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 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.
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
||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.
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.
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
- The land would receive large amounts of organic matter.
- The compaction of the land would cease, as tractor-use would
- 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
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 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
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.