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Banking on KC – Jonathan Kemmerer

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon, thank you for joining us.

Kelly Scanlon:

With us on this episode is Jonathan Kemmerer, the founder of Odd Bird Farm, which is located just North of Western Missouri. And on that farm, he's not only reviving a 5,000 year old pig breed, he's also changing the way animals are treated, and the way people are eating.

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome, Jonathan.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Hey, thank you. It's good to be invited on this program.

Kelly Scanlon:

Odd Bird Farm, I love the name. I can't wait to hear the story behind it. Also, tell us how it reflects what you do.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Well, the name came just from the impression we felt we were giving our neighbors. When I got those pigs, I don't know that my neighbors were aware that I had them because I didn't have very many. If you've ever seen meishan pigs, they're really strange looking. They've got these really scrunchy faces, and big floppy ears, and they're almost alien looking. I had one that got out and ran into my neighbor's yard, and she let out the most awful scream I'd ever heard. She was looking from her window and was like, "Oh my God, that's a pig!" She didn't even realize what kind of animal it was.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

So I ran over, and I apologized, and I'm trying to get this back onto my farm. You know, it's over 200 pounds, and I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to do this. I remember someone telling me that all their strength was in their back legs, so I grabbed up her back legs and walked her home like a wheelbarrow, back onto my farm.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

And then another came by, he was an older farmer. I was putting up fence and he looks around and goes, "What are you doing here?" I looked back, and I've got these strange looking pigs that are sitting down in the ragweed under the shade of a trampoline, because we repurpose trampolines as shade structures. It just occurred to me that what I was doing was very unconventional, and very different from what people were used to, in terms of normal agricultural production.

Kelly Scanlon:

And hence, the name Odd Bird Farm. I love it. Tell us a little bit about some of those sustainable practices, and your recycling efforts.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah. We try and buy everything used that we can. We've built all of the shelters and the shade structures out of repurposed items. We source a lot of byproducts, so brews grain from Crane Brewing Company, we get the wheat grain from Ibis, that is a product of their flour production. Certain times of the year, we'll get unsold pumpkins from pumpkin patches, and all the pomace from the cider production at Weston Orchard. But, sustainable feeding is a big thing for us, because a lot of the concern with the way things work in the commercial world is that pigs and chickens are basically raised on just corn and soy, and the production of both of those, even sometimes when it's organic, is not very sustainable. So we're really try and limit the amount of corn and soy that we feed.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

We grow a lot of their feed on the farm, actually the majority of it now. We feed a lot of alfalfa during the growing season, and then we have them, basically, roaming in mix-planted corn fields during the wintertime. So I think probably one of the stranger things that I do is I actually feed my pigs with a riding lawnmower.

Kelly Scanlon:

A riding lawnmower?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Alfalfa's really hard to feed the pigs. It's better fed if it's fresh, but the thing is, it's a perennial. If you put pigs out on an alfalfa field, they'll dig up and eat the roots, and then it doesn't come back. We see alfalfa grow two feet high, probably five times a year, and it should do that for several years, but it won't if you put the pigs on it.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

So I have this home riding lawnmower, it's called a DR Lawn Vac. It's essentially for people that have older trees, or a couple acres, and want to mulch all their leaves in the fall. By using this, I can mow up about 1000 pounds of alfalfa in about an hour, and dump it into the loader of the tractor, and drop that into their pen.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have about 20 acres that are dedicated to the forage crops that you grow, and you also have a small vineyard on the property as I understand it.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

The vineyard is probably more of a hobby thing, I only have about 100 vines. But, I'd previously been a vineyard manager over at [Loch 00:04:24] Vineyards, I worked at Tannin Wine Bar for a long time, and I spent a little bit of time in France following winemakers, so that's definitely a huge interest.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

And also, grape vines ... It's really difficult to get into, but when you're managing land with the mentality of managing an ecosystem, it's good to have some really deep rooted plants to hold the soil in certain places, so that you don't have any issues with erosion, so that you can capture more of the rainfall in a given year. We're starting to see really strange weather patterns, where we'll have a drought for three weeks, and then all of that rain comes at once. It's really helpful to be able to retain what moisture you're getting.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah, we have a little over 20 acres, I think, planted to forage crops. The way that looks is about a quarter of it is what gets us through over half the year because we use such a rapidly growing, high quality food like alfalfa. And then, the rest of it is what a lot of people refer to as a stockpile, because in the wintertime things don't grow.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

