#74: Foodshed, Agroecological coaching and the regenerative mindset

#74: Foodshed, Agroecological coaching and the regenerative mindset 1116 1074 Farmerama Radio
Food Shed Farmers

This month, we hear from three practitioners about what it takes to regenerate minds and hearts.

We begin by hearing from Bea Alvarez, Climate Resilience Projects & Outreach Coordinator at Food Shed and Carbon Sink Farms in San Diego, California. Bea shares her experience of how collaborations between multiple farmers and indigenous landholders have built an inspiring new vision for their local food and farming system.

Next, we hear from Clare Hill from FAI Farms, who tells us about her journey in moving towards a regenerative farming system. Clare shares some of the practical elements of the transition they have made at FAI, as well as the mindset shifts that she has been navigating on her regenerative journey.

Finally, we check back in with Nicole Masters, who tells us about the Integrity Soils CREATE programme for training regenerative coaches and consultants. We learn about the diverse approach Nicole takes in her training, to ensure the CREATE students are learning to think holistically and critically when problem solving in a regenerative way. 

This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barratt, Abby Rose and Olivia Oldham. A big thanks to the rest of the farmerama team – Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt

We’re very grateful to those of you that support us and allow us to bring you these stories every month. Even the smallest contribution makes a big difference to us. If you’d like to become a supporter, visit patreon.com/Farmerama.

Episode transcript:

Abby Rose: Hello and welcome to Farmerama.
Jo Barratt: This month we hear from three practitioners about what it takes to transform minds and hearts.
Firstly we hear how collaborations between multiple farmers and indigenous landholders have built a new vision for the food and farming system in one county in California. A farmer in the UK tells us about her journey, moving towards a regenerative farming system and we hear what it takes to train people so they can coach others on a regenerative journey.
Abby Rose: Bea Alvarez is the Climate Resilience Projects & Outreach Coordinator at Carbon Sink Farms and Foodshed in San Diego County, California. She’s based at Solidarity Farm, which is on Luiseño Indian territory and neighbours Pauma Tribal Farms – what started as a single farm leasing land from the Pauma band of Luiseno Indians has turned into a much larger movement, as the landholders and tenants worked together to build a Carbon Sink Demonstration Farm.

