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Part I: Saray Stancic, MD FACN, Lifestyle Medicine
Saray Stancic, MD, a graduate of UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School and a board certified Infectious Disease specialist since 1999, is the founder of Stancic Health and Wellness in Ramsey NJ. The mission of this innovative medical practice is to educate and empower patients for achieving optimal health via lifestyle modification, while shedding light on the large and mounting body of scientific data supporting the importance of optimal nutrition in disease prevention. She seeks a highly personalized doctor-patient relationship, pursuing individual health related goals which may include weight loss, and improved control of blood sugars, lipid profiles and/or blood pressure with an eye towards reducing dependency on medication.
In 1995, Dr. Stancic, a third-year medical resident working long hospital hours, was abruptly stricken with a severe and disabling case of multiple sclerosis. After 8 years of impaired and disrupted work and daily life, complicated by side effects of intensive pharmaceutical therapies, she stumbled upon a medical journal study reporting some beneficial reduction in MS symptom severity associated with one particular food: blueberries. This triggered an exhaustive exploration of the medical literature, revealing plentiful evidence in respectable peer-reviewed journals that dietary choices do play a key role in the development of chronic illness…. a topic that had eluded the medical school curriculum she knew so well.
Dr. Stancic concluded that the power of prevention/healing offered by a whole-food, plant-based diet for many chronic conditions is enormous and unquestionable. Inspired, she saw it as imperative to adopt this lifestyle personally, and she discontinued all medications and focused upon optimizing diet. Remarkably, after years of difficulty walking unassisted, she found her neurological deficits gradually improving, and felt renewed and infused with a great sense of hope. She decided to take up jogging, which evolved to running, and in the spring of 2010 ran a marathon. She followed through on a pledge to walk 2,015 miles in 2015, 20 years after being struck down by multiple sclerosis. These experiences laid the foundation for a personal crusade to prevent chronic illness by helping patients modify their lifestyles.
Opportunities for physicians within their usual practices and specialties to advocate for improved patient nutrition have long seemed very limited. Earlier in her career as a chief and director of infectious disease and virology clinics, Dr. Stancic did serve as Co-Director of the Dept. Of Veterans Affairs’ successful national “MOVE Program” (Optimizing Nutrition and Disease Prevention Program)…. leading a multidisciplinary team of nutritionists, psychologists, physical therapists and physicians in educating veterans about incorporating physical activity and greater attention toward nutrition into daily life. As the years went by, she shared with other physicians her insights from the research literature and personal experience about potential chronic disease prevention/remediation using plant-based whole-foods diets…. But she found regrettably that not many colleagues shared her enthusiasm or accepted that this approach could be valid.
As a physician observing unnecessary suffering and loss, Dr. Stancic had felt compelled to spread the word of this seemingly untapped therapeutic resource. The physician of today is relegated to symptom management via treatment plans highly dependent on prescription medications and invasive procedures…. with little time devoted to uncovering and addressing the underlying causes of disease, and little time available for counseling, support and education, interventions that have been proven to circumvent the need for drugs and surgery. Therefore Dr. Stancic concluded that she would establish her own small medical practice as a model for lifestyle based personal wellness promotion, where the primary intervention is educating patients on the importance of food choices and how these simple decisions affect our complicated health outcomes.
Part II: Ben Hartman, Lean Farm Guide
Ben Hartman grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana and graduated college with degrees in English and philosophy. Ben and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, own and operate Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana, where they make their living growing and selling specialty crops on less than one acre. Their food is sold locally to restaurants and cafeterias, at a farmers market, and through a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) program. The farm has twice won Edible Michiana’s Reader’s Choice award. The Lean Farm, Ben’s first book, won the Shingo Institute’s prestigious Research and Professional Publication Award. In 2017, Ben was named one of fifty emerging green leaders in the United States by Grist. Follow the Clay Bottom Farm on Facebook.
TRANSCRIPTION PART I:
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! Hi everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining me, I’m really looking forward to this. I look forward to a lot of my shows, but I have to admit that this one is going to be extra special. It’s difficult when people get diagnosed with a difficult disease and, more and more, we have mountains of evidence talking about the power of a whole foods plant-based diet. We talked a few months ago with doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai about The Alzheimer’s Solution. That was so exciting to find out that we could actually reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 90% (I still can’t get over that number) with a healthy diet and lifestyle. And that’s a whole foods and plant-based diet. And we’ve been talking for years about how heart disease and diabetes can be prevented and often reversed. This is really wonderful information and, unfortunately, it’s taken a long time to get out there. Well, we’re going to learn about one of the other debilitating diseases that can also be positively impacted by a whole foods plant-based diet and I’ll get into that in just a little bit.
Back from California. And it was an interesting time to be away in California and now to be back home. It’s always kind of surreal to spend time in one place and then come back to another place that you know so well, but you’ve been away from for a while. It’s familiar but not familiar. But what’s really familiar and the parts that I love is coming home and coming home to my kitchen. Coming home to my herbs and spices. Coming home to my raw nuts and seeds and my… Just all the things that I love to have to put together fantastic dishes. And I’m at responsibleeatingandliving.com. I hope you’ve been there but that’s where we house so many of our great recipes along with my daily blog, What Vegans Eat, so you can see real food that vegans are eating every day.
