Tag Archives: John Arbuckle

The real dirt on regenerative farming

Regenerative agriculture is a practice that is increasingly gaining notice from the general public.  However, within the farmer community — and beyond, more recently — there is some growing conflict on what regenerative actually means.

Are all organic farms automatically “regenerative” without further action? Can farm animals be raised in any way and be considered “regenerative”? Are small-scale, sustainable farms regenerative by default?  The answer to all the above questions is no. So what does regenerative farming mean? The good news is that it’s not complicated.

Regenerative agriculture means that farmers follow practices to make sure that the soil is regenerating, or improving. The essence of this concept s that farmers can use a balance of plants and animals, working together in a natural harmony, to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil in the form of organic matter.

For a long time,   one of the biggest farming buzzwords was sustainable agriculture. But when you stop and think about it, reaching some level of sustainability just isn’t good enough for the problem we are facing with the environment. Think about it this way, if you had a cut on your arm, would you want it to sustain —not get better or worse — or would you want it to regenerate tissue and heal? This is the same idea we use in agriculture, how can we reframe soil as a living thing, and help it to regenerate?

Regenerative agriculture improves the ability of soil microorganisms to thrive, and, as a result, it increases the soil’s ability to infiltrate water. Simple. However,  it represents a radical departure from business as usual in the world of farming.  

Watch this video to find out more about where your sausage comes from.

One of the most well-known proponents of regenerative agriculture is North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown. You can find more details about his 5 principles of regenerative agriculture at his website: brownsranch.us

Here are some of the details of Gabe Brown’s regenerative practices: 

1. Keep a layer of armor on the soil surface. This means that crop stubble or grass residue is left on the surface in large quantities. Think of this as “mulch.” It slows down rainfall, so it doesn’t immediately run off and has a better chance to percolate into the ground.

 2. No mechanical tillage. Tillage provides a way for farmers to manage weed problems and loosen the soil. However, a significant amount of carbon is released when the soil is turned and exposed to the atmosphere.

 3. Maintain a living root in the ground. Living roots release liquid carbon (as sugar) underground and feed the soil biology. Beneficial microorganisms feed on these sugars and create underground communities.

 4. Diversity.  Have LOTS of types of plants growing at the same time. Each plant releases a different “flavor” of sugar (liquid carbon). These different sugars attract a diversity of microorganisms.

 5. Here comes my favorite…integrate livestock into every plan! The positive animal impact is the process of assisting the earth to digest plant matter and keep those nutrients cycling from plant to animals to soil and back to plant. It turns out that if you graze livestock in the right way, you get more and more grass with less and less human interference. . 

As time goes on, I’m sure you will hear more about restorative agriculture.

To distinguish whether a farmer is truly living up to the standards outlined above about restorative farming is relatively easy. The litmus test is as simple as the definition. Do you see lush, green grass? Do you see groups of animals that are tightly bunched and continually moving over fresh, clean ground? If you see that in pictures or at a local farm,, the chances are that soil life is on the rise and carbon is being sequestered in the ground. 

Finding farms that use restorative agriculture processes  is quite simple. It is also important that more and more farms incorporate these practices as time move on. The health of our planet depends upon it. 

How well-known blogger and media influencer Dooce became a former vegan

This post was first featured, as the first of two blog posts on Heather Armstrong’s blog, Dooce, in September 2017 about being a former vegan. It has been edited somewhat, but the story of farmer John Arbuckle and what Dooce learned about animal well-being, sustainable farming, and American family farms. You can read the original post here, as well as the extended second post which gets into regenerative farming and more. Part 1 / Part 2.

In June 2017, I “came clean” and admitted that I have added meat back into my diet. Not a lot of meat, but enough to overcome some vitamin deficiencies and crippling depression that stemmed from a state of hunger I’m not even sure I can articulate. I trained for a marathon while eating a strict vegan diet and warped my body and mind in a way that I could not have anticipated. But it happened, and 18 months after that marathon I finally had my life back.

I believe in the concept of being vegan and wish that I could pull it off. I tried for two years. A lot of my critics will say that I too often veer toward the extreme, and I will admit freely that this is at times a character flaw of mine. I jumped head first into an icy mass that almost froze me from the inside out thinking that I’d eventually warm up and swim to the other side. But I couldn’t even make it halfway when my body started shutting down after the first two or three strokes. When I started eating meat again, I started to feel sensation in my fingers and toes, extremities that had lost all meaning to me.

