Episode 116: Mike Sands | Liberty Prairie Foundation | Flint Hill, VA


In Episode 96 Alison Parker from Radical Root Farm in Illinois talked about the  Liberty Prairie Foundation and how it helped them get their start and so today Mike Sands is here to tell us about his farming experiences as well as the Foundation.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m older then I should be and started in agriculture back in 1970-71  and originally was doing a lot of work internationally, so I worked over seas in Kenya and Panama. My early work, was overseas. My wife and I lived in Kenya for 2 years, and worked there, our first son was born there. Then we went to Panama and we were there for a number of years and our second son was born there. We’ve been doing farming, gardening, my interest has always been in higher intensity more biologically based systems from the beginning. I’ve always been interested in how do you integrate farming and ag into community development. We’ve been doing a lot of different things. Ended up after 10 years at the RODALE Institute at the research institute ended up in Illinois doing all sorts of fun stuff there. That’s the short story of how we ended up here at Bean Hollow Grassfed in Flint Hill, VA.

working with Prairie Crossing

a new community

using it as a platform for helping beginning farmers like Allison and Alex!

How did you end up in Kenya? With the Peace Corps?!

I was doing graduate work. I was supposed to be in Ecuador, got sent to Kenya to run based in the ministry of livestock development a dual program research project.

How exciting! Was it as exciting as it sounds?!

Everything in life should

But people dream about getting to go to Africa!! Were you like in the city or in the country?

no no we were way out in the rural area by the Uganda

Nairobi is the capital in the

western edge there’s a giant lake called Lake Victoria it shares with Tanzania and Uganda. We were in a little town called

What’s little? Like 100 people? Like 1000 people?

1000s of people in terms of infrastructure

half of a main street

in the township, remember at this point in time Kenya was the fastest growing country in the world, so there are e people all over but they’re all on little small farms

2-3 acres

checker board all across the landscape. Very rural, but

still lots

I’ve read lots of books about Wangari Matthai? It seems like it would be the same time?

Wangari Matthai was just starting her Green Belt Movement.

And then Panama and then the rem

primarily east of us, in the suburbs

I went there with a colleague by the name with Ken Tall, the two of us were charged with starting an international program. At the time they didn’t have an international program. doing private side the publishing company and the books and magazines

non-profit side working on health and food and gardening, farming research focused on organic lifestyles and organic production. They were very interested, they were being approached all the time to do some international work but didn’t have a real program. Ken and I were brought on to start an international program

Then I was in a more managerial role for both the domestic and international program.

worked on that for 4-5 years

worked into

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

I didn’t really start gardening until college. I grew up in the country. I think we probably had a garden, but I don’t really remember it very much. I was too busy playing out in the woods.

after college, I was working odd jobs,

trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life,

started to

Challenging myself in New Hampshire to produce enough food so that I could eat something from the garden every single day of the year. That was fun! It was an eye opening experience!

The downside was I developed a recipe I really liked for turnip parsnip soup, so I decided to make a whole bunch and can it, and I didn’t do a good enough job and it blew up in the basement a few months later!

I’ll bet that didn’t smell good either! Fermented turnips!

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

I think

it means lots of things, at it’s core,

organic gardening and farming isn’t about not using something it’s about how to build biological based systems and harvest something out of that.

Whether it’s in large scale farms or your  backyard

Building a really healthy soil with the use of focused on an organic matter production, augmentation in the garden, diversity, and then kind of managing that process. In reality it’s a lot more complex then conventional gardening or farming but it’s also much more rewarding!

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

It was a little of all along, there were parts of it that were based on when I was in New Hampshire, it was a lot easier to take the neighbors sheep manure to mix that into soils and in the garden setting where you have lots of diversity anyway. Particularly in new gardens where there is not a lot of pest buildup it’s pretty easy.

When I was doing work overseas, I probably wasn’t philosophy not committed, because of the circumstances and the need to create productive systems that didn’t require a lot of outside inputs because they simply weren’t available, you become focused on what is the nature of organic agriculture because you are looking for systems that recycled nutrients, recycle the waste from one process becomes important for another.

