Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.
Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we are talking about new farmers with Marcus Coleman.
Hallie: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Marcus: Absolutely. I’m glad to be here. It’s an awesome opportunity.
Chris: Yeah, thanks. It’s great to meet you.
Marcus: Oh, good. You guys are over in Texas, correct?
Chris: Yes, sir.
Marcus: I think it was supposed to be last week LSU was supposed to be playing University of Texas. I wish we had that lead and go into that.
It would have been even a greater conversation, maybe a little trash talking if you pull a longboard advance, but we’ll keep it rolling with the ag, right?
Chris: Yeah, I have a feeling it would have gotten a lot better for you than it would have for us, but I see where you’re coming from.
Marcus: It’s all like a smart man.
Marcus: Go tigers, right? [Laughs]. No, it’s great. Here in LSU, I work in the ag center. I run a beginning farmer training program. I’m wrapping up my PhD. I’m a football fan. Did I mentioned that I was a football fan but the saints played Unites all right here in South Louisiana?
Marcus: I’m looking forward to the rest of the day.
Chris: But are you a football fan?
Marcus: A little bit.
Marcus: I think I watch it may be like once a day, whether it’s like a game or ESPN or whatever the case is. I try to get just a little bit to keep my day rolling.
Chris: Let me ask you real quick. How do you feel about them being back really? Is it like, I’m so glad I get to watch football or, okay, well, here they are. I guess I’ll go ahead and watch it.
Marcus: It depends on what hat I put on. My college football fan hat, I’m excited about it particularly for SSC football, the greatest football in the country. For a while, I did some work with the football team here. I’ve helped to run a couple of morning study halls, so I’m excited to see the young men that I’ve worked with get back on the field and run through the rest of the SSC and anybody else that gets in their way. But at a certain point it’s like, it was just so much talking about it. Well, maybe they’ll play it, maybe they won’t. It’s kind of like you know what? I guess I’ll watch, but I’m a little bit more excitement about that little everything.
Chris: Fair enough.
Hallie: As I interrupt the football talk, but I did actually invite Marcus here to talk about agriculture.
Marcus: Well, certainly. Ag is my passion.
I grew up in rural Northeast Louisiana Tensas Parish in the Mississippi Delta. Tensas, Madison and East Carroll parishes here in Louisiana are probably recognized as the three port parishes in the state, but those three parishes are dominated by agriculture production of commodity crops. We grow a lot of corn and soybeans in Hatton in that corner of the state and so agriculture is what I saw growing up. In fact, I was up in that corner of the state. This weekend, they’re getting ready to [inaudible] prevention and I was joking with some friends that there’s no greatest smell in the air than the foliation chemicals being sprayed on [inaudible] for production. I still had it sitting in my nose from the weekend trip, but that kind of reminded me of my childhood. The other part of it why I’m interested in doing farmer access and food access work was because growing up in that environment of the state, I saw big [inaudible]. I saw large commodities production and added it with my background of who I was. I didn’t have access to land. I didn’t have access to those capital resource to engage in agriculture at that level of production. Throughout my career, I’ve looked for ways to provide opportunities for everybody to be engaged in agriculture, so agriculture and the admin system. Whether it’s somebody growing on an eighth of an acre to somebody growing a hundred acres to sell directly to farmer’s market or CSA or sell directly to a grocery store, those are the things that I’m interested in and those are things that I saw a hole in my community growing up, so it’s exciting to be able to do this work now.
Hallie: How did you get to do this work? It sounds like you grew up in a rural area, but did you grow up on a farm?
Marcus: No, it all started at a football stadium. No, I’m joking.
Marcus: I grew up in a small rural town. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but there was a cotton field 50 yards down the street from our house and anybody familiar with rural towns and rural communities know that you either live in town or out in the country, right? I lived in the town and so agriculture was just something that I was around between old enough before we became totally mechanized in agriculture where in this case I grew up when we still had summer jobs, chopping and cutting and making $200 a week and use that money throughout the summer. I get money throughout the summer before the school opens. I had an introduction to production in agriculture ever since I was a small child, but seeing that level of hard work, sweating in the hot sun, it let me know that production in agriculture may not have been a thing for me, so that’s why I decided to get into the educational side of it.
