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Ground Swell: How a Return to Regenerative Agriculture Could Reshape the Future

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the abundance of Green Market, we’re taking a look at the future of agriculture — today’s farming pioneers are shaping a healthy and fertile world for tomorrow.

Nestled in the lush expanse of New York’s Hudson River Valley (about an hour from our home in Kingston, NY) sits the 900-acre Hawthorne Valley campus. Here, farmers and apprentices tend acres of garlic, squash, and leafy greens; they care for flocks of chickens and herds of pigs. They cultivate rye, which is turned into tasty bread at the on-site bakery, and they raise dairy cows, whose milk is made into cheese and yogurt at Hawthorne Valley’s creamery.

And they do it all according to the principles of biodynamic farming, which means Hawthorne Valley is managed as if it were a living organism. That is: the farm is largely self-sufficient, harnessing the natural processes of the local ecosystem to sustain its activities. Hawthorne Valley grows its own livestock feed and sources fertilizer from the organic material generated by the farm’s activities. It controls pests by planting biologically diverse groups of crops, relying on the plants’ natural defense mechanisms against illness and injury. 1

Many of the cows at Hawthorne Valley spend months alongside their offspring. Allowing a calf to nurse decreases the amount of milk available for human consumption, but leads to production of extra milk, which is notably richer and sweeter; Source: Hawthorne Valley

A thriving biodynamic farm would be impressive enough on its own — but that’s not all Hawthorne Valley is. The 501(c)3 nonprofit overseeing the farm also hosts, on the same campus, a K-12 Waldorf school, the students of which are fed by the farm’s products. It spreads the principles and techniques of biodynamic farming through its farmer training program. Hawthorne Valley is even home to a Center for Social Research, a local theater, and a design fellowship.

Hawthorne Valley’s melding of the agricultural with the sociocultural — the way it uses sustainable farming as the foundation of a broader community enterprise holistically incorporating art, education, science, and technology — might just give us a glimpse at a possible future for humanity, one in which people live more harmoniously with one another and the planet.

Of course, establishing such an idyllic future will require more than just the efforts of Hawthorne Valley. Judging from how industrial societies have separated themselves from nature in recent times, we’re going to need some major political, economic, and cultural transformations to get there.

Hawthorne Valley produce on sale at an NYC green market; Source: Hawthorne Valley

Better Than Before

The concept of regeneration — defined as “restoring something to a better state,” as opposed to degrading it or leaving it unchanged2 — is fundamental to ecological cycles. The healthy perpetuation of Earth’s various and interlocking environmental systems depends on a continuous balance of give and take between plant and animal participants.

Regenerative agriculture applies this principle to farming, which has long taken more than it has given in the industrialized West. A regenerative farm is one that operates like a natural ecosystem, requiring little to no outside input in the form of fertilizers and pesticides while cultivating healthy soil, animals, and habitats.

Hawthorne Valley is only one farm in the loosely interconnected network of farmers and organizations dedicated to the broad project of regenerative agriculture, which aims to bring about precisely the sort of social shifts required for a healthier future. Another example close to us in the Hudson Valley is Hudson Hemp, one of the first large farms to move completely to regenerative farming practices.

“The regenerative agriculture movement seeks to grow food and raise livestock in accordance with the very same natural processes that sustain plant and animal life in the wild.”

Hudson Hemp’s concrete successes in improving its land as a long-term ecological resource while producing sustainable yields as a business demonstrates the real value of regenerative agriculture. In 2015, the farm acquired land that had been totally stripped of nutrients by the two large agrochemical companies that used to run experiments on it. By rotating crops, leaving the soil to rest, and monitoring soil composition, Hudson Hemp turned the land around in just four years. The fields are now fertile enough to grow hemp organically with no need for any chemical inputs.3

The example of Hudson hemp illustrates how the regenerative agriculture movement seeks to grow food and raise livestock in accordance with the very same natural processes that sustain plant and animal life in the wild. In contrast to the large-scale agribusiness methods we’re all familiar with — sickly chickens crowded in dim cages, chemical fertilizers stripping away soil nutrients — regenerative farmers practice rotational grazing, where animals are allowed to forage and fertilize the land. Instead of tilling the soil — which destroys root systems and spurs soil erosion — they utilize no-till planting techniques.4 While factory farming yields nearly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, regenerative farms act as carbon sinks, thanks in part to that no-till planting, which keeps carbon sequestered in the soil instead of loosening it into the air.5

The Regenerative Organic Certification goes well beyond traditional organic certification, with criteria incorporating ongoing soil health and animal and social welfare. Source: Regen Organic

Because regenerative agriculture represents a significant paradigm shift for mainstream farming, putting its methods into practice requires initial education and effort. However, the long-term ecological and financial benefits of regenerative approaches have proven undeniable.6 Yet, as regenerative farming rapidly builds buzz in the food industry, hollow corporate co-optation could pose a threat. That’s why some groups, like Regenerative Organic Certified, are working to maintain the integrity of regenerative agriculture with producers and its meaning to consumers. Regenerative Organic Certification goes far beyond traditional organic certification, mandating beneficial practices for soil health, animal well-being, and social welfare.

