The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Trent Loos. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: As always, the things we talk about that are online on the show will be available on our episode page at jimruttshow.com. I know you all are tired of hearing about it by this point, but one more time, please, when we’re done listening today, if you could give us a five star rating on your podcast app, we’d appreciate it. It’s an unfortunate aspect of the podcasting ecosystem that the podcast apps give more visibility to podcasts that have more ratings and better ratings, and getting more visibility means we get a bigger audience. Getting bigger audience means we can attract same kinds of great, interesting guests that we have on the show.
Jim: When you’re done listening today, please give us a five star rating on your favorite podcast app. Well, that’s enough for a shameless pluggery. Let’s get started with the show. Today’s guest is Trent Loos, a very interesting fellow who has a podcast/radio network, kind of an interesting hybrid thing. I appeared on his show, I don’t know, a month or a month and a half ago, something like that. He advertises himself in addition to being a podcast or a radio man and a journalist, as the husband of a rancher. Now the truth is, he’s actually from a sixth generation ranching family in Nebraska. Welcome Trent.
Trent: Thanks, Jim. Yeah, I just want to clarify that because I spent a lot of time traveling the world actually, and having the last 21 years speaking, I’ve spoken in six States in the Midwest, the great plains of America since Thursday, the last seven days. People always said, “Well, how big can your ranch actually be?” I thought I better just tell it straight up. It’s just as big as my wife can handle and she can handle a lot. Thanks for the opportunity to be here though.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great. Why don’t you give us a quick overview of your operation, your ranching operation? That’s what we’re going to mostly talk about today, and as listeners to the podcast know, I have a strong interest in local, sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and yet am not [inaudible 00:02:15] about it, so I’m looking at various points of view. That’s what we’re mostly going to talk about, but you know me, and if you knew Trent, you’d also know will probably wander fairly far afield and talk about other things as well. Let’s start with describing your operation for us.
Trent: Well, it started in 1832. No, I’m not that old, but the first Loos came from Germany to West Central Illinois actually, Adams County. I go back that far, Jim, because you mentioned the word sustainable. I left Illinois in 1988. It just was not a place that I wanted to raise kids. My wife is from Sherman County Nebraska, so we’re in the process of raising three daughters. We have two that are still in high school, one graduates in two weeks. But I bring up 1832 and my home place at Quincy, Illinois, because my nephew, my sister’s son Grayson Tedrow is excited about taking over, and he’ll be seventh generation on the same land that the Loos’ have been taking care of in Adams County since 1832.
Trent: I’m often humored by the people who talk about; we need to become sustainable Ag producers. I don’t know how you can be more sustainable than being in the same location for 200 years, but we’ll get back to that. Today, Kelly and I we’ve done a lot of things. We’ve owned a lot of animals. In my lifetime, Jim I’ve actually cared for one million head of animals in 56 years. That’s no light feat. We don’t have that many today. We have 100 sows. They’re all purebred sows. We have 100 cows and we’re part of the certified Piedmontese system with those.
Trent: Then we have horses. I love my draft horses, but most of our horses are quarter horses. I do have a couple of half-ass horses, which are promptly called mules, because unlike the mule it’s only half an ass. It’s better than a whole ass.
Jim: Yeah. Mules an interesting animal. They’re-
Trent: Oh man.
Jim: … smarter, stronger. We have quite a few people here in Highland County, Virginia that raise mules and they ride them, and they’re also pretty good defense animals, particularly for the sheep that we have, which if you don’t defend them are frankly just prey for the bear and the coyotes, which we have in abundance here.
Trent: I can’t talk about predator control when it comes to bears, but we have tons of coyotes and that’s our main predator. Although we did have goats for quite a period of time, and there was one month that I lost 25 goats to a mountain lion. That caused me to sit out with my 257 Weatherby several nights and finally got a shot at that thing. But he didn’t come back after that, even though I didn’t hit him.
Jim: Interesting. We don’t have mountain lions here, though there’s legend of them though. I’ve noticed they’re more like UFO’s is when one person claims they’ve seen one, an unlikely number of people soon thereafter claim to see them.
Jim: In fact, the story I usually ask is how many Bobcats have you seen in your life? The answer is usually zero, and our area has plenty of Bobcat’s, but you know cats, you don’t see them too often, right? Yeah, 30 years on my farm, I’ve seen one that was from a deer stand. He tried to by along the creek; he didn’t know I was there. I said, “If you’ve never seen a Bobcat, your chances of having seen a Panther, a mountain lion is a factor of 100 less than that, so come on guys,” anyway.
Trent: My best steed is a lady blue. Lady blue’s now 20 plus years old, but she was the first horse that I started myself, and I’ve ridden her all across this country, even in parades and different things, but she’s pretty much just a great ranch horse. One day we’re riding in this little canyon at our place in central Nebraska, she just wasn’t being herself. I just, I could tell that something was wrong and it wasn’t long, and it’s amazing how they have that just sense about them, because they’re so in tune with their environment and everything around them.
Trent: They don’t read Snapchat and Facebook, so it’s all good Jim that these horses are still in tune with the nature instead of the electronic world. It wasn’t long, and I saw a little Bobcat dart and so she just had that sense that it was there.
Jim: Yeah, they’re smart. They may not be able to split the atom or write a Shakespearean sonnet, but when it comes to being finely tuned by ma’ nature to live in the world they live in, they’re good.
Trent: If your chin is an atom, they can split it pretty good because you can’t probably see it, but there’s a scar right here that took about 27 stitches to fix up that was a horse wreck as well.
