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BizCast 41: Saving and Canoeing the Mississippi with Coulee Region Ecoscape

Episode 41

Saving and Canoeing the Mississippi with Coulee Region Ecoscape

About BizCast Greater La Crosse

We bring you news from the business community. From startups to experienced problem solvers, you’ll get in-depth insight on the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Greater La Crosse. Our show is a collaboration between and BizNews Greater La Crosse ( ).

Full Transcript [ generated by AI]

[00:00:00] Judson Steinback: Oh, my garden is more beautiful now than it has ever been. I’m actually paying less for services Maybe Coulee Region Ecoscape costs more than this other company, but, they’re doing things that are more sustainable and they’re not having to do as much

[00:00:21] Vicki Markussen: Welcome to BizCast Greater La Crosse, a weekly podcast from BizNews. We bring you news from the business community. I am your host and founder, Vicki Markussen, and my guest today is a very energetic Judd Steinback. He’s the owner of Coulee Region Ecoscape. This is your 12th season. So I’m going to. I’m going to speak for you because a lot of people when they say, Hey, if you want to, if you want someone who really knows their landscaping and plants, and you have challenging areas, you go to Coulee Region Ecoscape because you are, you have a passion that you have for what you do.

[00:00:57] Vicki Markussen: Just. exudes. So [00:01:00] let’s start with how did you get started with Coulee Region Ecoscape?

[00:01:05] Judson Steinback: Yeah, that’s a long story. Thanks for asking. So when I actually was a teacher for 10 years and in my 10th year of teaching, my one-year-old, almost two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. And so I quit my job to take care of her full time.

[00:01:23] Judson Steinback: And after about nine months, she was doing a lot better, but her treatment was still pretty intense and required a lot of how do I say this? A lot of time, frankly, on the side of parenting. And I wanted to do something to get back into the workforce, frankly, because I didn’t really have any money left either after not working for nine months.

[00:01:46] Judson Steinback: But I had enough time to be able to get back to work, but not enough to go back to teaching where if you commit to teaching, you need to be there for those children every single day. And so I had some experience landscaping in [00:02:00] college. My mom was a gardener. My grandparents were really good gardeners, and I enjoyed gardening and thought that I could do something.

[00:02:08] Judson Steinback: That was more of like in the trades, so that I could have basically a side hustle more or less Mm hmm, and I started cool the region Ecoscape and I also wanted to do something From a landscaping perspective, that was actually beneficial for the environment. A lot of what happens in landscaping is actually not beneficial for the environment.

[00:02:28] Judson Steinback: We plant trees that are not native or perhaps even invasive, and those are not so good for the environment. We spray all kinds of chemicals on our properties that really pollute or can be harmful to people or animals. All kinds of things that are really just not beneficial in the name of making them pretty or uniform or whatever it may be.

[00:02:50] Judson Steinback: And I wanted to do something that was rooted in an ecological mission and had sustainability at the heart of what I was doing. And on top of that, I wanted to do [00:03:00] something that was better for my community. So I had hoped, at least at some time in the future, although I couldn’t really even conceptualize what that would look like, that I would be able to make my community a better place.

[00:03:11] Judson Steinback: And I just started working really hard out of the back of my station wagon, throwing rocks in there and electric lawn mowers in there, and in a station wagon. I didn’t have a truck, I didn’t have a trailer, I didn’t have money to buy either of those things. And, that’s how it all started. And we should

[00:03:29] Vicki Markussen: say too because we skipped kind of your background.

[00:03:32] Vicki Markussen: So what type of teacher were you?

[00:03:34] Judson Steinback: I actually was, was blessed to teach in a Waldorf school for a whole decade. But my background was in history, broad fields, social studies, and Spanish. And so I had a master’s degree in education to be able to teach Spanish and social studies, but I found myself in a Waldorf school, which that’s a whole other show.

[00:03:56] Vicki Markussen: Was this the one

[00:03:56] Judson Steinback: in Viroqua? No, this, there was a school here actually for [00:04:00] quite some time. Yes. On the north side. Yeah. Yeah. I

[00:04:03] Vicki Markussen: remember it. It’s, yeah, it’s one of the old grade schools up on the north

[00:04:06] Judson Steinback: side.

[00:04:06] Judson Steinback: Exactly. Correct.

[00:04:07] Vicki Markussen: So you had gone to school here, and you are from?

[00:04:11] Judson Steinback: I’m actually from Chicago, Illinois. I’m from the north side. So that makes me a Cubs fan instead of a Sox fan. And my family would take trips up to the north woods of Wisconsin and my dad and I would go rowing and fishing in, in northern Wisconsin.

[00:04:29] Judson Steinback: And when I was 13 years old, a man from Coon Valley named Clay Rhinus, who a lot of people know, he’s quite a good musician. He actually was a fly-fishing guide at the time, and he came down to an Orvis store in Chicago and gave a lecture on fly-fishing the driftless. And my dad and I went to go hear his presentation, and we were just blown away by how beautiful the pictures were of this area.

[00:04:53] Judson Steinback: We booked a trip to go out with him and I basically decided I wanted to move here. And so at the age of 18, I moved [00:05:00] here and that was 24 plus years ago.

[00:05:02] Vicki Markussen: Yeah I was trying to set the stage for, so you, aside from working at a Waldorf school, this landscaping business kind of, it’s not like you went to school for anything related to it, but obviously Waldorf has a love of nature and incorporates that into its education.

[00:05:20] Judson Steinback: Definitely, although all of the science and technical skills associated with landscaping, those were things I had to learn. on my own or from other people. Of course. Yeah.

