Farmer Jack :: the interview
Life is funny. For the last, oh, year or so, I had wanted to reach out to Sarah Moran to tell her how much I appreciate her writing. A couple of weeks ago, I woke up thinking, “Must…email…Sarah” and dropped her a few lines. Minutes later, my phone rings. She and I proceed to chat each other up, wherein she shares that her brother, Jack McCann, and wife Betsy recently started True Cost Farm in Montrose, MN.
What? A sustainable farm near the Twin Cities that I hadn’t heard of? I had to know about these people. Come to find out, Jack knew about me from my Mix magazine articles. A Facebook connection, plug to some friends about his farm, and several emails later, Jack and I scheduled this interview.
When I left Food Alliance Midwest last fall, I kind of curled up in the fetal position, as having a strong connection to our vibrant sustainable ag community is so important to me. Yes, my husband and I purchase as much food as possible from local farmers (thanks, Twin Cities co-ops), and I’ll be working on our organic CSA farm one day a week this growing season, but talking with the outliers who buck conventional farming methods really flips my switch.
With that, folks, my very first blog post is not about eating your asparagus or curbing those insane sugar cravings. It’s about farming. Farming the way it’s meant to be done. Farming by people who give a s**t about real food.
JG: What was your line of work before becoming a farmer?
JM: I’m a college dropout who ended up building two internet technology (IT) consulting firms, one of which sold to the spin off of Geek Squad. I was a business process management consultant for heavy industries like power plants and oil refineries. I wasn’t an expert in these fields; I was the guy who taught people how to communicate in group settings, who got people to open up. I would then take their designs to the IT team to bring the designs to fruition, with the goal of creating the designers’ utopia.
JG: Are you a generational farmer?
JM: No. I would say I’m a generational entrepreneur.
JG: Why the interest in farming?
JM: I was really the one with the crazy idea; Betsy was the counter-balance. We really pushed the envelope for what was realistic in starting this farm. Food is a really big deal to us, as we love to cook and always wanted the best stuff. We were totally driven by creating food the way it was meant to taste. That was the trap (laughs). We wanted to make it easier for people to get great food because for the most part, you can’t just go out and buy it.
Betsy and I had done some gardening, but we never had animals until we bought this farm in 2009. In October of that year, she was greeted on her birthday with 30 baby chicks. Then in January of 2010, we bought five sheep.
I’m from Minnesota, and we were living in the outskirts of Chicago before moving back here. Betsy is a music teacher with a unique approach, and unfortunately, rural areas don’t often have great music programs. But the path always leads you where you need to go if you listen, and she found a school here that is a perfect fit. We now own 23 acres in Montrose and 63 acres on the edge of Watertown.
JG: How did you learn to farm?
JM: We started by visiting farms in Illinois to learn the difference between real and fake food. I would read chicken house books from the 1920’s. We had really high standards and we just started interviewing farmers. It was a little awkward at times. We disagreed with some of their production methods simply based on our intuition. Some of their birds looked pretty sickly.
We found crazy people on the internet and read books by even crazier people. We learned by doing and by others’ mistakes. We are willing to make mistakes. And we just got pickier and pickier. We haven’t really found anyone who is doing what we’re doing.
JG: What are the greatest rewards you receive in farming sustainably?
JM: Wow, so many things. I love watching how sustainable farming improves farming as a whole, the positive feedback loop. For example, with animals running around, grass grows fast and green and the soil thanks us for allowing them to run. With sustainable farming, you can produce more every year; next year will be even better. With conventional farming, there is a negative feedback loop whereby you have to increase what you’re doing to continue to maintain the same production.
It’s so rewarding to watch our animals. They run up to us; they’re so happy to see us. Like, “Are you gonna pet me? Give me new grass?” It’s so humbling to provide food for someone else. I like to think about how each of our animals represents one less that’s subjected to confinement.
JG: Do you think that sustainable farming is “modern” farming?
JM: Some think they’re doing it the way it used to be done. In the 40’s and 50’s, farmers really didn’t know how to manage the volume required or how to manage a factory. This was really the onset of the factorized farm vs. pasture-based farming; factorization was an attempt to make things convenient for the farmer. But there was no structure. They didn’t know what to do with all the manure, for instance.
Back then, we had trucks running around delivering raw milk from poorly managed farms and people got sick. The government overreacted, claiming that “unpasteurized is unsafe” and subsequently ran public service announcements that stated that breast milk was unsafe because it’s unpasteurized. Hence, mothers feeding formula.
