#NaturallyInformed: From Farm to Conference

Part two of our coverage of this event looks at the experiences of two farmers who have chosen a regenerative approach: Tom Newmark, of Finca Luna Nueva, and Kamal Bell, of Sankofa Farms.

By WholeFoods Magazine Staff -September 4, 202052

Mature agroforestry at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, Tom Newmark’s farm in Costa Rica, designing for biodiversity in a regenerative system. Courtesy of Tom Newmark.

We are all—personally and professionally—reliant on farmers.

Tom Newmark, Founder and Chair of The Carbon Underground, pointed that out at the beginning of his keynote speech on day 2 of Driving Value Through Sustainability Across the Supply Chain.

Farming, he said, is a learning process. “It’s been a joy, every stride and stumble along the way,” he said—but there were stumbles.

Newmark’s farm, Finca Luna Nueva, started out certified organic. They decided it wasn’t enough, and went biodynamic—“We farmed according to the lunar cycle, we buried manure and cow horns, we did everything right. We had years and years of fallow between our turmeric and ginger crops, and 60% of our land was either primary or secondary rainforest. The turmeric was spectacular, it was so tall you could lose yourself in the maze, and the yields were exceptional, so rich with curcuminoids, the quality was surpassing.”

But, Newmark explained, even that wasn’t enough. “Note how we farmed—in rows. Straight. Linear. Non-random. Monoculture. How nothing in a rainforest ever is. And, inevitably, Fusarium—a root disease—happened. It threatened our entire crop, so we called up our biodynamic certifier and asked—what do we do? What do we spray? And he told us—why are you asking me, you’re biodynamic farmers, your farm is a living entity, ask your farm. So we did. We went and sat out in the fields, and the farm told us to plant in mounds, not rows. The rows were conducting the disease.”

And still, he said—not enough. “At the same time as we were changing the geometry of our farm, we were learning about regenerative agriculture. So we partnered with Rodale to create a system of testing regenerative agriculture. We planted plots of cassava—conventional, biodynamic, organic, everything. And then a six-week drought hit. In a rainforest. No one in Costa Rica had ever seen that—it’s happened twice since then, but at the time it was unheard of. And I went out and took pictures.” Newmark let the pictures speak for themselves—he showed a picture of the chemical field, which showed no signs of life, and then a picture of the organic field, where cassava was growing and green. (To see the images, head to www.naturallyinformed.net and register to get the on-demand recordings.)

The difference between the fields was in the microbiome of the soil. In the chemical fields, Newmark explained, the bacteria had died; in the organic fields, the bacteria was thriving. “That was it. It was the same starter, the same vegetative materials, the same water, the same farmers, the same everything,” Newmark said.

The key, he said, is to mimic, as closely as possible, the biome in which the farm exists. For Newmark, that’s the rainforest—so they recreate the forest around their crops, leaving only enough in which to actually plant the crop they’re looking to yield. This creates underground biomass, which stores carbon; and it creates diversity, which prevents loss of crops to predation. “Diversity is the currency of survival on this planet,” Newmark said.

Another farmer working through his own learning process: Kamal Bell, Owner of Sankofa Farms, in North Carolina. In the session Beyond Sustainability: The RegenAg Movement, he told attendees that he went to an all-black preschool and elementary school: “In this environment, I learned a lot about how it looks when black people can control the metrics of a space…As I got older, I really saw the value of that. All our teachers were black, and there was a different care, and a nurturing that we got in that environment.” That was followed up by a Catholic middle school, and Bell noticed a difference—his pre-K and elementary schools, he said, “could produce a child that could think about their problems, that affected the community…In a catholic school, though, the issues that affected them were the ones that kids were trained to solve. And I don’t have a problem with that, that’s their environment, but it made me think—okay, how can I do the same thing, once I get out of the system?”

Bell also noticed a resource divide—the kids he went to high school with drove better cars than his parents. “And it really made me start to think—how can I get these resources to my people?”

The answer: Sankofa Farms.

Bell got his Masters in Agriculture Education, working with a black farmer. He went from there to trying to get his own farm, knocking down roadblocks along the way—at the beginning, he told attendees, he went to the FSA to get a loan. He was essentially managing two different projects through his schooling, and got help putting his application together from a graduate of his school. The FSA agent he had to submit the application to told Bell that his application was “one of the most well-put-together applications” the agent had ever seen—and then denied the application. “During that process, they had me meet with them several times for no reason,” Bell said, “but I can recall a conversation he had with a farmer—and he was complaining about his fallow fields. And the agent told the guy on the phone, ‘I’ll give you $300,000 for your fields.’ And then he denied me $60,000.” Bell appealed, and ended up getting his loan. “But what I told myself during this process—in order to get more African Americans into farming, we have to educate them on these issues.”

Bell finished out his student teaching, noticing that many curricula don’t cater to students’ needs. He decided to create an academy for the youth to educate them on sustainability, from a community and agricultural aspect. The principal wasn’t a fan—so when Bell got his farm, he developed educational activities centered around the students. “We have a focus on teaching them STEM values, with an agricultural lens, to help them adapt to a changing society.”

Bell explained that farming brings people together, it teaches life skills, and it’s service based. He echoed Newmark, here—“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is patience. You have no control, and you have to listen to the critique of Mother Nature.” The kids who help on his farm, he said, don’t always go on to farm—that’s not the goal, Bell says, noting that one of the kids wants to study genetics. Bell is looking to give them opportunities to grow.

His students are building a seedling house; they’re learning to work with bees, and Bell and some of his students are certified, allowing them to work with several hives, and allowing them to perform outreach and teach the kids. Both of those initiatives were started by the kids themselves. “Before COVID, we had people come out, and we would teach them about proper beekeeping practices—well, not proper, because we don’t have it right. We’re teaching them what works for us at Sankofa.”

Another segment of Bell’s outreach: STEM and Sankofa, a Youtube series Bell creates so that when black kids go looking for STEM and agricultural content, “they see a black person there, so that they can feel more comfortable with engaging in the content.”

And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, Bell said. “Sankofa was founded to help people who are affected by food deserts get healthy, nutritious food.” The food, the education, the outreach—Bell explained: “People ask me all the time, why do I farm? Well, I tell them, it’s my passion. It doesn’t feel like a job. I could be at the farm all day, working with our youth, or out there by myself. It doesn’t feel like a job to me. It’s my safe place. It’s how we are committed to change and committed to each other. It’s really interesting to see everyone change through this process, especially the young adults now. So I tell people that the growing of the plants isn’t necessarily—I didn’t envision myself doing that. It’s something I’m learning. We’re using a lot of regenerative agricultural practices. We’re transitioning to no-till, which has been really cool. But this is how I help people. Farming is that mechanism for me to help, it’s how I bring about change.”

Related: #NaturallyInformed: Saving the Planet, Soil First
#NaturallyInformed: Food First
Regenerative Agriculture in the Age of COVID-19 & Beyond

To hear the rest of Newmark’s and Bell’s presentations—including information on Newmark’s work with regen ag, and more of Bell’s initiatives—head to www.naturallyinformed.net and register for the on-demand recordings. Newmark and Bell both included pictures of their farms that, alone, are worth the viewing—but there’s also all the information not covered in this article, as well as sessions from companies like Indena, which worked to include people and communities in their practices, and from people like Ann Armbrecht, who told attendees about sustainable practices and the importance of listening.