CLEARWATER, Minn. — Cattle perked up and started to moo as Matt Maier fired up his tractor to bring over a fresh roll of baleage for his herd.
One frisky cow leaped behind the bale, nipping at the fermented hay before Maier rolled it out.
Maier raises grass-fed beef, and in the Central Minnesota winter he lays out grass that was harvested on warmer days.
The cattle stay outside all year and move from pasture to pasture improving the soil, local ecosystem and the environment as a whole. They’re working to help sequester carbon and combat climate change.
Maier raises 300 cattle in Clearwater. And he owns Thousand Hills, a Becker-based, grass-fed beef distributor and marketer that requires its farmers to use regenerative practices that benefit the land.
He calls himself and other Thousand Hills farmers “regenerative renegades.”
Regenerative agriculture made headlines last spring when General Mills announced plans to source from 1 million acres of farmland using regenerative practices, which include keeping soil covered and minimizing soil disturbances, diversifying crops, integrating livestock and keeping a living root in the ground.
General Mills wants to reach that million-acre goal by 2030.
Maier wants to reach 1 million acres for Thousand Hills by 2022 because, he said, “I’m competitive,” the St. Cloud Times reported.
Maier has seen his regenerative practices change the land. Native grasses like blue stem returned on their own from old seeds in the soil. Water in a Mississippi River tributary became more clear. A bald eagle took up residence, along with myriad other wildlife.
“It never gets old,” Maier said. “Every day I’m out here, it’s beautiful.”
And, most importantly, the soil has changed.
He watched one of his pastures absorb 7 inches of rain in two days while other fields flooded, Maier said. Regenerative practices focus on soil health and that makes the soil more stable and more absorbent.
“What we’re really trying to do is regenerate our soils,” Maier said. “That’s our biggest mission.”
What’s so special about soil?
In fall 2017, Minnesota launched an Office of Soil Health. And one year ago, Anna Cates started as the state’s first dedicated soil specialist.
“Working on soil can be a win-win-win for a lot of parties,” Cates said.
Improving soil health can make fields more efficient for farmers and it can improve groundwater quality, which is something the public wants, she said. Plus it’s natural: Plants know how to work in soils, soils know how to support plants.
Regenerative agriculture and practices to improve soil also appeal to people, because they focus on the positive — regeneration of the land, Cates said.
Maier launched his farm after researching ways to improve food systems, he said. He kept returning to grass-fed beef as the single best way he found to do that.
He returned to his hometown of Clearwater around 2000 after living and working in the Twin Cities. He started his herd; then he met the founder of Thousand Hills and they became partners. Five years later, Maier took ownership of the company.
It now spans 600,000 acres across 50 farms and ranches, Maier said. “We’re seeing double-digit growth every year.”
The beef is processed in Cannon Falls and distributed through Thousand Hill’s headquarters in Becker. It’s also home to RealTime Solutions, a food data and marketing agency Maier spun off from a firm he founded and sold. His daughter Melissa Larsen works on regenerative strategy there.
A farmer and an entrepreneur
Maier grew up on a farm nestled among the 132 pastures he uses today. He graduated from Tech High School and St. Cloud State University with a business degree.
He lives on a different plot now and he stayed away for years to work in marketing and business.
While in college, he worked a landscaping job and had a troubling interaction with a chemical lawn treatment.
Maier became disoriented midway through a day of spraying and had to wait out a wave of brain fog, as he described it. He began to research the chemicals he used and learned he should be wearing a mask and rubber protective clothes, rather than shorts. So he quit and developed his own formula of organic fertilizer.
“That kind of stuck with me,” Maier said while driving between his pastures. He felt agricultural fields were getting the same treatment as those lawns, with “cheap, salty nitrogen and carcinogens.”
He’s not alone in that worry. Last year a jury ordered the maker of the widely-used weedkiller Roundup to pay $80 million to a man who claimed the product caused his cancer. The case is under appeal, and the U.S. government sided with the company.
After he graduated, Maier managed the Red Baron pizza brand for Schwan’s. He then moved to the metro area and started a marketing agency for food companies until he sold it around 2000 and moved back home.
Maier’s work with Thousand Hills combines his upbringing on a farm with pasture-raised hogs and sheep and his work in food marketing.
Is it the wave of the future?
Thousand Hills is what Jane Jewett calls a supply-chain partner for the farmers that sell under its brand. Jewett raises beef cattle and she’s associate director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.
“I think they’re the wave of the future for regenerative and sustainable-oriented farms to gain access to consumers,” Jewett said. “There’s a limit to how many direct-market customers a farmer can have.”
She has seen an increase in the number of farmers using regenerative practices in Minnesota, but it’s still a small group.
In the beef market, 10 percent are grass-fed, Maier said. And not all are raised with practices that focus on land stewardship.
Tyler Carlson has considered selling beef through Thousand Hills but sells direct to customers instead. He runs Early Boots Farm near Sauk Centre with his wife and has about 30 cattle. He’s also a board member with the Central Minnesota chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association.
He probably spends as much time marketing and selling as he does raising his products, Carlson said. “We probably need middlemen to reach greater scale.”
In the national market, Thousand Hills is a small company competing against titans, said Larsen, Maier’s daughter and a regenerative strategist.
The company pays 40 cents a pound to farmers above the conventional market price, and Thousand Hills wants to support rural communities, Maier said.
“None of that works unless consumers vote with their dollars,” Larson added.
Maier sees regenerative agriculture as the wave of the future. And General Mills’ buy-in reinforces that, because it’s an advanced food and consumer marketing company, Maier said.
“When they say regenerative is the future, I know they have the insights to back that up,” he said.
Plus the survival of the human species might depend on those stewardship practices, Maier said. “I see lots of signs this is the future whether we’re forced to do it or whether we choose to do it.”