Cherith Brook Farms - Enterprise, Utah
Kat: Today we are talking with Robert and Jodi Bronner of Cherith Brook Farms in Enterprise Utah. They sustainably raise lamb, chicken, goat and for the first time this year, pigs. All their animals are pasture raised and free of synthetic hormones, vaccines and antibiotics. They are able to raise their animals this way because of the careful and loving way that Robert, Jodi and their three kids manage their animals. They tend to the land in a way that heals the earth and creates an incredibly healthy animal protein.
Anna: We spent a few hours walking around the various properties they use for their animals and learned so much from Robert, we will definitely be returning to Cherith Brook in the spring once they get their baby chickens and lambs. In the interview we’ll be talking about Robert’s background, how he got started raising animals for meat and delve into the why and how he and his family raise their animals in line with the principles of Regenerative Agriculture, as well as get a glimpse of what its like running a family business.
Kat: We hope you enjoy the conversation and can learn as much as we did! Okay, lets get started!
Anna: Robert, would you please start with giving us a little more info on your background and how you got where you are today?
Robert: I grew up in brazil. I come from an agricultural background and ever since I was a young kid I always had a knack for agriculture. It was pretty obvious I would end up as a farmer. From a young age my parents always encouraged us to be as educated as possible and get a university degree. When I was 16 years old, my dad put it in my head that I had to learn the agricultural model used in the United States to produce large amounts of food and so when I finished high school in Brazil, I started college. My church provided me the opportunity to serve a two year mission and I was called to serve in Idaho. After my mission I applied to go to college there and I graduated with an animal science degree from BYU Idaho. I originally thought about going back to Brazil and farm at my family’s operation, but things did not work out, I was already married and had twins and I was trying to get my degree to become a veterinarian. I did two years of schooling in Brazil and all the scholarships I had lined up did not work out and my wife had a hard time adapting to life in Brazil so we made the decision to leave Brazil and come back to the United States and get a job out here. My first job after college was in Utah county and I worked for dairy operation. About 3 years after that I heard about another diary operation that was being built here in southern Utah so I came down here and fell in love with the place and the people. I pretty much got my dream job as a dairy manager and things were going well until about 2013-2014 when we had major problems at the dairy operation. I went after the best consultants around the whole country to solve the problems that we had and it seemed like everyone just had opinions, no one had facts about how to actually solve it. My mind went back to my college days when I had heard about Joel Salatin, not good things unfortunately, but for some reason I felt drawn to go back to that and really look in to the regenerative agricultural model. Things just made sense and made me think that maybe the agricultural model I grew up with in Brazil wasn't so bad after all and maybe its the right way to do things. I really had an awakening at that time and because of that we were able to find solutions to some of the problems we were having and started slowly changing our ways. Jodi and I, we started to start our own business on the side and we've been producing our own animal protein ourselves for about 3 years now and we love it and seems like everyone who tastes our products love it and there is just an overwhelming peace of mind that comes when you are able to produce something thats good and healthy for people and at the same time it heals the land.
Anna: How did your family in Brazil learn their method of raising animals?
Robert: It was passed down from generation to generation. I still remember the first electric fence we bought when I was a little kid and it was very different from what we have today, but I remember the progress we were able to make on our own pastures when we started using it and we only produced cattle, we did not have a multi species farm like we do here, if I were to go back thats probably one of the first things I would change now.
Anna: Is your family still raising cattle in Brazil?
Robert: Actually my dad just sold all the land we had so they are not raising cattle anymore.
Anna: Wow, you’re the only one carrying the torch now
Robert: I am, all three of my brothers decided to do something else with their lives so they are not farmers.
Anna: Well that must feel pretty cool that you're carrying on generations of tradition.
Robert: Yes, I hope one of my children has an interest in this as well, we hope we can build a business that we can leave for them.
