So okay, let’s be grazers. And so how do you do the best possible job of grazing? You try to duplicate nature’s model by taking groups of animals and moving them daily. If you’re a dairy farmer you’ll move them every day. Our beef operation, now, we move them every single day. You take a group of, let’s say, 100 animals and you’ll put them on maybe a half an acre or a quarter of an acre of land for one day. And you have to have water for them and you have to fence them. You know, at the end of the day or the next day, you come back, move the fence, move the water; the animals move. Every day they’re on beautiful, pristine, deep, thick, lush grass. And what’s left behind is allowed to rest.
On our own farm, we tested the soil, and in eight years we’ve increased the organic matter in our soil by one full percent—
VH: —which is totally remarkable. And other farmers around Wisconsin will tell you that they’ll go from 2.5, 3.5 percent organic matter up to 6 or 7 percent in a matter of 15 or 20 years. It’s just really dramatic. And there’s this huge tonnage of carbon that you’re putting into the soil, it just dramatically increases the water retention capacity of the soil, the fertility of the soil.
When you move the water and you move the fence, you now have your animals kind of trapped in a small area. And the one downside that I noticed when I started grazing eight, nine years ago was the animals don’t have any shade. These big animals are standing out there, they’re not… If they were buffalo or they were wild animals, they would find shade.
TM: And there would be trees around.
VH: And there would—they would find trees or they would keep on walking till they did, because it’s… Large animals cannot absorb the radiant energy of the sun in 90, 95 degree temperature and not have consequences. They will literally tip over and die. And short of that, they don’t gain weight, they don’t reproduce, they are miserable.
So we did in fact come up with the basic idea of a portable shade, and I found a couple of local boys. One of them, Guthrie Knapp, just came out of school with a degree in architecture; another one, Peter Bergquist, in mechanical engineering. I said, “Boys,” over beers, “here’s a good idea.”
TM: That’s how you guys get things done!
VH: And in a matter of a few weeks, they came up with a design, and in my shop the following summer we built one. And we still use it every day. It was the beginning of a little company. We call ourselves the Shade Haven company, and we build portable shades for livestock.
And it kind of completes the circle of what is needed for successful rotational grazing, because if you don’t have shade, the animals are going to behave in such a way either to get away from, to get out of that paddock that you’ve got them in, or just suffer. When we go to trade shows, we’ve got a poster that says, “Move the water, move the fence, move the shade.” And it’s a nice picture, and when I’m at trade shows I will point to that and I’ll tell people, “Move the water, move the fence, move the shade, save the world.” And they all smile! They all get it. And I tell them, if we could get 50,000 farmers in the Midwest to begin rotational grazing, it would in fact change the world. It would be a massive carbon sink.
VH: And it would change the whole ugly bloom in the Gulf of Mexico, and it would give people a model of you don’t need the combines and the GMO grains and Roundup-ready anything, and ethanol plants, and that sort of thing, to make a living farming in Iowa.
TM: I think our listeners probably can understand how you move cows and you move shade, because I believe the Shade Havens are on wheels and easy to move. But what can you say about moving a fence?
VH: Well, the New Zealanders were the pioneers of really successful grazing and rotational grazing, and they invented some tools for rotational grazing. Polywire reels—they’re like a deep-sea fishing reel. You put a half a mile of fence on one of these, and you basically walk from point A to point B, reeling off this wire. And you’ll have these really light little T-posts in your hand; you just stick them in the ground. And it literally takes about as much effort as walking from point A to point B. And it’s electric, so you just disconnect it and unhook it, and when you get the fence up you just flip the power back on—done. And the animals learn very quickly what the story is.
So moving the water is very easy. The New Zealanders also, and some others, have come up with simple watering methods so that you have a water line that you can easily hook into and reconnect, and it’s very, very easy to do. It’s very, very well worked out. There are many tens of thousands of farmers doing this around the world right now, and the techniques are there, the tools are there. The shade was not there though—it was quite surprising.
TM: What a fantastic invention. And so it’s been a good business for you and [will] probably be very helpful for people. Do you have a lot of clients? I know you’ve moved all over the United States showing people these Shade Havens.
