(Earth Eats theme music)
KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana this is Earth Eats, and I'm your host -Kayte Young.
BRETT VOLPP: First couple weeks I was feeding her every four hours through the night too, ant that was my first time doing that. It's not the most fun. But I got out to see the night sky a lot.
KAYTE YOUNG: This week on our show its part three of our series - "Have Sheep, Will Farm" The story of Lauren McAllister and Brett Volpp, their family, their flock of sheep, and their journey towards a farm of their own. We'll learn about their dreams for Three Flock Farm and the opportunities and obstacles along the way. Their story just ahead, so stay with us.
And now to Renee Reed for news. Hello Renee.
RENEE REED: Hello Kayte. Guest farmworkers are slated to receive a 6% wage increase in 2020. Thanks to the Department of Labor. But in AG workforce coalition says farmers will struggle to pay. As commodity prices continue to plummet and the effects of trade wars impact America's agricultural sector, some farmers are saying they can't afford increased wages for seasonal farmers workers. In a letter addressed to senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer the Agriculture Workforce Coalition is asking the legislatures to changes to the H2A visa program which farmers use to legally hire guest workers.
Despite a surge in H2A hires in recent years, many farmers say they are struggling to afford the expenses of the program. Employers are required to provide housing and travel expenses, and pay the Adverse Effect Wage, which can cost between $1,000 and $2,000 dollars per worker. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate, or AEWR is an hourly rate that's slightly higher than the regional minimum wage, and recalculated every year by the Department of Labor.
The 2020 AEWR announced earlier this week increased by 6%. Critics say that means farm labor costs will increase without taking into account rapidly decreasing commodity prices and farm incomes, or the cost of other benefits provided to H2A participants like housing and transportation.
The largest AEWR increases are slated for states in the corn belt - Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio at 10%. The AG workforce commission is asking legislators to address the AEWR, and to provide guest worker program access to year-round agriculture sectors such as dairy, livestock, and mushrooms. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act recently passed by the House, would expand the H2A program to year-round workers, and offer growers some relief on wage rates.
A group of chocolate companies and watchdogs are calling for more regulations to crack down on rampant child labor and environmental damage in the cocoa supply chain. Chocolate making giant Mars Wrigley, Mondelez, Barry Callebaut, and others, issued a statement calling for the European Union to bolster human rights and environmental protections in global cocoa supply chains, after a string of failures in self-monitoring. The statement said that cocoa is a major driver of deforestation, that most cocoa growers live in poverty, and that the cocoa poverty trap has lead to the widespread use of child labor.
The group includes the Voice Network, a cluster of organizations dedicated to sustainability in cocoa, as well as the group's Rainforest Alliance, and Fair Trade. They called for the EU to pass laws that would require preventative measures, annual reports on human rights, and environmental impacts, and 3rd party audits. Many cocoa farmers in West Africa send their children to work on farms to help family income, taking them out of school to do so. Some use child labor trafficked from other areas.
In 2001 chocolate companies pledged to crack down on child labor practices by 2005. The voluntary agreement known as the Harkin Engel Protocol did not reach its goals, despite several extended deadlines over the years. Some companies tried a certification process using groups like Fair Trade, the Rainforest Alliance and the Dutch organization UTZ, to inspect farms and report child labor and harmful environmental practices.
But a Washington Post investigation in October into the UTZ operation, found that efforts from four audit firms they worked with were spotty and unreliable. The probe found that 4,900 UTZ certified farms were located inside protected forests in Ivory Coast in violation of the voluntary protocol on environmental degradation. Internal reports also found that UTZ certified farms were even more likely to use child labor than other farms. UTZ stopped certifying farms in April and has joined forces with the Rainforest Alliance pledging to improve oversight in West Africa.
Thanks to Chad Bouchard and Taylor Killough for those stories.
(Earth Eats news music)
KAYTE YOUNG: And thanks to you, Renee Reed.
RENEE REED: Thank you Kayte.