Now, one more thing I wanted to talk about before I bring on my guest is tonight we begin another Plant Powered and Thriving course. Have you heard about Plant Powered and Thriving? Have you taken Plant Powered and Thriving? Have you thought about taking Plant Powered and Thriving? This is a 6-week online course that I co-created with John Robbins and his son, Ocean Robbins. We’ve been doing it for about three years, maybe longer, and I really love it. I get really excited when we get started doing this. We have wonderful participants, it’s once a week, we answer questions on the first course, and after the last course there’s a very active Facebook page. And if you’re having any challenges transitioning or you want to take your diet up a notch or you just want to learn the latest and greatest when it comes to food and nutritional science, this is a great course and it’s fun. And I find that John and Ocean and I… We all bring something different to the party. It’s a very different balance. So, if you’re interested – have I sold you on it yet? If you’re interested, you can go to… I’m going to give you the web address: thriving.foodrevolution.org/join. Have you got that? Very good.
All right, so now that you’ve got all that important information, I’m going to bring on my first guest. Dr. Saray Stancic, MD, a graduate of UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School and a board-certified Infectious Disease specialist since 1999, is the founder of Stancic Health and Wellness in Ramsey, New Jersey. The mission of this innovative medical practice is to educate and empower patients for achieving optimal health via lifestyle modification, while shedding light on the large and mounting body of scientific data supporting the importance of optimal nutrition in disease prevention. She seeks a highly personalized doctor-patient relationship, pursuing individual health related goals which may include weight loss and improved control of blood sugars, lipid profiles and/or blood pressure with an eye towards reducing dependency on medication. And there’s so much more we’re going to be learning about Dr. Stancic right now. Welcome to It’s All About Food, thank you for joining me.
Dr. Stancic: Thank you so much, Caryn. It’s a great pleasure to be with you this afternoon.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve been trying to get you on this program for a long time. As soon as I read your story, I thought “I have to meet this person” even if it’s just meeting you like this. I loved your story.
Dr. Stancic: I know, I wish I was with you in the studio. It would be nice to speak in person, but my schedule has been so hectic. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be here and I’m happy to have an opportunity to chat with you.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I want to hear your story and you have a few stories. When I first read about you, it was about your journey with multiple sclerosis and it’s such an important story to share and I was hoping that you might tell us a little about it.
Dr. Stancic: Sure. So, my story begins 22 years ago. On October 11th, 1995, I was at the time a third-year medical resident and I was on call at Beth Israel Medical Center. And it was one of those really busy nights where my pager just wouldn’t stop ringing and I was literally running from the ICU to the emergency room and back to the general ward all night. And it wasn’t until sometime between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning in which I found a window to make it back to my on-call room to take a brief nap and, Caryn, I remember making my way there and feeling this deep-seated sense of fatigue, something I had never experienced before, and the minute my head hit that pillow, lights out. Shortly thereafter, as you might imagine in the midst of that very busy call, I was paged yet again to address another urgent patient matter, but this time when I tried to get up out of that sleeping position, I couldn’t feel my legs, and I remember reaching down to touch them and it felt like they were someone else’s legs. Panic set in; I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening. Next thing I knew, I was in the emergency room undergoing an MRI of my brain and spinal cord, and those studies confirmed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis with multiple lesions in both my brain and spinal cord.
Caryn Hartglass: A very very scary diagnosis which you must have understood right away studying medicine.
Dr. Stancic: Oh, absolutely. Studying medicine and obviously caring for patients with this disease. I knew what it was capable of doing and so immediately it was obviously a very dark period in my life and there were obviously many concerns: I was a young woman, I had just turned 28 years old, and now I was being told by my physicians that I had this chronic disease and there was a very good chance that in 20 years, I might be in a wheelchair. And so, hearing those words at that age, those were extraordinarily difficult moments for me, and I was admitted to the hospital at that time and started on multiple medications to treat that acute event and then other medicines to slow the progression of this chronic disabling disorder. And that’s really when things became extraordinarily difficult for me because the medications, particularly the one medication that I was on. There was only one medicine approved by the FDA in 1995 for multiple sclerosis and that was a drug called Betaseron and it is a drug that has a significant side-effect profile that includes fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts. Really really significant side-effects and these drugs really took a toll on me. And what ended up happening is, the side-effects of that medication led to prescriptions of other drugs to treat those side-effects. So, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I was given Ambien. When I couldn’t wake up in the morning, I was given Provigil, an amphetamine-like drug. And so, by the time I was in my early thirties, I was dependent on nearly a dozen drugs. So, I had a pill box and despite all these medicines, my disease progressed and my quality of life suffered immensely.
Caryn Hartglass: But there’s a happy ending to this, right?