VH: Well, we’ve sold them all over the world now. We’ve got some in the Middle East; we sold one to Germany recently. One of the things that surprised, you know, this is the way the world works: if you come up with an idea, you need to see which way it goes. One of them is that there’s a great market for the people, for events. We had four of them at the X Games in Austin, Texas, this spring. And companies like Red Bull and all these outfits that put on big festivals, rock concerts and outdoor deals—most of these are in the summertime. And it’s not an issue of having pens for people to get them out of the rain—they want to get out of the sun. And these are very easy to move—there’s no stakes in the ground. You just (snapping fingers) set it up and you can move it.
TM: Well, I’d like to go a little bit back again to that mouthful you said. I just loved what you were saying about soil and carbon, and then we won’t have the bloom. But I want to make sure that our listeners also understand what you were talking about, the “bloom in the Gulf.” Do you want to say a little bit about what that is and how it relates to the soil, water, and carbon?
VH: Well, there are these dead zones, sort of blooms at the bottom of all the major rivers in the world right now—the Danube, the Nile, the Dnieper, the Mississippi. And it’s basically coming from all the free nitrogen that comes from farmers using anhydrous ammonia, urea, and that sort of thing to fertilize their crops. This is all brand-new for planet Earth, because it didn’t happen previous to about 1940, 1945. The Germans figured out how to synthesize nitrogen out of the air in the 1930s for making explosives, and it turns out that you could use this nitrogen to fertilize crops, and it’s a critical ingredient. I mean, corn and things like that just really respond to it. And suddenly you had major industry producing all of this nitrogen, putting it in the soil. It really juiced up crops.
But a tremendous amount of it just leaches out and ends up in the water, going down the river. And now you’ve got it feeding all this bacteria in the water, and then you get these aquatic like blooms, and you’ve got all this stuff living in the water, eating the nitrogen and consuming the oxygen, and pretty soon the water is just dead. And it becomes a dead zone with dead fish and dead everything else. And it is interesting, because it just didn’t exist until 1950, right in there.
TM: Yeah, in my lifetime—in our lifetime I should say. Just going back to that, so carbon—and you also mentioned that good soil is keeping carbon in the ground. Do you want to talk a little bit more to that? I think it’s a fascinating and wonderful solution to what’s raging at us as a terrible problem.
VH: Yeah, I was at the grazing conference in Missouri two years ago and there was a PhD from Exxon [Shell], a retired guy named Russ Conser, and he gave a PowerPoint presentation on grazing. He was told by Exxon [Shell] to look into this whole global warming thing and to come up with something, think it through, see what they could do, should do, is it real, et cetera. And he found his way to soil, and he found his way to the idea that soils absorb a huge amount of carbon, especially prairie soils and grasslands. And that led him to ranches and farms, and that led him to grazing.
And he did a real careful study in two states—one was Texas and the other was Arkansas or somewhere—and compared rotational grazing to just plain old-fashioned grazing. And the amount of carbon that you can store in the ground with rotational grazing is absolutely…it’s stunning. I mean 3 or 4 percent on an acre equates to like 25 semi loads of solid black carbon. He said that if all the farmland in the United States that’s presently grazed, that is presently grazed, was properly rotationally grazed, that it would basically put in the ground 100 percent of the carbon that the United States is putting into the air every year by way of burning coal and gasoline and things like that.
TM: Oh my gosh—so it would actually mitigate. So I’m really struck with when you said rotational grazing versus grazing. And I’m a little bit confused about that. Why wouldn’t other grazing systems have the same impact?
VH: Because the way the animals behave. Let’s say you have a 100-acre farm and you have 50 beef cows, and you put them on 100 acres. They will wander around, they will eat certain grasses that they like, and they’ll come back to them regularly and kind of beat them down and beat them down. They’ll always go to the same spots on the farm to rest, and when they rest, that’s where they deposit most of their manure. So they’ll deposit most of the nutrients in one spot and mine out the nutrients in other spots, and they’ll beat down the grasses so they can’t develop. You just don’t get an improvement in the fertility of the soil. You don’t increase the root mass of the plants that are growing there. And it just becomes stagnant.