Jim: Oh dear. It can happen. Well, let’s get back to focus a little bit on agriculture and what you all do with your sows and your cows. We talked a little bit on your show, on the fact that pork in particular is an interest of mine. In fact, when my wife was putting together her online order here in the COVID season, she said, “Jim anything else we need?” I always say, “How much pork you’re ordering?” I’m like, I like my pork in various forms and she always says, “Damn it, we got a whole freeze full of pork.” I go, “Okay. As soon as we start to open up a little space, make sure we order some more.”
Jim: We talked about how pathetic industrialized pork had become in the US over a long period of time. There’s a growing movement back towards more interesting breeds. What are y’all doing with pork production? What makes your lines interesting?
Trent: I mentioned that all of our pigs are purebreds. For the most part, I’m a purebred Spotted Swine guy. I’ve had spots since I was 10 years old and I’ve just really enjoy the breeding aspect of those. I’ve got a bore right now that’s just the cat’s meow, in my mind of what we need to be doing in the pig business for generating profitable, high quality eating pork. I call him Beaver Moon because I named him. Each full moon has a name and I named him in November a couple of years ago in the Beaver Moon, so I thought, “That’s just a perfect name,” because he’s out there harvesting the fur and what created the whole opportunity to develop the West.
Trent: Beaver Moon has become that boar and we look at the genomics. We actually use an outfit called NEOGEN to send in tissue samples, to look at what Leos are present in these boards so that we can evaluate meat quality, we can evaluate performance and efficiency and all of those profitability traits that is all about sustainability and producing more with less. Aside from the spots and that that’s our primary in our branded program called the Spotted Boar, we have Berkshire. Berkshire’s have long been known as a high quality meat item and the standard to be honest, if I want to be frank because it dates back to the Queen of England.
Trent: The Queen loved Berkshires. Interesting little side note, Jim, is that, all 10 of the major breeds that are available today in the United States all trace back to a Berkshire. They all started with the Berkshire and then they were developed. Half of those are developed in the United States, the other half primarily developed in England with the Landrace being developed in the Netherlands. But our program is primarily spot. We have a few Berkshire’s and then I have two Hampshire’s, two Herford. Herford’s are interesting and I have two Yorkshire. That’s what our breed makeup is at our place.
Jim: You do all purebred as opposed to hybrids?
Trent: I do only purebreds. I’ve always been a purebred enthusiast. I like the genetic aspect of it, looking at the lines, and I can trace everything back to whatever cell might be in the background for what trait that I’m trying to make. All of my pigs today go back to one sow that actually I had in 1984. Oh, excuse me, 1987; I had that Sow 38-2. The interesting part of that is that, I got out of the pig business ourselves for about a four year period of time. Yet within the spotted breed, there were still people, quite a few people that had lineage that went back to that original Radio Daughter, her name is Lowboy 38-2.
Trent: There were so many people in the spotted breed that still had spotted genetics that went back to her. I was easily to go in and find a couple of foundation females to start all over again, but they all go back to that original sow that I had, that I made I thought was so good in 1987.
Jim: Cool. That’s an interesting story. We talked a little bit on your show, breeding it’s kind of a multi-dimensional problem, right? You’re not just trying to optimize one thing. You’re optimizing on one side for the quality of the product aimed at a specific market. You’re obviously also optimizing around efficiency and converting food inputs to meat, attractability, disease resistance, all those things. What’s your model of what you’re trying to do in these various dimensions?
Trent: It’s all of the above to answer your question. But the first model, the first parameter that we look at is, are they good females? Do they breed easy? Do they lay down feral pigs on their own, and then raise those pigs and breed back? If they don’t do those things, they’re gone. We just have to move on and select the lines that consistently do that. Beyond that, in today’s world with the lines that I’m working with within the spotted breed and the Berkshire breed, the feed consumption and growth has been a little bit more of a problem than it was back in the day of the ’80s and ’90s, because we were just selecting pigs that grew so fast today.
Trent: Today, we want that combination of pigs that have a high volume of feed consumption. The only way you grow fast is to eat a lot of feed and then combine that with the right amount of marbling and fat, so that it tastes good. You mentioned that the pigs in the commercial setting, and I’ve been involved with a lot of pigs in that commercial setting as well. But the mistake that we made was that, we developed this marketing campaign in the mid-’80s and we called it pork the other white meat, and we started selecting pigs and we felt pressure from the consumer to make these pigs leaner, leaner, leaner.
Trent: Well, that was okay for the bellies because you made bellies a little leaner, but they were still 50% fat. They tasted okay as you made bacon, cured bacon, but the pork loins, they’re just not good. They’re like a chicken breast. Chicken breast is only good when you flavor it with something else. Pork loins got into the same position, and we moved down this path so far thinking that we needed to focus on leanness, that we lost that taste and satisfied eating experience that you alluded to earlier. I wanted to incorporate the positive aspects that the Berkshire brings and I identified those lines within the spot breed.
Trent: Today, if you look at the genomic data on our spot boars, they will be as good as or better than all of the Berk boars that we used to make more as we go forward. It’s a combination. I really focus on maternal. Beyond the maternal, we look at what does that taste like? I’ve been in a grocery store and I’ve stood by people who will be at the meat counter, and they’ll select pork chops that look leaner and look lighter in color, when in fact the darker pork is better because it has a higher level of pH, and pH is what retains that moisture within the muscle fiber itself, and when you’re cooking it, you can actually over cook it and still have a good eating experience.
Trent: The biggest one problem with pork throughout the course of history and my mother … My mother is just an angel. She’s been an awesome mother. She’s still over cooks her pork. We over cook that pork and then we can’t figure why it doesn’t taste as good. When you have a darker pork chop, a darker loin, a darker meat fiber, it means that there’s a higher level … It’s no different than chicken actually. At family events, people fight over the chicken breast.