So the three quarters of it that is our stockpile is a landrace maize that we're developing. Basically, a really interesting hybrid of corn. Even that, we're growing in a very strange way. We plant at about 75 inch rows. Commercial corn tends to be grown at anywhere from 30 to 38. So by planting it at wide rows, I can get the tractor down the middle of it, and that means I can mow down the weeds and I don't have to use herbicide or towage equipment. It's just better management of the soil.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

And then, the other advantage to that is that now that we're getting into August, September, and the corn isn't really growing anymore, and doesn't need as much nutritional value, I can go in and plant winter cover crop. So things like canola, and [inaudible 00:06:12], and winter peas, things that will continue growing through October, November. And then, not frost kill through the wintertime. So that when we turn the pigs out in the winter, we have all of that corn that we grow through during the summer, and all of the winter cover crops that were planted in between it in the fall. That just allows us to more effectively have a more nutrient dense area for the pigs to graze on.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about the pigs. They are a 5000 year old breed that comes from China. From what I understand, you have the second most genetically diverse herd in the world, outside of China, right up there on your farm north of Weston. Tell us about that.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah. I'd always been really interested in raising heritage breeds, and I came across this particular breed and was just sold right away on it because I felt that they had traits that were more suited to this type of management. I think the big ones for me is that they have larger stomachs than commercial pigs and other European breeds, and so that allows them to eat more rough, leafy stuff in their diet, and to digest it better than other pigs. They have a lot larger litters than commercial pigs or other heritage breeds, and that really radically changes the economics of having a breeding program on the farm, which is something a lot of small farmers don't do anymore.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

That's a big deal to me, because you can't really separate environment from the animal, in terms of a breeding program. If they're bred to thrive in an enclosed space, with an entirely corn free diet, medicated when they're sick, they're not going to thrive in this environment. So by doing the breeding on the farm and doing our own selections, we can essentially adapt the genetics of the pigs to our system and management.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

What's really interesting about meishans is that they're better suited for this. They're really just a huge anomaly in the world of heritage pigs, because they are exceptionally rare, but there's still an enormous amount of diversity for how rare they are. So if you compare that to a mulefoot pig, mulefoot's a breed that is also critically endangered. They thought it was extinct, and they found a herd on some small farm in Missouri. So what that means is that every mulefoot pig [inaudible 00:08:37] from the same herd. Whereas with meishans, the guy who preserved the breed was able to track down and get pigs from each of the three research facilities where they were held. Because they were held in research facilities, three different ones in the United States, for 30 years before anyone in the public were able to obtain them. So what you had was 30 years of genetic drift, where these animals from the three different facilities are just radically different from one another, genetically. They even had different genetic lines within the research facilities.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

It's just so uncommon to discover a breed so rare, and yet have so much diversity, and not have it be genetically bottle necked. It's also a huge advantage for a breeder because, for example, I have a boy that looks like a bulldog, and another that looks like a tall Great Dane, just tall and lanky. So by having all these different traits and variances, it allows you to better select and preserve the genetics that you want. That's just something you don't really see in agriculture.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

As well, they're a 5000 year old breed, so they were selectively bred longer to be raised in a more natural environment. And then, having spent the last 30 years in a research facility, they didn't go down the path that a lot of other heritage breeds did, where essentially they were just on a dirt lot, fed corn and soy, and selected in that manner. Even a lot of heritage breeds that are supposed to be heartier and better foragers, they've been put on this for the last 30 years that make them much more similar to a commercial breed.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah, meishans are just an incredible anomaly in this way.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about how the way they're fed, their genetic diversity, and the way they're raised impacts the meat itself.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah. The big difference is it's a different muscle type, or a different tissue type. What's really cool about the meishans is that, because they were in these research facilities for 30 years, even though I couldn't find an account from other farmers who had raised them, there was just an incredible amount of university research on everything from their reproductive abilities, to their docility and temperament, to the type of meat that they create. Because they're a slower growth breed, they tends towards the tissue type that is redder, that is finer, more tender, retains moisture better, better marbling. The setback is that they grow a lot slower.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

The industry has been really focused on efficiency and quick growth, but it produces a pork that's tougher, less flavorful, whiter in color, and all of these things. I guess, that's what really stuck out with the meishans to me is that, typically if you're feeding a pig twice as long, that's twice as expensive feed costs, and that's a burden to get over when you're creating a business plan. But, if you have a pig that you can feed more cheaply for twice as long, and at the end of 12 months, the feed costs are even lower than a commercial pig, enough to make up for the extra labor, holding costs you need, and all those things, that really changes the structure of the business in terms of raising heritage breed pigs.

