Edible Institute 2020 Explores its Meanings and Methods
By Pam Walker
The conversation over what regenerative agriculture means and how we can help it flourish, whether as farmers or as eaters, has become large and increasingly urgent. At the Edible Institute 2020, a national conference convened by Edible Communities and recently held at La Fonda in Santa Fe, the conversation took center stage.
This year, almost three hundred people attended a day and a half of panel discussions and individual presentations at the Institute, an annual event held at a different location each year. It was the second largest attendance so far, according to Tracey Ryder, co-founder of Edible Communities, which is an enterprise of eighty-five independently owned magazines in the United States and Canada devoted to local food cultures, with a total readership of approximately 20 million. Ryder explains that about half of the attendees each year are publishers, editors, writers, photographers, and others working with edible magazines across the country. The other half ranges from those simply curious to learn more about local food communities to those already part of them, including chefs, educators, and food entrepreneurs.
So what is regenerative agriculture? Though particular features vary among its practitioners, it first and foremost requires food producers to nourish the soil, rather than mine, deplete, or even destroy it, as happens in industrial agriculture. Chemical herbicides and pesticides common in industrial practice can kill organisms in soil, leaving the soil a nearly lifeless medium reliant on artificial nutrients and thus creating an endless, toxic cycle.
Underscoring this disregard for life in industrial agriculture, food becomes a commodity—as if it were just another lifeless thing among countless other lifeless things to be bought and sold. Bob Quinn, a fourth-generation grain grower from Big Sandy, Montana, with a PhD in plant biochemistry, spoke about his gradual conversion from industrial farming to regenerative practices on his family’s 2,400 acres. Wheat was just a commodity to him until a woman at an agricultural expo happened to say something that opened his eyes. “She bought some wheat from me and then thanked me for growing food for her family,” Quinn recounted. “Food for her family. Food.”
This brief, chance experience gave Quinn a new sense of his role as a farmer: to grow food! Seeing grain as food, as a living substance nourishing living families, Quinn began to think deeply about his growing and marketing methods and the consequences of his choices for his land, his family, and his rural community. It led him to become a certified organic producer, abandoning chemicals and embracing crop rotation and cover cropping, using beneficial insects to control pests, and implementing other organic methods.
He also began milling whole wheat, including Khorasan wheat, one of many ancient varieties more nutritious than modern varieties bred for industrial growing and milling. Discovering a burgeoning market for stone-ground Khorasan wheat, he convinced other local farmers to grow it with regenerative methods. It was then cleaned and milled locally, adding jobs and keeping people and money in their community.
As a practitioner and public advocate of organic agriculture, Quinn actively resists the advance of large-scale organic agriculture, or “Big Organic,” which he argues in his book, Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, “has mostly gone the extractive commodity route.” To food corporations and other businesses, large and small, that are trying to get into organics, Quinn asks them to assess whether their businesses extract value from communities for commodities or return value to communities. To Quinn, thinking in terms of commodities cannot be organic. “Organic—real organic—requires a whole systems approach,” he insists, “with value regenerated at every stage in the process.”
What about regenerative livestock management? Does such a thing exist? Yes, though mainstream media and popular perceptions suggest otherwise. Why? Many studies of meat and dairy production and consumption focus on the destructive environmental impacts of industrial methods, namely on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that cram cattle into feedlots and hogs and chickens into enormous barns. Confined animals are administered hormones and prophylactic antibiotics to promote rapid growth. They are fed fodder and grain combined with such byproducts as poultry litter, a mixture of poultry excrement, feathers, seeds, and other items salvaged from confinement areas. And, under the category “animal protein products,” they may also be fed viscera, blood, offal, skin, and hooves. Even particles of plastic are sometimes incorporated in feed regimens, a substitute for plant roughage.
CAFOs were conceived to fix something that wasn’t broken. As Wendell Berry more than once has observed, removing animals from pastures and confining them caused two problems that didn’t previously exist: soil fertility problems on farms, opening the way for chemical fertilizers, and pollution problems on feedlots, generating dangerous levels of greenhouse gases. These confinement systems are thoroughly extractive; nothing about them is regenerative.
