Regenerative Agriculture Is A Thing Of The Past

Exploring An Urban Oasis: The Ecology Center With Evan Marks

How do you define the beginning? For cultures grounded in the ecology of the land, the "beginning" was never a starting point but rather a continuation of ancient practices passed down from generation to generation. Such practices were deeply ingrained into the theology and ideologies of indigenous cultures– one may argue regenerative agriculture was at the epicenter of their civilizations.

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The Three Sisters

Indigenous peoples of the Americas were highly prolific land stewards. Though the physical environment changed swiftly and vastly across the Americas, every ancient civilization relied on its geographical resources for survival. By tradition, the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (comprising of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations) tells the Legend of the Three Sisters1. Originating in Mesoamerica sometime around 700 BP, the "Three Sisters" became a foundation for subsistence culture practiced by Indigenous communities throughout history.

The three sisters – corn, beans, and squash – were considered gifts from the Great Spirit. They symbolize how crops thrive together rather than alone. Unique in personality and appearance, one sister, could not survive without the others. Corn, the eldest sister, provides a pole for beans to climb. Squash, the middle sister, grows across the dirt mounds, using her leaves to protect the sisters from weeds while keeping the soil cool, moist, and full of nutrients. Beans, the youngest sister, weaves her way through the squash, climbing Sister Corn's stalk towards the sun.

As many oral traditions go, several narratives surround the Legend of the Three Sisters, each varying across the tribal nations. Yet, one unified message rings clear: Indigenous communities of the past understood the importance of working with nature to protect the ecosystem, which sustains life. The preservation of such teachings holds a meaningful contribution to today's agricultural system. Modern regenerative agricultural practices mirror the techniques used by Indigenous communities in both the past and present.

Manifesting The Past: Lessons From The Three Sisters

How were Indigenous communities able to maintain their ecosystems for centuries? Examining agriculture through a cultural lens reveals a high frequency of knowledge. Over time, this knowledge had become obscured by Western colonization and capitalization. Regenerative agriculture is a contemporary concept that grew in response to the industrial degradation of vital ecosystems. To Indigenous communities, land conservation practices were a way of life and, at the very least, common sense.

Regenerative agriculture is an umbrella term for describing a series of methodologies tied to two core principles: restoration and rehabilitation. From protozoa to fungi, arthropods to large mammals– this approach of restorative farming addresses the system as a whole. It not only considers flora and fauna but all kinds of natural biodiversity. By definition, regenerative agriculture is guided by "holistic land management practices and techniques." Practitioners are encouraged to understand how all areas of agriculture are interconnected at every level of the supply chain– from farmers (the producers) to companies (the distributors) and people (the consumers).

Regenerative agriculture is an umbrella term for describing a series of methodologies tied to two core principles: restoration and rehabilitation.

The five core principles of regenerative agriculture– minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing crop diversity, keeping soil covered, maintaining a living root, and integrating livestock– replicate the framework built by Indigenous communities.

For example, interplanting maximizes crop diversity in the agricultural system. It refers to cultivating two or more crops in close proximity to one another. Most plants favor this method as it creates a microclimate between crops, ensuring their survival. In the milpa system, corn stalks act as a natural trellis for beans to climb. As beans climb, they stabilize corn stalks, protecting them from high winds. In turn, beans maintain a living root by providing nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen-fixing bacteria– an essential nutrient for corn. Squash serves its primary function as a living mulch while preserving soil quality and deterring pests.

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An Integrative Approach To Regenerative Agriculture

The five core principles of regenerative agriculture– minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing crop diversity, keeping soil covered, maintaining a living root, and integrating livestock– replicate the framework built by Indigenous communities.

For example, interplanting maximizes crop diversity in the agricultural system. It refers to cultivating two or more crops in close proximity to one another. Most plants favor this method as it creates a microclimate between crops, ensuring their survival. In the milpa system, corn stalks act as a natural trellis for beans to climb. As beans climb, they stabilize corn stalks, protecting them from high winds. In turn, beans maintain a living root by providing nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen-fixing bacteria– an essential nutrient for corn. Squash serves its primary function as a living mulch while preserving soil quality and deterring pests.

Permaculture intends to create a permanent, sustainable culture based on principles of ethics and design.

In regenerative agriculture, maximizing crop diversity is favorable to monoculture. Think of America's grass lawn problem. Sure, it's visually appealing, but what is the proper function of a grass lawn? It hosts minimal plant and animal biodiversity while requiring high water inputs. The classic American yard has the potential to sustain a wide variety of edible plants, flowers, and tree species, thus encouraging the return of pollinators like birds and bees. On a larger scale, government-incentivized monoculture has disenfranchised a person's ability to grow enough varieties of food to support themselves. A study2 conducted in the highlands of Oaxaca has proven monoculture corn, and beans lacked vitamin A, B9, B12, and C compared to the Indigenous practice of milpa. Industrialized agricultural systems have forced producers to sacrifice quality for quantity, diminishing the health of society and enabling food-insecure social spheres.

