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Regenerative Agriculture and Circular Food Design with Farmer Mollie

by Millicent Hofung |

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m an entrepreneur that wants to make my money by making a difference. I never wanted to compromise my commitment to anything; to the earth, to my children, to the future by running a business.

I wanted to be that as we grew, we put larger percentages of our revenue into creating who we believe we want to be in the world. And so we started with a restaurant, and I realized we were putting all of this food waste into the landfill. And I thought: “What are we doing?”

I’m an entrepreneur that wants to do the best for the planet, no matter what we’re doing.

 

Tell us about the farm.

We started with our first ice cream shop in 2009 and then the first restaurant in 2011. It wasn’t until 2018, 7 years in, that we got the farm.

When we got the farm it was a dead desert field and now it’s super lush and green. We began growing the avocados and oranges that were already here and then we put in all sorts of citrus; we have about 40 varieties of citrus, 40 varieties of avocados, 300 olive trees, mulberries, blackberries, strawberries, a big veggie program, we have a tropical greenhouse (papayas, bananas) and hops grown for our brewery.

We use alley cropping; where we crop between the rows so that the avocado trees that aren’t yet producing for us until year 5, and if we’re in year 3, we grow popcorn, kale or zucchini between them. That’s an awesome way we use the land and keep it covered. They say the mother is modest; so the more stuff you have growing, the more microbes is being put down into the soil and the more we’re sequestering carbon. We do holistic planned grazing with animals, so we have sheeps and goats for clearing brush, and chickens for weeding.

The difference between our farm is that we have lots of weeds. The reason we have weeds is that we don’t spray toxic fertilizers. Instead, our chickens go underneath the trees, poop, fertilize, scratch and feed the soil. Then we put mulch or compost down, move the chickens out several months before the fruit is harvested, harvest the fruit and then put the chickens back. That’s how we manage the weeds, it’s a very holistic method.

 

Mollie Engelhart of Sage: Plant Based Bistro & Brewery, and her family on Sow a Heart farm in Southern California.

 

What was the impetus to start the farm, in connection with your restaurants?

When we talk about waste, nature wastes nothing. Nature is always recycling. The idea that when we throw away something, we put this biomass into a plastic bag and then put that in the landfill to turn into methane, it’s a huge problem! We’ve all thrown a banana outside of our yard and it’s gone in a couple of days – the solution is so simple. So the idea that I can take food waste from the restaurant, bring it here and then bring it back as vegetables – it’s like obvious.

In reality, we all throw away so much food and when you grow food you take it personally. When we throw away stuff, there is no away. We’re all roommates on this rock hurtling through space – the idea that we can keep throwing away stuff is silly.

Even the cardboard we get from deliveries, we take the tape off and put them down to block weeds, put mulch on top of them and then they disappear.

To me it’s so obvious, the leaves drop from trees and they decompose. The bugs eat those decomposed leaves, poop and feed the ground with microbes. The tree pulls down carbon and feeds the carbohydrates into the ground. The leaves fall, decompose – this is obvious how nature works. The idea that we want to put it in plastic and throw it into landfills and away is crazy.

 

Why is practicing regenerative farming important to you?

Regenerative farming is anything where we’re putting more into the soil than we’re taking out. We’re treating the soil as a savings account – sometimes you’ll dip into it and take something, but you’re always putting more in than what you’re taking out. You can do that with holistic planned grazing, cover crops, rotating crops, but the least disturbance of the soil is fundamentally how that happens.

You have to create the opportunity for the soil to sequester carbon. If we work as partners with nature, we can get more done than letting nature be. We believe that nature is divine and perfect and we can support it in having a diverse ecosystem – no one pest can take over and it’s better for the farmer.

With the drought, we’ll have almost no avocados next year. What if we only had avocados? Now that’s a whole year without income. But because it was a drought year, my figs have grown like crazy. All these other plants are doing okay in the drought (popcorn, masa corn), so when we diversify, we don’t have to take extreme measures with chemical fertilizers.