Dr. Stancic: There is a happy ending [laughs]. About eight years into the diagnosis and I’ll tell you, this is around 2003, and at this point I was dependent on a crutch or a cane and not doing well. I came across, just by chance, an article that discussed diet in MS and this was extraordinary to me. I was struck by this because I had never… I mean, here I was a physician: four years of medical school, four years of residency, and then another two years as a subspecialist. So, ten years of my life dedicated to higher education in the field of medicine and I had never… None of my educators, professors, or mentors had ever connected these two dots: diet and disease. And so, this was an extraordinary finding for me and, of course, that small article in that throwaway journal really sparked a great interest in me. It was what I call my “Aha” moment because for the first time in my life, I connected these two possibilities and, of course, I turned to the scientific literature looking for answers: Could this in fact be true? And what I found was extraordinary; that there was indeed ample evidence in the scientific literature that diet and disease were closely affiliated. I began to study literature very very carefully and at the end of the day, what I learned was that changing not only my diet but also my lifestyle. And that is exercise, stress-management, effective sleep hygiene, avoidance of tobacco, and reduction or near elimination of alcohol. That’s what we call this discipline called lifestyle medicine. When you apply all these parameters we know, the scientific literature tells us, that we can indeed prevent nearly 80% of chronic disease and even manage or reverse many diseases by applying these principles. To me this was an extraordinary treasure that I had come across and I was struck because why wasn’t I taught this in medical school? But nonetheless, I applied these things in my own life, Caryn, and yes, there is a happy ending. It didn’t happen in a month or two months or even six months, but over the following period over the years, I regained control of my life. I came off all of those medications and I went from a woman that was at one time dependent on a cane to one that crossed a finish line at the New Jersey Marathon in 2010. So, for me, it’s been an extraordinary journey and it’s largely why today… Although I’m very proud of the work that I did in the field of infectious disease in the early part of my career. Today, I have fully dedicated my profession to the idea of lifestyle medicine because I want to spread this message. I want to share this empowerment with patients and communities and, truthfully, other physicians because we need to change the way we train doctors in medical schools. The structure of academia needs to evolve to reflect the environment that we live in today. We live in a world that is struggling with chronic disease. Diabetes and obesity are exploding in our country and patients are suffering. And although medicines are important and all the innovation and advances we have acquired in medicine are extraordinary. Really, the most important aspect, the foundation of medical care must be prevention. It must be these variables that is lifestyle medicine: food movement, of stress management, sleep hygiene. These are really very important and they really need to be built into the constraint of medical education.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I’m sorry that you had to go through this, but, and I’m not saying that it was a good thing that it happened, but it’s a wonderful thing what came out of all of it because we really need doctors like you so desperately with this message.
Dr. Stancic: Thanks. You know, I…
Caryn Hartglass: I wanted to share… The reason why your particular story resonated with me so much is a couple of reasons. One, when I was a young girl, my aunt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This was in the ‘60s and there really wasn’t much for her and she had two young children and I watched her just dissolve physically and we couldn’t understand her. She was in a nursing home, it smelled like urine, it wasn’t a place that a young child wanted to be in, and it wasn’t until my later years that I really felt the pain of what she went through. And when my best friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis around 1999, it all came back to me and I thought, this is not going to happen to her. And I did to some extent what you did. I don’t have a medical degree so I didn’t have access to all kinds of literature, but I did find out about Dr. Swank’s work and a variety of other things, and I put her… She was a vegetarian who was eating bagels, pasta and cheese and pretzels. That was her diet!
Dr. Stancic: Not a good diet!
Caryn Hartglass: No! I mean, even though she wasn’t eating meat, she was eating white flour food and dairy. And anyway, I put her on a very healthy diet and her doctor, ten years later said, “You’re one of the lucky 10%.”
Dr. Stancic: Yeah? That’s a great story, thank you for sharing that with me and it’s so true. It’s interesting in 1952, Roy Swank published the first article in the New England Journal of Medicine speaking to this diet and disease and at that point, he had hypothesized that it was saturated fat that was playing a role in MS. And he went on to treat patients in the ‘50s/’60s. He actually published a data in the Archives of Neurology in 1970 after following 140 plus patients over twenty years. But he didn’t stop there, Caryn, he followed them another fourteen years and reported on them in The Lancet journal in 1990. And at the end of the day, what he concluded was: those patients that maintained a low-fat/plant-based diet had a lower rate of mortality and 95% of them remained disability free. That’s extraordinary and yet that body of data, regrettably today, modern neurology doesn’t give much attention to.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s insane! That’s insane!
Dr. Stancic: Yeah
Caryn Hartglass: They come up with these reasons that there wasn’t a control group to compare. The control group is everybody!
Dr. Stancic: Right, that’s the major criticism that Swank received was; that he did not have a control. What he had was a historical control and, yes, the study wasn’t as perfect or the perfect design that we would like to see as scientists, but certainly the data was revealing, and it’s interesting that just as the story that you just shared with us, I hear stories like this all the time. I have so many patients of mine with multiple sclerosis that will similarly tell stories of improvement and this at some point needs to be acknowledged and recognized by mainstream neurology because I think we’re doing a disservice to MS patients. And by the way, it’s not that I’m saying that disease modifying therapies are not important. They may very well be and today we have many more than we did back in 1995. I think we have more than a dozen that are approved today, but with that said, each drug has a side-effect profile. There is a… it’s a double-edged sword. So, we have to weigh out the risk benefit of any decision we make in health care and, by the way, optimizing our diet and exercising and addressing all these parameters that I speak to in lifestyle medicine will serve us regardless whether we have MS or not, right? Because just because you have MS doesn’t mean that you’re not at risk of developing breast cancer or heart disease or diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease. And we know that diet and exercise and optimal lifestyle will help to prevent those other chronic diseases from happening and we’re now building a body of evidence that, yeah, lifestyle in MS. We know, for example, that patients who maintain a healthy weight reduce their risk of developing multiple sclerosis. We know that patients who do not smoke reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis. So, all of these are tied in and are correlated. We just don’t have that really impressive study that, I think, most mainstream neurologists want to have as something that they can point to, but these anecdotal cases are valuable, and we need to stop ignoring them.
