Nutrient-dense foods and regenerated soils

Promoting regenerative agriculture — farming practices that restore depleted soils and hold the promise of slowing down climate change — is often framed as one of those things that we human beings can and should do for the sake of the environment. For sake of the planet. To heal the Earth.

But frankly, that’s not on most people’s priority list. For many people, healing the Earth is a nice idea, but they have much more pressing and immediate concerns that directly involve themselves. Such as, how to be happy and healthy — how to maximize one’s well-being in an increasingly complex, busy and toxic world, with rising health care costs.

Well, I’m going to make a bold statement here: supporting regenerative farming is not just Earth care, it’s self-care. If you’re not going to do it because it’s good for the planet, do it because it’s good for YOU. By buying and eating food grown on such farms, you’re investing in your own health and vitality, and the benefits can be immediate.

Our current food culture is obsessed with wellness and nutrition. “Nutrient-dense” and “superfood” are the buzzwords among those who have the discretionary income to follow food trends. Whether they’re eating Paleo, gluten-free, vegan, high-carb, low-carb, organic, or are religiously devoted to green juices, everyone’s keen on getting the most bang for their buck — finding the ingredients or the combinations that will up their nutrient intake, boost their vitality, reduce inflammation, and so on. The same desire is fueling the multi-million dollar supplement industry.

The obsession with finding the next trendy superfood or miracle supplement has been sparked, in part, by the disconcerting reports that the nutrient and vitamin content of food is going down worldwide. This is at least in part due to modern chemical farming methods, which have stripped the soils of their minerals and nutrients. These mineral deficiencies have been linked to specific health issues, such as teenage depression, ADD, and autism. Yes, we have reason to be concerned.

But what if the true superfoods are not the next trendy tropical leafy green or exotic berry? What if the true superfoods — the foods that will truly improve your health — are simply any foods grown in or on healthy soil?

In other words, what if rejuvenating depleted soils is actually the best way for us to rejuvenate ourselves?

Many still assume that organic food is automatically optimal for health. Yes, organic food has been shown to have less pesticide residue and fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But organically grown food is not necessarily more nutritious than conventionally grown. “When researchers have looked at the impact of organic systems on both soil quality and food nutrient levels, they have found that they often fare no better than conventional farms,” writes Daphne Miller, M.D., in her book Farmacology (p. 49).

Where we do see a direct correlation is between the food’s nutrient content and soil health. Not all organic farms are necessarily improving soil health; many of them are in fact large monocrop farms and routinely till the soil, which kills the soil microbiology. If we focus on farms that are improving soil health — building humus (soil organic matter) and the amount of carbon in the soil — we start to see some startling evidence of improved nutrition. Miller’s Farmacology beautifully demonstrates this connection between farm ecosystem health and human health, weaving together stories from regenerative farms and interviews with doctors and scientists.

Why is soil health important for human health? There’s actually a really intimate connection between soil and the most intimate, innermost part of humans — our gut. More and more studies are showing the key role that our gut health plays for some of our biggest health issues. Depression, behavioral problems in kids and adolescents, cancer, asthma and allergies, and various immune system dysfunctions are just some of the issues that have been traced to the imbalance of our gut microbiota. Essentially, we don’t have enough “good bugs” in our systems. Our modern, predominantly urban, overly hygienic, anti-bacterial, over-medicated, sedentary lifestyles and the kind of diet characteristic of such lifestyles — excessive sugar, processed food and not enough fresh produce — have shifted our gut biomes away from the desirable kinds of “probiotic” species, and towards what Daphne Miller calls “the Homer Simpson bacteria”: the kinds that thrive on refined flour, sugar, and processed food.

But here’s the exciting part: you can start shifting your internal environment. You can start today. You do it by changing your food and where you source it from. We need more beneficial microbes in our guts, which means we need more of them in our food, which means we need more of them in our soils which grow the food.

And that’s where regenerative farming comes in.

Regenerative agriculture is a pretty new term for farming practices that specifically build healthy soil. Like organic farming, regenerative skips the chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But it goes beyond organic in that it, by definition, returns nutrients to the soil and builds up soil organic matter (humus). Regenerative farmers recognize that their primary assistants in this task of soil-building are the beneficial soil microbes and fungi, which help to create humus . That’s why they follow farming practices that don’t destroy these soil organisms, but on the contrary help them to thrive: not tilling the soil, intentionally managed intensive grazing of livestock, integrating annual and perennial crops (or plant crops and livestock) on the same land, and applying compost rich with beneficial micro-organisms. When these micro-organisms flourish in the soil, they make nutrients more available to plants, which in turn makes them bioavailable for humans.

So if you really want to eat food that’s optimal for your health, skip the trendy, overpriced superfoods and supplements, and instead eat from regenerated soils. Here are four key principles to follow:

  1. Look for regenerative farmers in your area and start meeting some of your weekly food needs through them. Depending on where you live, you can find fresh produce, grassfed and pastured animal proteins, fruit and nuts, or even no-till grains. Our Carbon Farm Map is a good place to start if you’re in the U.S.
  2. Don’t scrub or peel your produce too compulsively! You’re getting rid of the part that’s best for you (the peel and, yes, little bits of dirt – the kind that’s good for you).
  3. Include fermented and raw foods in your daily diet. Think sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, yogurt.
  4. The loss of nutrients over time starts right after harvest. Plant your own home veggie garden and harvest the goodies right before eating them.

