Good afternoon. I want to thank Susan and the board of the Schumacher Center. I’m thrilled to be here and also a little intimidated. People have asked me over the past few months if I’m familiar with the Schumacher Lectures and if I’ve read any of them. It turns out I’ve read all of them. A little while ago Susan sent me a small box, a little cardboard box full of gray pamphlets. I opened it up, thinking “What are these things?” It was a complete set of Schumacher Lectures; every year she sends me the new ones, and I have read them all. So this is just a cautionary note: if you read too many Schumacher Lectures, you might end up here on an October afternoon giving your own lecture.
I’m basically going to tell the story of how I went from being a little girl growing up in the South to working in the Silicon Valley. Now my second career comprises ranching, impact investing, climate activism, and the No Regrets Initiative, which I founded. I’ll share a little bit about what that initiative looks like today, both on my ranch and across the country; I’ll also share a few brief thoughts about what happens next. Spoiler alert: there will be talk of magic at the end.
I was born and grew up in the 1950s in Knoxville, Tennessee. Both my parents were Southerners. My dad was the only son to leave the family farm, but at the age of 60, he retired from engineering and went back to help his brothers run the farm for over 20 years. So a second career in agriculture is becoming something of a tradition in my family. I grew up gardening and hiking and visiting working farms on both sides of my family. The first Earth Day, which I remember vividly, made a huge impression on me. The other thing that made a big impression when I was a young girl was the space program. At the age of 10, I announced that I was going to be an engineer! In the 1960s it was pretty crazy for a little girl to announce that. My mother gave me a book for Christmas called The Boy Engineer—that was the best she could do. By the time I finished high school it was clear that, while not having been a very good little Southern girl, I was not going to make a good Southern woman either, and it was time to get out. I think of it now as fleeing the South. I went to Texas to go to college at Rice University and moved straight to the Silicon Valley when I graduated.
The Valley was just starting as a high-tech center. I arrived as one of the few women engineers there. We had a friend who said in the late 1970s: “It’s the second gold rush. You’ve arrived with picks and shovels, now get to work.” That’s what we did, and it was great fun. I had a career I loved, spending well over a decade designing diagnostic ultrasound machines. I also built robotic manufacturing systems. Then in the 1990’s my husband and I ran our own successful software company. I had a wonderful quarter-century career in the Valley, and then a bit of a right turn happened.
The story of the No Regrets Initiative begins in 1999. In the midst of the dot.com bubble, my husband and I decided we needed to build a weekend house to get away from the Valley. On our first trip to look at property we were going to check out a little parcel, which we ended up buying, but to get there you drove down the side of the Paicines Ranch. From the moment my husband saw that land, he was totally obsessed with it. He asked question after question. He learned all he could, and then he announced he was going to buy that ranch one day. “That ranch” was owned by developers, who planned to build 4,000 houses, and I said, “I don’t know what you’re smoking, but this seems very unlikely.” But oh, he’s right so often; it’s infuriating! A year-and-a-half later, in the same month we unexpectedly sold our software company and the development project was quashed by the county. A month later we made an offer, and six months later we owned 7,600 acres in central California with no plan and absolutely no idea what to do with all that land. Kind of like “Whoa, here we are! What now?” I didn’t realize that it rains only 10 inches a year. That’s a big problem. It’s good not to know all the downsides when going into an adventure! I would much prefer giving this talk there, where you can see it for yourselves. We even have a headquarters area that dates from the 1860s.
There are three threads that land me up here on the stage. The first is that I was introduced to Alan Savory’s ideas of holistic management. We had a cattle tenant when we first arrived. He did a branding, and after we got over the shock of the fact that people actually do this to horses with ropes and branding irons, we sat down for a barbeque. A woman sitting across from me introduced herself and said, “There’s a book you should read because if I had read the book, I’d still own this ranch and not you.” She and her husband had been forced to sell the ranch to developers because they couldn’t figure out how to pay off the debt and the estate taxes. She sent me home to read Holistic Management by Alan Savory, which I did. I am an avid reader, but it’s a fat book that’s hard to read. I didn’t understand much of it then, but I did get one important idea from it: that maybe, by changing the way we managed cattle on California grasslands, we could bring back native perennial grasses. For some reason, I don’t know why, I had been growing those grasses in my garden for twenty years and was obsessed with them. So this was the little worm that got into my head; it’s now eaten my brain as you’ll be able to tell by the end of this talk.
