Arts & Entertainment
‘It all starts with the soil’
New virtual market connects consumers, regenerative ag producers
By Brooke Constance White EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – You might know whether your food is organic, grass-fed or non-GMO, but do you know whether it was grown using regenerative farming practices?
It’s a question that two Big Sky-based entrepreneurial couples started asking and they hope others will, too. Regenerative agriculture is a rising solution to the climate crisis, and it’s one that a Montana-based market is dedicated to.
This year, Big Sky locals Ryan and Monica Kulesza and Steve and Amy DiTullio set out to solve the two main problems they saw in the regenerative agriculture industry: educating people about what it is and providing a market space for producers to sell their products. In February, the couples launched RegenMarket, an online marketplace for products made using regenerative farming practices.
Using a combination of techniques such as perennial crops, little to no soil tilling, increased plant diversity, and managed grazing, regenerative farming produces highly nutritious food. Not only that but it’s good for animal welfare, draws carbon out of the atmosphere and is more resilient against drought and pests.
“Our [nation’s] food system is focused on pounds of food produced the fastest, regardless of environment, animal welfare or end-product quality,” Ryan said. “Our producers flip the food system upside down and make the environment, animal welfare and product quality the priority and go from there. It all starts with the soil.”
Prior to the launch of RegenMarket, the two couples were in the process of purchasing a ranch in Big Timber that they planned to use for regenerative agriculture. Monica grew up in Idaho’s agriculture industry and she and Ryan, who run L&K Real Estate, had seen countless family farms and ranches being sold to wealthy individuals because the farmers couldn’t afford them anymore. They wanted to figure out how to make a family farm successful, because according to Ryan, “conventional or industrial ag just doesn’t do it.”
The deal fell apart, but during that process, the couple learned that there are lots of regenerative producers out there, they just didn’t have a market to sell to because most consumers aren’t educated on what regenerative farming is or why it’s important.
“By being in Big Sky, we felt that we were in a great place to showcase these producers to get the word out because Big Sky sees people from all over the nation and world,” Ryan said.
Food that is produced using regenerative practices costs a bit more, but there’s a reason for it. For example, an industrially raised cow is slaughtered in 16-20 months whereas a regeneratively raised cow is finished in about 30 months. During this time, it becomes more lean and develops more nutrient density from the variety of forages. If people don’t understand the differences in the quality of food and in the farming practices, Ryan said, they aren’t likely to understand the difference in cost.
“When we improve soil health we increase the production that can be done on the same piece of ground, therefore with better soil health we can support more animals, more animals used correctly on the land leads to better soil health and the system goes on and on,” Ryan said. “So once these producers make the switch and have an outlet for their goods, their systems will become more efficient and require fewer inputs and the leaders in the regenerative movement are out producing industrial models.”
The DiTullio’s, who own Big Sky Home Management, have also been interested in agriculture and food for many years. When you cook a lot and take pride in quality ingredients, you want to become more knowledgeable about where it’s coming from and how it’s being produced, Steve said.
“Once we started tying the ag side of things to cooking and food, we became really invested in making sure that agriculture is done right,” he said. “We started seeing how industrial agriculture is really ruining the country and wanted to be a part of the solution.”
At the moment, RegenMarket is a members-only online platform offering products like meat, dairy, honey and grains produced using regenerative practices. The entire $80 monthly membership fee goes right into your account and you can use that to shop for whatever you’d like that month. If customers want to spend more or less than $80 one month, they can roll over funds to the next month or add more.
“What’s nice about our system is that by signing up with us, our customers are making a commitment to these producers that we’re going to buy their goods,” Ryan said. “That means something to me, to our members, and definitely to our producers.”
Jody Manuel, owner of Prairie Grass Ranch, one of RegenMarket’s producers, says one of the benefits of Regen is that ranches and farms can keep their identity and brand visible so customers know where and who the products are coming from. Many of the larger grocery chains package products without making it clear where the products are from or who produced them, he says.
“People want to know that they are supporting American, family-run farms and ranches,” he said. “With Regen, you can see exactly where it’s coming from.”
On the consumer end, RegenMarket founders say the educational aspect is especially important. Each of the producers has a page on Regen’s website with some background and a video about their business, what they are doing differently and why it’s important.
Steve said part of this education is helping people understand that regenerative agriculture is the only kind of agriculture that can reverse some of the effects of climate change. “At the rate that the nation’s topsoil is degrading, there are only about 60 harvests left,” he said. “People love to talk about electric cars, solar panels and wind energy and all of that is great but it’s only carbon neutral; those efforts are not going to save our planet. Regenerative agriculture actually sequesters carbon and draws it out of the atmosphere.”
While organic farming is also important, it only involves eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides in the growing process without much focus on soil health, Steve said. When you focus on soil health and do limited or zero tilling, Steve said weeds and insects naturally become less of a problem.
“Tilling is really the worst thing you can do because it means there is zero root structure in the soil, which is where the microbes and nitrogen are,” he said. “A teaspoon of healthy soil has a billion microorganisms in it.”
Manuel agreed, saying that weeds are generally an indication that something is lacking in the soil and that there’s an imbalance. The microbial population is vitally important to the health of the soil.
“In organic systems that rely heavily on tillage, weeds are a seemingly insurmountable challenge,“ Manuel said. “Regenerative farming works to re-establish that balance in the soil, but it’s a long process and takes several years to get that soil health back.”
Unlike the linear structure of industrial ag, regenerative ag is cyclical, meaning there is no end to the process; everything feeds back into the loop. There are always more ways to improve practices, whether it’s improving water infiltration, adding more diversity or finding new ways to improve soil health. Add the education and awareness aspect of it and the hope is that more and more people will buy into it, both literally and figuratively.
“There’s always this ‘aha’ moment when people just get it; when they understand that what’s in the soil translates to the plants translates to what animals feeding translates to what we’re eating,” Ryan said. “If we want to see a healthy planet and healthy people who don’t need pills and who can fight diseases, we’re all going to have to jump on board with regenerative farming.”