[00:05:30] Vicki Markussen: So how did you, what does that path look like? How did you go from a station wagon to growth?

[00:05:36] Judson Steinback: Yeah. I think there were some really underlying principles that I applied to a pathway towards success.

[00:05:44] Judson Steinback: And anyone who’s a small business owner knows that success can be very temporary. Yes. And you’re always balancing How to keep your business moving forward in a healthy and positive way because you’re just constantly being bombarded by [00:06:00] challenges. I think they’re worth it, but it is, to say you’re successful doesn’t mean you’re always going to be successful or that you have always been successful.

[00:06:08] Judson Steinback: But anyways I’ve tried to apply some really important principles and one of those is to check my ego at the front door and to accept that I don’t know certain things and that there are other people who do know those things and to try to surround myself with those people. That’s why I took on Jared Barkheim as a partner because he just knew a lot more about building and permaculture and…

[00:06:35] Judson Steinback: skills. He had all these things that I didn’t have, and I wanted to be with someone that had those things as a business partner. Same with my other partner, Jeremy Burt, his knowledge of machinery and equipment and trail building and arborism and all those things. Skills I didn’t have. And so I wanted to just surround myself with him.

[00:06:56] Judson Steinback: I also surrounded myself with other contractors that were [00:07:00] willing to share knowledge with me, and friends who knew things, and so it was really just this recognizing that you need to learn a lot, having the humility to accept that and then find the people who can teach you. I went to conferences, workshops, I hired architects to teach me things early on.

[00:07:21] Judson Steinback: And so it’s been a really incredible process of learning and growth. I think it all starts with humility and checking your ego at the front door. And

[00:07:32] Vicki Markussen: the interesting thing, too, you were saying is there have been a lot of businesses that have helped you. And I’m guessing it’s… the same philosophy. You find the fellow business partners or just fellow businesses that have the same philosophy of, okay, they might know how to go build a great apartment complex, but they don’t know the landscaping like you do.

[00:07:50] Vicki Markussen: And so they appreciate what you do. And then all of a sudden, you’re learning from each other, and you don’t have to know it all. You just need the partners to come in with the pieces that they know.[00:08:00]

[00:08:03] Vicki Markussen: So talk about some of those businesses that you feel have really helped you and how they have helped you.

[00:08:09] Judson Steinback: Yeah, so certainly maybe I’ll back up a step. If you remember, there was a time when there was a restaurant called The Mint. Yeah. And it was over on the corner of 19th and State, I think? Yeah, it’s now Restore Public House.

[00:08:23] Judson Steinback: It’s now the Restore Public House. Yeah. And the owners there hired us to do a patio and a dining area and stuff out front. And we had very limited… Resources and tools, and we didn’t charge them very much, but it was a huge opportunity for us. Sometimes people call that lost leaders, and… So we took the opportunity and right around the corner at that time was the headquarters of 360 Real Estate Solutions.

[00:08:52] Judson Steinback: They were not in the Aguilera building yet. They were in a smaller office complex. And I think they

[00:08:56] Vicki Markussen: owned that building too, didn’t they at the time? Yeah.

[00:08:58] Judson Steinback: Yeah, probably still [00:09:00] own it and maybe rent it out, but I don’t know. But Marvin also was a friend of mine, the owner Marvin Wanders from Cycling. I wouldn’t say that at the time we were really close, but we were involved with some community things together, and we would ride our bikes together, and he would see us working there, and he saw us working really, really hard, and I think he valued that.

[00:09:21] Judson Steinback: And he approached me and asked me if we would be interested in taking on our first, bigger commercial project. And he then introduced me to Paul Borsheim. Who now is a really good friend of mine, and we go fishing together, and it’s hard for us sometimes to talk about work because we mostly want to talk about fishing.

[00:09:40] Judson Steinback: But he and Paul took a chance on us at actually the Eastward Commerce, Commerce Building. That was really our first shot at a larger commercial landscaping project. I was very successful and that started a long relationship that is still [00:10:00] continues today with board and construction and 360 real estate, but it’s really through Marvin watching us work on the mid patio that that opportunity opened up also, not long after that, Roush Rentals started working with us, and they’ve been a huge supporter of our business, and pretty much every time Nick, the owner of Roush Rentals, and his family, every time they own a build a building, they hire us to design the landscaping, to install the landscaping, and we help with maintenance there.

[00:10:29] Judson Steinback: So those are three really important partners that have helped us a lot. I will mention another very small business. It’s just a one-man game. Driftless Trails Contracting is owned by Mike Sharon, and he has grown his business alongside our business. He’s not taking the path that we have.

[00:10:49] Judson Steinback: He’s maintained just being an individual business owner with no employees. But he does exceptional work. He has a number of machines, [00:11:00] excavators, and skid steers, and things like that, and walk behind style skid steers. And our businesses have grown in a parallel direction, although we’ve pursued really different styles.

[00:11:12] Judson Steinback: But he’s always been someone to bounce ideas off of and talk about, But by what we could do to be more efficient or safer or whatever that may be. Those are some, there are so many. really wonderful relationships that we’ve had that have helped us to grow our business. I would say though, those were the most instrumental in getting us off the ground and really becoming successful and being able to purchase new equipment and hire employees and have consistent work and know that next year we’re going to have work because Borden will have some stuff for us.

[00:11:46] Judson Steinback: 360 will have stuff for us. Roush Windows will have stuff for us. Really important partners for us. Yeah.