Anna: My next question was going to be, if you looked back at your childhood was there any indication that you were going to end up being a farmer? Obviously it seems like its in your DNA
Robert: There were all the signs, even though we had the ranch, most of my childhood was spent in the city that was about a few minutes drive from the ranch. I drove my mom crazy bringing home all kinds of animals like geese, doves, ducks, quail. I would see a stray dog on the street and think, hey that would make a good ranch dog! So at about age 9 my mom told me I could not do that anymore, which probably happened after I brought home a pair of geese. She was really nice about it. Those two geese, we actually took them to our ranch and over that season they produced prolifically and we went from two to sixteen geese. And thats what I grew up doing, every moment I was not at the ranch I was thinking about what I would be doing at the ranch.
Anna: You said your brothers didn't have the same connection that you did, what do you think the difference was for you that made you have such a special bond with the land and animals?
Robert: I just related to the animals more than most average people do, I just love to be with them. I’ve always tried to make them reach their greatest potential, it was just engrained in me. Even with the pigs that we’re raising here in the back of our home, it seems like every time I'm out there after a stressful day at work, I can be there and it relaxes me, it helps me to stay focused and take a break from life. Its a joy for me to be with the animals and it always has been.
The Meaning Behind Cherith Brook
Anna: Thats really sweet! I love that. Is there a story behind the name of your farm and why you choose Cherith Brook?
Robert: Yes, there is. It is actually one of my favorite stores in the bible, it is in First Kings chapter 17 I believe and its about the prophet Elijah, he was being persecuted and he hid in the brook Cherith and while he was there, he was fed by ravens. They brought him bread and flesh, but the story does not say where they got it from, but the brook had enough water for him to drink and the ravens provided him with food while he was being persecuted. The story just reminds me of how nature is just a miracle from God and that when you take care of the land the land will feed you, even if it is by a miracle like what happened with Elijah, somehow God found a way to feed him through the animals that were there. I think to this day no one knows where this brook is exactly since the Jews were driven out of their land so many times, but the story has just stayed with me, I love how God provides for us.
Jodi’s Perspective on Being Married to a Farmer
Kat: Thats a great story! Now, Jodi, did you have any indication that you'd end up here working on a farm? Were you ever drawn to working on the land?
Jodi: Initially no, I knew I married a cowboy, but I thought he'd be riding horses on fields all day. I thought it would just be horses, I had no idea we would garden and take care of animals. I had no idea he would work at a dairy, maybe a cattle ranch, which he did for while in florida. When I pictured him as a cowboy, I pictured the wrangler jeans, up on the saddle chasing cows in a gorgeous pasture or in a mountain range. This was not what I originally thought we would end up doing. When we got married we wanted to support each other and good ideals and when we finally moved down here we just fell in love with the place and its a great place to raise our kids, but I did not think we would end up raising animals.
Anna: Now that you've gotten into it, does it feel like raising animals like this is a magical experience, like it seems to be for Robert?
Jodi: Well, the other day we were driving by a field and he said ‘do you ever think when looking at this great expanse how many animals you could raise there’ and I said ‘No, I was thinking about getting some chocolate’ but I want to support him and as long as its not too stressful on our family and he's happy, because he's always happy when he's out in nature and around animals.
Anna: Thats very sweet of you to be so supportive, Im not sure all spouses are that way.
Kat: Especially with all the animals. We took on chickens this year, and we started with nine and it was completely overwhelming and terrifying and you do hundreds at a time right?
Jodi: Yes, they start out really cute and we think what are we in for!
What Motivates and Inspires Robert
Anna: Robert, I think you kind of answered this a little bit, but what motivated you to start farming yourself out here?
Robert: Im a religious person, I've always been, and I believe God sometimes he puts something in our path that really makes us think about life and about what he would wish for us to do with our free agency. That bad experience I had a few years ago, it was really an eye opener for me because even though I was farming, I was supposed to be happy with what I was doing but I just felt that there was something else I was supposed to be doing. The message I got was that I should not stay where I was, I needed to do something else and this was the answer.
