#219 - How Regenerative Organic Certification is the Future of Agriculture & Farming, with Elizabeth Whitlow of the Regenerative Organic Alliance [REPOST]

April 05, 2022

#219 - How Regenerative Organic Certification is the Future of Agriculture & Farming, with Elizabeth Whitlow of the Regenerative Organic Alliance [REPOST]
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This episode is in honor of Earth Month, and a repost from our discussion with Elizabeth Whitlow in October of 2020. Elizabeth is the Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA).


This episode is in honor of Earth Month, and a repost from our discussion with Elizabeth Whitlow in October of 2020.

Elizabeth is the Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), which is a revolutionary new food label requiring farmers to use sustainable, organic, and regenerative practices. ROA was formed in 2017 by representatives from the Rodale Institute and two companies we mention quite often at Grow Ensemble: Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s.

The conventional methods used in the farming and agricultural sectors have received much criticism in recent years, with a demand for sustainable farming and agricultural practices. The issues do not only involve the techniques and methods used, but also the treatment of farmers and how they are often exploited under the current farming and agricultural paradigm. 

Elizabeth is passionate about making a difference in the world with a focus on developing sustainable food systems that recognize organic and regenerative farming practices as the gold standard. 

In todays show, Cory and Elizabeth talk about the Regenerative Organic Alliance, lessons that Elizabeth learned working within the industry, the role farming can play in combating climate change, issues surrounding conventional farming and agricultural practices, and much more.

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🗣 TOPICS DISCUSSED:

  • Background about the Organic Regenerative Alliance and how it started
  • Brief outline of the regenerative organic farming framework
  • Elizabeth shares some of her experiences when first joining the organization
  • The level of pride and achievement that Elizabeth has with her current role
  • Status update of the program and the journey getting there
  • Complications in certification of international clients with travel restrictions in place
  • Important lessons that Elizabeth learned from the pilot program
  • The role agriculture can play in combating climate change
  • Highlights of challenges faced when implementing techniques for farmers
  • Problems and impacts associated with conventional farming techniques
  • Limitations of organic labels compared to the regenerative, organic farming labels
  • What Elizabeth sees for the future of farming in general
  • Common misconceptions about the farming and agriculture industry
  • How to communicate and implement ideas effectively within a large network
  • Examples of successful implementation of regenerative, organic farming techniques
  • How Elizabeth thinks conventional farming techniques should change
  • The future potential for the farming and agriculture industry

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Transcript

Elizabeth Whitlow  0:00  
Not all carbon is created equal. And you need to look at how deep it is stored in the ground and what kind of practices are going to happen the next year that may cause that carbon to go be emitted back into the atmosphere. And so the intentions around that original soil sampling guidelines was to do some soil testing that was proved really prohibitive and really expensive.

Cory Ames  0:27  
Hey, y'all, it's Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. Welcome to Earth Month. to kick off Earth Month here 2022 we're bringing back some episodes with climate crusaders that I've hosted on the podcast up from the archives. And starting first, we are resurrecting an episode with Elizabeth Whitlow, the executive director of the regenerative organic Alliance.

So with Elizabeth I talk about the future of agriculture in farming. And the regenerative organic Alliance really has taken off in these last couple of years since we published our original conversation. I think we spoke in the summer, late summer of 2020. And this episode was published in the fall. But Elizabeth oversaw the launch of this revolutionary certification program, the regenerative organic certified label, or as you'll hear us refer to it in our conversation, ROC (rock). So this term regenerative certainly risk becoming another buzzword between when this conversation was published. And now I've seen many, many companies start to use this term, perhaps without really scrupulously defining it. But there's the risk of this term being adopted by large chemical agriculture. And so Elizabeth had this priority with the the regenerative organic Alliance team to ensure that regenerative is intrinsically linked to organic. Regenerative organic agriculture is farming in a way that heals our precious topsoil, draws down carbon and creates thriving ecosystems and greater equity for those who live in depend on the earth. Elizabeth says it's her greatest honor to serve a planet that is in tremendous need of each and every one of us.

And she wanted to make sure that we mentioned that in the 30 or so seconds that it has taken for me to read her bio, that the Earth has lost the equivalent of 18 soccer fields of living topsoil. So the solutions to our modern day ecological crises can be right beneath our feet in the soil. And we talked much about this in this conversation here. And we talk about where it seems there's a necessary evolution for farming practices in the US farming practices internationally, and what that means for the future of the agricultural industry. So very grateful to have Elizabeth in this conversation and excited to bring this episode back up, because I think it's a really exceptional one. And we as well go deep into defining exactly what this regenerative organic certification entails. The significance of it and why her and many of the founding members of the founding team of the regenerative organic Alliance, including Patagonia and Dr. Bronner's thought that this was absolutely essential, given the current state of things in farming and agriculture.

So wonderful pleasure to speak with Elizabeth, I reflect fondly back on this conversation and if you haven't had the chance to hear it yet, I'd really advise that you stick around it's it really wonderful one and quite pertinent still for the moment. So before we dive in, I'd love to recommend that you sign up for our Better World weekly newsletter, which is my weekly discussion that we have with our community of changemakers here at grow ensemble from all sectors all over the world about all that it takes to leave the world a more just equitable and habitable place for all of us. So go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next Better World weekly in your inbox that's growensemble.com backslash newsletter. Alright show here is this conversation from the archives with Elizabeth Whitlow from the regenerative organic Alliance.