To our planet’s health — and to yours!

Exploring Regenerative coffee with Cooperative Coffees

Those of us who are are serious about our coffee are usually VERY serious about it. We want it brewed a certain way. We want to drink it by a particular hour of the day. Many of us feel strongly about whether it should be enjoyed with milk and sugar or not.

But there’s a deeper reason to be selective about our coffee — and it has little to do with that perfect froth on your morning latte.

I recently had a chance to chat with Monika Firl of Cooperative Coffees, a pioneering green cooperative coffee importer that’s setting the standard for climate-conscious coffee production and consumption. Much like wine, coffee is a complex product affected by almost everything that touches it along the way, from the location and climate and the soil in which the coffee plant grew, to the variety of the plant, and finally to the way the coffee was stored, roasted, blended — and brewed!

Cooperative Coffees works with small-scale farmers who are organized as cooperatives, helping them have access to fairer markets. They import coffee from farmer cooperatives in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia to North America and distribute it to their roaster-partners in the US and Canada.

Image: Coop Coffees

“My reason for being in coffee is farmers,” says Monika. Indeed, Coop Coffee’s commitment to the coffee farmer partners is clear from the project work they do on-the-ground among producer communities, organizing farmer trainings and exchanges and supporting regenerative land management projects, such as reforestation, on the coffee farms.

Coop Coffee is now wrapping up the first year of its Carbon, Climate & Coffee Initiative. In this initiative, the roaster-partners in North America pay a small “carbon tax” on the green coffee beans they purchase from Coop Coffee, and these funds are then used to continually replenish Coop Coffee’s project fund.

Image: Coop Coffees

If coffee is discussed at all in connection to climate change in mainstream media, it’s because of growing concerns that climate change will critically affect the world’s major coffee growing areas. It’s been estimated that 50% of coffee production regions will be unsuited for coffee cultivation by 2050. The farmers Coop Coffees works with are already seeing the adverse affects of extreme weather events, and diseases such as leaf-rust, on their fields and crops.

But Coop Coffees and the farmers they work with are offering a more positive lens to look at the coffee-climate connection: if grown regeneratively, coffee farming could in fact help to mitigate climate change. This happens because regenerative farming practices help to build the organic matter content and microbiology in the soil, which then boosts the soil’s capacity to pull down carbon from the atmosphere.

Monika describes one eye-opening farm visit to Honduras in 2013 at the peak of the leaf-rust crisis, when most farmers were witnessing total devastation in their fields. But one of them, Oscar Omar Alonzo Aguilar, still had lush and healthy-looking fields, and was getting a high-quality coffee crop from them. What had he had differently? He had simply focused on improving soil organic matter and microbiology: “Increasing the quantities of organic matter, strengthening the quality of his compost with locally produced, beneficial bacteria and fungi […], spraying compost teas to cover vulnerable leaf surfaces, and mulching with water-logged coconut husks to support soil life with stable humidity,” Monika lists Oscar’s ecologically beneficial practices. That was enough to make the coffee plants resilient enough to resist the disease.

Together with its partners such as Grow Ahead and Taking Root, Coop Coffees is expanding their capacity to organize farmer-to-farmer trainings, tours, and exchanges to help train more and more farmers in such regenerative techniques.

Image: Coop Coffees

So, dear coffee drinker, you may be asking what you can do to ensure that your daily cuppa has a beneficial impact on ecology, farmer livelihoods, and climate? Apart from looking for the “fair trade” label, just buying shade-grown coffee makes a big difference, Monika says. (Coffee is naturally shade-loving — it’s a shrub and thrives as the understory of taller-canopy agroforestry systems.)

Ideally, the coffee would also be grown regeneratively. For finding such coffee, the roaster-members of Coop Coffee are an excellent bet. But in addition, soon the subscribers to our monthly Grounded Goods boxes will get to enjoy regeneratively grown and sourced coffee delivered to their doorsteps — a collaboration with Coop Coffees and its roasters that we’re really excited about.

Now THAT’s going to be a cup worth savoring.

Farmer Story: Spoon Full Farm

In early 2017, five young farmers joined together to realize a dream that had been in the works for many years. Five people, each coming to the conclusion that our current agriculture system is broken and in need of repair, ready to commit to each other and to a beautiful piece of land in the Kittitas Valley…

We had gotten in late, well after the sun had gone down on a short February day. We had been moving slow for the last fifty miles on snow-covered roads. Two packed-full cars caravaned at what felt like a snail’s pace, slowed even further by the anticipation of what was about to begin.

After pulling up to the farm house, Michael and I went in search of snow shovels. We had no intentions of sleeping outside, and the snowbank around the entrances to the house were piled high. A half-hour later, our cars were in the garage and we sat down to enjoy our first dinner at Spoon Full Farm.

That night, we couldn’t have hidden our excitement even if we wanted to. Mesmerized by the amazing opportunity we had and the near-limitless potential for a 240 acre piece of property with senior irrigation rights, we excitedly discussed the possibilities the future may hold, and all the potential good we could do: for the land, for the soil, for our community, for our health, and for our planet. We went to bed with our hearts racing with enthusiasm.

We woke up the next morning and had a very short through-the-wall conversation:
“Sam!”
“I see them!”

