From the Ground Up with Lauren Tucker

From the Ground Up with Lauren Tucker

Cayla Zelanis

We sat down with Lauren Tucker, Director of Product Development at Figure Ate Foods, to discuss regenerative food systems and how viewing regenerative agriculture as a whole system is paramount to creating community health. 

Can you start off by sharing what your role is at Figure Ate and White Buffalo Land Trust?

My role is Director of Product Development. This means I’m focused on sales, marketing, and working with our team to bring products like our Persimmon Vinegar to market, as well as develop new and delicious products from ingredients that are benefitting our ecosystem and communities. 

Tell us more about the ethos of Figure Ate and how it’s working in conjunction with WBLT.

Figure Ate is a food brand created by White Buffalo Land Trust. We saw a need to support farmers in transitioning to regenerative practices while also developing new market pathways for these crops through shelf stable products. Figure Ate provides the platform for this to happen and all proceeds feed directly back into White Buffalo Land Trust and our work in regenerative agriculture.

With Figure Ate, we developed eight principles to help guide our actions and accomplish our vision: to expand the reach and positive impact of regenerative agriculture. These principles help us look at different dimensions of the business simultaneously. 

The baseline we use for sourcing is organic, but all of the producers we’re sourcing from are on a continuum of regenerating their land. The better we get to know the producers we receive, the more we can help them along that sequence. That’s one of the reasons why it’s really amazing to have a food brand founded by a non-profit that’s educating farmers and demonstrating farming systems for regenerative agriculture. We’re then able to use that network, knowledge, and resources to work with the producers that we’re sourcing from.  

Another one of our principles is zero waste which helps us to look at how our packaging can go back to the land. The hardest part currently is labels. There are no certifiable compostable labels that we’ve found that would work for our bottle yet, and mostly it’s the glues, so that component we’re still working on. We use natural cork with a wooden top, and all of our packaging is cardboard. 

Everything we’re creating assists in restoring a person's microbiome, and offering food that’s additive instead of “not bad.” It’s like a mirror, as we take care of the soil and regenerate our farmland, we can also nourish and take care of our bodies. It’s this beautiful loop. 

I love that connection, too, of how regenerative looks at the soil and how the health of it directly connects to our microbiome. The macro influencing the micro, and vice versa.

Yes. For someone who is new to soil science, the basic science is similar to observing how the microbiome works. We need a diversity of foods without chemicals in order to create a thriving, diverse microbiome. That’s exactly what the soil needs - a diversity of animals and plants working together without synthetic inputs to create a biodiverse ecosystem. 

It’s like a garden flourishing in our microbiome.

(Laughs) Yes! “Restorative Foods from Regenerative Agriculture” is our tagline for Figure Ate Foods.

Does the Persimmon Vinegar and future Figure Ate products have the goal to be completely made of, and resourced from, everything that WBLT grows? Or, is this a collaborative opportunity to continue sourcing from other producers well on their way to operating regenerative systems?  

Currently we’re working with a handful of producers for the vinegar. We did plant persimmon trees in Summerland, and will grow them at Jalama Canyon Ranch as well. We just got our first fruit ever from the persimmon trees we planted in Summerland! 

In the future, the vinegar will be a combination from the land we manage and other producers. Our goal is to support the expansion of regenerative agriculture, so the larger the brand gets, the more producers we get to work with and support. 

What’s unique about this is the dynamic loop of training and working with producers on the non-profit side and then being able to purchase from them through Figure Ate. Certainly, we’ll use ingredients from what we grow in future products, but it’s even more important to us to be able to expand markets and support regenerative agriculture.  

The detailed surveys you send to the producers you’re working with are to determine where they’re currently at in their regenerative practices so that the WBLT team can further assist them in these initiatives?

Exactly, it’s a detailed survey around what's happening on the farm and how they’re making decisions. Essentially, the goal, once we get to a certain size, is to be able to fund that transition more through sales. 