Jim: I like the thigh. I always go for the thigh.
Trent: The thigh is absolutely the best tasting part of the chicken, and it’s a darker meat. It’s darker because it has a higher level of pH. It retains its moisture better through cooking, and it’s a more enjoyable eating experience. We’re bringing that same concept into pork production.
Jim: It’s funny, you mentioned the thigh. My wife, who’s a brilliant person in many domains, she’s identified the best food value in America which is Turkey thighs. They can’t literally give them away.
Trent: I know.
Jim: They’re like 29 cents a pound in bulk, and she makes stews and soups and all this with Turkey thighs and this is amazingly delicious meat. Literally they sell it for only slightly more than it would cost them to dispose of it. It’s ridiculous. If you’re tight on a buck, go to your local meat man, and tell him you’d like to buy a 50 pound box of Turkey thighs, and you’ll have some really good eating for next to no money at all.
Trent: True story.
Jim: Definitely a fried chicken. Yeah, let everybody else fight over the drumsticks and the breasts, I’m always going for the thighs essentially. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the maternal ability is really important in the breeding, because obviously that’s the gateway through which the next generation arises. That makes a heck of a lot of sense. How much higher marbled fat content do your animals have over say pork chops at Wal-Mart?
Trent: I don’t have a number to quantify it, but they’re statistically significantly higher in intramuscular fat. That’s something that just really hasn’t been evaluated. Nobody even talked about that Jim in pork production until the last few years. The type of production that you’re talking about here today and what we’ve been doing is what has brought that back to the forefront. Now, there were some high demand markets for Japan, where they were looking at, and I’ve been in a plant in Sioux Center, Iowa, where they were doing Minolta scores and looking at what was really going on with pH and marbling, even 25 years ago.
Trent: But it didn’t really catch on and it’s hard to measure. The reason that nobody in the pork business really talks about marbling, even in the cattle business, it’s still done with an individual USDA grader standing on that line, taking a chart, putting it up here and saying, “Yep, this is USDA choice.” It’s really hard to capture that data, and that’s why it’s not been of a great emphasis.
Jim: Interesting. Just a question just came here, you’re a German rut, that’s also a German name. Have you ever been to Germany? They got the best goddamn pork over there. Any idea what they’re doing?
Trent: No, I have not been to Germany. I like to pick on Germany a lot and I have to remind people why my ancestors left Germany, but I’ve not been there myself. My brother went, but I’m really good on my own family tree until 1832 and before they got off of that ship, that’s my ignorance. I need to fix that.
Jim: Yeah, truthfully, I don’t have any idea where they came from either other than I know they were Mennonites, Anabaptist fleeing persecution. I think actually more accurately dodging the draft, and they came from somewhere in Southern Germany. That’s all I know, but I can tell you if you ever get over to Germany particularly Berlin or Frankfurt or Munich, go for the pig knuckle, which is this big old chunk of meat. Pig knuckle, two or three liters of dark German beer, it doesn’t get much better than that. All the pork is so marbled and it’s darker as you say.
Jim: It almost looks like cured ham. It’s just, it’s is fantastic. Talking about the non other white meat, the other extreme, one of our neighbors and friend of ours, this guy named Joel Salatin, who’s a very well-known.
Trent: I know Joel.
Jim: Yeah, he’s great guy. It’s a true character. He does a small amount of pork. He mostly focuses on beef and cattle, and he does his pork in a real old fashioned way, which is he raises them in the woods, puts them out for the acorns and to root around for tubers and this and that and the other thing. I would not say it’s highly tender, because these guys are rooting around in the mountains. But the meat is really, really dark and extremely flavorful. Very interesting. Getting people off thinking that they’re looking for the whitest, palest pork is probably the first thing we need to do, if we’re going to reshape the American palette for the really good product.
Trent: Yeah. I’m familiar with that. It’s really tough to be as efficient. That product has to be worth a lot more to make it worth it, and people are willing to pay. I’ve had some of that even $400 a pound stuff that comes out of Spain. It’s just a different world to me. That’s nuts, Iberico hams.
Jim: Yeah, those things are greater, Parma hams those are also from Northern Italy. The finished on chestnuts in the mountains. In fact, here in the mountains of Virginia, where we are before the great chestnut blight, our mountains were about 50% Chestnut, and traditionally the local subsistence farmers let their pigs loose in the mountains for the fall, and they gorged on chestnuts. Then they were slaughtered at home by hand in mid-November typically, and they were good and fat from rooting up all those, eating all those chestnuts. But again, as you say, it’s not really a scalable means of production.
Jim: Joel’s pork while very interesting and good is about three times the price of grocery store pork, so it’s not a mass item. It’s an elite food fancier item. Really if we’re going to solve our food systems issues and move them to a sustainable future, I always tell people, “If your model won’t yield something on the order of no more than 25% more than Walmart, it’s probably not scalable.”
Trent: The other aspect that people tend to forget about is that pigs are very destructive. Just in Texas alone, pigs destroy … Wild pigs, I’m talking about feral hogs, destroy $70 million worth of food crops each year. I actually have some hills that as a kid, my father, my dad and my grandfather, we would feed a lot of pigs in that area, those hills today are, nobody would call them plush, let me tell you. They’re very destructive.
Jim: They can tear it up. Even Joel Salatin’s places, he fences them off with electric fences and he only leaves the pigs in there for a few days, because if you leave them in there for long, they’ll just destroy. On the other end, if you put them in there just for a few days, they’ll eat up all your Poison Ivy, all your Greenbrier, all your noxious stuff. Pig ain’t too picky on what it eats. It’ll clear out all kinds of crap.