That was the beginning. I just set out to raise perennial grass and became a rancher because I thought that was the only way to really see if it would work. I felt compelled to bring these grasses back. As part of my effort, I became involved in the holistic management community and joined the board of Holistic Management International. At one of my first board meetings, a second idea came up. There were people talking about sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in a grassland. And I thought: “Wow! Is that true? Does it really work like that? That’s crucial in an era of climate change.” That’s a path I’ve been on for well over a decade, trying to figure out how to do it. Those are both topics I enjoyed learning about. The third thread was the one I resisted the most. It had to do with money.
Back in 2004 or 2005 I met Don Schaffer, who was with BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) at the time and then moved to RSF Social Finance. He was the first person who ever made me think about what my money was doing in the world. We had sold our software company and just handed all the money to conventional financial advisors on Wall Street and went on with our lives. But drat, Don just wouldn’t let that lie. Over the years he got me to attend a meeting called Play Big a couple of times, and he convinced me I needed to change my conventional ways. So I thought, “OK, I’ll just go find financial advisors who are doing good things with money; that should be easy.” I talked to a number of them, and what I found is, first, you can suck the joy out of anything by putting hundreds of numbers in very small font on a spreadsheet. Bah! The other thing I learned was that the only deals I had a chance of understanding were in the food and ag system, and one of two things happened when I asked questions about those deals: either there were no answers because we were four or five steps removed from the people on the ground so that we didn’t know what was actually happening, or there were answers, and I thought, “That is impact of some sort, but I’m not sure it’s very good.” So I said, “Well, that’s not going to work either,” and I referred to it as my cognitive dissonance period. There was something in my brain that kept going buzz buzz because Don had convinced me I had to do something, but I had no idea how to proceed. I was really reluctant to go all-in on the money piece. I just wanted to hang out with farmers and ranchers, not finance guys.
I now realize that by the end of 2013, after my kids had gone off to college and my parents had passed away, I had some mental space to think about this buzzing in my brain. I finally had an ah-ha moment: if I invested my money in the food and agriculture system, it wouldn’t cause a distraction from the way I wanted to live my life. I could still hang out with farmers and ranchers and learn the very same things, but I would be able to add mone, as a resource I could bring to the conversation. Money doesn’t need to be a separate silo in your life; it can actually be integrated into your life, and you can ideally give up all the angst around it as you use it in ways that are interesting.
In 2014 I was able to form an investment company, an LLC, called Cienega Capital. The name is very meaningful to me. The Paicines Ranch was originally a Mexican land grant called Rancho Cienega de los Paicines. When I got there I asked, “What’s a cienega?” People said, “It’s a swamp.” It turns out it’s actually a very special kind of wetland, a place where you have a perennial spring and the water flows slowly across a valley bottom in a place with a year-round growing season. This doesn’t happen in many places, and what you get is an astounding collection of endemic plants. Unique stuff happens in this setting. It’s named Cienega Capital because that’s how we think about money. The money needs to move slowly. It needs to sink in, and it needs to create and support extraordinary organizations and entities. Hence the name. I have the good fortune to be able to work with Esther Park on this project. She was at RSF Social Finance with Don and had helped invent the whole idea of integrated capital. We renamed our strategy regenerative asset management, which is based on the work that happened at RSF Social Finance.
Whew! That money problem was solved and funds were moving to farmers. I was also involved in philanthropy. We had put some money aside when we sold our company—not enough because we got some bad advice but, anyway, some—and I was in the process of trying to make grants in the food and ag space, just based on the people I met. I would do things like walk up to Severine, hand her a business card and say, “You should call me.” I wasn’t moving the money fast enough or in a meaningful enough way. I was fortunate to find a wonderful woman to work with on this challenge, Avery Anderson Sponholtz. Working with her I realized that my thinking was driven by the tax code. That’s true for many of us. The tax code divides money into different bits: There are 501(c)3s for charitable funds, there are private foundations, there are donor advised funds, there are for-profit entities; that’s how we all think of them, as being separate. I realized that it’s really about what you want to do in the world. This is a key tenet of holistic management: you figure out how you want the world to be, how to move in that direction and what you want your life to be like while you’re doing it. It was a revelation to realize that what I have is a pile of money that I need to put out into the world to do something, and the change I’d like to see is to regenerate the agricultural soils of North America and the communities that depend on them. That’s what it’s about; it’s not about tax entities. I thought: “I can do all of this! And I can integrate the whole thing into my life.” We called that initiative the No Regrets Initiative.
