Farmer Jeremiah “Jerry” Cunningham’s neighbors are talking. Not just because his ponds fill and drain better than theirs, or because he can walk across his field without mud clumping on his boots. It’s his compost tea. Woody Tasch caught up with Jerry a few weeks back to talk about his farm and organic feed mill operation and to find out what’s behind Jerry’s claim to have the “world’s best eggs.”
Woody: Eliot Coleman says, “Feed the soil, not the plants.” Care to elaborate?
Jerry: The heart of our conversation is about the soil. With my protozoa and my nematodes, I have what I call my micro-herd. I have got earthworms and dung beetles and micro-arthropods and all sorts of teeming life that takes decay and – up and turns it right back into life. That is what Mother Nature does. Those little critters create 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year, and depending on the crop, my micro-herd can produce 150 to 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre. We talk about nutrients and labels, about this and that and the other, and nobody pays attention to the soil. When I first moved to the farm, I would walk out across the pasture after a rain and my feet would weigh 60 pounds. When you have healthy soil, you can walk across my pasture and your feet don’t get clogged up with mud because the soil is flocculated. That is what the microorganisms will do. Rain doesn’t run off or pool; it goes deep into the earth and into the habitats of the soil biology.
Woody: How did you get your soil to be so … what did you say … so flocculated? I have always wanted to ask somebody that question.
Jerry: Yes, flocculated. My soil is so well flocculated that it is like a thatched roof. It allows a clump of my silver-tipped bluestem grass to have as much as 25 miles of root system, and for every 25 miles of root system, it probably has 50 miles of mycelia or fungi that bring nutrients to that grass. I feed the microorganisms compost tea, which I learned how to make when I studied with Elaine Ingham from the University of Oregon, and now scientific director at Rodale Institute. She built on the work of Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic farming, from the U.K. I have two 250-gallon tanks in a special barn called the Tea Barn. I pull out the protozoa and the fungi, all of the biology out of the compost into a solution, just like making tea, then spray that all over my pasture. I did that four times a year for seven years, believing that was the way to a healthy farm, and it was. Now we only have to spray compost tea every other year.
Woody: You mentioned that your neighbor’s pond dries out about six weeks before yours does. So, if I am one of your neighbors and I am noticing that my pond is drying out a lot faster than your pond, isn’t that going to shift my thinking a little bit?
Jerry: The neighbors across the street are hard-core. They haul my cattle for me. To them, I am that guy that does all that “natural stuff.” I am the rebel in the middle of the Texas prairie. But my neighbors that drive over to buy the feed that I make on this farm tend to say “Hallelujah” when they see what I do here.
Woody: What would you consider to be the most important metrics of a healthy farm?
Jerry: One metric is nutrition. Consider the micronutrients in what you are producing. My eggs cost $5.99 a dozen, while another farmer’s dozen eggs costs $3.95, but my eggs offer three times the nutritional value.
Woody: Who tested them and what did they test for?
Jerry: The lab I use is called Eurofins. They test levels of unsaturated fatty acids, micronutrients, protein, and fat and carbohydrates, but then also for the lutein, the vitamin E. My eggs have one-third less cholesterol than most eggs. I have the numbers to prove that. It’s hard to explain the difference in quality, but once you eat them, well then, there you go.
Woody: That is another category of testing. It’s called taste. Earlier you also said a thousand square feet per year per hen. That’s another metric.
Jerry: Also, multispecies of animals. Mother Nature does not farm without animals. So I have got sheep. I have got cows. I have got chickens. The animals spread nitrogen wall to wall. When a cow poops, or a sheep poops, and the chicken poops, they are returning 75 percent of the nutrients back to the soil, and mostly in the form of nitrogen, which feeds the protozoa and nematodes, which makes more nitrogen. I like to remind people that a protozoa, a one-cell little animal that eats bacteria and poops nitrogen, has 30 parts of carbon and one part of nitrogen in its one little cell just the same as you and I have, because then you realize you are not removed from the soil whatsoever. You are an integral part of the soil and it of you.
Woody: All right, Jerry. Let’s zoom out from the soil to the regional foodshed and talk for a couple of minutes about the role of Coyote Creek.
Jerry: Coyote Creek is a 90-acre farm and has the only organic feed mill from Texas and the only one in the Southeastern U.S. from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean. Young people come here by the droves to see what we are doing. They are repopulating rural America and they come here to this farm and they learn to gather eggs and to shovel shit and to be a farmer. For the feed mill operation, we purchase organic grains from 2,000 acres grown in soil that does not have the privilege of having Monsanto’s chemicals on it. And then on the other side of the food chain, after it goes through the feed mill, we’ve got 200 to 250 families who earn all or part of their income selling eggs from chickens that eat the grain from my feed mill. Those families are vital to the food chain. Right now we are shipping to 10 states, from Texas all the way into Florida, up to Colorado and Oklahoma and Kansas. We are now planning to develop another regional mill in Georgia.
Woody: How do you define a “region” for a feed mill?
Jerry: We’ll have enough customers within a 200-mile radius to make our mill successful and prosperous and a valuable asset. Things scale to human needs, human abilities. The Georgia mill will have 10 or 12 employees. It will multiply the dollars put into the community. Every dollar spent on the local economy ripples seven times. Particularly in rural communities like the one in which I live, people are loyal to their little town.
Woody: That brings us to the money part. Let’s talk a little bit about the financing of your operation.
Jerry: I built my beginning mill in 2006 with a $250,000 loan from a true angel investor from Austin, I also put in about $150,000 of my own cash. Then I built a little mill that I could go turn on a few switches and feed my chickens. That is how I started. And then the woman across the road heard what I was doing and she came over and I made her feed and so forth. Today that feed mill up there has got about $1.5 million worth of equipment, and this year we will sell about $2.5 million worth of feed.
Woody: How much of your financing, the total financing to date, has come through Slow Money?
Jerry: There is about $225,000 invested from Slow Money angel investors without an intermediary, and then there is funding from RSF Social Finance, who I think of as Slow Money’s first cousin. To develop the Georgia mill, we are putting together financing from Slow Money members, RSF, the USDA and a commercial bank in Atlanta. The exposure we got at the Slow Money national gathering in Vermont in 2010 was critical to putting these pieces in place.
Woody: Why couldn’t you raise all of this money in Austin?
Jerry: I think the kind of financing we are talking about through Slow Money is incremental and comes in from a very wide range of people. Slow Money is a network that covers coast-to-coast, top to bottom, and it is bringing out the best in people. It is bringing out the altruism that needs to be expressed and wants to be expressed, and this is one of the delights of the people I meet at Slow Money events. It makes my heart glad.
Woody: Now, that’s a metric. Make that two.
More about Coyote Creek Farm and Feed Mill
Coyote Creek Farm lies seventeen miles east of Austin, Texas, and was founded by Jeremiah Cunningham in 2000. The feed mill was added in 2005. The farm is host to pasture-raised chickens, grass-fed beef, and the first commercial organic feed mill in the state of Texas, distributing organic feed formulations for all farm animals to farmers throughout a 10-state area. Cunningham’s vision is to revitalize rural middle-class family farms by teaching efficient and effective farming practices. Coyote Creek Farm’s values include long-term sustainability, slow growth, support for local agricultural communities, and limits on carbon footprint. Find out more about the farm.