By Twilight Greenaway for Civil Eats.
Broadcast version by Mark Moran for Iowa News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
Last August, Zack Smith welcomed a group of farmers, agricultural researchers, and investors to his mid-sized farm just south of the Iowa-Minnesota border for a field day. It was warm out, shorts weather, and around 35 people sat on straw bales listening as the young, fifth-generation farmer—who has gained a devoted audience through Twitter and YouTube and welcomes curious visitors to his farm every year—spoke about a critical turning point in his thinking.
The shift took place nearly three years ago as Smith—who was working off the farm for a fertilizer company at the time—was talking with the Minnesota-based farmer Sheldon Stevermer. “Corn was $2.75, beans were $7.25. We’re small farmers who don’t have a lot of acres. [We were asking ourselves,] ‘Is it worth staying in business?’” Smith recalls. The two were exchanging ideas and Stevermer asked a third farmer, Lance Petersen, what he thought. “He bounced it off Lance and he said, ‘What about putting a pen of sheep in between the rows?’”
Stevermer has an engineering background and he and Smith decided to run with Peterson’s idea. They got to work designing a farming system that involved growing alternating rows of corn and strips of pasture that were wide enough to move a mobile barn through. The plants in those rows also get exposed to more sunlight than a standard canopy of corn or soy, resulting in higher yields per plant. They called the result—a solar-powered barn that separately housed eight sheep in the front, 10 hogs in the middle, and a 125 chickens in a trailing chicken tractor—the ClusterCluck 5,000. They coined the term “stock cropping” for the larger idea to have, as Smith puts it, “plants feeding animals, and animals feeding plants.”
Since then, Smith has dedicated 5 acres on a plot of land Smith rents to trialing the stock-cropper system. And he has worked with Illinois-based Dawn Equipment to design a second, much lighter and more nimble iteration of the barn: The ClusterCluck Nano runs on solar energy and can be moved with a phone app. Now, Smith and Dawn Equipment CEO Joe Bassett are working on a third iteration and actively pursuing outside investment.
The hope, says Smith, isn’t just to build a new type of farm equipment—it’s to help farmers build soil health, cut down on water pollution, and usher in a new approach to farming in the Corn Belt.
Iowa is famously home to more hogs—25 million—than people, and a sizable number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. As a result, massive quantities of manure get spread on the same farmland repeatedly, typically during the cold months when there are no roots in the soil to absorb it. That often leads to nutrient pollution in the waterways (and dead zones in places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico).
Stock cropping, on the other hand, involves rotating crops with pasture strips so that a smaller numbers of animals leave behind just enough nutrients on the land to help corn grow there the following season—replacing the expensive, leaky fertilizer systems used by most commodity farmers. Meanwhile, the animals themselves live in less confined spaces, eating the plants and insects in the pasture strips. Smith has calculated that if there were 1.4 million ClusterCluck Nanos operating on about 1.9 million acres of forage strips within 15 of Iowa’s 99 counties full time, they could theoretically replace that state’s CAFOs.
“What is progress in ag?” Smith asked the crowd at the field day last August. “If you go down to the Farm Progress show in Boone, [Iowa,] you’re going to see one version of progress, and that’s big, wide, fast farm equipment that’s designed to do more with less people involved,” he said. But Smith, whose somewhat flat speaking affect belies his deep knowledge of agronomy and a stubborn dedication to farming, has other ideas. He points to the fact that even though corn and soy prices have gone back up over the last year, so have the prices of the inputs most commodity farmers rely on, such as synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.
“It’s the same thing that’s happened three other times in my career. We get a pop and the machine responds, and the pop becomes not very fun anymore. But the concepts we have out here could be very useful as we move ahead into whatever is going to be next. [It’s] not going to be next year or the year after that, but the pattern always comes where [farmers] drain the tank and come back to a break-even proposition.”
Instead of this familiar boom-bust cycle, Smith hopes to see a network of farmers across Iowa, Minnesota, and beyond that can afford to stay on the land while farming at a smaller scale by cutting their input costs radically and selling higher welfare, grass-fed meat into local markets and directly to consumers. And while doing so will require more than just a grassroots effort, these farmers are hoping that their out-of-the-box ideas gain traction with investors who can help them scale up.
