There’s grass-fed beef and then there’s Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed 100% grass fed beef. Founded in 2003 on his ancestral homeland, farmer Matt Maier returned to his roots and his love of the land and animals. Set in the fertile hills of central Minnesota, Thousand Hills Farm grew from a modest 120 acres to encompassing over 1,000 acres across 13 different small farms, all with a commitment to regenerative agriculture, a practice that gives back nutrients to a heavily depleted soil by the use of animal grazing and a diverse array of crops. Maier, along with these “Regenerative Renegades,” are moving the needle forward on improving our food supply system to ensure its future.
Follow along for our two-part interview with farmer Matt Maier, owner of Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed 100% grass fed beef.
BKF: How did you get your start in farming?
Matt Maier:I was raised on a small farm in central Minnesota. My dad worked in a factory off the farm and I was the only boy. It was 120 acres, so it was kind of big for a hobby but not big enough to be a business. So, it became my responsibility to take care of animals and to take care of the farm. My dad loved animals, too, so we had sheep, hogs, cattle; we had various other projects going on, but never big numbers of anything.
My dad was a farmer, but the farm was an expensive hobby. He didn’t make enough money to have an expensive hobby, so I learned over time that if I wanted to make a living, the only path that I could see would be to get off the farm, get a college education and get a job.
Minneapolis was a big hub for food companies and our farm was only an hour away… So I wanted to go into food. And I was very fortunate when I graduated from the state university that I was able to get a job as an assistant brand manager at Schwan and work on the Red Baron pizza brand. And that’s really when my education started. They gave us a lot of opportunities to learn, a lot of responsibility. I spent a few years there and decided that the corporate ladder wasn’t for me, so I quit my job and I started a food marketing agency. I really enjoyed the marketing side of brand management so, luckily, I had sold some projects and built up the marketing agency over ten years. And then I got married, had kids, and decided that there was an opportunity to sell that agency.
That was around 2000 when I sold that company. I had young children, and I wanted to be very intentional about what he did next. I had learned just enough about the food system that I knew there were improvements that could be made. And then around that same time I moved my family from the suburbs back to a lot and built a house that was adjacent to the farm that I grew up on because I wanted my kids to experience some of the things that I did when I was a kid. It’s a beautiful part of central Minnesota, there are lakes, streams, wetlands, woods, prairies, and fields, so it’s very diverse. And my parents still lived on the farm, so I wanted them to know my parents. I wanted them to know where they came from, I wanted them to experience some of the lifestyle that I did. As I was going through this period of “what do I do next?” I noticed that the farms had changed drastically from the time that I had grown up.
BKF: What differences did you notice when you went back to the farm?
Maier: When I grew up in the area that I was in, all of the farms were somewhere between 40 and 160 acres depending on how many subsections. All of them had some cropland, some hay land (which would be included in cropland), some wooded, some pasture, and everybody had animals. Well, what happened in the 20 years or so that I was gone was that all the animals were gone and the people that were on land were renting their crop land to larger operators that would go around to every farm and plant a GMO corn or GMO soybean rotation, and if the land got used up, they just wouldn’t rent it the next year. They couldn’t get a crop. Of course, there’s crop insurance, and it gets complicated with the grains and government subsidies and all that. But basically, they were using up the land. It was very hilly, it would wash. And if it wasn’t worth renting anymore, either the next guy would rent it, not knowing or the guy that had it wouldn’t rent it anymore, after it was completely degraded and devastated.
So, I had this memory of these animals and these green rolling hills and diverse crops. And now it was two crops, tilled heavily, GMO corn and GMO soy, which means a lot of chemical spraying and petrochemical fertilizer; I could see the damages first-hand. We did soil testing and there was basically less than 1% organic matter left. There was no topsoil because it had washed. Most of the topsoil is still there but it was down in the wetlands of the swamps or the edges of the fields, just rolled up like three feet high. The soil was in really poor shape. Because of all the petrochemical fertilizer and phosphorus and nitrogen put on, the ponds and streams were full of algae and weeds. Ponds that I went swimming in you couldn’t even walk into because the weeds and the algae were so thick that you wouldn’t even think about going into it. The water was brown in the streams from the soil and the nutrients that had washed off the fields. There weren’t nearly as many butterflies, bees, the little lightning bugs that would light up at night.
