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Pointing My Compass North

February 28, 2023

This post was originally published as a three-part series in The Beef Initiative Newsletter --> Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3.

I love the Midwest.

I have had a life-long love affair with the Great Lakes region of the United States; this place has always been special to me. The memories of my youth, of blissful summers exploring forests, learning to hunt and fish, canoeing though lakes and rivers with family eventually called me away from Southern California, where I was born and raised.

Following college graduation, I felt a yearning to continue my Midwestern adventure and have since called the city of Chicago, home. My time in Chicago has been incredible, all the experiences and the friendships here have helped me to mature into a man that my younger self would be proud of.

But as I enter into a new phase of my life, a phase where I envision raising a family and putting down roots -- I feel that my time in Chicago is near it’s end. But before I go, there is work yet to be done. The Beef Initiative is about heritage and not so long ago, Chicago was the central hub for much of this country’s beef supply. My intention is to return that honor to this great city.

The Beef Initiative embodies the fusion of sound monetary and health principles; this is best evidenced by the mutual ties into proof of work.

  • The bitcoin network’s proof of work is such that miners must actively expend resources in the physical world in the hopes of earning a block reward and associated network fees.
  • A regenerative rancher’s proof of work is the vitality of the livestock (or produce) products – those who consume these products know that the health benefits speak for themselves.

What does a consumer’s proof of work look like?

  • It looks like establishing market access with a local producer for oneself or one’s family.
  • It looks like participating in value-for-value exchanges, creating long-lasting relationships, and really knowing where one’s food comes from.
  • It looks like educating, and being educated by, those producers who we wish to support.

My proof of work is in establishing a network of nodes, pure animal protein nodes, scattered throughout the Great Lakes region of this country. Templates have been established across Texas, into Tennessee and across Missouri – it’s time to establish some nodes up north, too.

The goal of this piece is to introduce a new perspective, and a new producer into The Beef Initiative. More than that, this piece is meant to be a case study in decentralized node building: my goal is to demonstrate that this initiative is an open-sourced protocol that accepts contributions from all of those who show proof of work.

And so, I point my compass North…

The state of Wisconsin is home to far more than the Green Bay Packers and cheese: there is a region of the state that remains untouched by glacial drift, where a certain farming family is putting their knowledge into practice by regenerating soils – once mono-cropped hedgerow to hedge row – through responsible land stewardship.

That region is called the Driftless, and that farm is called Mastodon Valley Farm.

The Land Before Time

The Driftless region encompasses areas of Southeastern Minnesota, Northeastern Iowa, Northwestern Illinois and large portion of Southwestern Wisconsin. Carved by the mighty Mississippi River, the region is famous for characterized by topography and geology unseen in most other parts of the Northern Midwest: deep valleys, limestone cave structures and thousands of tributary rivers and streams are some of the natural wonders in the Driftless. The region’s name – The Driftless – is a reference to the extensive glacial drifts that occurred throughout the Pleistocene epoch, which began about 2.6 million years ago by some estimates.

UW-Madison Professor of Geography Jim Knox hypothesized that glaciation did not occur in the Driftless for the following reasons: first, the bedrock around Lake Superior has a steep, downward warping – known as a “syncline.” Second, the relatively weak bedrock and shale of east side of Wisconsin (and down though Northeastern Illinois) created a similar “bowl” effect, as did the syncline around Lake Superior. Finally, the crust of Northeastern and Central Wisconsin are composed of incredibly sturdy, crystalline rocks that Dr. Knox believes to have been instrumental in creating friction, causing resistance to glacial progress though Southwestern Wisconsin.

Among the most well-known aspects of the Driftless are it’s world-class trout streams, and the countless examples of limestone caves in which Native American artwork tells the stories of times long-since passed. But there is much more in the Driftless than would first meet the eye – micro-climates within this region are home to species that one might not expect to be in the Northern Midwest. Typically ranging in the Southeastern United States, Timber Rattlesnakes can be found hiding in limestone crevices on steep, dry ridges called “Goat Praries”.

Another example of the region’s strange biodiversity is the population of Prickly Pear Cacti which can be found in well-drained, dry, sunny slopes. My favorite micro-climate in the Driftless are Algific Talus Slopes. These slopes are composed of fractured limestone blocks through which water seeps into subterranean caves. During the winter, cold air passes though the cracks and freezes the snow melt within. During summer months, warm air passes though the caves, and is cooled by the ice inside. The slope effectively “breathes” cold air (35-45 degrees F) during the summer, this “island within an island” enables the survival of Ice Age species like Northern Monkshood, and six species of snails found nowhere else in the world.

