The regenerative farmer's dilemma: the need to invest for the long term while addressing short-term financial challenges.
Regenerative agriculture is about nurturing healthy soil. Eaters need to understand why that is so important.
Just as the organic food movement before it, the regenerative food movement is being co-opted by Big Ag. Phyllis and Joseph explain why that is a challenge for them.
The public needs to be better educated about the critical role pasture-fed animals play in addressing climate change and in building healthy soil.
A conversation with Tim Joseph of Maple Hill Creamery
and Phyllis Van Amburgh of Dharma Lea Dairy Farm
Contributor: Susan Arterian Chang
About Maple Hill
Maple Hill began as Stone Creek Farm in 2003 with the purchase by Tim and Laura Joseph of a 250-acre dairy farm in Little Falls, New York. Farming novices, they began as conventional farmers with 65 cows. Over the course of the following four years they fully transitioned to grass-fed organic.
After experimenting with yogurt and cheese making at home and through a small retailer in their community, they established Maple Hill in 2009 and began selling at farmer’s markets in Manhattan. Struggling for survival in the early years of the recession, they were joined by family members who lent a hand with yogurt making and finances.
In 2010 they began sourcing from two other dairy farmers—Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh of Dharma Lea and the Kings of Hidden Camp Farm— and expanded their distribution network throughout the Northeast.
In 2012 the Josephs sold their Little Falls farm and began to concentrate on building the Maple Hill brand, purchasing a dairy production facility in Stuyvesant, NY. By 2013 they were selling in all 50 states and in 2014 were awarded Pennsylvania Certified Organics (PCO) certification as the first third-party,100 percent grass-fed dairy brand in the country. Today Maple Hill sources from over 150 independent grass-fed small dairy farms in New York State, and has expanded its product line to drinkable yogurt, Greek yogurt, and, in partnership with Grafton Village Cheese, sells raw milk cheeses.
About Dharma Lea Farm
Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh purchased their 70-cow conventional dairy farm in Sharon Springs, New York, in 2007, and began almost immediately to transition to grass-fed practices. They crossbred a herd of milking cows aiming for optimum grass-fed performance. Among their herd is their own breed of cow, named “Ohonte,” the Mohawk word for “grass.”
Today the Dharma Lea Farm hosts a Savory hub where, along with Maple Hill Creamery personnel, the Van Amburgh’s share the art and science of holistic management with dairy farmers in their region. The Van Amburgh’s first year on their Sharon Springs farm was the subject of the documentary film “First Season.”
Transitioning to regenerative agricultural practices requires a long-term horizon while farmers must meet their family's everyday needs while operating their business under the constraints of a short-term-focused financial and economic system.
The essence of the problem is that we all have mortgages or rent and kids to pay for in the short-term while at the same time we have a desire to address improving things over the long term. And the return on those activities or investments of time and energy related to improving things over the long term happens out of sync with the very often short-term economics of the current system.
Consequently, the cost of making those investments very often comes out of human comfort or lifestyle. You have to make massive sacrifices that not everyone can make. You are not sure you are making the right ones and if the payoff will come. That is an overarching issue and if that is not acknowledged in a big way it can often lead to confusion or dismay.
People may be asking, why don’t things move faster, why don’t conventional farmers make the improvements we know they should be making? We have to acknowledge that they are in a high-risk business, there is a lot of capital involved and farmers, particularly dairy farmers, are on the more risk averse end relatively speaking. So making big moves different from what everyone else is doing in our sector is sort of a tough thing to do.
Phyllis notes that it is especially difficult to make the shift to regenerative agriculture when society at large does not yet have the collective will to do so.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
Dairy farming is the starkest example; it has the farthest to go among farming sectors in transitioning from chemical to regenerative practices. It is a bit like saying we can suddenly do away with western medicine and go to herbal or homeopathic and we want that to happen today.
First of all, there is zero infrastructure for people to cope with if we do away with our current system. You are asking people to throw away everything you are doing including their intertwining with all the resources that for the last 100 years have been poured into creating lots of milk on fewer farms in a certain way, so we can put that milk into the market.
This has meant that those farms that don’t lend themselves well to “biggering,” either because of topography, or other infrastructure or situational factors, get gobbled up by their neighbor to become part of a more “efficient” larger farm. Now we are saying, we see all these unintended consequences so everyone has to stop factory farming and go regenerative. Well people just can’t do that all of a sudden. It takes a long time for the entire culture and economic mindset infrastructure to make that swing.
Everyone, including consumers, supermarkets, processors, and marketers, will have to make shifts in their own context and a whole lot has to change. But we have not collectively decided that is what we want to do. There will be people who will balk and say we should hold on to the old way and a lot of their points will be valid.
Going back to the health care analogy, you go to the hospital and it is all based on surgery and pharmaceuticals now. What do we do with all of that? What about the good things that come with the old system, do we discard them? There are huge challenges in that makeover. You will have patients that want to make the switch and practitioners that do. If everyone suddenly decided to switch and alternative medicine could be taught immediately that would be great but it doesn’t happen that way, it happens in little bits. You could become an expert healer but if no one knocks on your door, if the resources don’t flow your way, you have thrown away a whole career.
