Trails of Regeneration: Stemple Creek Ranch Survives COVID-19 by Selling Direct to Consumers

“Trails of Regeneration” is covering the effects of COVID-19 and gathering stories from regenerative farmers, ranchers and ecosystem experts on how the world is rapidly changing and what it means for biodiversity and regenerative food, farming and land use.

TOMALES, California — Spread of the coronavirus is causing major disruptions in the U.S. food supply chain, as several major meat processing plants have closed their doors and farmers are being forced to dump milk, break eggs and plow under perfectly good produce.

 With the closing of schools, restaurants and businesses, farmers have had to find new and creative ways to connect their products to consumers. The latest episode in our “Trails of Regeneration” video series features a rancher on the frontline of COVID-19 and his journey in adapting to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Husband and wife, Loren and Lisa Poncia, own Stemple Creek Ranch, a 1,000-acre regenerative farm located in the coastal hills of Northern California. At the ranch, purposeful rotational grazing is key to producing high-quality pastured and humanely raised animal products. It also works to promote biodiversity by preserving sensitive wildlife habitat and restoring natural watersheds.

Like many farmers around the world, the Poncias have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. In an exclusive interview with Regeneration International, Loren explains how his farm lost 95 percent of its restaurant business seemingly overnight. 

The farm’s direct-to-consumer sales, on the other hand, have increased significantly. “Our online sales are skyrocketing,” Loren told Regeneration International in a Zoom interview. He and his 15 employees—while practicing social distancing and wearing protective gear—are working around the clock to cut and package products to be shipped direct to customers. 

The couple has also seen an increase in sales at their local farmer’s markets.

 “We sell at two farmers markets in northern San Francisco that are going strong. People are coming out to buy directly from us,” said Loren. “What we noticed is that people are buying more than usual because they are no longer eating out and are forced to prepare 21 homecooked meals a week and that requires a lot of food.”

For decades, the organic regenerative food movement has advocated for more direct-to-consumer sales and better access to local food. That vision is gaining momentum amid the pandemic.  As the industrial food supply chain breaks down amid COVID-19, demand for locally produced food has surged.

 “In my local community people are united in helping and watching out for their neighbors, so we’re actually seeing a surge in solidarity,” said Loren. 

 Stemple Creek Ranch practices purposeful grazing to improve soil health

 In 2013, Stemple Creek Ranch was asked to participate in a 10-year study with the Marin Carbon Project, a consortium of independent agricultural institutions in Marin County, California. The project’s mission is to increase carbon sequestration in rangeland, agricultural and forest soils to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Marin Carbon Project required the ranch to complete a soil assessment before applying organic compost to a portion of pastureland in an effort to increase soil carbon. The benefits were enhanced by purposefully grazing livestock, which help stomp the compost into the ground and leave behind natural fertilizer. 

On its website, the ranch says it’s “excited to be on the forefront of this ground-breaking research that is showing how best agriculture practices can harness atmospheric carbon to improve soil content on farms, and mitigate the effects of global warming.”

The regenerative practices not only build resilience on the ranch, but they also help educate consumers and get them excited about where their food comes from, said Loren, adding that it’s a win-win for food and farming, human health and the environment. 

“Smallhold regenerative farmers are a resilient bunch and we can get through this because we have all the fertility we need on our farm,” Loren said.

“With COVID-19, we are seeing provisions for inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides getting tighter, and their distribution becoming more complicated. Hopefully, it will push some to look at using compost, worm teas and the greatness of soil health, adopting things like they were before World War II when we didn’t need to use chemicals.”

Despite the challenges, farming in a pandemic has presented the ranch with new opportunities to evolve its business model. The internet has been especially helpful, giving farmers and ranchers around the world the ability to share their successes and failures with one another. 

“We’ve been able to learn from each other by sharing ideas and learning from one another’s mistakes,” said Loren. “I think there’s a lot of really good things that could take off for small-scale agriculturists around the world.”

As far as the quarantine goes, Loren said there’s no other place he would rather be than confined to his ranch with his family. 

“I am really enjoying the fact that I am confined with my family and that I am eating three meals a day with my family and appreciating the bounty we are able to partake on a daily basis,” Loren said. 

“We are adapting and changing to the challenges, trials and tribulations that keep heading in our direction, with things we can’t even predict. So work is very hard, long and stressful but we are making more time to break bread as a family and eat together, which is really awesome.”