Caryn Hartglass: What about reducing the amount of Pepsi we drink? My aunt, back in the ‘60s, drank a lot of Pepsi. That was the one thing I really remembered about her. She was really slim but she drank a lot of Pepsi.
Dr. Stancic: Right. It’s an important topic to discuss and what’s interesting: that more and more physicians are becoming aware and they’re accepting this and introducing this into their clinical practice. I can tell you that, here’s an extraordinary thing. That I when I first started my practice in 2013, that I could have never predicted… I have more than 20 patients in my practice that are also physicians and that’s extraordinary. And it happened…
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Dr. Stancic: Yeah. It happened because at one point we had a patient in common. You know, a diabetic patient. An obese patient. A hypercholesterolemia patient. And that patient came to see me on several medications, still with the weight issues, and by addressing their lifestyle, addressing their diet… The weight came off, the medications came off. And when they go back to see their doctor, the doctor says Well, what have you been doing? Oh, I went to see Dr. Stancic. She’s a lifestyle medicine physician. And then they say Well, what is that? And then they call me and we have a conversation and I empower them by sharing the evidence in the literature. Lifestyle medicine, is important to point, is a discipline that is fully evidence based. So, everything we speak to is supported by a mounting body of literature in peer-reviewed medical journals, so that’s really… We’re not asking patients to do anything that isn’t. I’m not asking patients to take supplements or any… It’s all about addressing What is the construct of your plate? What is your exercise regime like? Again, are you sleeping 8 hours? What is your sleep hygiene like? All of these parameters that we tend to take for granted, we don’t pay much attention to. That’s really the key when we optimize these parameters to not only prevention, but also management and reversing disease.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, the few times I’ve contacted you, you’ve always been running here and there and been very busy, and one of the things I know in addition to your wonderful practice, you’ve been working on a wonderful documentary called Cold Blue. Can we hear a little bit about it?
Dr. Stancic: Sure. So, Cold Blue has been a labor of love for me over the past two years. I’ve partnered with a local filmmaker and the film is really about addressing this absurd lapse in medical education. Isn’t it absurd that doctors go through four years of medical school and learn little to nothing about nutrition? And nutrition is the most important aspect of health maintenance and preventing disease and we just don’t get this education. We don’t get any of these lifestyle matters discussed and so what we learn in medical school is we’re really good at diagnosing and then we’re really good at treating and we typically treat with drugs or with surgical intervention. We just don’t understand the value of this aspect of health care and, for me, this film is really about shedding light on that and then proposing a solution. What we need to do is take a look at that curricula and rebuild it to reflect the world that we live in today, which is a world of chronic disease. Obesity. Diabetes. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in this country. Do you know that by addressing these parameters, the literature tells us that we can prevent nearly 80% of heart disease? That’s the number one cause of death! 600,000 Americans die every year. We can save 480,000 lives by addressing these parameters. That’s extraordinary. I want the public to be aware of this. I want physicians to be aware of this because together we can do this and we can turn the tide of the chronic disease epidemic.
Caryn Hartglass: The public, the physicians, and the politicians because if we’ve got a public that’s a lot healthier, healthcare won’t be as outrageously expensive as it is today.
Dr. Stancic: Absolutely. But we have a long way to go. I just started a petition this past Saturday, Caryn, to address a matter that has been really bugging me for years. At the medical school from which I graduated, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in North New Jersey, in the cafeteria of that hospital, university hospital, sits a Burger King restaurant. Within the cafeteria of a university hospital. And that restaurant… it is absurd that a fast food eatery would be within the tertiary care center of our state. Do you not agree? Does it make sense? I mean, it would be…
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, absolutely. I signed that petition, by the way. I got your email and I signed it. And so please let people know where it is so that they can sign it too.
Dr. Stancic: Thank you so much. It’s on my Facebook page and we’re trying to share it as best we can. I think we’ve collected somewhere around 600 signatures and we started on Saturday. We really want the administrators, the CEO, and the board of directors at University Hospital to understand that this is unacceptable, and it is absurd that we have this type of food environment in a place that is supposed to represent healing. I mean, what kind of message are we offering those that work, the employees of University Hospital, the medical students of Rutgers University Medical School, the residents, the physicians that work there, the community that entrusts University Hospital with their mission and their vision to offer optimal health care and offer an optimal environment. You know, when we know better, we have to do better. Back when I was in medical school, it was acceptable to smoke in the hospital. In fact… It’s true. My mentor who’s not so much older than I am, she told me when she was a resident, they used to smoke on rounds. So, imagine if you walked into a hospital today and you saw a physician smoking, you would find that unacceptable. Well today, selling cheeseburgers that are laden with saturated fat and sodium, fueling heart disease and cancer and chronic diseases. That’s unacceptable. So, now that we know better, we must do better, but it’s 2017 and there it sits, and enough is enough. We need to bring to it the attention of those that make decisions and we as a community need to ask better. And by the way, it’s not just Newark; it’s not just University Hospital. All across the country, there are McDonald’s and all types of different fast-food restaurants. And again, I’m all about freedom of choice, I’m an American, but listen. If it’s across the street and you decided to make that choice, that’s fine. But what bothers me is that it’s within the hospital setting. That’s unacceptable.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes and I totally agree with you and I think it’s not just that one hospital, but it’s all over the country. I know personally I’m a cancer survivor and I had advanced ovarian cancer in 2006 and I spent a lot of time in hospitals and I had to educate the dieticians and tell them you can’t keep feeding me cancer promoting foods.