‘Escaping the Dead-end, No-win Ag Treadmill’
During the first Stock Cropper field day three summers ago, Smith started by pointing to the land next to his home farm and naming all the farming families that had sold or lost their land. The land hand been consolidated into a few larger farm operations, he told his audience, and as a result, his community had changed. Like in many rural areas, there were fewer schools, fewer neighbors to farm alongside, and it now requires a much longer drive to get to the grocery store or hardware store.
Even with an automated barn, he says, the stock-cropper system still requires farmers who are more hands-on than most other modern commodity farming, a fact that, if it were widely adopted, would result in a reversal of the population loss so many rural counties have seen.
“The whole idea of this system is that it will require a lot more farmers,” said Smith during a phone call last fall. “Because even though the barns are going to move themselves, somebody still needs to chore them, somebody still needs to do the daily husbandry. And you don’t have to try to farm half the state of Iowa to make a reasonable living.”
Ricardo Salvador, the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (and a Civil Eats advisory board member), had Smith as a student when he taught at Iowa State University in the ‘90s. He has attended two of Smith’s field days and sees the work as potentially transformative.
“He wants to escape the dead-end, no-win treadmill [agricultural] situation where all that you can do is choose from a very narrow range of options, which always make the farmer the person who takes the ultimate risk, earns the least, and is dependent on government [subsidies] in order to make ends meet,” says Salvador. By selling the highest-value final product—the meat itself rather than just the grain to feed the animals—Salvador adds, he’s found a way to do something that has “become out of reach for farmers that decades ago bought into the idea of specialization.”
The hope, says Smith, is to create a system that’s more resilient in the face of climate change because it relies on fewer inputs.
Eventually, he says, “we could probably cut nitrogen use by 75 percent compared to a conventional corn acre. And I think we could completely eliminate the [added] phosphorus and potassium and use the animals to cycle it back into the soil.”
He is also looking at other crops that might make good animal feed, like barley and field peas, which would diversify the operation further. “The whole idea is that we want to increase the amount of biodiversity in the field within this system and build resiliency that way.”
Dawn Equipment’s Bassett got on board with stock cropping and started collaborating with Smith several years ago. Bassett had been making small-scale farm equipment targeted specifically at those cutting down on tillage and planting cover crops after he took stock of the nitrogen problems—and resulting regulations—in the Chesapeake Bay and the Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit.
“At that time, [it looked like] the government was going make farmers start doing something to preserve water quality and topsoil, “ he said. “I thought, ‘Surely, there’s going to be a groundswell of momentum that sort of gets farmers to change their practices.’” And while didn’t happen right away, he says that part of the business has grown in recent years.
Bassett sees much of the recent wave of ag technology as furthering, rather than solving, the most pressing problems with commodity agriculture—and he wants to do something different, even if it can mean a slower ramp-up to profitability.
“Agriculture is very high-tech now, but it’s not actually any different,” he says. “We have high-tech tractors and combines, but what they’re doing is exactly the same. Now [farmers are getting] robot tractors to plow the fields, so they’ll just plow even more.”
Bassett is personally motivated by the climate crisis and believes having animals on the landscape are key to sequestering carbon in the soil. “A stock-cropper system of intercropping, where you are rotationally grazing in between rows of cash crops, will probably be the most regenerative farming system possible. And it will produce the highest yield per unit of fertilizer of any system.”
Dawn Equipment is working on more prototypes, and the company’s ability to manufacture its first round of commercially available ClusterCluck barns will depend on the level of investment Bassett and Smith are able to attract. Together they have bootstrapped the project so far, and they are hoping to attract venture capital to keep scaling up the project. But Smith isn’t interested in the typical model.
“A lot of people just want you to come in and do this and then flip it in three years and sell it to Cargill. I’m not interested in that. We need to find the right investor that is bought into the merits of what we’re trying to build and is going to give us the rope and the leeway to get there,” he says.
And while the barns were developed for corn and soy operations, Bassett hopes to see them reach orchardists and vineyard owners interested in grazing animals as a way to build the soil between their rows in other parts of the country.
A Processing Bottleneck
While Smith hasn’t had a problem finding a market for the meat he’s produced so far with the stock-cropper system, the lack of meat processing infrastructure for small scale producers is a well-known challenge.
