Tag Archives: farming

regenerative farming

The sun and regenerative farming – The magic of photosynthesis

6H2O + 6CO2 = C6H12O6 + 6O2

There it is. Photosynthesis. The miracle that makes life on earth possible.

For those of us who aren’t chemists, the above equation essentially reads:

Take six molecules of water plus six molecules of carbon dioxide, thrown them into the blender of plant physiology, and, somehow, you create one large molecule of sugar and six molecules of oxygen.

Just take a moment to let that sink in. The plant takes in water and CO2 and releases sugar and oxygen. This still blows my mind. The oxygen we are breathing right now, at some time in the not so distant past, was exhaled by grass or trees. When we breathe out CO2. They breathe IT in.  The other byproduct of this chemical reaction is sugar. Which brings us to another miracle of life on earth: Grass.

Stomata are the tiny mouths on the leaf of plants. There are a whopping 300 of these “mouths” per square millimeter that take in CO2 during respiration. These “mouths” are like solar panels that start the magical process that turns carbon dioxide into sugar.

What happens is a change in energy from one form to another. Solar energy is transformed into calories. That alone is incredible. For most people who have studied photosynthesis in high school biology, this is the end of the story. In reality, it is just part of the story. The miracle of photosynthesis only gets more incredible, the more you dig in.

Some of these sugars created in this process run all the way through the plant from top to bottom. Many of these sugars are released from the roots. This sugary substance is injected underground by the plant’s roots; as part of the process, there is no waste.

A symbiotic relationship exists between the grass roots, the beneficial bacteria in the soil, and mycorrhizal fungi. The plant roots feed the fungi these sugars — in the form of liquid carbon — and in turn, the fungi send out tubes, called hyphae, that shoot enzymes into rock to break it down and extract essential minerals and nutrients, which are delivered back to the plant roots.

Mycorrhizal fungi serve as the conduit for nutrients in exchange for sugar. The hyphae help plants access nutrients which are outside of their normal range or grasp. They also create an incredible root-like network that holds the soil and help prevents erosion. When bacteria and fungi complete their life cycle, they decompose and become organic matter.

In some places, 40% of all organic matter in the soil is composed of decomposing mycorrhizal fungi.  

So, why is that good news?

First, the process sucks carbon out of the atmosphere (where we don’t want it) and puts it back in the ground (where we do want it) as organic matter. Every farmer wants organic matter in their soil, it is what creates topsoil. This process is called carbon sequestration, and it is the most exciting win/win scenario we can imagine.

This organic matter is a key to regenerative farming. It will allow for MORE grass to grow, which means MORE cows and pigs can graze, which means more delicious meat, more farmers, and more carbon leaving the atmosphere and entering the soil where it belongs.

Photosynthesis is a great example of something so common, that we generally don’t think about it very deeply. But it is truly an original example of simplicity and elegance that fuels our world.



The natural balance between the environment and grass-fed, pasture-raised livestock

There is massive overlap among people who are conscious about how the food they eat is sourced and those who think a great deal about how their lifestyle choices impact the environment. I often hear from folks concerned about the environment, who state that they would “eat more red meat, but it’s just not sustainable for our planet.”

We at Singing Prairie Farm believe that there are solutions to the concerns about meat and sustainability. To our mind, it comes down to the management of the animals in question. If we use nature as our blueprint, we find that with raising grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork, there are benefits to the earth that far outweigh the potential perils.

For us, restorative agriculture is the answer. The goal is to create better wildlife habitat and sequester MORE carbon in the soil — by removing it from the atmosphere. We found that we can do this by employing a form of rotational grazing that mimics the evolutionary pressures that formed over time in grassland ecosystems.

How many grassland ecosystems were historically devoid of large grazing animals?  None.

The North American plains were historically filled with bison. To the far north, the plains were rife with caribou. The Serengeti plains are still populated with a bewildering assortment of large herbivores. As part of a regenerative ecosystem, these animals allowed plant populations to flourish and thrive to the extent that would not have been possible without them.

And large predators who preyed on these grazing species played a significant role in the health of the grassland ecosystem. The effect large predators create in a healthy ecosystem is to keep the grazing animals in relatively tight groups. Herds of bison in the western U.S., for example, were kept in tight groups by packs of wolves. The bison constantly kept moving to find fresh forage to eat.  

Along the way, the large herds grazed intensely, trampled — indiscriminately — what they did not eat, and fertilized the rest with generous helpings of their droppings. Then they’d move on, to avoid predators. During the lengthy rest interval for the land that followed, the grasses grew back more robustly than before.  

Our model duplicates this evolutionary process to ensure animal health by moving our grass-fed cattle and pasture-raised pigs.

For starters, our livestock is always kept in tight, herd formation using solar-powered electric fencing. This fencing is portable and can be moved as often as needed. Some cattle producers in our area move fencing as much as six times a day.

This process allows for maximum biomimicry in our food system. As with the example of the bison, the herd is kept moving on the search for fresh grass. They graze intensely — but for a very brief window of time — on each temporary pasture. This intense grazing means that they don’t just eat their favorite species and leave the less desirable ones to reseed and thus advance in population. All plant species are uniformly impacted in a positive way.  

Secondly, hoof action brings the uneaten leaves and stems of grasses out of a vertical orientation and into a flat one, pressed squarely against the ground. This is exceedingly good for the soil. Ungrazed forage is not wasted but is the gift to the land.  

