This month we have voices on three continents. We begin by talking to Juan Lisboa, part of a natural cider-making collective in Chile – Agricola sin Patrones – who are working to support more diverse rural ecosystems. Then our co-creator Abby Rose puts her Vidacycle hat on and talks to agroecologist Nicole Masters about a powerful new tool they worked on together – the Soilmentor Regen Platform – which uses the 10 Regen Indicators to help farmers learn from their in-field observations. Finally we hear from two people working closely with Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay: Richard Gantlett at Yatesbury House Farm, who supplies the distillery with biodynamic barley, and Christy MacFarlane, who works in their comms department. She shares about the distillery’s work with growing landrace barley on the Hebridean Islands where they are based.
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.
Abby: Hello, and welcome to Farmerama. 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. So if you’d like to become a supporter, please visit patrion.com/farmerama
Jo: This month we have voices on three continents, We begin with a cider-making collective in Chile, then Abby is talking to agroecologist Nicole Masters about a tool they worked on together. And finally we hear from an innovative whiskey distillery who are working closely with farmers.
Abby: Juani Lisboa is one of a collective of friends in Chile who setup Agricola Sin Patrones. They make extremely delicious natural cider sourced from local ‘campesino’ or ‘peasant’ farmers. Vast swathes of this region have had the native forests destroyed and neverending monoculture pine plantations put in their place. The Agricola Sin Patrones team are finding ways to empower those still farming small plots of land in this landscape, as they are a vital part of retaining at least some of the diversity that was once all around. We asked Juani to tell us more, starting with their name…
Juan: Well, Agricola Sin Patrones means, you know, it could be translated into farmers without bosses, you know, because, who are a five partners, egalitarian partners.
You know, we own the same shares of the company and there’s nobody who commands over us. No, there are just different skills. And you know, if somebody is better skilled in something, then he could have the word, but the decision is always collective here. And that’s where we, what we want to do.
Historically the relationship, especially in the countryside in Latin America, in general, it has been very bossy and, you know, and, and even slave like in past history. So we want to change that too, you know, we went, we went to make it, so, people who live in the countryside are not having to, obey anybody, you know, as if that somebody is their owner, you know, they can have a decision.
That’s how we want to live too.
We’ve been working in this area where between these huge plantations of pine trees and other exotic species, there are some vineyards and some apple orchards, you know, hidden between them. And we’ve worked, uh, making wine. And we saw these apple trees and we wanted to give value to it and to the people who’ve been taking care of them since generations.
And that, that was the first motivation, you know, to try to save these lands from, uh, you know, converging everything into this green desert that you can actually see.
What we do is that we take these apples from heritage and unknown varieties, from very small farmers. You know what you could call peasant farmers, the Spanish word would be Campesina and we take these apples and we tried to make, the best natural cider that we can, with absolutely no additives and try to show that to the world. That’s what we’re trying to do. And how do we do that? Well, our team is made up of unique people, you know, there’s a brewing master. There’s another specialist in wine? And there’s another specialist in viticulture.
There’s another guy who’s the fourth generation of cider makers. So, we’re trying to get the best from this team that we work with. And, and with that, with our effort, trying to make people, all over the place, see the value that’s hidden in this countrysides. And that’s mainly because of how people have been taking care of their lands.
You know, we haven’t been involved in that. We’re just showing it.
The farms where we get the apples from are a lot of people could think that they’re not even farms because these are their homes and they, what they grow, they usually grow it for themselves or a little bit to sell, and they usually have a work, uh, they have to work around because they have that little land that you can’t make a living of it. And the apple trees that they have, they didn’t have, any value, before, you know, a couple of generations before when raising pigs was more usual, they would usually give them to pit pigs.
But, right now it’s mainly because these farmers are very old. They don’t do it anymore. So they were just losing these apples. So we’re trying to improve their situation, you know, give them a little extra income by buying these apples. And it’s not like if they could sell it to somebody else because there’s nobody else buying it.
