story is an American story. Way back in 1883, four generations
ago, two brothers immigrated to America from Germany and followed
their farming dream up the south fork of the Walla Walla River
in North-Eastern Oregon. In 1908, one brother, our great-grandfather,
moved his family down into the Walla Walla Valley along the
Oregon and Washington border where we live today.
In the generation that followed, our grandfather opened new
ground with teams of horses and mules that he used until the
1940's. He hired a crew of 20 men to harvest wheat, and put
up hay from the fertile soils. Our grandmother cooked large
meals for the men, who slept in a bunkhouse on the farmstead.
were never rich, but our grandparents managed
to work long, hard hours to raise a family and
make a living.
Their main income came from cattle that were driven 40 miles
to pastures near the Snake River, before the dams. They were
never rich, but our grandparents managed to work long, hard
hours to raise a family and make a living. They were good
and honest people. We have, of course, reaped many benefits
from their example, and have been proud of our family heritage.
Over time, wagons gave way to trucks, horses gave way to
tractors, and organic matter was replaced by chemical fertilizers.
The new machinery required less labor and could work more
land, so the work crews moved on to other jobs. Irrigation
ditches channeled water from the river, and the land was producing
more than ever. Wheat prices were high. There was plenty of
food. These were good times. This was progress.
But our grandparents' path of progress 50 years ago, the
same road that we took for much of our own lives, eventually
led to unintended consequences. As it turned out, our land's
natural fertility was exhausted by the 1950's; so fertilizers
and pesticides came to the rescue. They may have allowed us
to produce more for less, but they masked negative effects,
which have been generations in the making.
was a Catch 22. The more we took from the land,
the less the land had to give, so the more stuff
we had to put on the land to get the same results.
Chemicals became so commonplace and safe (we thought), that
we were quickly, and, it appeared, irreversibly becoming dependent
on those artificial means to boost production. It was a Catch
22. The more we took from the land, the less the land had
to give, so the more stuff we had to put on the land to get
the same results. Sound suspiciously like an addiction in
A similar phenomenon happened in the beef industry. Cattle
today are 30% larger than they were in our grandfather's day.
Why? Bigger is better, right? But the more the cattle industry
bred for bigger and faster growth, the more the markets were
flooded with beef, contributing to flat-lining prices, further
increasing pressure to produce more with less. In real dollars,
the price of cattle today is worse than it was during the
Great Depression. And the price of wheat is just as bad. So,
we bought more land, spread more fertilizers, and increased
our herds in size and number.
As farming and raising cattle became less profitable, the
government stepped in with price supports. This charity may
have put a bandage on the wound, but in the long run helped
to maintain the status quo, making us even more dependent
on unnatural means to sustain our way of life. Even in hind-site,
it is hard to say that we would have done anything differently.
As our family farm limped through the 1980s and early 1990s,
something happened to that would change the family farm forever.
On a late summer day in '94, I had an epiphany. I was out
burning a field of wheat stubble, trying to rid myself of
what I thought at the time was the bothersome organic matter
in my way, so I could plant alfalfa that fall.
Only two weeks earlier I received the yield results from
a crop of snap beans. I had grown them under contract for
a local cannery and yielded 5 tons per acre. This was a good
yield, but the cannery was only paying me $102 per ton. This
came to a little over $500 per acre.
||Then I started to do the rest of the
math per acre. Seed cost $100, fertilizer $60, water $120,
weed control $35, equipment $80, land payment… operating
loan payment… insurance… interest… taxes…
Everyone was making a living from my land but me.
Then I started to do the rest of the math per acre. Seed
cost $100, fertilizer $60, water $120, weed control $35, equipment
$80, land payment… operating loan payment… insurance…
interest… taxes… Everyone was making a living
from my land but me. And I saw problems on my farm that weren't
being addressed. The dirt was blowing away. The soil wasn't
holding moisture. I was forced to face the harsh truth—my
farm was a failure financially, ecologically, socially and
The way things were going, I had to ask myself, "How
long can we keep doing all this?" "Should we get
out?" We watched as other long-standing farm families
were forced to sell everything and move to town. Were we next?
My choices were limited. Either I had to get a non-farming
job to support the farm and my family, or borrow more money
and increase the size of our business in the hope of spreading
fixed costs over more acres and still fall further into debt.
Something had to change.
I watched the land burning, turning to black, rising in a
dark smoke, and fading into the sky. Up with the smoke in
the stubble fire went my ideas about making a living from
modern commodity agriculture. So it was that I resolved to
do nothing the same again.
Thundering Hooves is born
In the months following my epiphany I reasoned, "Why
grow something and make nothing when I can grow nothing and
During the initial period of withdrawal and rehabilitation,
weeds grew. The soil lashed out. It got ugly. When someone
asked me what I was growing, I said, "Dirt" which,
as it turned out, came to be true. The question now was, "How
can I make the natural and historically abundant plant nutrients
available to the chemically dependent soil once again?