In essence almost forced into that kind of focus on the system. So, it started early, certainly working at Rodale, at that point it was incredibly reinforced, it was a huge focus, it was single minded focus on organic! We didn’t do anything else. We spent a lot of time to figure out, what it was, that were the critical pieces of organic from a science basis, from a biology perspective what I’ve been working with ever since.

I’m still probably in my heart committed to organic systems, but I do recognize the need at some point in some systems to look at input that are not certified organic to jumpstart a system but to not build a system that depends on outside inputs.

I guess I’m curious about the international part because I do have some listens who are are not in the US? Is there anything you would say to them.

I don’t think there’s anything specific, to international, to comparison to work in the U.S. Depending on where international

if you are in an area in the tropics. where you don’t have winter. As I say that as we have 30” of snow blowing around us here in VA. In the tropics you don’t have that cold winter. So there are potentially larger challenges with pest buildup. Warmer temps typically facilitate the metabolism of organic matter by bacterial and microbial populations to it’s harder to build high organic matter in the soils.

but at the same time there are great opportunities and responses to organic material. I don’t think it’s specific to international. its the same kinds of struggles or challenges you have when you go from working in Alaska where you have obviously a winter that is complete then in the summer you have there very long days, you can grow a cabbage that’s huge because  it keeps photosynthesizing

to working in south FL in soils that are almost devoid of organic matter. You just have to be adaptive and look to that natural environment wherever you are for the basis for building a constructive system.

So also my other question is, my husband and I just got 4 sheep I think in October. You were telling me in the email you have sheep and 

100 acres of pasture

250 sheep…

wondering when the snows gonna stop and they can get back to grazing.

We got shetland sheep? Can you tell me anything about sheep?

we raise 2 different breeds of hair sheep

Where we are there is essentially no market for wool. I used to sheer sheep, but I don’t have an interest in sheering 250 sheep. But if you hire someone to sheer sheep it costs more then the wool.

But if you harvest,hair sheep primarily for local markets for lamb

we have a pretty intensive rotation practice where the animals move to a new piece of pasture a day. They’re a large flock on a small area for a small piece of area for a very short period of time.


on an acre then they’ll move to another acre for 24 hours. then they’ll move to another acre. So with 100 acres it maybe be 45 days of rest between the time that they graze any particular paddock. We try to graze all year long. we put a little bit of hay up just for storms like today, but the rest of the time the animals are grazing. They can graze through about 6 inches of snow. As long as there’s grass underneath.


When do they get born?

Most are born in late March

do a small lambing in Oct and November, so we have some meat, so we have some lamb for sale for now though June when the rest of our lambs will be ready.

What other animals?

We also graze cattle, I do what’s called custom grazing cattle. So I don’t actually own the cattle. I work with other producers who are in essence looking to rent pasture. So they pay me a fee per day per animal to graze cattle with my sheep. It has a real benefit. I do it in part because of the finances and the economics. But more importantly I get a better interaction of the pasture the cattle. Because the cattle eat different things then the sheep.

Over time greater disturbance with multi species

Mike was reading I’ve been getting him some sheep books, he wanted to get a donkey to put in with the sheep?

Do you have problems with coyotes or domestic dogs?

We haven’t yet, but we are surrounded by woods, most people have 20-30 acres. Certainly predators run though.

Over time, you may want to think about a donkey or lama, or a guard dog.

we have a lot of coyotes and bears.

4 annotolian shepards, a turkish breed.

We have two dogs but of course they sleep in the house.

If you want to do it with a guard dog, they have breeds that have been bred for


You’re being harsh, I can’t tell you when my dogs went out with the snow and the cold, they are the happiest they have been in a long time. They have access to the barn and they don’t spend any time there, they’re just running around.

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

We’re just produce for our family. For our own use. Not for commercial use. Our commercial is just strictly the sheep and cattle. We had a great year! We had a pretty dry August, things like our tomatoes did beautifully. We had no problems with blight problems we have sometimes in wetter years. We had great flavor because of the drought and dry weather. Peppers and tomatoes were our special crop this year.

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

Our constant kind of focus, is how to intensify. Not specific for next year. Our goal is to grow more and more on smaller and smaller garden spaces. The more we can get in and the more we can get growing of the things we want the less room for weeds.