The herd of over 100 elk were nibbling on the ornamental plants in the yard, mere feet from where our heads lay. A few, in fact, were nibbling on the house itself.

We got up and walked around the house. The herd was distributed in a circle, surrounding the house on every side. At some point they noticed us, and didn’t seem bothered by our presence.

The awe-inspiring silence Michael and I shared still remains vivid in my memory. A good first experience of daylight at our new home.

Today, 10 months later, the elk are back with winter coming once again. But this winter, contrasting the wilderness of the Yakima river, the elk herds, bald eagles, coyotes, great-horned owls and Canadian geese, is Spoon Full Farm, equipped with a greenhouse, an acre of no-till vegetable gardens, 22 cattle, 20 sheep, 300 chickens, two dairy goats, four dogs, two cats, one llama, and five humans.

Our first season has wrapped up, and we’ve taken major steps to develop food production systems on what was once a conventional hay farm.

The cooperative, production-diverse regenerative farm has been a dream of mine ever since I first spent a summer farming over five years ago. The synergy offered by diversity yields incredible benefits. Multi-species management-intensive grazing benefits our no-till vegetable system through the compost we’re able to produce. Raising honeybees improves our orchard pollination, and the ability to add value to our produce in a commercial kitchen minimizes inventory loss.

On top of all that, this enterprise diversity allows for a specialization that makes each pillar of our farm likely to succeed. Each enterprise is micro-managed by a single individual, allowing for a nuanced approach. We are doing many things, but are not spread too thin because each individual can remain focused on one main task.

When it comes to marketing, a shared farm label makes it easier to move product, as well. We first entered the market with incredibly tasty produce, thus beginning to build ourselves a reputation. As we bring more and more new products to market, those new products have a ready foundation and a customer base. We are moving towards the one-stop farm shop model, and in 2018 will add grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs, and canned, preserved and processed vegetables to our current lineup of grass-fed lamb, wildflower honey, and fresh vegetables.

“Loyal to Soil”

While our business structure gives us excellent market access, it really is our practices that set us apart from conventional farms or commercial organic farms.

Our slogan says it all: we are Loyal to Soil. Fundamentally, we encourage healthy soil. In turn, that healthy soil provides us with nutrient-dense and delicious food.

We encourage soil health by taking several steps which contrast drastically with large-scale agriculture. The first is that we never till the soil. When farmers till their soil, they powerfully turn it, diminishing overall soil structure and killing trillions of soil microbes which are the foundation for a healthy soil ecosystem. Soil is different from dirt because it is alive. And we can’t grow healthy food in dirt.

We also avoid synthetic fertilizers and pest-control sprays of any kind, even organic. Pesticides don’t discriminate — they kill pests but also beneficial insects. Nature’s diversity within complex ecosystems creates self-balancing systems. With these self-balancing systems, we can minimize external inputs which themselves have a major ecological footprint.

So, on our farm, we are committed to building a diverse ecosystem- both above and below ground. We graze with multiple species (cattle, sheep, goats, llamas and chickens), we are planting a widely diverse network of hedgerows and orchards that will be of commercial value while also providing “ecosystem services” (such as food and habitat for pollinators and predator insects) and we build healthy soil by keeping our soil whole and by feeding it (with compost).

The result is a highly productive farm, producing particularly delicious and nutrient-dense food, actually building soil and improving ecosystem diversity, and capable of supporting the livelihoods of the farmers who work and live there.

Learn more about Spoon Full Farm here.

Full Circle Wool: Climate-Beneficial Wool Bedding

As we’re entering the winter months in the Northern hemisphere, it’s the perfect time to really enjoy all that keeps us cozy and warm. And now there’s a Climate-Beneficial way to snuggle up on cold winter nights! Today’s post is an interview with Marie Hoff from Full Circle Wool, a small company based in Northern California and creating amazing organic pillows and comforters out of Climate-Beneficial™ Wool.

In Marie’s own words,

Full Circle Wool connects designers with mindfully farmed, regenerative wool products, sourced directly from local producers implementing carbon farming practices for carbon sequestration.  Full Circle Wool is based at hand made studio, in Bodega, CA.

Here’s our interview:

 

Tell me a little about your business. Who is Full Circle Wool?

I started Full Circle Wool in 2016, with an initial purchase of the year’s wool from two ranchers in Marin County who were implementing carbon farm practices.  I wanted to support these ranches in their work, and to link the wool product that resulted from a landscape operating under a Carbon Farm Plan with the public.  The goal is to link the productivity of our working lands with the consumer needs of the people, bringing our economy back to dependence on local agriculture as opposed to petroleum.  I looked at the links in the chain of a Soil to Soil system and saw a big missing piece at the point of processing.  We have grassland, and ranchers with sheep, and raw unscoured wool, and designers and crafters, and consumers… But no one taking the wool from unscoured to a form that’s usable by designers and crafters so that it can continue in the supply chain.  So Full Circle Wool seeks to fill that void and bring the wool to the public.

 
How did the idea for Full Circle Wool originate?

I started learning about sheep and wool 5 years ago, in 2012. I was coming from an urban background.  So I had to learn from the beginning about what it takes to raise sheep in California, what breeds make sense in which areas, what kind of wool comes from each breed, how to shear, where the wool is milled, and the natural history of the area along the Sonoma coast I had moved to. I also learned how the current economics make it so that most coarse wool on the coast doesn’t generate a profit, even though it’s a valuable natural material. So I wanted to be a link in the chain so that ranchers could make profit from the work of raising wool, and that designers and crafters could have a local, natural material to use.