Elizabeth Whitlow  4:01  
Thank you so much for inviting me to your podcast. I'm Elizabeth Whitlow, I'm the executive director of the regenerative organic Alliance. And we are a we're on mission to create the highest standard for Regenerative organic agriculture around the world. That's what we do that ROA for sure. But regenerative organic Alliance was founded by Patagonia company and Dr. Bronner's along with the Rodale Institute. And they all came together three years ago now, in 2017. They gathered at the Rodale Institute and it was many stakeholders from the organic sector and farmers, ranchers and folks who were concerned about the direction they saw the organic sector going, and they wanted to do something about it. And at the time, there was a real heightened concern around the conversation around hydroponic production allowed in organics. and just wanted to put this stake in the ground to say, no, no, no, we believe organic starts with the ground, it has to be found in the soil. And if we don't work to improve the soil, then we're nothing, we have to have to continue to do this work and advocate for organic farming to be about improving the soil. And so that's one of the central tenants of the framework that they came that they created at that time. And there's three tenants Actually, I'll just go through those three pillars quickly. And then back to you, Cory, sorry, friends into much better now, please. But the founders of the ROA, develop this framework that was based on three pillars, and one is soil health, and then management practices, and the other is on animal welfare. And the third one is on social fairness. And that's fairness to farmers. 

Cory Ames  5:51  
I'm always curious to start with how does the timeline feel to you as the executive director established in 2017? Does it feel like it's been three years? Is it feel like it's been longer or shorter? Or how are you feeling right now?

Elizabeth Whitlow  6:08  
I always say I feel like I've been on a dead run it since I joined the team I came on in September 2018. So they had already been in existence, the Alliance published this framework that I mentioned, that published that and got so many stakeholders responding and people giving feedback, they had over 400 comments during that public comment period. So they contacted the work out with NSF International to come on and help to adjust and deliberate over the framework and or the feedback and see how it would shape the next version of that ROC framework. And they also began looking for pilot applicants, people who wanted to participate in a pilot project to test this out on the ground. And so they were already well into that process when I came along. And so when I started, so it was two years ago, just this month, we were getting ready to embark on the pilot inspections. And this is not just in the United States, keep in mind, this is around the entire globe, really complex. And we needed to regroup and just had to take a breath and reevaluate everything that we had in place. So that I felt like we could approach it in a way that I wanted to just uphold the most, the highest standards for doing this certification. And so we did that we took another six months or so to develop all the tools and all the different parts for us to test out the certification. And so we developed all the tools and everything that we needed. And everything took a bit longer than we wanted to of course, but it's been a really a constant effort, lots of interest pouring in from around the world all the time. So managing that interest, while also trying to get through that pilot program was definitely made my days go by really fast. So it doesn't feel like it's been a long time.

Cory Ames  8:02  
So what does it feel like to be in this position? I mean, really such a in advance kind of on the forefront type organization, in this space of farming and agriculture. And mentioned I've done some research on you beforehand and got a little bit of bits and details on your trajectory in your career. But how does this feel for you? Like where does this land on this trajectory of like the work that you feel like you've been meant to do or kind of setting yourself up for

Elizabeth Whitlow  8:31  
I cry sometimes. It's been the most humbling and just the greatest honor of my life. I also I worked with some amazing leaders, forward thinking, farmers and entrepreneurs, and it's just been incredibly humbling. Yeah, and I'm really proud. I just can't imagine how I ended up here. Honestly, it's been pretty phenomenal. We just had a really awesome article came out in the Washington Post on Saturday morning, and it'd been a hard couple of weeks. It's just a lot going on. And I was just kind of caught my breath. You know, this article, basically, this journalist was just really keen on what we're doing and did a lot of of his own research and has been writing on farming and agriculture. And he called this the gold standard for wineries and possible. So definitely filled me up with pride. And just super grateful for all the help I've had along the way. I was able to hire my first full time staff person last year in November, I had help I definitely had some awesome help with communications early on and some other folks who came along as doing just helping with the many projects and all the different interests that comes in it's hard to manage and need one person for that and now I have that one person just is strictly here talking to brands and companies and firms from everywhere who are interested in how do they get ready to ready to get certified to? So yeah, we've grown our team now we have four and a half people about to be five and a half. And that feels incredible. Yeah. 

Cory Ames  10:16  
And so where exactly in trying to pinpoint the pilot program versus when the certification process, you really flipped the switch on it and opened it up, I guess, where are we at in that timeline?