Pasture-based animal agriculture is the regenerative alternative and, despite being overlooked by most environmental-impact studies and by mainstream media, it is gaining ground. Animals on pasture, except during periods of extreme heat or cold or other inclement weather, graze on grasses or forage for insects in sunlight and open air. Typically, farmers subdivide pastures into paddocks, often with portable fencing, and, based on rainfall and vegetation conditions and related factors at any given time, rotate the animals among the paddocks. These timely, carefully calibrated rotations make it possible for animals to simultaneously eat directly from the land and fertilize it as they defecate, urinate, and work the excrement into the soil with their hooves or feet or claws.
Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, delivered a keynote address on the many ecological, economic, and cultural benefits of regenerative meat production. His family’s 152-year-old, six-generation farm, encompasses three thousand acres and is the largest organic farm in Georgia. Under his management, the farm employs 160 people, making it the largest employer in the state’s poorest county. They produce meat from ten species raised on pasture—cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, guineas, and rabbits—all of which they process in abattoirs on the farm, meeting the highest standards of several animal welfare organizations. They also grow vegetables and fruit, not just for their family, employees, and guests in their on-farm rental cabins, but also for the restaurant they established in nearby downtown Bluffton. The restaurant adjoins the general store they revived for the community, and both are open daily.
Will Harris’s story, much like Bob Quinn’s, is a conversion story. White Oak Pastures dates from soon after the Civil War, and, until the mid to late 1940s, it produced beef, pork, and chicken on pasture. But in the aftermath of World War II, the Harrises, like many farmers throughout the United States, were swayed by the forms of industrial agriculture promoted by the USDA and the extension services of land-grant universities. They moved away from diverse production and began raising only calves, managing their forage chemically and selling the animals into the increasingly vertically integrated system of industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses.
In 1995, Harris realized that treating food as commodities to be produced and sold as cheaply as possible was brutalizing animals, depleting the land and other natural resources, dehumanizing people, and depopulating and impoverishing rural communities. “We’d broken the cycles of nature through technology,” he said. “But the cycles of nature must be respected.”
Harris explored alternatives and discovered the work of Zimbabwean wildlife ecologist and farmer Allan Savory and his holistic, planned grazing approach to raising meat animals on pasture. Savory studied the grazing cycles of wild animals and their effects on soil and plant life, and adapted what he learned to raising livestock. For example, just as bison in the wild were part of the natural cycles of North American prairie regeneration—grazing an area intensively, then moving on to other areas, and then returning—so too can livestock be managed to mimic those grazing cycles. Paddocks are the basic tool farmers have for doing this, enabling them to control grazing by concentrating animals briefly in paddocks ripe for grazing, and then moving them out until the grasses in those paddocks, “mowed” and fertilized from grazing, rebound. And so this regenerative cycle repeats itself through rotational methods that can be implemented on small acreages as well as large.
“Biomimicry is understanding the cycles of nature and working to optimize them. That’s my definition of holistic,” Harris said. “You can’t regenerate soil without animal impact. You just can’t.”
Through holistic practices based on Savory’s methods, Harris got increasingly good results. Yet he wanted not to make exaggerated and misleading claims about the benefits of these methods, especially regarding carbon sequestration in the soil. So he recently paid $80,000 to General Mills, which buys a small volume of his products, to do a carbon footprint analysis of White Oak Pastures compared with current figures for industrial meat production systems.
The main finding? “We’re actually a carbon sink,” Harris said. “We sequester three and a half pounds of carbon per beef. This is about a ton of carbon per acre per year, the equivalent of seven barrels of oil on every acre every year.”
For people who want to eat meat, dairy products, and eggs from animals grazed rotationally on pastures, Harris noted that verification and certification entities and labels keep proliferating, and they confuse consumers more than help them, obscuring or falsifying the facts. “Greenwashing is the greatest impediment to what we do,” he said. “There’s no good way for consumers to know what they’re buying except to know the farmer or something about the farmer.”