Hallie: You run the Grow Louisiana program, right?
Marcus: Yes, I am the program director, correct.
Hallie: Can you tell me a little bit about that program?
Marcus: The Grow Louisiana Beginning Farmer Training Program is an extension program.
It’s funded by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. We’re coming up on the third year of this project, but we focus on four crops and specialty crops and so growing fruits and vegetables or micro greens, or other products that primarily offer market farmers or market gardens that people can sell at farmer’s market has been our clientele that we work with, but the program we focus on is from technical aspects of production all the way to business development and business training. My key thing that I’m interested in is when we’re working with farmers and we’re working with farmers that are interested in selling more direct to consumer is making sure that you’re treating your farming operation like a business. When folks come through our program, we try to measure if they have a business plan, a marketing plan. Be able to think through those processes just like they were developing any other business. Put that same amount of effort or two in your thought process into developing your farm business. We’ve had a cohort down in New Orleans. Our first cohort was in New Orleans in 2019. This year we moved over to Lafayette, Louisiana and we’re getting ready to kick off a cohort here in Baton Rouge. Folks we work with are people that have no farming experience to folks that come in with some experience working on a farm somewhere and so our message to them is very simple. Whether you have a 0.1 or an eighth of an acre, or 250 acres, we can transform you into a productive farmer in this food system.
Chris: Earlier you were talking about working with students in some capacity with your job at the university, but this sounds like you work with farmers in the community. You just do a little bit of everything it sounds like?
Marcus: Man, you know what? I’m a jack of all trades.
Chris: Here you go.
Marcus: [Laughs]. This particular program is an institution program. It focuses on folks out in the community. In our first two cohorts, we had 18 people in each one of those cohorts. The only requirement is that you be a new and beginning farmer, meaning that you have no experience or you have less than 10 experience in farming and you can put together a compelling enough story to convince us why you’re going to be a successful farmer. All of those folks come from or out in the community, but also I’m also on the faculty at Southern university, which is an 1890 land grant here where I teach agricultural market. I wear several different hats.
Chris: Got it. You also said something about 0.1 acres, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot of land. What do you tell someone with 0.1 acres to do?
Marcus: When you’re growing that small is typically a high turnover, high labor intensive crops. For example, I’ll use an eighth of an acre as an example. We have some folks that have grown on an eighth of an acre down in New Orleans and have a significant revenue potential of what they’re doing, but they grow specialty crops and its high turnover. They grow micro greens and things like that. Whether it’s a two or three week turn around when they pull one crop out of the field, they’d be putting another crop back in the field, so it’s highly labor intensive. But it’s all about understanding what you can do, but also understand what your market demands. Using that small of an acreage to be successful is using some profits of high turnover consistent rotation and the things growing in the field and folks have been good.
With that type of scale, you’re not going to grow that your local grocery chain likely, but you can set up a shop at the local farmer’s market and folks have been very successful at doing that.
Hallie: I’m curious, what kind of folks you have come through your program? Is there any common denominator that you see usually they’re this kind of person with this kind of background or anything like that?
Marcus: The number one thing that I get from our participants is they are interested in providing healthy and sustainable food to their local communities whether that’s somebody that has experience or have not had experience. That is usually the common denominator. With our Baton Rouge cohort, the majority of the people I’d say 75% of the people that applied to be in the program, had zero farming experience. They come from zero farming background. They don’t have a degree in agriculture, but they understand the food system and they want to be involved in the food system and they want to grow food to service their community. That’s the level of demand right now that I’m seeing here in particular in the Southeast region of Louisiana, but in that other 25% that’s represented over, some have been farm workers and worked on small scale operations whether it’s through vegetables or other different types of crops, so they have some experience. We have some folks that have access to land and want to figure out what to do with their land, but need some better direction as to what to do with the 10 acres of land that grandma left them and so we try to help those put together a plan of action to do something productive with that land.
We also try to partner folks, so if there are people in the program that have zero experience and say that they live in an apartment and they don’t have access to land, how about we partner you with someone else in the cohort so you can get the experience that you need, but also that person that has the land can get the help that they need to develop the land. Farmer networking is big. The cohort model that we use of bringing everybody together as one is what worked really well for us and they end up training each other and providing opportunities for one another, so that’s been really exciting.
Chris: That’s fantastic. Yeah, one of the things I’ve definitely learned in the past, I don’t know, even just a year or two, is that networking is one of your most important assets. You also mentioned sustainability and I think one of the things that really amuses Hallie is when I actually remember things that we talked about in the past and one of the things that we’ve talked about is sustainability is one of those words that can mean a lot of things to different people. When someone says they want to farm sustainably, what does that mean to you or what do you try to teach them to do that?
Marcus: We use a three modeling approach if you will. First, developing a sustainable business and when I say sustainable business practice, I mean something that’s going to be around for the long term, which means developing goals and objectives about where you want to be in one to three to five to 10 years as a business. We try to spend time talking about that. From a sole management perspective, how are you being a good steward of the land that you’ve managed, a land that you own? Good soil management practices can help with the overall efficiency of your crop, so talking about that.
That can be no till to minimal till to proper cover cropping to proper fertilization. All of those things go into play when you’re talking about good soil management and then when we talk about production management, making sure that they understand that if you can take it from production standpoint, are you being a good steward of the environment? If you’re producing crops, are you using things like pesticides? If you are, are they organic pesticides? If you’re using synthetic pesticides, how do you properly apply those things to be a good steward of the environment with your production management practices? It’s something that for me has been evolving over time as I’ve talked to different people and I’ve learned more from a community perspective of what they need or what they want as sustainable agricultural practices. We try to be very broad-based in what we talk to folks, but what I tell our participants and what I tell the folks in the community when we talk to them is that sustainability is something that, like you say, it has different meanings for different people, but if I’m a producer, what matters to me, what my end crop is, is what my consumer needs to be sustainable. We try to use business sort of production manage, but also understanding the consumer has a mean of defining sustainability for each one of our participants individually because that sustainability thing defines purpose.
Chris: Do you find that once people get started, they tend to stick around for a while?
Marcus: Some. In our first cohort, we’ve had some people that realized that agriculture and farming is hard work.
Chris: Oh, boy.
Marcus: I guess they thought that they could just go hang out at a tree and sip lemonade and live their life, right?
Marcus: But you got to get a little sweaty that’s involved. Seeing that allowed us to change how we taught in our program to talk more about the realities of farming and what farming and agriculture really looked like and the amount of work and labor that goes into being productive. We’ve talked more about that upfront with folks. Since COVID has happened, we’ve seen an increase. There was a Gallup poll that came out a few weeks ago that talked about how interest in agriculture and food system has increased over the past several months. But inherent in that increase is full lack of understanding of what actually goes into agriculture, so we make a point of effort to talk about what the realities are in farming and that’s actually led us to put together free webinars talking about the realities of farming. Folks say that they’re interested, but if you’re interested, I don’t necessarily want to chop your interest per se, but I want you to understand what it is that you’re interested in. That’s been the one I think barrier for folks is leaving or not being successful once they leave the program like this because they get a full understanding of what’s required of them.
Hallie: What are the other barriers you see to people who want to start farming to people who don’t have much farming experience and how do you get started? What are the things standing in your way?
Marcus: From a business standpoint, two things are worth here. One, access to land and two, access to capital resources, whether that’s loans and the things to buy. The equipment that’s necessary that’s often a barrier. The good starting point for people I tell you, if you have access to land, whether that’s a small backyard where you can start off with a small backyard garden, just get started. I’ve spent probably the last year and a half traveling around to different meetings and conferences around the country where I’ve been able to engage with farmers and that’s oftentimes the thing that they say just get started. If you have a small backyard to start off and find let’s say where you’re just starting the process of growing, start there. I mean, just get your fingers in the soil. As you begin to perfect your trade, that’s when you can begin to look at how to go into other areas. Do I need to get more land? Is this even for me? Understanding what programs are available. Do I need to build a relationship with the land bank? Do I need to build a relationship with a local bank or try and figure out what programs the USDA has offered? But just get started. If you had asked me say 15 years ago, if somebody growing on an eighth of an acre or even a half an acre, can bring in $100,000 of revenue in a year from growing on that half an acre, I would’ve looked at you and laugh because I come from a community background where if you weren’t growing several hundred acres, that’s not a farm, right? But by engagement with farmers, I’m learning that you start with what you have. There was a story that I got of a farmer that I met in North Carolina who started out with half an acre and eventually rented it and acquired to I think it was like 10 acres and I think he grew to having 80 acres finally within North Carolina, but that was a 10 to 15 year process of growing in it. He was in construction, so his background was construction. He was construction full-time and farming part-time.