It’s happening on the ranch, happening in our philanthropy, and the investments we’re making in the food and agriculture space. It’s called the No Regrets Initiative because carbon sequestration in soil has been called a “no regrets, negative emissions technology.” A negative emissions technology is when you take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it where it can’t exacerbate climate change. It’s called a no regrets negative emissions technology because the soils of the planet, particularly the agricultural soils, are so degraded that the U.N. estimates we have 57 years of topsoil left, and regenerating soil would be the most important work of the 21st century if there were no climate change. So every second and every dollar we spend on this is absolutely worth doing—for a whole bunch of different reasons.
It’s also called the No Regrets Initiative because some day I hope my grandkids look at me and ask: “Grandma, didn’t you live through the whole climate-change thing? What did you do about it?” And I’ll at least be able to say I did everything I could think of. I’ll have as few regrets as possible because I went all in. We focused on ten years because in ten years I will turn 70, and there will have been two major climate-change meetings. What we hope is that rather than soil health being discussed in a little room off to the side, as it was in Paris, it will be prominent, with land-based solutions and soil health at the center of that climate meeting. Not that we’ll claim much responsibility, but it’s an indicator of the direction in which things are heading. We also have decided to do a philanthropic spend-down, because if not now, when? What we’ve done most recently is to create our last, I hope, tax entity: a 501(c)3 called The Paicines Ranch Learning Center. These are the tax entities that are part of the No Regrets Initiative, but it all works together.
On to soil. You may be thinking, “OK, I get aligning your money with your mission and going all in on climate change, but why in the world soil?” I’m glad you asked. I’d like to talk about soil. It’s going to be a little geeky, but it won’t last too long.
Probably in middle school or high school you had a really boring science class in which the teacher explained to you how photosynthesis works. There is the sun, there is the green leaf, there is carbon dioxide; we have water, and we use the energy of the sun to split that apart; oxygen goes into the air, and the carbon makes sugars which are used to grow the plant. That’s all true as far as it goes, but your teacher probably didn’t make a big point of the fact that all terrestrial life depends on this. Our food comes from a boring chemical process, yet it’s the most important thing that happens on the planet if we all want to survive.
The other thing the teacher didn’t know, at least at the time I had the boring lesson, was that about half of the sugars that are created are not used for the plant to grow at all; they actually leak out through the roots of the plant. We call them exudates. For a long time biologists thought it was just wasted energy; they thought, “Well, plants do that for some strange reason.” It turns out it’s an incredibly important reason; we now call it the liquid carbon pathway. If you look along the roots of a plant—we call it the rhizosphere—it’s essentially all aggregated soil held together by an incredibly diverse world of microbes. The microbes can’t photosynthesize, so their energy comes from the sugars that the plant makes. It’s a giant economic exchange. The plants send sugars out into the soil, and the microbes give the plant what it needs to grow, whether it’s nitrogen or potassium, or whether its micronutrients or a very special compound needed to fend off the latest pest. All of that is part of this interchange. Another part is that mycorrhizal fungi connect with almost all the plants in the world, and they can either wrap around the roots or they can go inside the roots. The amazing thing about the mycorrhizal fungi is that they connect all the plants in the ecosystem. There can be 40 or more different species of plants connected to one fungal system, with information and resources shared all through this system.