[00:11:54] Vicki Markussen: And so you talked about biking and Marvin Wanders and then the trail building. So there’s a logical pathway [00:12:00] to how is it that you guys became so great at trail

[00:12:04] Judson Steinback: building? Amazingly my two business partners, Jared and Jeremy have a lot more knowledge and history with trail building than I do.

[00:12:12] Judson Steinback: Jared, I, he tells stories of how he was like hanging off the sides of cliffs in the Inyo National Forest, building trails and retaining walls for mule pack trail experiences. Wow. Doing things like that. And Jeremy was a wildland firefighter. He has done like massive ecological restoration projects out west where you have 60, 90, 000 managed burns to promote prairie growth and things like that.

[00:12:44] Judson Steinback: And he also did a bunch of trail work and invasive species removal in the back country, things like that. So they came in with this vast knowledge of trail building and other kinds of what you might call like wild[00:13:00] land skills. And I got my trail building experience as a volunteer working with what was originally called the human powered trails and getting trainings from master trail builders that would come into town.

[00:13:13] Judson Steinback: And I helped to build some of the first mountain biking trails legal mountain biking trails, that is, um, in the city of La Crosse. And so that was where my trail building background started. And then, of course, I learned a lot from my business partners, from Mike Sharon from others who I’ve worked with on trail projects.

[00:13:33] Judson Steinback: And we’ve been hired to build trails in Perot State Park, in Mirror Lake State Park, Wyalusing State Park, so mostly DNR lands as well as private residences. Places like that. So horseback riding trails, mountain biking trails, skiing trails, hiking trails.

[00:13:51] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, so you talk about those local companies, but you really have quite the portfolio.

[00:13:56] Vicki Markussen: You can do a lot of things with the

[00:13:58] Judson Steinback: talent that you have. Yeah, we [00:14:00] really can and that’s just within the ownership group. We also have a number of amazingly talented employees. I don’t know if that’s it. Yeah, let’s

[00:14:07] Vicki Markussen: talk about them. Yeah, because you have for a landscaping company, you have grown and we should talk about how many you have and then just what makes them stay with you because you have some longevity there too.

[00:14:18] Vicki Markussen: So yeah,

[00:14:18] Judson Steinback: go ahead. We try to make when we talk about our company being a sustainable company. We don’t just mean environmentally. We mean, you get paid a living wage to work for us. We mean that it’s a there’s a culture. That makes the environment a safe place, not just physically, although that’s really important because we use things that are, that can be quite dangerous, sharp tools, large pieces of equipment, skid steers, mini excavators.

[00:14:44] Judson Steinback: These things can cause a lot of damage, trucks, dump trailers, right? So just physical safety is critically important, but then also emotional safety and feeling like you’re respected in the workplace and that the people that you work with are kind to [00:15:00] you. And. They don’t necessarily have to be your friends.

[00:15:02] Judson Steinback: It’s work. But at least that, they’re decent human beings who are fun to spend a day with. Because the work is quite hard. It’s almost always really hard physical work, but it’s also really, really can be fun. And it’s outside, you’re never stuck at a desk. And it’s dynamic.

[00:15:22] Judson Steinback: You’re always having to I’m sort of jumping around here, but one of the things I really like about this work is that it’s at once physically demanding and intellectually demanding. And a lot of people miss that if you’re just watching someone dig a hole or rake rocks. It looks like, oh, they’re just digging a hole or raking rocks.

[00:15:41] Judson Steinback: But the amount of mental math that we do on a landscaping site, sometimes we’re doing trigonometry in our heads to make something work. And that in and of itself is a really high-level skill. And even if you’re just pulling weeds, which seems like menial labor, well, how do you know what’s a weed and what isn’t a weed?[00:16:00]

[00:16:00] Judson Steinback: You know that from 10 or 20 years of experience of being able to identify plants. How do you know what a baby good plant looks like versus a baby bad plant? All those things. They’re pretty high level skills. We’ve seen many, many people Who, especially organizations that own their own building or whatever, and they think, oh, I can just have some kid pull weeds.

[00:16:22] Judson Steinback: It doesn’t usually work out. Because some important plant gets pulled out or a bunch of things that are weeds and that take over the garden and are terrible just get missed, and so it’s really fun to be able to do something that uses your brain and your body at the same time. Some of our key personnel that are worth talking about they’re all really worth talking about, but maybe, perhaps, we can’t just talk about everyone Eric Sampson is our lead designer.

[00:16:51] Judson Steinback: Really wonderful guy. He also owns a native plant nursery called Driftless Area Natives. And he’s also the design teacher in [00:17:00] the horticulture department at Western Technical College. Huge asset for our business. Designs a lot of the landscapes that, that we install. Ashley Alverson is the head of our maintenance department.

[00:17:13] Judson Steinback: And so all of the buildings that we take care of and properties that we take care of, she runs the ship and does so in a way that is really ecologically sustainable. Everything comes back to our core mission of how do we make this project or this work or this site more ecologically sustainable, more beneficial, better for the community long term.

[00:17:34] Judson Steinback: Avery Vanguard has been with us. She’s our longest. Employee that’s been with us. I think this is her like ninth season or something nine out of twelve. Yeah, I could be wrong about that.

[00:17:47] Vicki Markussen: That’s okay. We’ll give her the benefit of the

[00:17:48] Judson Steinback: doubt, but i’ve actually known her since she was nine years old.

[00:17:52] Judson Steinback: Wow Because she was at the Waldorf school when I taught there And she now runs our plant department and our social [00:18:00] media And then as well as a superintendent on job sites or foreman as some folks say so You And there are so many wonderful people in our organization.