We had a really big water shortage for many years, I always feel like when you focus on where your water goes, you’ll have less weeds.

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.

Potatoes did lousy this year, I’m not really sure why, may have been neglect. That would probably be the single thing that was a disappointment. This was a great year for gardening for us in Northern Virginia. You could hardly go wrong!

Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.

The standard is kale. I can grow dinosaur kale, with my eyes closed. That’s the absolutely easiest thing in the world to grow. After that it would probably be zucchini, and some of the winter squashes are easy for our environment.

Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate.

In our climate things that I would steer people away from are some of the berries are tough to grow. Blueberries are a real challenge in our area. Blackberries, we get lots of vegetative growth and not much fruit production.

Cauliflower is probably one of the most difficult to grow, I have great luck with broccoli. IDK, I get the other brassicas to grow but cauliflower befuddles me.

Cauliflowers’ have always been hard but this year they grew well. I’m always amazed that my husband gets broccoli to grow especially starting form seed.

Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.

I think weeding is always my least favorite, that’s why we are always focusing on how to grow more intensively. Weeding’s not fun!

We’re gonna, we’re constantly focusing on how to play with the structure of plants, heights, and growing patterns, and how to integrate those, in ways that work. Vining, starting taller plants, then vining plants underneath those to cover the soil. Things like that. Our biggest constant area of innovation.

I’ve had a few guests talk about the 3 sisters and growing is pumpkins and squash, where they work in symbiosis, things shading and growing all at the same time.

Same idea extending it to include greater diversity. There’s a farmer who I know from his farming stuff in North Dakota.

Gabe Brown who’s probably one of the pioneers in the world. He’s a  large scale farmer. Not a guy playing around in small acreages. Probably growing 2-3 thousands of acres of livestock and cover crops together. His garden is hysterical! You and I would have a hard time calling it a garden. Because he basically takes all the different things he want to grow, and he takes them out into the field into the area he calls his garden, spreads seed, and rakes it all in and it all comes up in this jungle of material!

Then he harvests by just, never weeds, waters a little bit, then walks around hunting for stuff in his patch, he is incredibly productive. You go up and see it and just want to laugh! It’s just so much fun! Oh look at this I have squash for dinner. Look I got great carrots, whoops that’s not carrots that’s dill! When he’s looking at the tops. It is great!

That’s how he farms, his larger farm stuff, he works with these cover corps

he’s planting 20-30 species of cover crops, and so it’s this incredible diversity. Then he’ll graze cattle

strictly grass fed, doesn’t use any grain for cattle. Grazes his cover crops with cattle. Then no till drills, his next crop, whether it’s a small grain like wheat or corn

hasn’t plowed in something like 17 years! He’s got the best yield averages for corn and soy beans for any farmer for the entire county! And he’s doing it on a huge scale! This is a guy who can sit in the coffee shop and brag with the rest of them!

That’s my kind of garden. No paths, and planning, I’m just going to the store and say hmmmm where’s this gonna go? On the flip side my friend Megan Cain came on and talked about planning.

What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.


I love planting too.

What is the best gardening advice you have  ever received?

Probably, something along the lines of “Relax, don’t worry about it. Something will work. Don’t fret, watch learn relax …”

That’s great! That’s kind of been a theme with my show, lots of things are going to work out so don’t worry about it.

Is there a favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be?

Probably some form stirrup hoe. Doesn’t make sense because I hate weeding?

No it makes perfect sense because if you hate weeding that must make it easy to do when you want to.

A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?

Love to cook, most of my cooking is around meat production and lamb. Lots of eastern lamb mediterranean recipes.

Oh share with listeners. My husband’s always asking me what what do you do with lamb?

There’s thousands of things.

Developing things for cheap cuts of lamb, middle eastern lamb meatballs

Different combinations with either, all the spices, like turmeric and cardamon, paprika, all spice! All of those are great! I guess one of my favorites would be lamb shanks with pomegranate, with cous cous and mint …

JerusalemJust braise up the lamb shanks. Put them in the big, heavy steal, skillet, throw the other stuff in, vegetable stock, or carrots, add at the end raw, but still only takes 20-30 min. Other you simmer an hour or two.

