In October 2015, the conversation began focusing more significantly on how sustainable farming should be defined. This came to the forefront when PoliticoPro quoted the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture as saying that farmers and others connected to agriculture should “come up with a single definition of sustainability in order to avoid confusing the public with various meanings of the term in food and production methods.”
Some people believe, for example, that “sustainable” is not the right word choice because that implies a focus on keeping the ecosystem stable, to keep everything right where it is right now. And, using that context, what we do at The Chef’s Garden goes far beyond sustainability because—as just one example—our goal is to cause our soil to become even healthier than what it was before, to grow produce that’s even more flavorful and nutritious.
So, because our philosophy goes beyond sustainability—that of maintaining the status quo, according to many people involved in the conversation—what should that type of farming be called? That has become the question.
Going Back to the 1970s
That’s when Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute suggested the term “regenerative organic agriculture.” Here is one summary of that philosophy by EcoWatch: “Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual well-being.”
Elements of this philosophy also include that farming practices dovetail with how ecosystems naturally regenerate after being disturbed; include greater biodiversity; rely more upon internal resources than external ones; and is “aligned with forms of agroecology practiced by farmers concerned with food sovereignty the world over.”
Now, if you’ve ever talked to Farmer Lee Jones about the word “organic,” you already know that he has serious issues with it, saying it’s now the most bastardized term since food producers started using the word “natural” or “all-natural.” But, fortunately, the original term from Rodale’s in the 1970 of “regenerative organic farming” has morphed into “regenerative farming,” and that’s something pretty intriguing to consider and explore.
For example, EcoWatch suggest that, rather than using the term “sustainable farming,” agricultural practices could be divided into two categories. Either they are regenerative, or they are degenerative.
Degenerative systems are ones, the site shares, that:
destabilize the climate
degrade soil and water
have negative consequences for health
have a negative impact on the economy
Regenerative systems, on the other hand, follow ecological practices that “rejuvenate the soil, grasslands and forests; replenish water; promote food sovereignty; and restore public health and prosperity—all while cooling the planet by drawing down billions of tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil where it belongs.”
This is a distinction that we can definitely buy into.
Sustainability and Greenwashing
All too often, brands have made claims about sustainability that, once examined, just don’t hold up under scrutiny. We’re not here to point fingers. Instead, we want to focus on the practice of greenwashing food. Also known as nutriwashing when connected to agriculture and restaurants, the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
These practices are all too common, with one study showing that more than 98 percent of marketing teams promoting North American products committed one or more of the original six sins of greenwashing; later a seventh one was added. Here they are:
Sin of the Hidden Trade-off, where a marketer would suggest a product is green, based upon certain attributes, without looking at the big picture
Sin of No Proof, which means that the claim hasn’t been substantiated
Sin of Vagueness, which can include a claim of “all natural”; sure, that sounds great but, as the report mentions, arsenic is also natural, and you wouldn’t want that for breakfast
Sin of Irrelevance, which is a claim that could be truthful, but isn’t important in the quest for sustainable products
Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, which is committed when one pro-green truth still does not make the product a good idea
Sin of Fibbing, which is when a marketer just plain lies; the good news is this one was found to be committed least often
Sin of Worshipping False Labels
Many times, we have to believe, people who commit one or some of these sins of greenwashing don’t realize the negative impact that these untruths are making. But, using the language suggested by EcoWatch, these fibs can make it very challenging for people to separate which companies are using regenerative practices from those using degenerative ones—and that’s just not acceptable.
Heart to Heart Conversations
In a time when the language used to describe environmentally friendly farming practices is evolving, having authentic discussions is more important than ever before. At Roots 2018, for example, we were very fortunate, because Andrew Zimmern provided the keynote address, which included his take on the unfounded claims that take place with greenwashing. His opinion? This is one of today’s most pressing issues to address, crucial to the future of food.
Transparency is also vital, with these elements part of the anti-greenwashing movement:
Chefs, for example, should be able to easily understand where their food comes from, in a way that’s more specific than just the country of origin.
They should also know how the crops were grown, including whether or not regenerative farming techniques were used.
Middlemen are cut out, with the food obtained directly from the grower.
The farm grows the food in line with the restaurant’s values.
The reality is that, each and every time someone needs to source ingredients, he or she has a wonderful opportunity to choose suppliers with the same valued philosophy.
“Let’s say that I was going to buy crabs,” says Jamie Simpson, the executive chef of the Culinary Vegetable Institute. “I could buy them from numerous places from a wide variety of vendors and, when making my choice, I would obviously want the crabs to have an excellent flavor—but, even then, there would almost certainly be several suppliers to choose from. That would narrow down my options, but I’d need to go even further. What I would do next, then, is to find out who offers a quality product and uses a sustainable process, and then I would buy the crabs from that source to support the right people—people who share the same philosophy as I do.”
At the core of it all, what’s important is relationship, of connecting with the people who grow your food, and who do so in a way that meshes with your values.