(spacious, ambient music)
KAYTE YOUNG: Earth Eats is a show about food and farming. When we talk about farming, there's so much to explore behind the scenes. In our series "Have Sheep, Will Farm" we're taking a look at what it takes to start a farm from scratch. Farms are often handed down through families, but not always. This is a story about one couple without an inheritance, and their path to farming their own land in southern Indiana.
In the first episode of "Have Sheep, Will Farm", we met Lauren McAllister and Brett Volpp. They're beginning farmers with two kids, Ramona and Jasper. And they started their farming practice before they had land of their own. It started as a wedding gift.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: "It started with a wedding gift" - I love that, that's like the beginning of our book. I like that. It started with a wedding gift, two mommas and a u (unable to verify spelling of "u")
KAYTE YOUNG: Remember the Jacob sheep? They're a smaller breed with at least two sets of horns, and unusual colors of wool.
BRETT VOLPP:They're a more primitive breed, they don't need a lot.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah, and the wool is kind of like a mid-grade.
BRETT VOLPP: There's like three colors really, in this breed. Sometimes they have the white... turns a little purplish, like I think it's called lavender.
KAYTE YOUNG: Lauren and Brett are raising them for wool and for meat. They were living and farming on rented land outside of Unionville, and had grown the flock to over 20 sheep. When the landowner sold the property, it threw them into a crisis.
Their friend Bobbi Boos - an experienced farmer, suggested they were ready to start seeing themselves as beginning farmers. And she recommended they seek out an FSA loan, to purchase some land of their own. In part II of our series, I spoke with Lauren and Brett's loan officer, Kathleen Walters.
KATHLEEN WALTERS: I'm Kathleen Walters and I work with the Farm Service Agency, and I'm a farm loan officer.
KAYTE YOUNG: Kathleen works with the Farm Service's office that serves Monroe County. She walked us through the ins and outs of FSA loans, and it looked like Lauren and Brett were well positioned for this type of loan. They already had a few years of farming experience under their belts, enough to know what they were getting into.
The FSA loan requires a farm business plan. They call their business Three Flock Farm. And their plan contains six elements, sheep, geese, and chickens - those are the three flocks, and then ginger, mushrooms, and herbs.
The sheep will provide meat and wool.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: Mostly we'll be using the geese and the chickens for eggs. I'm not sure we'll be slaughtering them at all really. And then the herbs are medicinal.
KAYTE YOUNG: The mushrooms in a sense are medicinal too. Lauren and Brett are particularly interested in cultivating Lion's Mane Mushrooms. This type of mushroom is currently being explored for its potential and improving neuronal health. Early studies look promising for those experiencing signs of dementia. And the mushroom's wellness potential is what excites Brett and Lauren.
Business planning isn't entirely new territory for them, Lauren has an undergraduate degree in business.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: I think part of why I'm so excited is because... you know, I went to undergrad, and I did that thing with the 4 years, and I know what I want to do, and I went into business. And then I kind of didn’t... and everything changed, and my priorities shifted to growing my own food, and sharing the resources that I have.
And so to create a business plan was almost like the culmination of all the training I had done, but for what I actually wanted. And so I feel like when we put that business plan together, it was easy to do in that sense, because I had the tools and I had the why.
And so when Kathleen said to me you know "This is a really great plan" I thought "Of course", that's because its not coming from a task, its not someone else's goals, its ours. Its an objective that we feel passionate about, really gave us some more confidence. Cause we were like "Oh we have -", we were like "Oh, we're farmers! Oh!" cause it was like... cause it was just a normal thing, that was our regular life. And then this program is telling us, not only does it has value, we want you to do more of it? Sure. Yes.
KAYTE YOUNG: But finding land and securing a loan takes time. Where would they live? And where would they keep the animals in the meantime? They found a house to rent in town for their family and the two dogs, but what about the sheep? And the horse?
LAUREN MCALLISTER: With the help of our friend Greg - who's incredible, we found a place that our sheep could stay, along with Tinny (unable to verify spelling) the horse, until we can close our new house. Our friend Dwight is thinking about becoming a sheep farmer, and so he said "Can I kinda have like a practice run with your sheep?" And he had all this land that needed to like... have mowed down. You know this is what animals are for, that's why husbandry is so beautiful, because they're doing the things... taking down some locusts. I think he had a lot of invasives that he wanted to get rid of, and they took them down in days. I mean we should have taken before and after photos, because the sheep were so vicious. Like they just took all... everything down to the ground. So he's thrilled, he's gonna turn over that land and make more beds for his farm.
KAYTE YOUNG:So having a transition place for the animals was crucial to the process. And so was finding a place to set their sights on.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: Securing the land so quickly allowed us to find comfortable even getting this transition space, and even considering continuing to farm. Because frankly if this program hadn't come up at the time that it did, we would've stripped back, we probably would have butchered a lot of them and only kept a few of them and tried to rent out in Gosport or something. Because we didn’t want to shut down, but renting is not conducive to animals of any kind.
KAYTE YOUNG: They found a place near Ellettsville, which is just outside of Bloomington.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: It's 25 acres.
BRETT VOLPP: And you know, its a nice limestone veneered home from the... built in 58'. It has a full basement, it has... it had good bones.
KAYTE YOUNG: They secured a purchase agreement with the owner - that's required for a FSA loan application, and filled out all of the paperwork for the loan. When we heard from their loan officer Kathleen in the last episode, they were approved... but they hadn't closed yet.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: This kind of like turned the corner, when she said to us "You got your loan approved." That was the biggest moment because it said to us... one, we can move forward. We don't have to butcher more than a couple this year. Two, that the expansion can happen... right? That we can keep breeding, and we can continue to grow, and the third thing is really is that we're feeling supported. The research that Kathleen has to do, to kind of justify the loan demonstrated what our business plan put out there. So Kathleen really solidified those future plans.
KAYTE YOUNG: And spoiler alert... it all worked out. They got the land. Lauren and Brett have a farm of their own. I met up with Brett out at Dwight's place a few days after closing. It was sheep moving day again.
If you recall they had already done this, in the back of a Chrysler minivan. This would hopefully be the last time. When I arrived, Brett was corralling the flock using his movable fencing system. He hoped to make two trips with roughly 12 sheep for each trip.
He backed the van up, and secured the fencing close to the back of the van, doors flung open. He encouraged them to head towards the van, and he opened a small tub of minerals to entice them into the van.
(sound of rustling grass)
Apparently they crave these minerals, and they can be a strong motivator. These sheep weren't having it. They were reluctant to hope up into the van. Brett knew he only needed to convince one to get into the van, and more would follow. But they were being stubborn.
Eventually one hopped in, and a few more, but then one would jump out... and then another. And then they'd jump back in. It was comical if not slightly frustrating.
(sounds of hooves in back of van)
Brett displayed saintly level of patience with the creatures, but at one point he grabbed a particularly fickle ram, and lifted him quite awkwardly into the van, and slammed the door shut behind them. That was twelve. We were ready to roll. He secured the fencing for the remaining sheep, and we headed out to the road.
(card door shutting, sound of sheep braying and rustling about)
BRETT VOLPP: You try to just coax them you know? You just want... make it easy, don't spook them. But every once in a while you have to catch one.
KAYTE YOUNG: What'd you call that one?
BRETT VOLPP: He's a bit of a clown, yeah. He's a little goofy, I think.
KAYTE YOUNG: The last one to go it?
BRETT VOLPP: Yup, the... the - what was he? He was probably the 10th one, and then the... then he was the 12th one, and then the 13th, and then he got out again, gets back in, in and out. Yeah.
(sound of driving)
KAYTE YOUNG: Once we got going it was remarkably quiet considering there were 12 sheep and two humans in a Chrysler minivan. The new place is only six minutes from Dwight's where the sheep had been staying. The trip was uneventful and brief, especially compared to the day when Brett brought his horse to the new place.
BRETT VOLPP:Yeah I ended up walking him from Dwight's here, it's like six miles. But it was... its along the old railroad tracks that are gonna be a trail to Ellettsville. So he lived right off of that, and I was like "Oh that'd be fun to just walk... walk my horse." It's like... well, it's like a coming home thing with my horse, and like seeing this place and being... Yeah, just having more of a connection with the land around, as well as giving my horse like a... an exercise. Like "hey, we're going somewhere, and this is where were gonna end up."