Did you say pomegranates? Did they go in at the end?

pomegranate seeds go in at the end.  a pomegranate juice

If people are interested I have a great cookbook called  Jerusalem A Cookbook that has fabulous recipes.

A favorite internet resource?

Not a single source, I go to all different kinds of places researching, I do a lot of stuff. Most of mine is around grass production and grazing and stuff. A lot of my resources. There’s a grazing one called

On grass…

The grass whisperer

A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?


I guess again, still more in the farming side.

the stockman grass farmer.





There’s a book, the best book on Grass Fed Cattle.

One of the best experiences I’ve had since I’ve had my podcast is Lower Valley Farm who had grasped beef and sheep and thy did the rotations. 

If you have a business to you have any advice for our listeners about how to sell extra produce or get started in the industry?

Liberty Prairie Foundation our particular

private operating

not-for-profit is around promoting healthy working landscapes

healthy for both the environment and people who work those landscapes

the famers the foresters, whoever is working in that landscapes.

One of our primary program areas now is helping beginning farmers whether they’re young, new farmers, coming out of non-farm backgrounds or whether it’s second career folks, how do we help them be successful? How do we minimize the risk for those first couple of years was people live and learn about what they want to do in farming?

So as you look around the countryside, you see lots of young people in particular

working on other peoples farms working on farm managers, etc

all of who have a dream of farming to themselves. They have great practical experience,

p[se management

fertility management

on the production side, then face a huge jump when they want to farm for themselves

how are they gonna find land, assemble the capital?


they don’t have any real experience,

from a financial business side how are they gonna show to a family member, bank, fame agency, or farm credit

trust me I can do this

what we decided that we can offer is the

to dramatically improve their changes


an opp to lease a pice of land, what we are focusing on is

vegetable producers

leasing fairly small pieces of land for up to 5 acres for

up to 5 years

pay for that land on a lease basis, they rent and lease equipment from us. They are their own

incorporated business

responsible of management


basically we’re a business incubator for farming instead of a teach startup.

So someone like Alex and Alison Parker from Radical Root Farm came to us I think 6 years ago. They had worked on other farms, they had incredible passion! They needed a place to to test themselves

we asked them for a business plan.  They developed a business plan, they identified the markets, how they wanted to sell their produce, all those business questions. WE leased them the first year,

half acre maybe an acre, over time they grew that business, leasing a full five acres

and starting to make a living

They were both working on the farm by the time they finished with us. We then worked with them to find another farm where they could farm. They still didn’t have the money to buy a farm and stay within the market area they wanted which was Chicago. So we worked with them to find a piece of land that was owned by a not-for-profit land conservancy that was interested in supporting farmers.

They now lease that land they have a a series of 5 years lease rolling, so they’re always looking out 5 year.

They’re growing on 15 acres now, it’s a successful commercial enterprise. They market primarily through a CSA and farmer’s markets. It’s a great opportunity to get started.

They’ve been able to get credit now to grow the business because they had 5 years of working with us where they developed those records, that information so they could show an annual budget and annual returns and file income taxes based on farming.

That’s an example of how that might work for us.

So if listeners are interested in it? Is there something you would tell them, not necessarily a warning, or something that wouldn’t work or something they should be paying attention to or be committed to?

The biggest thing they should pay attention to. Until they have actually, the biggest thing, go slowly, don’t go out and buy, a big piece of land that you will ultimately need to be a successful farmer, don’t buy a lot of new equipment, don’t incur a lot of debt.

I encourage new farmers, to actually lease land and lease equipment, so you minimize the debt and risk, if something doesn’t work then, you might decide that farming’s just too hard! I want the social interaction of being at another job, I like a hobby but I don’t want to be a full time farmer.


if you have already bought a big farm and your stuck

this has been a great experiment, basically I can move on to something else, and you don’t have a bank loan where someone is screaming at you to finish paying the mortgage. That’s my cynical view, don’t incur a lot of debt.

At some point  you’re gonna incur a little debt, but is that when you know what you want to do.