And by that way, we, we went to, you know, improve their living, their livelihood, and also, you know, attract people to the countryside. You know, that you can actually stay here and you can do stuff now. And that’s one of the messages that we want to send.
We have three different labels and that has to do absolutely with the origin of the apples. There’s one that’s called Temprano because it’s from the earliest apples that we get. That’s actually one of the few varieties that we actually recognise, it’s a variety called Candalaria because it’s harvested right by the Fiesta de la Candalaria which is a religious party that goes on. The other one is called Carissal and it’s because it’s harvested in that location, it’s a small sector in, up in the coastal range here in Chile.
And it gets way more rainfall. So you get a way lighter cider, which has been a great surprise for us. And finally, our, the first one that we made is called according to those ones, cuarenta y dos manzanas, which can be translated as 42 apple trees. And that’s because when we started, that’s all, we got 42 apple trees and we just wanted to make the best out of them.
I would love to know I mean, what are the apples that other cider makers are growing in the world? Because, one of the mysteries here is that, although we do recognize some of these heritage varieties, there are a lot that we don’t and we would love to, to know a little bit more about them.
It’s great to speak with farmerama and people, uh, on the other side of the world. Uh, to know, to let them know what we’re doing and that on this side of the earth, we’re also, uh, there’s a group of people and not just us, you know, there’s a whole bunch of people who are trying to take care of the land too and, and make it much better.
Abby: Over the last 18 months I have been working closely with the brilliant agroecologist and systems thinker Nicole Masters to develop the Soilmentor Regen Platform. I haven’t really shared before on Farmerama that I actually spend most of my time in my role as co-creator of Vidacycle – we develop apps to support people on their regenerative farming journey. Originally, I started building the apps just for my family’s farm in Chile, we have one for trees, one for helping to manage in the vineyards, and also Soilmentor, which helps with soil health. But then neighbours starting using them and it has all grown from there. The Soilmentor Regen Platform is our latest tool, it builds on the power of in-field observations and combines those observations with regenerative benchmarks as well as explanations and potential questions or actions you might want to consider. It’s basically bringing some of the wisdom and experience of Nicole and her team to help you understand what you are seeing in the field. Getting little tips from Nicole to understand what your earthworm count means is actually really helpful.
Abby: I wanted to ask you a bit about you have a strong focus on monitoring and particularly through observation and digging holes.Could you tell me a little bit about how did that come about and why, and maybe some examples, I don’t know.
Nicole: It often blows me away that our biggest resource and our biggest investment is land and soil. And yet when people buy, when I know very few that have dug holes, you know, and it’s something that I did the first time I bought my own land is dug a hole and found a huge disaster, like six inches down, we had a calcium silicate plate basically. So it had blown over from the volcanic region and basically you can use that calcium silicate to quick set concrete. So it was basically a concretion layer. And I was like, oh, this is cool. Like, that is such a cool challenge to have. And I think year four or five of owning the property, I was like, this was so stupid. What was I thinking? But by year seven we had totally broken through that hard pan, not using a ripper and not using any mechanical interventions, just using grazing, biostimulants and diverse plant species. And those three things cracked through a hard pan that the neighbours could not get through with a ripper. They couldn’t even get through with a single tine on a ripper. So for me, digging those holes and observing how, you know, if you set the scene, we can overcome so many challenges. But what I find is people are often pretty good at managing and, you know, looking above ground, and looking at pasture or looking at crops, but they’re not digging holes because that’s where the pre-warning systems coming in.
That’s what’s going to let you know that actually there is compaction starting to form, and the biggest limitation to yield production, health and profit is compaction, is the amount of airflow and gas exchange that you have in a soil. So if you’re not even digging a hole, you’re missing that whole signal that that soil is basically saying to you, ‘Hey buddy, we need to really shift what we’re doing here’. And so I find digging holes can be one of the most powerful things we can do, especially if we dig a hole in the middle of a field and then dig a hole underneath a fence line is that can be a huge emotional impact for somebody who’s like, whoah, did I create this? And the answer is, yes, you did. This is a soil that’s lost all its aggregate structure, all its carbon, all its life. And sometimes those impacts are the best thing for us. You know, it’s a bit of a shock and then it’s like, okay, cool. All right. Now what do I do?