Dr. Stancic: That’s extraordinary, yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: And they’re still doing it because I visit with other people that are diagnosed as well and I see the crap that they’re serving. It’s criminal or it should be.
Dr. Stancic: It is criminal. My medical students send me pictures all the time. There’s a patient that just had heart surgery and they’re eating bacon and eggs. It’s just unacceptable. Things need to change but we need to speak up because… It’s definitely moving in the right direction. We have some movement, but wow, when you see examples like this, it really infuriates one because we have the knowledge today. We know the significance of this and we can’t keep quiet any longer. We really have to assure that we do better as we move forward.
Caryn Hartglass: I just have one more question – have you received any negative feedback from this information that you’re giving out? I know you just spoke with T. Colin Campbell and his whole life he’s been given pushback from the information he’s tried to share on so many levels and he’s finally being heard, but you talk about physicians that come to you from their patients, but are some people rolling their eyes to you.
Dr. Stancic: Oh, absolutely. People roll their eyes and people say things and sometimes people post things on social media that are regrettable, but you know what? You have to grow a thick skin. I know even when this film comes out, I know that there’ll be criticisms, but I spoke to T. Colin Campbell yesterday and he told me all of his experiences and everything he’s gone through and thanks to him, we’ve made so many extraordinary leaps forward because of brave individuals like Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn and Dean Ornish and Neal Barnard. Just extraordinary individuals and we have to act. We have to speak up and, yes, what is that? There are those three stages of truth, right? First, you’re… I forget the shots. You know what I’m talking about?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, Yes.
Dr. Stancic: First, you’re ridiculed; then you’re violently opposed; and then you’re self-evident, right? I think those are the three stages of truth and that’s okay and I’m willing to take that beating because I believe in this so passionately and I know that we can save lives and we can offer patients better quality of life. And, so, that’s a battle worth fighting for. So, I’m ready.
Caryn Hartglass: Dr. Stancic, it was delightful meeting you today here on It’s All About Food. Just let us know where we can find you and hear more about Code Blue.
Dr. Stancic: Sure. Our website is codebluedoc.com. So, doc is that double entendre. Doc for documentary. On that website, you’ll find… We are trying to raise a little bit of money to get us through post-production, so if anybody is willing to donate. It’s a tax-deductible donation. We’re running that into Go Go Campaign until November 17. Any little bit helps and we’re so grateful. We hope to premiere the film in the Fall of 2018 and I’m so excited. We will have a premiere in New York City, so Caryn, you’ll have to join us and then our hope is to have multiple premieres across the country in major cities. So, hopefully, many of your viewers will be able to join us.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely, I’ll be there. Thank you so much for joining me today on It’s All About Food.
Dr. Stancic: Have a great evening, thank you. Bye bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, bye bye. All right, let’s move on. Was that wonderful? That was Dr. Saray Stancic and I hope you’ll follow her and look for that documentary. Isn’t that wonderful news? Did you know that multiple sclerosis can actually be treated with whole plant foods with great success and how many people know that? Please share that news. Share this podcast.
Transcribed by Carol Mock 1/8/2018
TRANSCRIPTION PART II:
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now with my next guest. Because we want to eat all of those wonderful plant foods, where are they going to come from?
Ben Hartman, my next guest, is going to tell us a little bit more. He’s got a new book out The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. Ben grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana. Graduated college with degrees in English and philosophy. Ben and his wife, Rachel Hershberger, own and operate Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Indiana where they make their living growing and selling specialty crops on less than one acre. Their food is sold locally to restaurants, cafeterias, at a farmers’ market, and through a community supported agriculture CSA program. The farm has twice won Edible Michiana’s Reader’s Choice award. The Lean Farm, Ben’s first book, won the Shingo’s Institute Prestigious Shingo Research and Professional Publication Award. In 2017, Ben was named one of 50 emerging green leaders in the United States by Grist.
Welcome to It’s All About Food, Ben. How are you today?
Ben Hartman: Hey, thanks for having me. I’m well.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad, I’m glad. I really enjoyed reading your book and I read it rather quickly. At some point, when I’m ready to start my farm, this is going to be my guide. It’s amazing!
Ben Hartman: Hey, thank you. I appreciate it.
Caryn Hartglass: But I guess because you have degrees in English, that helped you write books.
Ben Hartman: Sure, never hurt.
Caryn Hartglass: So I have an engineering background and I love systems and organization. I know a lot of us when we think about the Earth and plants and growing things, it all seems to some degrees mysterious and to some degree difficult to control. Fortunately, the last fifty to seventy-five years, industrial agriculture’s been trying to culture the environment and growing plants with all kinds of toxic chemicals and stuff.
But you’ve come up with a plan that is sustainable and intelligent. And you can actually make some money.
Ben Hartman: Yeah. I think the local food movement is at a point where there actually is some real money in it, if you take the right approach. I try to outline that approach in the book. As you probably know, the lean system began in manufacturing.
Caryn Hartglass: Yup.
Ben Hartman: We’re kind of taking it out of the factory and putting it out onto the farm. A customer of ours approached us and asked if we would be interested in trying out this lean system on a farm. He runs a factory, lives in a trailer company. To be honest, we told him thanks but no thanks. Part of the reason is that factory methods on farms haven’t always turned out sustainable results. In fact, it’s less sustainability. The thing I told him was, “Imagine you’re running a factory without a roof over your head.”