 

Regenerative farming practices from Sow A Heart Farm in Southern California.

 

What is the role of compost at the farm? At the restaurants?

We have a manure machine that spreads the compost at the farm – we cut down the last crop, put the compost down and then we plant the next crop on top of it. We’re part of a low disturbance program so we don’t till at all in order to protect the soil.

For example, kale that’s grown on the farm is taken to the restaurant and used for juice in the restaurant. The leftover stems are then taken back to the farm, broken down in the compost and spread into the field where strawberries are grown. 9 months later, it’ll return to the restaurant as strawberries. Then those strawberry heads are frozen, used in smoothies and the tops go back to the farm in the compost and the cycle begins again. This feels like we’re a part of the solution rather than the problem.

 

Advice you’d give someone looking to eat more sustainably?

Super simple: buy local, eat seasonal.

This idea that we can eat broccoli 365 days of the year is broken. Eat ugly produce, eat produce from your local farmers market and eat what is seasonally available. It’s better for your body. If your body is in this climate and certain fruits or vegetables are ripening, can’t you imagine the universe has already figured out what you’re meant to be eating in that climate?

Also, cook for yourself! When you cook for yourself you have the tendency to eat better. When you grab something that’s packaged, it doesn’t have the same value. Instead of buying banana bread, take the time to make it. You’re more likely to eat it, be mindful of it and put it in a container so it doesn’t get stale on the counter.

 

Mollie Engelhart of Sow a Heart Farm and Sage: Plant Based Bistro & Brewery, and locally grown organic produce in Southern California.

 

A lesson you’ve learned in launching and running the farm and restaurants?

It’s simple, fear should never be the foundation of your decisions. Fear should be “thank you for sharing” and then choosing powerfully. Consideration for the whole should be the foundation for every decision you make.

Also, never talk yourself out of stuff. Don’t talk yourself out of something because there’s going to be a lot of people in the world that will talk you out of things. Just follow your gut, do what you know will be great and make decisions quickly but follow them through long enough to be able to be successful. Don’t talk yourself out of your own success and don’t overanalyze it.

 

Sage: Plant Based Bistro & Brewery based in Los Angeles, California.  

 

Any favorite daily sustainability hacks?

I do all of the normal things – reusable bags and cups but I think that the real foundation of having a more sustainable life is spending more time immersed in nature. Before the fruit grown on the farm can get overripe, it’s frozen to make smoothies. If the greens become wilted, I steam them, put them in the freezer and add them into soups later.

Honestly, to live a more sustainable life we have to be more connected to nature, disconnect from technology and look up. It’s something to be in awe of. The world can have us so disconnected from nature that we are no longer in awe of it. It’s hard to be sustainable when we’re not amazed by what the world has to offer.

 

What is one of your go-to nature escapes?

I live here at the farm! There’s a creek and the Sespe that runs all along our property. Last year, we went to Washington and recently a cool little lake in Northern California. Of course, go on trips but on a Saturday, go breathe the microbiome that’s in the air in a different environment and take that into your body.

 

 

KENT x Sow A Heart Farm

I’m excited for people to have underwear options that are biodegradable because most of them are made of plastics and are never going to go away. Not only is that not good for the environment, it’s not good for your body at all!

So much of the cotton underwear that you can get out there has the largest amounts of pesticides that are sprayed on cotton. So we don’t think about it, but the different detergents that we use or the materials that we put on our body, can have hormonal effects on our body. So it’s not just a silly thing to make underwear that can go in the compost, but this is one of many steps that we have to do to eliminate synthetic chemicals from our body.

 

Mollie Engelhart of Sow a Heart Farm and Sage: Plant Based Bistro & Brewery.

 

Learn more about Mollie and Sow a Heart Farm at www.sowaheart.com, @sowaheart and @chefmollie.

 

Follow us on Instagram @wearkent to stay updated with our exciting collaboration with Sow a Heart Farm coming this October!