Last Updated on November 22, 2021
“One of the things that I’ve realized in doing this for five years is if I really want to make a difference in meat if I really want to change the way people consume meat and the way people raise meat in this country, that is not an endeavor… it’s really a lifetime’s worth of work.”
— Mike Salguero
Overview of This Episode
Join us for the very first episode of Rare, where we explore what it means to mentor an up-and-coming generation of farmers, dive into the inspiration behind a grass-fed beef delivery company focused on transparency, and discover a glaring hole in the fast-casual food business.
Featuring interviews with:
- Ron Mardesen of A-Frame Acres and Niman Ranch
- Mike Salguero of ButcherBox
- Jon Olinto of B.GOOD restaurants and One Mighty Mill
Check out our upcoming episodes for more stories about the uncommon folks who are using their passion for food to solve problems in their industries, and in our world.
Links To Other References:
- ButcherBox Kickstarter
- Niman Ranch – Raised with Care®
- “Stone milling versus roller milling: A systematic review of the effects on wheat flour quality, dough rheology, and bread characteristics”
- Andrew Heyn – New American Stonemills
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Introduction to Rare, Episode 1: Be the Change
Dennis Keohane: And then, so what brought you back? We’re in Elliot right now, correct?
Ron Mardesen: Yep.
Dennis Keohane: So what brought you back to Elliot right outside of Red Oak?
Ron Mardesen: This is home. I mean his is home. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of my father or my grandfather or my great-grandfather and different stories and different events about… a farm is a unique situation in that it’s a business, yes, it has to be a business if it’s going to survive, but it’s a great big storybook of things that have happened that you can remember, you can relate to. Or you’ve heard stories about the previous generations.
Dennis Keohane: That was Ron Mardesen, a Niman Ranch farmer who we’ve gotten to know well over the years. We’ve talked to Ron many times and even visited his A-frame Acres in Southwest Iowa. Ron is on the front line of creating change in the food system, but that’s never what he intended to do. All he wanted to do was raise pigs the right way. Ron is a rare breed, but there are many others like him.
This is Rare and these are the stories of the people who want to make a lasting positive impact on the food that we eat.
Tory Fenton: Welcome to Rare. The show that introduces you to people who believe food has the power to change the world. We’ve chatted with people all across the food world who bring passion and grit into their work every day.
Today, we’ll dive even further into stories of those who’ve taken their passion for food and applied it into meaningful actions that solve problems others haven’t. In this, our very first episode, ButcherBox’s Dennis Keohane sits down and talks more with Ron Mardesen about family, farming, and passing on shared knowledge to the next generation of farmers. He also sits down with ButcherBox Founder and CEO, Mike Salguero about what drove him to start a mission-driven grass fed-beef delivery company. And he digs into the story of John Olinto, who discovered a glaring hole in his fast-casual food business and how he ended up hunting down one of the very last stone mill makers in the world.
Interview #1: Ron Mardesen of A-Frame Acres and Niman Ranch
Dennis Keohane: Let’s get back to Ron Mardesen. He’s leading change in the food industry and also mentoring the next generation of farmers. In terms of how pigs are raised in the US, A-Frame Acres is an outlier.
Ron’s pigs graze on pasture or live in large open pens. This is the opposite of how animals are raised in large-scale industrial farming operations. Twenty years ago, Ron connected with Niman Ranch, recognizing that the organization’s strict standards were the same as how he had been raising pigs, which is the way his family had been operating for generations. These days, Ron is a major advocate for Niman Ranch and is trying to convince as many young farmers as he can to follow the guidelines laid out by the organization and avoid factory farming. If he can do that, he’ll not just make a difference for the well-being of animals, but also the food we eat and the environment.
Ron Mardesen: As we sit on this porch, if we would look straight south off of this porch, we could point to two different farms that were actually homesteaded by my ancestors in the 1860s. So to say that we’ve been here for a long time is not an understatement.