And let’s get into action. But yeah, I think if there’s one thing that anyone needs to do on their own property, it’s dig a hole.
Abby: Working together over the last two years or so, you and the integrity soils team have brought together the 10 regen indicators which are an amazing way to, whilst you’re looking at the soil, to take specific readings and then start to monitor and learn how things are changing. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about the regen indicators, why you chose them, those 10, and then we could pick maybe one or two of your favourites?
Nicole: I think when I first met Abby and the Vidacycle team, there was this challenge, right. If we could narrow down all the indicators. So I came to Abby with what was our existing consulting platform, to try and make it more workable for us. It is very in-depth it has a huge number of indicators. I like it, but then I’m a geek, but for producers it was actually off-putting because here’s this huge list and array of different types of measures for soil and plant health.
And actually it became a barrier because now we have too many things that we’re measuring. So the challenge was if we had to distill that down to 10 of your favorite children, who would they be? Which was very mean, but very, very, very helpful in terms of, okay, well actually a lot of these indicators are interrelated and interlinked, so some of them are more related to other factors.
So if we can narrow it down, just 10 of those, what would they look like? I’m really,really excited about what we’ve put together. I’m really proud of it. I think it simplifies that soil assessment process. It’s not every single thing we can do to assess soil health, but it’s, they are some of the most powerful indicators.
So if I was to use something like aggregate stability, you know, what, how does a crumb of soil hold itself together that can tell you so much about what’s happening with water. It can tell you so much about air movement. It can tell you so much about soil losses. And what I find is most producers don’t realise how much soil they’re losing.
It continues to be our biggest export in the world. I think you guys lose about five tons an acre, roughly, of soil losses in the UK, I might have to check that, and those soil losses are often happening and seen. So it’s, it’s from underneath your feet that you get water moving through that profile and it actually takes soil with it.
And you can often see it when there’s a heavy rainfall event. You’ll see your rivers will be like a muddy colour. And then what we’re seeing here in the U.S right now, are massive, massive dust storms, like the dust storm that went all the way through Canada, all the way down to Kansas, these huge dust storms.
And so by doing an aggregate stability test, it actually tells us what has happening with poor spaces? So can air and water move through that, what holds those soils together as microbiology? So it’s a pretty good indicator that you’ve got microbes active because as they move through the soil, they’re releasing like poos and wees and vomit and spit and all that stuff that holds the soil together. And that’s what gives you stability. But when we have degraded our microbial community, there aren’t those sticky substances. So when soil comes into a little crumb or a little aggregate and rushes into those poor spaces and that sort of collapses. And so it just turns into a little piece of muck and then that’s more likely to wash away or blow away.
So that’s one indicator that I really like it because it does tell us so much. And there’s, there’s a definite link between aggregate stability and yield. So the less stability we have then than the less yield potential you’re going to have.
And I think too, we focus in on the micro and that reflects the macro. So it’s like, just from that tinest particle, we can, we can tell so much about a soil. And it’s all interlinked with those other 10 indicators. So by itself, it doesn’t mean as much until you start to bring all of those pieces together.
Abby: That’s really exciting for me because often I get quite saddened by the whole carbon credit movement and this focused just on veganic matter, or organic carbon. And what I think is really exciting about the regen indicators is that it really does bridge that complexity, or it brings you the oversight of so many different things, all in one place. And I think, yeah, keeping that complexity whilst also making it doable for producers is kind of where, you know, where we’re trying to play, I guess.