Caryn Hartglass: (laughs)
Ben Hartman: There’s just too much solubility out here. You can’t systematize anything, much less a lean system.
However, in the end, we said yes. Really, at the heart of it, “lean” is about identifying waste and eliminating it from your system. Then delivering precisely what your customer wants, identifying what your customer wants, and really listening and taking your customer seriously. We had to admit that we actually did have a lot of waste on our farm and there was a lot of room for improvement. So we said okay, we’ll try it and see what happens.
We’ve tweaked the system. Not every piece of lean system fits superbly on a farm. However, the basic concept is identifying your waste and get rid of the waste has really given us a boost in profits, and farming is easier to do too.
Caryn Hartglass: This idea of waste and reducing waste is more profitable—and also saves you time—is very powerful, especially now where most of us—not everyone—is talking about climate change. According to drawdown.org, food waste is the third topic they list that can have the most improvement on climate change by reducing food waste. We lose food by so many different steps, but the biggest place that we lose food is on the farm. When you can be better about that, it’s also going to help improve our environment.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh, absolutely. As you might know, the U.S. Department of Ag estimates that 20% of fresh fruits and vegetables that are produced are never even harvested and they’re never even going to leave their seals. Agriculture, as an industry, contributes more to fossil fuels and probable solutions than any other industry. So we have a lot on our shoulders here in the ag industry to take that seriously, and to reduce the amount of fossil fuel consumption and the amount of waste on our farms.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes.
Ben Hartman: Really, it’s good for us too. It’s not just good for everyone else living on planet Earth, it really does help on your bottom line to just cut out the waste and make sure that every seed turns into cash. That you’re not wasting any effort.
Caryn Hartglass: And I was fascinated by so many different steps that you looked at—just about every step in your process—and found ways to make things more efficient and faster. There was one line… I’m trying to remember what it was… But you said the work is tedious but should not be mindless. That applies to everything we do in life. So many things are routine, difficult, and challenging, but so important to be mindful about everything that we do. The discovery can be amazing.
Ben Hartman: Yeah. That’s one of the benefits of applying lean to the business. It declutters your working environment and makes it more easy to slip into a state of flow, where you can focus on the work at hand. And a result in happiness. Research shows that the most productive and the happiest workers, whether they’re on farms or on other places, are workers who have just what they need in front of them and no more. When you can get rid of the clutter, get rid of everything you don’t need and you can focus—it still can be hard work; I don’t want to say that it is not sometimes hard work on a farm. However, you can focus and you can enjoy your work more.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you’ve taken a lot of knowledge from the Japanese.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.
Caryn Hartglass: I imagine that some of their skills come from a great need for not having a lot of land and needing to be able to grow as efficiently as they possibly could.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Ben Hartman: That’s true in countries like South Korea and Japan. Their small farming community is decades ahead of ours here. Maybe the tools that we use come from those countries, and the methods and the techniques. The reason is, as you say, they do not have access to large tracts of land. They’ve had to maximize every square foot in order to feed their growing populations.
That is at the heart of the lean system because the first workers at Toyota were rice farmers—Toyota’s considered the originator of the lean system. These rice farmers brought this really lean, no-waste way of thinking onto the factory floor. At the time, just after World War II, when Toyota began, it was a challenging environment to be an automobile manufacturer because the country had just been bombed out. No one was purchasing vehicles in Japan, and there are no stable suppliers for parts. It was a very difficult time to begin in automobile business.
However, they said we’re going to do it anyhow. We want to catch up to the U.S. automakers within three years.
So they set about applying this rice farm thinking to the factory, and they did it. Within a couple of decades, they had outpaced every other auto manufacturer. Became the world’s number one auto manufacturer.
Caryn Hartglass: My first car was a Toyota. (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: Okay, great. And it lasted a long time, probably.
Caryn Hartglass: It did. Absolutely.
Ben Hartman: So Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sent a team of researchers over in the 1980s to figure out just what the heck is going on. That team really clarified the lean system and explained it in such a way that other businesses such as ours could use it and implement it.
Caryn Hartglass: One of the things that I love about it is that it takes into consideration that nothing is stagnant; everything changes, and you have to consistently go with the flow and change along with it.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh, yeah. Change is the one thing that is constant—in the lean system.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right. (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: The idea is that it’s not just to make your work more interesting. It’s we change… because we’re imperfect, and there’s always a better solution. If you think you’ve found the final solution, you’re probably ready to be shown the door. Because there are no final solutions. There are only implementations of perfection.
In the lean system, they say that perfection is the goal. You want to produce zero waste, absolutely no waste in your system. That is obviously unobtainable. There is always some waste that will come creeping in, one way or the other. However, if that’s what the goal is, you can always come closer.
Caryn Hartglass: Mm.
Ben Hartman: We’ve found every year we grow using different methods. The pacing changes really quick on our farm. We’re constantly finding new techniques, new methods, and new process recipes. It keeps our farm more interesting, and it makes it more profitable.
Caryn Hartglass: And did I read this right? Did you move around what you grow over different parts? You don’t always grow the same thing from the same plot?
Ben Hartman: Yeah, that’s true. There is quite a bit of rotation.
Caryn Hartglass: And why do you do that?
Ben Hartman: The idea behind that is one of the principles of lean is full capacity production. You want to be using every square foot of your factory, or every square inch of your greenhouse.