Oliver Gardiner is Regeneration International’s media producer and coordinator for Asia and Europe. To keep up with Regeneration International news, sign up for our newsletter.

What Does the New Regenerative Organic Certification Mean for the Future of Good Food?

Several new labels introduced last week seek to move beyond USDA organic. Can they shore up sustainable practices, or will they sow consumer confusion?

Author: Ariana Reguzzoni | Published: March 12, 2018

Organic is not enough. Or that’s the thinking behind the new Regenerative Organic Certification(ROC) that was officially launched at the Natural Products Expo West trade show last week. The Regenerative Organic Alliance, a coalition of organizations and businesses led by the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s, have joined the seemingly unstoppable engine propelling sustainable agriculture beyond the term “organic,” or, as some believe, bringing it back to its original meaning.

“[The USDA] Organic [label] is super important—thank goodness it was put into play,” says Birgit Cameron, senior director of Patagonia Provisions, an arm of Patagonia that aims to solve environmental issues by supporting climate-friendly food producers. “The ROC is absolutely never meant to replace it, but rather to keep it strong to the original intention.”

Like other newly proposed certifications—including the “The Real Organic Project,” which was also announced last week—one of the Alliance’s primary goals is to require growers to focus on soil health and carbon sequestration. But, as Cameron explains, it is also an attempt to be a “north star” for the industry as a certification that encompasses the health of the planet, animal welfare, and social fairness.

As producers move up through its tier system (bronze, silver, and gold) they will eventually set an even “higher bar” than any other labels offered right now. According to Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute, this built-in incentive to constantly improve on-farm practices is something the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic requirements lack.


Regenerative Certification Meant Add to USDA Organic, Not Supplant It, Developers Say

Author: Hank Schultz | Published: March 7, 2018

A new Regenerative Organic Certification program launching this week at Expo West is a meaningful extension of the base USDA Organic certification rather than a symptom of the tensions within the movement, proponents say. However, some observers have taken a wait and see attitude about whether the idea has legs.


Natural Products Expo West Trend Preview: Regenerative Ag

The conversations to have, education sessions to attend and products to see at Natural Products Expo West to get the full view of this macro trend.

Author: Jenna Blumenfeld | Published: February 13, 2018

For first-timers and seasoned Natural Products Expo West attendees alike, developing a show floor game plan is a dizzying experience. Here, we narrow it down by showcasing exciting new products that exemplify the regenerative ag trend identified by New Hope Network’s 2018 Next Forecast report.

It’s important, though, to remember that products don’t drive change. People do. Strategize Expo West by learning more about what’s trending and prioritizing deeper conversations. Instead of asking if a brand is sustainable, ask why. And ask how. Use our suggested questions within each trend to break the ice, make lasting connections within the industry and have your best Natural Products Expo West ever.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Doing no harm is an imperative, but healing the harm that’s already occurred is among the richest opportunities for agriculture and the food industry. This includes building soil health, scrubbing waterways of fertilizers and sequestering carbon through deep-root perennials.

Questions to ask vendors

Ask potential vendors these questions to see if their regenerative practices align with your standards.

  • How do you define regenerative agriculture?
  • How do you ensure that your suppliers follow regenerative practices?
  • How do you communicate your regenerative practices to customers?

Consumers Paying for ‘Fair Treatment of Workers, Animals, and Land’

Author: Brian Frederick | Published: February 2018

Jeff Moyer is the Executive Director of Rodale Institute, an independent research institute for organic farming. For decades, Moyer has helped develop new techniques and invent new tools to support organic methods.

The Rodale Institute was founded in 1947 in Kutztown, PA by J.I. Rodale. Inspired by the nitrogen fertilizer shortages during World War II, Rodale wanted to develop practical methods of rebuilding soil fertility. Today, the institute focuses particularly on compost, soil health, weed and pest management, livestock operations, organic certification, wastewater treatment, and climate change. It is home to the longest running comparative study of organic and chemical agriculture, started in 1981.

Moyer is well known for inventing and popularizing the No Till Roller Crimper, a device for weed management. He is a past chair of the National Organic Standards Board, a founding board member of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, the Chairman of the Board of Director of The Seed Farm, a member of the Green America Non-GMO Working Group, a Project Member of The Noble Foundation’s Soil Renaissance project, and a Board Member of PA Farm Link. Moyer has been with the Rodale Institute for over 40 years.

Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Jeff Moyer about organic farming and the future of agriculture.

Food Tank (FT): What is the No Till Roller Crimper and how has it changed farming?

Jeff Moyer (JM): The No Till Roller Crimper is used to terminate and suppress weed growth rather than using toxic chemicals. By doing so, farmers are able to delay termination by several weeks, increasing biomass production, resulting in greater nitrogen fixation, and accumulating more soil organic matter. This practice has allowed for farmers to integrate cover crops in their production systems, save money, and improve soil structure.

Research to determine which cover crops to grow with cash crops and having precise timing is crucial to the No Till Roller Crimper system. The concept can work for farms all around the world, but the timing is different in distant countries.

Although the No Till Roller Crimper has changed both conventional farming and organic farming, this tool allows for a faster process for farmers who wish to transition from conventional to organic production. At Rodale Institute, we encourage the reduction of tillage to improve soil health, and the No Till Roller Crimper has aided in that process.

FT: What are the biggest challenges organic farming faces?

JM: One of the biggest challenges organic farming faces is brand equity and trust in the marketplace. The consumer wants to be able to trust the background procedures of the organic food industry and assure their target in the improvement of personal and environmental health, not just the marketing of their brand. Consumers are paying for fair treatment of workers, animals, and land, not just the seal of organically certified.

It is important that the values beyond the production of the produce outweigh the value of the food product itself, a focus on soil health and the environment, rather than a larger yield. The overall goal is to feed the world for thousands of years, not just the present time. Through organic agriculture, this can be made possible, while continuing to focus on environmental concerns.

It is necessary for a shift in policy decisions for this to become a universal standard. Integrating stricter policy can lead to further research into scientific data of organic farming and the benefits thereof. For example, a cow can be fed organically, and be considered organic certified, but the treatment of this animal can be so inhumane, a person would not support the organic label itself.


How To Be a Better, Smarter, Happier Meat Eater

Author: Mark Bittman | Published: January 18, 2018

Sure, you’ve heard that red meat is cruel and unsustainable, and that it’ll destroy the environment if it doesn’t give us all heart attacks first. But it’s so delicious! Which is why we begged Mark Bittman to reconcile our principles with our appetites—and teach us the new rules of red meat.

1. Start Beefing with (Most) Beef

Under natural conditions, cattle are an almost perfectly beneficial part of a regenerative agricultural system. Their waste feeds the fields on which they’re pastured; carbon is sequestered in that grass; and their meat, in limited quantities, is good for us, good for the land, and good for the community of farmers, ranchers, butchers, and the variety of small businesses that raise, butcher, and sell it.

Take the cattle off those fields, multiply their numbers by thousands, feed them industrially produced grain encouraged by subsidies, damage some of the world’s best farmland to grow that grain using a destructive assortment of chemicals, pump the cows full of antibiotics (to prevent illness in the unnatural conditions), scale and intensify this process so that almost anyone in the world can afford to eat meat daily, and…that’s not good for us. Or the farmland. Or the planet. Or, needless to say, the cattle. And yet beef raised this way is what almost everyone in this country has eaten exclusively for the past 50 years.

Fortunately, a growing cadre of ethical ranchers and butchers have started turning this system around. They’re pasture-raising cows on grass and mother’s milk—which gives the meat a wonderfully complex flavor, pleasantly minerally and deliciously beefy—and they’re using whole animals, minimizing waste and expanding our palates. Here’s how to find, buy, and order beef that’s not only better for the planet but tastes better, too.

2. Expand Your Vocabulary

Just about anything is better than the industrially produced grain-fed feedlot beef. The best alternative, and I’m being very specific here, is “grass-fed, pasture-raised,” especially if it’s raised locally (to reduce the carbon footprint) and organically (to prevent the widespread use of pesticides that harm the environment). There are other good alternatives that play with those variables, but the bottom line is that most of what you find for sale isn’t cutting it.

3. Open Your Wallet

The price for pasture-raised beef does vary, but it’s expensive. Beef finished in a feedlot should be somewhat cheaper, but it’s still going to be steep. Ground beef—which constitutes about a third of the yield from every animal—should be $5 to $10 a pound; less is suspect, and more is, well, high. The premium cuts, like rib eye and filet mignon, are likely to be around $30 a pound; more is common.