Anna: Im sure there are challenging days with raising animals so what inspires you to keep going?
Robert: Let me tell you about an experience that just happened at this last farmers market, we have a costumer that we met on the very first day that we ever sold at the market. She was so grateful for the product that we were selling. So on the most difficult days, thats what I need to remember, people actually need this and are better off having a product that is more nutritious. Here in Enterprise in an agricultural town, we have several of our neighbors dyeing of cancer. Our neighbor across the street died of pancreatic cancer, another one passed away from a lung problem and just on the other corner, there is a little boy about to die of brain cancer and when I think about that I think about what I do with my life, and I have to ask myself is what I'm doing contributing to this epidemic that we see everywhere or is it making it so maybe this does not happen as much? I take that very seriously actually, so those are my two motivations, the gratitude people feel and the feeling that I'm actually making a difference here in peoples lives.
Anna: I feel like what you're doing is pretty unique to this area, do you know of anyone else who is raising animals like this?
Robert: No I do not actually, but we really should have more farmers. I believe as people wake up to the reality of what is happening, each family could have their own individual farmer, like each family has their doctor and other professionals that care of their needs.
Anna: It was not that long ago that it used to be that way, if someone was not growing it or raising it themselves they knew who did.
Kat: When we were out walking around the properties, I thought it was so interesting how you kept saying how people will pay for the best lawyer or doctor and all these other things but they will eat whatever and never question it. Having eaten Cherith Brook’s products, the taste and color is completely different. I was cooking up two whole chickens at one point and to see the two side by side, the differences were unbelievable from the Cherith Brook chicken and the store-bought chicken and I think the difference is due to raising them the way they are supposed to be raised.
Land Use, Sheep and Goat Care, and Butchering
Anna: We’ll go into the care of the animals a little more, but first how much land do you use for your animals?
Robert: We have access to about 50 acres of land right now. For two years I was paying a lot of money to lease land with irrigation water rights and I noticed after two years of doing that; for one it takes a lot of time, things break down often, you have to spend time fixing it and moving it and if you do not do it right you have a bunch of problems. I noticed after doing that for a couple years I did not need that much water and we are out here in the desert, we only have about 12 inches of precipitation per year and for me to feel like I did not need to irrigate in order to produce was a huge decision, it really weighed on mind if I was going to be able to do it and I did. So most of the chickens come from about 8 acres of land on the valley floor where I can have my chicken tractors, the pigs, goats and lambs are on more hilly land.
Anna: How many pigs do you have right now? And when you're in the full swing operation the rest of the year how many chickens and lambs do you have?
Robert: We have seven pigs right now and are going to push for about 800 chickens this next year and 18 head of sheep. We invested last year in some butchering equipment and we are getting better every season.
Anna: Thats an art form in itself!
Robert: It is, the first time I ever butchered it took me a whole afternoon to butcher 30 chickens and now we can butcher about 60 in two hours.
Anna: Wow! Thats impressive. Now, how much care do these animals require and what all goes into their feed and why do you choose to do it that way?
Robert: The ruminates, the sheep and goats, I am convinced they do not need anything else but grass to eat and a well balanced mineral block and thats it, and good management. If we follow the principles of regenerative agriculture its very doable. One thing that scares people away from the regenerative agricultural system is that it is undoubtably more labor intensive. It takes a lot of walking, setting up paddocks. It takes a fair amount of labor to make it work and its a huge learning curve on top of everything else. We've taken good advice from the other people who have been doing this and the advice is start small and grow your business. The first time I raised pigs I only raised two pigs, and I lost one. There are going to be mistakes, it almost does not really matter how much information you have if you do not go and do it, you will never learn exactly what its all about. One thing I have noticed is that its very different for me out here in the desert to produce an animal than it is for me to do in Brazil or to do in Virginia. it seems like every area in the country is unique and you just have to learn the ropes. Joel Salatin can do some things out in Virginia that I can not do, but there are things I can do here in Utah that he can’t and I think the end product is what mattes, the healthy animal we produce is what matters in the short term and in the long term is more productive land that we’ll leave for our children, grandchildren and all future generations.