Trent: Actually the best story I’ve heard along those lines is, a gentleman from Oklahoma whose grandfather … Today by the way is a significant day, because it was today in 1889 that the Oklahoma Land Rush began, and 50,000 people were living in tents on the edge of what’s today known as Oklahoma. When Benjamin Harrison said, “Okay, we’re going to do a claim, stake your claim.” 50,000 people ran in there. Well, one of those guys ran in there. He ended up with a quarter section of land and it was loaded with rattlesnakes. I talked to; I think it would be as fourth generation from that, fourth generation grandson and he said, “Grandpa got his claim in the land rush.
Trent: He then went to Nebraska, bought 300 hogs, which were mostly all females. He trailed them.” Think about this now 1890, he trailed them from Nebraska to Oklahoma, because he wanted to get the hogs to take care of the rattlesnakes. The hogs went out there and they literally decimated the rattlesnake population, and he turned it into a productive farm thanks to a pig.
Jim: I love it. Interesting just on aside, trailing animals, here in Highland County, we were fortunate enough to befriend a really old bachelor character who had grown up here on the farm, gone off to the city and worked as an electrician and then retired back to the family home place. He would be over 100 now, but when we were talking to him one time, he used to tell us when he was a kid, about 13 years old on the family farm, every fall they trailed their large flock of turkeys from here in-
Trent: Oh my goodness.
Jim: … the Bullpasture Valley to Stanton, Virginia, which is our market town. It’s about 40 miles away by road, on foot basically over three mountain ranges. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s just what we did. It took two and a half days. We’d just camp out as we went and the turkeys would roost up in the trees.” This was before turkeys got to be too fat to fly. “Yeah, we’d lose maybe 5% of them. They would either run off or get eaten by …” There were no coyotes in those days, get eaten by something. But oh yeah, that was just a routine part of life is that on foot walked our herd of turkeys from McDowell, Virginia to Stanton, Virginia over two and a half day period. Amazing how tough those people were.
Trent: My favorite era of history is a cattle drive era. Six million head of cattle trail from Texas to the Northern Great Plains around Abilene, Kansas. That’s a 12 year period of time. If I could time travel, that’s when I want to go. I’ve trailed cattle. I’ve trailed horses, which is a big trick to actually pull that off. But I just can’t imagine trailing turkeys or pigs. That just seems beyond my scope.
Jim: That’s amazing. Let’s talk a little bit more about your business model with your sows. Do you sell strictly breeding stock or do you also sell into the product channels?
Trent: We do all of the above. Like I said, we have 100 sows, mostly again, purebred spot. Jim, for quite some time, we’ve been selling gilts to young people, particularly 4H or FFA kids who want a project, but then they also want to raise those pigs and show them at competition. The show pig world is something that we’ve been in and we’re still a part of, but I really do that through the maternal side. In fact, I’ve been asking, we’ll be judging the Maryland State Fair Pig Show Labor Day weekend coming up this fall. But our main focus has always been the maternal.
Trent: We do sell some barrows to kids for show pigs. I sell quite a few boars to other people who are into more what we would call the heritage business. Then we have been selling roughly 40 pigs a month to people directly in the meat program. we have two avenues for doing that. We have four custom exempt lockers that we sell people their pigs. We then deliver them to the locker for them, and they have them cut and they will buy either half or wholes. The other thing that we’ve been doing and I just briefly mentioned the spotted boar, which is a partnership between ourselves and Lone Creek Cattle Company, believe it or not out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and they are doing a retail program and they have a shop in Lincoln.
Trent: They have a restaurant in Lincoln and they have an online presence. We’re into every single aspect of pig selling, whether it be in the form of direct to the consumer, the retail outlets or to those kids that want to be a part of a small 4H or FFA junior livestock project.
Jim: Yeah, until COVID we for years have been buying pig at the local county fair. Five times the market price is typically what it would go for in the auction, but it’s you for the kids.
Trent: You’re not buying a pig. You’re investing in the kids future.
Jim: You’re putting money into a kid’s scholarship fund.
Jim: But you’re also getting a mighty fine animal also. We typically would pick one that’s in like the 250 pound range. We found that’s a [inaudible 00:27:02] size, and also truthfully we’d often buy the pig of people we knew and things like that. If you live in a rural area supporting those FFA, 4H fairs and the people is really a wonderful thing to do. We’ve always felt very good about that as an activity and as Trent says, “No, you’re not buying pork at $10 a pound or more than that. You’re investing in a kid who showed the perseverance and character to be able to do a hard thing and do it well.”
Jim: Encourage people to go and bid at those animal auctions at your local county, or I don’t know if they do that state fairs. Been a long time since I went to a state fair.
Trent: Some state fairs do, Jim. Not all do, but some still do. Some have really good auctions.
Jim: Cool. All right. We’ve talked about your… Oh one last thing on pork. The slaughter, do you guys have a local custom slaughter facility, small-scale slaughter? That used to be … That actually still is a limiting factor in the local meat production scene here. We’re fortunate enough to have our own local slaughterhouse, but the backlog at small-scale slaughter in this region is like a year currently.
Trent: This is a great discussion, because I mentioned that we go to five different plants on a monthly basis. Four of those are custom exempt. What that means is, that there’s not a USDA inspection. They are beholden to the USDA, but there’s not an inspector there, because there’s no retail products sold out of that particular place. We do not have a state inspection program in Nebraska. Any Nebraska butcher shop that wants an inspection program for retail sales has to go through a USDA inspected plant. We go to Wahoo, Nebraska for that. It’s a tremendous plant, family owned.