This doesn’t mean that I have abandoned the value system that made me want to try the vegan lifestyle in the first place. The industrial food system is killing us and killing the planet, and unless we change the way we farm animals for food right now, we are simply screwed as human beings — the species that happens to be at the top of a very long and varied food chain. What I loved about doing work for Farm Forward centered around the recognition that we know people are going to eat meat. We must reckon with this.

How do we make this food choice reality sustainable?

While I was helping Farm Forward rebrand and relaunch their website, the head of partnerships at ButcherBox, Dan Littauer, contacted me to let me know about their service and why they do what they do. They are a subscription food service aiming to change the way Americans buy and raise animals for food. They deliver healthy 100% grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and heritage-breed pork (free of hormones and antibiotics) directly to your door.

So many of us want to eat and feed our families this type of high-quality meat for health reasons (better nutritional profile, healthy fat without toxins from commercial feedlots, humanely-raised animals, etc.) and we either don’t know where to look for it or have a really hard time finding it. And it’s expensive to eat this way. ButcherBox has done the work of finding it by partnering with a collective of small farms and buying in large quantities so that the 20 individual meals in each box work out to less than $6.00/meal.

I asked Dan if he could put me in touch with one of the farms they work with so that I could get a better idea of the whole operation, and a couple of weeks ago I spoke with John Arbuckle, a ninth generation farmer, who runs a farm with his wife in Missouri. Before our call, he sent me a few photos of the pigs on his farm and I was struck by how different a pasture-raised pig looks from ones raised in tortured confinement.


I asked John how he got involved with ButcherBox and his story is the kind of story that will have an impact on the food system, the kind of situation that will move the needle. It’s also the story of how we as consumers can more fully support the independent farmer.

There’s so much rich material here about sustainability and connecting people back to nature and why farm animals are so important to the environment. Most importantly, it’s a story about a man trying to feed his family.


An American farmer doing the right thing

Here is John’s story:

I would start out that by taking the long-term long view. I am a ninth generation farmer. My children are the tenth. And so we’ve been farming for a long time in America. We were farmers in Scotland before we got to America, so I’m not exactly sure how many generations we go back. But a long line of peasants and hillbillies make up the family tree.

My wife — Holly — and I moved to rural northeast Missouri in 2010. We had been running an organic vegetable farm in Maryland and just decided it was time to spread our wings and have our own place and raise our kids in the same environment that we had grown up in ourselves. So we bought a place in rural Missouri, and we were very firmly committed to the farm to table movement.

But you see, the game of agriculture is changing. So we felt like the way that the ball would move in the game in our generation was the farm to table thing. And we gave that a valiant try. We were sort of “Old MacDonald’s Farm” for many years. We raised grass-fed beef, we raised lamb, egg-laying chickens, meat chickens, Thanksgiving turkeys, pigs, we grew strawberries and blueberries and apples. We had a large organic garden. We brokered and wholesaled, you know, through our Amish neighbors who were not really interested in ever leaving their farms. And that was a positive learning experience, but we also very quickly realized that was not scalable to the point where we had living wages and things like retirement funds and college education funds for our children. Things that we wanted to develop.

We were talking with an Amish neighbor and had an “ah-ha” moment. His name was Ezra, and he told me, “John, we can grow anything that a person wants. But we can’t find the people who want it. Alternatively, John, there are a lot of people out there who are really interested in healthy eating, especially country food. And they don’t know how to find us.” And that’s where ButcherBox really links the gap.

So we started a national snack stick company called Roamsticks.

And we’re extremely passionate about what we do. Nine generations of living in the country kind of does that to a person, you know? And after we traveled to some trade shows and we would speak at conferences. We were trying to teach other farmers how to raise pigs on pasture. Then we’d share our snack sticks in all these places and pretty soon, people were asking us, “Well, what else can you sell us? We want to buy your snack sticks, but we also want to buy bacon and sausage and ham and ribs, and all kinds of things. We want to buy all that from you too.”

So we said, “Okay, we’ll give that a try too.” But we’re not really interested in shipping directly to people.

There’s a whole level of logistics in that. There’s only so many hours in a day, and we’re not really interested in figuring that out. But we are extremely excited to fill pallets and send them to distribution centers for ButcherBox.


And in doing that, we quickly came to a point where we simply weren’t able to raise all the pigs that were necessary anymore. And that’s what we wanted. We wanted the ability to shape the national conversation by helping people realize that shouldn’t settle for “natural porks.” That almost means nothing.

Don’t settle for natural pork. Don’t settle for simply the word free-range. That sort of gets diluted over time. Really, really look for the words pasture-raised. Because pasture-raised is where it’s at. Pasture-raised is where you find your pot of gold.