Reflecting on Past Wisdom
Earlier in this post, we shared how the concept of regenerative farming was being discussed at least as far back as the 1970s. Now, we’d like to move even further back in time—a full century ago. Why? Well, because the more we delve into the concepts of regenerative farming and what those mean to people today, the more the practices remind us of how agriculture was practiced a hundred years ago.
Now, in that era, they didn’t worry about labels. They didn’t think about biodiversity, or whether their practices were sustainable. Or regenerative. Or degenerative, for that matter. Instead, they simply farmed in tune with Mother Nature’s annual song. For them, farming according to the seasons was as natural as breathing.
That’s why, by the way, Bob Jones, Sr.—or “Mr. Bob”—has this for his ongoing goal: to become as good as the farmers were one hundred years ago.
In the past farmers, naturally focused on regenerative agriculture as they planted cover crops and embraced rotation practices to build up soil health, physically, biologically, and chemically. Rather than destroying organic matter through the use of chemicals, they focused on optimizing and balancing the health of the soil—and we follow all of those practices today.
At The Chef’s Garden, we also embrace seasonal eating. In the past, farmers provided the fruits of the season without thinking about options—because they knew that Mother Nature would provide what was needed when it was appropriate. We applaud that—and here’s more about why seasonal eating is so crucial.
At our Roots 2017 culinary conference, we hosted a seminar on food as medicine, with Chef Andrea Beaman pointing out how seasonal eating allows your body to benefit from Mother Nature’s perfect timing. The planet, in other words, supports us in our quest for health. Eating fresh asparagus in the spring, she shares, helps you to clear excess salt from your body, which helps kidneys and bladder alike.
In the fall, as another example from Chef Beaman, pungently delicious cauliflower does its job of clearing out our lungs, Mother Nature’s way to help prevent winter congestion. The same is true of fresh broccoli, leeks, cabbage, and kale.
Following the Footprints of our Forefathers
Here’s another one of Bob, Sr.’s sayings that dovetails with regenerative farming. The best fertilizer, he likes to say, is the footprints of the grower. And, if you visit The Chef’s Garden, you’ll see our feet in the soil, just as you would have one hundred years ago. Farmers planted seeds by hand, and harvested by hand, and today, you’ll see our team plucking tomatoes and digging potatoes, pulling carrots and picking edible flowers—by hand.
About a century ago, increasing numbers of farmers were replacing or supplementing their horse-drawn plows with relatively light, small and slow tractors—and, because they weren’t large industrial farmers, these were ideal. Today’s options, in general, are huge in comparison, but we still rely upon vintage tractors to till our soil, tractors that we can navigate through the rows of our smaller fields.
Are these tractors shiny and new, bright with all the bells and whistles? No. Do they fit our needs? Absolutely.
Here’s more about how century-old farming practices still guide our way.
Combined with Food Waste Solutions
After food is grown in a regenerative way, it then needs used resourcefully. And, over the years, we’d noticed how “ugly vegetables”–those that were full of flavor and rich in nutrition but didn’t look perfect—were getting passed over by their beautiful siblings. That seemed pretty wasteful to us, so we ended up collaborating with other professionals with a passion for reducing food waste to create a craft beer using less-than-perfectly-shaped carrots.
Yes, the ale was outstanding, but this collaboration is something much bigger than the beer. Bigger than the carrot. Bigger than farming and brewing.
This craft beer actually represents how we can innovatively tackle food waste problems in the United States—and, for that matter, around the world—using creative thinking.
More specifically this is what happened with our ugly vegetables:
At Roots 2016, Jordan Figueiredo spoke about finding food waste solutions.
When Farmer Lee Jones was giving a farm tour to James Beard Award-Winning Chef Maneet Chauha, he shared his passion for using ugly vegetables to reduce food waste.
Chef Maneet is a founding partner of Mantra Artisan Ales.
After the farm tour, she discussed the possibilities of making ale with ugly vegetables with her co-founder, Vivek Deora.
The duo created an amazing artisan ale using ugly carrots from The Chef’s Garden.
Attendees of Roots 2017 got to sample this beer, a collective experience that led to further discussion about food waste reduction.
More About Regenerative Farming
Here’s more about what people are saying about the concept of regenerative agriculture.
According to the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative of California State University, Chico State, and The Carbon Underground, regenerative agriculture can be defined this way: “a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.”
Savory.global, meanwhile, provides this comparison: “The key difference between regenerative agriculture and sustainable agriculture is the intention to regenerate, or renew, the productivity and growth potential of whatever is being regenerated.”
Referring to regenerative practices, the site shares this hopeful message—that, through making holistic choices, we can “escape the false choice of being environmental stewards or making a profit. It lets us create what sustainable practitioners seek, a way to continue to live with our environment, but offers even more than they thought. We can restore lands to their former productivity.”
Who’s in? We sure are! Let’s collaborate.