Kelly Scanlon:

Speaking about your business, you had a model, prior to COVID, where you were selling the meat to restaurants, and it was on a lot of restaurant menus across the metro area. But, COVID changed that. How did you have to change your business model to adapt to that situation?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Well, I think a lot of the work was done upfront. I wasn't expecting to be tested so hard so quick, but that was a lot of the reason I structured the business in the way that I have. I think when you compare us to all the commercial producers who are having to euthanize pigs, all the facilities shutting down, it shows the value of producing food in this way.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Like the commercial producers, we lost 100% of our business, basically overnight. We were selling entirely to restaurants, we were talking to a distributor who was going to distribute our pork production for us, and then overnight all that was gone. We essentially had to regroup and find a new market. Well, when you're only raising 160 a year, that's easier to do than when you're raising 10,000 pigs a year. That's why the farm was at that scale, was if they didn't really have other options.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

So in order to do this, it's a little tricky. That's part of the reason why we source so much of the food for ourselves, that's why we don't build enormous facilities to raise the animals in. By limiting our overhead costs we increase our margins, and then we don't have to raise quite as many pigs, and that makes us much more resilient as a business.

Kelly Scanlon:

Besides restaurants that you were selling to prior to COVID, how are you getting the word out about Odd Bird Farm? Not just the farm, but about sustainable farming, in general.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Well, a couple ways. It helps that we're at a farmer's market. Now that I've fallen into this, it's a model that I really like because we get to see our customers every week, and talk to them face-to-face. That, to me, is the best way for a small farm to get the message out. If you try and get into a grocery store, you're just a label in a sea of labels, and it's a lot harder to draw attention to yourself.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Another way is that we collaborate with a lot of local businesses. We take the grains from [inaudible 00:14:09]. It was there that I met Chad Tillman, who was at Freshwater at the time, and that's where I got into that restaurant. We just recently did a collaboration with Wiener Wagon, who's one of the vendors at the Overland Park farmers market, where they hand out a bunch of pork. They made some really cool bacon, apple, kale sausages out of it, and we sold it off the grill, and we're selling it frozen this Saturday. It's also networking. There's a lot of people doing really cool things with food in the Kansas City area, so working with restaurants and other vendors, and other smaller companies, is a good way of sharing your audience with them, and theirs with yours.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of your most popular cuts of meat?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Bacon, for sure. We just can't keep it in stock. I think we sold through eight pigs worth of bacon in three farmers market days. So it depends on what the people want to do with it, bacon's a very popular item.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Personally, I really like the shoulder a lot. The shoulder roast has definitely been getting some popularity, especially with people that want to do barbecue or pulled pork. It's a cut that's really well marbled, it's really some of the darker red meat. We also make what's called cottage bacon, which is known as back bacon in [inaudible 00:15:25], and it's essentially you're making bacon out of the top part of the shoulder. It's a lot more meaty, and lean, but it still has some really great marbling to it.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sustainable agriculture is really driving a lot of agricultural innovation. Talk to us about that.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah. I mean, farmers have always been really frugal. My grandpa used to keep two sheds full of junk, just in case he needed to build something. I think that's something farmers have been doing for a long time. But yet, at the same time we're not too old school. We use solar powered fence chargers to graze the pigs. The mower system that I described is a relatively new thing.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

I guess the reason there's so much innovation is there's just so much opportunity for it. There's all these older techniques of raising animals that have been forgotten about. A lot of me building this farm was actually going back and reading old farm manuals, and guides to raising pigs, some as far back as the 1880s. And then, understanding that we live in a very hyper-productive, dynamic economy, and that as a result, there is a lot of waste, and there is a lot of products that can be repurposed in order to make these techniques work in a way that is even more efficient than they used to be.