Path to the 2018 Farm Bill: A Comprehensive Approach to Food and Farm Policy

Published: November 1, 2017

NSAC Editor’s Note: On October 24, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) released its 2018 Farm Bill policy platform, An Agenda for the 2018 Farm BillNSAC has been a leader in agricultural policy for over 30 years, and has been instrumental in helping to develop some of our nation’s most successful agricultural programs for conserving natural resources, advancing the next generation of farmers, supporting agricultural research, and creating farm to fork market connections. NSAC’s 120 member organizations put together these recommendations after months of working closely with each other and with grassroots stakeholdersAn Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill provides a comprehensive vision for a more sustainable farm and food system based on the recommendations and experience of American family farmers and the organizations that represent them.

This is the first post in a multipart series on NSAC’s policy platform for the 2018 Farm Bill. The second post is on Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, the third on Conservation, fourth on Local/Regional Food Economies, fifth on Seed Breeding and Research, and the last post will be on Crop Insurance Modernization.

Over the last year, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) held farm bill listening sessions, conducted surveys, and ran workshops across the country in an effort to gather feedback from farmers, ranchers, and food producing communities. The goal of these outreach efforts has been to better understand what programs and policies would best support a sustainable, equitable, and profitable agricultural system. Together with our 120 member organizations, NSAC used this stakeholder feedback to develop our 2018 Farm Bill recommendations and policy platform.

This initial post of our 2018 Farm Bill platform series is meant as an introduction to the platform and to NSAC’s overarching goals and priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. In upcoming posts, we will introduce readers to the key takeaways and themes from our platform, including: Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers; Conservation; Regional Food Economies; Public Seed Breeding and Research; and Crop Insurance Reform.

Increasing Opportunity: Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

Nearly 100 million acres of farmland (enough to support tens of thousands of new family farms and ranches) is set to change hands over the next five years – during the course of our next farm bill. To keep our agricultural economy strong, we need to facilitate the transfer of skills, knowledge, and land between current and future generations of family farmers. Like beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers face many, often deep-seated barriers to accessing assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The 2018 Farm Bill should support aspiring and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers by:

  • Expanding access to credit, crop insurance, and affordable farmland
  • Increasing technical assistance and outreach services to underserved communities
  • Empowering farmers and ranchers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy
  • Encouraging a heightened commitment to advanced conservation and stewardship

An Eco-Warrior’s Sword Is Their Fork

Author: Angus McIntosh | Published: November 9, 2017

All of us have a latent eco-warrior inside us. When we are not exercising that eco-warrior, the eco-enemy is active. My reasoning is as follows:

Agriculture is the worst eco-enemy we have. Every time we eat, we choose a farmer practicing either regenerative agriculture or destructive agriculture. The farmer is either an eco-warrior or an eco-enemy. There are no eco-fence-sitters.

Agriculture: Eco-Enemy No.1

Let’s start by looking at the dire state of our planet and its supposed most intelligent inhabitants, homo sapiens, and then we can see how agriculture is the primary cause of this unsustainable condition of a sick planet inhabited by sick humans. Agriculture is the single greatest contributor to environmental destruction and climate instability, whether it is rain forest removal (36 soccer fields cut down every hour) or carbon emissions.

Agriculture has caused 405 dead zones around the world. The biggest is in the Gulf of Mexico, and it is the size of Gauteng. It is directly attributable to artificial fertiliser runoff that ends up in the Mississippi River. Globally we lose 20 times more kilograms of topsoil than kilograms of food produced. Topsoil is what we grow our food in.

Reduced Value Of Nutrition:

One of the very few statistics agreed on is that the nutritional content of food has been in decline for many generations. In 1950 an apple contained 4,3mg of iron. By 1998 it had dropped to 0,18mg.

What is not explained, though, is that this applies to conventionally produced food, not organic food. In every comparable study done, organic food is more nutrient-dense.

As an aside, apples are the fruit sprayed with the most pesticides. South Africa does not have one organic apple producer, which makes us all Adam and Eve.

As nutrients decline, there is a concomitant increase in diseases. In the US, since 1980, heart diseases are up by 412%, asthma by 4137%, bone deformities by 347%. The list goes on and on. Globally there are equal numbers of people dying of obesity and starvation. The same would apply here if we had the statistics, as we mimic what the US does in farming, diet and obesity.