[00:18:12] Judson Steinback: From the office manager to every, yeah, I mean, we just have a great, great staff. Yeah, and I

[00:18:18] Vicki Markussen: Can you can tell from longevity that they truly feel appreciated working there, and I can tell just by how you talk about them. The other thing that comes out. So I had just heard you talk at the West Salem Business Association meeting and afterwards I said to you, gosh, your passion just comes through.

[00:18:34] Vicki Markussen: So the topic of that was what are things that what’s one thing that people can do to be more ecological, if you will, with their lawns and. the conversation that you got into about types of grass and grass in general. I’m like, dang, this guy has a huge body of knowledge. So let’s go back to somewhat and bring it full circle.

[00:18:56] Vicki Markussen: So  you own a station wagon [00:19:00] with some equipment in it. You’ve gone to conferences, you knew you kind of wanted to go the ecological route. How did you find? the right customers to make that happen? And maybe that was your commercial customers, but I think you have probably just some private customers as well.

[00:19:17] Vicki Markussen: Like, how did you form that niche to be known for that?

[00:19:21] Judson Steinback: Yeah, I didn’t necessarily do that marketing that I was an ecologically conscious and sustainable business. I think that I got customers because I worked really hard. I was honest. I tried to apply a high standard of ethical principles to my work.

[00:19:41] Judson Steinback: And then typically what happened is the customers would then adopt. The model that we were trying to implement after working with us for years and seeing, oh, long term this will save me money. This is really good for the environment. On the front end, sometimes it’s more expensive, [00:20:00] so I gotta, absorb that somehow.

[00:20:02] Judson Steinback: But without question, long term it’s not more expensive. It’s a cost savings to do things that are better for the environment, almost always. I’m sure someone can think of an example of when it’s not, but. it is. And then they would just slowly adopt our model of landscaping practices and then be able to market that as part of their business.

[00:20:25] Judson Steinback: Or if they’re a private residence, they just see, Oh, my garden is more beautiful now than it has ever been. I’m actually paying less for services than I used to because Maybe Coulee Region Ecoscape costs more than this other company, but, they’re doing things that are more sustainable, and they’re not having to do as much as this other company.

[00:20:49] Judson Steinback: Um, for example, Oh, there’s this common practice where people go in the garden in the fall and cut everything down in the fall. And ecologically it makes no [00:21:00] sense whatsoever because The plant material that you are taking out of the garden. And it, that doesn’t ever happen in nature where like nature creates some scenario where you remove all the plant material from the ecosystem and then let it sit there all winter.

[00:21:15] Judson Steinback: And there’s this whole system that’s evolved around dead plant material sitting over the winter. And so all these beneficial insects that we need to survive will over winter and the plant material birds will come eat the seeds in the plant material. And then in the springtime when it is time to cut stuff back or Obviously in nature stuff would just grow up through that and that material would just break down in place But we can accelerate that process Just cut it down and then what we do is called mulching in place And it doesn’t look super pretty by any standards to just mulch stuff in place But in two weeks all that material breaks down the garden’s happier than ever you have less mulch less work a lower bill in that sense and it’s a lot better for the environment, and you’re [00:22:00] supporting beneficial insect populations, you’re letting birds have bird seed over the winter, all those kinds of things.

[00:22:05] Judson Steinback: So, people tend to hire us not, at least in the beginning, people didn’t hire us because we were ecologically sustainable. They hired us because we were working hard, we were honest, we had integrity, and then as time went on, they adopted those principles themselves or often did. And now that we’re established, now people are hiring us because of our ecological model.

[00:22:33] Judson Steinback: But that’s not how our first relationships worked out, for the most part.

[00:22:39] Vicki Markussen: But you, so you worked hard. You demonstrated the type of philosophy, if you will, behind your landscaping. And then that worked. Caught on and now, and I think it obviously people are becoming more and more conscious of ecological impact.

[00:22:54] Vicki Markussen: And so let’s bring this to the presentation that happened at West Salem Business Association, which [00:23:00] is about trying to bring that into residential applications, right? So what was your messaging at West Salem?

[00:23:07] Judson Steinback: And especially in West in the West Salem meeting, we were talking about stormwater. Mhm.

[00:23:13] Judson Steinback: And the reason we’re talking about stormwater is three, four, five-fold, I mean a hundred-fold. Number one, most municipalities stormwater systems are not adequate to meet the needs of stormwater. And so that’s a major problem, and it’s just too expensive to fix for almost everyone. It’s you’re talking billions of dollars of infrastructure to get stormwater systems back up.

[00:23:38] Judson Steinback: And to meet the demand of what they need to meet, right? So it’s just not going to happen. And therefore, you need to deal with the problem some way else. Because it’s still a problem, it’s not going away. Preferably at

[00:23:50] Vicki Markussen: the source, right? Exactly.

[00:23:52] Judson Steinback: Exactly. Instead of dealing with the problem at the end, dealing with the problem at the beginning.

[00:23:57] Judson Steinback: And… The other thing that a lot of people [00:24:00] don’t know about is that stormwater is the number one source of pollution in urban and suburban areas, and therefore any dollars thrown at managing that problem is big as bang for your buck from a pollution mitigation perspective. And oftentimes, these solutions can be really simple.

[00:24:19] Judson Steinback: So a rain garden is the number one way to capture this, and people often will think of a rain garden as needing to be this big hole with lots of plants, or rocks, or both in it. But frankly, a rain garden is just anything that captures rain water. It can be as simple as a lawn. Now oftentimes if the bottom of that lawn rain garden It’s wet a lot, that grass in the bottom might die.