So what we do is that we see a space that is not used—certainly when a plot becomes open—we work very quickly to put a crop in. As soon as we harvest. For instance, maybe we have a bed of 300 heads of lettuce. Within a couple of hours, we’re going to plant some beets or something else in that space.
We’re constantly in that full capacity production. There’re no spaces that are open for very long. Just by virtue of following that principle, the crops get shifted around quite often.
Caryn Hartglass: You cover so many different things. You have one chapter on weed and pest control.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.
Caryn Hartglass: Which is a big issue, especially for those of us who want organic food. You grow organically, but you also use organic certification approved methods to handle pests and weeds. And I liked a number of times in the book when you talked about certain methods that people do, you always ended up finding that you liked the methods that seemed to work best were the ones where there was planning and preventative stuff ahead of time rather than having to fix something later on.
Ben Hartman: Yeah. In general, if we want a successful (say) tomato harvest in August, then the real planning for that begins in the previous August. About a year ahead. With soil preparation. With making sure that the infrastructure pieces are in place. And obviously listening to the customers, making sure that you’re growing the right type of tomatoes, the right color of tomatoes.
In that way, farming is unique. Because most crops that we grow take at least two to three months, and sometimes more. Relatively slow turnaround compared to a furniture factory.
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: Where the producer can take an order in an afternoon. So we have a very slow turnaround period where I think it means that we have to work extra hard to plan ahead.
Caryn Hartglass: Speaking of tomatoes, you talked about the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and heritage tomatoes. Can you explain that to all of us who don’t really know for sure?
Ben Hartman: Basically an heirloom tomato would be a tomato whose seeds have been passed through the generations. So these are older, traditional varieties. Generations ago, they used to breed tomatoes for their flavor. Hard to believe, isn’t it? (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: Now modern tomato breeders are, in general, looking for a tomato that ships. They want a hard outer shell.
Caryn Hartglass: Mm.
Ben Hartman: And they usually want a pretty regular-looking tomato. You don’t want too many funky colors and shapes.
These older tomatoes actually taste really good. On the other hand, these heirloom tomatoes often tend not to be very disease resistant. So a hybrid tomato would be a newer type of tomato that is bred—like I said—to ship and for uniformity.
A newer type of tomato would be a heritage tomato, and a heritage tomato would be a hybrid tomato that harkens back towards heirloom tomatoes. So there are newer types of tomatoes that are more disease resistant, and they have the color and the flavor of those heirloom tomatoes that you’d have.
We grow a mix of all three types, depending on what our customers are asking.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Now back to weed and pest control because I was going somewhere and then I kind of went somewhere else. (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: Okay.
Caryn Hartglass: The point I was trying to make was when you plan like when you plan for tomatoes or when you plan for so many other things on your farm, you can significantly reduce the number of pests and weeds that are growing throughout rather than having to apply something unpleasant to get rid of them later on. Right?
Ben Hartman: That’s correct. Essentially what we’ve managed—an analogy would be like a carpenter building a house. You’re going to tackle that project with a whole truckload of tools. With weed management, I think it helps to have a lot of tools at your disposal. It’s a complicated subject. There a lot of ins and outs; it depends on the crop that’s going in.
However, a general rule that we use is if that crop is in the ground for two months or more. These would include tomatoes or peppers. As long as we’re using crops, we’re going to be using some type of mulch. Either a plastic mulch or a natural mulch like we use and strip off. If it’s a shorter season crop (two months or less), then we cultivate those crops plain.
Probably the most effective way that we have eliminated weeds from our farm is to simply transplant everything. We use very little dry seeding for the crop. Most of our crops go in between when they’re four to six weeks ahead. That means that they’re also four to six weeks ahead of the weeds. We can get a jump on them. That really cuts out on the weeding that we have to do.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, I imagine a lot of these techniques that you have developed can apply to any size farm or even someone’s garden.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh. The reason is the types of waste that the lean system has identified, they’re ubiquitous. Rachel and I actually have a garden at our home, and those types of waste are in our home garden. They’re in the kitchen, they’re in the garage, they’re everywhere. And they’re in all kinds of work environments. There’s waiting waste, wasted motion—the book outlines the ten types.
And so it’s true. The vegetable growing techniques that we use, we use on a scale of about half an acre. You can certainly use every technique in there on a home garden too.
Caryn Hartglass: Your farm is called Clay Bottom Farm, and you’ve talked about how the soil is clay, actually.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh.
Caryn Hartglass: You have these tables and things about the different types of soils you can have to farm in. But I was surprised because I never thought you could grow anything in clay.
Ben Hartman: It’s a double-edged sword because it’s very difficult to work. It sticks in your house, it sticks to your tools. It’s very hard to transplant into. However, clay holds so much nutrients that you need to add very little fertility to it.
Basically what we did was we added lots of weeds, lots of grass clippings, lots of pasture toppings—lots of organic mulch. We made a lot of compost. We added that and mixed it in, and that really loosened it and made it a workable soil. We’ve been very happy with it.
Caryn Hartglass: You have two young children now, right?
Ben Hartman: That’s correct, yeah, I have two. One and three.
Caryn Hartglass: One and three. And they’re out there helping out on the farm.
Ben Hartman: I mean, I would use the word “help” in air quotes. (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: (laughs) Because there were some pretty good pictures in your book. (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: Yeah, we actually love and adore our kids. One of the many benefits of leading up our property and our farm, the one that I am proudest of, is that it frees up a couple days a week that I can spend on our kids.