Well, A-Frame Acres is a niche pork production farm. In other words, we raise pigs humanely traditionally and sustainably. The region is called A-Frame Acres because at one time we had over 400 A-frames that we farrowed in. Pigs are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens.
Dennis Keohane: How did you end up here now? You know, you went off to school. Where’d you go to go school?
Ron Mardesen: I graduated from Iowa State University and when we first got married, I graduated a couple of years before Denise did. So we wound up living on an acreage south of Ames. Ames is where Iowa State is, and the farm we lived on actually had an A-Frame operation on it. There was a gentleman there by the name of Dick Snyder that had 300 and some sows that he farrowed in the spring and the fall in A-Frames. And that’s where I caught the bug. I’d always had it, but it really ignited when we lived there.
Dennis Keohane: And then so what brought you back? We’re in Elliot right now, correct?
Ron Mardesen: Yep.
Dennis Keohane: So what brought you back to Elliot, right outside of Red Oak?
Ron Mardesen: This is home.
Dennis Keohane: You likened pigs to a teenager. Can you explain how a pig is similar to a teenager?
Ron Mardesen: I would be glad to. And anybody that’s been a parent and gone through the teenage years, you know as well as I do, you can get a teenager to do anything you want them to as long as they think it’s their idea. And you know what? Pigs are exactly the same way. If you want them to go through that gate, act like you don’t want them to, and they’ll go right through that gate for you. It’s just that simple.
Dennis Keohane: That’s great. So the way you raised the pigs here, you said they’re by Niman Ranch standards, but you mentioned that you kind of were doing the Niman Ranch thing before Niman Ranch was even in existence. Can you explain that?
Ron Mardesen: The Niman Ranch standards are that the pig stay their mother for an extended period of time. They are not fed antibiotics are not fed animal byproducts, they’re fed outside, raised in pasture and deeply bedded pans. What we were doing here was very similar to that. We would feed an antibiotic to the pigs right at the weaning time, the transition period time or the stressful time. But other than that, the protocol that Niman Ranch has today is a protocol that I’ve followed for 50 years now.
Dennis Keohane: One of Ron’s key roles is to make sure that the next generation of farmers understands what it means to raise hogs the right way, and he does that as a Niman Ranch mentor.
Ron Mardesen: I am a what Niman Ranch calls a field agent and a field agent is an individual that goes around and visits different farms within a given area to make sure that all of the producers that are raising pigs for Niman are following that protocol. But more than that, we’re there to help troubleshoot if they have issues. Because one of the advantages that I have as a field agent is I’m on so many different farms. And you know, what, if you’re having a problem today that you’ve never dealt with, chances are I’ve been on a farm that experienced a similar situation at some time in the past and I am more than happy to share with you the solutions that they used and see if that can’t help you and work that out.
Dennis Keohane: So it’s almost like serving in a mentorship capacity for younger farmers and I think that’s a big thing for Niman Ranch and just for America in general, getting younger people involved in farming. Can you talk about playing that role, not only for Niman, but also with your family?
Ron Mardesen: Well, the beauty of it is they look at folks like me and they say, God, how do you know how to do that? Well when I was younger and when I was growing up, there were still many active farmers that had raised pigs before antibiotics. There were still many active farmers that had raised pigs out on dirt, just exactly the way we do it. So I learned from them. So, what I have transitioned into, if you will, is doing that exactly for Niman Ranch farmers too. And the school of hard knocks is a pretty phenomenal teacher and if you have learned from that, you can go out of your way and you’re willing to go out of your way to ensure that somebody else doesn’t have the same teacher. And I don’t care if it’s helping somebody, a young kid or a new Niman Ranch farmer, or if it’s helping my own children, that’s the beauty of this grey stuff.
Dennis Keohane: You’re pointing to your head. Not the gray matter within it.
Ron Mardesen: Gray on top. There’s very little gray matter in it.
