A Regenerative Future With Jesse Smith

A Regenerative Future With Jesse Smith

Cayla Zelanis

We sat down with our partner and friend, Jesse Smith, Director of Land Stewardship at White Buffalo Land Trust to talk about the essence of the culture of Regenerative Agriculture and how it’s paving a new path leading to a new future. Discussing regenerative systems takes into account all parts of the whole. 

Given the times we’re in, how does the ethos of regenerative stand at the forefront of these collective shifts?

I feel there’s a big shift underway in how our society and humans in general are beginning to understand their role in the world. We are part of nature, and thus, we are part of the evolution of natural systems in which we’re nested. When we speak about regenerative agriculture we speak about it in the context of global principles. These principles are rooted in the care of soil health, water cycles, biodiversity and human systems. We grow food, medicine, fiber, fuel in farmlands, woodlands, ranchlands, grasslands and the outcome of this production should be rooted in the principles of improving ecological health. What I’d like to avoid is restricting the potential of regenerative agriculture, by defining it in terms of what our current understanding is, but instead create a set of indicators by which we can gauge our evolutionary progress. 

Our intention is to engage people in the whole story, and explore all that happens behind the scenes to inspire a sense of community. How do you hope to see customers engage with regenerative agriculture? 

With any transition, it can be gradual or abrupt, and many times this is rooted in the motivations of the stakeholders involved. From my perspective regenerative agriculture should be an invitation to engage, develop and improve together. We should be informed about historical events and the implications they continue to influence, while also inviting individuals, and organizational entities the ability to evolve and better themselves. 

I want customers to engage with us and create customs around products that support living thriving ecosystems. I believe we experience culture through the ceremony of food; the smells, the flavors, the sounds, and the emotions are captured in the songs, the wines, the tapestries, the stories that we will tell for generations. There are so many people around the world who wake up and go to bed every day with nothing but the thought of how to cook, or prepare, or gather, hunt or produce food. That is the focal point for so many, and I envy that because I love food so much (laughs)

We take for granted that we can just say, “wow I’m hungry,” followed by all of the options that we have. “Should we go out? Maybe we should swing by the grocery store,” and then all of the cuisine options; Ethiopian, Japanese, Korean. “Ethnic” cuisine is at our fingertips, but it seems that we lack a sense of culinary culture. I always try to think about how regenerative agriculture has the opportunity to help create culture and a culture of place and respect for place. 

Here in California we have every race under the sun living within ear-shot, but all of those inputs of culture can take root in this actual place with the ingredients that we have here, and it will change and I feel that we have the opportunity to create something that is unique to this time, to this place, with these people. That’s what I’m noticing is happening in these nodes around the world where people and communities and organizations have rallied around this place-based education, development, investment and creativity of growing our food and fiber and producing high-quality organic medicine. 

It makes me hopeful, I think there is a lot to be hopeful for even in the darkest hour. I know there is a lot going on in the world and I’m not blind to that but I think the tipping point we’re reaching is one of recognition... some may say it’s the storm before the rejuvenation. What comes next is new growth and new life and we hope to be part of that pioneering group and generation that truly gets to grow something special.

To someone who has never heard of regenerative agriculture, how might you capture its essence? Can it be defined? 

If you look at the root of “to define”, definir, it’s the end of something, finalIf we’re trying to put an end to the conversation of what regenerative agriculture is then we don’t leave much opportunity for it to evolve over time. It’s a difficult situation to both try to explain to someone what regenerative agriculture can be, in the context in which we live, while also leaving room for the unknown to develop over time. 

I think there’s a lot of value in going back to the etymology of different words that we use because I think one of the most powerful aspects of humanity is our ability to communicate. Understanding the root of what these words mean that we hold in our everyday lives is really important for us to understand when we try to instill action and quality in them. In the past people have struggled to define regenerative agriculture and I think it’s important to understand why we're trying to do that and what it means as a movement and something that is actually living in and of itself. 

I love that you give it [regenerative agriculture] room to evolve, because as humans we are constantly evolving. If we look at nature, we are constantly seeing that change reflected in the cycles of nature. 

Yes. When I talk about regenerative agriculture and what it is, you see that the principles that we hold for it are simple. The most clear concept I can convey about it is: the production of food, fiber, fuel and medicine in a way that increases the health and vitality of our water systems, our soil systems, increases biodiversity and provides security, resiliency and health for our human communities. Those are the four pillars that we hold regenerative agriculture on: soil, water, biodiversity, and then the human element. If you’re always returning to these principles and you’re taking action in service of those principles then I think you’re on the right path to regenerating systems of agriculture. 

This collective pause seems to have allowed everything and everyone to slow down. How does regenerative fit into this narrative of slowing down and returning to the root of things? 

I consider the role I’m playing in this movement and engaging with Coyuchi as being a resource. Someone that can help to connect Coyuchi as an organization to the source of its inspiration and the energy that invites you to do the work that you’re doing. The fact that Coyuchi exists—and holds true to its founding principles today—can be traced back to the essence of the founder who was really inspired by the potential of creating a brand in service of organic agriculture, organic fiber production, healthy organic clothing and textiles that customers are able to surround themselves with for the health of their family and loved ones. 

When we think of regenerative agriculture, both as a movement and in the context of simplicity, it has the ability to reconnect people to the source of why they like food. Food has been abstracted so much to, “Oh I love that smoky, grilled flavor of barbeque,” or “I love that amazing sweet complexity of fruit and of honey.” We’re dissecting molecules to get as close to the feeling of why we like food, instead of celebrating the food and the process it takes to make it to our plate.

People are yearning to take part in some aspect of tending to something beyond themselves that is giving back. How can regenerative agriculture help humans, and all living things, not only survive but to thrive as well? 