[00:24:43] Judson Steinback: It’s not ecologically the best solution, but it still is a really good solution to keep that water from running into our watersheds. So in West Salem it’s the La Crosse River, in La Crosse it’s the Mississippi River, either way it’s ultimately the Mississippi River. Yeah. [00:25:00] And a lot of people It’s rain.

[00:25:06] Judson Steinback: But the problem is that rain oftentimes itself is already polluted, and then whatever it hits, it’s picking up whatever is on that surface, whether it’s a roof, or a sidewalk, or a road. Or frankly, even a lawn. Lawns tend to be highly compacted because of mowing and full of chemicals. And as that rainwater hits all of those different surfaces that rainwater runs down into the storm drain, and it doesn’t go to a sewage treatment plant where those chemicals are taken out.

[00:25:34] Judson Steinback: It goes straight into the river or the lake or whatever it may be. And if there’s salt in there, if there’s heavy metals in there, if there’s oils from cars, paint from exterior, it all is just going to go into the river, and then in that river we will go swimming. We might eat the fish from that river, or the birds that eat things from that river, and, it’s it’s really problematic.

[00:25:57] Vicki Markussen: Hence, you were saying the number one thing people can [00:26:00] do? Dig a

[00:26:00] Judson Steinback: hole. Yeah, keep your stormwater on your own property. And what’s amazing is if you do that, if you actually apply a technique that involves using plants that have deep roots, and you put some healthy soil in the ground, The, those plants and the microbes in the healthy soil will actually filter out most of the toxins from that water and then whatever the plants don’t suck up it’ll just go down into the groundwater clean, mostly clean.

[00:26:27] Vicki Markussen: So I joked with you during that meeting that my husband finds mowing the lawn very therapeutic. However, like what does the ideal lawn look like? We’ve become the society that it’s all about the lines in the lawn and, but. But you’re saying that’s not very healthy. So, what is a healthy lawn truly look like?

[00:26:47] Judson Steinback: I would say that I’m not completely opposed to lawns. I don’t want to be boxed into a Anti

[00:26:52] Vicki Markussen: grass

[00:26:53] Judson Steinback: guy. Yeah, I think playing sports is really fun, and you got to have lawns to play sports and [00:27:00] certainly you can play them on synthetic turf But synthetic turf is made out of fossil fuels. So that’s maybe not the best solution and the amazing thing about lawns is that when you step on them, they don’t die, and there’s not really any other plants that are like that.

[00:27:14] Judson Steinback: It’s quite remarkable, really. But lawns in general are very shallow rooted, and we now have, as a society, over many decades, been indoctrinated with the notion that the only thing that can exist in a lawn is a blade of grass, nothing else. And there’s a long story about why that is, but we don’t have to really get into that.

[00:27:38] Judson Steinback: But anyhow, that’s what we have come to think of as a really nice lawn. And it’s an ecological catastrophe, really. What we do is we, lawns require lots of water, so we water them a lot. They require fertilizers, so we fertilize them a lot. Most of that fertilizer just ends up in the river. Most of it’s not absorbed by the grass or the [00:28:00] soil.

[00:28:00] Judson Steinback: And then we spray chemicals to kill non lawn things like broadleaf weeds like dandelions and clovers and whatever else may be coming up in the lawn that we don’t want to be there. So there’s no biodiversity. Because we mow the lawn all the time, the soil becomes really compacted. And then it doesn’t allow water to percolate through, so most of the water just sheets off of the lawn area.

[00:28:24] Judson Steinback: And then also those lawn mowers require carbon in order to run, so they contribute to greenhouse gases and other kinds of chemical pollutants. The blowers that we run are typically two-stroke engines, which pollute a lot. After we finish mowing, we run the blower and that’s, highly contaminating.

[00:28:43] Judson Steinback: type of machine, and even like the battery-powered lawnmowers, well, they’re certainly much better. We’re finding more and more that the extraction processes to get the materials, the raw materials to build those things. is dubious at [00:29:00] best, and oftentimes involves forced labor and, terrible living conditions, particularly for people in China and other places where those materials are more available and cheap.

[00:29:12] Judson Steinback: And if we just didn’t have a lawn, if most places didn’t have lawn areas, those issues would mostly go away. So you asked, what does the ideal lawn look like? The ideal lawn is not really a lawn. The ideal space is a space that has healthy soil. And healthy soil means a lot of different things based on where in the environment it’s located.

[00:29:35] Judson Steinback: So in lacrosse, up on the bluff tops, there’s heavier clay soils down in the valley, like in Holmen, for example, it’s a heavier, it’s really sandy soils. Black River Falls typically has really sandy soils. So it depends on where you are, what the definition of healthy soil is, but. But healthy soil pretty much always has high numbers of microorganisms living in it.

[00:29:59] Judson Steinback: [00:30:00] And then if a forest is going to be in that soil, it’ll be dominated by fungal species mushroom things. And if it’s a prairie type or meadow type space, then it’ll be dominated by bacteria. And so microorganisms is the key. And in fact, there was a research study done, many research studies done, that suggests that when people eat food that’s grown in really healthy soil, if you digest really small amounts of that soil that you don’t even know is on that food, Because of the presence of microorganisms in that soil, your brain releases dopamine and you are happier.

[00:30:38] Judson Steinback: Really? And supposedly, if you eat healthy dirt, you’re happy. Fantastic.

[00:30:43] Vicki Markussen: There’s a market there. Totally. My lawn has become the place to eat healthy dirt.

