Sowing the Seeds of Regenerative Agriculture
By Adrian Rodrigues, MBA 18 candidate & CRB Student Advisory Board member
I first met Dan Barber in 2014 at his east village restaurant Blue Hill. I was there for a client meeting and, despite being a self-proclaimed “foodie”, didn’t know much about Dan or his approach to food at the time. Though I wouldn’t realize it until much later, that meal would deeply influence the future arc of my career.
During our meal, Dan was gracious enough to give us a tour of the kitchen and share his approach to cooking. After an enlightening conversation, I was eager to learn more. He suggested checking out his book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, and luckily had some on hand. Before I left the kitchen, he kindly signed the book with the message, “Come work on the farm”.
Question the status quo
As a “foodie”, I thought I knew food. That was until I actually wound up reading The Third Plate and it completely put my relationship with food into question. It made me realize that there was something terribly reductionist about the way we were producing food in this country. By doing so, the book coaxed me to realize that I could no longer be a “foodie” in the sense of maximizing hedonic deliciousness, but needed to be a “foodie” that truly considered the real and dire externalities of our collective eating habits.
“In the rush to industrialize farming, we’ve lost the understanding, implicit since the beginning of agriculture, that food is a process, a web of relationships, not an individual ingredient or commodity.”
― Dan Barber, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
I was particularly inspired by the way the book questioned the fundamental landscape of our food system. Dan’s chutzpah and courage to question the status quo showed me that one shouldn’t simply accept the norms they grew up with, but should instead seek to understand them and ask if there is a better way.
Reframing the problem
One of the most resounding lessons of Haas’ core design thinking course, Problem Finding, Problem Solving, is stressing the importance of how one frames a problem. Dan highlights this throughout The Third Plate by describing in great detail how America’s industrial framing of food production has created a system that focuses on yield, scale and profit. While it has been successful in meeting those goals, its myopic focus has created a host of far-reaching negative externalities including the use of modern-day slave labor, a blatant disregard for animal welfare, the near elimination of pollinators and massive oceanic dead zones caused by fertilizer runoff.
Instead of just aiming to minimize and mitigate these negative externalities, Dan challenges us to adopt a regenerative framing to food production – one that listens to the ancient wisdom passed down by cultures and sees food production in harmony with its environment and not in extreme opposition. By sharing his own experience grappling with this regenerative framing, he provides readers a regenerative scaffolding that we can stand on the shoulders of.
The Center for Responsible Business: Nurturing an ecosystem of regenerative innovation
Inspired by Dan, I came to Haas with the lofty goal of scaling regenerative food production. While to many of my peers it seemed crazy to leave a safe and lucrative job in finance that I spent years attaining, I knew that I personally needed to pursue a career in what was right for the world and not what best hedged my personal downside. Despite being nervous about the switch, within my first month at Haas I realized I wasn’t alone in my pursuit and found a quick home at the Center for Responsible Business (CRB) at Haas.
Over the last year and a half, I have been shocked by the opportunities that the CRB’s fertile ecosystem has provided me. By being part of the CRB’s student advisory board, I was invited to attend the Berkeley Sustainable Business & Investment Forum. It was during the conference that I first met CRB board member and the head of Patagonia’s VC Fund Phil Graves. Phil and I discussed my goals and he encouraged me to participate in the Patagonia Case Competition, which was focusing on ways to scale regenerative agriculture. Not only did the case competition allow me to deeply explore my interest in regenerative agriculture, but it also let me meet my peers from graduate schools across the country that were also interested in scaling regenerative food production. These relationships proved to be invaluable this summer when I interned for Patagonia and helped them author a standard on regenerative agriculture. As we built out the standard we leaned on the students that participated in the case competition and were subject matter experts on topics like soil health and carbon sequestration.
After my internship, I came back to Haas and was able to continue to explore regenerative food production with Professor William Rosenzweig who heads up the CRB’s Sustainable Food Initiative. What I loved most about learning from Will was that he has embodied a regenerative approach to business throughout his long and successful career. As graduation approaches, I’m excited to be working with him on two projects that build upon Dan’s regenerative scaffolding and support a regenerative ecosystem. We’re partnering with The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, where Dan’s restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns is located, to develop a farmer entrepreneurship program to help talented regenerative farmers launch and manage their own farming operations. I will also get the chance to help Will teach the latest manifestation of his social entrepreneurship class – Food Innovation Studio. This class will build upon his 20+ years of teaching social entrepreneurship at Haas and will focus on identifying food industry opportunities, developing innovative solutions, and aligning execution tactics to build mission-driven, disruptive food ventures.
“Four years later, keep going strong”
It seemed like a serendipitous bookend to my journey when Dan recently came to speak at Haas about Regenerative Cooking as part of the CRB’s Peterson Speaker Series. After his talk, we had the chance to catch up for the first time since we met at his restaurant. I proudly showed him the book he signed all those years ago and let him know what I had done since then. When I mentioned that it was his book that changed the arc of my career, I saw a proud smile grow across this face. As we parted ways, he resigned my book and wrote, “Four years later, keep going strong”.
As I look back, I am so happy that I took the risk of leaving the safety of my past life to pursue a more karmically positive existence. I also feel a deep sense of gratitude to Dan for inspiring my journey and to the CRB for the opportunities it has given me. It is an amazing testament to the depth of the CRB’s staff and programming that I could take the ideas that Dan incubated in me and then meet and work with the industry’s leading practitioners to help manifest a regenerative economy.
As my dear friend and mentor Robert Strand says, “Onward!”
The CRB is proud to be a sponsor of ReGen18, a groundbreaking event exploring regenerative solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges and ways we can work together to accelerate the change we need at the speed of the problems we now face. Join us at this important community gathering as we collaborate, share ideas, and deepen our knowledge all for the purpose of fostering a regenerative economy and society.
ReGen18 will take place May 1-4, 2018 at the Impact Hub San Francisco in the heart of the Mission District. Use code R30_BerkeleyHaas for a 30% discount off registration: http://bit.ly/2EUdw0B.
About the author:
Adrian Rodrigues is a member of the Berkeley Haas full-time MBA class of 2018. This summer he worked at Patagonia within its Venture Capital arm Tin Shed Ventures helping author a standard for Regenerative Organic Agriculture and exploring Regenerative Organic Investment Funds. At Haas, Adrian is a portfolio manager of the Haas Socially Responsible Investment Fund, a member of the Center for Responsible Business’ Student Advisory Board, and co-taught a speaker series on Transformations in the Food Industry. After Haas, Adrian hopes to shape innovative financial structures which enable investors to invest in Sustainable Real Assets that leverage circular and regenerative design principles. Prior to Haas Adrian worked at Morgan Stanley for six years and helped long time horizon investors manage their asset allocations. Adrian received a B.A. in English from Williams College, studied English literature at Exeter College, Oxford University and holds the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. He’s an avid chef, backyard farmer and budding yogi.