We like to think about natural systems as being all about competition, the whole Darwin thing, but what we’re learning is that it’s entirely about collaboration. If you have one plant by itself, that plant is going to have an extremely hard time surviving. It’s critical to be part of a system, and the whole of the soil world is set up to support that system. What we’re learning about this—and it’s new knowledge, to be fair—drives the principles of soil health. These recommendations from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), are totally uncontroversial: we should keep the ground covered; we should leave growing roots in the soil for as much of the growing season as we can; we should plant a diversity of plants; we should minimize disturbance—such as tillage, fertilizers, and pesticides; if possible, we should incorporate animals into the system. Everyone agrees now that these are the principles of soil health.
It’s interesting to note, though, that in terms of our current system of industrial agriculture, if we set out to destroy soil health, we could not develop a better system than the one we have. It’s as if we did it deliberately. The question is, how do we now convert that whole system? The current system leads to fallow ground, an incredible amount of tillage, all kinds of pesticides and herbicides. We’ve really got to flip the whole system.
When I say this to people who aren’t farmers, they say: “Yes, we should do it! But is it going to make any difference? Is it really enough carbon to matter in the grand scheme of climate change?” What most people don’t realize is that soil is the second biggest carbon sink, behind only the ocean. There is a lot more carbon in the soil today than there is in the atmosphere, and we’ve lost approximately half of the carbon that was in the soil, probably since man started cutting forests and plowing. The soil is degraded, but it’s still a huge carbon sink and could obviously hold a lot more carbon than it does now. There has been a lot of controversy about that, partly because there was a misunderstanding about how soil carbon works. The thought was that it’s mostly in the top level of the soil, that it’s about decomposition, but it turns out that instead it’s about a liquid carbon pathway that can sequester stable carbon for hundreds of years at depths of three, four, five, six feet.
There’s way more potential than people thought, but there’s still a lot of disagreement. People say some kinds of soil will saturate with carbon, which will slow down its sequestration. That’s true, but even so, say we can buy ourselves only 20 years of space with climate change, it would still be important at this point in time! But the fact gets lost that we can actually build topsoil. Even if we saturate the topsoil that’s there, we can build topsoil. Probably the day after you learned about photosynthesis, you were taught that soil gets built very slowly as a physical and chemical weathering process of rocks. Yes, you can make soil that way, but the way most soil has been built since plants came out of the ocean is through biology—the microbes and the fungal system I’m talking about. There is no limit to the amount of topsoil we can build. This is how the topsoil in the prairies got to be 30, 40, 50 feet deep, built by plants and photosynthesis in the process I’ve just described.
There’s huge potential, I think, to sequester carbon in ways that are meaningful, and there are other ecosystem co-benefits that increase resilience in the face of changing climate: better water infiltration, less flooding, resilience to drought, more production with many fewer toxic inputs, and more nutritious food. Millions of people around the world are trying to figure out how to bring this about right now. In many cases we know what to do, but we don’t know how to pay for it. Farmers are trapped in a system, the financial system Matt referred to in his opening remarks, and it’s really hard to figure out how to make this transition, primarily because of money.
We want to regenerate the agricultural soils of North America and make sure that the wealth accrues to the rural land stewards. We have our crazy, complicated infrastructure with all the required tax entities. Now what are we going to do? Well, the next step is, of course, people. The No Regrets team is an exceptional group of people with different perspectives, from a tax accountant to a nutrition educator to an innovative rancher. When our team gets together, we usually talk about the root cause—that’s a holistic management term. We don’t want to treat symptoms; we want to treat the root cause. Unfortunately, we usually determine that the root cause is cultural; the root cause is disconnection between humans and natural systems. Only culture change, probably, can drive the creation of systems of beauty and complexity rather than the simplification that we see in agriculture today.
You know, I intended to grow only grass. Drat! It’s unfortunately not just about changing practices; it’s not about a particular kind of grass or making some different kind of investments, it’s about changing paradigms and transforming relationships. The bad news, I guess, is that it’s slow—until it’s not! And we don’t really know when it will go from being slow to being fast.
The field of regenerative agriculture is exciting. I think that it provides a good model. It is a sharing and collaborative community. People are connected. We think of it as a fungal community; there are different organizations and entities and farmers and ranchers, and they’re all connected. That’s how they’re doing the work. We do work hard, as Severine said, to make sure that women have more of a leadership role in the system. I often say that as soon as women take over agriculture, it will get fixed. I do believe that! But it’s also a matter of the community showing what’s possible. As a society we lack imagination, and our community is trying to address this. On the money side, we haven’t found our people in the same way we have on the regenerative agriculture side. That change seems much slower and not as much fun to work on.