Keaton Krueger, another Iowan who is farming with his wife on 80 acres purchased from her family, while working full time in the field of precision agriculture (most recently for WinField United), has been following Zack’s progress and says he’s very impressed with what he and Bassett have done in the last three years. The focus on soil health aligns with his approach and, on paper, the system promises the kind of steady income that would allow him to gradually transition to full-time farming.
“Right now, farming is like a second job, but it would be great someday if a system like the stock cropper could allow us to make a living farming without having to become a giant consolidated grain-farming entity. I think there are a lot of people like he and I, who are still in agriculture professionally, that probably could access a few hundred acres of land and would be happy to go home and work hard on that land to make a living.” But working at that scale isn’t possible within the current system, he adds.
And yet Krueger hasn’t committed to buying a barn because he says the meat processing infrastructure isn’t there yet. The Kruegers raise hogs for themselves and their family members, and he says, “We have to schedule a year in advance for just a few hogs a year.”
But he’s optimistic that more demand could help pave the way for more processing. “I think that will probably be an area that gets solved either through the stock-cropper vision or through somebody that’s supporting the vision,” says Krueger.
Krueger, Smith, and Salvador all point to Jason Mauck’s work as an inspiring example. The Muncie, Indiana-based, self-described “maverick grower” farms row crops in strips to collect optimum sunlight like Smith and raises hogs that he sells himself through Munsee Meats, the meat processing plant that has been in his family since the 1950s—with the recent addition of automated self-serve meat lockers.
“[Mauck] is trying to retain as much of the food dollar as possible, which means that he’s in charge of production, processing, and distribution,” says Salvador. “He’s got this small USDA-certified meatpacking plant. But then his sales are through what are essentially these high-tech vending machines. And he controls the whole thing.”
At the field day in September, Mauck bought a ClusterCluck Nano and brought it home to Indiana, where he has been sharing photos of it in action.
And when Smith envisions networks of producers working together to build a supply chain using stock cropping, he thinks the region around Mauck’s processing business is probably the most logical place to start.
“It’s going to take regional hubs outside urban areas, and then farms positioned around those hubs rather than, for instance, growing pork here in Winnebago County, Iowa, and shipping it to Sioux Falls to be killed, and then shipping it to Washington, D.C., after that. We’ve got to do a better job of nesting the production around where the people are.” He also sees pasture-based systems as inherently easier to locate next to cities—because, unlike CAFOs, urban dwellers “can actually come out and see and participate in it, and it’s 100 percent transparent; the farmer has nothing to hide.”
The USDA is also in the middle of rolling out a sizable grant program that is intended to support small-scale meat processing infrastructure—as part of the Biden administration’s response to consolidation in the meat industry—but it’s not clear whether those grants will work in tandem with efforts like Smith’s.
Swimming Against the Tide
It is far from easy to envision and follow through on building an alternative to commodity agriculture, in part because the companies behind it wield so much power in the Corn Belt.
The depopulation of rural areas—and the sheer number of miles it has put between people—hasn’t helped. But social media has done a lot to help outliers like Smith and Mauck build networks that have bolstered them in the face of the status quo. “Maybe 10 percent of farmers are open to these ideas,” says Smith “That’s the community space that we’re aiming for and trying to build a coalition around right now.”
At the end of the day, Smith is clear-eyed about the fact that what he’s doing may struggle to gain traction because it threatens the powers that be in the commodity agriculture industry.
“You’re not going to see John Deere, Corteva, or Bayer supporting something like this. I come from that world,” he told his field day audience. “I was a Pioneer seed rep and chemical dealer.” Enabling farmers to work in a closed-loop way that harnesses the power of nature isn’t good for those companies’ bottom lines, he added.
“Changing the arrangement of the use of plants and animals in this way, it is a significant threat [to the existing industry],” he added later on the phone. Not only does the stock-cropper system require much less synthetic fertilizers, but “it’s going to take us less seed. We’re getting more yield per seed, and that flies in the face of everything I’ve done up to this point. . . . It’s a potential threat to significantly reduce the things that we’re told we have to farm with in order to survive.”
“A lot of farmers just wouldn’t dare try this, because the fear of looking strange,” says Salvador, who adds, “the people who will pooh-pooh it or make it sound like it’s strange are the industry and the folks who want to be comfortable just farming corn and soybeans, and getting checks from the government when they can’t make ends meet.”
“But,” he adds, “I see a slow-brewing, quiet revolution out there.”
Twilight Greenaway wrote this article for Civil Eats.
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