As he became better at the farming side of it, he eventually walked away from the construction side of it and went into farming full time, but it was a process of learning the craft and the trade and the skill of farming in order to perfect what he was doing. Then he scaled up as he could manage it more. He eventually as recent as last year was buying a plot of land in Dominican Republic. He was going to grow avocados or something like that in the Dominican and import them back to the United States himself. That brother had a plan to do that and his background was no different than anybody else who may be interested in agriculture. He just had the will to get started with what he had.
Chris: I’m sorry and keep in mind that I really know nothing about the economics of agriculture, but did you say $100,000 on half an acre?
Marcus: On half an acre.
Marcus: Rotational vegetables and specialty crops. Now, as a revenue and I’m talking about profitability.
Chris: Got it.
Marcus: We move different balls but just the amount of money coming in.
Marcus: You also have to think about it too. When a farmer is selling directly at a farmer’s market, you can often charge a higher price than you would selling at a retail setting, like a grocery store. Also depending on the farmer’s market that you have, you may have a higher income clientele who are willing to pay a higher price point for that more locally produced goods and so it just depends on the market setting, but there’s one farm that I worked with here locally that makes about $100,000 in revenue from the operations a year and that was like in their first or second year starting up.
Marcus: When you think about it, they’re there day in and day out farming. If we get a hailstorm that comes in and damages their crop, they immediately have to flip their crop, put another crop in the ground so they can consistently have their revenue underneath. The closest thing that you can associate farming and agriculture to is gambling.
Marcus: Because you put yourself in the ground and you don’t know what you’re going to get back, right?
Chris: Well, that’s for sure.
Marcus: No, it’s been an interesting process. I’m teaching some of these things, but I’m also learning from these things because since I’ve been engaged in this area for let’s say the past two and a half years, it’s changed how I’ve taught even my undergraduate level college courses. We’ve talked more about the directness. That’s been pretty cool. I’m the student here, right?
Chris: Well, are the people you’re working with, are they all coming to you or are you also trying to recruit people?
Marcus: The first cohort, we put a call out for applications and they came to us. With this last cohort we put a call out, but we were more specific in recruiting people. Working with our local extension agents to say, “Hey, do you have any person who is interested in farming who may need training?” Or just looking at our community partners and our community organizations that are doing local food system work and providing them some technical assistance to assist in training the farmers in small scale and the new and beginning farmers that they may be working with. It’s about building those relationships in the community. For me, that’s the fun part.
Chris: Welcome to the break.
Hallie: I would like to encourage all of our listeners today or tomorrow, I guess if you’re listening to this tomorrow, but as soon as possible to go online and double-check your voter registration. There are a lot of reasons why you might have become unregistered or perhaps you’ve moved and you’ve got to update your voter registration.
Chris: Or maybe somehow you just mysteriously fell off the voter rolls.
Hallie: There are a lot of things that happen by mistake or on purpose, where people get removed from voter rolls, so I highly recommend that you go online and you double check because most voter registration deadlines are coming up soon. In some places early voting is going to be opening soon and so I highly, highly recommend everyone to vote as early as you can, but with a friend, create a voting plan, let’s vote.
Chris: V-O-T-E. Make life good for bumblebees. Vote [claps]. Vote [claps].
Hallie: That was amazing. Yeah, that was so good.
Chris: I don’t know if voting actually improves the lives of bumblebees, but I mean, you can’t improve the lives of bumblebees without voting that’s for sure.
Other than by planting native flowers for pollinators, which you should also do as well as voting, but let’s do both.
Chris: Do you know who I bet will vote for sure?
Hallie: Who will plant flowers for pollinators?
Chris: We hope is our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne. Thank you so much for supporting us. We couldn’t do this without you and thank you for voting. Back to the episode.
