Old Dog Ranch: An Early Adopter of a New Regenerative Agriculture Certification
Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
September 3, 2021
This summer, Old Dog Ranch, a fifth-generation family walnut farm in Linden, California, became the first nut farm to earn Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Farmer Mollie Sitkin was attracted to the certification because its “beyond organic” philosophy aligns with her family’s. “We have always farmed with the perspective of preserving land for future generations. We have incredible soil that we don’t want to damage,” she says.
But with big food companies starting to bandy about the term “regenerative,” what does it mean to be regenerative certified?
Putting Standards to Regenerative
The new ROC certification is one of the first for regenerative agriculture. The program was developed by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which was established by The Rodale Institute, Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and other organizations in 2017.
Mollie sees the ROC certification as a way to communicate the farm’s values and differentiate itself from other walnut growers, while expanding its business. “As a lot of small farmers go online, it’s harder to know your customers. ROC opens the door to communicate with consumers that you are going above and beyond, and are committed to quality and land stewardship.” The Calaveras River runs through the ranch creating marsh habitat that supports healthy populations of insects and birds, which Audubon surveys annually.
Regenerative agriculture, with its goal of repairing environmental damage while producing healthy food and communities, provides a hopeful future for farming, but disagreement exists about which farming practices are truly regenerative. A recent scientific article that surveyed differences in the definition of regenerative agriculture identified five areas in which there was the most agreement: improving soil health, increasing biodiversity, carbon sequestration, livestock integration, and increasing community well-being.
However, in the absence of a single definition or standard, Cargill, General Mills, and other large industrial food companies have been using the term to include both organic and non-organic practices such as chemical inputs and GMOs.
Regenerative for Soil, Animals, and People
ROC’s mission calls out “corporate bullies, greenwashing, and fake food,” reflecting the certification’s intention to remedy problems and confusion created by big agribusiness and factory farming. To put standards to the true spirit of the movement, ROC requires organic certification as a baseline but also adds three additional components: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.
“Patagonia’s founder Yves Chouinard looked at the current organic standards and said, ‘This isn’t enough,’” says Elizabeth Whitlow, ROC’s Executive Director.
A driving force behind the creation of programs like ROC and Real Organic Project is concern about the weakening of organic standards particularly regarding hydroponics and factory farms. “Hydroponics involves growing plants in sterile growing mediums in plastic pots. It is just extractive, without improving natural resources,” says Elizabeth,
During the Trump administration, animal welfare rules requiring livestock and poultry farmers to provide access to the outdoor pasture were rolled back, resulting in huge, industrial farms gaining organic certification. In addition to strengthening organic rules, ROC also addresses the vulnerability of farmworkers under organic certification and lack of provisions to care for the people who produce our food—longstanding problems exacerbated by the pandemic and climate change.
Healthy Soil: Not Just About Carbon
As an organic certified farm, Old Dog Ranch was already using many practices to build healthy soil, so they didn’t have to make significant changes for ROC certification. ROC’s soil health practices include building soil organic matter, cover crops, frequent crop rotations, conservation tillage, and no use of synthetic inputs, GMOs, or gene editing.
“We learned about ways to quantify the biomass of trees and also carbon in the soil. That was a new perspective,” says Mollie. “We also do more frequent soil testing. We changed our practices with fertilizer a bit, and are using more compost instead of pelletized organic fertilizer. It’s more about a mindset: farming for the environment versus taking what we can from the environment.”
Elizabeth emphasizes that ROC is concerned with a holistic approach for building healthy soil and not focusing exclusively on carbon sequestration: “There is a lot of carbon chasing going on right now. It feels a bit like the Wild West. We are not just looking at soil carbon content and not trying to really push for the carbon.”
As the first ROC nut farmer, Mollie provided feedback to help shape the program’s protocols. “One component of the pilot program, an annual nitrogen input limit, would not work for nut farmers. ROC was open to our feedback and made adjustments.”
Tracking soil and biodiversity metrics can be costly and hard work for farms. ROC recognizes the importance of maintaining high standards without imposing undue burdens on farmers. For example, ROC reduced the original 18 different indicators of soil health to 6 indicators, and requires the presence of markers of biodiversity and native flora and fauna, rather than an expensive biodiversity assessment by biologists, to reduce the expense and burden on farmers.
Protection for Workers
Old Dog Ranch satisfied the social fairness requirements by incorporating policies regarding paying a living wage and using no child labor into its employee handbooks. Old Dog employs six part-time workers in their Pacifica commercial kitchen. (Walnuts are not a labor-intensive crop because they are mechanically harvested.)
“We didn’t have to change much, but it increased our awareness of fair labor practices. For example, my cousins, who are 11 and 12, live on the ranch and would help out from time to time, so we had to consider that issue in regard to child labor issues. Social fairness is a really important piece for consumers to be aware of.”
Elizabeth recognizes that ROC can be difficult for some small farmers and foresees ROC will do more work to adapt the certification to small farms: “The social fairness criteria are the most difficult to apply to small farms. Some of the social criteria requirements are more important in countries that have no labor laws or on farms with many workers who should have the right to unionize.” ROC is currently working with 10,000 small farms in Sierra Leone organized into co-ops with managers who help with certification.
ROC is seeing great interest in the new certification. “We are just crazy busy with 130 applications. There is a lot of interest from the textile industry with so much demand for regenerative organic cotton,” says Elizabeth. Why such intense interest in regenerative agriculture now? “A lot of it is about climate change but also factory farms and pollution. The concept of regeneration is something to feel optimistic about. It feels hopeful. We can heal. Everybody is looking to us for solutions.”
Support Old Dog Ranch at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market every first Saturday of the month.
Farm photos by Molly DeCoudreaux. Farmers market photo by amandalynn.co.