 

What’s the process like for creating bedding like this?

First I get the wool scoured and carded into sheets of batting.  The batting is what is used as the inside stuffing for the comforters and pillows.  At this time there are no scouring mills in California that can process a high volume of wool, so until we get one, I use the scouring mill in Texas. My hope is that by making the locally-grown wool available and popularizing it, demand grows and investors decide its worthwhile to put their money in a California large scale fiber mill. So for now the wool goes to Texas, is washed, and then returns to California where it’s carded in Union City.  Then it comes to my studio in the town of Bodega (which is about 10 miles from the ranches the wool was grown on), and I contract my friend and local seamstress, Bonnie, to sew the batting into comforters, using organic cotton to encase the wool.

Full Circle Wool is a part of an “enterprise ecosystem”: you, Marie, also run the Capella Grazing Project, and organize workshops through Hand Made Studio. How do these enterprises work together?

Yes, I found I had too many enterprises actually, I can’t do everything!  So instead of hand made studio, the name of the studio space is now just Full Circle Wool.  We did classes for a little over a year, and it was really fun and popular, but I decided to take a break from organizing the classes.  There are many fiber classes in the area, with both West County Fiber Arts and Fiber Circle Studio, as well as workshops at Windrush Farm and any number of others listed on the Fibershed calendar and at yarn shops like A Verb For Keeping Warm.

Capella Grazing Project is my own endeavor in land management and raising sheep. We raise and steward a rare heritage breed called Ouessant, which is a great breed for grazing in vineyards and orchards.  It’s not their wool that’s in Full Circle though, we are so small scale it’s really a different focus. For enterprise ecosystem, I would focus more on the way Full Circle Wool seeks to be a link in the local agricultural economy and community — we work with ranchers, designers, crafters, and local shops.  We all benefit from each other, it’s really about making the Soil to Soil system work with all of our enterprises working together.

 

When you sell Full Circle Wool products at farmers’ markets, how do you explain to people the concept of regenerative, even climate-beneficial wool? Do you find that it resonates with people, or that they get the idea?

Yes, farmers’ market shoppers are very interested and supportive of healthy agriculture.  They are really searching for just this kind of thing, not only for their food but also for their clothing and bedding and other material needs. I honestly don’t find they really have the attention to understand carbon farming in detail, but when I say it measures and builds soil health, they are interested. They are most interested in it coming from local farms, and the health aspects of undyed wool (antimicrobial, antifungal, naturally moisture-wicking, temperature regulating, biodegradable).  Sometimes someone really wants to nerd out and I end up talking about grassland lifecycles and how we use sheep and cattle to mimic the effects that deer and elk and other native herbivores once had, and that the grasslands co-evolved with for millions of years.

 

Where can people find and buy your products?

Either online at www.fullcirclewool.com, or there are many shops that carry wool sponges: the Petaluma Seed Bank, The Local Butcher Shop (Berkeley), Three Stone Hearth (Berkeley), a webstore called Life Without Plastic, Lani’s Lana (Cedarville). Shepherdess Holistic Hides carries the bedding.

 

What’s next for Full Circle Wool? How do you see this enterprise evolving in the future?

I’d actually really like to pull back from doing as much retail or even production beyond the wool batting, and just be the one link in the chain from unscoured wool to batting. Instead of modeling what kind of products are possible and selling finished products, I’d like to see a whole host of designers and companies and craftspeople utilizing wool batting.  And then as demand for wool batting grows, I can focus on seeking out more ranches that want to implement carbon farming, and help them get their carbon farm plans going by sourcing their wool and by using the percentage of return to the Fibershed’s Carbon Farm Fund (10% of sales go to this fund) to fund implementation of practices. People are still realizing you can source locally-grown wool batting at all, so there are many designers who are thinking about what they would make.

So I’d like to see more usage of wool batting in a wide variety of endeavors and enterprises, and work on getting more ranches carbon farm plans and getting a higher volume of Climate Beneficial wool coming from these lands into the hands and homes of people who will use it to keep warm and clean and comfortable.  And then compost it, returning nutrients to the soil.

Regenerative gift-giving

It’s been a year of impressive momentum-building for the regenerative movement. Just take a look at the incredible exposure and excitement around the release of Josh Tickell’s book Kiss the Ground in November — it would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. More and more people are starting to get it that healthy soil, human health, and a livable climate are intimately connected to each other. People are hungry for a climate solution that’s positive and empowering, helps us to solve a ton of other planetary problems simultaneously, and is directly connected to one of our primary pleasures and needs: food. And here it is. The hashtags #LiveRegeneratively and #RegenerativeLiving are gaining ground.

But what about #GiveRegeneratively and #RegenerativeGiving? Can our excitement about soil and ecosystem regeneration carry over to how we approach the holiday season — and specifically, gift-giving?

We think so! In that spirit, Project Grounded brings you a little guide to holiday gifts that support the regeneration of the earth’s living systems. (And no, we’re not just talking about buying more “ethical” or “eco-friendly” products.)