KAYTE YOUNG: Once we arrived and Brett opens the back of the van, the sheep tumble out onto the grass with no hesitation at all.
(Sound of shutting off car, car doors, soft sound of animals on grass)
BRETT VOLPP: That's it.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, that's it. Getting them out was rather uneventful, they just kinda leapt out, and that was that.
He's starting them in a patch of land close to the house. It doesn't take them long to start grazing.
KAYTE YOUNG: It must feel good to be...
BRETT VOLPP: That feels really great, yeah. That was a lot stress, but yeah it worked... really well. Now we can put all our energy into making this a home. It's gonna take a while.
(ambient, spacious music)
KAYTE YOUNG: The house needs some work before move-in, but it won't be long now. After a short break we'll join Lauren and Brett once they've moved into their new place, to hear more about dreams come true.
(Earth Eats production support music)
Production support comes from: Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, and disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services. More at PersonalFinancialServices.net Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.Studio. And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838.
(ambient, spacious music)
KAYTE YOUNG: I checked back in with Lauren and Brett once the whole family has moved in. It's a few months later and it's lambing season. Standing on the edge of a pasture with their young son Jasper, I spot a few of the babies.
(braying sheep in background)
JASPER: The one that was just looking at us... he has been bottle feeding. My dad because he keeps kicking her away.
KAYTE YOUNG: Wow, interesting. Does that just happen sometimes?
JASPER: Yes. It happens all the time, until she's older she's gonna start to eat grass.
KAYTE YOUNG: Okay, so you just have to bottle feed her until she's ready for grass?
JASPER: Yeah. We call her Finder.
KAYTE YOUNG: Why "Finder"?
JASPER: Because she's good at finding things, and she sometimes nibbles on her hands.
KAYTE YOUNG: Brett comes out of the house with a bottle. It's time for Finder's feeding.
BRETT VOLPP: Come on little one.
This is my baby, she thinks she's... she thinks I'm her mom, definitely. First couple of weeks, I was feeding her every 4 hours during the night too. That was my first time doing that.... not the most fun. But I got out to see the night sky a lot.
(Sound of lamb drinking from a bottle)
KAYTE YOUNG: You didn't just keep her in the house with you?
BRETT VOLPP: I did after the first couple days, but at first I wanted her to just... I wanted to see if I could get the mother to take her back, and its important to get the colostrum from the mother the first couple days. So I just left her out, and the mother pinned up with her, and would actually hold the mother for her to suckle. For two days... it was kinda fun it gave me an excuse to camp out. Luckily I was a carpenter for many years before we took this project on. So you...
(Sound of door, entering house)
KAYTE YOUNG: Hello! Hello!
Inside the house I sit down with Lauren and Brett to reflect on all that's happened.
I would love to hear from you how you're feeling now.
BRETT VOLPP: (laughs) It's been difficult, the whole process. Very thankful for it, thankful for the opportunity of the FSA loan, and all of that. But it's... I don't know, because I was in school and just finally took my state qualifying exam, but the amount of work we had to do on the house, and pay for two places while we rented and lived here. The opportunity was great but it was really hard, and still is, to keep our head above water financially, especially.
It's like…(laughs) it's just... I guess it's like this everywhere, it was really hard. And I think hopefully we can come out of this and have a little more breathing room. I don't... I don't know if I can foresee that honestly. I don't know how long it'll take to feel... solved or whatever, but it's... yeah. I mean I really... I think everybody goes through this anyway, renting or buying, just buying a house. But we're glad for the opportunity to have more than just a house and to continue farming and all that. And do more farming than we ever have as well so.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: I think it's growing pains honestly. It feels really awkward to think like is how adolescence is, where we got a lot of responsibility all of the sudden and realize how much it took to take care of it, and like the focus and the energy that needed to be there so that we were supporting it and thinking longevity, not just like how we're gonna pay the taxes this year. But maybe thinking like 5 years from now, or even how we'll label the food and who we'll work with, and our experience with the sheep, making sure that that's really sound; we're not just getting involved in breeding, but like maintaining their health and their happiness.