Hallie: Back to the episode.
Hallie: I’m curious if you go to a party and you talk to folks who don’t know anything about agriculture, how do you explain the importance of your work with new and beginning farmers?
Marcus: At the end of the day, the most important thing is you got to eat, right? What you eat, how you eat and how much you eat comes from different shapes, sizes and forms of farming, but from an economic development standpoint, farming can be just as lucrative as anything else that anybody wants to get involved with.
If I’m talking to people about farming and people are looking for an opportunity to run a successful business, that’s how I’m just looking at it from a farming standpoint because at the end of the day, farming is one of the only businesses or industries in the world where you have a consistent denominator and at the top is that people got to eat and that’s not going to change. As long as there’s miles to be fair, there’s opportunity for people to engage in farming.
Hallie: I love that.
Marcus: I like to eat too. They can grow and farm and grow stuff and I’ll come buy it from them. There’s always a consumer base and I’ll be the first consumer, right?
Chris: It’s one of life’s great pleasures that’s for sure.
Marcus: Farming can also be like an art, right? If let’s say you’re small scale farming, so you’re growing tomatoes and the various varieties of tomatoes, some peppers, some different varieties of micro greens and lettuces and things like that, so you take those very small seeds and you put them in a transplant, you put the transplant in the ground and grow those transplants or those seedlings out to a product that a person can eat. When you take that product to the marketplace, you’re selling direct say at a farmer’s market and you’ve established this relationship with your consumer, you now get to tell the consumer or the customer the story about that lettuce and tomato that they bought from you that they’re going to put in a salad on their table later today. You get to tell that customer the story about the food they were eating. That’s an opportunity that you don’t get when you go to the grocery store and so that’s one area of benefit from small scale farming is that if you’re selling direct and your dirt hands on with your production process, you get to meet and talk to your customer and tell them the story of the food that they eat. That’s an art in itself.
Chris: You know, this is the same thing I’ve heard. We did a series on local food and we heard that as a benefit for the customer and Hallie, you’ve talked about this before, where you go to a farmer’s market and you can just ask the farmer what their growing practices are and this is the first time I’ve heard it as a benefit from the farmer’s side as well about how you get to do this and you get to tell your story of how you created this thing.
Marcus: If you pay attention to say Apple, when Apple puts out a new iPhone and the guy gets on the stage and tells this whole story about how nice and all the features in this new iPhone or an Apple watch or whatever product they have coming up, they get on the stage and they tell the story to entice the consumer to buy the product. But they feel good about the story they’re telling. There’s no difference and problem here. When you tell the story, it’s gratifying to know that someone cares about what it is that you do and that’s a level of satisfaction that most farmers at a farmer’s market get that and they enjoy that engagement with their customers.
Chris: I do in fact watch those videos. [Laughs].
Marcus: See. You know what I’m talking about.
When you probably get the iPhone 15, it’s like written on death to order, right?
Chris: That’s true too. Yeah. [Laughs].
Hallie: We’ve been talking a lot about specialty crops and I mean, I’m from Texas. I don’t know that much about Louisiana, but is that something that has historically been grown in your area or is that changing now?
Marcus: I would say there’s an opportunity here. Depending on what corner of the state you’re from, we’ve been a commodities heavy state local thing. We do have some folks that are growing fruits and vegetables here in the state, but we’re probably behind the eight ball on other states and there’re various reasons for that. If you grew up in the Northeast corner of the state like me, you knew cotton corn, soy beans and a few other things. If you’re growing south central, you’re looking at sugar cane. If you’re southwest, you’re looking at rice production, crawfish production, but there’s opportunity here to grow other things and there’s a market potential and market demand for a lot of these crops. If you look at a lot of your traditional farmers in the state, they’re very set on the crops they want to grow and they’re not interested in growing a lot of these other crops, like the various kinds of specialty crops. That provides an opportunity for your beginning folks to engage because there’s a marketplace. Not only is there a marketplace at farmer’s markets in the development of CSA models to sell direct to consumers, but a lot more localized grocery chains are looking for food that is grown wholesale to the consumers because it’s a marketing tool for that. They can put this locally grown, say cucumber in their store with the picture of the farmer that came from 20 miles down the road.