Give a gift that challenges the consumerist norm

We can’t create a regenerative world without re-examining our relationship to material things and, specifically, the mindset of consuming for the sake of consuming. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are alternatives to the madness of Christmas consumerism that still retain the joy, the spirit of generosity, and the enjoyment. Joshua of The Minimalists, for example, says that even as a minimalist, he still enjoys in participating in the holidays, but

“I now give gifts of experiences, charitable donations, or, if I give material goods, I give consumables, such as a bottle of wine or a bag of coffee from a local roaster. It must be something someone can use, or, if it’s an experience, it’s a memory that can be shared, from concert tickets to an evening of watching the sunset together.”

Another great anti-consumerist gifting guide from Eco Warrior Princess suggests growing a gift, making a gift yourself or — like the Minimalists — gifting an experience or your time.

Give a Tree

More roots in the ground is a good thing! And a tree = lots more roots. From a tiny sapling to a full mature-canopy grandmother, each tree is an effective carbon pump — we couldn’t possibly plant too many of them.

What are some of the ways to give a tree?

  • Physically plant a tree in honor of your giftee.
  • Send a tree sapling or tree seeds my mail.
  • Give your loved one the gift of an outing with a tree-planting organization in your area, such as Urban Re-Leaf, Friends of Trees, or Afforestt.
  • Make a donation in your giftee’s name to a tree planting or forest conservation organization. Treeera‘s low-cost monthly subscription helps to plant trees  to offset climate change & reduce your carbon footprint.  $20/month plants 200 trees on your giftee’s behalf annually, $12/month plants 100 per year. Or make a gift donation to The 1 Million Redwoods Project on Kickstarter. For The Wild is planting millions of trees, native plants and fungal companions to mitigate climate change and rapid species loss.

 

 Give a gift that supports regenerative land management

Make a donation in your loved one’s name to one of the organizations below. STEAL THIS: Here’s what you can write on your (100% post-consumer recycled) Christmas card to them: “I love you, and I love this Earth that supports both of us. My gift to you is supporting farmers who are doing right by nature while helping to preserve the Earth’s living systems.”

  • Kiss the Ground: keep all that inspiring, informative media coming to make “regeneration” a household word in the US!
  • Regeneration International: your donation supports the promotion of regeneration worldwide, from education and policy to consumer campaigns and connecting the world’s regenerative projects together in a hub
  • The Savory Institute: help regenerate the world’s grasslands through holistic livestock management
  • Grow Ahead: support the small farmers that are helping to cool the planet and feed the world

 

Give a gift that helps the RECIPIENT to have fun while building healthy soil

What that might look like:

  • a compost bin, bucket, tumbler, a worm composter… you get the idea
  • gardening tools
  • helping your friend start a backyard garden
  • a bag of the best compost or mulch you can find
  • BioLite camping stove — the fire burns very clean and turns firewood into biochar, which powerfully increases the soil’s ability to store carbon and grow healthy food. P.S. It also charges your cell phone while it’s at it!

 

Give a gift that’s sourced from, or supports, regenerative farming

Here are some ideas:

 

But what about food items? Don’t you wish someone had put together a gift basket of all-regeneratively produced goodies?

Well, it won’t quite be ready for Christmas orders — but it will be for Valentine’s! Soon after New Year’s, Project Grounded will rolling out Grounded Goods, a monthly subscription box of edible and enjoyable goods that are all sourced from regenerative farms and producers. We can’t wait to share the full details soon! In the meantime, make sure you’re the first to find out when we launch!

 

 

Designing Resilient Communities and Landscapes: The 13th IPC in India

This past week, I was one of about 1200 people from 63 countries who gathered in Hyderabad, India, for the 13th International Permaculture Convergence.

Permaculture is a system of ecological design that seeks to create human settlements that have the stability, productivity, and resilience of a natural ecosystem. It’s rooted in the observation of natural ecosystems and seeks to find ways to meet critical human needs — food, water, shelter, energy etc. — in a way that’s not only sustainable, but regenerative and restorative.

So the goals of permaculture are actually very much aligned with those of Project Grounded (and it’s not an accident that both myself and Sam, the team at Project Grounded, are trained in permaculture design).

At a time when most of the news we hear seem to be bad news, it was incredibly uplifting to be surrounded by 1200 people all motivated to work to turn the tides on this little planet of ours. To manage landscapes and communities in a way that also recharges ground water, improves food security, builds healthy soil, mitigates drought and flood, protects biodiversity, and makes for happier, more equitable, more resilient communities.

And this is not just theory; it’s happening. Over the course of the week, permaculture practitioners from all over the world presented on the impressive projects and solutions they’re working on in their communities. Here are some of the ones I got to learn about:

  • Teaching permaculture at refugee camps in Kabul, Kurdistan, and Syria to improve food security
  • Restoring an old sand quarry into a productive landscape in Barbados
  • Applying permaculture to help with nuclear contamination in post-Fukushima Japan
  • How leading beyond-sustainable cosmetics brand, LUSH, empowers its producers to transition to permaculture and regenerative land management
  • Community drought solutions through active and passive water harvesting
  • Restoring channelized creeks and culverts into beautiful, productive, flood-mitigating landscapes in Sonoma County, California
  • and my own presentation on “A Climate-Beneficial Wardrobe: Regenerative Fiber Farming,” which led to some wonderful conversations throughout the week!

