“A big topic of conversation in the last 2 days has been community building. This is how you do it. When you see the right young person, you're not afraid to invest in them.”
— Loran Steinlage, 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow, West Union, Iowa
No-Till Farmer’s 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa, looks for opportunities to build partnerships beyond the borders of his farm — and beyond the limit of when his crop leaves his field.
In this episode of the podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, Jonathan Correa, owner of La Cosecha Tortilla Company in Madison, Wis., and No-Till Legend Dave Brandt from Carroll, Ohio, join Steinlage to talk about how they’ve built a mutually beneficial partnership that benefits the health of their communities in a variety of ways.
In early February, No-Till Farmer managing editor Michaela Paukner visited Steinlage at his farm and met a host of his special guests at his house that day, including his son, Rolan, who was featured in this recent episode of the podcast.
No-Till Farmer's podcast series is brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment.
Yetter Farm Equipment has been providing farmers with residue management, fertilizer placement, and seedbed preparation solutions since 1930. Today, Yetter equipment is your answer for success in the face of ever-changing production agriculture challenges. Yetter offers a full lineup of planter attachments designed to perform in varying planting conditions, multiple options for precision fertilizer placement, strip-till units, and stalk rollers for your combine. Yetter products maximize your inputs, save you time, and deliver return on your investment. Visit them at yetterco.com.
Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment. I'm Michaela Paukner, Managing Editor at No-Till Farmer. Today's episode of the podcast is the third in our series with No-Till Farmers 2023 Conservation Ag Operator fellow Lauren Steinlage of West Union, Iowa. Jonathan Correa, owner of La Cosecha Tortilla Company in Madison, Wisconsin; and No-Till legend Dave Brandt from Carroll, Ohio join Lauren to talk about how they've built a mutually beneficial partnership that lifts the health of their communities in a variety of ways.Jonathan Correa:
So my name's Jonathan Correa and I own and operate a tortillera in Madison, Wisconsin. We process local grains and also some heirloom grains from Mexico into tortillas, tortilla chips. We recently started experimenting with doing hominy grits as well. We've been doing that for about three years. Previous to that, I have about 10 years of experience working as a cook in around the Madison area, as well as working as a farm hand for some local organic farmers and doing a little bit of vegetable production myself.Michaela Paukner:
How did you and Lauren get connected?Jonathan Correa:
Well, so-Lauren Steinlage:
Facebook ad.Jonathan Correa:
Originally I was listening to the Regenerative Agriculture podcast, and that's kind of how I discovered an interview with John Kemp did with Lauren and added him on Facebook. Then he posted some pictures of some open pollinated corn that he was growing. I just reached out to him to kind of see what he was doing with that and wanted to get connected. Right away he just invited me out here to come talk a little bit and talk about what I was doing, what he was doing. That's kind of how we got connected.Lauren Steinlage:
He wanted to learn how to grow corn.Jonathan Correa:
Yeah, I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn.Lauren Steinlage:
Then when I heard what he was capable of, it's like, no, you better focus on what you're good at. He's one of the missing links so many of us are looking for.Jonathan Correa:
And it's kind of a small world too, because when I was really young as a cook and working as a farmhand and things like that, I was trying to, one thing I was missing was learning about taking care of the soil and improving soils and things like that. Early on I started finding Dave's work and Ray Archuleta and these guys that we're talking about cover cropping and regenerative agriculture and things like that. I would say just finding your work and Ray's work and everything is what led me to finding John and what led me to finding Lauren. And so, it's pretty, pretty cool how this has all come together.Michaela Paukner:
In terms of the food that you're producing, what difference do you see by using things that you're getting from Lauren versus conventionally-grown ingredients?Jonathan Correa:
Well, the biggest thing is flavor, I would say is the biggest difference when you're working directly with farmers and working directly with people. It's fresher too. In my industry, a lot of tortillas are made with industrial corn flours known as, one is they call it Maseca or Masa harina, which is essentially masa that's been produced with industrial, more commodity corn, and then dried down into a powder that you can just add water to. So when you're doing the fresh mix nixtamalizing and fresh grinding and fresh processing, the flavor is far superior. That's what a lot of my customers say that when they try our tortillas. They're like, "Wow, this is so much better." Then, the nutrition, too. I think that that's a big thing, and one thing that I and Lauren and I have talked a little bit about is trying to better understand the nutritional aspect of things and having more concrete evidence of like, okay, this actually is legitimately more nutritious other than just being more flavorful.