[00:30:48] Judson Steinback: People don’t really understand why that is, although it would make sense that if you were like an early human, right, and you were foraging in a place, it would make sense.

[00:30:58] Judson Steinback: That, the feedback of [00:31:00] being happier, like if that soil was healthy, and you knew that you needed to go back to that place because the health, it had healthy soil, growing healthy foods, then the feedback would be, okay, if I go to that place, then my brain’s gonna release dopamine, I’m gonna wanna go back there.

[00:31:17] Judson Steinback: That’s one theory about why that happened, I, And no one really knows why it is that eating… Healthy soil will release dopamine in your brain, but it’s pretty cool. Mm hmm. And definitely suggests that we should be thinking more about soil and not just the product of what comes out of the soil. Right.

[00:31:38] Vicki Markussen: Yes, I could go so many different directions with that because healthy soil also creates great grass, right?

[00:31:44] Vicki Markussen: Well, and it does.

[00:31:45] Judson Steinback: Yeah, it absolutely does. And having healthy soil, if you want to have a healthy lawn grass or turf, having healthy soil is no matter what the starting place, like, right. You really. if you’re thinking about [00:32:00] what you’re going to grow in soil, you really can look at like a forest ecosystem or a prairie meadow ecosystem.

[00:32:08] Judson Steinback: Obviously there are others, wetlands and things like that, but basically, you think about meadow prairie versus forest or woodland and Things that are dominated by woody plants Mm hmm, like shrubs and trees tend to need more fungally dominated soils and things that are dominated By grasses, flowers, things like that, prairies, for example, they need more bacterially dominated soils.

[00:32:29] Judson Steinback: But, otherwise, you just need healthy soil and almost anything you plant is going to be happy.

[00:32:34] Vicki Markussen: Right, and if you eat it, you’ll get dopamine, so… Yeah, yeah, exactly. There you have it. Alright, I’m going to… I switched gears on you because you just had an amazing trip down the Mississippi. So explain where, well, first of all, what you did and where the idea came from for it.

[00:32:50] Judson Steinback: Wow. So this is a whole, this could be like four podcasts, frankly, but because all of my teammates are just amazing people, but I don’t even [00:33:00] know where to start. I did my first canoe race when I think I was 19 years old or so, and I did it with a partner who was a really nice guy. And he, but he wasn’t very good at paddling, and so I talked to my dad afterwards, and I told my dad that I wanted to go, that I thought it’d be fun if he and I did a canoe race together.

[00:33:19] Judson Steinback: And we did one the following year, and we did really well, although we had no idea what we were doing whatsoever. And I applied the same process of growing with canoe racing as I did to growing with landscaping. Mhm. Humility, checking your ego at the front door, being willing to learn from others who are better than you, all of those things, putting in the time, and eventually, so when people ask me how long I trained to break the world record for the fastest paddle down the entire length of the Mississippi River, which I did this May, my team Mississippi Speed Record, I tell them I’ve been doing it, I’ve been training for 23 years for this.

[00:33:58] Judson Steinback: Because without question I have [00:34:00] been. But it was about two years ago that I received a phone call from Scott Miller, who is the captain, or who is the captain of the team. He lives in Minneapolis. And he had tried and once before and failed. A hundred and fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Ugh. He was on pace to break the world record with his other team.

[00:34:22] Judson Steinback: And a huge tropical depression came and sunk their canoe and they had to get rescued by their support boat. And after getting rescued, after getting taken back to New Orleans, nearly dying. He decided the next day, I want to do this again.

[00:34:38] Vicki Markussen: Of course. He must have had some good dirt. Yeah, exactly.

[00:34:44] Judson Steinback: Yeah, or yeah, drank some of that river water down there. Yes. Not exactly sure which, but anyhow He asked me if I would, at that time I was asked to be the backup paddler. Because this man named Joe Mann, who lives in Missouri, Who at that time was one of the four on [00:35:00] the team, Wally Werder from Chicago, Paul Cox from Atlanta, Scott Miller from Minneapolis, and Joe Mann from Kansas City, Missouri.

[00:35:07] Judson Steinback: But Joe knew at the time that he really wasn’t going to be able to do this. He just really wanted to. And Scott reached out to him and Joe handpicked this group of people. And amazingly, although everybody in this team was an awesome paddler, there are better paddlers in the U.

[00:35:26] Judson Steinback: S. But this team was picked up to, because of, really because of character, and because of certain character traits, like having empathy, being humble being to acknowledge what your strengths and weaknesses are as a person and then from a pragmatic matter, like who are you going to get along with when you live in a canoe for 17 days with them?

[00:35:50] Judson Steinback: You don’t get to leave that canoe. We broke our, we did the record in 16 days and 20 hours. Which was 24 hours ahead of the team that had broken [00:36:00] the record previously. Wow. Well, almost 24 hours, 23 and a half. So that’ll be hard to break. It will be hard to break. Yeah. I’m sure at some point somebody will.

[00:36:10] Judson Steinback: Yeah. I will not try it again. It was a transformative experience. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. Four paddlers cannot do this alone. It took an entire army of a support team, led by a guy named Moose Dougherty. He’s also from Minneapolis. We had two on water support boats.

[00:36:33] Judson Steinback: They were led by Scott Mansker, also from Missouri. And they had the responsibility of following us the whole way down the river from Minneapolis to the Gulf. The river’s not navigable for a boat above Minneapolis. And so they followed us all the way to the Gulf from Minneapolis. Our ground crew followed us from Itasca, where the river starts, 500 miles to Minneapolis.