After two days of the conference in the city, about 500 of us traveled to Polam Farm in the rural area outside of Hyderabad for an additional 5 days of workshops, demonstrations, and discussions. We all slept in tents and the sessions took place in thatched-roof buildings next to vegetable gardens. The organizers had done an incredible job ensuring that this was a minimal-waste, minimal-impact event: much of the food was harvested on-site, all food waste was composted, all toilets were composting toilets, the water from the outdoor showers drained into a fruit tree orchard. All the signs were biodegradable, not plastic as is the norm — mostly woven palm-leaf mats. It’s really possible to organize an event, even at this scale, with minimal waste!

One of the highlights of the week was learning about traditional village skills: pottery, blacksmithing, basket-weaving, herbal medicine, seed saving, cow milking, spinning cotton by hand… Truly wonderful examples of a “grounded” life!

Finally, one really exciting development for me personally was getting involved in the Climate Change group of the newly forming Permaculture CoLab. CoLab will be building on the momentum from the Convergence event and act as a hub for all of us to exchange information and move the most effective solutions forward in the next few years.

I don’t think I’m the only participant returning home with many new friends now in my network and with re-ignited inspiration, resolve, and motivation. Thank you IPC India!

Conscious consumer on a limited budget? Read this.

There’s a perception that being a conscious consumer, or making sustainable lifestyle choices, is a bit of a luxury. In our recent survey, about half of all respondents cited money as one of the main reasons why they don’t live as sustainably as they would like to.

In fact, one of the main criticisms in the thought-provoking Quartz article published earlier this year, “Conscious Consumerism Is a Lie,” was that being a sustainable consumer seems to be reserved only for the privileged:

“The sustainability movement has been charged with being elitist—and it most certainly is. You need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options, the leisure time to research the purchasing decisions you make, the luxury to turn up your nose at 95% of what you’re offered, and, arguably, a post-graduate degree in chemistry to understand the true meaning behind ingredient labels.”

(For some equally thought-provoking responses to the Quartz article, see here and here.)

There is a lot of truth to this statement. I know many people who would like to buy a responsibly manufactured item from an environmentally and socially responsible company, but who simply feel priced out from the ethical consumer marketplace.

Most of us probably know that the cheap counterparts from big box stores or Amazon are usually manufactured cheaply in faraway places (often China), by companies that employ people in deplorable working conditions and are certainly not eager to make their processes transparent and their products traceable. We know it and feel bad about it, and would like to consume differently. But the price tags on “ethical” or “eco-friendly” goods — the kind that are beautifully featured on sites like The Good Trade — seem unrealistic for many people. And so they keep going for the cheap junk made in China, and continue to feel bad about their impact.

 

 

No, I can’t make ethically and responsibly produced goods suddenly cheaper. I doubt anyone can, if we still want to pay a fair wage for the persons who made the product. But I’m going to stand by this:

the #1 money-saving trick for an aspiring conscious consumer is not cheaper responsibly-produced products — it’s a mindset shift. You don’t need to buy more ethically manufactured goods to be a mindful consumer; you just need to consume less.

Sustainable consumer choices are expensive if you remain in the throw-away-and-buy-again mindset of consumerism that’s pushed on us by market forces from the moment we are born. We live in a world where some people experience the social pressure to renew their entire wardrobe, for example, once a year (if not once a season). Fun statistic: according to Overdressed, the average American woman buys 64 new items of clothing per year. This same logic of “fast fashion” applies to gadgets too: buy, use, discard, buy again, use, discard…

But let’s at least admit to ourselves that that’s a lifestyle choice — a decision to give into certain social pressures — and not a necessity.

A true shift to sustainability — or, better, to the kind of beyond-sustainable, regenerative lifestyle that we at Project Grounded promote — involves an honest assessment of our true wants and needs. If we all started shopping according to our true needs, we would buy fewer items per year. Maybe just one.

And then first look into what’s available used, at second-hand or consignment shops.

And only then, if you really can’t find what you need pre-owned, purchase new — and make it a real investment. Look into how the item was made. Buy durable and high-quality, even something that can become an heirloom. Take really good care of it, and if it breaks, repair it.

For after all, an ethically manufactured item of clothing that costs $150 is not any more expensive than ten cheaply made poor-quality items of $15 each. And we all know which choice is likely to be wearable for many, many years.

But here’s where things get interesting — and hopeful. I invite you to try this out as an experiment. It’s been my experience, and I’ve heard more than one person echo it, that once you start investigating how our everyday products are made and learn the true impact of your choices, you reach a point where you actually can’t bring yourself to buy the irresponsibly produced stuff anymore. Or at least not as often. Because it’s so hard to find goods that actually do good in the world, you simply buy less. (“My husband is very happy about this,” Daniela Ibarra-Howell joked at the Savory Institute’s Consumer Revolution event last year.)

And when that compulsive urge to constantly buy new is not indulged, gradually it starts to loosen its hold on us, you have some space to breathe, and you see that you actually don’t need a new [insert item here] anyway. As a result, you save money. In this way, becoming a picky sustainability snob may actually be the best thing that ever happened to you — or your wallet.

 

We want to hear from you! Share your responses to this post below.

Baking with Acorns, the “Grain from the Trees”

Eating flour-based foods is truly one of the great pleasures of life. Unless you’re anti-carbohydrates (which I am not), bread, muffins, cakes, and pancakes — especially when home-made and still warm — signal comfort and nourishment and give you long-lasting energy.