You take the same 100 acres and you rotationally graze it, any one acre on that farm is only going to have cows or steers on it maybe two or three days out of the year. The rest of the time it’s resting and re-growing. And you will double or triple the carrying capacity of that farm. And you will triple or quadruple the amount of organic matter in the soil and the amount of dry matter being produced. It’s just way better farming.
TM: Listeners, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with organic farmer and grass-based agriculture connoisseur Vince Hundt, who owns and runs, with his wife Dawn, St. Brigid’s Meadows and also has a fascinating business called Shade Haven in which he produces…I want to try and describe them: big umbrellas for cows, shade umbrellas.
VH: Righto. Just go to shadehaven.net.
TM: Shadehaven.net? And then you can check it out. So going back to this idea of agriculture right now is actually being a major contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming, and it doesn’t have to be. Certainly, I didn’t really know the difference between just regular pasture and rotation pasturing, but even just regular pasture, isn’t it, is better than having confinement feedlot operations, which are known as CAFOs.
VH: Certainly. To get farmers to do something that’s going to be better for the consumer and better for the land and better for the planet and everything else, they’ve got to be able to justify it financially. And getting back to that scenario of 100 acres and 50 animals, or 100 acres and 100 animals, same farm, more land. There was an article in the John Deere magazine a year ago about the Chesapeake Bay, where they’ve had a lot of problem with runoff, all these nitrates and that sort of thing. And they encouraged farmers to come up with different techniques and particularly get them into grazing, and the government offered some funding for fences and that sort of thing.
But the article was about the farmer that won the little award for doing the best job of reducing runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. It went from, I don’t know, a certain number of parts per million in tonnage to practically zero. And he did this by becoming a rotational grazer and doing it right—and he doubled the number of animals on his farm. Doubled the number of animals and reduced his runoff almost to zero. That’s the difference between doing it right and just not doing it, you know, doing it wrong.
TM: You know, you hear from conventional agriculture all the time, “We can’t do this grazing because then we won’t be able to feed the world, because we can’t produce as much meat.” So it sounds to me that you probably may not agree with that.
VH: It’s complete baloney. It’s just complete self-serving kind of baloney, just to make excuse for, “Well, we just dumped two million gallons of manure into a river. You know, we’ve got to do it because we’ve got to feed the world,” right? It’s just not true.
There’s a wonderful grazing magazine that everyone subscribes to [The Stockman Grass Farmer], and there’s a writer in it, Allan Nation. And in one of the last issues, now it’s a year ago or so, but a very detailed analysis of the number of acres we have in the United States, CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] acres, grain acres. There is way more land than we need to produce all the meat, all the milk, all the protein that we want, grazing.
TM: So, Vince, we have all these solutions. How can we get past these barriers to this change?
VH: Well, you just have to struggle on, and you have to educate, and you have to sell people on it, one person at a time. And there’s just a tremendous amount of inertia. Farmers have a lot of respect for their schools, a lot of respect for their universities—and the universities tell them this is the way you should do it, and that’s the way they do it. It takes an educated person with an open mind to look out the door and see what is actually happening before him.
You know, Successful Farming magazine is a very common magazine throughout the United States. I’ve seen it from the time I was a little kid. And it’s been telling farmers to do exactly what they say in that magazine. It’s all about herbicides, pesticides, really big equipment, and really aggressive modern farming. It’s just a system that’s not working, and this business of feeding the world is a complete lie. Forty percent of all the corn in the United States gets made into gasoline. If we took that land alone and grazed it, we could have high omega 3, no pesticide, no herbicide, clean as a whistle, beautiful protein for people, enough for the whole country probably. You know, like Gandhi said, be the solution you want to see in the world, and just talk about it. And you know, it does work. I know on my own farm, people notice it.
TM: Yeah, well, you know, I believe that, just listening to you talk, knowing about your farm and your passion for what you’re doing, is that you are a model. I’m wondering if you have a story of someone who converted, and you know, what is it that made them convert?