Bea: In this area where we are located, we have a changing Mediterranean climate. And in 2017 there was a very extreme weather event that reached temperatures of 122 fahrenheit. And that made very clear this alarm that was ringing very, very loudly – that either we need to change the way that we farm in order to continue to survive in this environment, and if we wanted to make the livelihood of the farmers continue to thrive, changes needed to be made. 
Solidarity Farm leases land from the Pauma band of Luiseño Indians, so we have built through the years a relationship with them, with the tribe that has other agricultural projects undergoing, so this event in 2017 affected us all in the area. We lost animals, we lost crops, trees were burning and it was just a daunting scenario.
So together we started to have conversations about what can we do, in collaboration, so we can create different projects that can shift the way that we are building resilience in our ecosystem, and in our region. That was the birth of Carbon Sink Farms.
In collaboration, we started to look at the different systems and practices that we could implement to shift from conventional to more regenerative practices. Here in the US, there are several different agencies and programs that support this transition from conventional to regenerative or more carbon farming base practices.
We were the first project here in Southern California to receive the NCHS – the Natural Conservation Healthy Soils program. It’s a grant that allows farmers to implement different conservation practices. We did an analysis, created a carbon farm plan, and through that started to implement the practices that we have now five years in the making.
We started with implementing some hedgerows. We started planting cover crops, and transitioned about 5 acres in the farm. We have a total of 10 acres that are in operation, and we transitioned that into no tilll or reduced tillage. So that was the foundation for these practices. The farm does not use any kind of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. And, we have seen how the practice of no till that generates many benefits, and one of them is carbon sequestration. This is one of the topics that has been in the priority of different agendas in the region, in terms of policy and climate action plans, and in the county right now there is a project in progress with different approvals through the governence in the county, that is called the regional de-carbonization framework. 
So we have been very active in this scenario in which we can show what the benefits are with producing through having these practices. We have better water holding capacity in an area that is prone to drought. Then the yield of our crops is higher. We’re able to measure the increase on the carbon, and the fungal and bacterial ratio and the organic matter in the soil. So focusing on working on improving the soil health, we saw the benefits of this. The journey started with solidarity farmers leading these practices, and the partnership with the tribe allows us to create this dynamic that is very unique.
And the tribe, they started an olive orchard and this last year they implemented a vineyard and, and also through the pandemic, they created a program in which some of the tribal members go like train in our farm to do smaller scale farming. And now they’re farming about four acres and producing a CSA box, a farm box, that they distribute with the tribal members every week for free.
Not a lot of farms are able to work alongside different indigenous community. Um, one of the things that we implemented in the practices, is when we did the hedgerows for instance, we selected a plants pallet, that was tailored to TEK or ‘traditional ecological knowledge’.
All native plants that were planted on the hedgerows were selected because they were for the indigenous communities in the area – for their food, fiber or medicine. So we are not only using the hedgerows for the convenience and the benefits of having better soil structure and attracting more pollinators, but also these plants play a significant cultural role in the traditions of the indigenous communities in this area.
I feel that the benefits that comes from these practices is not only improving the soil health, and the plants and crop health, but also the principle co-benefit is that we can do local distribution of this product.
Abby Rose: In the last few years another layer has been added to the brilliant work being done with the establishment of Foodshed. Bea explains how it was born.
Bea: So this is going to take me back a couple of years to November of 2019 – we hosted the first carbon sink convergence here in Southern California.
So about 180 representatives from this state and from different states here in the US, and different indigenous communities, we come together with them, with a goal of mutual aid and an exchange of practices and experiences and information. So there were four different work groups in which we were able to share experiences of the vision and future for the region. It was an opportunity for us to learn from different farms in different bioregions, and from different areas and capacities, about governance, ways of operation, how we can support more new farms, and how we can support beginner farms with a focus of amplifying and elevating the voice of BIPOC (black indigenous and people of color) and communities that have been for many years relegated or neglected by the food system. One of the groups was focusing on food hubs and shared resources. 
2020 came about, and you all will remember what happened that year, and at the beginning of the year, Solidatory Farm, and the tribe farm came together with the idea of creating this collaboration for a new CSA program. So, a new farm box for distribution that these two farms can start implementing in the city of San Diego. Especially providing these equity boxes at a very affordable price to a neighborhood that is very diverse and has the most, or the highest rate of immigrant communities and refugee communities in the city of San Diego – it’s called City Heights.
So it started in the beginning of March in 2020, and it was called Food Shed. A food shed is just a regional like area in which the food is produced. How far it travels to go to the tables of the of the communities, and to whom this food is distributed. So Food Shed launched in early March 2020, and then the pandemic hit, and in the middle of the chaos, it was very, very important just to see how this crisis also opened a new window of opportunities for local farms.
What happened at the beginning of the pandemic with the lockdowns was that a lot of producers didn’t have any farmer’s market to attend. A lot of crops were lost because they couldn’t be harvested – there was no outlet for a lot of local farms that usually sell their produce in farmer stands, in farmer’s markets. And this to me was the eye opening that we all needed. Because a lot of farms were reaching to us to say: “Hey, are you still having the CSA boxes? Can we sell our produce through your CSA?” So this created the perfect storm, in a way for, for us to come together and start creating these co-op, farmer-owned and operated networks.
So this is March 2020, and we started with six farms, and now 2022, the network has grown. We have about 44 farms, that in different capacity are providing food. So we have aggregated the food from these farms, and we have about a 60-63% of the farms that are BIPOC, and 50% of these farms that are women owned and operated. So our strategies are based on the equitable distribution. We would like to sustain these communities by meeting people where they are, and work tirelessly to build and sustain healthy families. So we, with support of different programs from the state – we have one that is called Fresh or EBT that gives people with low income access groceries.
And now the program has opened for people in the community to be able to access this fresh produce from local farms. So this has a huge impact in the local economy. Usually San Diego county has the highest rate of small local farms, but only 5% of the food that is produced here is consumed locally.
There’s a lot of export into to all other states and such. So we did this calculation that if we spend only 5% of our food budget on locally grown products, we can sustain approximately 6,000 small farms. And these purchases will in turn have an additional 2.7 billion economic multiplier effect to recirculate in our communities.
We also focus on the farmer to farmer mentorship and the support of these community practices. One of our strategies is the thriving farms – so we work directly with farmers to produce quality food, that is good for people and for the environment. And we do this by developing a mutual aid support network to empower local BIPOC, and new farmers to farm regionally. 
By cultivating this economic viability, we like to cooperate with farmers and create a multifaceted support network, that is committed to fighting climate change using the concept of carbon farming and regenerative agriculture practices, with the goal to restore and rehabilitate the approach to food and farming systems.
So this is the beginning of the food shed – focusing on the distribution of local produce. So you have the benefits that we can guarantee the purchase of the products to the farmers, and do the distribution in the communities that traditionally wouldn’t have access to this kinds of fresh produce or organic food, that traditionally you get in the market. And this is neighborhoods or communities that are in a food desert, or they don’t have nearby farmer’s markets that will allow them to have access to fresh produce. So changing that dynamic will allow us to work directly with the consumers and work directly with the farmers.
And since this is an S corporation that is farmer owned and operated, so we are all involved in the ownership of the organization. You know, we’ve been inspired by many people, and by many farmers, here in the states and internationally as well. The message is just keep planting seeds and keep farming.