BRETT VOLPP: Yeah I think they struggled more this year then ever with the move, and just the lack of fencing, the lack of good graze here. It'll take a few years to establish that.
KAYTE YOUNG: When I spoke with them, Lauren had just secured a grant from SARE. Which stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Her grant is to research a method using spent grains - which is a byproduct of the beer brewing process, as a substrate for growing mushrooms. I couldn't imagine when she would find the time for this project.
LAUREN MCALLISTER:Well, my husband says I'm gonna do it on Sundays, because I'm gonna be home more on Sundays. (laughs) So Kayte, the short answer is Sundays.
KAYTE YOUNG: Sunday is SARE grant day?
LAUREN MCALLISTER: Yeah.
KAYTE YOUNG: And it's not like Lauren and Brett are home on the farm everyday. Their kids have school and activities in town and they're both working jobs off-farm, especially Lauren.
LAUREN MCALLISTER:So I work full time at IU. I'm there 40 hours a week, and then I work at the SRSC teaching yoga. And then I teach yoga at the Monroe County Public Library, which I love, it's prenatal on Monday nights. And then I teach at vibe, and... yeah. I'm doing a lot to kind of support the long term bills that we have outside of what we're putting in. So when we're talking about investing in the house, not just like finishing things, but finding solutions to problems that we discovered, as we move through like... oh surprise, that pipe needs to be replaced, all of it.... now.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah I mean you've been talking about the investment of money, and I get how real and immediate that is, but to me the time... when I think about working full-time, raising a kid, going to school, having other stuff... any one of these projects that I could see in this room, feels overwhelming. So…
BRETT VOLPP: Yeah, yeah definitely. There's.... (laughter)
LAUREN MCALLISTER: That's what’s blowing my mind, cause it's like... you asked for a house? Did ya? With a big farm? Did ya? Oh-Ho! There you go. (laughs)
And it's like... well, crap... I did ask specifically for this, and here I have it, and now I have to put even more energy and focus than when I was dreaming of it, to like make it real. And like translate all that time into like finished walls, but more importantly... a home.
I think that's... I think that there's a lot of imposter syndrome at the beginning, because we're thinking like "We aren't really farmers! Who got this loan?! (laughs)What are you talking about? Like, who are these people? Like are we these people?" and we've been it the whole time, honestly.
KAYTE YOUNG: And the home of their own isn't their only dream. They're hoping for community involvement and have already had a group out on the land planting fruit and nut trees. They want the farm to become a healing retreat space. Remember Brett is a massage therapist and Lauren is a yoga instructor, and they have a passion for medicinal foods and herbs. Lauren is also thinking about what it means to be a black woman owning farm land, in light of the history of racial discrimination that has pushed so many black families off the land.
LAUREN MCALLISTER: And the way that Jasper is gonna grow up as a black boy, his interaction with land and nature and farm is also important to me. So it's all wrapped together because we are an interracial couple, we're in a mixed family.
KAYTE YOUNG: They're looking into what it means to commit the land to a trust of some kind, to preserve their long term vision for generations to come.
I said this would be a three part series, about Three Flock Farm, Lauren and Brett's journey to their own farm, on their own land... and we made it to that part. But I'm curious about the project going forward, even since this last interview as recorded, what does it take to get their products to market? Will one of them have the chance to work full-time on the farm? Or will the both keep their off farm jobs?
(ambient, spacious music)
So look for another check-in here on Earth Eats sometime in the near future. That is all we have time for today. Check the website for a photo of Lauren, Brett and Jasper and a Finder, the baby lamb. That's at EarthEats.org.
(Earth Eats theme music)
RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, the IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Lauren McAllister, Brett Volpp, Kathleen Walters and Jasper.
Production support comes from: Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838. Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent with Personal Financial Services. Assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over fifteen years. More at PersonalFinancialServices.net. And Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at GriffyCreek.Studio.