Transforming Agriculture with Sustainable Farm Partners’ Harn Soper

February 20, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. It’s a special edition here in San Francisco at the Green Festivals. We’ve got a very special guest. It’s Harn Soper. He’s the General Partner of Sustainable Farm Partners. Welcome to Green is Good, Harn. HARN SOPER: John, thank you very much. It’s great to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is a great topic. We don’t talk about it enough in the media. We don’t talk about it enough on Green is Good Radio, but talking about sustainable farming. So glad you’re here. It all starts with farming. HARN SOPER: It does. As I will point out to people, if you look around the room, absolutely everything here comes from the Earth. We’re standing on it, so we need to take care of it. It is our primary source of sustenance. It’s what I would describe as primary wealth. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get talking about Sustainable Farm Partners, which we’re definitely going to talk about, talk a little bit about the Harn Soper story. How did you evolve from where you were to where you are today? HARN SOPER: I grew up in Iowa, and I’m what you might call a bicoastal Iowan. Nobody really thinks of Iowa as having two coasts, but there’s the Missouri on the west side and the Mississippi on the east side. When I was growing up in Sioux City, we have family century farms in a little farm called Emmetsburg, Iowa, in northwest Iowa. When I was 11, my dad took me out to the farms to work with my Uncle Jack for the summer, and I thought it was really cool. I was sitting on a tractor cultivating corn, and my friends were back in Sioux City riding bicycles. That hooked me, so I would spend my summers farming. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Where in your journey, professionally and personally, did you realize that farming is an amazing profession and a great way to live, but farming sustainably is very important, to integrate that into the process? HARN SOPER: Sustainability really sits on a stool with three legs. One is economic, one is social, the community, and one is environmental. If you lose one of those legs, the stool falls over. The economics are really critical. That first summer that I worked for my uncle was a really learning experience. After the harvest that fall, my dad took me aside and said, “Harn, did you realize that last summer, making a dollar an hour, you made more than your uncle?” The economics weren’t there. It was a struggle. My family farms and our farm relationships, these are some of the most optimistic people in the world. To plant a seed in the spring with any expectation that there’s going to be a harvest, it’s an amazing group of people to work with, and people that you want to promote and help. The work that we do, we have moved towards a sustainable model in our family farms, where we farm organic row crops. These are large acreages, hundreds and hundreds of acres, and within our family group, it’s about 4,000 acres. We farm organic seeds, primarily grains, that go to organic food producers. Once you get out of the grocery store area where the vegetables are, you’re into 70 percent of what food production is about. We grow the grains that go into that production. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Where in the farming industry was the tipping point? We sort of know back in ’05-’06 when Al Gore came out with An Inconvenient Truth, the tipping point in the sustainability revolution happened here in the United States in terms of climate change. But in terms of farming change, when did you see, what year was the tipping point where you said conventional farming, sustainable farming, let’s double down and go into sustainable farming? HARN SOPER: We tried it about 20 years ago, and we, unfortunately, planted 40 acres of soybeans right on the edge of town on the main road and thought, “OK,” and then you don’t do anything. You don’t spray. It was a mess, and we were the laughing stock of Palo Alto County. So that clipped our wings a bit. About 2006, I went back to being the family management member of our family, which is four generations, over 70 stockholders, which incidentally, every time we make a farming decision, is always a unanimous vote. A pretty remarkable group. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s remarkable. I want to hear that, though. Is the family vote via phone, e-mail, or in person? HARN SOPER: The family farms, the only reason for having them is to pay for our family reunions, I mean stockholder meetings. Excuse me about that. Last August, we had another stockholder meeting. It was in Seattle, where one of my nieces got married, so we all attended it. It was a good time to have a meeting. Of the 72 stockholders, 70 of us made it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. That’s amazing. HARN SOPER: My father has passed. He’s the first generation. I’m second generation. My two sons are third generation, and they know their fourth generation cousins. It’s a tight family. The farms serve us in this way and keep us very closely connected. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so wonderful. About 20 years ago you started. Everybody has a rough start when they start something new, but you started 20 years ago. What percentage of what you grow on those 4,000 acres now is organic and sustainable? Is it 100 percent? 50 percent? Give me somewhat of an idea. HARN SOPER: Within our family, it’s a group of families, and within that group, there’s about 24,000 acres under management. Our families only constitute about 1,000. When you add the family groups together, that’s where we get about 4,000. We have 800 acres that will go into transition production next year. It just continues to grow. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Sustainable Farm Partners is all that 24,000 with all the families then. HARN SOPER: No, actually, we’re a funding mechanism to bring in other financial investors. Our whole goal is to buy conventional farm ground, primarily in Iowa, and convert it to organic grow crops. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I want to talk about that in a second. Talk a little bit about, though, supply and demand. Before we talk about organic versus conventional and the benefits herein, share, though, the supply and demand issue. Is there an overdemand for the supply that exists sitting here today in organics? HARN SOPER: Back in 2010, when I last checked the statistic, the demand for organic food was four times greater than the farmland in organic food production. At that time, it was a market in the low 20 billions of dollars. Today, that market is growing double digits. It’s $38 billion. There’s still this enormous gap between demand and production, and that will go on, I would guess, at least the next 10 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So really, Sustainable Farm Partners and for our listeners and viewers out there, sustainablefarmpartners.com, it’s that simple, is really overall a good investment because the demand is so heavy for this new product. HARN SOPER: Exactly. For example, this year, conventional corn, which typically is GMO corn, maybe some hybrid in there, is at an all-time low. It’s really dramatically low. It got as low as $3.25 per bushel of GMO corn. At the same time, our organic corn crops are getting between $11-$13 a bushel. It’s an enormous difference. We often measure our profitability in terms of net operating income per acre. On the GMO farms, this year it’s about $210 an acre. On our organic grow crop farms, the average is almost $600 an acre. That’s our net operating income. JOHN SHEGERIAN: They can learn all about the opportunities and the risks and the potential rewards at sustainablefarmpartners.com. HARN SOPER: Yes, indeed. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I want you to share with our viewers, please, Harn, and with our listeners also at home and wherever they are today, in the United States and around the world, the difference between sustainable farming and conventional farming. HARN SOPER: Conventional farming is focused around genetically modified seed. It’s a seed that is patented, so it’s very expensive seed, in comparison to organic farming, where GMO seeds are prohibited. Our seeds are developed under natural hybrid circumstances, cross-pollination. Just by shifting our seeds, we can get our cost per acre down by $60-$70 an acre. We farm organically. The U.S. government, the USDA, has only one farming program that is highly specific in how to do it, and that’s under organics. We farm on that organic protocol. It’s very strict. That means that when a piece of ground has gone through certification, we can put our organic seal on it. That opens up the opportunity for these enormous premiums that we get with our grains. In conventional GMO farming, herbicides are built into the cell of the plant. You can pour things like glyphosate on the plant. It kills weeds, but it won’t kill the plant. It involves pouring herbicides, pesticides, and they’re all synthetic. In organic farming, you don’t do any of that. You work with nature. Our crop rotation is part of our weed management program, for example. Some years we’ll grow oats and alfalfa together. Some years we’ll grow corn. The preceding crop helps to put nitrogen in the soil and limit weeds for the following crop, which might be corn, which needs the nitrogen and needs the weed control. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is this all tracked now, all the algorithms of how to rotate the crops and everything, are they all via technology now? Is it all scientifically tracked via technology? HARN SOPER: No, farming is still very observational because every piece of ground, the soil is different. The markets are different. You really have to understand where you’re farming. In my world, it not only depends on where you farm, but what you farm and how you farm. You get that equation tight, and it’s beneficial to everybody. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we have to say goodbye, do you have any other comments for our viewers or listeners to hear about the importance of farming, and especially sustainable farming, before we have to sign off today? HARN SOPER: Sustainability is a big deal. We live on a planet that’s 70 percent water, but we can only drink 1 percent of that water. We’re losing that water, and it doesn’t come back. Farming is a big consumer of water, and a lot of water is wasted. It gets washed away. Sustainable farming involves a crop rotation that is much more tolerant of flooding, for example. In the United States, across the Midwest, there’s about four to six tons of topsoil that’s lost every year per acre, primarily because of the genetically modified conventional farming model. That equates to about a dime’s thickness. Stacked up, 21 dimes makes an inch. In 21 years, we are losing what took 300 million years to create. It’s not sustainable. Neither are the synthetic inputs that are oil-based because oil is not a sustainable commodity. Nature is very forgiving if you don’t try to sidestep her, but you work with her. As I said, it’s profitable, it’s healthy, and you can go on farming that way indefinitely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We hope you do, and we hope your family does, Harn. For our listeners and viewers out there, to learn more about Harn’s great work and his family’s great work and Sustainable Farm Partners, go to www.sustainablefarmpartners.com. As Harn said earlier, there’s some great opportunities there. You can learn more about the investment opportunities and other things about all the great work they’re doing there. Harn Soper, we thank you and your family for sustainable farming. You are truly living proof that green is good. HARN SOPER: Green is excellent. Thank you so much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you.