ReGen Brands Recap #74

Johnny Hunter @ Castor River Habitat & Farm

Trial By Fire & Salvation By Regeneration

On this episode, Anthony and Kyle speak with Johnny Hunter, President of Castor River Habitat & Farm. Castor River Habitat & Farm is supporting regenerative agriculture with its lineup of white, brown and jasmine rice produced on their own farm and milling facility in Southeast Missouri. Their rice can be found online, at retailers across the United States, and featured in Just Salad bowls. 



Continuing The Family Legacy

Johnny Hunter is a third-generation farmer from the Missouri Bootheel. Johnny’s grandfather, F.S. Hunter, developed what is now Castor River’s home farm by transforming swampland into land for production agriculture. Johnny’s father took on the business and continued to develop the land and improve production as an early adopter of precision land leveling and irrigation. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father passed away at a young age, leaving his mother to decide whether to sell the land or continue the family business. Though he was only ten years old, Johnny decided then that he would continue the legacy and become a farmer, keeping the family on the land. Now as an adult, Johnny aims to leave not just a farm but a farm with an on-going sustainability journey and a CPG brand to his own children. 

“When it's in your blood, it wasn't even that big of a deal. I'm like, yeah, I want to farm. So she (his Mother) took the word of a ten-year-old and held on to the land.” - Johnny


Trial By Fire & Salvation By Regeneration

Jonny learned quickly that farming is no easy job. As Johnny describes it, farming is like going to the casino and as he says, “the house always wins in the end.” He describes how there are just too many variables in farming to be able to predict the end result of each growing season. From weather, to commodity prices, to labor costs, to input prices and more, there are so many factors outside of the farmer’s control that can significantly impact a farmer’s return on investment.

“Anytime you're trying to find patterns and you want to develop consistency, you have to look at the variables. Well in farming our variables are infinite – weather, huge variable, commodity prices, huge variable, government policy, huge variable, labor costs, huge variable, labor availability, input prices, equipment prices, land leases…There's no Excel pro forma that I know of that will actually spit you out an [accurate forecast], like ‘ok if you farm this year, here's what you're going to look like at the end of the year’.” - Johnny

After many years farming very conventionally, Johnny realized that the heavy use of agrochemicals and recreational tillage was not making his farm more productive or resilient. In 2012, severe drought hit the farm and the operation lost $650,000 in one year under Johnny’s watch due to overspending on inputs and underproducing. As Johnny describes, his farm hit rock bottom. After much time spent scouring the internet for resources and ideas, Johnny found soil scientist Ray Archuleta and was convinced to shift towards rebuilding the soil health on his farm as a new way forward. 


Bringing Health To Soil & Habitat To Farm

Johnny’s transition from conventional to regenerative agriculture practices were life-changing. Before, he was micromanaging his land, calculating fertilizer and pesticide use for each acre or even sub-acre of his farm. He was also doing a lot of recreational tillage.

“We were using lots and lots of synthetic fertilizer. Hundreds of pounds of urea, hundreds of pounds of potash, boron, copper, ammonium sulfate because you had to…because when you're farming in a broken system, it takes a lot of help to get you down the road. Right? And lots of tillage, lots of water, lots of fungicides, lots of insecticides. Our job as farmers in the old way, was we wanted as much of a laboratory in that field as we could get. We wanted it sterile.” - Johnny

As he transitioned to regenerative practices, he stopped tilling, incorporated cover crops, and began to gradually cut down the use of fertilizer. He also significantly cut water use by no longer flooding his rice. Regenerative farming has completely changed how he approaches his land – he feels like it has opened up space for him to be more creative and ultimately much happier as a farmer. He sees himself and his farm on a continuous sustainability journey and has fallen in love with this process of farming.