Dennis Keohane: Can you talk about the next generation and how you’re trying to kind of bring the next generation on and in their own kind of leadership role here on the farm?
Ron Mardesen: You know what I think the single most important thing a parent can do, and I don’t care if you’re bringing a child onto the farm, if you’re bringing a child into a small business or whatever, the single most important thing a parent can do is teach his kids how to think. How to explore, how to understand and how to interpret the situation and the circumstances that they’re given. Yeah. I’m tickled to death to be here to show him and help him and guide him with what I know and what I see and how we do it. But it’s incredibly gratifying to see him step out of the box and say, Dad, I want to try this because—there’s no word to describe the pride I get when I hear that. But no, Mikey’s got his own gilts now and I can’t wait to see what happens.
I can’t wait to see how he tweaks what I’ve done, because every generation leaves its own mark on the farm and that’s what’s unique about a farm. A farm isn’t static, a farm isn’t stoic. I mean, you think of a farm, you think of a big white house and you think of a red barn, but there’s so much more to it than that. There are the hardships of the people that started with nothing to build that and then every generation after that, that has taken what they gave them and built onto that to make it better because ultimately, we all have this same goal. We want to have a good life. It doesn’t have to be a great life, but we want our kids to have it better than we did. And that just falls in and flows in with the direction of the farm. It’s perfect.
Interview #2: Mike Salguero of ButcherBox
From Ron Mardesen who grew up on a ranch, we next chat with Mike Salguero, someone who never thought they’d be leading change in the food industry. A serial entrepreneur from Boston. Mike had an idea to start a CSA for meat and did a Kickstarter to see if others would be interested in what he thought would be a one or two-year project. Six years later, ButcherBox has a massive community of food lovers who get boxes shipped to their door every month. And Mike is rethinking his original timeline and the larger impact his company can have in changing the food industry.
Mike Salguero: Yeah, so food was always a very important piece of my life. So first and foremost, I am Uruguayan. I’m half Uruguayan with a mother and a father who grew up in Uruguay and Uruguay is the grass-fed beef capital of the world. And for as long as I can remember, cooking meat, in particular, with family as a way of celebrating, as a way of bringing people together, was incredibly important. Family dinner at my house was a sacred time. So I had a single mother, four kids. I was the youngest of four. She would have one of us cook a meal from the time I was maybe seven I had to cook a meal a week and everyone was expected to be home for dinner. And so having that time together as a family, having that time to really eat food together, to talk was really important.
And so the family dinner, and then the family dinner with meat at the center of the plate has always been a big piece of my life. Growing up and reflecting, I don’t really remember a lot of attention put on the quality of the food. I think it was like if it tastes good, that’s great. But really, I think my spin as I now have a family and now dinner is very important to us, the quality or provenance of the food is really important to me and to my wife Karlene. So where were these vegetables picked? How was the animal raised? Those types of things are now more important to us.
That’s really where ButcherBox was born out of. It was born out of a past love of food and of meat. And then the thread is kind of my Uruguayan roots, grass-fed beef being a big thing, meat being a really important piece. And then my spin is, hey, instead of just focusing on eating a great piece of meat, could we also make sure that it was raised the best way possible? And that’s kind of my, my meat journey thus far.
Dennis Keohane: Can you talk a little bit about how your relationship with food has changed and evolved over the past five years since you’ve been running ButcherBox?
Mike Salguero: Yeah, I think my relationship with food or in the food space has changed quite a bit in the past five years. I would say the most jarring thing for me getting into the food space was it’s not possible sometimes to hold all of the realities of the food space that you’re in and to be able to make the changes that you want to make. And so, I think of wanting to build a big domestic grass-fed beef program, and it’s like, grass-fed beef program in this country doesn’t exist at the scale that we want to build it out. So, we now have to build it. And that type of thing takes a lot of time. And so, I think when I got into the food space, it was like, well, why can’t I have a pasture-raised animal that has this, this, this, this, and this claim, and I want that delivered to my door. And it’s like, well, it doesn’t really work like that. If you want to change a food system, it actually takes a really long time.
