In Tolima, located in the Andean region of Colombia, Heather Terry picks up a handful of dirt — teeming with worms and so dark it’s almost black. Nearly 8,000 miles away, in Kenya, she gathers another pile of earth; this one a warm red.
Terry’s role as the founder and CEO of regenerative foods company GoodSam takes her to indigenous agricultural communities across the globe, in part to assess soil health, that all-important indicator of a successful regenerative farm. But more than anything, the goal of her travels is to connect with people. “My mission is always to develop trust between us and the people on the ground,” she says. “If we don’t build those relationships, we’re dead in the water.”
If you know anything about regenerative agriculture, then Terry’s interest in soil makes sense. This restorative method of farming, drawn from age-old indigenous practices, centers on soil health as a means of not only growing superior crops, but of healing the earth and mitigating the effects of climate change.
When she arrives at a new farm, Terry’s first stop is the compost heap. “It’s kind of gross, but also pretty awesome, because that’s where it all starts,” she says. “The minute I see it, I know what we’re dealing with.”
Getting close enough to physically touch the dirt in which crops like coffee, macadamia nuts, and cacao are grown is part of how Terry and her team ensure GoodSam is able to work most effectively with their farming partners around the world. That process looks different in every community. “Each ecosystem has different needs, plants, animals, and people involved,” explains Saida Abdala, GoodSam’s marketing director. “It’s very difficult to create a system that you can guarantee is going to work the same way all the time.”
“Regenerative agriculture in Kenya is completely different than regenerative agriculture in Colombia, Ghana, or Peru,” Terry adds; this can pose a challenge for regenerative organic certification. “The danger is [in] pigeonholing every community into the same set of standards that just simply do not exist,” she says. “Regenerative by nature is a multitude of things. There is a vast array of requirements for soil to thrive in different places.”
Terry’s years in the food industry have taught her that no one understands those requirements quite as well as the farmers who work the land. “Regenerative agriculture is indigenous wisdom,” she says. “You can’t talk about farms without talking about people.”
Equally important to meeting the specific ecological needs of a place is establishing genuine bonds with farmers and other members of these agricultural communities — showing up for them, respecting their invaluable knowledge, and helping provide them with stability and hope.
Terry tears up when she recounts a story about one particular family of indigenous farmers in Colombia. Impoverished and jaded by so many broken promises from partners past, “they’re very guarded and they don’t know how to interact with you,” Terry says. “So many people have stood in front of them and said things that are just so wrong.”
During one visit, Terry recalls, she and her team finally achieved a breakthrough with the head of the tribe. “He looked at me and said, just bring me back the money. Bring me back the thing that’s going to get us somewhere. Really, what he was saying was, bring us back the hope that we can believe in you. And we’ve done that.”
While she’s immensely proud of how her team’s work has been able to provide a lifeline to smallholder and indigenous farmers, Terry is reluctant to take too much credit. “We literally could not do what we do without all of the people we work with,” she says. “We’re so lucky to know them. They have opened our eyes to the world. We’re so privileged and honored to call them our partners. It’s time for these communities to be celebrated, elevated, amplified, and respected.”
With a terrain that spans beaches, jungles, and mountains and microclimates that can vary by as much as 50 degrees, Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries (second only to Brazil, which is ten times its size).
Terry’s early visits to the country left her in awe: of the drastic variation in the environment and climate, but also of the resiliency of the people amid extreme poverty and struggle. There, communities strive to rebuild and persevere amid ongoing violence and corruption. While forces from within have caused their fair share of hardship for indigenous farmers, so have well-intentioned non-government organizations.
“A lot of groups come in, make promises to these communities, and set up systems that don’t work for them, or can’t be maintained long-term,” Terry says, citing empty watersheds and defunct plumbing systems. “We’ve seen a lot of broken promises.”
From the beginning, Terry’s goal in Colombia (as it is in every community she visits) has been to work collaboratively with smallholder and indigenous farmers, and never to make promises on which she and her team can’t deliver. In practice, that means addressing some of the most pressing needs in these often very remote communities, like strengthening internet connectivity.
