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.

Perennial recipe: Apple rhubarb pie

What’s even better than opening the Fall pie season?

Opening the Fall pie season with a pie made with perennial foods.

Unless you’re a gardener, you probably don’t think of foods in terms of annuals vs. perennials. And “eat more perennials” rarely makes it to the Top 10 Things You Can Do To Slow Down Climate Change kinds of lists.

But incorporating more perennial foods — foods derived from perennial plants — into your diet is actually one big, delicious climate-friendly kitchen hack.

A perennial plant is any plant that grows and produces for more than one season. Think of an apple tree or a hazelnut bush. Annual plants (like wheat, soy, or annual vegetables) require tilling, re-planting, irrigating, fertilizing and harvesting each new season, all of which disturbs the soil and its carbon storage capability. Perennials, in contrast, are low-maintenance and low-impact. Because they don’t need to be tilled, they help to foster healthy soil. The slow and steady decomposition of their leaves and roots gradually adds more and more organic matter to the soil. All of those roots pushing down into the ground and branches reaching towards the sky, growing year after year, are helping to capture and lock down carbon that would otherwise stay in our atmosphere.

Perennials = more roots in the ground + less disturbance of soil = more carbon stored in the ground = climate-beneficial

Annuals = less extensive roots + frequent soil disturbance = more carbon released into the atmosphere = climate-destabilizing

So, with this lovely pie, we invite you to just start thinking and noticing more which of the foods you already eat are from perennials, and maybe start incorporating more of them into your cooking. Start with something as irresistible as a pie! Some of our most popular pie fillings in fact come from perennial plants: tree fruit, berries, and the common home garden vegetable, rhubarb. I made this apple rhubarb pie and it was perennial perfection: sweet, tart, with a flaky crust.

Grapes, nuts, asparagus, and artichoke are other great perennial foods that you can try in savory tarts.

And if you want to go all out and go 100% perennial, make your flour perennial too. We’ll talk about perennial grains in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, nut flours are nut-ritious, and increasingly easy to find.

And now… let’s eat!

In search of a “beyond-organic” cup of tea

For many of us, drinking tea is a daily ritual. Black, green, white, Oolong, herbal, loose, bagged… you let it steep and sit down with your steaming cup and. Pause.

But unless you live in a part of the world where tea is grown, you really only think of tea as the dried, processed leaves that come neatly bagged. Few of us ever even see an actual tea plant — the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis — or think much about where and how it grew. Yet with over 4 million tons of tea is produced annually around the world, we’re talking about a big industry with a big impact. And because we lift that cup to our lips, it’s our impact, too.

If you just want to reduce the impact of your bag of tea, choose organic, fair-trade tea.

But what if you could actually reverse the impact of your bag of tea — purchase tea produced in such a way that it actually improves the soils and ecosystems in which it grows? Or perhaps even builds soil and therefore sequesters carbon, helping to stabilize the climate through its very growing process?

In other words, when it comes to tea, what does “beyond organic” look like?

To find out, Project Grounded traveled to the foothills of the Himalayas near Darjeeling in Northwestern India.

The journey up the dizzyingly steep, winding roads, past tea plantations that glow in all the imaginable shades of green, takes you to Kurseong village, home to Makaibari Tea Estate. The estate has been in the same family for four generations and is currently owned by the charismatic Rajah Banerjee. Makaibari tea is famous among tea connoisseurs. But it also sets the bar higher than any other tea estate I know in terms of ecological stewardship and social responsibility.

Most tea estates, even the organic ones, are monoculture farms, and establishing them involved major deforestation. Makaibari does a few things differently. Yes, it’s organic; in fact, it was the first tea estate in the world to be certified organic in 1988. But that’s just a start. The tea plantings here are managed according to biodynamic and permaculture principles. Unlike your average tea estage, Makaibari retains 70% of its area under forest cover. Even areas were tea was planted look more like “tea forests”: the tea bush is a part of a multi-story system of trees and plants — grasses, herbs, legumes, fruit trees and the forest — all helping to build more topsoil. The entire system is storing carbon, and therefore taking it out of the atmosphere where there’s too much of it.

Makaibari takes its commitment to soil restoration seriously. It’s not an afterthought or “sustainability strategy” — it’s what they are about, and the tea is just a beautiful by-product of a healthy soil and ecosystem.