Trent: It is strategically placed the same distance from Lincoln as it is from Omaha, and Charlie and his crew there in Wahoo do a fabulous job. We go into that plant for anything that goes through the retail program. The pigs that we sell direct, we go for custom exempts. Now there’s been a lot of talk and trying to find a way to incentivize more of that type of a structure, because that infrastructure, as you mentioned has really been crippled. The limiting factor to be honest is, you go talk to any of the butcher shops that I work with on a monthly basis, and they would tell you that the demand is there from the customer to expand, but we can’t find people to work in what we have, and just to keep up with what we’re currently doing is the challenge.
Trent: So many times the limiting factor, it comes back to labor and finding people willing to show up, and be a part of the meat cutting business is not always easy.
Jim: Yeah. That’s been a constant challenge at our local facility as well. Fortunately over the line in West Virginia, there’s a vocational high school that has a meat cutting plant program. That has been a major source of labor for people who graduate from that West Virginia.
Trent: Is that Hampshire High School?
Jim: It could be Hampshire. No, no Hampshire is a long way from where we are. That’s up [crosstalk 00:30:21].
Trent: Well, Isaac Lewis is the FFA instructor at Hampshire High School. What’s the town? Hampshire is the County, but anyway, they did the same thing. They have a little butcher shop in their high school and they’re teaching kids. That’s a fabulous program. I’m really glad to hear there’s more than just one of those.
Jim: Yeah, Hampshire’s up in the rich part of West Virginia where they call it the gold coast up near DC where we used to live. We lived on the Virginia side of that line. Now we live down in real rural Appalachia, and the local high school across the line in West by God does offer a meat cutting program. It produces some good people, so that’s helped the labor problem, but labor is a problem everywhere, right? Of course, unfortunately there’s a bigger picture problem which is, how do I say this in a way that’s not to [crosstalk 00:31:16]?
Trent: Just say it.
Jim: Just say it. Which is Americans are paying too little for their food. If you look at the percentage of our wallets that have gone to food, and the price of food versus everything else in our lives, hell, the price of wheat is not much higher in nominal dollars than it was when I was a kid. If somehow we got to learn to be willing to spend a little bit more on our food, everybody in the production chain could make a decent living. Cutting meat is a hard job, right? It is a really tough way to make a living. If you’re getting paid 12 or $13 an hour, it’s tough.
Jim: If you can make $18 an hour, people would be beating on the doors going to work there, but the emergent economics of the race to the bottom dynamics of late stage financialized capitalism, make it essentially impossible for any producing meat slaughter operation to pay more than 11, 12, $13 an hour and survive. This race to the bottom dynamics makes everything just barely function. That’s a perfect example of the fact that you can’t get … You get labor, but they won’t show up. There’ll be high on drugs. There’ll be psychopaths who don’t take direction well.
Jim: If we were able to pay people a better wage, then all these problems would start to resolve. The reality would be, we’d have to put a bigger share of our wallet on food and a smaller share of our wallet on fancy haircuts and shiny BMWs and things of that sort.
Trent: 2020 has shined a light on a lot of things. One of which is that, we were spending, this is all pre COVID now, we were spending about 8.5% of our disposable income on food. The average American spends 16% of their disposable income on entertainment. Until we started getting some wake-up calls through bottlenecks and other terms that we used in the destruction of our … Really not the destruction, the illumination of the challenge that we have in our just in time food system, people were taking it for granted.
Trent: When you spend twice as much to go watch the movies as you spend on your food, you aught to take a step back and say, “Hey, what do I really need to be focused on here? What’s really important?”
Jim: Yep. Absolutely. When I was a kid, the general rule of thumb was … I’m an old sucker, so when I was a kid, back back and we had just invented fire back then.
Trent: You didn’t have shoes then, did you Jim?
Jim: Shoes, what would you need those for? We always walked barefoot both ways to school, and it was uphill both ways, back in the day.
Trent: Stepping on acorns that the hogs hadn’t eaten yet.
Jim: Exactly. Those days, the rule of thumb was a family should allocate about 25% of its budget for food. That was when, if we went out to a restaurant three times in a year, that was because we had a really good year. Nobody went out to McDonald’s for lunch. Are you kidding me? No one could afford that. Back in those days, when it was almost all home cooked food, generally the … Again, the rule of thumb was 25% of your budget went for food instead of 8%. That’s a big number, big change.
Trent: Put this in context, at the time when 25% of the disposable income was going to food, the farmer received roughly 75% of the consumer’s food dollar. Today at 8.5% of the total disposable income going to food, last year the farmer received 17% of the consumer’s food dollar. Every loaf of bread that you buy, the farmer only gets 17 cents of every dollar.
Jim: Which is the reason why we here locally involved in the local food movement are all about collapsing the value chain. Get all those intermediating people who are frankly subtracting value in many cases, not necessarily adding value out. Let the farmer sell directly to the consumer. The farmer at that point gets … Let me run the numbers in my head. He’s capturing about, even if you hire a third party logistics, the farmer is still capturing 60, 65% of the economics.
Trent: The challenge with that, as wonderful as that sounds and Kelly and I have dabbled in this now for 30 years, it takes a different person to raise a critter than selling the critter to the consumer. With our German heritage, we’re better at working and getting our hands dirty than we are doing customer service. That’s been the limiting factor for most farmers quite frankly is that, they get frustrated with the customer service aspect and just want to go take care of the cows.
Jim: We understand that very well. We’ve interviewed 50 farmers, producers as we call them and that’s what we hear ubiquitously. That’s why we’ve encouraged our local processing plants to get into the marketing side and the distribution for people for 15 cents on the dollar they can afford to do that.