VH: I have definitely seen people convert—people really, really close in to me. I had a nephew who was—no, he’s not a nephew, he’s my brother’s daughter’s son, whatever that is. But he was a conventional farmer, smart guy, he’s an engineer, he has an off-the-farm job but he really enjoyed farming, he really enjoys his combine and his corn planter, and he’d spray everything, blah blah blah. Well, his wife got breast cancer. And she started doing a little homework and coming to the conclusion that it probably didn’t help matters that she was swimming in this sea of these funny chemicals. And he had, Daniel and I had talked quite a few times before that; then I’d talked to his father, and they were coming our way. But this catalyzed it. And this is the first year he’s a full-blown organic farmer. He comes over frequently and asks for advice, and he’s doing really well.
There are actually two other farms in my neighborhood that were straight up and down conventional farmers that are transitioning it in. And I think one of them is because they see our farm. You know, back in the day, you could tell it was an organic farm because it was a weed patch, right? And it’s just not the case anymore. If you do it right, it’s beautiful. The crops look healthy.
And we raise a little corn right now, 30 acres a year in the rotation. And we sell the grain for $8.00 a bushel, and the neighbors are selling theirs for $2.85. That gets their attention too.
TM: So I think all of these sound like hope. And I think when we started out our conversation earlier today, you know, you were talking about everywhere you’ve been in the world—visiting other organic farmers and other farmers, and showing your Shade Haven, et cetera—that everyone seems interested in food.
VH: Mm-hmm. Well, everybody, every educated person in the world knows it now. They’ve noticed it. And there’s nothing more important than our health. I mean, if you don’t have your health, you cannot possibly fulfill your mission here in the world, and you can’t accomplish anything if you’re morbidly obese and diabetic and coughing and wheezing. You know, the first doctor, Hippocrates, famously said to doctors, “Do no harm.” The second thing he said is “Your medicine is your food, your food is your medicine.” And if doctors would just recommend to people that they just pursue the highest-quality, cleanest, most nutrient-dense food, organic farmers are standing there waiting for them.
TM: I know that a lot of the listeners, if they’re not activists, they’re activists with their food and their food purchases. But what else can we be doing, especially with our educational institutions? Any thoughts there, or anything you’ve seen on how we might try and start switching our educational institutions to being more supportive of this solution for so many, for health, for deliciousness, for carbon sequestration and greenhouse gases?
VH: I think the key thing you said a moment or two ago was about consumers. You know, the problem with the land grant universities is that they are…all the research is funded by somebody, and that somebody is typically a large entity. You know, it could be Nabisco or Monsanto or Merck or somebody like that, that can write out a check for a couple million dollars to do some research on raising corn or raising bananas or raising tomatoes or whatever it is. And you know, to convince people, farmers, that they should be doing rotational grazing, well, who’s going to fund it? Who’s going to come up with the money?
Consumers, on the other hand, are demanding higher-quality food that…it shows up in the newspaper, they tell it to their politicians. And it’s slowly, in fact it’s rapidly—I think it’s coming to a tipping point at this very moment—there’s just an understanding that our food has got to be better. And it’s not about where do you site a million-bushel corn bin. It’s about how do you provide food for people that our cancer rate and our heart attack rate and our diabetic, asthmatic situation improves. It’s only going to improve with better food. Better food requires better farming techniques. It all exists. The universities just aren’t being funded. That’s the way the system is right now. As usual, the really big institutions move incredibly slowly, and they just… The University of Wisconsin was a pioneer of something a million years ago, but certainly not organic farming. You know, they’re way, way behind.
TM: Vince, it’s just an honor and a pleasure to be talking with you today. And another, you’ve become another one of my farmer heroes because you’re just going to change the world. And when I ask for these solutions for the educational institution, I know that farmers such as yourself are going to be leading the way there. And I just want to thank you for all the great work you’re doing. So thank you, Vince, and thanks for coming in today and talking with us.
VH: Thank you, Theresa. It was really a pleasure.
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