Tim notes there are nonetheless reasons to be hopeful as a new generation with a different set of values enters the system.
On the optimistic front what has not been fully recognized is these generations coming up have a whole different value set than prior generations in terms of choices around money. I have heard so many people say their daughter doesn’t have money for a newspaper but will buy Maple Hill milk at $5.99 a half gallon. They care about the story, how it got there, and will put their money to it in amazing ways. That is not fully baked into the system yet but it is coming. It is what is driving Maple Hill and the organic movement. People who have a completely different set of values.
Tim and Phyllis are on a mission to move the bell curve of regenerative practice in the dairy industry in the right direction.
As we talk about our milk supply, we know right now that there are people doing an incredible job, they are fully regenerative uber farmers, and then there are folks who are not. It is a bell curve. We will never make everyone the ultimate farmer but our job is to move that curve in the right direction. That is happening too with consumers, but it is slow process.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
The plus side of all of our farms being in New York State is we are developing a nice network and can reach out to all of our farms and keep coaxing everyone in the best direction. We hold a lot of meetings and it is a culture. We are all here together.
Maple Hill is the guinea pig for this regenerative dairy movement. It is cutting the path forward. We have this culture and infrastructure pushing in an entirely different direction. So everywhere we turn as a producer and marketer we are trying to not only do things differently but without the resources and against the tide that is pushing the other way.
The fact is most people really don’t understand food systems or production so their ability to choose is easily thwarted. And grass fed, with its basically voluntary labeling, is always vulnerable in that regard.
The light at the end of tunnel is that for us there are more and more consumers interested and willing and able to buy certified organic grass-fed milk products. But while it is happening it is a brutal difficult business interconnected with the rest of dairy for good and bad.
Tim and Phyllis maintain that for the transition to regenerative agriculture to fully take hold, market demand not only has to expand a lot but the general population has to really recognize and understand that one of the primary goals of regenerative agricultural practice is the building of a health soil—and why that matters.
Regenerative should be about the living soil, organic matter. We do a huge disservice if all we say is it is about putting carbon back in the soil. It has to be living organic matter and that requires living plants growing on the surface and the whole microbiology below the surface.
Phyllis is concerned that the resources from the early days of the regenerative agriculture transition won’t make their way back to the care of soil and ecosystems. That instead they will be coopted into a system that is not regenerative in its essence.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
One of the top challenges to the growth of organic and grass fed is to maintain integrity and build it as we go forward. It is a concern I have as a producer. All along the way with the growth of organic and grass-fed practices the system is quickly absorbing the premium prices that were meant to come back to increase resources into the practices.
In the beginning, much of the money for certified organic products went to the producers, many of who were their own marketers. But as the popularity for organic food grew, the industry of organic food emerged, including processors and marketers, investment, etc. As the industry grew, it was they who reaped the benefits of growth and profit, while at the same time, in order to maintain a margin within the industry, the price paid to the producer edged back to the cost of production.
When prices to the producers are cut, they are forced to cut too, and soil amendments and infrastructure improvements get cut. I don’t see regenerative practice as being any different. The question is how do we protect the system against co-opting? We can’t rely on market forces to address this problem, because stealing resources is sort of baked into our current economic system. It’s going to have to happen as a direct payment to the producer.
Phyllis reports on a novel approach to ensuring that the farmer continues to get his fair share of the revenue pie as a regenerative producer.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
A friend of mine in Sweden administered a program whereby consumers can choose to pay an additional amount, I think it is about $0.60 per liter on marked bottles of milk, with that premium going directly to the farmers that produced it. Most people choose the bottles marked with the premium. I think our coupon system may be an avenue, perhaps using that program in reverse, so that consumers could buy regenerative products, and the price differential above non-verified regenerative comparable products would be credited directly to the farmers. Our governments and municipalities need to step up to the plate and bring public awareness of our current tragedies in nutrition and ecosystems into the forefront of the conversations.
The whole reason for the regenerative food system is to enhance soil and the ecosystem, and thereby improve everyone’s overall quality of life. Soils and ecosystems need resources and attention and they are the things that are being shorted in all of our eagerness to be sure the entire system works financially. We call this efficient, but the fact is that not giving our producers the tools they need is resulting in the ecological costs get pushed to the side. To deal with the compounding effects of those costs later on is extremely inefficient.
Phyllis says consumers need to understand what it takes to deliver regenerative produce to their tables—including all the external costs that conventional produce casts off onto society at large—and to be willing to pay for that value.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
Yes as food producers we always have to compete with one another to feed the world. Yes we need to be efficient in order to provide. But we as consumers are always trying to make our entire lives more affordable—and as part of that to get food cheaper. The problem goes back to WW2 when we started to use nitrogen fertilizers to improve production. In the short term we did boost production because nitrogen accelerates growth from banked carbon in the soil. Right away those that used the nitrogen fertilizer, which was cheap, got a huge boost in production and made money. But then soil quality diminished and the next way to produce more for less came along.