Now we have the challenges that we have in our times, not only with climate change, but also with the economic crisis and the economic shifting into different systems, and seeing the system falling apart – this is an opportunity to come together and create.
Jo Barratt: Clare Hill is Regenerative Agriculture Director at FAI Farms and is establishing her own small farm in Shropshire. She implimented the regenerative transition of FAI farm in Oxfordshire, coached by Caroline Grindrod at Roots of Nature Consultancy. She told us how it started and some of the biggest challenges she has found along the way.
Clare Hill: I think we all want to know the things that we need to do differently. Like just tell me – give me the list of things we want to do, when we’re thinking about transitioning to anything.
Particularly – everyone’s talking about regenerative at the moment. So what do you want me to do differently? And that was definitely the first question I used to ask Caroline. But actually I’ve come to realise that actually it’s the way that I see things and the way that I view things that has changed, and I think to explain that we still farm the same, same land, same animals, same customers, but we just think about what we do differently.
And for me, that came about as triggers, where things like finding we had resistance in the sheep to yellow drenches, yellow wormers – and thinking, well, that’s great because we’re still got orange and purple to go, but what happens when they run out? And we know that you know, that that day is coming, we already use quite a lot of orange drench already. And it was like – there needs to be a radical change. I can’t see any other way of doing it.

Tthere was no one thing that made me say: “right today, we’re going to be regenerative.” It was a lot of little things. The other thing was when we changed our grazing. We went for the kind of techno grazing New Zealand style model, and that worked well – like we grew a lot more grass, which was pretty good, but it was quite labor intensive for us here, and on an extensive system, we had all these animals during the summer that we knew that we could hold, but then it was like, what do we do with them in the winter when the grass isn’t growing as much? And because the focus was on focus was on utilization. You had loads of grass in the summer and you stocked to that. and then in the winter, they all had to come indoors, but we didn’t have the housing. We’re a tenant farm on an old dairy farm. So the housing is no longer suitable.
And so it was like, well, we need to put up more sheds. Well, then you start costing up that, and just thinking about it from a carbon, ongoing point of view, it just didn’t make sense. The straw, the tractors, the diesel, everything that was going to need to go into that. And and that’s when we thought there needs to be a different way. Yeah, and I guess they were the two of the key things that got me thinking differently.
Our measures of success are definitely changing, and the biggest thing is instead of focusing on yield, we’re focusing on margin. How much margin are we making and what part of our decision making process, or on all of this was that we would reduce our sheep numbers because we’re having these problems with the worms and everything else.
So we thought, well, sheep are rarely in the UK making much money. So actually it doesn’t make a big difference to our margin. It makes a difference to our yield, but it doesn’t make a difference to our margin if we reduce the numbers. 
And often, people will say: “oh, you’ve got a lot of land, not very many animals stocking it.” And I say, yeah, but we don’t house many of them. And our aim is to not house anything. And so our costs are significantly reducing – we haven’t got there yet, but each year we do a bit more, and we still got a long way to go, but that’s what we’re kind of aiming for.
And also in that productivity thing, I start to think about – we all talk about productivity, we’ve got to get more efficient. We’ve got to be more productive. What are we aiming for? And my productivity measure now is about how much water I can hold onto – because we flood in the winter and we burn off in the summer. That’s our rhetoric around what this farm is. What I realized is that we have all this water in the winter, but it disappears in the summer, but if we could hold onto it through the summer, then wow, how much more grass would we grow then? So instead of thinking about the immediate, how quickly is that animal growing? I’m thinking, how do I manage the land to make it be able to hold onto more water, so that when it does rain in the winter or flood in the winter, we hold on to that for longer. Our growth rates definitely slow down –  kind of July, August and into September, before we get that autumn flush of grass again.
But if I had that spring and autumn flush that wasn’t a flush and it was just a continuum, then we’d be growing some serious grass and finishing some serious amount of animals through that time. So yeah, it’s moving as well from that individual, like right here and now making a decision through to how do we manage this to be productive long term? And that water holding capacity of the land is now my main productivity focus.

