Despite a growing consumer market for local crops and livestock, the American food system exacerbates devastating agricultural practices that put short-term gains over long-term investments. The few small-to-mid-sized farms that manage to break into organic, regional, or Animal Welfare Approved food production are growing the potential to create a more climate-resilient food system. However, with food production controlled by commodity crops, multinational corporations, and larger, more concentrated farm operations, our food system is becoming less resilient and more vulnerable to global supply chain issues.
At Central Grazing Company, we work within the food system to create more resilient supply chains, equitable distribution models, and ethical and regenerative ways of raising animals. One of our partners in this work is Wendy Johnson, owner, and operator of Jóia Food Farm and a supplier to Central Grazing Company. Wendy shares, “I am a farmer, land steward, grazier, and agricultural entrepreneur. I own and operate Jóia Food Farm, a diverse livestock and organic grain farm located in the heart of Iowa's flat corn and soybean land. Little else is grown here, and it is very clear how extractive corn and soybean production is to the land and rural communities. Rural communities today aren’t thriving — they’re dying. To understand why we have to look at agriculture.”
So, let’s take a look! We spoke with Wendy to learn how organic regional production can transform our food system and mitigate climate change.
Introduce us to Jóia Food Farm.
I started farming to be part of changing agriculture from an extractive industry to a regenerative one. Jóia Food Farm was created to grow and raise nutrient-dense food for people locally and regionally. It was also created to show that different models of agriculture are financially viable and build community, soil health, and ecosystem resilience. We sell meat and eggs directly to local consumers. We also supply local businesses and produce plush sleeping products from our wool, such as pillows, comforters, and mattress toppers.
Jóia Food Farm began in 2015 when I took over a 130-acre farm and learned how to make it organic. I learned how animals on the land are a necessity and serve as the basic building blocks of building resilience. From there, I dedicated myself to returning this land to its perennial state of prairie and riparian trees while grazing and making a viable income.
Our organic cropping system has two to three years of forage between row crops to break pest cycles and add fertility back to the soil. We would graze those two to three years, so some parts of the farm I decided to keep in forage in perpetuity, not tilling it under for organic corn and soybeans — even though that would make more money. But the long-term effects of perennial grazing outweigh the short-term profits because now the land is teeming with grassland birds, insects, pollinators, amphibians, ground-nesting birds, and all sorts of wildlife. The farm is more abundant and rich than the fossil fuels required to grow conventional or organic corn and soybeans. It’s diverse and bursting with life. To me, that is true wealth.
Today, we have one last section of the farm that is transitioning to organic, and we are using small grains—specifically Kernza (a perennial grain crop developed by The Land Institute of Kansas)—to achieve that goal. Kernza can be harvested for grain and grazed in the same year, and it is perennial wheatgrass with the potential of three years’ worth of harvests. Its root systems are massive, mimicking those of prairie roots. It is a perfect crop that fits our rotation to a perennial system and provides real food to people and animals.
How has your farming model created market opportunities for you and others?
I learned early on as a farmer that specialty crops and livestock help drive the markets to you. The commodity system is volatile, and it’s easy to succumb to worldwide issues as a farmer. For example, the war in Ukraine caused soybean and corn prices to skyrocket, increasing fertilizer and fuel prices. This system robs farmers of sovereignty and leaves them with no control. When I transitioned to organic, buyers came to me asking what I wanted for my organic corn and soybeans and offered to pay for transportation.
When I certified my livestock as Animal Welfare Approved, Central Grazing Company came to me to ask if they could purchase our lamb. Despite our infrastructure being built specifically for corn and soybeans, so much energy is underfoot for something different.
What are some of the main changes needed in agriculture and our food system? How is your farm an example of this change in action?
Building a resilient food system requires diversity in farmers and small businesses that are adding value to the food grown in that community. This means we need more affordable land and farming to be more viable as an occupation. The only way to get into farming is generational, which isn’t sustainable.
The disproportionate number of farmers that have inherited the profession means a disproportionate representation of white farm owners. Farming can be an industry that celebrates and supports the diversity required to make food systems resilient. For this to happen, we need more Main Street businesses like bakeries, delis, slow food restaurants, fast food places, juice bars, broth bars, breweries, and locally crafted artisan goods shops. We need more diversified distribution outlets to support more diversified farming models.
Tying food production in with local and regional businesses can also help shorten the supply chain and create opportunities for additional periphery businesses, like processing and value-added facilities and enterprises. The possibilities are endless.
We also have to change how we think about investing in agriculture. Farmers are often pushed by bankers to make payments, but growing regenerative food systems require longer-term investments. Our financial sector's push for short-term gains makes it riskier for farmers who want to produce sustainable food. Everyone, including farmers, in a more diversified and sustainable food system, needs aligned sources of capital for the long term and to see the holistic goals.
What should consumers be asking of producers, and what do you as a producer need consumers to understand?
Ease and efficiency are consumer needs that are never going to go away. People will not suddenly start shopping at farmers' markets in droves. I think the question should be more turned to businesses: How do we send our message to consumers? How are our products mitigating climate change? From packaging to delivery to on-farm practices. How are our products increasing animal welfare? How are our products building resilient communities? How are our products supporting diversity? How are our products supporting diverse ecosystems?
Farmers are innovators and can help drive the consumer narrative if given the opportunity. If we get to the heart of what we see on regenerative farms and share that story, that is worth our investment.
How strong is the local, regional food system where you operate? What is happening around you that could be part of a larger food movement?
The closer we realize that climate change will damage us as a human race, the faster we can begin mitigating and making the changes required to become more resilient. I’m excited and ready to release a wide swath of energy and momentum to fuel broader food system change. Some are top-down, and some are bottom-up, and both approaches are needed. We are at a breaking point, and change is inevitable.