I’ll tell you a little about what this looks like in the world. We planted a vineyard a few years ago, a vineyard designed to be managed by sheep. The vineyard floor is never tilled. It grows diverse plants all year round. The sheep do all the suckering and endpruning, dramatically reducing the irrigation that’s required and increasing the yield and quality of the grapes. We’re hoping to inspire other people who grow grapes to fundamentally change the current methods. Most vineyards are tilled to death today, with fifteen tractor passes up and down each row throughout the season, for both tilling and spraying, in an organic vineyard. How do we develop perennial systems and incorporate animals, putting the five principles of soil health to work? On the rangeland we practice holistic, planned grazing in order to try and get those native grasses to come back. The native grasses are beginning to come back, which scientists say is impossible, but it’s happening.
The next question to ask is, How can we make the rangeland green in the summer? That’s also supposed to be impossible. You know those golden hills of California. But Mother Nature wouldn’t have made a grassland where there is very little photosynthesis for six months. Now we have ten years to try and make it green in the summer. We’ll see what happens.
We have a lot of educational programs of all kinds and a lot of convenings. Like most farms and ranches these days, we’re stacking enterprises, including agri-tourism and weddings. It’s a splendid wedding venue if you are looking for one in central California. Our latest adventure is farming. I had leased our row-crop ground to a large industrial organic veggie grower, but the practices were destructive of soil health, so we’ve decided to become farmers. We’ve taken the land back and are trying to come up with systems that are financially viable and will build soil health. It’s early in the experiment, and we are struggling. But we hope that over the next few years we’ll figure out what is possible here in our context.
I’ve given you an idea of what’s happening on the ranch, where all the fun stuff is going on. It’s where I like to hang out most of the time. But through Cienega Capital we are making a wide range of investments in the food and agriculture system. We work with producers, farmers, and ranchers and their direct customers who care about where their food is coming from and how it is produced. We use all types of capital: equity, revenue-sharing, lending. We have made loans for sheep, cattle, irrigation pipe, freezer repairs, land, inventory, wells, cars, trucks, etc.—pretty much anything you can think of that a farmer or rancher might need. It’s frustrating because this is the work that the bankers on Main Street should be doing, but they’re not, and so we’re doing it. We tend to be a lender of last resort, not because the loans are risky, but because for some reason they don’t fit the banker’s criteria at the moment or else they need to happen quickly. That’s usually when we step in. On the customer side we’ve invested in regional meat companies, food hubs, cideries, distilleries. We invest all over the country, for the most part in people who are part of our existing networks.
We don’t talk about this too often, but since I started doing my investing well over a decade ago, we’ve invested $47 million. We have a return on capital of almost five percent. Esther likes to say we’re not terribly concessionary, we just do different kinds of loans. At the moment we have $23 million outstanding in 58 transactions. That means 58 relationships we’re in today. We have adopted the RSF Social Finance idea that every one of our loans represents a relationship. They are now part of our community, and we’re connected, in the same way that all the plants are connected.
On the philanthropic side, we mostly give general operating grants with a few loan guarantees, primarily for organizations that are supporting farmers and ranchers in the areas of land access, research, conferences, training, policy, convening. We will make over 80 grants in 2019, with a budget of just over $2 million. This means that we give a lot of small grants. Because that’s a lot of relationships for our team to maintain, we have considered doing fewer, larger grants. Avery, who works on our philanthropy, made pretty pie charts and bar graphs, which we don’t normally do, trying to figure out how we might change our giving, and she noticed that when she looked at the bar chart, it reminded her of something. When she overlaid the bar graph on a picture of roots that we often use to indicate a healthy prairie, she realized that we are supporting many different kinds of organizations and entities, which need different amounts of money at different times, and we decided that in order to create a thriving, diverse ecosystem, we would have to continue to make many different kinds of grants. We’re not going to change our philosophy on that. I said, “Oh, thank goodness you didn’t turn into a regular program officer!”
