Why the Keyword in Farming Startups Is ‘Regenerative’
A growing crop of rural enterprises is working to renew both land and farmers’ livelihoods around the world.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “sustainable” is so 2014.
Home to leopards, zebras, hippos and elephants, Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is known for its sprawling wildlife sanctuaries. But it’s also where Dale Lewis, founder of Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), helps transform hungry farmers — who poach on the side to supplement their income — into wildlife protectors. In exchange for honoring a “conservation pledge” to stop killing certain animals for money and use sustainable farming practices, the company’s 61,000 farmers, all of whom work on a small scale, receive up to 20 percent more than the standard market price for their corn, soy and honey, which are then used to create a line of food products that are flying off Zambian supermarket shelves.
As it turns out, COMACO is just one of a growing number of both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises that are taking a new look at the agricultural sector and finding that farmers can renew the land they use — and their livelihood that they draw from it. There’s Honey Care Africa, a for-profit franchise that works with farmers across East Africa to supplement their income through honey production while increasing crop yield with pollination help from their honey bees, as well as the Timbaktu Collective, which helps farmers in a drought-prone region of India sell products grown with traditional water conservation practices. Oh, and don’t forget Peepoo — yep, you read that right — a system that converts sanitation waste from poor urban neighborhoods, refugee camps and disaster relief sites around the globe into nutrient-rich fertilizer for farmers with poor soil quality.
These regenerative agricultural practices, as they’re known, have been developed in response to a growing list of problems plaguing farmers and rural workers around the world: land degradation, drought, crop disease and unpredictable market prices, to name a few. Of course, climate change isn’t helping on any of these fronts. But the trend is also being driven by the growth of B Corps — think of them as certified do-gooder businesses — and other companies that are under pressure to show responsibility for the planet, says Daniela Ibarra-Howell, co-founder and CEO of the Savory Institute, a nonprofit that promotes large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands through a regenerative practice known as holistic management.
Indeed, some corporations have asked the Savory Institute where to find beef, wool and leather products with the health of land in mind, and where investments are needed along the production supply chain to create a shift in global food systems. Brands that “want to be a good company” are in search of responsible projects — more, even, than consumers demand, says Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy for the outdoor retailer Patagonia, which purchases regenerative wool.
“We’re calling it the nutrient economy.”
David Strelneck, senior adviser for Ashoka
The idea here is simple, really: Communities can nourish themselves by producing products that also drive well-being elsewhere. Sound familiar? Sure, there’s already organic this and fair-trade that, but a “holistic management” seal could find itself on your hamburger wrapper in the next few years — that is, if the Savory Institute has its way. Another of the organization’s co-founders is Allan Savory, the Zimbabwean biologist behind holistic management, a technique that often involves adding, rather than removing, livestock in order to restore land that’s been degraded through overfarming. The nonprofit’s plan is to help restore 1 billion hectares of degraded grasslands around the world by 2025 using a network of rural business incubators.
Already, 30 hubs in more than 20 countries from Australia to Zimbabwe are working to educate farmers and spin out market-driven projects that encourage the switch to this practice. Some will include ecotourism operations, carbon credit sales and leather, wool and beef certification. The network’s Argentine hub, a certified B Corp called Ovis 21, has developed a standard for their farmers’ wool in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the conservation nonprofit. Their Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard (yes, that spells GRASS) is being adapted for the whole Savory Network in order to ensure consistency in measuring outcomes — and allow network members to get a premium on products grown with the health of the land in mind.
Do ambitious plans like these actually work, though? During the past nine years, Ovis 21 says it has helped around 160 ranchers put 3.2 million acres of degraded land in Argentina and Chile under holistic management, a switch that improved grass health and farmers’ income, according to a 2014 analysis. And Ashoka, an organization that identifies social entrepreneurs, has studied the work of its rural innovation fellows — a total of 200 of them across five continents, including those behind COMACO and Honey Care Africa. One finding: For-profit enterprises that were making a connection between human health and health of the land — like COMACO, which has provided food security to millions of people while protecting biodiversity — were turning a profit. “We’re calling it the nutrient economy,” says David Strelneck, a senior adviser at Ashoka.
But banking on agriculture requires plenty of patience. Returns tend to take longer than other kinds of startups because it takes three to five years to see real change in farm land, experts warn. (After six years of business, Ovis 21 has yet to break even.) While more funds focused on sustainable agriculture have been established in the past decade, including Root Capital and Dirt Capital Partners, coming up with the resources to finance and manage new programs remains a big challenge for most of the world’s farmers.
Still, at the tip of South America, where the Strait of Magellan holds down the horizon, Ricardo Fenton proudly shows visitors the fence line that divides his neighbor’s dry earth from his sea of tall grass. In recent years, the fifth-generation Patagonian rancher has brought his grass back using holistic management. The sheep that eat this grass will be sheared, and their wool will be certified as regenerative using the GRASS standard. It will then be sold at a 3–8 percent premium to environmentally conscious brands like Patagonia and fashion label Stella McCartney. “We’ve improved our ecological capital,” says Fenton, who co-founded Ovis 21, “and we’ve improved our business at the same time.”