A Recipe to End Hunger: Food Policies that Adapt to Climate Change

New Online Course by UNDP, FAO and UNITAR provides tools on how countries can better prepare climate-resilient food systems

Author: Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca | Published: September 27, 2017

In our age of conspicuous consumption and excess, it frightens us to know that one out of nine people ­– or 815 million children, women and men – remain chronically undernourished.

And according to recent reports, the issue has been getting worse, with the number of undernourished people worldwide increasing from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016.

So how do we build a recipe to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030, making sure all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food year-round?

It’s not going to be easy. Climate change is altering age-old farming traditions, affecting livelihoods in local communities, and small producers who bring healthy food to our tables. It is also triggering massive droughts and floods that put our global goal of zero hunger at risk.

Even a 2°C global temperate increase will be devastating for farmers and the 2 billion extra mouths we will need to feed by 2050. The cost of corn – the backbone of much of the world’s diet – could jump by 50 percent, and crop production could decline by as much as 22 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Droughts, floods and other large-scale climate disasters would put more lives at risk of malnutrition, starvation and uncertain futures.

As chefs who are also working with the SDG Fund as UNDP Goodwill Ambassadors, we know that food is the essential ingredient of life. It nourishes young minds, builds strong bones and fuels our economies. On small farms across the globe, food and agriculture are the primary drivers of development and poverty reduction. Without more climate-resilient food systems, we risk even greater calamites and the unravelling of progress we’ve made in reducing hunger, protecting our planet and supporting developing economies to reach their full potential.

Major climate disrupters, such as the recent floods across Asia, landslides in Sierra Leone, and hurricanes across the Caribbean and the United States, take away lives, destroy productive assets and shatter entire communities. This cycle of destruction will only get worse as temperatures and sea levels rise. It also puts farming at risk, especially for poor, small-scale farmers who largely depend on rain-fed agriculture.


World Hunger Is Increasing Thanks to Wars and Climate Change

Author: Leah Samberg, The Conversation | Published: October 22, 2017

Around the globe, about 815 million people — 11 percent of the world’s population — went hungry in 2016, according to the latest data from the United Nations. This was the first increase in more than 15 years.

Between 1990 and 2015, due largely to a set of sweeping initiatives by the global community, the proportion of undernourished people in the world was cut in half. In 2015, UN member countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which doubled down on this success by setting out to end hunger entirely by 2030. But a recent UN report shows that, after years of decline, hunger is on the rise again.

As evidenced by nonstop news coverage of floods, fires, refugees and violence, our planet has become a more unstable and less predictable place over the past few years. As these disasters compete for our attention, they make it harder for people in poor, marginalized and war-torn regions to access adequate food.

I study decisions that smallholder farmers and pastoralists, or livestock herders, make about their crops, animals and land. These choices are limited by lack of access to services, markets or credit; by poor governance or inappropriate policies; and by ethnic, gender and educational barriers. As a result, there is often little they can do to maintain secure or sustainable food production in the face of crises.

The new UN report shows that to reduce and ultimately eliminate hunger, simply making agriculture more productive will not be enough. It also is essential to increase the options available to rural populations in an uncertain world.

Conflict and Climate Change Threaten Rural Livelihoods

Around the world, social and political instability are on the rise. Since 2010, state-based conflict has increased by 60 percent and armed conflict within countries has increased by 125 percent. More than half of the food-insecure people identified in the UN report (489 million out of 815 million) live in countries with ongoing violence. More than three-quarters of the world’s chronically malnourished children (122 million of 155 million) live in conflict-affected regions.

At the same time, these regions are experiencing increasingly powerful storms, more frequent and persistent drought and more variable rainfall associated with global climate change. These trends are not unrelated. Conflict-torn communities are more vulnerable to climate-related disasters, and crop or livestock failure due to climate can contribute to social unrest.

War hits farmers especially hard. Conflict can evict them from their land, destroy crops and livestock, prevent them from acquiring seed and fertilizer or selling their produce, restrict their access to water and forage, and disrupt planting or harvest cycles. Many conflicts play out in rural areas characterized by smallholder agriculture or pastoralism. These small-scale farmers are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Supporting them is one of the UN’s key strategies for reaching its food security targets.