Jim: That’s what I was assuming, 15% for logistics and distribution, another 15% or so for slaughter and a little bit more depending on the animal. That leaves 65% for the producer, even him not having to get their fingers dirty, not fingers dirty, but your head annoyed dealing with the marketing and customer service side. My wife and I’m and the people we work with believe that that is the future, because there are some people who have Ag backgrounds, who are interested in the customer service and marketing side. In fact, locally we have a group that’s created what we call a super CSA, Community Supported Agriculture.
Trent: Oh, sure.
Jim: A lot of which is, most of which traditionally has come from one farm. The super CSA idea is it’s an alliance between say 10 farms, and one of the producers does less work in production than they used to do, because they’re interested in and have some skill at the distribution side. They basically aggregate the product from 10 different producers and offer typically multiple bundles CSA. It’s not just, “All right, we got all the kale you produce this week.” But rather you can pick and choose. I want a protein heavy slice. I want a vegetarian slice. I want a dairy and egg plus vegetables, and then the super CSA blends the product from the 10 participating farms.
Jim: Really an interesting idea to get around that problem because truthfully, at least nine out of 10 producers, they don’t want to deal with damn customers, people showing up at their farm or anything else. The super CSA is a way to collapse the value chain and still have that 60, 65% of the dollars going into the producer’s pocket, and most producers not having to do the stuff they ain’t good at.
Trent: Yeah. That seems like a tremendous workable solution. You take a producer, who’s say 50 plus years old been doing this his whole life, he’s not going to go in and learn how to be a customer service oriented individual.
Jim: It’s not realistic.
Trent: He’s figured how load market hogs with his wife, but he hasn’t figured out how to work with his wife to sell pork chop yet, so there’s a difference.
Jim: Absolutely. Absolutely. All right, we talked about pork. We talked about business models. Let’s talk about cows a little bit. What do you do in your cattle operation?
Trent: What we have done, at one time we had 300 purebred Limousin cattle, and we were doing same thing with our Limousin’s and selling breeding stock. We never really did much with the retail side, because it’s a whole different animal to sell an entire beef as opposed to a pig. We got along with that pretty good. I started spending more time on the road, and now we come back to the rancher is my wife. We were just scattered a little too thin, so what we did is that we are now part of the certified Piedmontese system.
Trent: We still have a tremendous Limousin cow base, but we use the Piedmontese bulls from the same outfit that we work with on the pork side at Lone Creek Cattle Company in Nebraska. It’s more of a regional style, Great Plains of America direct marketing program. While we talked about intramuscular fat on the pork side of the equation, the Piedmontese cattle do not have intramuscular fat, and that throws everybody haywire because the whole beef industry has been structured around intramuscular fat. In the US advantage in the global marketplace in the beef business is intramuscular fat.
Trent: But what we focus on with these Piedmontese cattle is the tenderness aspect. Every one of the Piedmontese bulls that we use possess two copies of the myostatin gene, which is a gene that typically regulates the muscle growth in an animal. But these are mutant myostatin genes which means that the muscle grows and a lot of people refer to them as double muscled cattle. But the aspect that people pay for and they want is that every single time that that myostatin gene is present, the tenderness aspect is going to be the number one driver. The certified Piedmontese system that we feed our cattle into is all about tenderness.
Trent: If you look a lot of consumer panels through the years, marbling gives you the flavor. Tenderness gives you that satisfied eating experience, because quite frankly it’s just more tender, that’s what it comes back to. And so we’re proud to be a part of that system we breed our cows, again which have a Limousin component to the Piedmontese bulls and then we put both the steers and heifers in a terminal program into that certified Piedmontese system and they sell that retail, and again, through that shop in Lincoln, Nebraska. That system Jim, in 2020 had 25,000 head of cattle with Great Plains producers supplying into. It comes back to more of that regional approach, because the catalog in the Great Plains and the marketing does take place via the internet, but it’s really more of a regional approach to the future of the food system.
Jim: I like that. I like that. Now, are grain-finished, are these a grass fed or hybrid between the two?
Trent: There’s both options. If on the marketing side, the largest growth area, even though it’s not still significant in the bigger picture, the largest growth area has been grass fed. Lone Creek is actually building one system in York County, Nebraska that’s 100% tailored to grass-finished beef. They also have cattle that come through more of a traditional sense and they are grain fed. Both are available as an option.
Jim: There’s a lot of interest here in our region. In fact, there’s a lot of production of grass fed, but I got to tell you a lot of the product’s terrible. You better have your stainless steel dentures on some of these suckers, at least for dry cook cuts like steaks and such. On the other hand, there are people who are getting good at it. One breed that is used locally is Belted Galloways, which is a Scottish mountain breed that produces a pretty nice product.
Trent: Who doesn’t want to eat an Oreo?
Jim: One of our friends who’s a producer has been experimenting in a minor way with grass fed, but different grass fed that includes some high energy grass that were legally defined as grasses, including field peas and one particular variety of sorghum, which has been deemed a grass rather than a grain. He’s been experimenting, and has been producing some very interesting product that had some of the aspects of grain fed and some of the aspects of grass fed including the high omega-3 ratios and things of that sort.
Trent: I have a friend that was one of the pioneers in the grass fed beef market, John Wood from Monticello, Missouri. He weathered some of the initial storms because there were people that wanting grass fed, and it really wasn’t what they thought it would be, but he’s still very prominent today. Eatwellness.org, I think is what John goes by today. But he was truly a pioneer and I was able to visit with him and watch him. I’m a grain fed beef, kind of a guy, but I recognize that I’m not everybody and so you need to make these options available. Back to your original point, typically it takes longer because you don’t have the energy and supply to get a beef animal finished on grass, as opposed to corn finished or grain finished.