[00:36:58] Judson Steinback: And then we met up with the two [00:37:00] boats at two in the morning at Lock and Dam number one. It was just incredible. Wow.

[00:37:06] Vicki Markussen: You can’t get off the boat at all?

[00:37:08] Judson Steinback: You can, but if… Everybody’s, if, in order for the boat to be making forward progress, everyone needs to be in the canoe.

[00:37:15] Judson Steinback: It’s not like, Paul’s tired, drop him off on shore, let him sleep for a day and then swap out, right? Everyone needs to stay in the canoe if it’s moving forward. We certainly did get out of the canoe, we stopped to switch positions, we slept in the canoe, we ate in the canoe, we went to the bathroom in the canoe, everything.

[00:37:32] Judson Steinback: The canoe, I should make a shout-out to Wenona Canoe. I was hoping it was them, yeah. They manufactured this four person expedition canoe. And then Scott Duffus, another support member from Owatonna, Minnesota, put in over 200 hours. Making modifications, adding navigation lights, adding a bilge pump, adding like controls to control different aspects of the canoe charging ports for marine radios [00:38:00] and cell phones and safety devices and things like that.

[00:38:04] Judson Steinback: Unbelievable. I mean, it’s incredible.

[00:38:06] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. So Winona Canoe was made in Winona, so that’s great. It’s a nice, amazing product. Huh. Was this one of their composite canoes?

[00:38:14] Judson Steinback: Yeah, it was a Kevlar. Yeah. Yeah. I think I don’t remember exactly how much it weighed empty, but it was never empty. Yeah, there’s four guys in there, food, sleeping bag navigation lights. We, we navigated the river with an iPad, actually. We had this little compartment where we would put the iPad, and it had a hood, so it wouldn’t, it’d be protected from the elements. And we were using the same navigation system that barge captains were using.

[00:38:43] Judson Steinback: And it would show us where all the wing dams were, all the dikes, all the different side channels and everything. It was not a low-tech adventure. What

[00:38:52] Vicki Markussen: is your most memorable stretch?

[00:38:55] Judson Steinback: Without question, I would say I had third two that tied. [00:39:00] If I could do a stretch over and over and over again, it would be the far upper part of the river.

[00:39:04] Judson Steinback: Mm hmm. Before Minneapolis? Way before. Okay. So, the river starts in Lake Itasca, which is an Itasca State Park, which is a state park of Minnesota, but might as well be a national park. It’s just spectacular. If you haven’t been there, you have to put it on your bucket list. It’s so beautiful. And the river trickles out of the end of Lake Itasca, and it actually starts going north northeast for a long time.

[00:39:31] Judson Steinback: And it makes this big question mark before finally heading south to Minneapolis. And so for the first 40 miles or so, it’s this tiny creek. It’s like a trout stream, but you’re, and there are rapids, there are big wild rice bogs, and there’s no one there. It’s wild, it’s true wilderness area.

[00:39:52] Judson Steinback: You don’t really see roads very often. The canoe oftentimes can barely fit through little sections of the river while you’re [00:40:00] going through rapids and over downed treesand beaver dams and stuff. And then you’ll get to these incredibly beautiful, slow sections of wild rice bog with Tamarack trees and there’s like trumpeter swans everywhere and sand hill cranes and wolves are howling at night.

[00:40:18] Judson Steinback: It just doesn’t get any better than that. So beautiful. And also really technically challenging, which for our team was very fun. We’re all pretty technically skilled paddlers. So it’s like single track mountain biking. And then the lower river is like road biking, except road biking with semi trucks everywhere because the lower river is just full of huge boats.

[00:40:42] Judson Steinback: Massive ships and barges and like things that are thrown off eight-foot waves, and you’re a speck, we’re just a speck. There’s a picture of us that our drone pilot took. And you cannot see the, the shoreline on either side of the river. And we [00:41:00] just, you can barely even see that the canoe is there.

[00:41:02] Judson Steinback: Wow. The lower river is so vast and so massive. In some places, the entire valley extends levee to levee for 77 miles. I mean, it’s just enormous. Yeah,

[00:41:15] Vicki Markussen: you can’t even fathom that if you haven’t seen it.

[00:41:18] Judson Steinback: Yes. And so I would say that the next most memorable piece of it was when we, at the very, very end, we knew that we were, we had gone through New Orleans.

[00:41:30] Judson Steinback: And something incredibly beautiful happened. We were asked to carry a man’s ashes from Lake Itasca all the way to New Orleans. Wow. One of our fan’s son had passed away just very unexpectedly, and he gave us, he asked us to carry a very small amount of his son’s ashes down to New Orleans, which was his son’s favorite city.

[00:41:52] Judson Steinback: And we had a really small ceremony, right in front of the French Quarter it’s called Algiers Point, it’s the deepest part of the river, it’s over [00:42:00] 200 feet deep. And we spread his ashes there, and for us, it was really intense because we didn’t even know if we’d make it there. I don’t care.

[00:42:06] Judson Steinback: You could be the four best paddlers in the entire world. You’re not guaranteed that you’re going to get to New Orleans. You could break your boat in half and destroy it and that’s it. You could, somebody could get sick or injured and that’s it. You could come into a terrible storm that grounds you out for two days and there’s the record.

[00:42:23] Judson Steinback: It’s over, so we did that, and then we rounded the corner, and then I was in the bow, which is the front, Wally was in the stern, and Paul and Scott actually were both sleeping in the middle of the canoe shortly thereafter. And the waves were like 5 to 6 feet tall for like 35 miles. Whoa. And Wally and I were just so tired.