And that also gives us the opportunity to help a whole other generation of farmers go into farming because we need more farmers. America needs more farmers. And Roamsticks and Singing Prairie Farm need more farmers. So it’s a beautiful riddle to try and crack. If that makes sense.

You know, the more orders we get, the more we can get a whole other generation of farmers to be ecologically sensitive, pasture-based, family farmers. And get pigs out of confinement. Get pigs out of the big barns. And start raising pigs where all of our ancestors raised their pigs, in the woodlands beneath oak trees eating acorns, out in the prairies in the springtime, eating the new growth and the clover.


When I first published the above story of John Arbuckle, I will admit that when I hit publish I braced for impact. How could someone who ate an entirely plant-based diet for two years be touting the merits of a service involving meat consumption? How could this dreadful woman be any more dreadful?

But the responses were phenomenal.

As for the second part of my conversation with John, you can check it out — as well as some more reasons why someone who ate a vegan diet decided that eating meat again was the right thing to do — on Dooce.com: “Just like the caribou require the wolf.” 


Sustainable farming: Spring forage planting by the birds

One of the strategies we use at Singing Prairie Farm to produce the most nutritious and sustainable pork on the market today is to grow some of our own feed.

We aren’t just talking about corn here. On our home farm, we have four separate planting seasons. Every spring, I mark March 21st on the calendar as the first planting date. This seeding is done when the land is just barely returning after the long winter.

The grass is still brown. The trees are black-barked and leafless. The only notice we have that spring is coming back is the birds.

I don’t know where they all go for the winter, but one species at a time they come back.

First, come the cardinals, then the robins, then killdeer, then western meadowlarks, then redwing blackbirds and finally eastern bluebirds and purple martins. Several new bird species arrive every week until on the first sunny day in April; then the mornings are a sweet and raucous circus of birdsong.

It is with the arrival of the western meadowlark that we typically plant our spring crops.


Some Native Americans groups are said to have planted a “three sisters” garden every year. It was comprised of: corn, a tall, vertically growing member of grass family; squash, a horizontally growing vine with leaves broad enough to shade out weed competition; and beans, a legume which can take nitrogen out of the air and deposit it in the ground. When grown together, these three sisters offer a variety of nutrition and amino acids which aid human health. Their growth habits are also complimentary from a farming perspective.

Drawing heavily on that traditional inspiration — and on forage techniques used by dairy farmers — we came up with our own three sisters for pork production.

Our mix is a combination of organically grown forage oats, the vertically growing member of the grass family in this system; turnips, the broadleaf species to help us shade out weed pressure; and field peas, the legume helping us to fix nitrogen in the soil.

Since we eschew commercial fertilizer, our planting mix is somewhat heavy on the peas. The nitrogen the peas deposit in the soil will remain for the next time this field will be planted in the fall.

Just like the traditional Native American three sisters gardens, our spring forage trio offers a mix of nutrition and amino acids.

While most of our farming at Singing Prairie Farm is done with teams of Belgian draft horses, pulling a 3,000-pound no-till drill with horses is something that we haven’t learned how to do yet. This year we borrowed a neighbor’s John Deere tractor and another neighbor’s modern no-till drill.

It has been a fairly wet spring so far, so when four sunny days in a row showed up, I knew the window of planting was open, but only for a moment. The day we picked to plant, the weather forecast was predicting four inches of rain starting at 9:00 pm and continuing on and off all week. If we were going to plant a spring mix, we had to do it then.

The sun set about halfway through the planting session. I turned on the headlights and finished well after dark as raindrops speckling the windshield.  That night, lying in bed and listening to the wind howl and the rain pour down, I felt very satisfied with the day’s labors. Not only were all those cover crop seeds safely waking up in the ground, but also the rain officially closed out the spring planting season at Singing Prairie Farm.

John Arbuckle this spring on Singing Prairie Farm sustainable farming
John Arbuckle this spring on Singing Prairie Farms.

Spring planting is just one of many planting seasons we engage in over the span of the growing season. The pigs that graze this impenetrable jungle of peas, turnips, and oats; in June will go on to graze several other mixes before the season ends in November. We have begun this year’s circle of life on Singing Prairie Farm…a holistic web that includes pigs, turnips, cows, peas, clover, farmers, apples, pumpkins, families in faraway cities, and the cheerful springtime song of the western meadowlark.

The way to happy, healthy pigs: The secrets of pasture-raising

Here at Singing Prairie Farm, one question consistently arises during conversations about our pasture-raised pigs.