In our programming we do a lot of work with women. We emphasize women in all the groups we work with, and we work primarily with farmers and ranchers, investors and philanthropists because we are all of those things. So we can speak not only from a position of experience, we can also learn from everybody who comes to learn from us. We’ve presented Women in Soil, Women in Regenerative Agriculture and Women in Ranching, which brings together women in animal ag and is spreading all over the West. We do learning journeys centered on regenerative agriculture. We have a wide variety of programs, which are all about seeing differently. We think that once people see the importance of connecting into this vibrant network of individuals trying to change the world, they can’t un-see. Once they join us, we hope they will answer each other’s e-mails and feel connected to our community. What’s fun about all this is that every piece of our work informs every other piece. We’re all out in the world all the time talking about our particular area, doing a lot of field building and also learning from people everywhere. I’m having a great time. I’ve never enjoyed myself this way in my whole life. I’m learning so much and getting to know so many remarkable people!
I’m going to answer in advance the first three questions I usually get asked when I give a talk. The first one is, “How do you measure your impact?” Everyone wants to know this, and we tried to figure out how to do it in the way people want us to do it, but to be honest, we gave up. When I hear that question, I see faces, I hear voices, and I think of stories. To measure the work that we’re doing is very difficult, and I know this sounds like kind of a cop-out. Here are some of the criteria we use before we make an investment. When I think about impact, I think about beauty, complexity, connection, and community. I ask myself if it will bring more people and animals onto the land. We also ask, “Is it awesome?” Afterward, we ask what unexpected things happened and how might we have seen them coming (though usually we couldn’t have). So it’s a bit of a dodge in regard to impact, but I think in complex systems, reducing impact to something you can measure doesn’t seem useful to us at all.
The second question we are asked about is scale: “How on earth can you scale your work, and how can the people you support scale their work?” As Esther says, “I reject that framework.” The way we think about it is that nature is unimaginably huge and complex; it fills every niche with abundance and diversity. It scales principles but doesn’t scale implementations. So we look for appropriate scale and reject the assumption that every idea or tactic or organization has to scale in size. I think our colleague Deborah Frieze, founder and president of the Boston Impact Initiative, who is here, talks about scaling across rather than scaling up. We don’t use replicability as a criterion; in fact, if you pitch us that way, we’ll often say no. We think it’s often not appropriate. I don’t want to invest in a food hub that’s going to scale and take over the whole country, the world.
The last question people ask us about is return. “What is your return?” I shared with you our information on financial return of capital. We don’t have a goal for financial return, and we always point out that there are numerous types of return, not just financial return. We try to look very broadly at that. If you consider the past 40 or 50 years, financial return has skyrocketed while social and ecological returns have arguably been negative. We don’t believe we can get market-rate returns, at least not in food and agriculture, by digging out of the ecological pit that market-rate returns have forced us to dig. And we think we need to actively consider the possibility of negative financial returns if the social and ecological returns are high. Besides, nobody is making money in food and ag anyway.
We are often asked, “Well, how can you make money doing that?” And we say, “All the economic studies show that the return on investment for farmers as a whole—either by state or for the whole country, aside from government subsidies—is negative.” So no one is making any money. It’s kind of frustrating when we always get stuck with “How are you going to make money?” Because we can’t get government subsidies, we’re unable to make money.
Sorry, I’ll try not to rant here at the end. What happens next? As my son says, “I can predict the future, I’m just usually wrong.” Please take these next few minutes with a large grain of salt. It has been clear to many of us for a while that land-based solutions generally, and soil specifically, are hugely important for both climate mitigation and resilience in the face of the already baked-in climate change we’re facing. But there’s been very little talk about it, very little work done on it, and there’s been virtually no money for it. A number of us convened around a table at a conference a few years ago, and we figured out that the total philanthropic grant-making for this space that year was probably $6 million. That amounts to nothing. In fact, there’s been a lot of active pushback, particularly from a lot of mainstream environmental groups, against the idea that agriculture can be part of the solution, not just a huge part of the problem. They haven’t wanted to admit that cows can be good, not only bad. I think that idea has changed rapidly over the past couple of years. There’s been an explosion of interest in soil and land. It does seem like now is the moment. I wasn’t in New York at the climate-change meetings that were just held, but apparently land-based and nature-based solutions were very prominent there.