[00:42:43] Judson Steinback: We were way ahead of the record pace. But we just didn’t know how this could be sustainable. Yeah. The waves were so big that Wally couldn’t see me when we were going down the waves. I would disappear out of view. And the waves were just smacking [00:43:00] me in the face. It was just wild.

[00:43:02] Judson Steinback: And then we got to the next little marina. My partner, Daniela, she followed us the whole way down the river. She was on the support team. She was at this little marina. So was our support crew, Captain Moose. A couple of the support team members were there. We got there, a couple of us went to the bathroom, and we’re like, how are we going to do this for another 70 miles, 60 miles?

[00:43:26] Judson Steinback: It’s 92 miles to the ocean from New Orleans. It’s not next door to the ocean. And there’s a bunch of dangerous stuff. I don’t have to get into it all right now, but a bunch of really dangerous stuff between New Orleans and the sea. We get out of the marina, we switch positions so that Scott and Paul are in the bow and stern and me and Wally are in the middle.

[00:43:51] Judson Steinback: I think I went down to rest. And then, out of nowhere, the river just flattened. Interesting. Like a pancake. Yeah. [00:44:00] And it was like, okay guys, the river is, like this whole notion of conquering the river, it doesn’t happen. Yeah. Nobody conquers the river. It never happens, it’s never gonna happen. But it was like the Mississippi just laid down was like, all right, guys, here’s your chance.

[00:44:15] Judson Steinback: Don’t screw it up. Mm hmm. And we paddled so hard for the next 60 miles. And finally, at like 2 in the morning, 2. 37, I think it was, in the morning, we got to what’s called mile marker zero, which is this rickety, nasty structure Uh, that marks the end of the Mississippi and the beginning of the Gulf. Yeah.

[00:44:38] Judson Steinback: And We got to it, and it’s like this two story kind of scaffolding y thing. And we tied up to it, and I was like, You guys, we gotta climb up this thing. And we all look at each other, and we all climbed up to the top. And our families had rented this huge boat to follow us for the last two hours. [00:45:00] And so, Wally’s mom, the paddler from Chicago, She was on the support team also she had this like megaphone and she was just yelling and cheering for us in the boat. Everybody in the boat was screaming and cheering.

[00:45:12] Judson Steinback: I think there were 50 people on this boat supporting us and for two hours they’re just roaring and screaming and cheering, and we get to the top of mile marker zero and everybody’s going wild and then climbed down and This boat captain who followed us to be able to take us back to Venice.

[00:45:32] Judson Steinback: Because Venice is the end of the road, and then it’s 20 more miles to the end of the Mississippi. And there’s no roads, it’s just islands and the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Wow. And so we hop onto his boat, we tie the canoe to his boat and everything. And he gives us all a beer, which we hadn’t had, of course, in, like, months, because we weren’t drinking as we were training for this at the end.

[00:45:54] Judson Steinback: So we all have a beer, and, like, half a beer we just pass out on the boat.

[00:45:58] Vicki Markussen: And you’re probably drunk, too.

[00:45:59] Judson Steinback: Yeah, [00:46:00] I mean, probably. I don’t even remember. And we get back to this little hotel. Called the Salty Marsh Floatel, which is a tug, like a tugboat. Yeah. Turned into a floating hotel. Wow. Our whole support team is there.

[00:46:14] Judson Steinback: My mom and dad and sister and my partner Daniela were there. The whole support team was there. Other people’s moms and dads and siblings were there. We had this like big

[00:46:25] Vicki Markussen: Celebration.

[00:46:26] Judson Steinback: Yeah. So, that would be the other, that ending time would be the other, the beginning and the end were the two most memorable parts for me.

[00:46:37] Judson Steinback: Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. The rest of it, it was, there were some amazing things. I got to see my daughters as I came through lacrosse. Oh, nice. Yeah. They followed us on a boat for a while. Nice. That was really special. Mm hmm. Daniella brought me a donut on my birthday. Nice. And it was like an hour-long backstory about how that went down.

[00:46:57] Judson Steinback: Yeah. She paddled out in a canoe with three [00:47:00] other guys and they almost flipped their canoe over and just tried to bring us a donut. With the donut. Yeah. And it was just like, there’s all these back and side stories. There were some very dangerous things that happened. There were some very fun things that happened.

[00:47:13] Judson Steinback: There were some physically Unbelievably hard things that happened. It was just a remarkable journey.

[00:47:19] Vicki Markussen: What an emotional rollercoaster.

[00:47:21] Judson Steinback: Yeah. I couldn’t imagine better people to have done it with.

[00:47:24] Vicki Markussen: That’s why they handpicked, right? I guess so. Because that’s what you gotta have. You can have people that you can spend that amount of time with and respect at the end, yeah. Okay, common closer question. What makes you passionate about

[00:47:35] Judson Steinback: what do you? Wow. I really care about my community and I really care about the environment. And I found that in Coulee Region Ecoscape I’m able to do things with my time and work that really make this place a better place to live, both from an ecological perspective, but also just from a functional, like, how do we all be better humans perspective as well.

[00:47:59] Judson Steinback: [00:48:00] So I think the combination of those things, and then getting to be outside all of that. put together, really makes me driven to why wanting to keep doing this and become more successful and make more impact

[00:48:15] Vicki Markussen: You’ve been listening to Judson Steinback. This has been BizNews Greater La Crosse.

[00:48:22] Vicki Markussen: We’ll talk to you next week



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