My name is Joel Huesby, and I’m a recovering farmer …
The fourth generation head of Thundering Hooves Farm talks about his family’s long journey from sustainable farming and ranching, through four decades of chemical nightmare and depleted soils, and back to economic and ecological sustainability, beginning in the mid-1990s.

By Joel Huesby
Posted September 28, 2004


Joel measuring the grass.

Editors NOTE:

Over a year ago, New Farm launched the Farm Locator. Our dream was to fill it to the brim with innovative and inspiring farmers--to showcase their farms with their very own mini-profiles and drive customers to their doors. One of the very first farmers to list his farm was Joel Huesby.


Cynthia and Joel Huesby
(Copyright © JR Anderson
206-910-8140)

I read his mini-profile and followed the link to his website and discoverd that yes, we had done it. Thundering Hooves was more than just innovative and inspiring, they had a clear vision of where they had been, where they where now and where they where going.

Joel's story of how Thundering Hooves came to be was just the tale New Farm readers could understand. It was personal, honest and practical. It was an American story.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

--NF

Farm At a Glance

Thundering Hooves
Walla Walla, WA

Location: In the fertile Walla Walla valley of Washinton state.

Land: 225 acres

Practices:
• Raise Pasture Finished™ livestock (cattle, pigs, sheep and goats) on natural grass and alfalfa pastures that have been free of commercial fertilizers and herbicides since 1995. Our livestock does not receive indiscriminate antibiotics or hormones to boost growth. • Pasture Ranged Poultry™ of chickens and turkeys also roam freely in the fields, eating bugs, grasses, and grains. They are sheltered in movable schooners, and are free to come and go as they please. Their shelters are periodically rotated throughout the field to give the birds fresh feeding grounds, and also so as to help them "spread their wealth" around the pasture.

For more information

Visit the Thundering Hooves website at:
www.thunderinghooves.net

OR

Check out their Farm Locator listing by clicking here and typing "Thundering Hooves" in the farm name field.


Hear Joel Huesby on Washington State University's latest Organic Agriculture Training Broadcast:

Organic Livestock: Principles, Practices and Prospects
October 29, 2004
10:00am - 12:30pm (Pacific)
http://ext.wsu.edu/noas/
index.html


Why Grassfed is Best?
by Jo Robinson

Why Grassfed Is Best! is the first book to explain the multiple advantages of buying products from animals raised on pasture. (Vashon Island Press, 2000) Order now!

Our 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.

They 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.

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.

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 the making?

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.

The Epiphany

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 personally.

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.

The laws of farming
Joel Huesby reveals his rule book for sustainable farming

Thundering Hooves is born

In the months following my epiphany I reasoned, "Why grow something and make nothing when I can grow nothing and make nothing."

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 be true.

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 units.

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 real garbage.

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.

We 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 and economically:

  • 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 soil.
  • 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.

Sustainable progress

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 here today.

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.