When we get desperate enough, I assume we’ll consider these possibilities. The field is exploding, and as the field explodes, there are a few questions we are dealing with especially. The most important one, and the hardest, is, “How do we create good outcomes for land stewards and their communities as investment capital pours in?” We want wealth to go to the producers and their communities rather than to Goldman, Syngenta and their stockholders, or even to carbon markets on Wall Street. So the question we always ask of any big-scale plan is, Yes, but how does it accrue wealth to the people on the land? How do the capital providers who want to pour money into this project become part of this diverse ecosystem with all its roots and diverse plants? How do they become part of this system in a way that’s productive, rather than as the equivalent of destructive fertilizer or fast-moving water in a flood? We don’t need billions of dollars to wash away what’s there, create a few giant entities, and reduce the complexity of the system we need to create if we’re going to make meaningful change.
The second internal question we deal with is, “What is our work to do, with so much that’s going on?” And it seems that we are the culture-change people. We talk about culture, and we talk about people, and we talk about women’s role in all of this. That’s actually kind of unusual, but it’s our thing. We are founding members of a number of collaborative groups working in this space, like The Herd, the newly-formed Funders of Regenerative Agriculture, California Foodshed Funders, The Grassfed Alliance. We feel as though all these people are coming into this space, and now those of us who have been there are trying to figure out how to make that integration work and, as I said, have this capital be productive, not destructive.
At this point, the other question people always ask is, “Well, that’s all very good, but how is this change going to happen on the scale required for the time frame we have?” It’s true, news on climate is grim. I stand here as a Californian. Last fall we were asking ourselves the question, Can we continue to live here with the smoke and the destruction? And this fall, in the midst of some smoke, but much less than last year, we are asking ourselves, Can we maintain our economy when we have intermittent electricity for three months a year? We are in the middle of it, and yes it is grim. Good news, though, as Deborah likes to point out, is that it’s a complex system. So any plan I could give you that was hopeful and might effect change, such as “We’ll do step one and step two and step three, and then four, five, and six will happen,” would be totally unrealistic. The good news is that’s not the kind of plan we need. If we get out of this, I think it will be by working together in ways that no one will have seen coming. I said to Greg Watson, “If we get out of this, we’ll have a glass of wine in a decade and say, ‘Wow! We did not think this was going to happen!’” We can’t force it, and we don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I do think it will look like magic.
It’s an interesting time to stand up here and talk about joy and hope and possibility, but that’s what I feel. I still think there’s a lot we can do, and this is how we approach our work at the No Regrets Initiative. I am sure that we can’t imagine how abundant a partnership with nature could be if we were to combine our collective human creativity with solar energy, photosynthesis, the plant community, and the brilliance of the biome. The results could be astounding and totally unexpected. I know that; we see it all the time on the ground all over the world. The good news here is that farmers are part of it. We are in climate change right now, and attitudes are changing fairly rapidly as facts on the ground change. What helps us to survive climate change day to day or year to year is going to help everyone, because it’s going to be the right kind of change in the system.
As I said before, we know what we need to do, but we end up stuck because of the lack of money. It frustrates me that virtually all of these conversations come down to money. I don’t understand how it’s possible for anyone to say that we can’t afford to do these things. In light of the crisis that we face and what’s at stake, I don’t even know how to respond to that attitude because it’s so baffling to me. And how can anyone talk about perpetuity at this point in time, especially regarding charitable funds? This money needs to move in the world now so that we have a world for future charitable funds to move through. I feel compelled to act right now, and I’m going to do that by showing up as an engaged human with my unique set of resources and doing the best I can.
My plan is to go all in, to eat well, to play hard (ping pong or pinball, anyone?), to learn, to share, to give mutual support, to create the conditions for magic, and then to be open to it when it arrives.
Question and Answer Period
What are the prospects that Congress or the USDA will support your perspectives on soil health? In addition, have you been thinking about policy and how you might want to be impacting policy?