I had to rethink my farming practices.
During the initial period
of withdrawal and rehabilitation, weeds grew. The soil lashed
out. It got ugly. When someone asked me what I was growing,
I said, "Dirt" which, as it turned out, came to
In a similar fashion, my own dependence on distant and disconnected
markets also prevented me from truly selling what I grew.
The marketing institutions on which I had also become reliant
prevented me from asking two important questions: "Who
are my customers?" and "What are their needs?"
I had to rethink my marketing practices.
I began to read more and think more about how our family
could survive and even prosper on a 225 acre farm by using
the laws of nature to our benefit. Thus began several years
of trial and error and lots of family meetings.
For several years I farmed with draft horses and found that
they could compete with the most modern farm equipment on
a per unit basis. We experimented with teams of Percheron
and Belgian workhorses. No more tractors flattening the soil,
using fossil fuels and polluting the air with exhaust and
noise. But, the horses simply could not produce enough
I continued to look for ways to rebuild the ability of the
soil to feed itself. This led me to a contract with a local
paper recycling plant where I applied a two-inch mulch of
waste paper fibers over the course of a year. Although the
mill went bankrupt, over 34,000 tons of what was previously
a waste product became part of the heath of our soil. It also
saved 1,400 semi-truck loads of precious landfill space for
On the marketing side of things, we knew that we wouldn't
earn a living if we sold our product to someone else who would
store it and eventually sell it to someone else who would
put it on a train to somewhere where some wholesaler would
sell it to a company that would use it to make something that
they would sell to a retailer who would sell it to some customer
1,000 miles away.
We needed a business plan that would allow us to improve
the soil and work with nature's laws (not against them), to
sell directly to our customers, and, ultimately, to make enough
money to raise our families on the farm.
would rotate cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens
and turkeys on our pastures, and market the meats
directly to ... consumers ... The animal diversification
would be wise both ecologically and economically...
Then I discovered a book by Jo Robinson entitled, Why
Grass Fed is Best. Robinson lays out several compelling
arguments for eating meats that are finished on the pasture.
She also articulates the unhealthy effects of eating beef
from cattle that are fattened on grains in feedlots for the
last 1 to 4 months of their lives.Adding her insights to a
growing list of other literary sources, we saw a bigger picture
coming into focus for us. We would rotate cattle, goats, sheep,
pigs, chickens and turkeys on our pastures, and market the
meats directly to a growing number of consumers who were eager
for a source of healthy, locally grown foods.
The animal diversification would be wise both ecologically
- The land would receive large amounts of organic matter.
- The compaction of the land would cease, as tractor-use
would be minimized.
- Earthworms would now plow the pastures and aerate the
- Without the seasonal harvesting, plowing and planting,
a mature sod of grasses and clovers would cover the earth
and enable the soil to hold moisture better.
- Wind could be used to pump water into small reservoirs
in the fields during months when fish weren't spawning and
gravity could then distribute the water.
- A covered, healthier soil would discourage weeds and
the goats would thrive on the few weeds that did emerge.
- The clovers would provide nitrogen for the grasses. Both
would be converted to organic matter for the soil by the
animals, and so on...
Thus, Thundering Hooves was born.
Over the years, I came to see myself in a new light. My farm
has evolved from the ground up, literally. I am only beginning
to hear and understand the universal language of the soil
and to listen to what the soil is telling me. It is hard to
listen to the soil from the cab of a tractor. I must get on
my knees. Look, smell, feel and observe.
But it has not been a solo trip. Were it not for the support
and encouragement from my extended family, I would not be
Today, we sell what we grow. We attend farmers markets in
the Walla Walla and Seattle areas. We've handed out thousands
of brochures. Chefs from local restaurants cook and demonstrate
for us at the markets. My wife, Cynthia, prepares a gourmet
hamburgers featuring all local buns and produce, and, of course,
our ground beef patties. We offer taste tests and comparisons.
We educate the public about their food purchasing choices.
The coming year will bring more growth as we continue to add
value and new products for our family of customers.
So, ten years later, Thundering
Hooves is indeed making tracks .... The fire that burned
the wheat stubble ... has sparked a whole new way of thinking
and living for us, and things will never be the same.
So, ten years later, Thundering Hooves is indeed making tracks.
There are cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys roaming
our pastures. We haven't used chemical fertilizers or pesticides
on our pastures since 1995. The living soil has returned.
And we now enjoy many great relationships with our direct-market
friends and customers.
The fire that burned the wheat stubble ten years ago has
sparked a whole new way of thinking and living for us, and
things will never be the same.
My name is Joel Huesby and I'm a recovering farmer.