Regenerative agriculture is deeply rooted in New Mexico, especially the northern parts. This area is home to many regenerative farmers and food activists, including descendants of the indigenous people whose original lands the state occupies. Lois Ellen Frank and Roxanne Swentzell were among a number of Native Americans who spoke at the conference.
Frank, of Kiowa and Spanish Sephardic descent, holds a PhD in culinary anthropology and is a classically trained chef. She owns and operates a cooking school and catering business in Santa Fe called Red Mesa Cuisine, which features contemporary dishes inspired by indigenous foods throughout the Americas. Many Red Mesa recipes appear with Frank’s own historical commentary in her book Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, a James Beard Foundation award winner.
“As rice is to Asia and wheat is to Europe, so corn is to America,” she said. She noted that in scientific records, cultivating corn goes back 8,700 years, but in indigenous oral traditions, 9,500 years. “If we lose our corn,” she cautioned, “we lose ourselves.”
A strong advocate of food sovereignty for Indigenous communities, Frank said, “It is a right, not a privilege, to access our traditional foods. We need land, access to seeds, access to foraging, and cooking and nutrition classes.”
To help bring Indigenous foods into the mainstream, she urged writers for Edible Communities to write many more articles about native food traditions. And she urged all attendees to ask at restaurants if they have native corn dishes on the menu, and to work on retail grocers, too. “Think about it,” she said. “We’re the only ethnic group without an aisle in the supermarket.”
Roxanne Swentzell, a nationally distinguished sculptor, is Tewa and lives in Santa Clara Pueblo, where she owns and operates the Roxanne Swentzell Tower Gallery. Swentzell is also a native foods activist and a small-scale farmer, producing vegetables, fruits, and meat. In the ‘80s, she began studying permaculture —land design based on ecologically regenerative principles developed by Australian biologist Bill Mollison—and got certified to practice and teach it. In 1989, she founded the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, located at her home, to keep pursuing permaculture herself, feed her family, and teach others in her community to do the same.
“I saw so many ways that permaculture fits with my Indigenous culture,” Swentzell said. “Natural patterns are important to us and in permaculture. And in the Pueblo world, reciprocity is key. What are we taking from the earth? What are we giving back? Prayer is reciprocity. Breathe in the world, and you receive what the moment is. And when you plant, you’re putting your hopes and dreams in prayer.”
About six years ago, with her historian son, Porter Swentzell, she turned her attention to the diabetes, heart disease, and stroke frequency that occurs among Indigenous people in higher rates than other ethnic groups. Both Swentzell and her son, despite eating in what they considered in generally healthful ways, had sometimes struggled with their weight and other health problems. Porter researched the diets of their ancestors prior to the arrival of the Spanish and decided that for three months he would adhere strictly to an ancestral diet of such foods as corn, amaranth, beans, squash, wild greens, nuts, fruits, fish, fowl, and meats from game and other wild animals. He quickly lost weight and gained energy.
Swentzell and others in the community followed his example, with everyone getting blood tests before and at the end of three months. Everyone’s health improved, and everyone discovered how—and why—it matters to eat as independently of the industrial food system as possible. They called this project The Pueblo Food Experience, and it led to the book The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, which Swentzell co-edited and wrote parts of.
“We are all indigenous to this planet somewhere,” Swentzell said. “We were genetically adapted to particular places. Big ag is money-based, not place-based.”
She thinks that technology, including that of industrial agriculture, has put us in a precarious situation. “The world is kind of tippy right now. Which way are we going to go? I’m scared for us,” she said. “I feel really sorry for us right now in this world of technology because we don’t know how to do things anymore. We don’t know how to grow food. We don’t know how to make things. We’ve made our basket really weak. How diverse is your basket? That’s richness. Diversity.”
As the conference drew toward conclusion, discussions gave way to dance, a buffalo dance performed by two young men and two young women from nearby Pueblos, accompanied by two older men and a young boy who drummed and rattled gourds and sang. The dancers danced in and out of the center aisle of the room and along the periphery, transforming an ordinary space into something other and catching everyone up in a ritual of reverence and gratitude—gratitude for the buffalo and the earth and its gifts of life, gifts without end if only we nurture the earth in return.