The soil principles I presented come from the National Resource Conservation Service, which is part of the USDA. We could say that the USDA has embraced our view of soil health; the problem is that there are a lot of other forces in the USDA, and the place that’s really causing a problem now is the Risk Management Agency, which is the part of the USDA that does crop insurance. The Department has not embraced soil health because the actuarial data allowing that to be done is not available. People always say, “We should go get the farm bill changed.” We are working from the angle of not believing that the farm bill will change until the farmers in the Midwest call their senators and say, “Crop insurance is not working for me; I can’t make a living, given the rules I’m working under.” The other thing we’re doing around policy is to fund development of new crop insurance policies that will allow farmers to implement the principles of soil health.
We think a lot about policy. It’s important to get the conditions ready for policy to change. I don’t think that a bunch of activists just show up in D.C. and say, “We need to change this.” It’s again about changing the culture and working at the grassroots to change policy; that’s the approach we take. We’ve done a lot of work in California because there was a favorable moment there, and we have a healthy soils initiative. We were granted the headline, “California Pays Farmers to Sequester Carbon.” Getting that headline seemed important. We look for our moments in policy, I guess, and right now it seems to be crop insurance—and part of the Green New Deal, we hope.
How have the effects of your regenerative agricultural practices been quantified, and what are some of the impacts that you’ve had through implementing these practices?
I guess that means on our ranch. We worked on improving the health of the soil before we planted the vineyard, and we have seen pretty dramatic increases in organic matter and soil carbon, documented by a lab at UC Davis, and those increases are ongoing. That’s where we’ve seen the most impact. We do monitor soil carbon on the rangeland, and we know that over the course of a historic drought, we continue to lose soil carbon. On the rangeland we have monitoring that shows an explosion of California native perennial plants as well as diversity, but we don’t yet see improved soil carbon. People think that’s a lagging indicator; I would say that where we have actively managed with grazing and cover crops, in two years we’ve already started to see results. On our crop ground we’ve done our baseline, but we haven’t re-monitored yet.
What are you seeing or doing that takes into account the inequity of our system, and what solutions could we foster that aren’t further repeating these same inequities?
It’s a complicated question, and it’s one we think about because, as Greg said, 98 percent of the land is owned by whites, and there are hundreds of years of reasons that made it that way. Our focus is to create a change on lots of acres with lots of farmers, at the same time consciously trying to work with groups that are improving the situation and supporting young farmers. There are all kinds of interesting young people—urban and rural, Hispanic and African-American. Interest in farming is blossoming. One way to support this diverse group of young farmers who are coming on board is to especially support those groups that are addressing this issue. We are not actively addressing it, but we are trying, for example, to support people working on land access and immigrant farmers becoming farm owners.
Can the meat industry change its ways to become carbon neutral or even net-negative in terms of its emissions?
I think the answer is yes. But it means we have to completely upend it and take all of the animals out of confined feeding operations, put them back where they belong, and reintegrate livestock into cropping systems. It’s absolutely doable from a physical standpoint and a management standpoint. Whether or not we can accomplish all that, I don’t know. A lot of people have run the numbers, and since approximately 400 million acres are used to grow corn, almost all of which goes to animals, by putting animals back on the land I think we can rework the meat industry—if we don’t decide to just grow meat in a vat first, which is a problem I’ve been starting to think about. The meat industry is primed for a huge disruption. What we’re trying to do is be ready so that animals are reintegrated into systems in a way that works ecologically and for the farmers.
What can patterns in nature teach us about how we can better structure our human systems—social, ecological, economic, etc?
We think about this all the time, and I referred to it in my talk. Nature is incredibly collaborative, and nature is incredibly abundant and diverse. There are principles that scale across the globe and probably the universe which have to do with life, but they are expressed in a context and in the middle of collaboration. That’s how we think of it. Everything is connected, and everything should be sharing and collaborating. We should use those insights much more as a design principle.
Deborah Frieze and I did a presentation recently where we talked about the giant oak tree and what its role is in the whole system. It’s connected to everything else in the system, and there’s abundant sharing of resources. It’s not that the giant tree stands by itself. We have, especially in America, the attitude of “I’m an individual on my own, building something.” No, that’s not the way nature works, and that’s not the way I think we should design our systems if we want to be successful.