One of the things that I’ve realized in doing this for five years is if I really want to make a difference in meat, if I really want to change the way people consume meat and the way people raise meat in this country, that is not an endeavor that’s going to take a few years and then flash in the pan and then we’re done. That’s an endeavor where it’s really a lifetime worth of work and so that’s changed.
I loved meat. As I said, my past has a big story with meat, but I never would have thought that the thing I would focus on is changing the meat industry. And I feel in many ways that ButcherBox kind of called me into it. I did not expect to have that opportunity. I am super excited about rising to the challenge, but it’s been a humbling experience to recognize that the things that I knew or thought about in meat that were true are not necessarily true.
Dennis Keohane: What’s something you think differently about now having run a food business that you didn’t think prior to this experience?
Mike Salguero: I’m fairly certain that big companies will behave differently and have the scale and the money to be able to behave differently if they’re convinced that there’s a customer. And so, I think a lot of the work for people who feel like they’re like fed up with the food system is to change the way you shop, change your dollars, try to figure out how do we help these large companies to see that there’s a market here? And that’s certainly happened in the world of claims-based. Over the past five years, claims-based meat, grass-fed beef, antibiotic- hormone-free meat, free-range, wild-caught. All of these buzzwords are growing and growing and growing in size. Now where we get a little bit nervous is the buzzwords are growing in size. The reality is that in a lot of cases, what the companies are doing is they’re just kind of faking it. But again, that’s because their customer, whether it’s a grocery store who has their own private label or a brand, their customers are not necessarily honoring what the customer actually wants. They’re trying to provide something that checks a box, has a green label and they can sell for a premium. And so going back to the big misconception, I think big is fine in food. I actually think the real question here is how do you get big companies to act differently? The work that I am excited to do is to work with both small and large companies and change them all.
Dennis Keohane: Can you talk a little bit about how through ButcherBox and the experiences you’ve had over the past five years, your thinking on how to run a food company or just a business in general has evolved?
Mike Salguero: For whatever reason, the background story of ButcherBox has put us in a position where—if we believe that we need to change the way that people consume meat in this country and that meat is raised in this country, if that’s like a belief, which it is in my opinion, that that needs to change, that is unsustainable the way it is now—we might just be the people to go do that. And because we never raised money, because we’re patient, because of our company values, the team we’ve built, the people that we’ve attracted to this opportunity, I’m now really excited about just having a time horizon that is infinite. What happens this year, okay, great, but what happens in 25 years? And it’s has been really freeing to have a time horizon that’s just so long. Going back to kind of how food works and how it can take decades to do stuff.
It’s like, well, we can’t do that. That’s going to take 10 or 15 years. It’s like, okay, well, let’s get started now. We’ll be here in 15 years so, we might as well start now. And that perspective has really dramatically changed our approach and I think for the better, especially in this particular problem area, it’s going to take decades. And so I’ve quite literally come to the conclusion that I think this is my life’s work. I think this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
Dennis Keohane: Do you have any last thoughts about food since that’s how we started the conversation?
Mike Salguero: Eating food is like one of the most intimate things possible. You’re literally ingesting stuff into your body and the bet was, or the bet is, that people actually care about what they’re putting in their body and they do. They do care. They want to know; they want to feel in harmony with the things that they are eating.
Interview #3: John Olinto of B.GOOD Restaurants and One Mighty Mill
Dennis Keohane: Mike has inspired many others across the food landscape, including John Olinto, co-founder of fast-casual chain b-good and the current CEO of One Mighty Mill. With a bit of a different spin on finding a way to help people find harmony with the food they eat, One Mighty Mill is trying to bring back the all but forgotten process of stone milling wheat so that people can enjoy “real food that has been made, the old-fashioned way,” as Jon explains it. As you’ll hear, all it takes is a brief moment to think more deeply about where our food originates to inspire action that can catalyze real change.