Nicole: Yeah. And we’re seeing the soil carbon gold rush all over the world. And anytime we focus just on purely on one aspect in complex systems, there’s the potential for some kind of negative outcomes. Right? And whatever that might be. There’s ways to cheat carbon tests, um, there’s ways to just focus in on that part and that doesn’t tell us if it’s functional or not, you know, and, and that’s what we’re interested in is the functionality of soil processes. You can have really high organic matter and be on peat. That doesn’t mean that that carbon is highly functional. Um, yeah. Or, or, you know, of benefit. We need to be thinking in whole systems and we need to be doing that for climate mitigation, um, animal health, the whole thing, instead of just looking at disparate parts that that has never worked in the past, and it’s not going to work in the future.
Abby: And so then from the tests themselves we have worked together to build the, the actual soilmentor regen platform, that’s something that Vidacycle, when you first approached us, we didn’t know it was on the cards, but that’s where we’ve got to, which is really exciting to work together on that.
The idea is to then have across those 10 indicators, you can see a benchmark of red, amber or green, for your biome, rainfall and soil type. You know, how good is your earthworm count, for example, compared to expectations, but then also compared to other farmers who are on the platform in a similar situation to you.
Nicole: Yeah, well, one of the things I find very exciting about the platform is there is lots of monitoring tools that we can use. There are other pieces of software that will give us, you know, this reading, whatever, you know, it’s a benchmarking. What we go above and beyond on is here are these indicators, is this good, bad or ugly, but then what does that potentially mean?
What, what are we seeing? Why would that indicator perhaps look like that? And then most excitedly, what are some of the things we could start to consider to do? So it’s not a, it’s not a prescription. It’s not going to be, Hey, you need 250 kilos, you know, that’s not what this app is designed to do, but it’s designed to help build your own observation skills so that you can start to take some different actions or reflect on why is this particular indicator performing so poorly?
Because all of it’s going to relate to your goals. If that is profitability or performance or health, all of this comes back to the soil metrics. And what I like about it is by being able to see. You know, am I actually in the green here? I’m doing really, really well with this indicator, but then other indicators are not doing so well or not doing very well compared to my cohort or other people in that biome.
And for me, I don’t know. I find most producers are pretty competitive, but we do have this competitive nature. So being able to see what other measures might be for our biome and our soil type is so powerful. So we can go actually on average, you know, people might have this many earthworms or on average, you know, we’re seeing this many insect pests and what, what might be helpful is you can take a look and see actually a lot of people are having these insect pests as well.
That doesn’t mean you can kind of rest on your laurels. But it’s, it helps to feel like I’m not alone as well in having some of these issues and there’s, and there’s a whole lot of things that I could be doing.
Abby: Yeah, I totally agree with that. That being able to move from that in-field observation to some sort of understanding of where you sit compared to expectations to then have an idea of, okay, and what are the, what might you consider at this moment in time to then do in response to whatever your soil is telling you through these indicators?
Just bringing those together feels really, really exciting. And obviously I still think that conversation is required and that’s something that we’ve been really clear on, and I know you’re clear on, it’s not that the platform will provide you with all of the answers and you just have to go and apply something that it says. It’s all about here’s, here’s a way to help you move to the next level in your questioning and conversations. And whether those, whether that further investigation is with your community or with a coach or, or with just with your farming team, whoever it is. It definitely, in my experience of being on the farm, I’ve really noticed that having sole responsibility for some of the decisions, it just isn’t very healthy, I don’t think, in the end.
Nicole: Yeah. Yeah. And I think the cool thing is that, as many people on your team can all be tying into that information, they can be adding things that they’re observing. It’s getting, what I’m finding is it’s getting some of the managers and some of the people on the ground connected in a different way, and then being able to share some of those insights.
And so, I think that’s a really, really important outcome is that everybody can have it on their phone and then share that and then sharing it within hubs. So we’re seeing organizations, groups of farmers, farmer groups, and hubs signing up and then being able to share that with each other, I think is, is so powerful because we’re all learning and it is a journey.
And part of it is being willing to be transparent and authentic about some of these aspects and go, hey, you know what? This is not working as well as I thought it was. What do you guys think? What do you think’s going on? And, you know, having that hive mind to, to troubleshoot I think is so powerful.