Creating a system that can work with Colombia’s biodiversity rather than against it is key to providing a year-round income stream for farmers there. Abdala describes a landscape in which sandy beaches are only a short distance from snow-capped mountains. “That’s why regenerative agriculture is so important for this community,” she says. “If they want to create growth, and if we want to source from them, we need a diverse portfolio so we can guarantee that they can sell all of the things that they are growing.” GoodSam’s varied assortment — which includes Colombian coffee and chocolate candies that use Colombian cacao — isn’t arbitrary; it’s a hallmark of the brand’s commitment to regenerative farming.
“When it comes to regenerative farming, biodiversity is your best friend,” says Tom den Hartog, GoodSam’s Director of Sourcing and Direct Trade Partnerships. “We’re currently one of the biggest buyers of organic cacao in Colombia, and rely on the trust we have built with these farmers’ cooperatives.” He adds that, because of its proximity to international sea ports, the Sierra Nevada region has the potential to become the organic cacao hub of Colombia, and that GoodSam’s work there — including developing nearly 1,000 hectares of organic cacao farming — has helped small-scale farmers take advantage of this opportunity in a sustainable way.
In Kenya, where GoodSam sources macadamia nuts, the company’s goal is to make a good thing better. Terry reports that the Kenyan co-op the company works with is organized and well-run, though the community has seen its fair share of corruption.
“This community does not take anything for granted,” Terry says. “Most of the people there remember what it was like 10 years ago, when brokers and middle men were forcing their prices down.” She’s referring to an unfortunately common arrangement in which unregulated brokers exploit farmers, fixing crop prices low to maximize their own profit. GoodSam’s direct trade arrangements with the Kenyan co-op encourage fair pricing and ensure farmers can make a living from their labor.
Terry explains that the receptiveness of the community combined with infrastructure resources like government-sponsored 4G connectivity and well-developed roads have made for quick progress. “People there want to see [the cooperative] growing. It’s exciting for them to watch groups like us come through…because they’ve seen the system work over a long period of time.”
About 4,000 miles west of Kenya is Ghana — “the wild west,” as Terry puts it. “Hustle was created in Ghana, I’m sure of it,” she goes on, adding that the people there have an inimitable get-stuff-done spirit.
While Ghana is a well-known cacao producer, GoodSam doesn’t actually source any cacao there. Terry explains that the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), a government institution, forces Ghanian cacao farmers to sell their beans at a set price, and that the system is fraught with corruption and slave labor.
Instead, GoodSam is working directly with peanut farmers in Ghana, collaborating with several other organizations to help convert 500 hectares of certified organic land into a regenerative system. This particular project requires a long — and somewhat harrowing — journey by plane, car, and boat to a remote part of the country.
“On the river to the farms, there’s illegal gold mining going on,” Terry says, recalling a boat ride accompanied by heavily armed guards. Although the experience was certainly strange, Terry says she wasn’t fearful. “We always get thrown in these odd situations,” she reflects. “There’s always an odd situation, and that’s part of the experience.”
The contrast between the illegal gold mining and the regenerative farming seems extreme, but Terry and Abdala reflect that there’s almost a kindred spirit, as well as a sense of mutual respect, among these groups that are all trying to survive, albeit in disparate ways.
“You have different groups with completely opposite purposes trying to heal from deep corruption and violence,” Abadla adds. “They are respecting each other, and letting each other grow.”
Terry’s travels around the globe have made one thing clear: regenerative agriculture owes everything to the knowledge and wisdom of smallholder and indigenous farmers who pioneered it, and who continue to practice it today — not because it’s the latest trend in sustainability, but because it’s what they’ve always known is right.
“As respectful as we are of the soil in regenerative systems, we want to be respectful about preserving and protecting the people who have been the stewards of the soil for much longer than we’ve been having this conversation,” Terry says. While she’s heartened by brands joining the regenerative organic movement, her concern is that its beating heart — the people themselves — are at risk of being displaced.
That’s why, with GoodSam, her goal is to protect smallholder and indigenous farming communities, help them grow, and allow agriculture to restore both the land and communities that populate it. As Abdala puts it, “Agriculture is a tool to heal.”
You can support agriculture that heals the planet and helps indigenous communities flourish by choosing regeneratively grown products. Start with these Thrive Market member favorites from GoodSam.
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