We love to explain how we perceive the soil: It is not the inanimate substance that animals stand on, but rather a giant living, breathing, eating organism with billions of life forms packed into each tablespoon of healthy soil. We love to imagine that our livestock is standing on the back of a giant lifeform, much like the legendary Whale or Turtle of ancient, indigenous stories. This giant organism consumes food through its “skin,” and the trampling of organic matter against its surface akin to setting food on the earth’s dinner table.   

As quickly as the animals enter a grazing space, they depart. The earth takes a deep breath. The grasses and legumes are left with enough leaf surface area to photosynthesize regrowth without accessing the carbohydrate reserves stored in the roots. They rebound stronger than before, developing deeper roots, thicker crowns and more stems and leaves each time.

This process has been occurring over and over and over for thousands of years. It has been key to the creation of traditionally healthy soils in the American heartland. However, large-scale, corporate farming has forgotten how vital this evolutionary process is. It’s an extractive race to get more meat and grain from the land, the regenerative process has been abandoned. Healthy, robust plant life and soil that is great at sequestering carbon is not part of the economics of industrial farming.

But it is what makes Singing Prairie Farm and other farmers practicing restorative agriculture thrive.

On our farm, after the livestock has grazed, tramped, and moved on, the land is already restoring itself. The microorganisms in the soil are having a party. They have access to enormous amounts of food in the form of leaf litter and livestock droppings.  They increase in health, vitality, diversity, and population quicker than most can fathom. As they do this, the plants are working slowly and steadily to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and deposit it — in the form of organic matter — into the soil.

This is the effect that rotationally grazed cattle and pigs have on the earth.  If we value the idea of farming in Nature’s image, how could it be more perfect?



Choose the right stakeholders: Why we never took outside investment

There are lots of different stakeholders involved in ButcherBox that play crucial roles in bringing delicious steaks or pasture-raised bacon to your plate.

There’s the farmer.

There are the facilities that are cutting the meat into individual steaks.

There is our growing number of employees, and there are all our members — whom we consider to be the vital part of our community.

The ecosystem involved in getting our boxes to the doorsteps of our members is quite robust.

From the start, we wanted to make sure that everyone in that ecosystem was getting an amazing experience. For some, like the farmers, we wanted to make sure that they can run a business and that they view our relationship as having high-value beyond that of a standard business partnership.

For instance, it is vital that the farmers we work with are well-supported. We want them to have the opportunity to invite their children to take part in the same vocation and be confident that they can pass down their farm to the next generations. We want young farmers to be able to grow a business utilizing humane and environmentally beneficial techniques.

More than anything, we want our members to receive a great product at an amazing value. A key to that is also making sure that they can trust that we have done everything possible to source the highest-quality meat.

The ability to continue to do all the above is made possible by a decision my co-founder, Mike Filbey, and I made in the early days of ButcherBox.

Even before the success of our Kickstarter campaign, we wanted those mentioned above — farmers, the supply chain, employees, and ButcherBox members — to be the only stakeholders to whom we answer.

Because of that belief, we haven’t raised money from outside investors. It is quite amazing, in the current climate, what we’ve been able to accomplish without money from outside institutions, even as we hit a new phase of growth for the company or face some unexpected challenges.

In the past ten years, startups have become trendy. Entrepreneurship is now the number one concentration at many business schools. People really want to get into startups and build a company. And that’s really great.

I think the uptick in entrepreneurship is going to spur innovation in this country, help the industry in the nation grow in unimagined and positive ways, and bring incredible new services to lots of folks.

The challenge in the startup world right now, unfortunately, is that everyone who is building these companies is obsessed with raising money from venture capitalists.

I continually talk with people interested in starting their own business, seeking my advice, and, generally, all they want to know is how to go out and raise venture capital. I’ve found that there are very few people focused on actually building a company that is interesting, enduring, and profitable.

In the current climate, too many founders and executive teams have their focus on trying to figure out how to get the next round of funding from venture capitalists.

This is something pervasive in startup world. If you look at the major tech news outlets right now, almost every single article about early-stage companies is about how much money somebody sold a company for or how much somebody took from a VC. There’s no real depth, no exploration of companies doing cool things; no one is interested in companies that are actually making money.

ButcherBox started with a Kickstarter campaign and $10,000 that I took out of my personal investment account. At the time, I thought that if this venture doesn’t work out, it would be a great experience and that I’d hopefully learn some valuable lessons, things that couldn’t be taught at business school.

I was willing to risk that money to create ButcherBox, and that’s all we’ve done. We’ve never raised money. We don’t plan on raising money.

I like to tell people that we are building ButcherBox the old-fashioned way. But the reality is that we want to build this company our way. That means that we aren’t beholden to stakeholders that are only concerned about a return on their investment.

There might be — I should say — a couple of instances when getting money from a VC is a necessity. The only two examples I can think of are if you have cheaply and efficiently found product/market fit and need some money to scale, or if you are building a very tech-focused company that requires funds up-front to help you build your innovative product. Otherwise, I believe venture investments can be not only quite bad for a business, but also a massive waste of time for the team who should be focused on building a great business.

And while good investors can help, they could also try to change the vision of what ButcherBox can be. The minute you get venture backing, you also get an investor that has his or her own motivations.

That person might want want to focus on when and how you will make more money or have some concern about a trendy metric, and suddenly the idea of building an amazing company for our employees, for our members, and for our farmers could change.

The only way to build ButcherBox the right way — that we could keep total control, have an incredible product, and deliver an awesome experience — was not to raise money and to just make a go at this ourselves.

And so far, so good.

To this day, we only answer to our employees, to our farmers, and most importantly, to our community of ButcherBox members.