Anna: You mentioned the term regenerative agriculture. For those who are not familiar, can you explain the principles of Regenerative Agriculture?
Robert: Regenerative agriculture is a system that will not deplete the land to put it simply. Over the years since the pioneers arrived in Utah the amount of carbon in the soil has been decreasing, I personally believe there will come a point where it will not matter how much chemical fertilizer you put on a field, the soil will not be able to produce unless you put back the fertility back into it, and the animals are the link for that to happen. The animals just recycle what nature produces and makes the land more productive. Number one: is to keep the soil covered at all times, never let bare ground appear. On the soil I've been working on for 3 years, I am almost there, in two years it will hopefully be all filled in, its already infinitely better than it was when we started.
Kat: And thats from moving your animals right? You are not letting them overgraze an area?
Robert: Exactly, thats one of the principles also. Number two: is to not allow them to overgraze, to move them constantly across the land and that just mimics the model of nature. The bison that used to cross this area, they never stayed in one spot for more than a few days, they were constantly moving and that helps nature to repair itself and regrow.
Number three: is to not use synthetic fertilizers, they give you a boost of fertility initially, but at the same time you actually lose the microbiology that keeps the soil alive, you don't find many earthworms in a field thats had synthetic fertilizers so using organic methods in your soil is very important.
Chicken and Pig Care
Anna: So we covered what you feed the ruminants, what about the chickens?
Robert: The monogastrics, which are the pigs and the birds. It is totally possible to raise a pig just off the land, however, it takes an immense amount of land to do it and it takes about 2 years to raise one pig to a good butchering weight. Same thing with a chicken, to raise it completely on the field you get a smaller chicken and the meat will be tough since she’ll be an older animal. So we supplement those animals with grain to help them grow. It is not economically viably for us to raise our chickens and pigs off grass alone, you will not have a good product at the end. Joel Salatin said in one of this seminars, if you let a chicken in a field and she has access to grain, grass and bugs she will eat about 1/3 of each so we are happy to provide her with 1/3 of grain so she can fulfill her destiny to feed us.
How the family is involved in the farm and the how much time goes into the managment
Kat: When we went out to the field we saw a different set up for piece birds and for ones you use for the whole chicken, so when you have it in full production, you are out there every single day, how many hours as family are you spending out there with these animals?
Robert: with the animals we produced last year if we took all the hours that each individual of our family put into the business, it would be a full-time job for someone. It help me to see that we are going in the right direction with this, I have a full time job and this business on the side, my children are all learning about work and how to work and in agriculture were blessed that the laws allow our children to help us. They actually have some money they have earned and they are learning to work hard. To them, these principles that they are learning on the farm, will be beneficially to any profession they choose even if they pick something outside farming. They are learning good work ethics that will be to useful to them forever.
Anna: Well also their appreciation for animals and nature is completely different than their peers and giving them a different outlook on the life cycle and how nature is supposed to function
Robert: And its interesting because just this last year, their friends in school have learned they are working and earning money and all their friends wanted to come out for butchering day.
Kat: thats also very interesting that you are raising these kids that not only have that work ethic and connection with nature they understand what goes into the food and understanding that relationship and that you need to give more than you take from the land and have that mindfulness and living off of the land with that synergy that most people and most kids have no idea what goes into the food or where it comes from. They view something as just a chicken, but your kids have put 30+ hours of work into this chicken they will not just let it go to waste.
Robert: We've waste a lot less food since we started doing this
Kat: And how do you feel Jodi, raising your kids like this?