What is the most important thing you can do? Um, I think it varies for different people. For me, it’s been about having trainingm because I did lots of reading and I watched lots of videos, but I couldn’t work out where to start –  what do I do first? Where if we need to spend money, what do we do? Where do we take a risk? Do we start grazing differently? And how do we even go about that? Which livestock group do we focus it on? So for me getting training about the kind of principles about what we were trying to achieve was really helpful. And to start with, I was always like, I want to just want to know what to do.
Taking that time to understand it has been the thing that has propelled us on further, more quickly in the long run, just going through that to start with. But equally we did just do some things where we just said, let’s just start. So we split, quite a few years ago now, we split one of our biggest fields into four with permanent electric fencing.
And we use permanent because everybody told us that you’ll never keep those cattle behind a temporary electric fence, which proved to be wrong, but just splitting that field in four and grazing round that, we saw that we could grow more grass and get better recovery. And that was something that helped propel us on to do more as well.
The other thing is making new regen friends, and trying to find a new network, or get on a WhatsApp group. Because that’s the other bit that’s hard is when you do start doing things differently and people love to look over the fence and comment on what you’re doing. It can be really hard not to lose faith and just go back when something starts to go a bit wrong, to just revert back. So that new network, or finding other people going through a similar thing. And there are loads of different groups around, that I’ve found has been one of the really helpful things as well.
The thing that I found myself talking about more and more lately and thinking about is that it’s the mindset shift. Like everyone says it needs a mindset shift and of course that’s really hard to articulate what that means. And how do you get others on board?

That’s a question I often get asked –  I want to do it, but brother, mother, cousin, business partner, et cetera, et cetera doesn’t. So it’s not been easy – and I think that’s the thing to say. And maybe that’s been partly because we’ve done it quite early, but more and more people are adopting things every day and that’s really good. That’s been the biggest learning that I don’t think I expected to have to do – people’s uncertainty about it. And some of that stuff goes really deep. Like we’re challenging everything that people know, and they react in ways that you don’t expect. I think that’s the thing that I’ve found is that I thought it was just changing the way we farm. But actually what this has ended up doing is questioning some people’s deep beliefs, including my own. I’ve come from a traditional training system. My dad was a farm manager on arable farms and I went to Harper Adams and had a traditional training in how to run farming systems and through my career, that’s how it’s been.
When you start to unpick that and, and talk about doing it differently, it’s almost everything I’ve learned that I now question. Lots of it’s still really relevant and is right. It’s just maybe a tweak. We always knew that soil health was important, there’s no getting away from that – I definitely did a lot of learning about soil health at university, but how to improve it? And what is soil health?