Abby: My early days of learning happened through hubs like that. And I think that they are the most powerful tool. I think they’re more powerful than, you know, going to university or anything like that is actually being able to work through ideas and what people are seeing and do that as a collective. And then it stops, especially if you’re by yourself, you know, you’re trialling all these different things and another season’s past, and another season’s past. Whereas if you can collectively trial and work through things, we’re going to speed up that transition to incredibly healthy, vibrant ecosystems, which I believe we all want, it is our life support.
Abby: Agreed. Okay. Great. Is there anything else that you would like to share or communicate to the Farmerama community or anything we’ve missed?
Nicole: I wonder if we just share a little bit about, like, data is theirs, I think is important.
Like what, what, what happened with all that material and how it, you know, it’s becoming one of the most valuable commodities and actually it’s theirs, it’s not somebody else’s.
Abby: So that’s a core, a fundamental belief at Vidacycle. And I think at integrity soils als . You know, any information that’s collected about your farm or that you collect on your farm is your information and your data and you own it. And that, you know, we’re not here to, we’re here to support you in learning from your data.
We’re not here to use your data for other means. Um, and that’s always been really clear and we have a data policy, um, which you can easily read online. Um, Yeah.
One of the things that I know when we first met Nicole, well, I shared with you the feminine business principles at the time. And you encouraged me to, to move them forward. And they’re now the regenerative business principles, that we operate from at Vidacycle, and I think that, you know, it’s like, all this data is great, but also, and, and, you know, moving soil health forward is super important, but actually reflecting that in the business and, and what we’re committed to as people, talking about mindset shifts, that’s also a really important piece of the puzzle.
So to me, like the data policy is super important alongside how we operate, and that we build regenerative into everything that we do.
Nicole: And that’s what attracted us to you, is we want to see like-minded businesses that really do see how do we regenerate businesses? How do we regenerate farm businesses? And that doesn’t happen through an extraction model. That’s not happening by trying to pull the wool over farmers’ eyes, you know, and I could see that, that you guys had a really similar ethic to where we were coming from. So it felt like a very good, exciting, natural fit.
Abby: I’m very proud that we have created the Soilmentor Regen Platform, we are already supporting about 100 farmers on a regenerative transition program in Southern Europe, we work with groups in Australia, some key brands in the UK as well as working with committed individual farmers – really the main aim is to support producers to go out and to use their in-field observations as their compass. If you want to hear more about this work then it’s best to head to our website soils.vidacycle.com and get in touch there.
Jo: Now we’re going to speak to a farmer and whisky producer who work hand in hand to produce whisky in tune with the land, inspired by an approach more often associated with winemaking.
The Bruichladdich distillery was originally founded in 1881 but after closing was resurrected in 2001 by co-founders who were keen to explore the idea of terroir they were so familiar with in their previous line of work making wine. The distillery focuses on provenance, traceability, sustainability and transparency.
First, the Farmer. Richard works in Wiltshire. He grew up on farms but only became a farmer himself in the early 1990s where he says he ‘saw the soil deteriorate before his eyes’, which spurred him to grow Organically and Biodynamically. His barley has been used to produce Bruichladdich’s first ever biodynamic whisky, launched at the end of 2021.
Richard: I love the connection, the direct connection between us, you know, our love for the soil and the plants that grow in the soil and the organisms that are there, and then the quality that, that then passes on to the products and the grains then that, uh, is appreciated by Bruichladdich because they’re, um, you know, taking it directly from the farmer and there’s that connection.
And I love that story, you know? We can talk about what we’re doing in our fields and they’re receiving on the other end. And they’re seeing how that, uh, develops, um, uh, in flavour and taste, but also in the yield of the whiskey at the end, which is often been talked about by the head distiller there. So I just love that constant connection, which I think is, uh, rare these days in farming.
