At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water
“I’m Quitting My Job”
November 10, 2020
The statement strung together by the four words, “I’m quitting my job,” changed a man’s life trajectory from an east coast cardiologist to a rural Wisconsin farmer. A rainy November morning gives David Zimrin a break from his cows and time for a phone chat. I am excited to hear about his transition from medicine to farming.
David’s journey to farming came in a roundabout way. Access to land and resources made the transition to farming easier than it is for most novice farmers.
David’s wife, Ann Zimrin, an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland, grew up in Chicago. Her mother, Caroline Butler, taught kindergarten at the Lab School and her father, Bob Butler, was a Professor at the University of Chicago. The Butler’s bought a farm in southwestern Wisconsin in 1972 and gradually transitioned from Chicago “academics” to Wisconsin farmers, part time then full time as retirement neared and finally occurred. For more than 30 years, David and Ann would visit the family farm and watch in excitement as the farm evolved.
When Bob Butler turned 90 years of age he decided he could no longer keep up with the farm and considered renting the land. Bob’s family was uneasy with the idea of renting out the land because they feared renters would not give the land the love and care it needed.
On a vacation with his wife, David read a book, “Grass-Fed Cattle ” written by Julius Ruechel, a narrative about grass-fed cattle and rotational grazing. After reading the book, David felt that grass-based agriculture was his second calling. He learned how this type of agriculture could tackle important issues such as water and soil quality, the welfare of animals and health of food, sustainable family farming and even global warming. With this book as inspiration, he decided to quit his job and assume responsibility for managing his father-in-law’s farm.
The transition was slow, as management of the farm began as a part-time second job and over time transitioned to a full-time “retirement” career. Over the years, using cover crops, such as sudangrass, field peas, turnips, oats and rye the Zimrin’s transformed the 850 acres of the Butler Family Farm’s cow-calf and row crop operation into a grass-fed and grass-finished cattle operation with perennial grassland for hay and rotational grazing that build up the soil and help water infiltration. Today’s November rain is no problem for the farm, as David explains “we had a 2-inch storm today and we will essentially have no runoff here.”
David has learned more about farming through mentorship and knowledge-exchange with farmers, extension agents, the NRCS, as well as attending conferences. He and his wife also became involved with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute through membership in the farmer-led Uplands Watershed group.
Pre-Covid exchanges with neighboring farmers always revolved around food, as David shares how “ One of our friends put together a farmer breakfast. We had all kinds of farmers organic, small grains…those that raised goats, horses, pigs, cattle. We used to get together on rainy mornings and spend time talking and end up with an exchange of information, including how to process your livestock, which has been a huge barrier locally.”
When asked why he loves farming, Zimrin says, “I love being outdoors producing good food and at the same time protecting 850 acres of water quality and soil quality.”
I ask how he feels about the future of sustainable agriculture, and he says, “High input and high yield farming is designed for you to get big or get out. This has been going on for a long time. Developing policies that facilitate, low input farming with local distribution while being profitable is the way to bring in a new generation of farmers for a sustainable future.”
As a non-traditional farmer, David encourages access to education and a rural-urban exchange mechanism to help people develop an interest in farming and improve local supply chains, ending our conversation with the hope that new farmers will “love it as much or more than I do.”