BKF: What came out of that experience?
Maier: The more I took my kids out to try to experience some of the stuff that I did, the more I realized how far reaching the damage was of our agricultural practices. The spraying of the pesticides, the neonicotinoids, the herbicides, even the petrochemical fertilizers had been going on for a while on some farms before that, but in this intense 20-year time period, we just completely degraded the land with these practices. The couples that bought those farms, the second or third generation on these farms, just got too old to farm. And they didn’t want to sell the farms, so they would rent it. So, I had to take our farm back from these practices first, and that started my whole project of reclaiming the land, starting with our farm first, soil testing, and stopping the inputs.
While I was considering what to do next, I had research come back to me that said the single biggest and best thing you could do for the food system, which was what I was concerned about doing, improving the food system, is to raise grass-fed beef. And of course, today we hear a lot about all the damage of cattle and cattle are bad and all that, but when you raise grass-fed beef in a way that mimics the way that nature intended, it exponentially decreases the time it takes to create topsoil and get organic matter back into the soil. And the reason why organic matter is so important is because that is what measures how much soil can be like a sponge, how much water can be absorbed, and the nutrient value of the soil, so it’s a big measur
For example, right now, in some of the areas of the country where there has been a lot of tilling going on for a lot of decades. Almost every spring, you’ll see floods. And a big reason why we’re having those floods is that we’re taking the organic matter out of the soil. Soil should be aggregated kind of like cottage cheese but when it’s over tilled and degraded, it turns into powder. And when you have powder and you put water on it, like if you’ve ever put a drop of water on flour, you’ve got this soft, very fluffy flour, but you put water on it, it doesn’t absorb. It runs right off. And that’s the same thing that’s happening to our soils. You get rain, and it just runs right off. It doesn’t stay to help grow plants, it takes nutrients with it, it takes soil with it, and the water just runs away.
This was all going on, and I’m educating myself during this process, and I still am educating myself, it’s a lifelong learning.
BKF: Tell us about the importance of grass-fed beef and regenerative agriculture
Maier: Back to the grass-fed beef, if you’re managing their grazing, where they’re not over grazing, they’re not undergrazing. You’re allowing time for the grass to recover. But yet you have a density of cattle that mimics what bison did for 1000s of years, where you have a tighter herd. You put them on this land, you don’t let them wander around all over the place. They harvest in this area, and then you move them.
On our farm, during the peak growing season, we move our cattle twice a day and then in the shoulder seasons, we move them once a day. And even now in winter, we’re moving our cattle every day because on the fields that we take the hay from when we’ve got more than what the cattle can eat, we roll them up into big round bales. And then in the winter, we store those bales by that field and then in the winter we unroll those bales from the same field that they came from so that we’re not just extracting. You know, when you grow corn and soybeans, and even if you grow hay and sell it off the land, you’ve taken X amount of your nutrients and sold it. We want to be building up, so we take that hay right back, unroll it on the fields, and the cattle are moving around and repurposing all winter long. It’s a beautiful thing!
So, we’ve got cattle on the land, they’re moving. Even in the wintertime, they’re still out doing their work to build soil, fertilizing. We’ve even learned that during the growing season, the saliva from the cattle actually works to help the biological activity in the soil.
So, there’s a lot of things that nature does that we don’t even understand yet. But we do know some of the practices that do gain the results that we’re looking for, and that’s really what regenerative agriculture is. It’s looking at the soil as the basis for life and how are we going to build and take care of it to produce nutrient dense foods, instead of our conventional mindset that says this soil is here to hold up the plant. I wish farmers got compensated from the nutrient density of their food, and not from volume. Because that volume is what we get measured on. It doesn’t matter if it’s all air or nutrient dense or whatever. So then what we end up doing as farmers, is that we keep on extracting, extracting, extracting and as long as it gets us through our generation, then we kind of feel like, ok, well I’ve learned a living. And it’s like, oh my gosh! Meanwhile, we’re as a society getting sicker because we’re not taking in the nutrients that we need, we’re not building for the future. We’re borrowing from the future and just extracting from the soil. And regenerative (agriculture) just turns that around and says, no, we’ve got to worry about our soil first and the practices that just build that up.