Trent: But with the tenderness aspect and this is why I think that the Piedmontese cattle are really in higher demand is, because the tenderness is already there. Even though they may be just a tick older, you still get a good eating experience for that grass-fed phase
Jim: Yeah, that’s where our neighbor who’s experimented with this, that’s his point is that, typical 24, 30 month grass-fed animal, it’s hard to make that tender. But with a higher powered form of grass feeding, he believes he can get that down to 16 to 18 months and produce a better product.
Trent: It’s all about energy. If you can find an energy source in that grass … The interesting part of this whole discussion, Jim and I love getting into with people in the bigger philosophical question is, corn that generates number two, yellow corn that we feed to cattle in grain feeding is grass. It’s just that farmers have found a way to really emphasize breeding and selection of this corn, make that very productive and it supplies energy to these cattle that works extremely well. That’s why I’m never negative to one side or the other. I do say, “Here are the options. Here’s what we do. You as a US consumer should have the freedom to choose.”
Jim: Of course, the land use issue always comes up. You use much less land with grass-fed because corn is so amazingly efficient. It uses so-called C4 photosynthesis which is more efficient than that which is in most plants. In terms of extracting solar energy and turning it into chemical energy, good old corn is hard to beat. If you go with straight grass fed, you’re talking five times as much land use probably.
Trent: Exactly. Have you seen the map of the radiant corn crop from the summer growing season? It’s like a satellite map of the US and it just looks like the center part of the US is on fire. Well, we don’t talk about this enough, but corn as you just described, it’s fed from CO2 and what other people call is toxic pollutants in the atmosphere. The corn crop in the United States alone generates more oxygen and absorbs eight times more CO2 than the Amazon rainforest, and nobody wants to talk about that.
Trent: We all want to talk sentimentally about keeping the Amazon rainforest, which I’m not in favor of destroying, but I want to give corn and the US farmer its rightful place in contributing to that cycle of life. What better day to talk about carbon and greenhouse gases than today with the greenhouse gases spewing from the White House?
Jim: Certainly hot air for a armature. Although, I don’t know, I have to think about that. Is corn a form of sequestration of carbon? I believe that’s a temporary store because it gets recycled and so it’s not really …
Trent: Correct. It utilizes the carbon. It doesn’t necessarily store the carbon in the soil, but it utilizes that carbon and produces oxygen.
Jim: It certainly does that. While the people like Joel Salatin argue and provide some evidence, for the fact that their methods of pure grass fed and intermixing chickens and with eating the manure and all this stuff actually does sequester a growing amount of carbon in the soil. They would argue that their animals are actually carbon negative as opposed to carbon producing, because on the flip side, corn is, commercial corn, 200 bushel, an acre corn which is amazing number to me. When I was a kid, 100 bushels an acre was considered a nice crop, does have a tremendous amount of energetic inputs.
Jim: Fertilizers are non-trivial to create, particularly nitrogen fertilizer taking a lot of energy. Just the tractors and the harvesting and such produce a lot of energy. On a net basis, corn fed cattle are a much bigger greenhouse, net greenhouse gas producers than grass fed. On the other hand, they do it in about a fifth of the land. Everything’s a trade off. That’s the one thing that really bugs me about a lot of this stuff is that people get fixated on one dimension. They don’t realize that every serious problem that we have is a multi-dimensional problem. Just the way we were talking about breeding, you don’t just breed for one thing.
Jim: If you do, you’re out of business. Managing our society as we evolve forward is a multi-dimensional problem. Yes, we should be reducing our net CO2 consumption because it’s a real thing. I can explain it in terms of seventh grade physics and chemistry. On the other hand, a large part of the world is on the verge, is always on the verge of starvation. As you point out this just in time, hyper efficient, but not very robust agriculture system we have, if it’s disrupted could kill hundreds of millions of people.
Trent: And has.
Jim: And has and will. Frankly, we’re lucky COVID hit humans and didn’t hit wheat or something like that. We’re not that far from roll the dice on a baseline plant epidemic that puts a serious hurt on the human race.
Trent: We have plenty of those diseases in crop production that are an issue as well. In 1984, as a high school graduate, deciding that I wanted to be a farmer the rest of my life and not go to college, not that you can’t go to college and be a farmer, but I decided not wait four years, I had a coronavirus hit me that nearly knocked me out of the pig business as a 17 year old kid. I learned it up close and personal. We call that TGE. I wanted to just say one of the things about Joel and his model, I support that all farmers should have the ability to utilize and see how their resources fit into the bigger picture.
Trent: I don’t think that we should have government intervention telling us, “This is the way you should do it.” Market demand should take care of that. Joel and I have had this discussion when he was on my radio program is that, his system, it works, but it is very labor dependent and in today’s world, that’s our limiting factor. That’s the reason that I really struggle with that taking off widespread. If you can handle the labor aspect, it’s a wonderful opportunity, but man, it’s labor intensive.
Jim: At least so far. One might be able to imagine robots doing that in the future, which would be interesting.
Trent: It’s happening now. There are people doing that now, but from a rotational and continuing to build that … It’s all about soil health. No matter what we do, whether we’re a grass feeding cattle or we’re raising wheat in Kansas, how are you building soil health? If you’re not improving the health of the soil and putting more organic matter in with each and every year, you need to evaluate what’s going on. It’s not my place to tell you that, but you’re going to have to learn that or you’re not going to be around.
Jim: Yeah. Here, here, I believe that that is one of the fundamental things that the human race is somehow lost track of. I like to point out that what we remembered in our fifth grade history books as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East is now a nasty desert mostly. They did not take care of their top soil. They over plowed it too deeply. They over irrigated it. It got saline, very much like the Central Valley of California is at risk at. This is where pure market capitalism may have a problem. In late stage, debt-based, financialized late stage capitalism, everything is about very short-term money on money return. An awful lot of farmers, particularly crop farmers are right at the edge of bankruptcy because of the huge debt loads they have to take on.