Elizabeth Whitlow  10:27  
We're in the summer months, which is why you haven't noticed that big flip of a switch. Okay. Quiet. We basically what we're calling the soft launch, we had several folks who really wanted to be in the pilots, but weren't able to get in the pilot. And so they were the first in line basically, to test out our systems with us. Since we conclude the pilot in January, we then took most of this year, to collect all the feedback from the different participants to get a lot of really intense, constructive, candid feedback that helped us kind of we disseminated this among four different groups, task forces, advisory councils of soil scientists, regenerative farmers, social fairness experts, animal welfare experts and ranchers. And so all these different groups were digesting all that feedback and deliberating it and making recommendations to my board. And then of course, the board had to come to some agreement. And so it took us seven months to get that process completed. So we finalized the revisions to the framework this summer and, and then started revising the tools and all the different ways that you implement this in the field. So that is another big piece of it. It's taken. A lot of time we have we've developed or working with a they're called ECER. They provide compliance software to certifiers. I know that doesn't sound very exciting and fun. But it actually is amazing how much it's going to help us develop a really robust system for for auditors and certifiers to, to do this work. And also for our clients in the future, they'll be able to go to one place this login to their info portal and get all their documents. And so we can get away from the constant and email and shared file. So all that stuff takes time. And so we're testing out these new systems with these clients. And we've also started taking in applications but haven't really spread the word like broadcast it out in our newsletter or sea level yet. So, it's already happening. We've already got so many applicants like I'm good right now we have through the pilot process. We worked with four certifiers. And you know, we picked certifiers based on their geographic kind of reach and making sure that we could at least give every client who was in the pilot, a choice of two certifiers to work with. And so that also took a lot of effort. And so you know, right now we're looking at bringing on new certifiers so we can get into other regions like Brazil, for example. We have a lot of inquiries coming in from Brazil, also from Africa, and Sri Lanka and India. And so like there's a lot to it to have auditors on the ground in these regions, in this time of COVID when travel restrictions, and the health and safety of everybody is paramount to everything. How do we get people on the ground to do an on site audit presented lots of challenges that we're working through, and hence, it's just a little bit more longer period for our soft launch.

Cory Ames  13:34  
Well, I mean, it seems like that's a perfect way to go about it, especially with so much inbound interest is that you can kind of delicately expand the group to more complex scenarios and situations and make sure you're really, really field tested before kind of going, I guess, you know, more mass appeal mass market with it. So I'm wondering, of course, there's the inevitability of adapting improving some of the logistics between the pilot program and now. But what are maybe on a higher level, I'm sure can get quite complex, but maybe on a higher level, what are some other learnings that you extracted from the pilot program that you're taking with you to implement and improve for the next patch of applicants?

Elizabeth Whitlow  14:20  
Yeah, I mean, there's been a lot and that's it's a really good question. So thanks for asking that. Well, because like early on, people thought the founders were pretty, like it was really unrealistic and like way too North star, way too high bar and like having no till, as a central tenant of the soil health pillar was a big challenge. Like you have to tell a little you've got to disturb the soil sunlight, it's just how much so disturbance is happening. And so over time, we have reached it started off as no till and then it moved to conservation tillage, and it's still a big emphasis, but it's what we're really talking about here at the heart of it is how do you minimize your soil disturbance, and how farmers track that and how they strive to reduce the tillage events and how they incorporate more cover crops, more crop rotations. And so that was a really big shift from the original framework. And that was based on the feedback we got from our farmer participants. We took in quite a lot of feedback around the soil sampling guidelines, we had set out to look at many different indicators and like wanting to really prove out that regenerative organic practices will sequester more carbon into the soil.

So that is really at the heart of these intentions here is that how are we going to stop climate change, agriculture can be the problem. And I totally do the same issue, we can sequester so much of that carbon from any emissions, whether it's agricultural or industrial or human caused in any way, soil has this incredible potential to sequester and store carbon. But as the executive director, or as the chair is the end of Rodale Institute, the chair of our board, Jeff Moyer says like not all carbon is created equal, and you need to look at how deep it is stored in the ground, and what kind of practices are going to happen the next year that may cause that carbon to go be emitted back into the atmosphere. And so the intentions around that original soil sampling guidelines was to do some soil testing that was proved really prohibitive and really expensive. And working with the team of soil scientists on our advisory council. Now they were like that, that's really the work for an academic circle and for the university level, and for where you're really setting up these very robust trials, that it's not meant for farmers to have to do on the ground. And so we needed to recognize that and like, look at what we were trying to test for what we're trying to find out about that soil, what are the indicators of healthy soil.

And so from a very kind of high bar, looking at 18 different indicators from the soil test, we came down now to looking at five, six, the first year and five every three years after that. And we are also very much aligned with what some other really great efforts that are happening around this. And we were just talking before we started up about the great Kiss the Ground film that is starting showing tonight. And so I think, you know, just being really mindful that it's important to look at and understand healthy soil, but you don't want it to be so obstructive, so challenging and expensive that farmers can't afford to do it. And so that was another big learning. We also learned a lot about the social fairness pillar, especially the difference from the countries of origin or the global south versus the global north, and how the social fairness pillars need to be how all those criteria need to be applied in the field, and how it's just so different country to country, in here in our country, from state to state, depending on the state's labor laws. And, you know, there's still plenty of learnings to come around that social fairness pillar, but we have a great team of people and really excellent folks who served on our task force and on our board to help them that those are the some of the key learnings

Cory Ames  18:17  
and many more to come it seems. But of course, we've mentioned a few of these throughout Elizabeth, I would love if you could kind of take us back for a step. And I mean, we're well aware of many of the problems that exist with conventional farming. But I would love for you to maybe kind of expound on those a bit more as to why the regenerative organic practices or I guess what the regenerative organic farming agricultural practices are addressing, as opposed to you know, what sort of issues exist and their implications in more conventional traditional farming practices.

