Regenerative Skills is based on the pursuit of a regenerative life. A lifestyle centered on stewardship of the natural world, strong connections to community, and the daily habits that bring us closer to those goals. Each week learn actionable information from experts around the world that you can apply in your own life. Together we can regenerate our planet and our communities.
Making micro farms work through lean planning, with Ben Hartman
I’ve been observing an interesting trend in the regen ag space. The concept and awareness of regen ag has been growing exponentially with many people exploring ways to start their own farms and to participate in and support those who are already involved. At the same time the current economic situation and the complexity of regulations, paired with skill worker shortages, and other challenges are leading people to burn out or quit altogether.
It’s no joke how complex and difficult it can be to run a lean and profitable farm in modern times. Luckily there are some successful and experienced farmers out there who are helping to train and inform the new generation in order to support them in getting established.
One voice in particular who I’ve admired since the release of his first book, The Lean Farm, is Ben Hartman. Though they both have a lot of experience from running their previous large scale operation, Ben along with his wife Rachel started their new venture, Clay Bottom Farm which is an urban farm, set on the north edge of Goshen, IN, in 2006. One of their key features is that all of their food is sold within 1.5 miles of the farm.
Ben is best known for bringing the Lean methodology pioneered in factory manufacturing, to the management and process on small farms. He now has a new book out titled The Lean Micro Farm: How to Get Small, Embrace Local, Live Better, and Work Less.
In this interview Ben shares his story of his initial passion for farming and the journey to creating a simplified and efficient operation that allowed him to enjoy a life with his family and still have hobbies while running a profitable farm.
We discuss the criteria he uses from the Lean system to design workflows, focus energy on the tasks of highest return, and eliminate unnecessary work.
We also go into the practical details of this ⅓ of an acre operation such as the tools he uses, his method for bed flipping in the market garden, the marketing and sales system he has, and the infrastructure that makes it all flow smoothly.
This episode is packed with advice for growers who are looking to get small by reducing complexity and waste without compromising profitability or losing their customer base.
Low tech solutions for erosion and water management with Neil Bertrando and Jeff Adams
We live in a time when everyone seems to be looking for high tech solutions for every problem. Maybe it's due to all of the new tech that has come out in recent decades with lofty promises of new frontiers, or the fact that so many of us are removed from regular interaction with the natural world, but I genuinely believe that technology is more over-applied and responsible for more problems than it usually solves. For that reason I always like to see when professionals advocate for low tech solutions and a return to basics and analog methods, especially when working with nature.
Today I have the pleasure of introducing two guests whose work I’ve admired for a while and who co teach a online course called low tech erosion control which focuses on the approach and techniques that are approachable for almost everyone to reverse and regenerate landscapes suffering from water erosion.
First up, there’s Jeff Adams, who is owner/operator of TerraSophia LLC, a watershed restoration and landscape contracting firm based in Moab, UT. He has a depth of experience in permaculture, watershed rehabilitation, water harvesting, erosion control, and educational programs. With over 20 years of field experience, Jeff brings a practical and integrated approach to each project and course he does.
Along with him we’re joined by Neil Bertrando, a regenerative specialist who has focused on integrated water harvesting, agroforestry systems, homestead production gardens with season extension, medicinal pollinator habitats, and ecological restoration for over 12 years. He has been a permaculture instructor at OSU since 2014. He holds degrees in Biology and Environmental Science and owns an ecological design and education firm, RT Permaculture, specializing in effective and regenerative landscapes.
Together we start by digging into each of their unique paths into working in ecological restoration in the American Southwest and the Great basin regions. They each describe the challenges of their climate and context as well as the historical and current sources of degradation of the surrounding ecology that is often behind the restoration project where they work.From there we systematically walk through the site assessment process of reading the landscape and understanding the local ecology to begin the project design.
Both Jeff and Neil describe the ways they develop a plan of action including the information they gather and how they assess different implementation strategies, especially from the low tech options and working with materials found on site.
