Joe Brewer: Farms of the Future (re-broadcast)

For environmentalists “agriculture” can be something of a dirty word, associated with other words such as, pesticides, water consumption, pollutants, and deforestation. Not all environmentalists have these negative associations, though. Some, like my guest today, are working to re-fashion agricultural practices so that they actually help to reverse environmental damage. This week on Sea Change Radio we are speaking with Joe Brewer, an American ex-pat living  and working in the regenerative agriculture space in Colombia. We discuss his family’s journey to this small but vibrant farming community, the lessons he’s learned, and how those lessons can be scaled to bigger farms in the U.S.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Joe Brewer  0:16  Because it’s a small town, all of these people are friends. So the idea is for this money to support the network of these local people, to coordinate their projects with each other and to create new projects. And all the while be learning and sharing what we’re learning back to everyone in the world who cares to learn through our global network and through the different media outlets that we have to share our story.

Narrator  0:42  For environmentalists, agriculture can be something of a dirty word, associated with other words such as pesticides, water consumption, pollutants, and deforestation. Not all environmentalists have these negative associations though. Some, like my guest today are working to refashion agricultural practices so that they actually help to reverse environmental damage. This week on Sea Change Radio, we’re speaking with Joe Brewer, an American expat living and working in the regenerative agriculture space in Colombia. We discuss his family’s journey to this small but vibrant farming community, the lessons he’s learned, and how those lessons can be scaled to bigger farms in the US.

Alex Wise  1:48  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Joe Brewer. Joe is joining us from Barichara, Columbia. He is a complexity scientist and an environmentalist. Joe, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Joe Brewer 1:59  Thanks so much, Alex. It’s awesome to be here with you.

Alex Wise  2:03  So explain what you’re doing in Barichara, I you grew up on a chicken farm in Missouri, I believe and this is more than a stone’s throw away from there. Explain what you’re involved in what you’ve created in Barichara.

JB  2:16  Yes, maybe I’d start this way by saying just a little less than four years ago, something absolutely transformational happened, which is my wife and I had a child, we have a little daughter, who’s about to turn four. And she is a big reason why we are in Colombia now. And the story could be summarized like this. We my wife and I are both what we would call collapse aware, environmentally minded people who see the level of crisis that humanity is in the kinds of dangers on the horizon, and how big the mismatches between what needs to happen and what’s generally being done. And so we spent about a year through a set of work connections I had, we spent about a year living off grid, and a biodiversity hotspot, and a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica. And during that time, I was helping to envision a different way of creating local economic systems, so that the economies could be in harmony with their environment. And we are doing this by visiting projects in Costa Rica, and helping to build a planetary scale network of places where people were trying to do this. And that network is called the regenerative communities network, hosted by an organization based in Connecticut, called capital Institute. So I was on the team at Capital Institute, but living in a rainforest in Costa Rica. And for a variety of reasons, the place we were living was a bad match for raising a child. And after we left that place, we started looking for a community where there were other children, where there was a connection to things like bringing forests back to life, restoring rivers, protecting the native species and the local wildlife of a place. And to do it while there are other children around and doing it with other families. And that’s what really brought us to Barichara in Colombia. And just for those who probably have no idea where body char is, if you looked on a map of South America, you would see the Andes, this big mountain range is sort of making a straight line north, north to south. And there’s this kink in it near the top as you’re moving toward the equator, as the Andes sort of are going north and east and then they cut and go north and west. And there’s this kink in it. We’re right in the middle of that turn in the Andes, really close to Panama, really close to Venezuela, and we’re in a place that is technically called a tropical dry forest. Which just means that has a dry period and a wet period every year. And there are a whole bunch of ecological reasons why these places are important. But the long story short is that almost all of the types of plants and animals that are here do not exist anywhere else on Earth. More than seven out of every 10 plants and animals that are here only exist here. And the forest has been almost entirely destroyed half a century ago by agriculture, by crop farming, and then later by tobacco production. So we came to a place that is a destroyed landscape, in the process of becoming a desert, with a very urgent need to bring the forest back, and a small community of about 6000 people and a little mountain town called Barichara, where there happens to be a 10 year old community reforestation project in the middle of town, with two old women in their 70s named Camila and Vicki, who have been tirelessly planting trees in hard packed clay for more than a decade, to create a seed bank, a place where the seeds of these native trees are held, and having projects with elementary school and high school kids, and a number of families that are trying to raise their children learning this way of doing things. So how we came from Missouri, to the Northern Andes of Colombia, as we were looking for a community where our daughter could grow up thinking that it’s just normal that all of the adults bring forests back to life. This is just what they do. And so we’re here to help volunteer to create coordination and connect all of the projects that are here. And, you know, I’d love to dive deep into the culture and the history of this place, more than just the ecological part. And maybe we have some time to do that. But for the sake of the work, if you wanted to think of it that way, for us the work is how do we raise a child that is fit for the future that we know is coming when there is extreme climate change. And like we saw this year with the global pandemic, severe disruptions to the globalized economy. So the way that people are living now is not how they’re going to live in the future. Where can we go that is separate enough, forward thinking enough, and still has enough direct access with nature, that our child can grow up, bringing a forest back to life and just thinking it’s normal? And that’s, that’s really why we’re here. Why