Elizabeth Whitlow  18:54  
So what we're setting out to adjust are like the problems of factory farming, for example, for over tilling the soil for the application of chemical pesticides and herbicides for the really increasing use of GMO crops for farmers, especially in this country and in Brazil, where they're cutting down forests and burning forests, and planting GMO soy to feed livestock that are maintained in feedlots. Those are some of the biggest problems of our times. And so just finding operations that can meet our framework, we will address those problems right away this fractured rural economies that happening all over the world farmers, the margins have been dwindling for years. Last year in the US the median farm income was negative $1,800. And so it's been decreasing for years. Sure. So really big firms are making lots of money and there's lots of subsidies and there's there was a great 60 minute expose a on this of like this great lawyer who was able to get these family offices of large corporate ag interests, all this money, all this taxpayer money for these folks, it was not going to farmers who actually farmed the land. And so it's really important to recognize like, how are federal policies here, at least if we're talking about the US, they are not supporting farmers to grow diversified crops to feed their, their immediate regions. It's all about very scalable, industrialized efficient systems, but the farmers at the losing end of them every time.

So that's what we do. It's what we're trying to do to address these kinds of inequities. And part of that you can see in our framework, there's, we have a whole buyer standard, if you're buying ROC certified products, you agree to pay a premium to the farmer, you agreed to have a long term contract, you're going to be transparent with your, your dealings with the farmers, and you're going to find ways to support them farmers in the farmworkers for further capacity building. And that's a really important aspect of it. Like, when consumers see ROC labelled products out there, they're going to know that they are buying a product that answers an entire suite of values that no other product will be able to provide. Organic is a great label. And I worked in organics for many years, I'm a big advocate for organic farming, and always will be, and like there's many amazing organic farmers who meet this criteria. But the way we are going about modifying it and verifying it, and ensuring consumers that they've got something that's third party verified, there's no greenwashing here, this isn't just like a wink and a nod. It's got a lot of teeth, and our program will be rigorous. And the farmers that earned that ROC designation are doing exemplary practices. And so we want to see them rewarded. And we want to see them thrive and keep building so that those farmers continue to thrive. And sorry if I'm going on too long, but I just don't want to leave this point, the organic Trade Association did a study recently that showed where organic hotspots are are in the country. And where there's a lot of organic farms, there's more organic processing, and there's more organic feed industry and the farmers in those regions. And the economies of those regions actually improve better than when they're getting federal handouts. And it's a really great study. And I think it's just important to think about, like how we support entire regions and how we support farms is not done on the backs of farmers and the ROA we'll be looking for to establish a fund very similar to the USDA cost share fund, where farmers can get paid for the cost of their certification by the USDA, they can get up to 75% all of their costs reimbursed by the government. So we want to set up a similar tech fund that will support the farmers so that they can pay the certifiers who are doing those audits for them. And it's not to get money to go back to the ROA. It's to get money to go to the farmers to help them pay for their certification audits and the auditors time.

Cory Ames  23:03  
And I've heard you say this on another podcast that the organic label before ROC is the best label that you can buy, you know, as a customer in the grocery store, or or what have you. Could you say a little bit more of as to the limitations of it seems like some of the classifications, as I've heard you mentioned before, of what can be deemed organic, and may not actually be or what farmers and folks in the agricultural space would actually deem organic. What are some of the limitations of that organic certification that, you know, make this ROC label so essential, and so critical?

Elizabeth Whitlow  23:39  
I would say the first thing is that it takes a long time to change a federal law and long process. So there was many years of debate within the organic producers who were on the animal welfare Task Force, who were making recommendations to the NSP to improve animal welfare provisions in the federal law, and took them years to make their final recommendations they did. They went into effect. And then Trump was elected and all of those that was pulled out. And so none of those animal welfare provisions that were originally suggested made it and so now those aren't being practiced, and not to say that organic livestock producers are using their animals, I don't mean that at all. It's just that the law doesn't require quite as much as an animal welfare label would require. And especially relating to poultry, outdoor access breeds that are raised for meat, for example, they're still really fast growing breeds and those those chickens are ready in six weeks. And so with that come a lot of problems. That may not sound great to mind unless you're in that animal welfare world, but like they have a lot of problems with their feet that can't bear their weight. And so there's, there's different issues that you really look at closely. When you're an animal welfare auditor, you're looking at bedding You're looking at lesions potentially on the bottom of their feet, you're looking at different issues that affect the the leg health of those type of culture, animals need to be outside, putting them inside and bringing feeds them is not a life like for an animal, they're meant to be outside expressing natural behavior.

And so with our framework, we only will be looking at pasture based operations. And so no indoor operations where they bring all the organic feeds the animals, and, you know, eventually, with them to process them down when, especially with laying hens. It's also relevant, you know, laying hens around a little bit longer, couple years. And so like, ensuring that they have access to the outdoors, and they can forage and peck around insects and grubs, and be out in the sunshine is really key to growing healthy animals, and therefore healthy eggs needs. Same with the food, looking at healthy soil. We're a ways out from conclusive data on this, it's a really challenging, challenging to assess like the different like the bio nutrient availability of a carrot grown in this region compared to that region, like what type of soil was it? What type of farming practices, what was the variety. So there's still, I think a ways out, although there's some good work being done on assessing bio nutrient availability, [??] if you are familiar with their work. But there's very emergent science happening all over the place right now in the way of like looking at quality of food, as well as looking at the microbiome in the soil. And things are evolving rapidly. And so that's another great aspect of our certification not being based on federal government and action to change national law is that we can be more responsive to the times, and it's not going to take us 10 years, might take us six months. But it's not going to take us 10 years to suggest a change or incorporate a change into our framework. And so you know, we're gonna see this rapidly emergent technology and be able to adapt the methods.