Kelly Scanlon:

How has the Kansas City area, maybe the Midwest region if you want to go out a little bit further, is it leading the way in these kinds of innovations? Is a lot of that centered here?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

I think there's definitely a lot more opportunity for it here, just because we've been doing a lot of agriculture here for a long time so there's good land. Even the ability to get equipment. I was talking to a farmer in Connecticut, and he was saying he was having an impossible time just buying a tractor. I've pulled old discs off of farms that weren't using them anymore. If you want to get grain bins or feeders for animals, just the marketplace for used farm equipment in this area is radically different than other places in the United States. That, I think, does lend a little more opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

How do sustainable agricultural practices, like you're using and promoting at Odd Bird Farm, how are they playing a role in eradicating hunger? You know, a much bigger, global problem. The reason I ask that is that some people would say that what you're able to produce, your yields are much lower, so you're not going to be able to reach enough people in order to "feed the world." And that corporate farming, and it's mass production, and it's mass distribution systems are the answer to that. How do you respond to that?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Well, that is a very complicated issue, and it's a little bit difficult to talk about when you're talk about meat because it's, in all reality, not necessary. If we are going to feed more people, producing more meat probably is not the way to do it. [inaudible 00:18:38] we're producing meat.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

But, there's a lot of other issues with that. We're using up water in aquifers faster than we can replace it, and we're losing a lot of top soil ever year from the way that we're managing farms. Is this shortsighted? We're producing more now, but if we keep doing these things, are we still going to be able to producing at that level?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

There's also considerations as well. One of the things we're looking into is comparing our pork fat, because other research that shown that pigs raised in the way that we do, with less soy and a lot more green in their diet, that their Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is radically different, they're much lower in saturated fat. It's just a much healthier product. We just lost a lot of the nutritional density that food used to have, and we're actually coming onto a problem where we have non-nutrition and obesity and the same population, and I mean in the same individuals. You have people who are consuming far more calories than they need, and still aren't getting certain vitamins, and minerals, and nutrition they need. I'm just not sure that that's a better way of feeding people.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

As we develop sustainable agriculture a little more, there is research showing that mid-size integrated organic farms can produce as much per acre as some of the best commercial farms. As I alluded to with the nutrition, it's also calls into question how do we calculate that? Because if you're talking about pounds of food per acre, that's one thing. If you're talking about calories per acre, that's another. But, with how nutritionally empty a lot of the food is, if you're calculating in nutrition per acre, commercial agriculture is not doing that great.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now that you've talked all about this, I've got try some of this and I'm sure some of our listeners want to as well. How do you go about doing that?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

We're primarily just selling through the Overland Park farmer's market at the moment. If you look on our product page on the website, it can prompt you to send us a message if you're interested in meat this winter, when we're not at the farmer's market. But, we really like working at the farmers market. To me, farmers markets are just so crucial as a community asset. That was one of the goals, is to produce a really high quality, unique product that isn't available grocery stores, as a way to nudge people to make other food decisions, such as getting out to their local farmers market.

Kelly Scanlon:

What days are you there? Are you there Wednesdays and Saturdays?

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah, we're there every Wednesday and Saturday typically, unless we sell out of things.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. Wednesdays, Saturdays at the Overland Park farmers market. Also, you can go out to Odd Bird Farm, and find out more about the work that Jonathan and Molly are doing up there, just north of Weston, right here outside of Kansas City. Thanks for all you're doing, Jonathan, and good luck to you.

Jonathan Kemmerer:

Yeah, thanks for talking to me today.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you Jonathan, for sharing your entrepreneurial journey with us this week, and discussing your efforts to practice and promote sustainable agriculture through Odd Bird Farm. There's nothing odd, though, about building solid, sustainable foundations, whether for the food you eat, the businesses you lead, or the communities in which you live.

Joe Close:

As a lender, Country Club Bank understands the importance of building sustainable businesses that can stand the test of time. We cultivate relationships with business owners who sow the seeds of a great idea, weather the challenges, and reap the longterm rewards. We have a long history of banking these entrepreneurs and, together with them, building a better Kansas City. Thanks for tuning in this week, we're banking on you, Kansas city. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.