That’s perfect marketing programs and so there are just many opportunities within the state in Louisiana for specialty crops. The marketplace in New Orleans has caught on a lot quicker than other areas of the state. New Orleans, as a city, as a salad in itself, I wouldn’t say a melting pot. It’s a salad because there’re many different people that are mixed into the city and they each bring their own value individually to make the city great. They’ve called into their local foods movement more quickly than other areas of the state and so now we’re seeing some level of demand for local food expand to other areas of the state. The problem is we got to have people to supply that demand for those products and so that’s why programs like this are important and that’s why a lot of the work now that I’m doing as a complement to our training program is to show that there is one demand for more locally grown foods and two, that there’s opportunities, economic development opportunities in agriculture for the production of specialty crops.
Chris: What are you excited about right now in food systems and agriculture?
Marcus: I’m just excited to be able to provide people an opportunity to engage in something that I’m passionate about. If somebody provided me an opportunity to do what it is that I love to do and so if there are people passionate about getting engaged in farming in the food system, I’m excited to be able to provide them an opportunity. From an extension standpoint and from a traditional agriculture standpoint, a lot of these folks don’t look like are traditional folks. They come from rural towns and grew up on a farm. They’re just everyday folks that are just looking to make their communities better. If we can provide them an opportunity to do those things and to be successful in those things, let’s do it. I’m just excited to be right there in the game alongside of them including helping to push them along to make them successful.
Chris: Of any of our episodes, this is the most where I’ve heard in a lot of ways, agriculture is just so much about the people that are involved and that are in there doing it.
Marcus: It is and that’s something that I’ve had to learn over time because from a production standpoint, but also from a retailer standpoint, you’re just so used to large scale farms and you’re used to just being able to go to the grocery store and just get whatever you need and not really have that connection. But when you think about agriculture at this core and in most things that we do, whether it’s our families, whether it’s our friends or whoever, when we come together, we come together around food. Food is like there’s a great come together thing. It’s like this great food that brings people together. Here in South Louisiana from about March to July, we’re big on crawfish. We have crawfish balls pre COVID. We have these big crawfish balls in our backyard and invite 20, 30 of our family and friends over who just come together, eat crawfish, bring some cold wars and have a good time in the backyard. Food has always served as the come together role for people. Now everything that is happening with local foods. The expansion of farmer’s markets in different areas, it’s bringing people together again and it’s allowing people to have conversations that they wouldn’t have had before, but typically around the food that they’re eating and where it came from. That level of people wanting to know about their food, we haven’t had that in decades. You talk to kids now and you ask them where eggs come from, they tell you Walmart.
Chris: Says Walmart chickens. [Laughs].
Marcus: There’s all of that in that warehouse of the store. You just can’t see them.
Marcus: Definitely those Walmart chickens.
Chris: I don’t think those are cage-free.
Marcus: No, they’re more like a 22 a box kind of [inaudible].
Hallie: Marcus, thank you so much for taking the time today and joining us on the show. Is there anything that you want to leave listeners with or anywhere that you’d like to point anyone who’s interested in learning more about you and your work?
Marcus: For anybody that’s interested in farming in agriculture and getting engaged in the food system, I’d say just get started. You don’t need a degree to grow things. If you have a balcony, if you have a backyard, just start off with a pack and try and grow some. Go to a local Walmart or a local C-store or a local nursery in your community and see what the seeds they have available and just start growing stuff. Just start getting your fingers in the soil and becoming more of the soil and seeing if that is truly something you enjoy. You can’t win a football game unless you kick off and kick it off at the beginning of the football game.
Marcus: The kickoff into agriculture and the food system is just to start growing stuff. Once you do that, you can figure out the rest. The USDA has a number of resources for new and beginning farmers that you can check out. There are also many non-profit organizations in different areas that support new and farmers beginning agriculture and the food system. Just get started. Don’t waste time. Just do it like Nike, just do it and see if it’s definitely for you.
Hallie: Amazing. Thank you so much.
Marcus: No, this has been great and thank you for having me for this conversation.
Chris: Thank you Marcus and hook them horns.
Marcus: Hey, go tigers.
Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.
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