But I hope with the changing in how farming’s being supported, I hope those sorts of connections are going to develop more and more. In about 2009, I guess, we were approached to, to grow Biodynamic barley. We were working Biodynamically at the time, but we weren’t growing barley. We had grown multi-barley before conventionally. And we were asked. Could we grow Biodynamic barley for Bruichladdich, and I said, yeah, we’d love to. We’d come across biodynamic wines and were interested to see whether those sort of, reasons that people were buying and growing Boidynamic wines could be transferred to, to whiskey, so that’s why we got involved. Uh, and we’re very excited to be involved since then. So our first crop was grown in 2010, and the first whiskey was distilled in 2011.
I mean, it’s so exciting. And it all came together around the cop 26, which is probably in everyone’s distant memory now, but, it was lovely that the first whiskey that was bottled after 10 years of, uh, a working relation. You know, came out around this, uh, hiatus of, uh, talking about global carbon. So it was lovely that we could produce something with a real depth not only a flavour, but also of responsibility to farm soil and planet and and have all the evidence that was needed to back that up and go with it.
Jo: Christy MacFarlane’s been with Bruichladdich for the last 6 years, and in Whiskey for a lot longer. She speaks about the important connection between whisky and farming, and about some of work Bruichladdich has been doing with a type of barley called ‘bere’, grown in Orkney. Bere is a landrace -which means that it has become adapted over many years to the climate, soil and landscape of the place where it’s grown. In this case, that’s the Western and Northern Scottish Islands. There’s evidence that Bere has been grown in Scotland going back all the way to the 8th century, and Bruichladdich have been collaborating with the University of the Highlands and Islands to distil a modern whisky from this ancient grain.
Christy: It’s really important to us to have a direct connection with our farming partners and to kind of share in the risk and help to create viable business systems. So making sure that they’ve got a market for their crop. Um, Bere barley that we’ve, we’ve grown on Islay, uh, for a couple of seasons started in 2005, and then eventually was taken up to Orkney. So in partnership with the university of the Highlands and islands agronomy Institute in Orkney, we’ve Really Bere’s the only landrace that we work with, but it’s all come from a curiosity of flavour and a pursuit of flavour and just finding diversity and nuance in Whiskey production. So. Yeah, we’ve, we’ve been working for a while with the team up there. Bere is a really fascinating grain, it’s a six-role grain instead of a two-roll grain. And it just has amazing flavour qualities for us, so you get really unctuous, creamy texture in the whiskey, and there’s some benefits to farmers as well. Like it thrives in nutrient poor soil conditions, and it has a very long straw, which is of benefit to farmers using it for, for cattle bedding and the like.
It also thrives in a kind of short growing season. So up in the Northern latitudes of Orkney, it works really well for their like long, light summers, so yeah, fascinating grain and just a small part of a really kind of interesting and infinite Barlage journey that Bruichladdich’s been on for kind of two decades now.
We’ve come quite, um, quite a far journey or a long journey so far. For us it’s just about connection, it’s about supporting the entire supply chain and the entire ecosystem. So as we move forward as a planet that needs to be more sustainable, it’s about making sure that everybody is supported and that the right kind of business decisions are being made across the whole chain, whether that’s from barley growing to malting, to distilling, and then the products that we put in front of people.
So Biodynamic is a massive step forward for us, and a Whiskey for the future. Not only is it delicious and not only are we connected directly with the farmer, but as Richard said, it’s carbon sequestering, it’s from a farm that sequesters 10 times more carbon than it emits, so it’s those sorts of connections that we need to really master and that all businesses need to look a little bit further at what they’re doing and do more for all the communities that they work with.
Richard: I didn’t use to drink whiskey actually. Um, and now, yeah, I definitely enjoy, I had a drink last night, actually. I would describe it as, uh, a velvety and, uh, and it’s that sort of smoothness that I like that I probably didn’t see in other whiskeys, in the past. And velvety is, is also a word that’s been used to describe our crops as well and how they grow. So it’s a lovely connection in that way.
Jo: 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.