Innovative Enterprise: ‘Greening’ Agriculture and Boosting Farmers’ Livelihoods

At the 2018 National Bioneers Conference, visionary leaders of cutting-edge, mission-driven enterprises working in the U.S. and globally shared their strategies for succeeding at spreading ecologically sound agricultural practices while boosting farming families’ incomes and wellbeing. 

The panel was moderated by Erin Axelrod, a worker-owner at LIFT Economy. The panelists were Alex Eaton, co-founder of Sistema Biobolsa; Theresa Marquez, Mission Ambassador at Organic Valley; Kyle Garner, CEO of Organic India USA; and Ken Lee, co-founder and co-owner of Lotus Foods. The following is an excerpt from the panel edited for clarity and brevity.

ERIN: I’m honored to be facilitating this conversation around right livelihoods and farmers, because at LIFT Economy, we take a lot of inspiration from the farmers that grow our food in ways that regenerate the ecosystems within which we abide.

I’m excited to introduce you to four leaders speaking on behalf of companies that are representing a different, transformative model of how we can decentralize power and give more voice to the producers who are really where all wealth is stemming from.

First, we’ll hear from Theresa Marquez with Organic Valley.

THERESA: During the 1980s, there was the biggest farm crisis our country has seen. At its peak, there were 2,000 farmers a week going out of business. Since 1960, we’ve lost over four million family farmers. You know what they’re being replaced with, don’t you? The CAFO—confinement and feedlot operations—that are the most horrendous example of agriculture. Everything about them is not good for animals and the planet.

Organic Valley is a $1.2 billion company with 2,300 farmers. One of the pillars our business rests on is pioneering for good. We take it seriously. We very much want to have missions completely embedded in all the other things that we do.

We also have to live in the world of standards. If you know farming, farmers hate standards. But in the case of the 1980s crisis, organic farmers demanded regulations, and we ended up with the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. I’m proud of it, but it’s not enough. The USDA is not accepting additional standards we’ve proposed. We wanted to have some really robust animal welfare standards, and the big poultry industry stopped it with the USDA. 

We’ve got to take things into our own hands now.

In response to the USDA’s actions, we started the Organic Plus Trust, and we are now pushing through two new standards. We have to have a standard on what 100% grass is, because there’s a lot of mislabeling out there. We also need a very robust animal welfare standard.

Grass is the solution. We have been studying our grass milk for the last five years. Milk from 100% grass-fed animals has a 147% increase in omega 3s. Grass is magical. It makes food super healthy, and it’s great for animals. You can sink carbon with it. That’s what we have to stand for if we want to make agriculture greened up.

I’m very proud of our solar project in Wisconsin. Our headquarters is going to be 100% renewable by the end of 2019. It’s doable, and it’s something that we all have to do now. We don’t really need fossil fuels.

If you’re going to be a responsible company, you have to give and you have to share. After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, we started funding disaster relief. We started this partnership where we give perishable products to the Food Bank and also send it to numerous disasters all over the United States. 

Alex Eaton (Sistema Biobolsa), Theresa Marquez (Organic Valley), Ken Lee (Lotus Foods) and Kyle Garner (Organic India USA)

ERIN: Thank you so much for that, Theresa. Now I want to bring Kyle Garner up from Organic India. 

KYLE: In five minutes, I’m going to try to do a bit of a 20-year history of how Organic India has worked to green and regenerate agriculture and support small family farmers. But I quickly want to take you on a history lesson going back about 40 years, when the green revolution really started to expand around the world. In India, we were convincing these farmers that had really nothing else in their lives other than a small plot of land and try to teach them that the way they had been farming on that land for hundreds of years, or in some cases thousands of years within their family, wasn’t right anymore, and to do things right, you had to follow this Western model and go big in scale. 

As with a lot of these innovations, things look pretty good in the first couple of years, and no one saw this devastating end that was coming.

What happened, not surprisingly, instead of creating this ability to scale agriculture in India, we created a cycle of poverty for these farmers. Previously, they had everything that they needed on their farm, and suddenly they were having to buy seeds and fertilizer, and hire labor. That’s fine if everything is working, but when you have a crop failure, you still owe that money.

In the last 20 years, 300,000 farmers, that’s 40 a day, have killed themselves, largely driven by the cycle of poverty because they just couldn’t handle the loss of pride that they felt.

About 20 years ago, the founders of our company had this idea that there was a better way to not only support these farmers, but do something that was less harmful to the Earth as well. The idea was to teach these farmers to go back to their traditional way of farming in India—Vedic agriculture. It’s very similar to the organic practices we see in the US. Additionally, we wanted to give them a global marketplace to sell the goods. That’s the combination that has to work, because it’s one thing to say, “Grow these crops without pesticides,” but if you’ve got no place to sell them, what’s the point? The magic of this model is we open up to markets like this in the US, where people are willing to pay a premium for organic goods and products that can help them deal with health conditions they’re having. That money can then flow back to these farmers that could maybe sell those same crops locally for pennies on the dollar.

We started the company with the idea of working with these most vulnerable populations. These were farmers that not only didn’t have a lot to begin with, but they were taken advantage of by big companies coming in and trying to change their practices.

We also had a big focus on empowering women from the beginning. Most of those 300,000 farmers who have killed themselves in India are men. That was traditionally the model. If you’re familiar with Indian culture, being a widow in Indian culture is not a great thing. You get ostracized from your community a lot of times. We tried to flip that model on its head and work with those widows to keep their family farm alive. We could have easily bought thousands of acres to grow these crops, but instead we found 2,500 small family farmers. Now we’ve had a lot of these widows who are running a farm for their family to provide the income that they need and to improve the health of the land.

We got them clean seeds and taught them what they probably knew from thousands of years before—how to farm in an ecosystem that had everything that they needed on the land. Paying for them to do organic certification is a big part of the model because it costs a lot of money to get organic certified. Since we sell in the US, everything has to be USDA certified organic.

One thing we’ve done that could be reapplied is embedding people into the villages. We learned that there was a value for them if we added more processing in the village. We’re adding more of the value-add in the supply chain in the local villages, giving them more of a chance to earn income, not just as a farmer, but also maybe a family member could work in a processing facility, or someone can work in transportation getting the herbs into our factory. We do all that work in India. We’re finding ways to push more of the value chain closer to where the farmers are.

We’ve built this sense of community in regions throughout India. We started with five farmers about 20 years ago, now we’ve got about 2,500 farmers. Because these farmers have learned to grow their yields, we’ve been able to build a business from that over time.

ERIN: I want to transition now to a long-time Bioneers supporter, Ken Lee.

KEN: Lotus Foods has been around for about 24 years. We’ve chosen the tagline “Rice is Life” for a big reason. We took a market research trip a long time ago through China, and we discovered really cool varieties of rice. The biodiversity of rice is extensive around the world, but a lot of that stock was going into seedbanks, so we thought we would do something to preserve the biodiversity of rice.

Back in 1995, we started to work with what we call pigmented rice. That was something relatively unknown—black rice and red rice.Tremendous varieties of rice were still not being sold widely. We thought this would be a good point of differentiation for us as a very small company.

Fast forward to 2008, Cornell University had been working with small-holder farmers, introducing them to a new way of growing rice called the system of rice intensification or SRI. That was a lightbulb moment for us when we heard farmers could grow more with less without using any chemical fertilization or special seeds. We marketed this new way of growing rice as more crop per drop.

More than half the world’s population gets more than half of its caloric intake from rice, yet rice is not really traded that much around the world. About 7% of all rice crosses any borders. Mainly it’s eaten within 10 miles of where it’s grown.

It’s common practice to grow rice in flooded fields, but rice is actually not an aquatic plant. It doesn’t need to grow under water. Growing rice under water is the number three man-made cause of methane emissions on the planet, behind cows in fields and fossil fuel extraction. Upwards of 15, some say 20% of man-made methane comes from flooded rice fields.

Additionally, one-third of Earth’s potable water is used to grow rice in flooded fields. That’s where SRI comes in as a solution. Using SRI, rice doesn’t need to be under water all the time. If you actually put rice in an aerobic environment, it can thrive.

We decided that Lotus Foods would move into the future introducing SRI growing methods, more crop per drop, into our various supply chains.

When you produce more rice using less water, less seed, no chemicals, it lowers the cost and increases the yield to the degree that farmers on their small plots of land don’t need to plant rice exclusively. They can plant some added-value vegetables, which they can use to supplement their own diets, or take to the market to sell.

Research has suggested deploying this method of growing rice can reduce 3.13 gigatons of CO2 or the carbon equivalent, and yield $678 billion in net savings at no cost to the farmers.

ERIN: Thank you so much, Ken. Now we will hear from Alex Eaton of Sistema Biobolsa.

ALEX: 80% of the food we consume today is being grown by small farmers. That’s important because small farmers can live very different across the world. Here in the US a small farmer has a different dimension, level of technification, economic status than a small farmer in Mexico or a small farmer in India. What unifies all these small farmers is that they’re locally based, their farms are in the same place that they work, they’re generally family farms, and they’re generally these sort of keystone components of these rural communities, which are suffering from a lot of abandonment, migration both to other countries and to the city.

We started with this love for small farmers, and then identified what we think is kind of an oversimplified but important problem: People aren’t developing technologies or effective outreach capacities for poor farmers. Also, as Kyle mentioned, ethically questionable debt-collection processes were driving people to suicide. That’s really how grave that became.

What we really see is this massive opportunity. There are estimates of between 400 and 500 million small farms worldwide, and 200 million of these, representing about a billion people are earning less than $2 a day. That is extreme poverty by every definition. We have this horrible irony where the people who are really growing the majority of our food don’t have enough food to eat and are the poorest people on Earth. If you’re growing our food you shouldn’t be hungry.

Another important point to address is agriculture accounts for more than a fifth of all of the greenhouse gases on Earth. That figure doesn’t even include a lot of the household energy consumption for a lot of these farmers. A lot of the greenhouse gas production is methane. If we can reduce methane production in a short amount of time, we can make disproportionate gains, because it impacts global warming by about 25 times that of CO2.

What we’re working on—treating waste, providing renewable energy, and providing organic local agricultural inputs—can really take a big chunk of those greenhouse gases out of the system.

Farmers say climate change is a big challenge, but mostly because weather patterns are changing their traditional calendars tracking agricultural cycles. It’s hard for them, though, to structurally think about reducing greenhouse gases as one of their prime motivators, and they really shouldn’t. They’re not responsible for the accumulation of greenhouse gases, but they could be potentially one of the greatest allies. It’s hard to make poor farmers make an investment to make up for these collective emissions, but I think they will become allies.

What we’re trying to do is solve some of their really important waste, energy, and fertilizer input challenges. There are still organizations beating the failed green revolution drum that are recognized as very innovative that still say, “You can just sprinkle a little chemical on it, and all of the poor farmers’ problems go away.”

80% of Mexico’s arable land is sterile. It’s really just a dead piece of dirt where you can put seeds and water and chemicals together and they will grow something that looks like food. In Mexico, one of our promoters asked people, “Who has their natural teeth?” Everyone over 60 had their natural teeth, but if you were between the ages of 35 and 60, you didn’t. It turns out that what happened is that the chemicals used on corn and beans were interfering with the production of calcium. So it was this really weird linkage that you can make by this disconnection of soil, food, and agriculture.

A bucket of waste a day can produce about 1,000 liters of biogas. Those thousand liters of biogas are equivalent to a couple kilos of wood fuel, or about a half a kilo of LP gas. Over the course of a year, that is enough organic fertilizer to fertilize five hectares approximately, so just over 10 acres. Then that scales up from there, up to about two tons of organic waste a day, which can produce a ton of biogas, which can produce renewable electricity.

We’ve really moved into these cool, mechanical energy things, really tinkering with water pumps and grain grinders and forage grinders. We’re really exploring compressed natural gas for helping people get their equipment or their products to market.

I’m most excited about bio-fertilizer and how it can support some of the work that farmers are doing. We’ve been doing a lot of work with rice fields, dairy, organic herbs, all of these things we’re really thinking a lot about. We’re trying to be a platform for other organizations.

Small and organic farmers are hyper local. Small farmers are really incredulous in a lot of ways. You really have to build up local credentials extremely fast. They really only want to listen to other farmers, so they need to hear about our work from people that they respect and work with. We try to be a tool as much as possible for farming organizations that have built that credibility.

ERIN: How do these models replicate in other regions?

ALEX: I think the challenge with small-scale agriculture that’s being done right in a lot of ways is not copy/paste. What we’ve really tried to do is focus on the outreach and the social component of how we train farmers.

We spent the last year dedicated to building a curriculum-based replication model, so that it does come out of the box for other organizations that are reaching farmers.

We’re trying to understand how to get it into people’s hands that don’t want to cut corners. The biggest challenge is not diluting the impact that we have by replicating too fast. It’s easy to talk about scale, but you don’t want to do it wrong.

KYLE: What’s nice about the approaches that a lot of the people up here are taking is most of the winners are the people that can scale the biggest. Success favors scale.

Regenerative agriculture practices favor the smaller farmer in a lot of ways because the things are maybe not tougher to scale, but when you scale them you lose some of the essence that makes them so powerful. By reapplying the education in more places, you can actually create a structure that’s anti-scale that leads to scaling the movement. It’s one of the few things I’ve come across that favors smaller is better. That’s the reason we should be trying to reapply it.

How to do it I think is hard, because it requires education and convincing small farmers to buy in. But I think if we can get enough case studies in enough places, we can actually do it.

KEN: It’s hard to get people to change. SRI started in Madagascar in the ‘80s, but it really wasn’t until the turn of the century that people really started to adopt this way of growing rice, even though it was effective. I think the best way is when there’s an NGO on the ground who has their own test plot in place, and they’re there working with farmers anyway, so they’re befriending them, creating trust, and giving them a testing ground. That way it’s not so risky. They’re not asking them to do it on their land. They get to demonstrate it first.

I think it is a resistance to change, but it’s the way to go. I think it can be scaled up.

People ask me all the time: Are people doing this in the US? It was designed for people with small plots of land who use methods like hand transplantation, but I’m convinced there is a way to set up the machinery, so they could still fly the seeds into the ground and then drain the field, and then go through with their tractors to dig up all the stuff and just plant them in rows. It’s just a matter of time given the issue of water shortages. It’s hard for people with legacy systems in place to change, but they will have to.

THERESA: We started with produce in the Coulee region of Wisconsin, and we didn’t even want to go out of Wisconsin. People came from Minnesota and said they wanted to do what we’re doing, so we showed them our co-op model.

That happened over and over again. People tried to start their own co-ops, but then decided to partner with us since we already had the infrastructure. That’s how we grew. We’re in 36 states, and each state is broken into regions with their own representatives, so we have a representative democracy called the executive committee. They meet with the CEO every month, talk about their issues, have regional meetings and so on. When we make big changes about the pay price or about new standards, we bring this group together. We even have a group of farmers who came to us from the United Kingdom to join our co-op.

As far as trying to figure out how to get more farmers to be organic, which is one of our missions as well in a cooperative model, we have 25 field staff who are not only just going to the executive committee members, they’re also visiting the neighbors who are conventional farmers. They have to learn how to talk to people who might not have very good feelings about organic farmers, and we do have people who are actually good at convincing those farmers of the merits of organic farming.

Most conventional farmers are in dire straits. They look at the sale price of organic products and think, “This is going to save my family,” so they try it and then their organic farming neighbors help them.

Farmer to farmer is a great way to grow the movement. It always is. When they get together, conventional and organic farmers, they’re not that different. You’ve got to have an infrastructure, and that infrastructure can be very expensive to put together. That’s why a cooperative ownership model is social democracy.

ALEX: I just want to quickly plug the work that these three are doing, because we have a really unique challenge in agriculture today—it’s still run by market forces, and besides a lot of commodities, distortion and other things, you really have this kind of cart-and-horse issue around a market being ready for farmers. Because food is perishable in broad strokes, you really have to get that right in terms of timing and demand, so organic food is a win-win. It’s better, it’s healthier, and farmers can make more money doing it. Organic can really compete with other conventional foods.

I think to make organic even more viable, we need new policies and infrastructure to catalyze a shift in consumer choices. We’re trying to be the infrastructure for it, but I don’t know how the financing and other forces come into line, honestly.

ERIN: What are you all doing to shorten the distance between growers and market?

KEN: We’re not working on that. I get the local thing. I support local. But the biodiversity of rice doesn’t exist here. Most rice, as I mentioned before, is grown all through Asia and Africa.

It’s grown in huge quantities. Like I said, more than half the world’s population gets more than half of its calories in consumption of rice. We could bring it closer, but we have to focus on reducing methane emissions put out in flooded rice fields. That needs to be corrected first. We need to do everything we can to avert disaster on the planet. So I’m all for people growing rice in America using SRI, but right now, all of the rice is really grown elsewhere. So that’s what we’re focused on.

KYLE: I agree with Ken. We don’t see an opportunity to grow most of the herbs that we grow just from a climate standpoint in the US now. We’ve kind of taken the opposite approach, which is maybe we can find a way to create a market in India, so we used the evolution of the business in the US as a way to fund the investment in India. We’re opening retail stores in India to sell the products, because there’s not a market, natural foods store, network, or co-op network, or even a Whole Foods. Those things just don’t exist in India. So we’ve had to create that, and that’s kind of how we’ve gotten growers closer to the market. But in our case in the US, it’s more about limiting the impact of getting it here, finding more efficient ways of getting it here, but the opportunity to grow most of those herbs just doesn’t exist in the current climate.

ALEX: I read not that long ago that transportation of food is close to about 7% of the total environmental impact. That was surprising to me because we believe in local for a lot of other reasons, but I think Ken’s point of view is that we need to feed the planet and to think of doing that in the most efficient way.

I think that closer could be in terms of linkages. How those buyers direct and get rid of middle men could be more impactful than just thinking about distance.

KYLE: Yeah, the data I’ve seen is 6-10% is in that same range. By most metrics, it’s way worse to buy from a farm next door that’s tilling up the soil than it is to buy that same crop from India grown organically. The transportation impact is so small in the grand scheme of things. So local is great, but local that’s damaging the planet is worse than sourcing high quality stuff from other parts of the world.

THERESA: We have milk in 36 states, and we try to keep our milk close. For example, we have California farmers right here in Petaluma, and we co-pack with 90 plants. We piggyback onto conventional dairies that are close to our farmers, because it’s liquid, so we have to think a little bit.

That being said, I really have thought a lot about this local too, as well, and I think it’s really important to know where your food comes from and make choices as you go. In my company, we have to keep our product as local as possible, but when I look at other products, I want to support our global village. I think it’s important for us to all know where our food comes from. That’s really important.

KEN: Yeah, it is important to know where our food comes from, but it’s also important to know how it’s grown. A lot of people have this misunderstanding about arsenic and rice. When there’s arsenic in rice, it’s because there’s either some mining operation near the field, or there’s over-industrialization. It’s also in the world we live in in general. It’s in the water and the air we breathe. But it’s the inorganic arsenic for rice, that you want to be concerned about.

The other great thing about SRI practices is you don’t have that water acting as a conduit to suck the arsenic out of the ground into the rice. So that’s an important thing to keep in mind too.

ERIN: Thanks to all the panelists. These questions are broadening our perspective and our vision of how we actually leverage all aspects of our lives to advance sustainable practices.

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