Jon Olinto: One Mighty Mill is a mill and bakery started in downtown Lynn, Massachusetts two and a half years ago, and started with this idea, or really not even an idea, it was a question about why… I started 20 years ago in the restaurant business and I was supposedly working in a farm-to-table, fast-casual business. And I didn’t know anything about wheat or flour. And it took me almost 15 years to even ask that question. And so when I got out of my last business, I had time to actually focus on trying to answer that question. And it took us, this is obviously a team effort, it took us on quite a journey to figure out where we went wrong as kind of as a food culture and kind of gave us, we think, a roadmap to how we can make a small difference and start to kind of change the game.
Dennis Keohane: One Might Mill kind of arose out of an aha moment you had at B.GOOD.
Jon Olinto: Yeah. So, I think with B.GOOD we were very committed. It took us time to get there, but we were very committed to knowing where everything came from in our restaurant, or as much as we possibly could. And so, we started with a co-op to source our beef. Back in the day when we started, we actually used to pull our van up to a farmer’s market, primarily to buy from a farm out in Lunenburg called Dick’s Market Garden and that took over. And so, as we grew, we would go region by region. So, if we opened up in Charlotte, North Carolina, we would build out the same supply chain. So, we would be sourcing regionally beef regionally from a farm somewhere kind of in that mid-Atlantic region.
Our produce would all be from some local farms there. And as we did it, over time we kept reaching out to local bakeries. So to support the ones in New England, we work with a third-generation Italian family in the South End of Boston called Quinzani’s and at the same time, we were all also traveling across the country, visiting farms to open new stores and to build relationships and to build that supply chain.
And it was strange that we had never once noticed that we never saw wheat anywhere we went or that we never even considered flour as a potential input onto our menu. And to me, I felt like somebody was keeping it from us. And I think in food, if you don’t know, if there’s no transparency, then it means two things. Number one, it means that like, I feel like something is not right, meaning that it’s not good for us. And then number two, to me, it also means there’s a huge opportunity to get after it and disrupt it and expose it and hopefully build a brand that can change it.
Dennis Keohane: What have you learned while digging into wheat more and more?
Jon Olinto: We realize that you can grow wheat in New England and that people used to grow wheat everywhere in New England, and that it used to feed us. Our own local food system used to actually feed us. And that flour, when it’s made right, is incredibly good for you, but nobody understands that. And that led us to this really strange path where we found the only stone mill builder who’s in the United States. Which is, to me, that’s just an insane statistic that there’s like one person.
Dennis Keohane: Yeah, can you talk about that?
Jon Olinto: 150 years ago, there was a stone mill in every community and stone mills are what fixed flour. And so if you have a mill, it’s very basic. If you have a stone mill, farmers in that community grow wheat and they grow it as a part of a healthy rotation. So, they grow it with all the other produce you’d find at a farmer’s market. And then when you bring that wheat to the mill, a stone mill crushes the seed whole. And so, it’s living and it’s perishable and it’s incredibly good for us. That process doesn’t exist anymore.
And the weird thing is you can go anywhere, you can walk into your Whole Foods store or whatever, and you can look at every category. You can look at eggs. You can go to eggs and they’ll tell you a story that the pasture raised and how this and that. You can go to coffee and coffee is one of the best storytellers. You know exactly what rainforest it came out of and all the different ethical implications that’s in the supply chain. You can literally go to every single category and then you go to the bakery and there’s nothing. There’s nothing about supply chain. It’s just the bakery itself that produced it. So—
Dennis Keohane: It seems like a lot of those stories are related to people embracing foods done in a way that it existed before industrial agriculture. How do you get people to do that with flour, which is prevalent?