Jodi: I know they would rather be at home reading or on their tablets, but the twins both liked the idea of earning money, so even if thats a bribe at first, they have more money than their peers from doing hard work. They've also learned that if they forgot to feed and water and its past 6pm, we’re doing it in the dark because animals have to fed and taken care of every day. They are getting the work ethic, they are learning responsibility too. I think its good for our family.
Anna: Even if they do not appreciate it fully at this age, I can imagine as they get older and they think back, they are probably going to realize how much knowledge and experience they gained.
Kat: But your twins are 13, are they starting to notice that they have a completely different work ethic than their friends?
Jodi: A lot of the teens at this age, my son would rather play video games because all of his friends get to do that, they don't have to do chores and go to the fields and take care of chickens. And the girls would rather go shopping or do their nails. But our kids are learning responsibility. When you were commenting about how kids just see food on the table or in the fridge, or go to the store, to them thats where food comes from but actually it comes from farmers who either raise or grow it, and even Adam our 7 year old knows that now. He's actually been apart of butchering chickens. He knows that this animal gave its life for you. He helped feed it, water it, move it and take care of it as a baby chick and then he sees the end result and he understands that it doesn't just come from the store and that it takes a lot of work.
Kat: Well and its not a renewable resource. I think that people look at food and think that its never ending and we’ll always have more but we’re starting to realize that unless we start changing some major practices that we’ll be facing some challenges and food shortages in the future. Its great that they have that sense of awareness, its such a blessing to have parents who can teach them that.
Jodi: All of my siblings are in California and one of my sisters loves what we were doing. She can taste the difference in an animal thats raised as humanely as possible without vaccines, antibiotics, and synthetic hormones. My brother is extremely into protecting the environment and my other sister is a nutritionist and she always tells me how I wouldn't believe how much she has to pay for bone broth and I tell her Im selling it at the farmers market for $1.50 a pound come on down! So all of my siblings are very supportive of what were doing here.
Kat: You’re able to go vaccine free and antibiotic free because the animals have such a healthy gut system because they have access to a wide variety of plants to eat right?
Robert: Yes, our death is extremely low. It wasn't in the beginning, we had to go through a learning curve and figure out what we were doing so they could grow without needing those things. We make it so their environment takes care of their bodily needs.
Kat: Ands that from moving them and staying on top of their grazing rotations?
Robert: Yes, thats what Jodi was saying, you cannot miss a day of taking care of your animals. Once those little chicks get here in the mail, we have to take care of them until their very last day. Its a commitment.
Concerns About the Envrionmental Impact of Meat and Issues with Industrialization
Kat: You have a lot of people who are concerned about the environment and they are 100% committed to the belief that that means going without meat, but what that can mean is only buying meat that supports regenerative agriculture which can actually heal the environment. You are right you should not be buying meat from confined animal feeding operations if you are an environmentalist.
Robert: In the past year at the farmers market, we have been able to sell meat to four professed vegetarians. A lot of people decide to not eat meat because they can't find a good source.
Jodi: Just the other day we had some people who were vegetarians come up and tell us that they were willing to try our meat because they know who we are and they know how we treat our animals, how we butcher them or where we take them and that they do it with care. They understood the value of that meat.
Anna: I think more people would feel comfortable consuming animal products if they have that connection. I hate the thought of the confined animal feeding operations. I feel so horrible for those animals but with the way you guys do it those animals maybe have one bad day or a few bad hours and they rest of their lives are beautiful, easy, and more in line with how their lives should be spent.
Robert: In the dairy industry when a cow gives birth, the calf gets taken right away. I did that for so many years that maybe I was calloused to it. One time my mom came from Brazil. She spent a whole week here with me and she wanted to go to work with me. So we went to the dairy farm together and we had to take the calves away from their moms. After that I found her crying in the truck she was so sad that we wouldn't let nature takes it course. That was a turning point for me as well. We can probably do a little better about that.