One thing, people might realize is not that’s it is hard work but that there are parts they don’t like. For example, no matter what you have to market your product. And if you three’s the whole business piece, if you just want to grow things, unless you have a partner. Or they might decide I LOVE IT! I don’t want to discourage anyone 



One of the great challenges. They are not very good at the business side or they don’t like the business side, they get into it becasue they like the growing the being outside

Got to do both

at some point you get big enough,

delegating the business side, is not the answer. You’re much better off delegating the tractor and the planting and seeding.

you want to be on top of the marketing and finances.

The other thing I was  thinking also is that people might want to pivot. For example, I was gonna grow sunflowers to test it out but right away I realized I don’t have the wherewithall to grow and market sunflowers so I decided to pivot and grow them for bird seed, because if I could just grow enough that I don’t have to purchase bird seed this winter that would save a lot of money and I grew 750 sunflowers and I am still purchasing bird seed. People might decide they want to sell micrograms in a greenhouse instead of a big farm.

That’s exactly. What you can do, when you’ve invested in a big tractor it’s pretty hard to justify growing micro greens. If you have a lot of land, going into hydroponics and greenhouse production probably seems kinda weird your’ paying a morthgage on a piece of land and you’re growing in 2 big greenhouses

maybe they’re

not justifying the land purchase

avoid a lot of the debt to start with, and allow yourself the flexibility of those options, whether it’s growing microgreens or growing flowers or bird seed

more flexibility to experiment if you haven’t constrained yourself with debt or a location that doesn’t work for this.

Do you want to tell people how to find out, is there an application process? Timeline?

very easy go to Liberty Prairie Foundation at Liberty Prairie.org.

you’ll see a whole lot of description of all of the work that we do. You’ll see a section on the farm business development center, there’s an application process and a calendar on how you might participate and there you go. If you’re not in an area where we are physically located you can still get lots of ideas that you can adapt to your own situation. Maybe you would find another farmer who would let you lease a few acres and let you do the heavy tractor work for you. If you go to liberty prairie.org

Was there something about the Prairie Crossing Program?

All of this physical the farm business development center and our on the ground work  is at a prairie crossing farm, which is 100+ acres of certified organic farmland, 35 miles outside of downtown Chicago.

It came out in part of a larger project which was to

demonstrate the market forces

suburban sprawl, everyone wanting a house in the suburbs

consuming farmland


community we developed called prairie crossing.com

It’s a new community that we built with 400 houses, but we did it in such a way that 70% of the project site is protected open space now. It’s got restored prairies, wetlands and lakes, and chategorized the development of the Prarie Crossing farm and the protection of another 5000 acre immediately adjacent to the Prairie Crossing Farm.

Final Question

If there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?

I think that the greatest challenge is the complexity of the myriad of problems that we face. The challenge is everyone wants simple answers. My greatest wish I guess, to deal with that is that people be ready to engage in serious discussion across the board with new ideas with conflicting ideas, the groups that have not talked, historically, the conservation community and the farm community are completely separate groups and they share this passion about our greatest natural resource which is land and soil. And they are the front line people in terms of managing this until they learn how to talk to each other and respect each other and may might not always agree they might they will come a lot closer to solving those problems.

The impact human health, quality of food we eat, quality of the water that runs off of our land, the amount of carbon we sequester in our soils, the subsequent reduction of carbon dioxide levels of our atmosphere. Just those kinds of conversations can have a huge impact. It’s more complex then saying send $50 to save the world.

I’m always about cooperation. Because I am such a passionate liberal but I live in a very conservative area, grew up in a very conservative area for that matter, but I still have friends who think differently and I think some of our arguments are some of the funnest conversations. I always feel like people should be able to express their opinions, finding that common ground. People being like I can’t talk about that, there’s always things we agree on.

Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?

There’s a Wendell Berry quote that I have always loved which is “What I stand for is what I stand on.”

I just took his book out of the library, The Unsettling of America

He’s one of the great old wiseman,

he can be a crank sometimes, but he’s an amazing guy.

How do we connect with you?

Liberty Prairie Foundation

All of our staff with email addresses and short bios. You’re welcome to contact me, I love to talk to people!!

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