Now fuel is cheap and we can put more cows in place, and produce monocrops that are easy to store and handle. But there are unintended consequences that are pushed off and we don’t worry about the carbon coming out of the soil and we only keep the cows for a couple of years.
Then we bring organic production in and there is increased demand for it so then it has to compete with conventional products so those farms have to get bigger and on and on and on. And once again the squeezing goes back to the farmers where we ask them to be regenerative but then they have to compete with everything else. What we need to say is: it costs this much to farm regeneratively and you will pay that price so we have the ability to replenish the resources we need to continue to farm that way.
Phyllis maintains that we also need better stories to communicate the soil enhancing value of regenerative farming and how healthy soil translates into health for all living communities.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
Making the connection between living soil and how it touches everyone’s lives—the microclimate, the nutrient content of the food, the vitality of the people who eat it— those three things are not well understood. Yes, even local microclimates have everything to do with how soil is treated in a region, you don’t even have to go to the broader issue of climate change.
But the original goal of organic was to put organic matter into the soil. And to increase the organic matter we found out meant there was no need for herbicides and pesticides because of the high function of the soil. But now people are saying we don’t need soil we can do hydroponic farming. How do we keep the priority being to replenish the soil? How do we make sure it happens across the board and is the end result of our agricultural practices?
The story also has to about educating people about the critical role of pasture-fed animals in a regenerative agriculture system.
I think in general there are people starting to talk about soil and the impact of soil on food nutrition and that is certainly of value. But equally of value is turning the tide on this idea that animals within agriculture are a negative and the path to improvement is through a vegan diet, which couldn’t be further from the truth. In terms of environmental degradation vegan diets will only accelerate that degradation. If you don’t have animals in a system you can't regenerate soil. Right now things are headed the wrong way with the growth of the vegan movement.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
There is a natural inclination to go back to a natural system and people are trying to back out of our human chemical interference. In a weird twist of fate the vegan consumer shares that desire with the regenerative producer. But they are different stories of the same desire to go to a place of live and let live and let things prosper and recognizing the unintended consequences in animal suffering.
Tim says regenerative holistic land management agriculture tends to be disadvantaged in an extract, high-return-focused financial system.
In an economy based on lending and the expansion of debt a vegan, all vegetarian diet for the masses is lucrative. There are a lot of dollars there; lots of technology and energy and big infrastructure in all these alternative vegan foods. They are highly processed and there is a huge industry like hydroponics—where venture capital money flows and can earn returns.
Regenerative agriculture on the other hand is disadvantaged as an attractive vehicle for venture capital investment. There are all kinds of efficiencies in regenerative production on the one hand, that don’t churn dollars, and bigger costs that can’t be recouped on the other end. It also costs a lot to aggregate and process regenerative products because they are sparse right now, but we can’t get that money back from the price we can charge on the shelf.
Another way to see it is that regenerative agriculture just requires that someone take responsibility for a chunk of land. So as individual producers of food, regenerative farmers are not really very attractive to venture capital whereas if we say we are going to build a giant plant and create a highly processed food and put it out in to the world you can do a lot with those resources.
Tim explains why he believes the independent producer model is superior to the producer cooperative model
We are a private business not a coop. Our farmers are all independent producers and we contract with them to purchase their milk. I think it is a better arrangement than coops. Coops because of their structure cannot usually make the decisions they need to make in their members micro self-interest. They are often bad, uncomfortable decisions together that are not always the best in reality for the business in the long run.
Eventually many big coops fall into a heap based on a legacy of bad decisions and debts. Coops can end up being a very patronizing entity to deal with ironically, whereas we have to have a business relationship based on some level of mutual respect and everyone doing what they need to do. It is a healthier partnership. You can have a beautiful coop governance structure but if you don’t have the right people you will end up with the same thing as a regular business. A lot of our farms came to Maple Hill because we are not a coop.
Tim and Phyllis explains why Maple Hill decided to distribute nationally.
When we started there wasn’t enough “there there” to be a regional brand so we had to push out nationally. The grocery industry is hyper competitive. We are competing with large companies competing against conventional and organic products spending gobs of money to promote products to stay on the shelf. We ship all over the country.
Re going national, I had to pick my battles. If we didn’t do that we would not be having this conversation. It was a pretty long journey to get from a local, regional brand to a national brand that is profitable and sustainable. But there was no middle ground, we couldn’t be in the middle.
PHYLLIS VAN AMBURGH:
Ten years ago when we got started regional distribution was not viable. The market is much bigger now and now a regional brand might be viable. I think there is a lot of expertise that not very many people have that would allow you to be just the right size and target local or regional. I think, given the expansion of the market, Tim could do it easily [if he were starting out now].
Tim maintains that having a seat at the Farm Bill table would not necessarily be helpful to the regenerative agriculture movement.
My take on the Farm Bill is the day regenerative starts to have a seat at that table that is the day we go down the tubes. The only way industrial agriculture stays right side up is through the distortions created by the Farm Bill. If we go that way with regenerative it will bring the same distortions to what we are trying to do. How do we stay pure then? Just keep doing what we are doing.