Cory Ames  27:02  
And so I'm curious if you could maybe say more on what what your hopes are for the future of agriculture and farming? Do 100% of our farms need to be certified, regenerative organic, is that our aspiration? I'd be curious to hear

Elizabeth Whitlow  27:17  
No, I mean, I buy my some of my food from an amazing farm nearby that I'm sure embraces and incorporates many regenerative organic practices, they don't carry a certification because I go there, and I talk to the farmers, I walk through the fields, I go to the pick, I, I have such a privilege to have access to that many people don't. And those folks who don't, can't go and meet their farmer and talk to their farmer at the farmers market or in their neighborhood or in their community, they have to go to the store. I mean, we have to be realistic, like not everybody's gonna get to go to the farm. So no, I don't see that. That's the be all end all. I see everybody embracing these methods, for sure. Pay your workers fairly. Take care of the animals and respect those animals. Those five freedoms of the animal welfare is core principles. And yeah, don't use pesticides, chemical, fertilizers and herbicides. Yeah, I mean, those for sure. I see all those principles as a great way for anybody just fine. But no, I wouldn't say that.

Cory Ames  28:23  
And so since ROC is going to be a consumer facing label certification, what do you think are some of the maybe the misconceptions about the farming and agricultural industry maybe specifically in the US or not? That y'all might have to address or overcome or maybe just even ones that, you know, you're starting to notice of just kind of the typical kind of every day, grocery store shopper? What are some of the misconceptions about farming and agriculture that you're picking up on?

Elizabeth Whitlow  28:55  
Well, I mean, I think many people have been really detached from their food for a long time. However, with this COVID crisis, I think people have really gotten more in touch with their food, organic sales are up. People are cooking at home, because you can't go out. And I just, I think there's been a big shift in awareness around also, the plight of farmworkers, here in this country, where did all these outbreaks happen where farmworkers didn't have a stable enough income to call ins, they had to go to work with COVID and spread that COVID amongst all their co workers and entire plants that shut down. And so, you know, having that awareness around how vulnerable our systems are and how much we need to rethink this entire system of food production, I think is is huge. And so continue to teach people about the farmers and that hard work that is behind everything they reach for in the store is one of most valuable things we can do and also helping them understand that Healthy food does come from healthy soil, and it affects their whole community, it affects the waterways in their community affects the air that they breathe.

And you know, there's plenty of science showing how it affects the human microbiome, that it's a mirror of the microbiome in the soil. And as we deplete the soil, we deplete our own microbiome. And so, you know, I've said this a few times, and it's like what we do this soil we do to ourselves. And so if soil is the bedrock of our civilization, in degrading it, people have been talking about this for years, conservatives, not just those folks on the Left Coast, I've been recognized for many years. And I think there's some really great resources out there, if people are interested in learning more, we have a really awesome just kind of regenerative organic reading kind of series. If you sign up for our newsletter, which we only send out quarterly, we're not going to be filling your inbox every week. There's great reading lists there, and some of the books can really turn that light bulb on to that. I think David Montgomery in particular, I'm not sure if you've read any of his books, David Montgomery, he and his partner, they have a new book coming out soon. It's called What My Food Ate. And I believe that'll be coming out really soon. And that ties back to that conversation about the microbes in the soil, and the microbes in our own digestive systems. Yeah, he wrote Dirt and Hidden Half of Nature, some other books - a lot about the soil and dirt. 

Cory Ames  31:32  
well, we'll have to make sure those are linked up in the show notes. So Elizabeth, in your unique position, you know, I mean, you've already mentioned the wealth of different experts and perspectives that that seems you work with on a day to day basis, from businesses who are involved, you know, the Patagonia's, Dr. Bronner's, and others and soil scientists, farmers, I mean, there's quite this massive ecosystem of folks that you're working with. So I'm wondering, from your unique perspective, over this now, two ish years, what do you feel like you've kind of come to understand or come to learn about mobilizing a group around this very particular - I mean, critically important issue and cause? That's a big question

Elizabeth Whitlow  32:21  
Well yeah, I mean, it's a tough one, it's really something that I've had to ask the board a number of times, is that, do we want to keep this to a tiny slice a tiny sliver of agricultural? Or do we want to really open this up that we have to be able to make some compromises to those really high aiming principles sometimes and help build this, build the movement and help scale the movement. And, you know, you can see evidence in that in one thing I didn't talk about earlier was how we went through this whole pilot process. We inspected many different types of dairy farms, all grass based dairy farms, from the West Coast, up to the Midwest and over to the upper upstate New York. And what we found were like some very different ideas on like, some of the dairy producers of what their animals needed, and from the animal welfare advocates from what they thought those animals should have for their life, for their comfort, and to ensure that they're meeting the five freedoms. And what we came to, though, was a really great compromise where we, we had previously not allowed dairies to do certain practices, and now it's there's a phase in, and so trying to help support them to face away from practices that the animal welfare community doesn't believe in, and so help the dairy farmers trial out these new practices. And some of them it's just a matter of infrastructure. Many dairies in northeast have high stall barns I've read, like over 60% of them have tie stall barns. And so that means that in the wintertime, when there's a blizzard outside, you don't want to leave it outside in a blizzard, they gotta be in, in the barn. But the tie stall barns means they're tied up in a stall, that's kind of their designated stone, and they have feed and water and they, you know, they don't get out much. And so, for this, the idea is that we help those farmers to find the funds and RCS has some funding, where they will convert high stall barns to bedded pack barns where it's a bigger open barn and animals can move around more and don't have to be confined to that one stall.

