Written by Savory Institute CEO, Daniela Ibarra-Howell
For many years agriculture, or the production of food and fiber, has resulted in the massive degradation of billions of acres of land worldwide. Now, the same industry has been finally acknowledged as having the unique ability to sequester carbon through the improvement of soils, representing not only a viable but a promising global solution to climate change.
Grasslands occupy 30% of the world’s land surface. Its deep soils have the capacity to store large amounts of carbon. But grasslands are degrading at an alarming rate, and they have been largely ignored in the climate agendas, until now. Loss of grasslands leads not only to climate change, but to floods, droughts, famine and worldwide poverty. The holistic management of grasslands and livestock has been proven key to restoring land, boosting soil fertility, mitigating floods, enhancing drought resilience, increasing the nutritional value of food, and restoring wildlife habitat — while sequestering carbon. Additionally, the 1 billion+ people that live on and derive livelihoods from grasslands and livestock can increase their wellbeing in the process of saving the planet. And all of us, consumers can accelerate this shift in agriculture towards a regenerative model, via informed purchasing decisions.
How would we get this monumental task done? Read on.
Local not only matters, it is the only one reality
Can a local leader run a profitable livestock business, heal the land, and change the world for the better? The answer is absolutely yes, no doubt. I just returned from White Oak Pastures (WOP) in Bluffton, Georgia. My mentor, friend, leader and holistic farmer Will Harris owns and runs WOP. Will is well known in the regenerative ag space.
What differentiates WOP is that not only is the land regenerating under his management, but a whole town has been revived. He is also solidly profitable, and according to Will, what is most important to his enduring success? Resilience. He has succeeded at combining land and livestock management, business success, and social wealth creation in a model that has integrity and needs to be replicated. Will has moved from the extractive model of industrial agriculture that has defined the “success” and profitability of farmers for the last 50+ years (with incredibly negative, unintended consequences via the liquidation of ecological and social capital). He is now practicing Holistic Management, and is rebuilding ecological and socio-cultural wealth while remaining profitable–a lot more profitable and resilient than ever before. Opportunities for profitability are endless when you commit to a regenerative model.
Cattle, goats, and sheep moving strategically around the farm under holistic planned grazing; chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks following graziers pecking at grubs and insects, managing pest cycles; hogs and rabbits doing their part and adding more complexity and resilience to the whole livestock mix. The farm produces pastured eggs and grows numerous kinds of heritage vegetables. No confinement of any species, no hormones, and no long rides in trucks – animals are always on pasture, and are slaughtered and processed on the farm’s USDA inspected plant, powered by solar panels. Everything is used or goes back to the land, waste is close to zero.
The whole family is happily involved in some aspect of running this complex business. Employees, more than 100 of them, come from diverse backgrounds and all see their jobs as incredibly important and high quality. Clearly WOP represents a socially, ecologically, and financially regenerative model.
White Oak Pastures
“We believe that the local movement is about the de-centralization, de-industrialization, and de-commoditization of the food (and fiber industries). We believe that it is grown by a group of passionate people who are bound by family core values, rather than by faceless corporations that are bound by quarterly earnings reports.” Will Harris, White Oak Pastures
WOP is also a demonstration and training site for other local farmers. Some of them work with and supply animals to WOP. Will Harris is the leader of the Georgia Savory Hub, dedicated to demonstrate the holistic framework and practices, train and support other farmers in the region in all aspects of Holistic Management, incubate and disseminate solutions that are holistically sound, and serve as a research site for relevant science around livestock management, and soil and grasslands health.
Now we go global
This incredible story is replicable, not as a formula for all farmers, but as a model of what happens when we start paying attention to all aspects of a successful agriculture – soil, plants, animals, people, and finances. The integrated return on investment is mindblowing.
In each regional and local context, on each farm, ranch, or landscape, and within each human group, answers will differ and creativity will dictate and unveil different possibilities, but the fundamental principles of building resilience and fostering regeneration remain the guiding stars.
This is exactly what the Savory Hub network is designed to do. Just as WOP serves as a Savory Hub of holistically regenerative solutions in Georgia, a burgeoning global network of 30+ Hubs in all six continents is doing the same. From Turkey to the UK to Spain, from Southern Africa to Patagonia, from Australia to Canada, the “WOPs” of the world are at work to make regenerative livestock agriculture a reality.