In a recent post, we introduced Kernza®, the new perennial relative of wheat that can fulfill our craving for flour-based foods without the high ecological costs typical of annual grain farming: the destructive tilling of soil, the resulting depletion of soil life and nutrients, and the need for heavy amendments and machinery.

But there are other perennial food crops that can be processed into flour, too. Tree nuts are probably most familiar to most of us. The gluten-sensitive among us may already be eating baked goods made out of almond flour, for instance. But baking with almond flour can get costly, not to mention the heavy ecological footprint of a typical almond farm.

Well, here’s a nutritious, potentially free, and ecologically responsible alternative: acorns from our grand friends, the oaks. Acorns were a staple in the diet of many Native American communities, who called acorns the “grain from the trees.” They are a nutritious “grain” that can be locally harvested, even in urban areas, and are freely available to the forager.

And lastly, since oaks are massive trees, with equally massive roots systems and long life-spans, we can safely say that in eating acorns you are eating a crop whose growing process helped to drawdown huge quantities of carbon into the soil.

 

Mark Shepard, in his Restoration Agriculture, makes a case for large-scale agriculture centered around perennial food crops, specifically trees. This is what he has to say about the nutritional potential of acorns:

“Acorns are large, high-calorie nuts. They are rich in protein and minerals and 50-70 percent oil, which can be pressed and used as an industrial food processing ingredient, cooking oil, or as a fuel. Spain or Italy have an entire industry and culinary tradition in place where pigs are fattened on acorns.”

If making your own acorn flour seems like too much to take on, there are a couple of places where you can easily purchase it online.  But should you want to make your own, it’s not that hard. There are a few variations to the process, but the basic steps seem essentially the same:

  1. Harvest acorns, taking care to leave out any that have holes in them or appear moldy.
  2. Shell the acorns using a nutcracker. This is easy to do, since the shells are thin and pliable.
  3. Crush or pound the acorn meats into smaller pieces or a coarse meal in a blender, food mill, or the equivalent.
  4. The acorns must then be leached to get rid of the excess tannin, which gives them a bitter taste. Immerse the crushed acorns in boiling water, boil until the water becomes muddy in color, strain and move to another pot of already boiling water. Repeat until the acorns no longer taste bitter. For me, this took about a couple of hours of boiling.
  5. Dry the acorn in the sun, a dehydrator, or an oven with the pilot light on until they are light and completely dry.
  6. Grind into flour.

So the only bit of special equipment you need is a flour mill. I use a sturdy hand-powered one, and would recommend this choice any time. Freshly ground flour is always preferable to store-bought flour that has been sitting on a shelf possibly for months.

The end result is a rustic-looking loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven. I made it by modifying a simple cornbread recipe, substituting acorn flour for corn meal. I still use some whole wheat flour, too, for both the bread and the acorn pancakes I make. But the flour itself is not at all the difficult adjustment for the palate you might expect from something so… well, woody. It has a mildly sweet, nutty flavor that is utterly delicious.

Have you tried to make acorn foods? Please share your recipes, experiences, and tips!

Kernza: A grain that restores soil and stabilizes the climate

If you’re not yet familiar with Kernza, you soon will.

Kernza® is a perennial grain — a wild relative of the familiar annual wheat — that’s been developed by The Land Institute in Kansas. Over years of painstaking research and breeding, they’ve been working to domesticate Kernza, selecting for traits like yield, seed size, and grain quality.

Image credit: The Land Institute

Kernza can be milled into flour and used alongside, or in place of, conventional wheat flour. It is still in the early stages of commercialization, so you’re unlikely to see it on your plate unless you specifically seek it out. But the Land Institute projects that the first Kernza variety will be more widely available by 2019, and there’s a reason why we should all be pretty excited about that:

Whereas the cultivation of our annual crops like our familiar wheat contribute to climate change, perennial crops help to reverse it.

Image: Jim Richardson

We currently eat mostly annual crops: they account for about 85% of human food calorie intake. But growing these crops involves tilling the soil, which releases a ton of soil carbon (which ends up in the atmosphere as CO2). Add to that the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides of conventional farming – all requiring heavy, fossil-fuel powered machinery — and you understand why agriculture is such a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

Perennials like Kernza, in contrast, are deep-rooted plants that don’t need to be reseeded and replanted each year. Because they don’t require tilling, they can grow massive root systems, which hold soil in place, prevent erosion, and improve the soil’s structure.

Big root systems and undisturbed soil equals a lot of carbon stored in the ground, out of the atmosphere. So here is Kernza’s tremendous promise: here’s a grain that can help with climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The images below and on the left contrast the roots of perennial Kernza with roots of annual wheat. Kernza’s dense root system grows up to 10 feet down into the soil. Annual wheat simply doesn’t live long enough to develop thick roots.

Image credit: Lee DeHaan

The Land Institute’s goal has been to “develop an agricultural system featuring perennials with the ecological stability of the prairie.” In addition to developing perennial grains, they are also working on perennial legumes and oilseed crops. The crops they’ve developed are being grown on test plots around the world.

Kernza is now in the early stages of commercialization. The first company to develop a commercial retail product from Kernza grains was Patagonia Provisions, which partnered with Hopworks Brewery in Portland, OR, to develop its appropriately-titled Long Root Ale. This is the first beer to be made with Kernza, and it has some interesting flavor attributes specificially because Kernza’s roots reach so deep into the ground and fetch nutrients that annual wheat, barley or malt won’t. Long Root Ale is widely available at places like Whole Foods around the country, and has been celebrated as “a beer that’s good for the climate.”