That question, in one form or another, is, “Is it reasonable for a pig to graze like a cow — and eat mostly grass — for the bulk of its nutrition?”

The short answer to this query is “no.” But, digging deeper, this question ties into some of the complex issues about modern farming that we are trying to solve on our farm.

There are a number of reasons pigs shouldn’t eat grass (or grains) alone: Biology, access to forage, and more. Pigs, unlike cows, have traditionally enjoyed some natural grains as part of their diet.

There are, however, long-term effects that need to be discussed in term of the implications for finding a happy medium for pigs to eat naturally. These include the complexities of reading the land, managing forage mixes, and the impact of mobile fencing technologies. Approaching the topics of how best to feed pigs will, to our mind, reclaim the genetics that was so common in pigs prior to World War II.

While it benefits all pigs to consume some grass, the degree to which they do is also important to examine. 

We’ve been asked consistently why we don’t just feed our pigs tons of grass, like those raising grass-fed cattle have been doing.

It turns out a pig has a digestive system much like a chicken, a single stomach. This contrasts to cows, which have four stomachs — or four stomach compartments, depending on who you ask.

The cow can break down high-fiber foods as a result of the beneficial bacteria residing in the first stomach compartment, the rumen, hence their animal classification as “ruminants.” Those beneficial bacteria are able to dismantle the fiber in grass to the point where the rest of the digestive system can extract carbohydrates from the matrix.

Lacking that particular superhero power puts our friend, the humble pig, at a significant disadvantage when compared to a cow’s ability to consume grass.

But wait! This does not mean it is impossible for pigs to receive the same benefits as cows do by eating grass.

Here on our family farm, we have undertaken numerous projects to find the tipping point for how much grass is feasible to ensure we have happy, healthy pigs. We’ve discovered a wide-range for what works; pigs can consume non-grain natural feeds that can range from 10% forage consumption all to the way to our permaculture specific herd which consumed 90% forage — I will talk more on this group of rock stars in a later essay!

Overall, the takeaway is that pigs on pasture still need some grain. That doesn’t mean that we can’t keep exploring pathways to get heritage-breed pigs simply to eat MORE grass.

For starters, appropriate genetics and animal history is a must. Taking a white pig out of its indoor factory farm and putting it in a grassy field with no grain would not yield a happy, thriving pig. The mystery of genetics is that the traits that will lead to pigs successfully consuming a better mix of grass and grain aren’t information available on the surface. Length of the digestive system, the ability to host a small amount of beneficial bacteria in the hindgut, and the eagerness to graze are traits that will lead to a beneficial experience for any pig on pasture. Most heritage-breed pigs still have some of these genes intact — unfortunately, many breeds lost them with the influx of factory farming.

Another important variable to the success of including a better grass to grain ratio in a pig’s diet is the farmer’s management plan.

Our favorite system, which we’ve been most successful with involves running pigs in groups of 35 to 50. These pigs are all born at about the same time of year and are half-siblings. They grow up together running around the woods like wild boars — luckily, they are more even-tempered. Once out on their own, these young pigs, called feeder pigs, are rotated into a large rectangular pasture. The boundaries of this pasture are made up of a movable solar electric fence system complete with special fence posts. We pull up the posts and move them every seven days. The hot wire (not in temperature, but the small electric charge) has a windup reel loaded with a spool of braided wire and plastic filaments. This tool that holds the hot wire looks remarkably like an enormous deep sea fishing reel.

Within this temporary pasture, there is a movable waterer, many moveable feeders, as well as a 20-foot by 30-foot shade structure that is also on wheels.

Our shade structures are homemade contraptions which consist of a welded frame built on a hay wagon base. We span the frame with woven greenhouse shade cloth, so the animals always have shade and nothing to prevent the breeze from cooling them in the summer. Every day we move the shade structure to new fresh grass within the temporary pasture.

We do the same thing with the feeders so that at the end of a seven day period, the entire field has been evenly grazed and manured. This is referred to as positive animal impact, meaning the grass will grow back even thicker than before.

On the first day of each week, we hitch up a large Percheron draft horse and drag the shade structure, along with all the feeders and waterers to a completely new location. It is usually at least 60 days before the animals return to a spot they’ve already been for a second graze.

Whenever we string up a new electric fence, open the gate, and run the entire herd onto new ground, they are always eager to go. The lure of fresh grass, the clank of their feeders moving, the sound of water running into their trough is irresistible, and soon all 50 pigs are on fresh ground and nibbling green tender shoots of grass and clover.