The Driftless region truly represents the confluence of eastern and western species, a combination of native species and those leftover from the Pleistocene that all converge around Mississippi River. The wealth of ecological diversity in surrounding areas is a boon to nature enthusiasts of all sorts – including farmers.

Just south of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve sits a plot of land now called Mastodon Valley Farm, upon which lives a family, called the Allens.

Mastodon Valley Farm

There is something to be said about a person who spurns societal norms and pioneers their own trail. In the United States, we pay reverence to those who go their own way, especially if that journey is one of principles.

Peter Allen is such a person. After spending upwards of a decade earning his PhD and working as a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Ecology department, Peter had a realization: he could either continue to “tell” farmers his ideas of how best to run their operations, or, he could put his knowledge into practice, create his own enterprise and teach practical skills, on his terms.

Mastodon Valley Farm was settled by Peter and his wife Maureen just over a decade ago, and during their time as stewards, the landscape has transformed from a once GMO corn field to a bustling regenerative farm.

At its core, Mastodon Valley reflects all of the ideals of The Beef Initiative supports: low time preference land management, responsible and ethical animal husbandry practice, and most of all, a pioneer’s spirit – asking permission from no one, and innovating in response to cues given by the land upon which one lives.

I highly recommend checking out this podcast episode to get a better sense of Peter’s ideas. In the podcast, Peter shares that, throughout the history of the Midwestern United States, the most productive ecosystem structures were some form of Oak Savannas. Generally speaking, this is an ecosystem in which the Oak tree is a keystone species – additionally, “savanna” implies that the population of trees does not crowd out grasses and other herbaceous growth. Large oaks produce acorns and can be used as shelter for smaller animals, but more than that, sparsely-treed oak savannas create the ideal environment for a wide variety of herbivorous species – it is this that makes it such a productive ecosystem.

Herbivores are uniquely positioned to transform inedible grasses, trees, nuts, and berries into incredibly nutrient-dense sources of protein for humans. Knowing this, Peter and Maureen have been aggressively planting oak trees on their property year after year. While these plantings may not pay any immediate dividends, this sort of low time preference behavior is likely to create a self-sustaining “herbivore’s paradise” from which his family will benefit for generations to come. This is about understanding a landscape such to the point that one actively helps guide it into it’s most productive iteration.

In that same podcast, Peter discusses another attractive idea: that humans are a keystone species in our environments, especially as it relates to what we choose to eat. That re-wilding is an acceptable form of modern environmentalism is a myth. Through nearly every version of society, humans have been intimately involved with the care (or lack thereof) of the land upon which they reside.

Native Americans knew full well that maintaining oak savannas and harvesting native herbivores was a far more sustainable approach to food-security when compared to foraging for fruit, nuts and roots in a dense forest. Other examples of humans diverting the flows of local rivers and streams to support complex irrigation systems are present in countless geographic locations.

Granted, not everyone will be able to, or want to own a plot of land – but everyone can choose to source their food from producers who’s values are aligned with their own. Ultimately we as consumers have that choice, and its high time that we take that responsibility much more seriously.

Where is Your Compass pointing?

My intention in writing these content pieces, is to support the expansion of The Beef Initiative through grass-roots education. In addition to that education, I intend to continue my own education by meeting, learning from and working with the land stewards that live in my backyard – and if they’re interested in joining The Beef Initiative, I intend to be the conduit for that partnership.

I envision myself taking on more responsibility in providing our younger generations with education, tools, and skills necessary to carry on the human adventure while maintaining symbiotic existence with our environment.

I see myself as a bridge to the next generation, the next iteration of human society in the Midwestern United States. Bridges can be underfunded, poorly engineered, and structurally unsound. I do not intend to be structurally unsound; I intend to be the best damn conduit of knowledge and practical skills that I possibly can be.

My compass is pointing toward an intentional state of being, and I will unflinchingly proceed down that road no matter what obstacles lie in my path. For me, that means moving my family out of Chicago and northwest towards the Driftless. There is an undeniable mystery about the landscape that calls to me, and it gives me comfort to know that my family’s protein needs will be taken care of.

Peter and Maureen Allen, and Mastodon Valley Farm are just one example of intelligent, responsible food producers living in our backyards. It’s up to us to find them, shake their hands, learn from them and create long-lasting relationships.

It is my steadfast promise to each and every supporter of The Beef Initiative that I will continue to onboard as many farmers, ranchers and food producers in the Midwest as I possibly can – whether they be in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, or anywhere else, I aim to facilitate the sustainability of those enterprises.

That is where my compass is pointing, what about yours?