The Deep Roots of Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture isn’t exactly new. If anything, it’s rooted in some of the oldest farming traditions in humanity’s repertoire. As noted by Leah Penniman, codirector of New York’s Soul Fire Farm, author of Farming While Black, and a leader of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (which we highlighted in February’s Ignite Story), many of the mainstream regenerative agricultural practices we have in America today stem from the tools, knowledge, and techniques that enslaved Africans brought with them. The practice of composting, for example, was pioneered in part by Ghanaian farmers, who have been creating “dark earth” — soil intentionally enriched with kitchen, animal, and agricultural waste — for 700 years. Similarly, rotational grazing can be traced back to farmers in Guinea. And despite contending with racist policies designed to keep them off the land by denying them loans and government aid, Black farmers continued this innovative work in America once they were freed.7

Farmer in Sierra Leone; Source: Unsplash

Polyculture, the common regenerative practice of planting multiple types of complementary crops at once, likewise has its roots in longstanding Indigenous farming traditions. Native American farmers would grow corn, beans, and squash — known as the “Three Sisters” — at the same time. The tall stalks of corn gave bean vines something to climb, while the wide leaves of squash plants retained soil moisture and kept invasive weeds at bay.8

“Black and Indigenous farmers have gotten little credit for their regenerative agricultural practices, but the sustainable farming movement is undergoing something of a reckoning right now.”

Return to the Collective

Historically, Black and Indigenous farmers have gotten little credit for their regenerative agricultural practices, but the sustainable farming movement is undergoing something of a reckoning right now. The Biden administration, for example, is making efforts to improve access to farmland for Black and minority farmers, while also instituting programs that will reward those farmers for implementing regenerative agricultural practices.9

Aerial photo of chickens and cattle grazing at Sylvanaqua Farms; Source: Medium

And farmers themselves are also taking steps to challenge some of the old orthodoxies that may have actually been thwarting the regenerative agriculture movement’s growth from the inside. Take the example of Chris Newman, who in 2013 started the regenerative farm Sylvanaqua with his wife, Annie. Newman relied heavily at first on a blueprint developed by Joel Salatin, long regarded as a leader of regenerative agriculture, who preaches that anyone can start their own small, independent, sustainable farm.10

While Salatin’s farming practices were sound, Newman soon identified flaws in his economic theories. As the Newmans found themselves struggling to stay afloat, they started to question whether independent farms were really the best way to spark a sustainable farming revolution.11

In a now famous (at least in farming circles) Medium post, Newman proposes an alternative to Salatin’s romanticized myth of the rugged individual farmer. He writes that all the hype around small-scale farming hasn’t translated to any real gains against big agribusiness, with major farming outfits making as much as 400 times the revenue of the little guys.12

Chris Newman, owner of Sylvanaqua Farms; Source: Modern Farmer

Rather than trying to outcompete big agriculture by going it alone, Newman argues, farmers should harken back to the more collectivist — and more regenerative — nature of pre-industrial farming. “America’s oldest farmers — Indigenous people — generally regarded the soil as a commons and worked it cooperatively,” Newman writes. By returning to this collective work, small farmers could scale up production enough to compete against big agribusiness without having to compromise their ideals or work themselves to death.13 Newman is taking steps to facilitate this transformation, using Sylvanaqua as a means to establish an employee-owned cooperative of farms, processors, retail outlets, and distributors, based on a network of private and public land.14

Chickens at Sylvanaqua Farm; Source:

It All Turns on Affection

This cooperative, collective, regenerative approach to agriculture doesn’t just hold the key to finally breaking big agribusiness’s hold on the food industry. It also lays the groundwork for more holistic, community-oriented endeavors like Hawthorne Valley. Newman’s project — and the many similar projects spearheaded by like-minded farmers — weaves together sustainable farming with communal land management and purpose-oriented business ventures. It transforms farming from a means of growing food to a way of reorganizing society.

“An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another.”

Consider the words of another of sustainable agriculture’s leading lights, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry: “An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another.” Berry has long advocated for an approach to farming that “all turns on affection,” as another of his famous sayings puts it: affection for the land, for the crops, for the animals, and for one another.15

With a regenerative, compassionate approach to farming serving as the base, that affection could flower from the ground, and rise on up through each of the social endeavors supported by that farming. Look at what Hawthorne Valley has built on the basis of its own farm: a school, a theater, research projects focused on compassionate ecology and the ethical application of new technologies. What could be driving all of that, if not affection in some form or another?

— The Keap Team

"Unbroken Ground" (2017), a short film by Patagonia, explores the critical role food will play in the next frontier of our efforts to solve the environmental crisis. Source: Patagonia

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We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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