In this new trajectory that we’re on to create a new world I think that people are starting to look at food, textiles and regenerative agriculture in how their actions and investments and decisions can truly support a larger system. 

To take action and to make decisions from the perspective of, “how did this serve a larger system in which I’m seeking change?” It’s something that many are starting to consider and I think at its core that’s how Coyuchi has operated in wanting to shape the fiber industry. For us, we want to shift the system of agriculture and agricultural production, so every decision we make comes back to that. 

It’s really heartening for me to see people reaching out and truly wanting to know who the producers are who grow the best meat, dairy, and animal crops, but also a lot of conversations around the benefits of regenerative agriculture as people start to shift their mentality from doing less harm, to doing good in the world. Humans realizing that we can actually create a better world by our mere existence, is a place where I don’t believe many people were operating from in the past. I think regenerative agriculture is just a component of a larger movement toward a regenerative culture and meditation—we really need to change the way we think and the way we consider ourselves as humans. 

A regenerative culture. Can you share more with us about the culture? 

When people try simplifying regenerative agriculture to soil health, or sequestering atmospheric carbon into our soil there is something lost, yes, that’s a part of it and it’s also so much more. We can accomplish those goals with slave labor and highly extractive economic practices, so what else needs to be accounted for when we are regenerating agriculture? You can employ a lot of people working for really poor wages and in really terrible conditions and create a delicious product that does great things for the environment. But are we not paying attention to the social and cultural systems that are in place? So when we’re thinking about regenerative agriculture we must also be thinking about regenerating culture itself. 

Coyuchi in all of its good practices is sourcing really high quality organic textiles from all parts of the world, which is why we’re so excited to have Coyuchi in the conversation with us, as well as other brands, around regenerative domestic cotton. Because here in this country we have a pretty checkered past with cotton production. There’s a reason why cotton is one of the most pesticide riddled crops in America, because when you go and try to make a switch from slave labor to paid labor the cost of production changes slightly. 

The way we made up for this is through mechanization and chemical inputs; when the machines are brought in to plant and harvest, and the chemicals are brought in to fertilize, defoliate and keep crops pest-free, it has an immense side effect on the culture of cotton production. It went from a huge labor force that was forced to be out there to few machine operators. The communities that live in cotton growing regions have been disenfranchised because they now have land that could be supporting a diversity of jobs and enterprises within the community, but there is a void of human activity and relationship on the land. 

Now, we are engaging on a level of asking what is needed? What is needed on the land, in the community, in our businesses, in the market, and what are the government policies that should reflect these changes that need to be made? To find the reconciliation where we can say, yes, it is going to cost you more, and yes, there are going to be increased health benefits to the community, and yes, there will be more better jobs and you’ll see an increase of related enterprise opportunities, schools with better funding, and more diverse nutrient dense local food. These are the outcomes that we hope to see.

Can you tell us about the other amazing crops White Buffalo will be growing next to the cotton? 

The design we have been putting together for our initial test plot is cotton grown in rows in an alley-cropping system in which the cotton alley’s are bracketed on either side with production of mulberries and figs. This way, we have perennial tree crops that can provide habitat for birds, perennial roots in the ground, and they can provide wind protection for the cotton. Those trees could be substituted for a host of different trees but mulberry and figs are ones that we anticipate working in the climate, soil and the context of this property. 

When we speak about sustainability, it means to maintain something. What are the distinctions you see in sustainable vs regenerative?

There are visuals that have been imposed by different groups and individuals in recent years showing sustainability at the intersection of degenerative on an upward slide toward regenerative and sustainability is in the middle. But what are we trying to sustain? Do we feel that the systems we currently live in are worth sustaining? 

I don’t think anyone ever expects a runner, a biker, or a swimmer to do that forever. There’s a finish line and it’s going to end and there’s a recognition of it ending. But how long can they push it? I think that’s the mentality of a lot of the systems currently in place. How long can we sustain this extracted mentality? How far can we push this out? Can we accumulate enough value for the next generation? 

Whereas, regeneration comes from a place of understanding what it is that sustains you. Identifying the core natural systems that we rely upon and feeding their health and vitality so that it is those elements that are growing and thriving, and as a byproduct, so do you. Likewise, it’s not that you need to be looking at the communities or the landscapes or the elements or who you are sourcing your ingredients from or who is making your food, but looking a layer deeper and seeing what it is that sustains them. What do they need? What is part of their culture at its core? It’s giving back. If you’re able to do that, we’re essentially creating a field of reciprocity. 

When you think about the difference between regeneration and sustainability, I think regeneration has a much more holistic perspective around involving systems and individuals and developing people's capacity to grow and thrive and evolve, versus trying to find more equitable or more fair versions of what is already happening. This is the paradigm shift I seek in my own thinking.

In a country with a dark past surrounding cotton production, how can cotton production in the U.S. be done in a way that is respectful and mindful to the farmers, the land, and workers involved? 

In short, I don’t know, but I’m committed to working to find out. 

Keeping in mind one's essence in an organization and how one engages. As long as intentions are heartfelt and considerate of the whole in which you’re trying to engage, then there’s always room for improvement. I think there are questions to be asked as to what the land needs, what are the human needs, and what structures are in place to help or hinder that process.

Cotton is not inherently degrading; it is how we manage it, what we expect of it, and how we orient our lives in relationship to it. Understanding what role it plays within a larger system of management is required. This ties back to what we’re trying to do with our demonstration project, which is to understand what the proper rotations are, asking how we defoliate so that we can prepare for harvest without using chemicals, how do we care for the soil health so that we have better species growing beneath it. Asking how we can increase the habitat of native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and birds. How do we create a holistic functioning ecosystem in which cotton is nested within?