Jon Olinto: I think that the most important thing that you always have to remember, it has to taste better. And I’m sure you guys think about it the same way, but you make a bagel bread pretzel with fresh milled flour that’s grown in healthy soil, that’s organic from organic wheat and it tastes so different. And that’s always the most important thing. The second thing is that it is better for you, clearly. Real food produced the old-fashioned way on a stone that’s not messed with is better for our bodies, better for our environment, better for farmers. But I think the last piece is exactly what you’re talking about, which is like, some of it is story and some of it is craft, but I think it’s more about accountability in that if you make food, like if you mill flour, you care more about it.
Dennis Keohane: You mentioned before finding one of the last stone mill makers in the country, how did that happen? And I’ve heard there’s a wild story behind that.
Jon Olinto: So, the story of our mill is really interesting. When you learn that there’s only 201 mills in the country, you also realize that there’s probably not a lot of places you can call 1-800-get-a-stone-mill. And so ironically enough, One Mighty Mill started in Lynn, Massachusetts. We found one farmer up in Northern Maine. And then we found the one guy who builds stone mills. He’s named Andrew Heyn. He’s a baker by trade. We found him online. And the funny story is that we tried like heck to get in touch with him.
And it really took me getting in the car and driving to his house unannounced. And he lives in like the middle of the woods and going and basically ringing his doorbell. And when he came to the door, it was funny. This was weeks of him not responding to email or telephone messages with me being like, hey, I want to buy a mill. I want to buy a mill. When he came to the door, he actually knew it was me. And he was like, “Hey man, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you.” And that was kind of the start of it.
Dennis Keohane: How do you think One Mighty Mill can change the future of the food space?
Jon Olinto: If we can find that category and maybe it’s bread where we can make people have that moment then I think that’s the aha moment that changes the game. And that’s when people start to say like, “I get it.” Because it’s one thing to write it on the package and try to… Think of how long… I just talked for about our mission for like 10 minutes, but to make people consume it, eat it and feel it without having to say anything. That’s when you can’t be stopped. So, hopefully we figured it out, but right now, we’re trying to do that through bagels, tortillas, and pretzels.
Conclusion to Rare, Episode 1: Be the Change
Dennis Keohane: This has been Rare, a podcast by ButcherBox. If you enjoyed these stories, please follow us on your favorite podcast app and share it with anyone who loves food as much as we do. We hope you’ve enjoyed these conversations and that these stories inspire you to rethink the food you eat and the people who are working tirelessly to bring better food to the tables of the country. Join us next time as we jump onto a lobster boat in Portland, Maine, and learn about how a new wave and some old-schoolers are thinking about the sustainability of the seafood industry and what they’re doing about it. This is Dennis Keohane for ButcherBox’s Rare podcast. A special thank you to the band Caamp for the use of the song, “Send The Fishermen,” which you can find on Spotify. If you’d like to check out ButcherBox’s best deals and get a box delivered to your door, go to butcherbox.com/podcast.
Tory Fenton: This has been Rare, a ButcherBox podcast.
We’d like to thank Mike Salguero, Ron Mardesen, and John Olinto for joining us this week and to the entire podcast team here at ButcherBox for helping us put this episode together, including Dennis Keohane, Elena Arroyo, Jeri Perez, Diane Garcia, and me, Tory Fenton.
Special Thanks to the band Caamp for the use of their song, “Send the Fishermen,” which can be found on Spotify, Apple Music, and more.
If you enjoyed these stories, please subscribe, rate, and leave us a review.
Ron Mardesen: One of my favorite stories and it’s a multi-generational story is when I was, I don’t know, 2, 3, 4, maybe a little older than that, we were bailing hay, picking up hay out of the field. My great grandfather was driving the tractor. My grandfather was on the rack stacking the bales of hay. And of course, I was climbing all over, getting hay in his way. And my dad was picking them up off the ground. Well, my great grandfather was an old man by that time. And he had farmed most of his life of horses. As we came to the end of the field, he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” and he was on a tractor, drove her right through the gate.
Dennis Keohane: That’s crazy. That’s amazing. That’s hysterical.
Ron Mardesen: It wasn’t at the time.