The key to scaling the Savory strategy is to embrace, incentivize, and support the beauty and uniqueness of what is local, safeguard the integrity of processes, and promote contextualized replication through local leadership and long term investment. Not one big top down initiative, but countless smaller, grassroots gems activating the models for agriculture we need in a regenerative, circular, edge economy as described by Fullerton, Lovins and others.
A strategy is born
Backtrack 7 years, when I took on the leadership of SI. We set out to take Allan Savory’s lifework to a whole new level, to a visible and coordinated realization of Holistic Management across multiple social actors in all socio-political, ecological and economic contexts around the world. It had to become a tangible reality. Land is desertifying at an alarming rate. Grasslands were until very recently ignored in agriculture and climate agendas.
Our pledge: all our initiatives would have an underlying self-sustaining, or even better regenerative business model supporting them.
Year after year ideas were vetted, business plans put in place, tools and programs developed, partnerships formed and nurtured, and an increasingly strong network of close and allied partners began forming the entrepreneurial infrastructure through which knowledge, tools, and assets are distributed, and our common mission realized.
The hero in our story continues to be the holistic farmer, rancher, pastoralist, working day in and day out, sun up to sun down, to produce our food and fiber in ways that heal the land, sequester carbon in our soils, steward the habitat of many species, and recharge our water tables.
Now these heroes would be united in a local tribe coordinated and orchestrated by a local entrepreneur. A solutionary. An advocate. A business person. A marketer. A facilitator. A trainer. A philosophically aligned organization. This local figure would create, lead, and help replicate a self sustaining initiative, just as Will and his family and team are doing at WOP, with deep understanding of the context in which it’s operating. These are the Savory Hubs, our scaling infrastructure, our distribution and deployment mechanism.
Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh are Holistic Management–accredited professional educators who co-manage Dharma Lea grass-fed dairy and beef farm (Sharon Springs, New York), and are part of the Savory global network.
With all its growing pains, learning curves, and constant monitoring, adjusting, and replanning – as is the core of Holistic Management – this burgeoning network of Hubs is growing strong and collaborating in novel and unexpected ways. The integrity of the local context is protected, respected, and in many cases restored. The soundness of the processes and practices promoted is evolved and strengthened through peer to peer modeling and support, skilfull implementation, ongoing learning, and relevant scientific research. Soil microbes are being fed, nutrients are cycling into better and richer food, human and animal health are being positively impacted, carbon is being sucked by plants into the soil, making them richer and more productive, water is being soaked up by soils and supporting life, community passion is reigniting, younger generations are engaging, and money and resources are reinvested, strengthening the circular economy. And if we zoom out into the large network, the sum of these local initiatives is clearly addressing the global food, water, climate, and economic crises.
The power of all of us through the marketplace
The network is now positioned to accelerate our joint impact as world and business leaders look for actionable strategies to meet their corporate social responsibility, sustainability and climate commitments, and as all of us consumers of food and fiber become increasingly astute, educated, curious, and demanding when it comes to understanding the impact, quality and authenticity of the products we buy and the brands we support.
Grassroots and collaborative programs need to facilitate an interactive market and production network for food and fiber products that regenerate the land. One such program, the Land to Market Program, is being prototyped with a handful of Hubs, their producer networks, and select market partners. The intelligence inside the program, Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV), is unquestionable –the measurement on the land of key indicators of ecological health, such as soil carbon and microbiology. This program, deployed by the Hub network, will facilitate the sourcing of regenerative raw materials to ecologically and socially conscientious brands with a deep commitment to incentivize regenerative models. It will enable consumers to buy food and fashion items derived from livestock properly managed through practices verified to enhance water availability, soil health, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitats. Producers learn, improve their management practices and outcomes, and gain differentiation. Brands gain access to regenerative producer networks, volumes, and data based transparency. Hubs engage as problem solvers and service providers for livestock producers, verifying outcomes, and coordinating market opportunities in their own well known, specific socio-cultural, political, economic and ecological contexts.
The sky is the limit in how wide, far and fast this movement can go in contributing to the global solutions our challenging times call for. A few innovators spread across the globe are willing to lead and de-risk the space for all livestock producers around the world, and to model what progressive brands, conscientious retailers, educated consumers, and slow money can do to foster a regenerative agriculture movement that is transparent, meaningful, profitable, and resilient, starting from the ground up to achieve global impact.
This article was first published in the Slow Money Journal winter 2017/2018 and on SlowMoney.org. Savory Institute is a member of the SOIL Initiative launched in 2017.