Interplanting (the Three Sisters) ties together four principles of regenerative agriculture. Success depends upon utilizing complementary crops, limiting resource competition for sun, water, air, and nutrients. Over time, this practice can improve crop productivity and soil health, support biodiversity, enhance food security, and sequester carbon.

The beauty of regenerative agriculture is its malleable nature; techniques are adapted to fit the context, region, and available resources. Regenerative farms today have re-aligned themselves with spiritual and ecological truths of farming. However, while advances in sustainable agriculture are evolving, homage must be paid to Indigenous communities who have both authored and preserved these philosophies for the Western world to rediscover.

Agroecology By Practice, Permaculture By Design

Now, this isn't exactly a love story about regenerative agriculture. In fact, regenerative agriculture is an evolving paradigm that could be better understood through the scope of agroecology and permaculture design. In a broad sense, agroecology is the scientific ecological analysis of agriculture. Its departure from academia into the real world occurred in the 1970s during Mexico's Green Revolution. Small farmers, activists, and scientists insisted traditional, local, and indigenous agriculture practices in Mexico shouldn't be replaced by high-yielding, large-scale production systems. Instead, they lobbied for a balanced ecosystem integrating ecological, technological, and socioeconomic elements that had "met the needs of millions of small farmers for centuries." Agroecology is tied to the movement that merges design (permaculture) and sustainable ecosystem management.

Permaculture intends to create a permanent, sustainable culture based on principles of ethics and design. Bill Mollison and David Holgrem coined "permaculture" in the 1970s. Holgrem defined permaculture as "consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature while yielding an abundance of food, fiber, and energy for provision of local needs." These designs are intended to build resilience, enhance diversity, and establish stability within agricultural ecosystems

Permaculture intends to create a permanent, sustainable culture based on principles of ethics and design.

In agroecology and permaculture design, equity is paramount. Equity is the ability of farmers to access knowledge and agricultural technologies while receiving fair wages. Equity delivers healthy and nutritious food for all, eliminating hunger and food insecurity globally—equity tears down the walls surrounding social, economic, and political injustice in governing traditional food systems. Building an equity-focused, sustainable food system relies on an element of creative dexterity. Evan Marks, Founder and Executive Director at The Ecology Center, has noted that a shift can only come when society recognizes that all of the [Western] ideas inherited aren't serving us anymore. Only then can we progress towards true sustainability.

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An Origin Story: The Ecology Center With Evan Marks

An urban oasis by design and functionality, The Ecology Center offers something unique to its growing community in San Juan Capistrano, Southern California. The 28-acre Regenerative Organic™ farm immediately had my senses buzzing as the fragrance of citrus wafted around the air. Situated on a 140-year-old alluvial floodplain, the clay loam profile of the soil creates an ideal environment suitable for agriculture. In a California climate, clay loam is a gold mine; it's drought-tolerant and nutrient-dense. Evan Marks personified the land's gravitas as one who is seeking to be– the soil was destined to thrive with a little TLC. The Ecology Center also had advantageous positioning. It was located in the center of a community that would have otherwise trodden down by concrete houses and apartment complexes.

The farm felt cozy and familiar– the sound of laughter was a constant. It was clear that The Ecology Center had become a sanctuary for those looking to experience an alternative way of life. Visitors popped in and out of the farm stand, filling their boxes with fresh veggies and seasonal fruits. Children of all ages dipped and dove under branches of the fruit trees as they chased each other around. Families scattered themselves throughout the farm as if it were their own backyard.

"People in every walk of life all over the world are seeking purpose. They don't know what they're missing. We presented it to them [the people of Orange County] really through a lens of designers; it's beautiful, it's delicious. It's not just on the fringe. This is something we tried to build universal appeal for everyone, and then people from all walks of life came, and they did participate."

Catching up with Evan, I was eager to discover his inspiration behind The Ecology Center and his journey into regenerative agriculture. Like any exciting origin story, Evan's began at the age of 6 when he discovered a love for surfing.

whether that's how we come together as friends or family, how we eat, how we care for the earth– and everything in between.

By the time I was 16, I started opening up my eyes to the ocean in a different way– not just checking surf size and tides. [ . . . ] Periodically, we would be picking up trash on the beach, and it kept growing. As a teenager, I just started thinking of where all this stuff comes from and our impact on this planet. And, growing up, as most kids do in a bubble, you don't always think about the context of humans and the planet. But, that was kind of one of my first moments of realization that humans have a significantly negative impact on the environment."