So that's just one example of a way that we are looking to try and help implement change. I would say another good example would be in cotton. Patagonia has invested tremendously in the cotton producers they're working with in India, and these were all organic cotton producers, and they were not incorporating things like cover crops or crop rotations that were they were intercropping. And so they started working with Patagonia provisions, which is the food division at Patagonia is purchasing up some of the legumes that are being interplanted with the cotton so the legumes as many farmers always are incorporating legumes into their rotations because those have this unique ability to pull nitrogen straight out of thin air into these little nodules on their roots that then feed the plants. And its way indigenous wisdom has always been so good with the three systems, right? corn, squash. And so the same with cotton, they've incorporated different types of legumes, turmeric, garbanzos, brown peas, other types of things, and found that they can feed the soil that way and increase the diversity and biodiversity and therefore control the pests better. And so it took them a couple years of trial and error there. But they've had some really successful years, on top of those farmers building more soil organic matter, which helped them be more resilient in the face of the major monsoons that they had last year that wiped out a lot of other farms. So yeah, there's still a lot to learn. And the thing about farming is you typically only get to do it once a year. You get a season, and then it's over. And so then you start again, unless you're farming, something that lettuce or something else that grows really fast. But I mean is in seasons. And so the window is long, as far as the window of opportunity to learn

Cory Ames  36:14  
Requires, it seems, a lot of patience

Elizabeth Whitlow  36:18  
That's a really good observation.

Cory Ames  36:21  
And I heard you mentioned in another podcast that you're on that in the United States, predominantly, we're producing some I don't remember the exact figure, but some substantial amounts of our farming is used to produce corn and soy which is exported, right. And so I was interested to ask you, what seems to be more ideal, because maybe that's something to kind of at a blanket level that folks may not be too keen to is that the majority of what it is that we farm, we do export elsewhere for other means, and not so much to, you know, to feed the American population. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this as like what might be a more ideal setup for that, or an arrangement or outcome?

Elizabeth Whitlow  37:03  
Yeah. Well, interestingly, like there's a lot of conversation going on about this right now. And just last week, there was an announcement from a really big kind of the giant of corn and soy, they're going to start converting farms to regenerative I don't know exactly what it means. [??] I don't know that it's been clearly defined, or how they're going to ensure that general practices, I really don't know details about the program. I would say I'm a little suspicious when it's coming from the agribusiness that has perpetuated this system for so long, as far as like, you know, most green [??], we own cargo. And I think that statistic that I might have mentioned was something around 70% of the US farmers grow is either exported for livestock feed and other countries, or used for like some derivative of processed food or use for ethanol. And, yeah, I mean, having farmers think they're feeding the world when those crops are not really going to feed the world. Those crops are what the federal crop insurance like what they get subsidies for, they get the highest payment for so of course, they have to plant that because they need to mitigate risk from potential weather related disasters, which are happening everywhere, as we all know. 

So farmers are kind of forced into this position to have to plant that. And so like finding ways to help them diversify, incorporate other types of crops in there. There's a lot going on with barley. And there's a green revolution happening in some regions where farmers are growing grains, like look in a Bob Quinn and all the work he's done with kamut in Montana, and with the amazing Wes Jackson and the Land Institute and their work with perennializing wheat with kernza. And so looking at other ways that we can grow grains that actually are used for making bread, first and foremost, I think bread people, you know, and then of course, the fun stuff like beer, distilleries, whatever. There's other things too, and, and I think like, really looking at ways that you can help farmers grow up a product that can work with the existing infrastructure in those regions, because small town America is going to be limited, you know, those farmers in those regions, they can't just suddenly decide to go another crop because they may not have anywhere to take it. So you have to have the buyers that are willing to get that there's a great group there called pipeline and they're doing a lot of really good work to try and help farmers do that and help farmers incorporate more regenerative, organic type of crops. So, you know, continuing to support companies like that is key.

Cory Ames  39:43  
Well, one more question for you, Elizabeth before we finish up with some rapid fire questions. Of course, there are some really large problems that we're facing in the world today. Obviously, you know, in our pre recording chat here, we dove into those a bit but I'm curious, from your perspective, what has you most hopeful or optimistic in the arena of work that you're doing looking forward?

Elizabeth Whitlow  40:08  
Gosh, I think right now, what I'm thinking about is the Black Lives Matter movement, and how that has really galvanized conversations that have long needed to happen. I think in relation to agriculture, that it's even more important, because the Senate is at more of a disadvantage, so continuing to honor that indigenous wisdom, and the contribution that all the undocumented immigrants are making, to our food system to get food, to our tables, and to all around the world to have access to healthy, nourishing food to start to address these long, tough, so long systemic racism. Think for me, although some of those demonstrations, you know, turned violent, there were lives lost. And gosh, just so much has happened this year. It's kind of astounding when you think about all the different things we've been through this year. But for me, that one feels like the most hope, because it is just like, turned that ugly underbelly over and exposed it and brought it out. And I hope that that way we can start to address some of these wrongs. Yeah, for me, that's a really hopeful spot.