We’re now using methods not employed in the 40’s and 50’s, new technology that actively manages livestock to mimic nature, such as electrical fencing. The animals don’t stay put like they do with conventional farming. We’re managing them on a microscale, sectioning off areas and keeping them off of stagnant ground. We also know our customers; we have a personal, vested interest in making the safest and the best possible product. We’re not just selling to the guy who picks the stuff up so that we can go back to the business of managing the chaos.
JG: Do you think that sustainable farming can feed the world?
JM: We better hope so. We better make it happen. Conventional farming is unsustainable, plain and simple. The public just doesn’t realize that at the rate we’re going, farming will come to an end. The vast amount of inputs needed for conventional farming are byproducts of chemical warfare and we’re foolish to believe that this can feed the world. It’s been shown that third world countries’ yields decrease when introduced to American farming methods; they then become dependant upon aid and we become more dependent on foreign oil. Their yields increase when introduced to modern organic farming.
Organic/sustainable production yields more food per acre. When you don’t have a monoculture, which conventional farming is largely based on, you can grow more food. We have to move in this direction or we’re going to destroy our economy. But the numbers that prove this stay well-hidden.
JG: Farming is tough, physical work. Do you love your work so much that you don’t really stop to question all of the hard labor?
JM: (Laughs) It’s awesome. Very tranquil. Yes, the hay bales are 40 – 50 lbs, but I get to haul them in the glowing sun and a sheep will follow me. It’s so relaxing. The hard work is the mental work, the innovation. How can we manage the animals and let them be the best they can be? Moving things and digging holes is easy.
JG: Is it difficult not to fall in love with your animals?
JM: You do fall in love with them. And the flocks. The individual animals definitely have their personalities. We have a male sheep who we’ve named Strategery because he acts like a puppy. He’d be in the freezer if not for his personality.
It’s very difficult to process animals. It’s also very moving, grounding, and connecting. It’s a big deal for us to take a life and to say, “Thank you. We’ll enjoy you for dinner.” The animal gave its life for us to live. Betsy says thank you to every chicken. But you have to be a realist. If we didn’t process them, the flock would become overrun and ill. It would be bad for the species and the flock.
JG: What can your customers expect in terms of taste/flavor?
JM: It’s hard to describe in words. (Pauses) Our chicken tastes like…chicken. It tastes like chicken is supposed to taste. The stuff in most stores tastes like butane or bullion. Our chicken has a deep, robust, buttery flavor. But no one knows what butter tastes like either (laughs). If they buy PastureLand 100% grassfed butter, then maybe they might know. We can prepare plain chicken over potatoes with a little salt, and it tastes like you’ve put globs of butter on top. That’s what our chicken tastes like. We produce the best chicken we’ve ever had.
[Betsy and her butter…]
What a lot of people don’t understand is that there are more taste components in steak than red wine, but no one is talking about the breed, the vintage, or what the weather was like for that cow. Most steak is bland and tasteless. Most people think it’s supposed to taste like A1.
JG: What would you like your legacy to be? What would you like to leave behind?
JM: I have some crazy ideas that might be better for a different conversation. We’d like to create a True Cost Farm chicken breed, for example. There is a shortage of genetics, especially for birds. Factory animals are lazy; they are bred to become fat with the least amount of food. Everything nowadays is about production, not taste or health. We don’t want to breed couch potatoes. We want them to be active and efficient and to forage for their own food.
We’d really like to introduce people to real food that’s wholesome, delicious, and filling. We want to show people what they’ve been missing out on. We’re voices in a growing chorus. This is the way of the future; providing for the next generation is the only option.
JG: Anything else you would like to share? Any new avenues to explore with your farm?
JM: We’re moving toward reducing our grain inputs. We’d also like to introduce duck, quail, and geese. This is our first year of production and you can only experiment with so many things at once before you go crazy…or crazier.
Welcome Jill to blogging and
Welcome Jill to blogging and welcome Jack &Betsy to farming! Great read.
The comment about processing
The comment about processing animals was moving. Knowing where your food comes from gives you so much more of opportunity to say thank you, than if it came from a factory.
Thank you for not accepting
Thank you for not accepting how it's "always been done," and for applying the mental energy to making it better. It takes a special couple to resist so many "norms." Then again - a couple who starts as music teacher and computer entrepreneur, grown in the 'burbs, who want to take on a life of sustainable, no-excuses-we're-doing-this-right FARMING - that is a remarkable story on its own.