Caryn Hartglass: And you can even take a vacation.
Ben Hartman: And that we have plenty of time for vacations. I had five camping trips with them last year.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh my goodness.
Ben Hartman: It’s an absolutely chill way to farm with kids, as long as you have the time and energy to do it.
Caryn Hartglass: You also talk about how you’re going to decide what to grow and how, to some extent, let your customers lead you—or pull you, I think the term was.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Caryn Hartglass: So what are the trends right now? What are the customers demanding?
Ben Hartman: Most people in the U.S. now eat outside of the home, most of the time. And for the minority of foods that we eat are prepared in the home. What’s trending is foods that are prepared, which means that it fails to rest on, are really booming. Especially these artisan restaurants. We’ve noticed the last five or six years in our business that our sales for restaurants went from 20% to the point where you see most of our food now, 50%, goes to restaurants.
What that means is that we’re doing a lot of listening to chefs. You can do what I do with anywhere. I go in, I talk to each of our chefs, and I try to eat a meal at each of the restaurants that we deliver here. And we’re serving the menus. I’ll ask, “Hey, chef. What’s new on the menu now that’s here?” and “Could we plant crops that are complimenting what you’re doing?” I can offer suggestions too. But in general, we take their lead and really try to listen closely.
According to lean, there are basically three questions that you need to ask your customer:
1. What will you want, what’s the specific product that you’re after?
2. When do you want it?
3. How much do you want?
Very simple. It’s not very difficult to address and answer these questions. However, it does take a little extra effort.
We found that a very simple technique is to go to each of our customers, each of our chefs, and ask them a version of these three questions. And then we pull a calendar out for the coming year and we file their orders. We get them what they want, when they want it, and the right amount throughout the growing season. The closer that we are to answering and delivering on those questions precisely, then the more profitable we are at the end of the year. And that’s basically our farm system.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so what did they ask for last winter?
Ben Hartman: Fennel is becoming more popular because it has a lot of uses. For instance, we have our microbrewery that shreds their fennel and puts it on their hamburgers. There’s another restaurant that makes a fennel slaw; it’s like a coleslaw that’s half-fennel. There’s another restaurant that’s roasting them.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow, nice.
Ben Hartman: They’ll cut into little half-inch, little French fry shapes, and they roast them. They make a wonderful side dish.
Caryn Hartglass: Wonderful. I lived in the south of France in the early ‘90s, and fennel is very popular in French cuisine. I guess the American chefs are figuring that out now.
Ben Hartman: Uh-huh. And another one that’s becoming more popular is rhubarb.
Caryn Hartglass: Really?
Ben Hartman: Rhubarb’s an older, traditional vegetable. However, there’s so much you can do with it, including drinks. There’s a traditional rhubarb drink that some places are starting to use.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh wow.
Ben Hartman: And obviously desserts. There’s a whole range of desserts and other fruits you can mix it with.
Caryn Hartglass: And what does rhubarb look like when you grow it?
Ben Hartman: It grows low to the ground. Looks like a small bush with large elephant-eared shaped leaves. The chefs, they like the rhubarb ripe. They like the bright red stalks. They want a lot of color.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’ve seen the stalks sold in stores, but I didn’t know what the entire plant looked like or where those stalks came from.
Ben Hartman: Mm.
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)
Ben Hartman: It’s very easy to grow them in your home because they’re perennial. You can plant it once and you can harvest it for ten to twenty years.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Well, this is just fascinating and—what we’re talking about now is The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, but you had a book previous to this that kind of goes along with it, right?
Ben Hartman: Yeah, my first book is just called Lean Farm. That talks about the lean system in general terms and explains it in such a way that I think farmers can wrap their heads around it. Then I give examples of how we apply lean, in some cases, on our farms.
Then the new book which is just coming out a week ago is called The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. This one gives you detailed information on how to grow crops, whether you’re home garden or market grower. I tell you everything that I learned in the last fifteen years.
Caryn Hartglass: (laughs)
Ben Hartman: It’s the book that I wished I had and available when I began.
Caryn Hartglass: You talk in the book about how most of your customers you try to keep within a ten-mile radius, and that also helps keep your system lean because you’re not wasting money on travel. And that’s really the way how all farms should operate. Shouldn’t we have farms near the population and working together?
Ben Hartman: It’s actually the way that all farms used to operate. It’s only been in the last two to three generations that we’ve kind of gotten used to this idea that we can ship our food across the world to whoever wants to pay enough to eat it. The reality is within 100 miles in just about any part of the U.S., you can grow such a wide range of crops. If you want to start as a small-scale farmer, there’s really no reason to look very far from home. And I say keep your food as close to home as possible.
Caryn Hartglass: Those are great messages. Ben Hartman, thank you so much for joining me today. I loved reading your book. Thank you for creating this system that is going to be so helpful to so many people.
Ben Hartman: Hey, thank you for having me. Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome. Ben Hartman, The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, published by Chelsea Green, one of my favorite publishers.
Well, that wraps up another It’s All About Food show. I’m so glad you joined me. And remember, if you’re still thinking about Plant-Powered and Thriving, we’re starting tonight. Go to thriving.foodrevolution.org/join/.
I’m Caryn Hartglass. Thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food. Have a delicious week!
Transcribed by HT 1/2/2018