Regenerative Farm In SoCal Aims To Capture The Greenhouse Gases It Creates
On a crisp winter morning, I’m standing outside the house of L.A. chef Mollie Engelhart and her husband and business partner Elias Sosa. Their 18-acre farm, called Sow A Heart, sits in a beautiful valley beside a creek outside the town of Fillmore, in Ventura County.
We walk behind the house where there’s a blue tarp covered in corn. The kernels are gold and pink and purple. They glisten like little jewels in the morning sunlight. Sosa dips his hands into a huge tub of kernels in a shed nearby, letting them run through his fingers.
“This is the Oaxacan green corn all clean and ready to be made into tamales,” Engelhart said as the kernels fell through Sosa’s fingers with a satisfying hiss.
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Sosa grew up farming this type of corn with his father in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, so it’s a way to honor the family’s roots. They use the corn for tamales for their four popular vegan restaurants in L.A., called Sage.
The couple met when Sosa started working at the first Sage location in Echo Park in 2011. Engelhart was the co-owner, and they bonded over their shared love of growing food.
“I was pretty much a dishwasher and I married my boss,” Sosa said, laughing. They now have three young children.
Since the harvest back in September, the family has made a lot of tamales — about 12,000. But how they grew that corn isn’t just about keeping the food at their restaurants local and pesticide-free. It’s a way to fight the climate crisis.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Engelhart and Sosa use farming practices they call “regenerative agriculture.” They’re part of a growing movement to make these processes more widespread and get farms to capture more carbon than they emit.
That’s not the case for the majority of farms that grow our food today. Over the last century, a skyrocketing population and increasing demand for meat and dairy fueled the rise of industrial farming.
Modern practices like clearing land for monocropping (planting the same crop year after year), the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and massive livestock operations mean farms in California release about 8% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s in part because these kinds of practices destroy the soil, which is one of nature’s greatest carbon sinks.
During photosynthesis, plants absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air so they can grow. Some of that carbon travels down the plants’ roots and into the soil, feeding microorganisms that use it to build rich, nutrient-dense soil.
When soil is disturbed through plowing or land clearing, that microscopic universe is destroyed. Carbon is released into the atmosphere, adding to the emissions that are heating up our planet. When the same crop is planted year after year, the soil gets more and more depleted, which leads to nutrient-poor crops and the use of chemical fertilizers that can pollute local water sources.
'Lasagna Farming' And Regenerative Solutions
Corn, for example, takes a lot of nutrients out of the soil in order to grow. To combat that, the couple does what they call “lasagna farming.”
“We don’t till, ever,” Engelhart said. “We just add more organic matter on top and we don’t till the ground at all.”
By adding that organic matter, rather than plowing and clearing the soil for the next round of crops, they help to replenish the soil’s microbes and keep carbon in the ground.
“We leave the corn stalks down and we chop them up, we run sheep over them to chew ‘em up a little bit, break ‘em down a little bit, and we also plant fava beans in the winter season as a cover crop,” Engelhart explained.
When farming with regenerative techniques, like planting cover crops year round, crops not only help build healthy soil, but they can also act similarly to a forest and pull carbon out of the air.
That’s important because to address the climate emergency, we can’t just reduce our emissions. We have to actually find ways to suck carbon out of the atmosphere — and nature is pretty darn good at doing that. It’s not a silver bullet, but how we farm can serve as a powerful strategy to combat the climate crisis.
At Sow a Heart, the fields are never bare — they have at least nine different cover crops year round. We walk past comfrey growing next to Mexican limes, blueberries below coffee. Rosemary, swiss chard, spinach, tomatoes, basil, Japanese eggplants, broccoli. The list goes on. It’s a far cry from the fallow field it was when they bought it. The farm had previously been a Roundup-fed orange orchard, Engelhart said.
Of course, growing with regenerative practices doesn’t make farms immune to the climate emergency. Engelhart and Sosa have had a few tough years on the farm. Their first year, 120-degree heat wiped out a thousand trees. Months of dryness, then a record-breaking day of rainfall followed by unseasonably warm weather made their avocado trees flower too early.
They fared better than many because they use regenerative farming. Those practices not only built up their soil health, but helped make their farm more economically resilient.
We walk past avocado trees shading Swiss chard and broccoli. The corn stalks they grew for Christmas tamales had shaded the trees during the heat of the summer, giving them a chance to grow. Now those avocado trees provide the same respite for winter crops.
“This gives us protection from that heat and it also gives us a commodity to sell while we’re waiting for the trees to get bigger,” Engelhart said.
Then, we get to the animals, specifically cows named Ferdinand and Hilda.
The food scraps from the couple’s restaurants all get brought back to the farm to be mixed with Ferdinand and Hilda’s poop. Then it’s used as fertilizer for the next round of crops. That keeps food out of the landfill, and the planet-heating methane that’s produced by that decomposing food, out of the atmosphere.
(Landfills are California’s largest source of methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas tens of times more effective at heating the planet than carbon dioxide. Food scraps make up about 18% of that methane-producing waste).
“That avocado skin that you didn’t eat came back to the farm, got mixed with Ferdinand’s poop here and it turned into soil, which turned into an orange or a lemon or a lime that you ate with your taco or had with your cocktail at the restaurant,” Engelhart said.
Things like planting diverse cover crops year round, not tilling the ground, and using compost and livestock manure as fertilizer are just a few examples of regenerative practices. Similar practices have been used by Indigenous people around the world for thousands of years. Science is now proving the potential of this kind of farming as a climate solution.
For both Engelhart and Sosa, this way of life is like going back to old ways. Engelhart grew up in rural upstate New York. Sosa grew up in a tiny town near the coast of Oaxaca. Both their families relied on the food they grew.
Engelhart’s family grew apples, beets, carrots and potatoes in a bursting garden. They never wasted food. When apples started to go bad, her father cut out the cores and baked them with honey.
Sosa’s family grew corn, watermelon, papayas, coconuts, mangoes, beans, and squash. Building up healthy soil with their cows’ manure and plant scraps was common practice.
“For me it’s like, okay, I’m building soil, I’m growing vegetables, that’s all I care about,” Sosa said. “I didn’t even know that I’m pulling carbon from the atmosphere. I’m just building soil because I know that’s how it works.”
There’s growing momentum from farmers, policymakers and environmentalists to encourage regenerative farming through policy, at a large scale, as a way to combat the climate crisis. Already, the state of California has invested millions in what officials call Climate Smart Agriculture, which includes regenerative techniques.
“We need to have an economy that leaves as much for the future as it takes for now and that is the possibility of regeneration,” Engelhart says.
But first, it’s time for tamales.
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