Because it's interesting too, when you start to ... the different varieties can have different flavors. Some are a little sweeter, some can be a little bit more grassy, some can be more mild. It's really fun once you start trying different varieties and how, especially nixtamalization, how that can change the flavor and of things. When I get into the more creative side of things, it's really fun because then you can pair the proteins or the salsas or the other ingredients with the corn. Even texturally too, some corn, for me personally, since mostly I just work with corn, some corn varieties are better for tortillas, but that same variety might not be good for chips or tostadas or grit or polenta. Those sorts of things. So it's fun to be able to figure out those nuances and see what applications they have that are best.Michaela Paukner:
How much corn are you typically picking up at a time?Jonathan Correa:
Well, right now we're processing probably about five bushels a week, I would say. In the summertime when our restaurant customers were busier, we were doing almost, not quite double that, but almost. But again, this is just across probably five or six customers with some small retail consumers in a farmer's market and things like that. So that's kind of where we're at currently with the volume that we're going through.Michaela Paukner:
Sure. Then this question's for both of you guys, what do you think makes your relationship work?Lauren Steinlage:
I mean, just willing to think outside the box and what's the potential.Jonathan Correa:
Yeah, I think that's, and just open communication and I feel like there's, since day one, we just had this open dialogue and being willing to just challenge each other. I think Lauren sometimes pushes me a little bit more than maybe I'm ready to let go. But I like that because I need challenge.Lauren Steinlage:
A lot.Jonathan Correa:
But I like that because I think that offers up challenges and that offers up new ideas. I think that when you're willing to listen to what other people have to say and listen to their experiences, it can only improve your perspective and improve and create more opportunities. I think that for me, Lauren has done nothing but create opportunities and created new ideas. I think it's been really amazing having that open dialogue with him.Lauren Steinlage:
It's fun to sit back and watch from afar to see what he's been able to do. It hasn't been easy.Jonathan Correa:
But to see the potential, the way I used to describe it is when you see the right young person and you're not afraid to invest in them, it's fun to watch. On the same side, we've had young people that we've tried to invest in and time and effort and stuff like that, not everybody's going to work. So even on the failures there, you try to learn how can we help better moving forward. And like I said, it's fun to sit back and watch and see what he's focused on and where the potential is now.Michaela Paukner:
What is one way that he's pushed you that maybe you weren't expecting or that's helped you move forward?Jonathan Correa:
Well, I think one thing that really comes to mind immediately is just the pushing me to maybe move faster and maybe grow faster. Also just pushing me to put myself out there, more interviews like this or coming down and catering multiple days of events that he's doing and pushing me into just conversations with people in different areas that otherwise I wouldn't have the opportunity. I think that's, I mean, that's been really valuable for me.Michaela Paukner:
And then Lauren, what are you looking for when you're identifying those younger either food producers or farmers that you're wanting to mentor and help?Lauren Steinlage:
I don't know if I'd really say I'm looking for anything other than the potential. I mean, you go back to the first time he reached out, he was just asking for help. The corn was the introduction, but then when you start hearing the drive and ambition and what he wanted to do and what he was capable of doing, it's no different what we'd do with young farmers. But it's taken it to that next level. How do we connect the farmers to the food? Right here it is. If he'd be as push-able as I would hope, he'd have the factory right here at the farm. He's bucking me pretty hard on that one. He's not afraid to buck back so that's part of the yin and yang, but there's written you all. It's no different what my dad always was. My dad pushed me, and if you walk through the door, he'd help open the next door. It's my way of giving back and paying it forward. It's just as we're looking at the bigger picture, we need more of these relationships.Jonathan Correa:
One thing, if I could add to that too, it's always a good idea to take that chance because you're not always going to know if you can find these opportunities where people do believe in you. You know what I mean? Sometimes they don't work out and that's fine. But if you're not willing to take that chance, then you're not going to find those people that are willing to give you the opportunity and take a chance on you or encourage you or push you or invest in you, or just give you free access to come to their farm and pick up a bunch of corn and give you free resources and things like that. It's been really, really great. So, take those chances and someone believes in you, then you got to try to nourish that relationship.Michaela Paukner:
What would be your piece of advice to farmers as to how they can build these types of relationships with people near them locally?Jonathan Correa:
I think it's kind of similar to what I was just saying, is take those chances. Maybe do a little bit of work in your area, see what restaurants are popping up or what producers are around that are showing that they're interested in investing in their local communities and their local farmers. Then go deliver some product to the restaurant. Give them a call. Invite them out to your farm to see what you're doing, and show them that you have something unique in your back door.
Because especially in the restaurant industry and things can be moving so fast, sometimes chefs are not always thinking about that. So they're open to it, but unless somebody's coming in or someone's reaching out to them, sometimes they forget that those opportunities are out there. So sometimes if you just bring them some product or you just reach out to them, then it kind of opens that door for them to be like, "Oh, this is something that's in my area. This is something that I've never worked with before. Certain different grains and things like that, produce, anything." Just be willing to take the chance, cast a bunch of lines out there, and see what bites. Usually you're going to find something.Michaela Paukner:
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When I was talking to Lauren last week, I was telling him how much I'm kind of kicking myself in the ass for not nurturing this more over the last couple years because you just get caught up in all the small business owners, you're wearing all the hats and you've got all the things going on, and you drop balls and stuff like that. Just seeing how regardless, he's always been here, been really supportive, and my restaurant customers are great. But they've dropped the ball a lot and they're not always there and they're not always reaching out. But Lauren's always been there. And so, it's like these are the kind of relationships that I'm really learning, need to be nurtured, and need to keep working with you guys.
I mean, as somebody who has overcome my own health struggles, and when I was really young, I was really overweight and things like that and just didn't have a lot of health education. I see the gaps in our society as far as just having good food to eat and things like bread and things like tortillas and things like that, those are foundational parts of our diet and we should be eating the highest quality products that we can. How we get that is by farmers growing really amazing grain and us working together to provide higher quality products for our society.Lauren Steinlage:
A big topic of conversation the last two days has been community building. This is how you do it. You see the value in the young people as we get older, you reach out. That's when you start handing things to the younger people and hopefully they're capable of picking up the slack and build that community out instead of order it on Amazon or stuff like that. The other thing Dave and I were talking about, the whole marketing aspect. How can we help young guys like this to the next step?Jonathan Correa:
Initially, I wanted to learn about growing corn at scale because I had this very romantic idea of completely being vertically integrated myself. I was like, okay, we'll grow the corn, we'll process the corn, we'll do all that. But this is so much more powerful if we can work together. If he's growing the blue or you're growing the blue and someone's growing the yellow ... You know what I mean? Or maybe one person's growing two different colors and the grain stores pretty well. So maybe one season you're growing one color, so you have the pollination. Or if you have enough space, if you have enough land, then you can keep them separate. I mean, there's more redundancy, there's more strength in that, and we can support more farmers.Lauren Steinlage:
There's no instant overnight successes in this. Even when you do see that glimmer of hope, it takes time. Like I said, that that's just the fun part to watch now. How far that's been taken, but we're not done yet. That's why we need to keep ... We got Jonathan, we need to find the next. What else can we add to that? And with the chefs-Jonathan Correa:
Oh, that's beautiful.Lauren Steinlage:
... other chefs we're working with, that's how we're going to make them connections to find out exactly what they want. But them intimate conversations, when Jonathan sits there and tells us how the texture and all that reacts, that's how we know how to help the next customer.Dave Brandt:
On our side of it, when we were milling it and you're working with, especially in the flour industry, and you go to a bakery, and he wants his flour just so, it's surprising how long it takes to get it that way. I mean, we sent samples for two weeks to a baker in Philadelphia until we got the right size he wanted. Then we thought it had a whip, so we knew he wanted it, so we went somewhere else. Well, nope, that was two coarse for me. I want it finer.Jonathan Correa:
I've been working with a research team at UW evaluating some of the different corns that they're growing for what I do. Corn isn't just corn and corn can have great flavor, but it might not be great for a tortilla. It might not be great for a chip, it might not be great for polenta, it might not be good for anything. Those little details that you're talking about. So it's having those relationships and just testing things and working together is really important.Michaela Paukner:
Definitely. I think what you said about, oh, you had this vision for I'll be able to do all it, I think with farming too, that can distract you from the things that you're really good at.Jonathan Correa:
Yeah, absolutely. It's a good point Lauren point that out to me that I was like, "Wait, no, that's just way smarter. What was I thinking? What was I thinking?" I was moving so much slower because I was more focused on, okay, how can I grow the best corn versus focused on what I'm good at.Lauren Steinlage:
Well, and a lot of that goes back to I mentioned about us doing the flour mill. When we failed at that, we got told we were too innovative for an innovation grant, we didn't cry in our beer. We just sat back and we learned from that. That's what pushed me to head out to North Carolina and meet Russell Hedrick. Because I knew a little bit of what he was starting to do out there, so I wanted to see firsthand how he did what he did. And you quickly realize when you get to know Russell, it's about building the group around you. The whole first deal distillery, he's involved in that. It's the people he's working with. He's not trying to tackle it head on by himself.
So you take that forward and we learned from that. How are we going to build where we want to get? It's starting to look for these young guys. Like I said, I was just fortunate enough, Jonathan answered that ad that day. But quickly, let's figure out how we can help him. Go at your gut on them instances. It's not always going to be right, but hopefully trust and human nature and that guy wants to try, give him a chance and see what he can do.Michaela Paukner:
I think Russell too is a really good example of what you guys were talking about earlier with the regenerative group being more transparent and open about what they're doing instead of turning it into a competition.Lauren Steinlage:
I think, and what we're trying to do is you can't keep the secret. We have to get small manufacturers involved. I've been looking for over a year to find somebody to make tacos or corn chips for us. You call the company, well, you got to have a semi-loaded. Yeah, we'll do it if you got a semi-loaded. Then you got four semi-loads of chips. What the hell are you going to do with them? So we've always wanted to find a guy to do 200 or 300 pounds or a bushel or something. You need to have them for advertisement.