Cory Ames  41:21  
It is, I mean, in in, in all this, this crisis in turmoil, you know, there is the feeling of hope that it is to lead to a much better outcome on the other side. Certainly that that's where I'm sticking, I'm trying to stand firmly there. So

Elizabeth Whitlow  41:37  
It's funny I just sent out - we had our little newsletter go out yesterday, and kind of toying over this the last couple weeks, because I woke up here to complete and utter dark darkness last Wednesday, two weeks tomorrow, through all the wildfires, I'd been evacuated from my home, already back, gone. And was sweeping ash off of my deck every day, no blue sky. And this Wednesday morning, we woke up to black and skies, and it was all over the news. I started like the next day, but that morning was just really gripping, and really disturbing and kind of felt my heart racing. And you could see like deep orange behind the black. And it just felt like apocalypse. And then I came across this, this piece on NPR and this about apocalypse, like the Greek root of that word is the uncovering, and to reveal and to reveal most of what's really happening here at the heart of it that may be by revealing it that we then get to digest it and start to changes. And so for me, it's also about like, recognizing, this is no joke. Climate change is real folks, and we need to be working urgently to address this.

Cory Ames  42:46  
Certainly, I mean, it's well, for many of us, it can feel that all of this is taking place, you know, really since 2016, since the election, but if he's been really rooted in 10, 20, 30 years of policy and lifestyle that we've had, whether it's the inequalities or you know, the effects on the climate or lack of action, it's just like you said, it is revealing itself most acutely, and that can be very uncomfortable. Certainly, because you do wonder it is that sense of like Man, where the hell are we in the whole trajectory of history? And what does that mean moving forward?

Elizabeth Whitlow  43:22  
Literally, yeah. And try not to let the despair get to us but try to look instead at where we what we can do with this. You know. And people like you with all the guests you bring on your show and other people have come to me over the last two years of just blowing my mind. You know, there's so many good people in this movement doing amazing work and like we get to do this together we get to make this happen. Yeah, I'm grateful for it.

Cory Ames  43:51  
Me as well for sure.

Hey, y'all Cory here super quickly. Before we finish up today's chat with some rapid fire questions. I want to briefly tell you about our Better World Business Growth programs as it's our mission here at grow ensemble to promote and highlight the exceptional work of social entrepreneurs. We want to use these Better World Business Growth programs to do more of the same. So if you are a change maker or leader in this space of sustainable and socially responsible business, and you want to build an audience of customers and advocates around your brand and mission to help drive forward your purpose, profits and ultimately sustainable and healthy business growth. And I want to invite you to head to growensemble.com backslash BWB to check out some of our free trainings and resources as well as our newest program, the roadmap builder program that we've just opened up a few slots for where our team does a complete audit on your online performance and ultimately uses that and your goals and objectives to build your complete growth and marketing strategy for the next six to 12 months. So again, that is growensemble.com backslash BWB to check out or Better World Business Growth programs. Alright, let's get back to the episode.

So a couple quick questions, Elizabeth, if you wouldn't mind before we finish up. So let's start with a daily habit or maybe morning routine. Is there something that you have to stick with?

Elizabeth Whitlow  45:51  
Yoga. I gotta do my yoga practice. 

Cory Ames  45:58
When is that, morning, evening?

Elizabeth Whitlow  46:01
Early morning, usually around 5am. Hopefully on my deck. When it gets wet and cold then I usually move inside. But I love it. I love yoga under the stars before the sun comes up. 

Cory Ames  46:08
5am start every single day? 

Elizabeth Whitlow  46:10
Yeah, I'm an early to bed kind of gal. So that means I get to wake up early. I got to go fishing with my grandpa when I was a kid because I was an early riser.

Cory Ames  46:19  
Okay, I guess that's where that's ingrained. There we go.

Elizabeth Whitlow  46:22  
Exactly. No, it's been all my life.

Cory Ames  46:26  
So next one for you. You did recommend a couple other books. I'm curious if there's something that you've read recently that's really impacted you maybe, you know, outside specifically of the the space of farming and agriculture, something that you've come across that that you'd like to recommend to folks?

Elizabeth Whitlow  46:42  
Uh, you know, I have been trying to break away from reading books about ag and food. And I'm trying to think what I did last, I'm drawing a blank

Cory Ames  46:53  
It's the kind of question you kinda have to dig, it seems to be a common thing.

Elizabeth Whitlow  46:57  
I need to go flip through my Kindle and be like, what is that last thing I read? But no, I just am finishing up Bob Quinn's book. And so that one is Grain by Grain. And then a really great read, and it is in food and ag and I'm sorry, I can't depart from that. I do love to like flip through some poetry. And so Mary Oliver. Oliver has given me some great solace. Mary Oliver.

Cory Ames  47:26  
Wonderful. Any particular titles, your collections or anything like that from?

Elizabeth Whitlow  47:30  
I can't think of the one that I have right down there on my bookshelf right now, but all you have to do is open anything.

Cory Ames  47:36  
Yeah. Okay.

Elizabeth Whitlow  47:37  
I love this. Yeah. I mean, for that you could also pull out a Pablo Neruda the Odes, that's always fun.

Cory Ames  47:45  
Good ones. Let's see here. Next question for you. Are there any particular companies or organizations specifically that you've been inspired by recently that you'd like to give a plug to or acknowledge some really exceptional work?