That’s powerful because with each vinegar bottle purchased and the purchase of future products to come is a customer’s way of contributing to continued education to solidify this regenerative movement. For someone who is just learning about regenerative agriculture, can you summarize regenerative food systems and the vital role they play? 

This is the number one question! I can weave a bit of my personal story into this explanation too. Almost eight years ago I co-founded a non-profit in a friend's living room called Kiss the Ground, producer of the Netflix film Kiss the Ground.  

I learned for the first time about soil sequestration and that the way we manage land either puts carbon in the atmosphere or draws it down. It’s super simple and I did remember learning about photosynthesis back in the day in probably elementary school (laughs). Though, I don’t think I had ever made that climate connection to all of the C02 in the atmosphere and how a big spike in farming and tilling is present even before we see the spike around the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels. 

Every year we till a ton and use chemicals that destroy soil microbiology while putting more carbon into the atmosphere. The mission of Kiss the Ground became about educating, building stories, and raising awareness for the importance of healthy soils as a climate change solution. 

Over time I came to understand that we need to focus on ecosystem function, not just soil health and carbon. 

What do you think most people mean when discussing regenerative agriculture?

A lot of the community associates regenerative agriculture with soil health for carbon sequestration. Which is where I started but the more I got into it I realized that this is how Indigenous Peoples managed land and kept ecosystems thriving for a very long time. So, to me, regenerative agriculture is truly about learning from Indigenous land practices, working with Indigenous communities, integrating current soil science, and also understanding the context of the place where you live. 

For example: paying attention to weather patterns, what slope you’re on, the specific community you’re in, and what the community needs are, and the history of the place that you’re in. We’ve gotten away from this. We need to focus on soil health, biodiversity, on-farm fertility, not using chemicals or disturbing the soil, and integrating animals and trees and cropping systems. 

I appreciate how both you and Jesse (Jesse Smith, Director of Land Stewardship at WBLT) show the complexity of regenerative agriculture. Not in a way where it’s confusing to understand, but that there’s so many parts that make up the whole of regenerative. How important it is to reconnect to the practices which have been carried through many generations within the Indigenous communities and how these have been lost and now we’re seeing the consequences of that. While also creating new solutions!

If we were to just look at soil we would be back to the same paradigm of industrialized agriculture, where we’re just looking at plant nutrients or chemistry and assuming that everything else is a blank medium. The soil has been looked at in modern farming as this blank slate that you manipulate to do what you want. The style of regenerative agriculture that we’re promoting is viewing things as a whole.

It’s not solely looking at the farm but who are the people? What community are we in? What is the essence of the place? We’re looking at it as an entire system, rather than living in a bubble where we’re not connected to anything that surrounds us.

This can translate as well to how many illnesses, cancers, and diseases weigh on the population today and how the depletion of nutrients in our diet and soil is contributing to this imbalance. How do you feel turning our focus to regenerative food systems, and in the process, strengthening the emotional and mental connection to the land and communities, could be a positive contribution to bringing rich nutrients back into our food and soil? 

There certainly is a lot to be said for eating whole foods, and the health that comes with a diet full of nutrients instead of processed foods. There’s a clear health component to eating from farms that are really tending to soil, increasing biodiversity, and creating on-farm health. Naturally that food is going to be better for you.

As you were saying, there’s an emotional connection to the Earth that many in the modern context lack. I feel we’re seeing more direct correlations between anxiety, disease, and angst in our society and forgetting our connection to the Earth. Another layer of that is, just as we don’t want to focus solely on one portion of the whole farm, the same is true for human health. 

We can’t attribute it all to one factor; stress, the environment, are we living out our passion and creativity? We need to approach ourselves more as the unified system that we are. I think a lot of folks engaged in this movement are starting to approach more aspects of life as a whole. 

When you look at a farm and a community as one, at the same time you’re looking through that lens at yourself. I also think it’s important to remember that in this culture we’re pretty used to checking something off a to-do list, as in, is it done? What we’re talking about is completely shifting culture and how we approach pieces of land, and, thus, manage pieces of land. 

Regeneration is a process and not something to complete. It’s a path of continual relationship with land and it’s really exciting.