FOOD

The Future of Farming Is Regenerative—At the Epicenter Is Driving the Change

April 22nd, 2020

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we’re spotlighting At the Epicenter (ATE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing together businesses, brands, changemakers, and farmers to help inspire and educate people about the importance of regenerative agriculture. To help us understand how regenerative farming methods can positively affect food systems, the environment, and our health, we sat down with ATE founder Seleyn DeYarus and Bob Quinn, an organic regenerative farmer who is also the author of “Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food.”

What’s ATE’s mission?

Seleyn DeYarus (SD): ATE brings thought leaders and influencers into conversation to support the exchange of ideas and experiences among business leaders building profitable businesses while also prioritizing the well-being of the people and ecosystems they impact. ATE believes that cooperatively working together will have far-reaching positive impacts for brands and producers, as well as people and the planet.

Why is regenerative agriculture so important?

SD: Regenerative agriculture is a “place-sourced approach” to holistic land management. That means the methods are unique to the land and its location, so there isn’t a list of best practices, but rather, principles to be applied to that farm or ranch. These are living systems that must be seen in context. In other words, what works in a tropical setting will not be transferable to a prairie or vice versa. It’s a much more dynamic and alive way of envisioning what the land needs to be its healthiest.

Bob Quinn (BQ): It’s the future, and the only farming method that makes sense for revitalizing our soils, which will improve the health of our farms, our rural communities, our environment, and most importantly, the health of our people.

How does regenerative agriculture differ from organic farming?

SD: Fundamentally, regenerative is a principles-based approach to understanding what a specific place needs to be its most fully evolved expression of health and vitality. It is a holistic perspective that considers all variables in designing a regenerative approach. Organic agriculture is based on a set of best practices or standards that, while better than chemical-intensive farming, doesn’t require a “living systems view” of the farm or ranch to determine how to best serve the land so that it can be in a continual state of regeneration and evolving health. There are organic farmers who are regenerative in how they take care of their farms and ranches, but as a standard, it doesn’t require a regenerative approach.

How do you partner with farmers?

SD: We bring farmers to our events and speak with them on our podcast. We want the brands and advocates of regenerative agriculture to hear directly from farmers because we’re depending on their efforts to heal landscapes around the world, so it’s vital that we listen and collaborate with producers. We need their examples to help inspire their peers.

How do regenerative farmers work with ATE?

BQ: What I appreciate about ATE is that they work with a “big tent” mentality in which all are welcome—all who are striving to improve their farms and supporting businesses with regenerative techniques. This presents a great opportunity for folks at every level of conversion to gather and share experiences. ATE gives farmers opportunities to network, be inspired, exchange information, and learn.

What changes have you (and other farmers who have made the conversion) noticed after switching to regenerative farming methods?

BQ: I noticed changes in soil health, as measured by the smell of the soil in my hands, and I could tell the tilth of the ground improved because it felt softer under my feet. My soil also had less water and wind erosion. I noticed weeds became more dispersed and more diverse. I also saw a huge change in my bottom line. Because I no longer have to buy inputs (like chemical fertilizers) but instead grow my own, I’ve reduced my costs while increasing the value of my crops by selling them as certified organic. Our farm almost immediately went from losing money nearly every year to making a profit every year. The access to much better markets and prices by selling everything as certified organic is another great advantage of adding organic certification to regenerative programs. There is not a well-established market for just regeneratively grown crops yet, so regenerative farmers who don’t have organic certification do not have any price advantages for their production.

What kind of impact could regenerative agriculture have on our food future?

SD: I think it is an extraordinary opportunity to undo the damage from our longstanding idea of how to do agriculture. Traditionally, we value land for what we can extract from it. The flip side of this mode of thinking is to ask “how can we regenerate the land so it is at its optimal expression of health,” and then ask, “what do we receive?” The extractive mode has rendered topsoil loss, biodiversity destruction, disruption of water cycles, and an upside-down carbon placement. Rather than cycling carbon through continual plant cover and naturally sequestering it in soil as part of the cycle of life, we’ve disrupted the natural flow and placed an inordinate amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Depleted soils produce less nutritious food and don’t allow water to percolate back into the groundwater. It’s a vicious cycle, so regenerating our farming system is vital to human and ecosystem health.

BQ: It could get people to think about food as being their medicine and medicine as being their food—and to take that to the next step, it could be thought of as medicine for the soil, the farms, the community, and the planet.

What kind of impact could regenerative agriculture have on climate change?

SD: In many ways, changing our relationship to landscapes around the world is foundational to how we address climate change. Climate change is a symptom of our longstanding practices that have been extractive and disrespectful to the well-being of land, animals, water, and ultimately, ourselves. This idea of regenerative agriculture is a much bigger kind of impact than just addressing climate change. It is fundamentally becoming aware of our interdependence with the earth and all its diversity, and our role as stewards of life so that there is a healthy inheritance for future generations of all species—not just humans.

BQ: First, by eliminating the production of nitrogen chemical fertilizer, about a third of the greenhouse gases attributed to agriculture would be eliminated. Second, by enhancing carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter in the soil, we could start to reverse the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the air.

If you could tell the average family one thing about regenerative agriculture, what would it be?

SD: Regenerative agriculture is a win-win. Farmers can be more resilient and prosperous, we get more nutritious food, heal our landscapes around the world, and restore biodiversity. It’s our best shot at mitigating the effects of climate change.

BQ: Everyone wins: It’s better for the soil, the farmer, the community, the planet, and your health and the health of your family. As a bonus, regeneratively grown food tastes better, too.

What should consumers look for to know they’re actually getting a regenerative organic product?

SD: Right now, looking for organic or biodynamic certifications is a good start. Buy brands that tell their sourcing stories and share their relationships with producers. Also, a new seal to look out for is the Regenerative Organic Certification and Savory’s Land to Market Verification.

What are some resources available to consumers who want to know more about regenerative?

SD: Check out the video content on our YouTube channel. Also, Kiss the Ground has classes people can take to learn about soil. Both The Savory Institute and Regeneration International have online resources.

ATE creates experiences that bring leaders and businesses together to be a force for good. Describe some past events.

SD: We have produced three Regenerative Earth Summits, and soon, two Women Leading Regeneration gatherings that have evolved to include the food, fashion, and beauty industries. We also weave social justice and inclusion as we realize healing our economy and planet are of one cloth. In 2018, ATE produced Farm to Fashion, the world’s first fashion show featuring designers from around the world using regeneratively sourced fibers in fashion. We also launched Regenerative Voices™ Elevating Stories Activating Change podcast series to bring greater understanding to the public on the benefit of regenerative principles in healing the earth by having conversations with farmers, entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders.

When you think about everything ATE has accomplished, what makes you most proud?

SD: I am most proud that we have elevated the understanding of what regenerative means to the long-term well-being of enterprise and its direct correlation to our planet. Through our Summits, we’ve helped major global corporations embrace the challenge of transforming their supply networks toward regenerative sourcing. That is the motivation for this work—to help make it clear that the “how” is achievable when there’s a strong willingness to take it on.

Want to learn more about At the Epicenter? Check out their recent podcast with Thrive Market’s Chief Merchandising Officer, Jeremiah McElwee.

Photo credit: Hilary Page

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Melinda GrossMelinda writes about health, wellness, and food for the Thrive Market blog. She started her career as a financial journalist in NYC and has written for Where Magazine, Worth, Forbes, and TheStreet.com. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys working out, sketching, and playing with her daughter and mini-dachshund, Goliath.

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