“Looking forward to today, you know, my farm looks more like a zoo because my job as a regenerative farmer is to bring in as much life as I can into my ecosystem. And I tell people all the time, look, I've got a habitat and I've got a farm. They coexist with one another. The habitat is home to millions and millions of millions of living organisms, both above and below the surface of the soil. And then within this ecosystem, within this habitat, we're raising food. And to me, that's exciting. And I love the fact that I do what I do.” - Johnny


Bringing Rice To Retail & Restaurants

Once Johnny transitioned to regenerative farming, he quickly realized that he also needed to build a brand in order to be rewarded for the approach. His usual buyers, large multinational food suppliers like Cargill, ADM, Lewis Dreyfus and Bunge, did not care about his farming practices nor did they want to pay him a premium for practicing regenerative agriculture. Realizing he no longer wanted to be a price taker, but a price maker, Johnny created the brand Castor River Habitat & Farm. The business is completely vertically integrated with its own on-farm rice mill, packing plant, and transportation company.

Getting Castor River Habitat & Farm’s rice on retailer shelves turned out to be just as much, if not more of a challenge than transitioning to regenerative agriculture. At first, Johnny hit walls with distributors and retailers – retailers required him to have a distributor before accepting his product and distributors required him to already have retailer partnerships. Determined to find an in, Johnny went door to door visiting Hy-Vee store managers, convincing them one by one to allow him to place his products on the shelf. After over 150 visits, he managed to get his rice on the shelves of 65 Hy-Vee stores. Finally, with this base, Johnny was able to find a distributor and grow the brand’s retail sales from there. Today, Castor River Habitat & Farm rice is available in retailers such as Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, Winn-Dixie, Walmart, and thousands of other grocers across the US.

Foodservice is also a promising growth channel for Castor River Habitat & Farm. Johnny is excited about their current partnership with Just Salad, a certified B-Corp with a chain of fast-casual restaurants serving salads, bowls, and wraps. Just Salad has integrated Castor River’s brand and story into its menu and other marketing materials, with future plans to have Johnny visit their locations in-person to talk to customers and share about his farm and regenerative rice production. 

When it comes to Castor River Habitat and Farm’s own marketing and claims, they continue to focus on a farmer-first approach. In 2020 the firm rebranded to focus more on storytelling and is now pursuing certification through Regenified™. Johnny chose Regenified because it is farmer-led and he thinks the certification process is grounded in the reality of the choices, barriers, and other variables that farmers have to face when adopting regenerative practices. 

Looking to the future, Johnny hopes to continue to grow Castor River and move beyond their vertically integrated model to partner with other farmers in Missouri. He thinks that Regenified certification will help them provide clear guidelines and support other farming families to transition to regenerative practices and join their supply chain. 

“I think the best service we can do for our communities and for our industry is we want to be able to partner with other families like ours. We want to help transition them from where they're at today to where they need to be and then we want to be their partner to offtake their rice. And then we want to be able to tell their story, because every family’s got a story to tell… We’ll end up being our own little supply chain in our corner of the world that hopefully grows and scales all over the world.” - Johnny 


50% Market Share 4 Regen

Johnny believes that consumer education, and particularly youth empowerment, will be key in growing market share for regenerative brands. He thinks that educating younger generations about where their food comes from and how it's grown can have a powerful snowball effect. 

Johnny also believes that giving farmers a voice and putting their needs first is crucial. In his own region, Johnny founded the Missouri Delta Soil Health Alliance, which brings together farmers, public sector actors, universities, and other agricultural experts to promote soil health initiatives in Southeast Missouri.

Ultimately for Johnny, growing regenerative market share comes down to falling in love with the regenerative agriculture process, putting farmers first, and increasing consumers’ understanding of where their food comes from. 

If you fall in love with the process, if you fall in love with knowing where your food comes from, if you fall in love with healthy soil, if you fall in love with nutrient density, then it doesn't matter what we call it at that point. It's just knowing your food source. It's knowing your farmer. And I think that's the direction, the positive direction that we're moving in.” - Johnny


This ReGen Recap was written by Katey Finnegan

The illustrations were created by Stacey Shaller

You can check out the full episode with Johnny Hunter @ Castor River Habitat & Farm HERE

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