The term sustainable has been bandied around for a while now. Everyone wants to be sustainable, to grow and source food sustainably, to build sustainable communities and businesses. But recently, a new buzzword has joined the party: regenerative.
To be sustainable is just that, to sustain, to keep as is. It’s a noble pursuit, the notion that we as humans have enough, and not to continue to take more from our planet or from our communities. Regenerative goes a step beyond, positing that it is our duty as stewards of this planet to give back, to leave it better than we found it. In a touristic sense, sustainable is to visit a place and leave no trace of having been there, to take our trash with us and so forth. Regenerative travel would be visiting a beach in order to clean it, or to volunteer at a charity in a developing nation. (Environmentally, the beach cleanup would be sustainable while regenerative would mean cordoning off some of the beach to allow it to regrow native plants and such, but you get the idea.) To put it another – oversimplified – way, sustainable is carbon neutral; regenerative is carbon negative.
Basically, to be regenerative is to buy in fully to the idea that humankind has pillaged our world, but that we are capable of salvaging it as well.
The town of Ferndale, California lies in southern Humboldt County, about twenty minutes south of Eureka along the northern coast of the state. It is the small town dreams are made of, a beautiful and fascinating cross between Victorian and the Wild West, home to about 1300 residents. A main street and a few residential side neighborhoods, it is quiet, picturesque, and, as I found, a perfect place to learn what it means to be regenerative.
Just outside Ferndale are wide pastures filled with cattle and sheep. Some of those are owned by Thomas Stratton and his husband Cody. Theirs is truly a family business, with four generations of Cody’s family (including their young son) working the farm, and I am introduced to “Auntie” and “Grandma” while there. While parts of the family farm produce meat, I am shown through the egg house and dairy, their two main pursuits. For a city kid like me, it’s a new look into where my food comes from, as well as a chance for a hands-on experience in making that cycle complete. Thomas puts me to work helping wash eggs (they have 1300 chickens producing about 1000 eggs per day needing to be sorted, washed, and cartoned) and then helping with the milking operation.
The family’s 100 dairy cows are milked twice daily, beginning at 3am. Cows line up on their own, and are brought in eight at a time. Iodine is sprayed on the nipples, and each is washed before a vacuum tube is hooked on that does the actual milking. Another iodine spray afterward, and the cows are ushered out for another group to enter. Amazingly, the operation can run with a single person! I help where told, but I likely slow the system down in doing so. Regardless, it is an experience I can’t have back at home, and one I relish, despite my only partial success in avoiding dirty cow hooves. It’s ok; mud cleans off.
Thomas takes some time to talk to me about the farm, and his visions for the region’s incredible dairy industry. For him, being regenerative is a utilization of the entire cycle of the dairy process. Cows eat grasses that grow here naturally, and manure is used to grow those grasses again, adding nutrients to the soil rather than taking them out. He tells me that every additional 1% of organic matter in the soil increases water retention by 25,000 gallons per year in each cubic foot acre of soil. For a state under constant drought conditions, that is incredible – and necessary! Just as important to the concept of regenerative business is Thomas’ ambitious plan to create a Humboldt County Cheese Trail, whereby all of the small struggling dairies can showcase their wares. He has no desire to put others out of business; rather, he wants to see his “competition” thrive, allowing visitors to sample a variety of artisan products (his own dairy supplies the milk for the Rumiano brand) and to have farm experiences like mine to learn about the industry.
Farmer Hannah, as she is called, has a similar approach to regenerative farming. Hannah has two acres for her farm, Table Bluff, in Loleta, a few miles outside Ferndale. Her goals are different from Thomas’, but no less noble: to supply affordable healthy food to an area that is a food desert, with nothing available in town. To this end, she has a 60-family (and growing) CSA program, and a farm stand opening in June. When she and her partner bought their farm in 2017, it was just barren land. Through her regenerative practices (she plants native pollinating plants in areas unsuitable for vegetable cultivation that attract birds and bees in addition to adding to the nutrients in the soil rather than taking from them, just as a single example), she wants to leave her soon-to-be-born daughter the legacy of land that will be productive long after she is gone.
We talk about the process of being certified organic, and further regenerative certification. Although she adheres to all of the necessary regulations – and then some – for a small micro farm like hers, certification itself is financially not in the cards. Just to certify her produce is about $5000, and that doesn’t cover her egg or meat operations. Certified regenerative costs even more, and requires the organic certification as a prerequisite. It is a hardship on small businesses like hers, one that doesn’t seem to have a resolution at this juncture, and one that puts her at a competitive disadvantage to those who look for such certification. But she still feels it important to live up to the ideals, even without the certification.
Hannah explains that they use pigs for tilling their soil – there are no fossil-fuel-using machines here – utilize goats and pigs for trimming grasses, and only plant crops that thrive in her microclimate, thereby reducing the amount of extra water or other manipulations needed to be productive. And productive it is. She leaves me with a few carrots the size of my fist that sustain me for the rest of the afternoon! (By the way, if you have never eaten a carrot straight from the ground, it’s other-worldly.)
Back in Ferndale, I am amazed at just how far the concept of being regenerative can go. I am introduced to Paul Beatie and Jason Baxter, two local entrepreneurs. Paul and his wife own The Old Steeple, a one-time church turned concert venue, complete with original (although painstakingly restored) stained glass dating from the early 1900s. For a town of 1300, a 225-seat concert venue doesn’t seem to be a smart business investment. And perhaps it’s not, in a purely monetary sense. But for Paul, what matters most is the legacy such a place can leave for his community, one that has no funding for music education in the local public schools. As such, he enriches Ferndale, filling that niche, offering education and cultural experiences that similar-sized towns too often can’t have. It is an investment in the community, and a way to leave it better than it was before he arrived. What could be more regenerative?
Likewise, Jason just opened a new restaurant, The Boardroom, specializing in charcuterie boards that are next-level. Where possible, he works with local small businesses (Thomas’ Rumiano cheese makes it into Jason’s mac and cheese), smokes all his meat in-house, and works with local growers to source veggies for his homemade pickles. The place is packed, and I joke that he needs to kick people out to turn tables faster. He quickly remarks that it benefits Ferndale – at the expense of his bottom line, it should be noted, although he would never say that – to have a place where people can just gather, relax, and be. That is regenerative.
I came to Ferndale to write a story on regenerative farming. But what I found was so much more. I found a community set on applying the principles of being regenerative to the entire town, the land they steward, and the community they serve. People like Thomas, Hannah, Paul, and Jason are determined to leave their world better for their having been part of it. They do so at great cost, at personal hardship, and in the face of a society that values financial success over all else. Here in Ferndale, in this tiny and wonderful town, you, too, can be part of that legacy. Milk a cow, pull a carrot, see a concert, eat a piece of salami, and join in the effort to be a regenerative force for our world.
Thank you to Thomas of Foggy Bottom Boys, Farmer Hannah and Table Bluff Farm, Paul and The Old Steeple, and Jason and the Boardroom for showing me what you do and helping to convince me that there is hope for our world. And a huge thank you to Visit Redwoods for sponsoring my trip and introducing me to such incredible people.
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