We also talk about one of my favorite and often overlooked aspects of project design, which is the maintenance and revision strategies over time, as well as how to design with them in mind. This discussion is full of practical advice that you can use to get started on your own watershed restoration project at a manageable scale,
Working with wastewater and learnings from Biosphere 2, with Mark Nelson
I’ve been lucky in recent months to be able to speak to people who’ve been leaders and change makers in the regenerative space for a significant amount of time. Building on that knowledge and experience I got to speak with Dr Mark Nelson.
Mark is Chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics, head of Wastewater Gardens International and has worked for several decades in closed ecological system research, bioregenerative space life support, ecological engineering, restoration of damaged ecosystems, desert agriculture and wastewater recycling. Notably, Dr. Nelson was a member of the eight person “biospherian” crew for the first two year Biosphere 2 closure experiment, 1991-1993.
The project included pioneering regenerative agriculture and waste and water recycling. Even before that, in the 1970s, he planted an organic fruit orchard at Synergia Ranch, Santa Fe NM and has helped manage its organic fruit and vegetable farm for decades.
As Associate Editor of Life Sciences in Space Research, he is also an author and contributor for numerous books including “Pushing Our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2”, “The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time” (2014), and “Life Under Glass: Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship” (2020) by Mark and two fellow biospherians.
I first planned out this interview withMark to focus on his work with wastewater management and gardening, but I quickly realized that it was only a small part of the work and experience in his expertise.
As a result, we cover a lot of ground in this session ranging from the work and development on the Biosphere 2 installation and what it was like being part of the research team who lived there for two years.
Mark talks about his work and learnings from decades of international ecological projects including those focused on wastewater management and how all these diverse places and contexts continue to inform the Ecotechnics initiatives.
We also get around to focusing on his book “The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time” published by Synergetic Press. There we dissect the key considerations for safe harvesting and reuse of wastewater and the potential uses of it in gardens and beyond. Making use of wastewater is becoming more and more essential as the energy intensive and expensive methods of purification are quickly becoming unfeasible. Though people are becoming aware of this necessity and its potential it’s still going to require a lot more visibility to be adopted at the scale that is needed, so I hope that episodes like this will act as a catalyst to get more listeners like yourselves to consider how using waste water might fit into your own projects.
Reviving heritage foods through landrace farming, with Glenn Roberts
A few months back when I covered the topic of landrace gardening and crop breeding, I had no idea what a passionate and knowledgeable community around the world that I was tapping into.
The seed savers and plant breeders who I’ve been in touch with, including quite a few who are part of the Discord community for this podcast, are working on everything from quinoa crosses for tough climate staple crop production, to the domestication of silverweed, adapted varieties for low maintenance, and so much more. For the most part though I’ve been coming across people who are doing this in their backyards and only occasionally on farms. It made me wonder if there was real potential in bringing heritage seed varieties and landrace breeding into larger operations and if it was even feasible at a large scale. Luckily, Joseph Lofthouse passed me the contact of Glenn Roberts promising that I wouldn’t regret reaching out to him and learning about the work he’s doing at Anson Mills.
Glenn Roberts founded Anson Mills in 1998 in Charleston, South Carolina, with the vision to rematriate lost foods of the 18th and 19th century Southern Pantry. Today, Anson Mills grows and produces artisan organic landrace grain, legume and oilseed ingredients for chefs and home cooks worldwide, and provides pro bono culinary research support for chefs, pastry chefs, bakers, brewers and distillers through AM Research Labs. Anson Mills provides pro bono seed biosecurity for the growing community of Southern organic place-based identity preserved landrace crop farmers. Glenn is the recipient of the USA Artisan of the Year and National Pathfinder Awards, a founding member of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and a pro bono consultant to the Board of Advisors, Stone Barns Center.From that bio, you can see that I hit the jackpot in my search for production scale farms working on landrace growing projects.
Beyond the work he’s most known for though, Glenn is a very multifaceted and multi talented individual in many other fields which he describes at the beginning of the episode.
From there he took me through his journey of rediscovering Carolina Golden Rice, a heritage variety that he knew from his childhood but which had been all but lost by the time he grew up. Glenn also gave me a window into the process of reviving an endangered seed and food variety as well as the incredible network of people around the world studying and working on these challenges.
We also explore the culture that is connected to our traditional foods and how reviving lost genetics is about so much more than putting a different type of seeds in the ground, but rather rediscovering how to grow these strains and the management of the land and even community that is involved in caring for this food.
There are so many fascinating stories and ideas in this interview that open up the world and potential of landrace growing as well as a huge network and collection of resources that Glenn and his collaborators have created for those of you who might be interested in getting involved and assisting in these efforts so I really encourage you to listen through to the end on this one and to check out the links and resources in the show notes for this episode on the website as well.
John Kempf on the trends and future of regenerative agriculture
My guest today needs no introduction if you’ve been paying attention to the regen ag scene in the last decade, but just in case you’re new to this topic and community let me catch you up to speed
John Kempf is an entrepreneur, speaker, podcast host and teacher. He is passionate about the potential of well managed agriculture ecosystems to reverse ecological degradation.
It is John’s mission to have these regenerative models of agriculture management become the mainstream globally by 2040.
In addition to being a grower, John is the founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, Crop Health Labs, Ozadia, and the Regenerative Agriculture Academy. He hosts the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, where he interviews top growers and scientists about the principles and practice of implementing regenerative agriculture on a large scale.
I had John on the show twice now and in the first conversation I didn’t know much about him or his work and so we covered many of the softball questions about things like the definition of regen ag and its importance in a new ecological food system. Since then I’ve become an avid listener of his podcast and have a much better understanding of just how important his work and that of his companies have become in leading the way in this scene. As a result I wanted to explore some of the deeper questions that very few people have enough of an overview of this movement to be able to see, and that’s exactly what we cover in this session. Together John and I navigate where regen ag is in this current moment and the drivers that have brought it this far. John reflects on the patterns and learnings from the vast clientele of AEA about the commonalities and characteristics of successful farmers who’ve transitioned to regenerative management as well as those of the coaches and consultants that are effective in assisting them in their journeys.
We also look into the influences outside of farming directly, the external factors that set boundaries on producers from the large food companies, retail outlets, commodities trade, investors, and politicians that wield so much power. Since John’s work is already one of my go-to sources for information on the newest innovations and state of progress for regen ag, it was a unique pleasure to be able to gain insight into his vantage point and strategy on how to bring this movement forward further.
Will Harris reflects on his career and his return to giving a damn
Despite the popularity of regenerative agriculture at the moment and the fact that there are many inspiring farmers involved in the movement, it’s still rare to find experienced farmers, especially in large scale operations that have been working to regenerate their ecosystems and communities for more than 20 years.
For this reason I was thrilled to connect with Will Harris of White Oak Pastures for a second time to dig into the remarkable career he’s had and the journey of transforming his farm into one of industrial beef production to a holistically managed multi-species farm that has been a beacon of the potential of regen ag in his region. For those of you who didn’t catch the first episode I recorded with him, Will Harris is the owner of White Oak Pastures, in Georgia’s semi-tropical Coastal Plain. Described by his daughters as an “organic icon” of the Real Food movement, he is one of the very first people to bring grass-fed and humanely raised meat to the mainstream. Harris is one of the most outspoken critics of industrialized, centralized, and commoditized agriculture and is one of the most recognized leaders in the regenerative and resilient agriculture space.
In this episode we focus on the new book that he’s just published titled A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food.
We start by talking about the origins of his family’s tenure on the farm almost 150 years ago and how management and practices changed through the generations.
From there Will shares his personal journey from following in the footsteps of his father who was a skilled industrial cattleman, to his awakening that gradually began to transform the way the farm was run.
Along the way the town of Bluffton, GA where they’re located began to change and grow along with them and we discuss the role that White Oaks played in the revitalization of the community.
We also cover a wide range of insights from Will’s career from the challenges and hurdles that have been working against their vision from the political and industrial forces in the food system in the US, to points of hope and inspiration that make the difficulties worthwhile.
Full of great information
Deeply substantial and amazingly practical
It’s obvious that Oliver puts extraordinary effort in covering salient topics and finding guests that are authentic and truly care about being a positive force in this world - the insights they bring to bear is still mind-blowing Every. Single. Time.
No matter the subject, you’re guaranteed to gain something from every episode - can’t recommend The Abundant Edge enough 🙌
Just stumbled on this podcast and I am loving it. Great interviews and amazing guests.