This year, Cascadian Farms announced its partnership with the Land Institute to further help scale up Kernza and use it in actual food products. Other culinary leaders who have incorporated Kernza in their bread and baked goods offerings include the Birchwood Café and Dumpling and Strand in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, New York; and The Perennial in San Francisco, California.

So if you’re in one of these places, go and have a taste of Kernza — and give your support to the innovators who are boldly shifting our plates more towards perennials, deeply rooted in soil.

Farmer Story: Singing Frogs Farm

This Farmer Story is a special one because the very existence of Project Grounded owes itself, in part, to the food grown on Singing Frogs Farm.

I’d heard of this innovative regenerative vegetable farm even when I was still living on the opposite coast of the US as a novice regenerative agriculture enthusiast. But at that point, I was excited about regenerative farming, or carbon farming, in theory — because of what I knew about its climate-stabilizing potential and other ecological benefits. This changed when my ecological design studies brought me to live practically down the street from Singing Frogs Farm and I got to join their CSA program. When I actually started eating food every day from carbon-sequestering farm soil, I was utterly won over by its quality and flavor.

These were hands down the best veggies I’d ever eaten. They came in all the colors of the rainbow. My toddler and I kept popping the carrots and the cherry tomatoes in our mouths like they were candy. The greens and the brassicas had such delicious, subtle range of flavor to them that it wasn’t a chore at all to “eat your greens.” And it was clear that there was an intimate connection between the quality of the produce Singing Frogs Farm was growing, and the ecological farming methods for which they were so famous.

It was a light-bulb moment, really. Here is food that helps to slow down climate change, AND it is more nutrient-dense and makes me feel great, AND it tastes this amazing, too? Why aren’t we all farming and eating like this?

Singing Frogs Farm is a small farm: farmers Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser grow 140 different crops on only 3 acres. But it is one of the leading innovators of regenerative farming in the US. The Kaisers have won numerous sustainability awards and are frequently featured in the news. They are sought-after speakers at farming conferences around the country, and are actively training other farmers to be as successful as they have been in regenerative, soil-building farming.

The Kaisers increased their soil organic matter at a mind-blowing rate, from 2.4% in 2007 to an optimal 8% (and above) in just six years. Now, if you remember that soil organic matter is 57% carbon… and that that is what makes soils fertile… and that we’re losing that soil fertility at an alarming rate globally… and that increasing the carbon content in our soils is one of the most important things we can be doing, not the least because it helps to slow down climate change… you realize that these are some impressive, and important, results. This is carbon sequestration in action. And let’s not forget that that very same soil produces the amazing food that was love at first bite for me. Let’s also not forget that this soil-building has brought with it all kinds of other benefits to Singing Frogs Farm, such as a radical reduction in their need to irrigate. In drought-prone California, that is no minor detail.

How do they achieve all this? The Kaisers boil their farming method down to three core principles:

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible,
  2. Keep a diversity of living plants in the ground as often as possible, and
  3. Keep the soil covered and protected as often as possible.

Most importantly, Singing Frogs Farm is a no-till farm. Whereas most people think of farming and tilling the soil as synonymous, farming without tilling is not only possible, but the smarter way to farm. Tilling and plowing destroys the soil’s structure, compacts it, and destroys the very thing that gives it fertility — the organic matter.

As Paul Kaiser says, “As a farmer, the two things you need most in your soil are carbon for soil structure, and nitrogen for plant growth. So the very act of tillage takes out the two things you need in your soil, removing them, and creating greenhouse gas emissions.” Tillage also kills the soil-building earthworms and microbes and reduces the soil’s ability to hold water.

But the reverse is also true. Because conventional farming is a major greenhouse gas contributor, farming differently can put the carbon back into the soil. Farming has the greatest capacity of any industry to mitigate greenhouse gases, at the cheapest rate – simply through better soil management.

This is what the Kaisers practice and teach. Instead of tilling, they initially used a broadfork to aerate the soil. Now they haven’t used one in 5 years. Instead, they improve the soil with much greater quantities of compost than is the norm in organic farming. Keeping the soil covered at all times with mulches, and and keeping a living plant in the soil at all times also help to keep to keep the nutrients in the soil. Singing Frogs Farm relies heavily on transplants, rather than planting seeds directly into the soil. When one crop is harvested, new transplants are planted in that bed the very same day or the next day. This means that the soil is never left bare. It also prevents crop losses because during their most vulnerable stage, vegetable seedlings are in a protected nursery. This method allows Singing Frogs Farm to produce 3-8 sequential crops in 1 bed per year.

In addition, the farm has integrated perennials such as hedgerows for beneficial insects, windbreak, frost and heat reduction — and added carbon sequestration.

These practices are good for the earth, yes. But they have also made Singing Frogs Farm remarkably productive and profitable: the farm produces roughly $100,000 in vegetable sales per crop acre per year. That is multiple times the revenue of an average U.S. farm, even an organic farm. So one thing is clear: we don’t need to make a choice between the ecological and the economical. And as I and the many other devoted customers of Singing Frogs Farm can attest, there doesn’t need to a be a choice between the what’s good for the earth and what’s good for our palates and bodies. Farming well means eating well.