Evan followed those questions upstream and ended up at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Having tested out different areas of environmental advocacy, including door-to-door campaigns, there was a point of realization that although observation was critical, the work wasn't rewarding. Eventually, Evan found a niche within a community akin to his way of life– farming enthusiasts and advocates. By word of mouth, he'd connected with friends that positioned him on a path toward organic farming.

"I got a job at an organic farm next week and started picking vegetables– sugar snap peas, dry farm tomatoes– kind of classic summer ingredients. It's hard work and rewarding at the same time. I spent my summer doing that as I teed right into my first year at Santa Cruz."

Learning from Steve Gliessman at UC Santa Cruz had been one of two affirmative moments in his early career. Gliessman coined the term "agroecology" and wrote the subsequent texts for its application in the Green Revolution.

"He taught me a lot along the way and still does. We're putting the culture back in agriculture. What I've learned and what I've come to see [is that] over the last 100 years, we've industrialized our farms like we have industrialized every other element of our life. We've basically pulled all the good stuff out, and we are left with nothingness, but it still shows there's a skeleton of something. We see that again in all forms– whether that's how we come together as friends or family, how we eat, how we care for the earth– and everything in between."

The second affirmative moment of Evan's career was a permaculture design course he took in Hawaii. This was when he began to intersect theory and practice. In doing so, he learned that two key elements of permaculture lie in its values and how we observe natural patterns.

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An Ecological Designer, Not A Farmer

"Permaculture is really a methodology for being human and thinking about, whoa– how do I care for the planet, how do I care for the people, how do I share the surplus?"

So, how do you sew people back into the land? Answering this question meant hopping on a plane and learning from cultures that maintained a significant connection to their natural environment. Arriving in Latin America, including Costa Rica, Peru, and Mexico, then eventually, West Africa and Ghana – Evan was able to observe those patterns in nature for their application in other parts of the world. Through his work as a consultant, Evan had designed over 50 ecosystems in remote locations, from ecovillages to boutique hotels, from 5-acre farms to 100-acre farms.

"I was really able to express and lean in on [permaculture design] significantly in Latin America where the ecosystem is mostly a tropical forest base. You look at these layers of a rainforest, and you observe the patterns. You observe the species; you look at how those ecosystems work, and then you try to take those pieces, and you bring it across the street where it's a degraded pasture. The design challenge was to take this 1000-acre degraded pasture and turn it into something viable for the whole region. We took those patterns [observed in the rainforest] and modeled them with species that provided economic and nutrient value to both the soil and the humans."

Evan noted that Western culture does not have the same level of land stewardship found in Latin America, Africa, or most other places in the world still "fairly rooted on this planet." Most present-day Indigenous cultures typically have a home garden and some relationship to food, medicine, and essential basic needs outside their back door.

"In Costa Rica [Mexico and Africa], by and large, most people still live in relation to the land. They have family close; they have shade trees present to keep the houses cool. They know exactly how to orient their living, so it's outdoors in relation to the hot days of the sun and the cool nights, and then they grow their food and their medicine. And they have their animals and recreations all without the back door."

Bringing The Vision To Life

"How do you sew people back into the relationship with food? How do you sew ecology back into the art and the science of agriculture?"

Evan didn't just look for answers; he found solutions. Referencing observations from Indigenous communities in Latin America and Africa, The Ecology Center began to take form. Using a permaculture design model, Evan intended to "articulate traditional ecological knowledge not easily observed by Western Culture."

"I then realized in high school that if we don't change our food production systems, I'm not going to be able to surf. I need to invest in my community that's authentic to me if I want to change the world."

In 2008, Evan Returned to Orange County and found an empty farm and dirt lot, and began bringing his vision to life.

‍"Our first acre. That was a dirt lot ten years ago. How do we turn this into an ecological oasis that provides for all of our needs? It's beautiful and ecologically diverse, and super-rich in many different ways. This is a pattern that I saw everywhere [around the world] I went, and I just brought it to Orange County."

The Heart of The Ecology Center

"It's worth mentioning that there are a million great projects in the world, so we are in great company. The uniqueness of The Ecology Center is how the creative culture weaves its way into the ecological movement. I'm very inspired by artists and designers and kind of have most of my peers as artists and designers rather than farmers. That's a part of the uniqueness of this; there is intention and kind of a conscious design element that's woven into everything."

GROW. EAT. MAKE.

The Ecology Center is not just a regenerative farm. It is a regenerative farm that adheres to the values and commitments found within agroecology. In Evan's words, "It's a farm that gives more than it takes. It's a farm that generates ecological value; it generates cultural value; it generates diversity and equity and economy." A reminder of the five core values sprout from the flowery fields in the form of five rainbow-colored arches. Learn by doing, be a part of the solution, collaborate for change, give more than we take, and in the spirit of Ram Dass, BE HERE NOW!

Want to learn more? Follow our four-part series on regenerative agriculture featuring The Ecology Center. Stay tuned– this is just the beginning.