My Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture

It may seem odd, but my journey to regenerative agriculture starts with snow.

I grew up in rural Maine, surrounded by forests and small, organic family farms. As a result, I developed a passion for the natural world. By middle school, my curiosity and fascination with science had made me somewhat of a loner. But when I joined the cross country ski team, I felt like I’d found somewhere that I fit in. I was very competitive, and so racing through the woods, with trees blanketed in fresh snow with my adrenaline pumping was an intense and beautiful experience at the same time. I was in my element. That was where I belonged.

Me, in a ski race back in the early 2000s.

However, at the beginning of high school, I was diagnosed with exercise and cold-induced asthma. While this didn’t end my ski racing career, it certainly made it much more difficult, and made me feel like I was not reaching my full potential. At the same time, practicing for ski races in southern Maine was becoming more difficult. Winters were becoming warmer, and as a result, we often didn’t have enough snow cover close to the coast for skiing. I remember the collective disappointment that my teammates and I felt when we were told we’d have to spend another practice jogging, rather than skiing.

That was when I learned that there was a connection between my asthma and the warmer winters: coal power plants. Burning coal was putting excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was heating the planet, and the ash from that coal was also polluting the air and causing higher rates of diseases like asthma. That was also the first time that I made the connection between the health of the natural world and human health.

Being ambitious, I set out to find solutions to this big problem. I know that part of me also wanted to somehow prove to the world that I was worthy; that I could accomplish something big, since I still didn’t quite feel like I belonged anywhere. I left Maine and moved to Boston, to be somewhere that I could meet other ambitious, like-minded people. At first I thought I’d get into politics, but after dipping my toes in, I was quickly disillusioned.

Then something happened that set me on my current path. I was recruited by a friend to help him start a wind energy company. Until then, I hadn’t realized that a for-profit venture could also be a vehicle for promoting social and environmental good. While the venture ultimately failed, this idea stuck with me.

I decided to move abroad — first to France, then to China — to learn more about environmental issues from an international perspective. During this time, I learned about how much food waste was produced around the world, and various ways it was getting recycled. But the rate of food waste recycling in the US was far lower than places like China, where resources are more scarce. With all this waste I saw an opportunity. So I came up with the idea to start a waste to energy company that would make devices that could turn food waste at a restaurant or grocery store into energy onsite.

An early prototype I designed and built for our waste to energy device

It seemed like a great idea in theory, but after two years of trying to get busy restaurant and grocery store owners to put a new device into their cramped space, with what turned out to be little financial benefit, I was getting stuck. What was I doing? I didn’t feel like I was making a difference for my potential customers, or for the world anymore. Moreover, I was making very little money myself and no longer enjoying life.

During this time, I went to a conference hosted by Biocycle, the organic recycling magazine. There I saw a Professor from the University of Washington, David Montgomery, giving a presentation about his new book on regenerative agriculture, Growing A Revolution. He started talking about farmers switching to regenerative practices, and showed examples of farmers who were getting higher yields and spending way less money on inputs, and how that by building their soil, they were removing carbon from the atmosphere. It made me pause. HIGHER yields and less expenses, AND it’s better for the environment?? And suddenly I got excited, and I thought, what if every farmer started doing this? How much different would the world look? How much more beautiful and joyful would it be? Not to mention, some reputable sources have estimated that we could reverse climate change entirely just through these regenerative agriculture practices.

That was when I decided I had to get involved in regenerative agriculture. It seemed to me that this was the inevitable direction that my life had been heading. I had grown up around small organic farms and homesteads, and everything about this way of growing just seemed right.

So I refocused my company on turning food waste into biofertilizer. Since using standard, salt-based fertilizers are a big part of what’s killing soil microbial life and leading to soil carbon loss, I wanted to create something that would help wean farmers off their dependence on these fertilizers, and make the transition to using regenerative practices easier. I teamed up with a 30-year veteran of organic farming, and we created Bioflux: a fermented liquid made from waste materials that acts like a “kombucha for plants,” by making plant nutrients that are already in the soil more bioavailable. What most people don’t realize is that most soils contain all the nutrients that plants need, they are just not available to the plants. This is because most of our soils have had their microbial life severely degraded by tillage and agricultural chemicals.

Our startup Everflux production facility in West Oakland

After two years of getting trials done and finding an initial group of devoted customers, I realized that most growers needed more than just a product — they needed guidelines for an entirely new system of farming. At the same time, hemp had just been legalized at the federal level. Thousands of farmers across the country were jumping into hemp farming. Many of them had heard that hemp could help to regenerate their depleted soils, but at the same time were taking hydroponic growing methods from the cannabis industry, trying to translate them into outdoor field growing, and running into numerous issues. I saw that what they really needed was to learn how to grow hemp with regenerative practices like no-till, cover cropping, companion planting, and integrating livestock. By this point, my farmer-collaborator had moved on to other things, and I was left wondering how I was going to educate growers without being a grower myself.

Luckily, regenerative growers are very willing to share their practices and secrets to success. So I set out to interview 20+ of the leading regenerative hemp and cannabis growers in America. As I completed these interviews over the course of the year, I set up my own garden and began applying the practices I was learning. To my surprise, I started getting amazing results. I’m now in the process of compiling my interviews and the learning from my own garden into a book titled Cannabinoid Cultivation Secrets: Combining Ancient Wisdom with Cutting Edge Science to Cultivate Superior Cannabinoid Producing Plants. While these methods work especially well for cannabis and hemp growing, they also can produce amazing results in a vegetable garden or farm.

While I had grown up close to the land and spent lots of time in gardens as a kid, after I moved away from Maine, I had been living in big cities for nearly 15 years. When I started gardening again, I realized how much I’d been missing having my hands in the dirt and watching the bees and butterflies drift over flowering plants. And suddenly, growing food and medicine was no longer just about saving the world and making a big impact in an abstract sense, as it had been for so many years, but about making my life and the lives of those around me more fulfilling, healthy, whole and nourished. Growing regeneratively is about building a new culture. It’s about acting local, helping our communities, building resilience and creating a culture of permanence. And anywhere I can be doing that work, I realized, is ultimately where I belong.

My first permaculture garden taking off

Join me (Daniel Enking) as I uncover the secrets to growing your own nutrient dense, flavor rich food and medicinal plants that resist pests and diseases.