When you have field days, put it on our website so we can sell some of them. Our field day runs the same way. I mean, we feed the crop, the people that come. So we take our pigs and make bratwurst, and we got a place that has vegetables that we farm vegetables. The whole meal is from the farm. Not strictly our farm, but farmers that's around us that's doing it to advertise. We just put it up on a big screen while they're eating lunch. This came from here and addresses and stuff. That's worked really well. I mean, it's changed the way that people like to eat.Jonathan Correa:
And the flavor speaks for itself. You don't even need to do anything fancy to it. It just being super fresh.Dave Brandt:
[inaudible 00:21:01]Lauren Steinlage:
That brings forth another thing. That to me, that's the next thing we need to start working on. How do we get like-minded people all working together and then that makes the marketing easier? I mean, it's one thing for the farmers to be working together, but if we can start bringing the farmers, the doctors, the chefs, everybody together for the same goal.Dave Brandt:
There's a way there to pool funding too. I mean, if you're trying to do something and your suppliers could help you do it so you do it better or a little faster. If you want to do it faster, the advantage you have in a group that's willing to share and do things.Jonathan Correa:
And I think one thing that I was always really hesitant about, and now I'm being less hesitant about it, kind of what you're talking about, I don't think a lot of us are used to people being so generous with their time and their products or their money or anything like that. And sometimes it's a little hesitant to ask for those things or to even just express like, "Hey, this is where I'm struggling," because you're not used to that. And so, I think that I really appreciate people like you that are so generous with your time and with your knowledge and with everything to try to help people. That's really amazing.Dave Brandt:
Sometimes you don't know you need help until somebody says something. We might not be able to help, but we might know somebody that would be able to help.Lauren Steinlage:
Well, the way to bring it home on some of this is we talked about vertical integration in that a little bit. Well, that's all great as you're building your own business, but you quickly realize-Dave Brandt:
You can't do it all.Lauren Steinlage:
... you can't do it all. Quick vertical integration has got a lot of us to where we're at, and not in a positive light. It's also could be called isolation. You're isolating yourself from that community. Wind's not enough. We're good at producing crops, he's good at cooking and producing that quality product. Sounds like a pretty good match in heaven. Now, if we can find out that right pieces to bring into that puzzle, gather them little things that's going to help us build that community.Dave Brandt:
It works real well until somebody gets greedy.Lauren Steinlage:
And that's where the egos and stuff.Dave Brandt:
The egos come in. If we can keep the egos out of it, it works really well. We've done that on our place because we can't harvest 20 different varieties of something. But cleaning the common line and all that, you can't get it all done. So we have a conglomerate home that's doing red fight for us and blue corn and yellow corn. We can do it too and we do it, so if we have a problem, maybe it's got too much Vomitoxin it for you, but the other guy don't have any. You know what I mean? So that's we put a network together that's helping us and we share in the rewards. I mean, if we mill their flour and sell it, they get a higher percentage. It's almost like a co-op, but not a co-op.Jonathan Correa:
Yeah, that's awesome.Dave Brandt:
But we had to buy spills from somebody and we cleaned spills and mill them and de-burr them and make flour. We built this not knowing what was going to happen, so we bought a machine that we could find and hold on, buy it. I mean, 30-inch mill produces about 300 pound of flour or a meal a day for an hour. All of a sudden we got guys wanting 25,000 pounds a day. Well, you have to say no till you figure out where you're going to go because I don't want to go spend a hundred thousand dollars for a mill that will satisfy him, and then because we're a half a cent too damn high, he goes somewhere else. Because he's taking so much volume, he thinks you ought to do him a favor.Jonathan Correa:
Yeah, I ran into that. I ran into that with a huge restaurant customer. A very similar thing happened. If you invest a lot of time energy into one person and they decide to go, you're left holding the bag and that's not ...Dave Brandt:
We were doing real well at 1,500, 2,000 pounds of corn meal a week for him. Then his brewer come, and I know he's all thrilled about what we're doing, and he loves the beer that he's making. And he says, now we want 25,000 pounds a week. All I could do is say we can't do it. Then they totally backed away from us. You know what I mean? That was a hard one to digest. I was trying to talk Jay into doing this and he said, and Anne says, "Well, he talked about changing his process, so why do you want to spend that kind of money if he's going to change his process?" This is surprising how fast it grows.Lauren Steinlage:
We picked all that by hand on here. I mean, we didn't know exactly what we were doing. I figured worst case scenario, by picking it on the ear, it's pretty enough. People could make decorations out of it and all that. The ad on Facebook, I was doing market research. I had a picture of red, white, and blue ears of corn and just showed them, I just put the husk together and thought of the tamales, but never thought we'd get hooked up with tamales and stuff like that. But it's all taking the chance, trying to throw a dart. A lot of that's going to the brewery now and the malt house. They're getting a bunch of it.