Anna: I’ve heard with goats you can separate the moms and babies from each other at night in stalls that are right next to each other so they can still see and smell each other and then you milk the moms first thing in the morning and let the moms and babies out together during the day so the babies can still drink milk. Can you do the same thing with cows?
Robert: You can do exactly the same thing, you get less milk of course, but you can use the design of the cow to fulfill her purpose in life.
Anna: Theres probably a way to do things that are more in line with nature and still get the benefit without exploiting animals for our gain.
Kat: I think it has something to do with industrialization too, these are the kinds of practices that people have used forever and its only been in the last 70 years we've moved away from it so its just going back to that and understanding that the focus should be the product.
Anna: If you could start all over, whats one thing you wish you would have known before starting Cherith Brook?
Robert: If I knew what i know now, I think i would have started right after college. At that time I did not need as much to take care of my family. I think our grocery bill was less than $150 a month. We just could have done more if we had started right away. Its a lot harder with kids. Especially when it comes to health insurance and whats happening in the industry. There are a few things that scare me but I am also grateful for the experience I am having because I can value it so much more.
Working with Nature
Anna: Could you give us a quick summary on what your approach is to raising animals and why you choose to raise them that way?
Robert: The main thing is to work with nature on everything you do. Each specific animal has a design, pigs for example do some wonderful things to the land that goats can not do. Same thing with chickens. We do things the way we do them because we’re trying to mimic the natural way things are supposed to be and animals do not get antibiotics in nature. Nature actually has a system to prevent disease. If I have a problem with my animals, I don’t go to a bottle to answer that, I go to my management practices and see what am I doing wrong that caused this problem to begin with?
Anna: I wish more people would apply that principle not only with animals but with all land management. I think we would have a completely different way we produce food if everyone held that same value. Thats really special!
- What makes Utah special?
Robert: I love the people here. What makes it so special is not the natural resources its actually the type of people you have in a place, and the people here are some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure to know.
- Why should people buy local food and support local farmers and makers?
For each calorie of food that we ingest we actually spend about 10 calories of energy to bring the food to the people and thats counting everything thats used in the tractors, machinery, and transportation to bring the food from farm to table. We can’t have a regenerative system whiteout a local food production system.
- Whats your favorite part about being a member of the farmers market community?
Robert: We’ve been able to meet so many great people! All these years working in the dairy industry creating a commodity product, I've never had a customer come up to me and thank me for the 12 years I have put in to producing the millions and millions of gallons of milk that I produce. At the farmers market, I get that about 10 times a day!
Jodi: I look forward to it every week just to see the people and hear what they liked about the product and whats going on in their lives and just that they are reaching out and looking for something else. They can get to know the people that produce their food and make it more a part of their lives instead of just something they’re eating.
- Where can people find you and your products?
We are at the West Village Artisans Market at Affagato West on the first Wednesday of every month from 4pm-7pm and we will be at the weekly farmers market at Ancestors Square in downtown St George every Saturday from May to October from 9am-12pm. We have a sign up sheet and we will eventually do a few drop off locations here in the southern Utah region. We are also working on developing our website www.cherithbrookfarms.net. Every single one of our labels has our phone number so people can call us at anytime! Our number is (435)231-1796. We are also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/cherithbrookfarms/ and we’re available through email at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Is there a book that you would recommend to listeners if they want to learn more about what you do?
Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown, he has been an inspiration in my life.
- Is there anything else we did not cover that you would like to share?
Jodi: I would just to say that I really hope people look in to what they are eating and care about their health and what they are putting into themselves so they have the quality of life thats meant to be for them.
Robert: What I want to share is a feeling of gratitude for how I got to where I am and for the experiences that brought me here. I wish everyone could have that. Its not about the money, its not about being selfish, its about how much good you can do in the world and I honestly feel what were trying to do is something that makes peoples lives better. Its a blessing in our life to be able to produce these products and we hope its a blessing in the lives of those who consume it.
Music for this episode was created by southern Utah local, Jake Shepherd