When I learned it was all about getting the chemistry right. Getting the balance of the nutrients right. But now I understand soil health to be so much more than that, and it’s a living thing, and how do we nourish it, and how do we manage it in a way that we’re feeding it what it needs, because when we do that, it will pay us back.
And what progress means. So we think maybe progress is all the new varieties of seeds, and new cultivation techniques, and all of that is coming. Well, we know that when we leave a bit of land, stuff grows. And actually that stuff is suited to that soil and maybe the animals on that farm we’ve undervalued that. I would have always talked here about our rough old pasture – it’s not very productive, it doesn’t do anything, but it’s productive here because it keeps coming back. And however many times we try and reseed and put different things in, eventually those hybridized varieties, which can do really well, but require quite a lot of support and of course require reseeding every few years.
And so just thinking about input costs in a different way as well. Like just flipping every single I thought I knew all my head and once you start on this journey, sometimes it can be quite revealing like that you start questioning a lot of things. So that would just be another observation of mine, I think.
Abby Rose: We heard from Nicole Masters last month talking about the importance of digging holes to understand whats really happening on the land. Nicole is an author, pattern thinker and regenerative soil coach based in Montana. In recent years she has found her skills in such high demand that she’s created a program to train more regenerative coaches. Turns out being a regenerative coach isn’t just about the practices we need to impliment, it’s about learning a way of thinking and then being able to take others on that journey.
Nicole Masters: In 2021, we released the CREATE program, which is a coaching school for agroecological coaches. And the reason that we did that is – I’d been looking to hire people, and I just couldn’t find people that had the level of skills and experience and the thinking that’s required to be a really, really good coach.
It’s been years and years and years in development, but I just went right – we’re going to do this and see what the interest is. And we got a threefold oversubscription of people applying for the program, which just really made me realize that there is a big interest in people doing that kind of deep ecological training.
And also what the demand is. I mean, it’s so huge. And I felt like I was letting people down, people wanting, you know, consultancy in any kind of arena from viticulture, to sheep and beef, to bison, to turf – you name it. And feeling like there’s just not the people out there that are well-trained that can really help to support the sudden explosion and people being interested in soil health.
I think students have been really blown away by the diversity of topics that we’ve covered. I mean, we go from everything from the technicalities of soil microbiology, soil nutrients. And then how to weave those patterns together in terms of what are we seeing with soil function? How does that relate to plant health and yield and production, resilience, animal health, and even the human health aspect.
It’s that pattern sensing that we’re missing – often you find people who are incredibly skilled with a very narrow focus of knowledge, and that’s not what the world needs right now. We need people that can see in holes that can see in that whole pitcher, in terms of how do these things all interrelate. The biggest part of that is then how does that interrelate with the person on the ground, with the farmer or the rancher? Because at the end of the day, it’s that person that’s managing that landscape, and all of the stories, and all of the struggle, and all of the issues that that particular producer’s dealing with, as a coach that’s a big part of what you’re managing. 
You know it’s all very well to come in and say: “Hey, you should plant a cover crop.” But that doesn’t really shift people’s relationship to landscape, or really shift this, what we call tickling the system. How little do we need to put into a landscape to alter what those outcomes might be? Or how little do we need to change some of these grazing systems or what we’re doing with nutrition. 
And all of that is a mindset. You know, how do we look at weeds and pests and diseases? Do we feel like it’s something that we need to control and kill? Or is it something that’s there as an indicator? So I think the students themselves have been really blown away by the amount of focus that we have on the mindset part.
You know, how do we shift our own mindsets, and how we see the world, or how we see challenges, or how we see conflict. And then how do we support a producer in being able to do that because that’s where the real success lies. It’s not in looking for an external expert. It’s not to look for an external product it’s to look internally and develop the critical thinking so that we can solve problems for ourselves or within our communities. And that’s the paradigm shift that is regenerative agriculture. Okay, how do we become our own experts? Not look for the guru. When you look at the acronym of what CREATE stands for, it stands for Consciously Regenerating Ecosystems in Agriculture through Transformative Experiences. It’s a big mouthful. So it’s on the brochure. When I talk with the students signing up, I promise them you will not be the same person that completes the program as you are today. There’s so much that is out for us all to transform, you know, we’re layers of these onions – we keep peeling back another layer, and there’s another layer under there.

One topic we spend some time on is our conversation is what we call the ecology of money. We all have our own internal conversations and belief systems about money, and that might be how you were brought up, your ancestral stories around money, media pressure, social pressure, all of this becomes the story. And then that can either be a hindrance or a help. And what I find when I work with a lot of producers is they have some kind of conversations around money. And that might be money is struggle, or money is greed, or money is bad in some way, or I’ll never have it – all these kinds of stories. So what we do in the classes, we actually peel back, what are those stories? Where did they come from? Do they serve you? And what would it look like if you didn’t have that story, what would become possible?
And so that’s what we’re doing with the students is transforming what are those conversations, and then what would be possible. And so I think for many of us, it’s financial freedom of not feeling like – yeah, it’s shame or struggle or greed or any of those stories. So it’s been a lot of fun. I really, really enjoyed that time.
One thing that I’m really enjoying with the CREATE program is just the diversity of people. They range from 26 years of age to 70 years of age, they range from people that are much more practical, to people that have higher science or extension experience, or are consulting already. And what I’ve found is for every single one of them, it’s a journey of rounding out those areas that maybe we’re not as strong in, so that we can provide this really robust but generalist approach to coaching. So just inspired. It’s really challenging to teach to such a diverse group with such diverse experience, but what I find is every session I’m learning from as well. So it just, it’s an expansive process. Out of this, we will be creating a fellowship of agroecological coaches or consultants that will continue this hive mind of learning and experience and sharing as we go forward. So I’m really looking forward to the next chapter.
Abby Rose: If you are interested in the CREATE program then they are currently taking applications for the 2022 cohort.
Jo Barratt: This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Jo Barratt, Abby Rose and Olivia Oldham. A big thanks to the rest of the farmerama team Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt