On August 28th and 29th a group of 22 individuals, mostly retailers, but also distributors, growers and other stakeholders in the food value chain gathered at Hawthorne Valley Farm at the invitation of the Institute for Mindful Agriculture (IMA). The intention of the meeting was to continue a conversation that was started during a pre-conference workshop (“From Seed to Grocery Shelf”) at the recent biodynamic conference in Santa Fe. The timing of our meeting happened to coincide with the day that Amazon began operating Whole Food Markets. Clearly a coincidence, nevertheless noteworthy, I suggest.
I have a strong feeling that the next seven years will offer a window of opportunity to enact significant, lasting change in our food system, along the whole food value chain, ahead of the 100-year anniversary of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on agriculture, in June of 2024. The biodynamic impulse represents in many ways the “gold standard” of modern agricultural practices, as far as creating lasting soil fertility, being climate friendly, and in regards to providing food of quality and great taste. To date these effects are mostly felt in a “homeopathic way”.
Currently in the US Biodynamic. agriculture is being practiced on 21,600 certified acres and let’s assume (maybe optimistically) on the same number of non-certified acres. As context two more numbers. Total agricultural acreage in the US: 915,000,000, USDA organic acreage 5,000,000. While this “homeopathic influence” should by no means be underestimated, (as anyone can attest to that has used homeopathic remedies in dealing with illnesses), I would argue that one main goal for the biodynamic movement needs to be to significantly increase the biodynamically cultivated acres. If we really care about the health of our home planet and health in our own lives we need to ponder questions around scaling up of our efforts; and doing it without jeopardizing or losing our principles.
With this in the background and as context we opened the meeting with these leading questions:
• How can we scale up to a biodynamic, regenerative food landscape without losing the authentic integrity of farms and gardens?
• Is it sensible, especially on this continent, to think in terms of bioregions and regional food sheds? Does it make sense to shape them in the context of watersheds? Can we think of a food shed as a geological-geographic-ecological-economic-social reality?
• How do we make sure that our home planet, the Earth, is represented and has a voice as the most important stakeholder in this transformation of our food system?
• What are the new structures of multi-stakeholder-collaboration along the food value chain that will enable us to find solutions that are motivated by achieving success for the Whole?
Using dynamic and interactive social technologies we engaged with each other and the subject matter - traditional presentations, a dialogue walk and table talks, with the goal to allow all the voices to be heard, to build trust among all of us, and to create an environment where innovative ideas could arise. What emerged during these deliberations were three main focal points:
• The need for an authentic and unifying story or narrative or vision
• The importance of the “social soil”, relational equity, capacity building and trust.
• The establishment of measurable, distinct projects that are defined by commitment and accountability.
It seemed to make sense to look at these threads in the following sequence. We all agree that collaboration along the food value chain is essential in order to allow the future to emerge. Non-collaboration presents the weakest link in any attempts of scalability, as the process needs to be inclusive of all parts of the value chain and innovation needs to happen at the scale of the whole system. But such collaboration is not possible without a fertile “social soil” and a social fabric made up of trust and care. This has to be the first step and foundation in order to transform the prevalent atmosphere in the current food system from one of transactional relationships into one of caring, personal relationships. This “fertile and cultivated social soil” can become the “landing strip” for a new and unifying narrative that will inspire and inform the projects leading into the future of the food system.
With this article I will present, what I consider, main drivers of scaling. I consider the conscious creation of bioregional food sheds as one major backbone of this process. I am building on above findings and also continuing the thread that was begun in Santa Fe. I will focus on four main aspects as we move along the food value chain and I will use Hawthorne Valley as a case study to illustrate certain points or questions.
1. Soil comes first
Food, a human right, is dependent on access to a suitable land base. In this sense I consider farmland a common good. In the future I predict that farmers, ecologists, and consumers will together ascertain the best use of the land in a defined food shed, including the appropriate livestock carrying capacity of the landscape. Priority consideration will be given to provide as much food for direct human consumption as is reasonable, in other words grow crops for people wherever possible; all this on soil that’s fertilized and regenerated by compost and manure coming from local and regional land and grass based livestock.
I can imagine that above process of coming to a consensus on the most appropriate land use in a given region will initially at least be quite a challenge; the good news is that it’s quite a bit clearer what accounts for sound farming practices. Regenerating and building soil fertility needs to be the basis of all agronomic actions. Practices like crop diversity and rotations, cover crops, limited tillage, maximum soil coverage, and on farm-generated fertility through the integration of livestock have proven their effectiveness over decades. For illustration purposes I am inserting a picture that shows how these principles express themselves currently at Hawthorne Valley Farm.
In a similar way to the Amish practice of agriculture where the reliance on draft power determines the scale of a farm, in this biodynamic picture one driver of scale would be the production and distribution of compost. Could we imagine community run composting facilities using organic, mostly plant-based inputs from towns and villages that then make this compost available to small local growers? Additionally could a farmer collaborative hire and equip a regional and mobile compost maker that has the task and ability to assist and support farms in their respective composting operations wherever needed? A similar approach could also apply to the work with the biodynamic preparations. Even in this future scenario the principles of plant and animal diversity and integration in order to create a vibrant farmscape and the need for compost only allow for economies of scale up to a certain degree. I will pick up on this point later in section 4.
2. Processing and Distribution
In this part of the food value chain the question of economies of scale arises in a different way. Here areas definitely exist where scale can help in leveraging lower costs and overall efficiencies. I am particularly thinking of the acquiring of ingredients, of packaging, other supplies, central administrative services like accounting, as well as marketing activities. Also much of the infrastructure and equipment needed for clean and efficient processing production is not affordable for small and most mid-sized farm operations, especially in light of new food safety regulations and concerns.
The following diagram attempts to indicate the linkages, as well as organizing and aggregating hubs within the food value chain. It identifies “compost” as one such organizing hub (see prior paragraph) and then identifies “processing centers” as another hub and organizing principle.
The left half of this diagram can be imagined in three ways; as one farm, a grouping of collaborating farms or as a whole food shed. Within each context properly scaled and equipped processing centers can serve to process either aggregate raw product from farms under a unified brand or co-pack product for distinct farms. Both scenarios benefit from the aforementioned efficiencies. As David Montgomery so rightly observes in his recent book, “Growing a Revolution”, in the current system concentration is the problem and dilution is really the solution. Particularly as far as the re-integration of livestock into smaller diversified farms is concerned the path lies in the rebuilding of decentralized infrastructure.
One way to structure these value-adding processing enterprises could be in the form of vertically integrated holding companies, possibly farmer owned. This would allow for the cost effective making of food, either as independent brands or regional brands based on the aggregation of raw ingredients. In this way products could maintain their individual character and integrity and also carry a unique regional flavor.
Finally I would like to share a few thoughts about distribution and retail options. Looking at this part of our food system hopefully in the future diverse options will be available for eaters to purchase fresh and healthy food. CSA’s, direct to consumer distribution and delivery services, farmers markets and independent retailers present buying options as alternatives to national and regional chain stores. Is it also possible to imagine wholesale distribution of the future as a service – connecting producers with markets, and not as an “independent” for profit business?
3. “Social Soil”
As already mentioned earlier any future development is only going to be possible if all involved stakeholders commit to truly collaborating. Now, true and generative collaboration is very difficult unless there exists a fertile “social soil”, a social fabric of quality relationships across the entire value chain made up of mutual trust and care. Without those conditions the deep listening, the ability to sacrifice and compromise that are required in this transformative work will most likely not surface. In my view the creation of such an environment needs to be the first step in order to transform the prevalent atmosphere in the current food system from one of transactional relationships of self-optimizing silos into one of caring, personal relationships and an environment of give and take to benefit the bio-regional well-being of the whole of land, economy and eaters. This “fertile and cultivated social soil” will then become the basis and foundation for the work going forward. Much as in our visible soil, a “humus”, a context, a vessel will form, where the innovative ideas and projects of the future can be seeded and take root.
And just like regular soil, this “social soil” needs conscious, rhythmic and ongoing attention and cultivation.
4. Spirituality and Individuality and Holons
This paragraph might seem irrelevant and out of place to many readers. In my estimation though the following considerations are actually most relevant in the process of evolving the future of agriculture and food. They are related to the biodynamic core principles of the farm organism and the farm individuality. I believe there is an important and significant difference between the two. The term “farm organism” refers back to section 1 and describes the necessary conditions of establishing and/or maintaining the ecological connections (between cropping and livestock and between the cultivated and non-cultivated areas) in order to create a self-sustaining and farm based fertility cycle on our farms.
The term “farm individuality” points to the possibility that those processes and relationships can set the stage for an “earth biographical development” by synergizing the inherent diversity into complexity. Think of the unfolding of a unique human individuality that happens over the course of a biography; on the land through agriculture it is possible to enable a spiritual being to connect with the growing naturalhuman- plant-animal-organism, until it has fully expressed itself, being a living function of its unified intention, identifiable by its unique “skin”.
Expressions like “terroir” and “genus loci” are evidence that such dynamic possibilities exist. Rudolf Steiner (the founder of biodynamic agriculture) points out that agriculture can only through this striving towards individual expression unfold and reach its essential nature; that of supporting the evolving Earth to realize her destiny and providing the foundation for truly health giving and nourishing food. I am suggesting that this “Holon-principle” (A holon [Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos "whole"] is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. The word was coined by Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine) is a condition necessary for future development of our Earth’s surface. In this sense the evolving bioregional food sheds are also “holons” on a larger scale.
To summarize, in my opinion points 1 through 4 are essential elements, if brought together more intentionally by the relevant players of a bioregion could multiply the capacity of scale of biodynamic agriculture: quality of soil, networked procurement, infrastructure, processing and distribution functions, collective capacity for action in high quality relationships across the food value chain and finally, 180 degree shift of perspective from isolated farmers towards highly integrated networks of farmers, producers and eaters co-organizing bio-regional food sheds.
While I consider above points the major drivers of transformation and scaling, I think it’s important to add some further reflections and pose questions that arise for me in considering the tremendous challenge ahead.
How we name things plays a hugely important role in how we see and understand the world. That is also true around food and agriculture. If we want to evolve new ways to connect Earth, humans, and food we might do well to come up with new terms or at least define certain terms. The distinction between commodities and food I draw from Richard Manning’s book, “Against The Grain”:
• Commodities or Food:
Industrial agriculture has at its core, what I consider to be, a incorrect premise or question. How can we feed the world? With this as a starting point we have created a system that in the end is not really feeding people. It has resulted in the production of commodities like corn, soybeans, sugar, wheat, rice and the ultimate goal is the accumulation of wealth. These crops are storable, interchangeable. This allows them to be traded just like regular currency. In contrast the hundreds of plant species that are grown worldwide on diversified farms and gardens mostly still through subsistence and regenerative farming and gardening practices, are what really feed people.
• Food system or Food shed:
Picking up on above distinction I would argue that the current policies driving our food system encourage the production of commodities and the accumulation of wealth. As a result agriculture has become agribusiness and as such a purely and narrow economic activity. In the food sheds of the future, I would posit, the major focus of policies will be the growing of food for people and furthermore tying this food to nutrition and the health and wellbeing of humans and our planet. The term “food shed” was coined by W.P. Hedden in 1929 and described as, “dikes and dams’ guiding the flow of food from the producer to consumer.” Hedden contrasts food sheds with watersheds by noting that “the barriers which deflect raindrops into one river basin rather than into another are natural land elevations, while the barriers which guide and control movements of foodstuffs are more often economic than physical.” A fact that sadly applies possibly even more today than early last century. Permaculturist Arthur Getz re-enlivened the term in his 1991 article “Urban Foodsheds” in “Permaculture Activist", to provide an image that helps people to understand how food systems work and that suggests food comes from a source that must be protected.
• Consumer or conscious Food shed members:
All of us as consumers possess tremendous agency, positive and negative, although we are often unaware of it. To my ear the word consumer implies certain finality; one can almost sense a “deathprocess” in it. It does not communicate any accountability and responsible, generative participation. I suggest that re-naming all of us that reside at the “estuary” of the food shed with the term “food shed members” will help awaken our consciousness to the importance of our active interest in the creation and cultivation of the regional food shed we happen to live in. Today we become members of gyms and health clubs, will we in the future have the insight to join our regional food shed to support health and wellbeing of the Whole?
• Consumers aka food shed members are regulators and arbiters of taste. Informed food shed members can move the commercial dial in the market place very quickly. How can we “brand” soil health and a new narrative around agri-culture to provide the information and inspiration necessary to make the well-informed choices we all deserve and desire?
• What is the proper scale for the aforementioned farm individualities? The more I ponder this question the more I see it needing to happen at larger scales than we traditionally have considered, especially on the North American continent. Keep in mind here that Koberwitz (the agricultural estate, where Rudolf Steiner presented his agricultural lectures) was a quite sizeable farm enterprise of about 18,000 acres, hundreds of head of livestock and over 1000 workers. I wonder if by learning to read landscapes in a new way we will find ways to determine at what scale these “individualities” want to arise, either as cooperatively managed larger farms, or as freely collaborating smaller farms.
• The diversity of products that many farms grow, often determined by the marketing requirements of CSA’s and farmers markets, increases the management complexities and decreases the potential for efficiency. So the following question arises; at what level of diversity are we not gaining any more positive soil fertility effects? Multi-farm CSA’s are addressing this issue - can we also imagine that livestock farms, driven by landscape features, will form collaborations with cropping farms?
• What scale and parameters distinguish artisanal food from commodity products? Are there inherent and different parameters between dairy, bakery, fermented veggies, and meat products?
• Getting back to Hawthorne Valley one last time. How can the marketplace and retailers support this transformation and growth? Currently at the Hawthorne Valley Farm store, which is located on Hawthorne Valley Farm, the sale of Biodynamic. products represents roughly 7% of total sales of close to $6 million. This includes baked goods, dairy products, meats, medicine, health and beauty aids, grocery, produce, and frozen items. The percentages range from 22% for dairy items (Hawthorne Valley raw milk, yogurt, and cheeses) to less than 1% for baked goods. Can we organize a group of committed retailers in a region and set a goal of let’s say 10% of Biodynamic. product sales? Picking up on the main drivers I mentioned, could a multistakeholder group align production with the growing sales?
The picture below, representing the major river basins/watersheds on the North American continent is a beautiful imagination of a future with thriving food sheds. Regional and local food brands will enhance the differing qualities of the landscape and soils, and they will far outnumber national and global brands. Food shed members will contribute to this development through conscious participation, possibly through formal memberships. A modern version of guilds 2.0 will encourage producers and processors to associate freely with the well being of the Whole as the overarching goal.