Elizabeth Whitlow  47:59  
I mean, the people on my board. And so and everybody knows, I can see you're covering your audience like how amazing Patagonia and Bronner's all of these folks are. But you know, lately I've come to know this really fantastic company. They're growing. Super excited about ROC. This guy has an amazing story. He came from Romania from communist Romania, hard travels over to the US. His name is Adrian Bota, he started Origin Milk and they're doing some really fantastic and working with small dairy farmers with heritage dairy breeds that produce an eight to eight milk only on grass, grass fed berries and just fabulous company. It's good stuff.

Cory Ames  48:48  
And then next one for you. I was curious specifically you. Do you do some gardening at home?

Elizabeth Whitlow  48:54  
I wish I could show you my garden and I I have a zucchini, boneyard and a cucumber Boneyard. So I'm going to say that the garden giveth, and we compost sometimes, because it's been hard to keep up with. It's been an amazing year. And the garden. Yeah, I have mulberries, apples, pears, blackberries, plums. What else do we have out there? Persimmons pomegranates coming on, I have citrus. Me I live in a really abundant place here. Goldbridge on Northern California. We have a few hands. And they had some sheep who took a tour. They went up north to a ranch in Mendocino because they were eating all the fruit trees. And yeah, that's it. That's wonderful. Yeah, lots and lots of food and it's so it's kind of silly that I belong to this one CSA I mentioned earlier because we we have so much food we can keep up with. We give a lot to our neighbors and we make a lot of Kimchi and sauerkraut.

Cory Ames  49:49  
Oh, there we go. Is there going to be a ROC label for at home gardening. Landscaping?

Elizabeth Whitlow  49:55  
There's a branch, and we grow more than just lizards. And I don't know if I'm going to do a ROC label - I should, that would be pretty fun.

Cory Ames  50:06  
Annie and I with our home we're moving into we're trying to see if we can have a regenerative organic backyard. We'll see.

Elizabeth Whitlow  50:12  
You know what we need to do - Thanks for asking that - we need like a badge, we need a badge for like, yeah, kind of small scale thing.

Cory Ames  50:22  
I think we'd participate. We'd love in like a YouTube channel, some trainings, you know, step by step kind of at home, how to make a

Elizabeth Whitlow  50:29  
We should do that, I love that, thanks for suggesting that. We did start a YouTube channel. And we have our first series of what we did. We worked with some soil, the soil scientists I mentioned on our advisory committee and amazing folks from point blue conservation. Based out here, they do a lot of work in coastal coastal areas of non west coast. And do we have this infield soil testing videos, there's 12 or 11 videos one introductory one, and just tell you how to do a really simple infield soil test, looking at aggregate stability or infiltration, or assessing different aspects of your soil. And we have a series there now. And the next series we have coming up in a month will be from Sierra Leone, we worked with a group of 1000s of cacao farmers there and they've just finished filming last week, and we're going to start editing those. So those will be up on our YouTube site. And we're going to continue to build out that library. Yeah, welcome. You can go there and check it out.

Cory Ames  51:32  
We will we'll have that linked up as well. And so one final question, Elizabeth, do you have any particular piece of advice to any sort of aspiring or active impact driven entrepreneur or nonprofit leader? What's one maybe open ended piece of advice you'd give?

Elizabeth Whitlow  51:49  
I think right now, the most important thing we do is listen to each other. And looking at leadership models, look at servant leadership model, serve your people. And serve everyone. Yeah, we all we all need to do a lot more listening I think.

Cory Ames  52:07  
great advice to end on. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, any final places to direct folks to regenerative organic Alliance anywhere particular you want people to look out, besides our website, any particular areas of focus?

Elizabeth Whitlow  52:20  
Well, Rodale, actually Rodale has been doing some great work. They're expanding their research centers they now have for research firms around the country. And they're doing a lot of fantastic work that they're going to help to educate and kind of broaden that base of knowledge around regenerative organic practices in different regions. And, gosh, that just reminds me I didn't answer one of your questions. One of the biggest learnings of this pilot process was that regenerative is as unique to each site and location and practice that's really hard to have a one size fits all. And so being open to hearing what are those other methods and purchasing different regions, and, again, a reason why it's so great that we have this were not a federal law that we can make change and adapt. So yeah, Rodale, Patagonia, they've got some really good videos, regenerative ag, you can find if you Google, they just goes out last month. So yeah, thank you so much. Thank you so much for having us. And cheers to you and all your good work and all the awesome B Corps, 1% of the planet companies and all those other righteous companies you're working with. Thank you for carrying the load.

Cory Ames  53:27  
Thank you. You know, it's a good group of folks. Yeah, very appreciative. You took the time here, Elizabeth thanks again.

Elizabeth Whitlow  53:34  
I'm so happy to thank you, Cory. Great to hang out with you.

Cory Ames  53:39  
Alright, y'all, that's a wrap on another episode of this social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast as always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world. This is a newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There you can fill out a quick form start that conversation with us. These sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together Alright y'all until next time

Elizabeth Whitlow Profile Photo

Elizabeth Whitlow

Executive Director

Elizabeth Whitlow is the Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), who are building the revolutionary new certification for food, fiber, and personal care ingredients.

Elizabeth has worked across the spectrum of elevated certifications both in farming and ranching for more than 20 years. She is passionate about making change in this world by focusing her energy on supporting and developing more sustainable food systems that honor the hard work of ecologically minded farmers.