Is it big business? No, but it's building. It's taking time but we're getting there. We had eight acres of open pollinated corn this year, so long ways from that first year, an acre or half an acre, whatever it was. Every year we're trying to build a little more, but now this year, probably the biggest thing we learned this year with the open pollinated corns, and that is some of the newer herbicides don't work. They're hard on these older varieties and stuff like that. Then the wildlife, they kind of like it a little better.Dave Brandt:
More flavor. It's got higher protein. I mean, the corn that Lauren's growing and we're growing, were the red corn's got about 11% protein, the blue corn's got 12, and yellow corn's got 14. That's a lot of protein in a variety of corns. How that affects the taco, I don't know. But it'd be fun to find out.Lauren Steinlage:
That's the next step. We need to start thinking about how we're going to, that's why I say with the nixtamalization, we talked about that last week. Is there better nutrient available after the process. Common sense would say there should be.Jonathan Correa:
No, and that's something I really want to see too legitimately through by testing. Because that's always been the story. It's more digestible. There's more nutrients that are available. So what's the difference there? Or some nutrients, hopefully there's not any nutrients being lost, but is there more calcium? What's actually changing?Dave Brandt:
We're doing micronutrient tests and neural tests on the corns that we're growing for human consumption. So I have those figures.Jonathan Correa:
Nice. That's awesome. A lot of people don't do that. You look at a nutritional label in a grocery store, you just see the macros and you don't really ever see any of the micronutrients, which sometimes is more important. You know what I mean? If you're missing certain key micronutrients.Dave Brandt:
[inaudible 00:28:48]. Well, I was trying to figure out, since they've been working with these doctors and they keep talking about all the things they can do health wise. Well, if a doctor calls me and says, "Oh, we got a guy that needs zinc and we're going to prescribe him to go buy it." Well, and I have variety A that has 10% more zinc than any variety I got, and I can get it to him as corn meal or even as whatever you're doing with it. Maybe both. He don't have to buy a pill, but he gets a healthier commodity. I think that's an answer.Jonathan Correa:
Oh yeah, certainly. I mean, you think most supplements usually aren't even in the correct form for the being bioavailable for your body.Dave Brandt:
That's right.Jonathan Correa:
So it's like, well, if it's food, it's going to be more bioavailable versus some rock powder vitamin or if it's not chelated or in the right form. Just like listening to different podcasts with you guys and John, and people that are really talking about the minute details of just certain nutrients that if you're applying it to your crops or your soil and it's not in the right form, well, your plant's not going to be able to use it. It's same thing with the human body.Michaela Paukner:
Well, you guys are giving me hope for the future. That's for sure.Jonathan Correa:
These are two men who gave me a lot of hope as a young person. Just listening to the way you guys talk and how passionate you are about agriculture, the proof in the pudding of what you're doing and how it's impacting your soils and things like that. Vast majority of people don't realize that everything with climate change and that whole conversation is real. But I mean, when you have people that are legitimately doing things that can help mitigate that and improve our food system and things like that, people need to know about that. Do we need a machine that can capture carbon and put it into something that you can put underground? Or do you let plants do it?Dave Brandt:
Seems like you're going to publicize what we're doing and bring it to where to the public. We can stand here and talk among ourselves, but it don't get out on the media, it's never going to make it.Lauren Steinlage:
You see, that right there gave me hope. Just hearing that that common people are talking about. John Q. Public cares and watches what we do.Michaela Paukner:
Thanks to Lauren Steinlage, Jonathan Correa, and Dave Brandt for today's conversation. If you miss the first two episodes of this series with Lauren, catch up at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. Transcripts of all episodes are available there too. Many thanks to Yetter Farm Equipment for helping to make this No-Till podcast series possible. From all of us here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.