The topsoil layer here has traditionally been very thin due to the steep slopes and heavy rainfall of the monsoon season. But the trees and the forest supply wind break and a natural source of mulch, which helps to rebuild the soil. Every year, during the cool season when the tea plants are resting, compost is spread under the plants to further reinvigorate soil life. Masanobu Fukuoka, the legendary Japanese pioneer of no-till farming who just passed away last month, visited Makaibari already back in the 1980s and worked his soil fertility magic on these slopes. It seems that Makaibari has been “regenerative organic” long before that term was even coined.

But Makaibari extends its regenerative commitment to regenerating the local communities, too. Its initiatives for the surrounding villages range from health clinics and educational programs to micro-credit programs and sustainability efforts at village scale. Makaibari also runs a village homestay ecotourism program for those who come to visit the tea estate, the profits of which go to the families.

I wasn’t a tea connoisseur when I first began researching teas. But Makaibari tea really is unlike any tea I’ve tasted before: amber-colored, subtle, aromatic. When I drank my first cup — perfectly prepared by owner Rajah Banerjee — I’d just been walking up and down those misty slopes where the fragrance of tea lingers in the air. And in every cup since then, I have tasted little hints of vibrant, cared-for forest soil.

Makaibari Tea is available in the US at Arbor Teas.

See what’s possible: Restoring degraded landscapes

It’s been a challenging week to stay grounded. In the U.S. alone, from hurricanes Harvey and Irma to wildfires raging their way through the American West, we’ve seen the kind of footage that’s been used in documentaries and sci-fi films to illustrate how scary climate change would be — and it’s our reality, right now. And at the same time, politicians with fossil-fuel lobbyists’ hands in their pockets tell us that this is not the time to talk about climate change.

It’s times like this when it’s hard to resist the inner voice — or loud public voices — that say, “It’s too late, we’ve destroyed the planet and can’t possibly repair it.”

It’s times like this when we need to see, with our own eyes, that repair IS possible, even when some say it’s too late. Here are some of the most inspiring examples we know of large-scale landscapes that have been restored even though they were devastated to the point of collapse. Near-desertified land was brought back into agricultural production using regenerative practices.

We need to see to believe, and we need to believe to move to action. So this post is heavy on the visuals, with links to click for those of you who want to learn more.

This is what is possible.

 

China’s Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project

In China’s Loess Plateau, a degraded, desertifying region almost the size of Belgium has been transformed into thriving, verdant, food-producing landscapes. The project by the Chinese government and the World Bank Institute, famously documented by John Liu, managed to bring this land back into sustainable agricultural production, improving the livelihoods of 2.5 million people. By terracing the land, the restoration team was able to reduce erosion and water damage.

Loess Plateau before (1995) and after (2009). Image: Lush

What made this project so successful is that it engaged local people and officials alongside with experts on hydrology, soil conservation, agriculture etc. It offered local farmers incentives to change their practices to sustainable ones: they got paid to learn sustainable farming practices, and were given land tenure on the terraces. In other words, it solved social and economic problems alongside with ecological ones.

Loess Plateau before (1995) and after (2009). Image: Ecosystem Restoration Camps

 

Here’s a short excerpt from John D. Liu’s wonderful documentary, “Hope in a Changing Climate”:

Learn more about the Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project:

 

Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Restoration
Image: Tigrai Online

The success of the Loess Plateau project has sparked similar restoration projects in places such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, an acclaimed project has reversed desertification while providing training in sustainable livelihoods for women and young adults.

 

Reversing Desertification through Managed Grazing

Another effective mechanism for reversing desertification in the world’s dry grasslands has been Holistic Managed Grazing. In the image above, the land on the left side of the fence is under holistic management, meaning that grazing livestock is brought there periodically for intense but short periods of grazing and the land is then allowed to rest. The land on the right side doesn’t have grazing on it. So the next time someone tells you that livestock always, inevitably, causes desertification, send them to this TEDTalk by Allan Savory.

To highlight these positive examples is not to deny that we’re facing some very serious challenges. It’s to counter the attitude that we humans can only destroy, that we can’t solve the problems we’ve created. In all of the cases above, the problems were created by humans. But so were the solutions. The projects were ambitious, they required an incredible amount of work and funding, but they have been successful. They should inspire us to not bury our heads in the sand, but to ask the question:

What else is possible?