Jim: They have to exploit the hell out of their topsoil to frankly pay the banker. If we don’t figure out a way to treat our top soil with the long-term vision that late stage financialized capitalism does not know how to do, we could end up like what used to be Fertile Crescent that is now literally abandoned lands all across the core of what was the original bread basket of the world.
Trent: I do want to just lay this out there that while I agree that we have to continue to focus on soil health and we need to get better, from 1930 to 1937, the Great Plains of America had what we call the dust bowl for lack of precipitation. Not many people know that from 2000 to 2007, the Great Plains of America had less rain than we did during the dust bowl. We did not relive the dust bowl during that period of time. In fact, we produce more food each and every year from the Great Plains because we had the soil health, but we can never lose sight of that, and we cannot let up our foot off the gas pedal at all, to do whatever we can to maximize the amount of soil health possible.
Jim: We’re in 100% agreement there. Certainly the growth of no till has been a big factor-
Jim: … especially in the United States. United States is chaotic at times, but we’re also innovative and we do more no-till than the rest of the world put together, or at least last time I checked. No till done right and people can argue about what’s the right way to do no-till is, I think a really major innovation.
Trent: Bringing the livestock back. In my country where I grew up, and this is one reason why I saw the West Nebraska is a better place was, we’ve removed all of the fences in farm country. Can’t call it farm and ranch country anymore East of the Mississippi, and animals are so vital to recharging that soil health, eating the crops off, and then pooping on the crop and putting that nitrogen with the most available source back into the soil. Animals are the key to soil health, and that’s why this negative stigma going right now about removing animals from the cycle of life is dangerous to mankind and the planet.
Jim: Okay. Here, where we are, it’s much more animal oriented than crop oriented, because we’re relatively low quality soils in the mountains or in the foothills or in the river valleys. Yeah, we grow some corn, we grow some sorghum. We grow some Sudex, which is a forage crop that we grow occasionally. But most of the land is in pasture. We have some amazing pastures over in our Bluegrass Valley. It’s a limestone region and the grasses there are just amazingly powerful. In fact, in the olden days, people used to ship their cattle from elsewhere to fatten them up in the summer on our Bluegrass Valley grass. Yeah, if you abandon your pastures, they turn ugly in a hurry.
Trent: Yeah. When they weren’t walking their turkeys to market. That one still hits me pretty good. That story, I love. I’d love to visit with somebody who walked their turkeys to market.
Jim: Yeah. Unfortunately old Jim Pollard went on to the next cycle about five or six years ago in his early ’90s, a heck of a guy. One of those, maybe he’s five foot three, five foot four, little bandy guy. But even at 90, big shoulders on him, big arms. You go holy moly. What was that dude like when he was 25?
Trent: Last week, Jim, I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I interviewed Albert Rutledge. He was born in 1924 and his first job was during that dust bowl era in Oklahoma. He was paid a dollar a week to keep cattle’s in a bunch grazing road ditches because there was nothing in the pastures to eat. But it’s just a phenomenal conversation, and what an inspiration to visit with. Anybody who lived through that era, I just don’t think any of us spend enough time visiting with people, what it was really like.
Jim: Yeah. We were lucky that we got here to where we are early enough to catch some of those old time folks, people who did mule and horse drawn logging for instance. One of our wonderful old time friends who again, would have been 100 by now passed on a few years ago, remembered as a child doing horse and mule logging up in the mountains, and he also had an amazing life. Born and died on the family home place. But in between fought World War II and has a picture of himself in the window of Hitler’s Eagles layer in Berchtesgaden. Fought across Europe and a zillion battles and ended up there and came back to the family farm.
Jim: He continued to farm. These people are gems and if you still have some around you, take advantage of them. Again, they remember the days when stuff was done by horse. Where we are our place, where we live did not have electricity till 1962. It was one of the very last places that was serviced by rural electrification. Again, people can tell you plenty of stories about what did you do when you didn’t have electricity?
Trent: It was 1963 that we first had more tractors on US farms than horses and mules. That wasn’t that long ago.
Jim: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s amazing. You can talk about going to college. In 1965 was the first year that 50% of American adults had a high school education, and somehow we survived. How about that?
Trent: Yeah, amazing. How about that?
Jim: Yeah, my dad dropped out of high school after ninth grade and he was extremely competent and good man. I would frankly put him heads up against plenty of college grads I’ve known in my day. I think he’d take them in many different fields of endeavor.
Trent: He got his education from the real world and hard knocks and there’ll never be a better education than that.
Jim: Yeah, probably three invasions in the South Pacific, the World War II, 20 years as a Washington DC cop, expect to learn a thing or two.
Trent: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: All righty. Well, I think we’re about up here on our time. Any final thoughts?
Trent: Well, we didn’t get to talk about my draft horses. I love driving a team and raking hay just to remind myself where it was, but I just wanted to share with folks the way I close my radio program every day, it came to me because I was interviewing another guy 82 years old, Moses Del Barney from Idaho. He is just a tremendous draft horse, teamster and I said, “Moses, what’s the key to success and teaching draft horses to work?” He said, “It’s the same as working with people, be gentle, stay firm.” I try to live by that because I think it’s exactly what we should do, Jim.
Jim: I love it. Well, thank you, Trent Loos for a really interesting conversation and look forward to do it again in the future.
Trent: I look forward to stopping by and seeing you in that wonderful green valley.
Jim: Yeah. You come down this way, look us up.
Trent: I will do that indeed.
Jim: I might put you to work too. Who knows?
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at modernspacemusic.com.