This is the secret sauce to creating the best pork ever:  A large herd of grazing animals, tightly grouped, and constantly moving over clean ground is nature’s template for sequestering carbon, rewilding grasslands, and creating good nutritional profiles for the meat.

I hope you enjoy the fruit of our labors.

John Arbuckle is the founding farmer of Singing Prairie Farms, producer of  Roam Sticks often featured in our monthly ButcherBox.


Inspirational farming in America: Polyface Farms

Working with ButcherBox has enabled our farm, Singing Prairie Farm, to provide sausage from pigs we raise to more people than we could have imagined.

As ButcherBox has exploded with popularity, the demand for our products has created an opportunity for us to source meat from other family farms that share our strict standards. We are excited to announce that the East Coast sausage, which will be part of December’s ButcherBox, will be sourced from Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

For me, the opportunity to collaborate with Polyface Farms has been like meeting your favorite rock star from childhood.

When I started farming on my own, someone gave me a book called Pastured Poultry Profits, by Joel Salatin. At the time, I was working on an organic vegetable farm but wanted to diversify our offerings by adding pasture-raised meats. I read the book many times until I understood the principles and then began a slow and steady push away from raising veggies and towards livestock production. As the years passed, my family’s farm moved away from pasture-raised poultry to pasture-raised pork, which is our specialty today.

Joel — and his son Daniel — remain some of the most inspirational and creative farmers I know. Polyface Farms first gained acclaim in Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Joel’s enthusiasm for radically transparent poultry processing — as well as innovative farming philosophies — helped to create a renaissance for the sustainable family farm.

Here’s an excerpt from the Polyface Farms’ story to give some insight into how Joel and his family healed the land they remain stewards of to this day:

In 1961, William and Lucille Salatin moved their young family to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, purchasing the most worn-out, eroded, abused farm in the area near Staunton. Using nature as a pattern, they and their children began the healing and innovation that now supports three generations.

Disregarding conventional wisdom, the Salatins planted trees, built huge compost piles, dug ponds, moved cows daily with portable electric fencing, and invented portable sheltering systems to produce all their animals on perennial prairie polycultures.

Today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis.

Now, years after reading Joel’s book, the story comes full circle for me. We get to work directly with Joel and Daniel to provide ButcherBox customers with some of the most radically sustainable pork in America. We hope you find the pasture-raised revolution as delicious as we do.

John Arbuckle is a guest contributor to Roam. He is the co-founder of Singing Prairie Farms.

Image via  White Oak Pastures' blog.

White Oak Pastures, getting sustainable farming right

White Oak Pastures is a farm outside Bluffton, Georgia where some of the pork sausage that ButcherBox distributes is sourced.

When it comes to farming multiple species, White Oak Pastures has it figured out.

Recently, I caught up with the farm’s marketing director Jenni Harris, the 5th generation of the Harris family to farm at White Oak Pastures, and she explained a bit of what makes her farm tick.

“My family has been farming here since 1866,” Harris said. “Back then, we farmed only beef cattle which we sold in Bluffton, a town about a mile north of here.”

“Over the years, we evolved to be the farm that we are today. We raise ten animal species —five red meat animals and five poultry,” she explained.

How does that even work? I’ll let Jenni explain. “It’s our belief that having all those animals following each other around the farm creates the same sort of synergies that you find in nature. In other words, they help each other grow and be comfortable.”

The pigs at White Oak Pastures are also a special breed that lives in the forest. “Here in Georgia,” Jenni said, “pigs don’t want to be out in the sun…They get too hot! So our pigs live out in the woods. They dig around and eat brush and roots as well as our unsalable eggs (raised by pastured chickens), local peanuts, and 100% non-GMO grain.”

But for Jenni Harris, the White Oaks Pastures’ mission is bigger than creating great, naturally- and humanely-sourced meat.

“When people ask me what my favorite thing about our family’s farm is, I like to tell them that we want to fill the countryside with farmers!” she said. “Imagine a whole world of middle-class farmers? We are trying to make it happen right here.”

“We started out as a farm full of cowboys,” Jenni said explaining the evolution of her family’s farm. “As we grew, we turned into a farm full of both cowboys and farmers. Then we grew some more and turned into a farm full of cowboys, farmers, accountants, graphic designers, chefs, and educators.”

That’s a pretty great family business right there.

“That’s our vision for the American countryside,” Jenni added, “with agriculture leading the way.”

John Arbuckle is a guest contributor for Roam. He and his wife run Singing Prairie Farm in Missouri, which supplies ButcherBox with the farm’s signature Roam Sticks as well as pasture-raised pork. John was featured earlier this year in Roam.