AW  7:40  Why don’t you first start with the 9000 foot view on what the mission of Barichara is, in terms of the template you’re working from?

JB  7:51  Yeah, the really essential idea that everyone needs to understand is, they need to understand the strange word bio region, a biological region. And what a bio region is, is the entire environmental setting that a living thing can survive in. So if you’re a starfish, on the coast of Oregon, then your bio region is the intertidal zone, the gap, the distance between the low tide and the high tide, where there are title pools and other things, because the entire life system of the starfish is in that intertidal zone. For humans, a bio region is how to live in a territory, where the entire culture of the people, the way that they grow their food, the way that they make their clothing, the way they build their houses, every part of their lives, is in harmony with the larger landscape that they live in. And this way of connecting human culture, to ways of living, embedded within a landscape is how you create a bio region. This is a really important idea, because what we’re trying to do in Barichara is create a model, you know, a way of learning to create a bio regional economy that regenerates landscapes, so that as the people here, do all of those things, you know, they grow their food, they make their clothes, they build their houses, they raise their children, all of the things that they do, how can they do that in a way that is increasing the health of rivers, increasing the amount of biodiversity in a place? And over time, there’s more forest instead of less forest? This is the question. And this is a question for every place where humans live on Earth. So while we’re doing this here, in parallel, we’re building a global network, region to region for people who are trying to do this in the place that they live in. So let me give a couple examples of projects and Barichara that they’ll start to show you why this place has sort of like early mover advantage. One thing that’s here is there’s a, an indigenous history of doing things like taking a plant and making baskets. So there’s a kind of plant here that’s called fee K, in the local Spanish. And fake is in the same plant family as agave. And for those of you who are familiar, Agave is what tequila is made from.

AW  10:28  I’m quite familiar, I’ve become more familiar during the pandemic.

JB  10:32  Yeah, so. So if you know what the plant looks like, that’s got these long block broad, succulent leaves that kind of grow out of the ground. There’s a plant here and Central and South America called fig A, that has broad leaves that are about three feet long or four feet long. And it’s really fibrous, and you can make clothing and you can make baskets with it. So this is an example of a type of cultural knowledge that still exists here. And because this town is so beautiful in the mountains, there’s a lot of tourism. So the local people can make a living selling these baskets and these, these native kinds of clothing to the tourists when they come. So the culture has been preserved, even though globalization happened, and it’s a tourist. So one project would be how do we preserve this cultural knowledge of arts and crafts. And there’s a the Ministry of Culture for Colombia has established a school called Tai Yaris Tahlia, just as the Spanish word for workshop is a place where local people are supported to give workshops to share their cultural knowledge. And so people come here from all over Colombia to learn basket weaving. And that’s enables the basket Weaver’s to earn a living, making and selling baskets. So that’s an example of a local project that maintains the culture and could be part of this new economy. So that’s one example. Another project is a project called agua Santa. Agua Santa in Spanish is Spanish for holy water. Holy Water is a project where a group of Colombians who really care about restoring soils and bringing wellsprings you know when there’s a well of water just coming out of the ground, or bringing them back to life that they bought a piece of property in the middle of the agricultural area. Because this is rural countryside. Here, the village is 6000 people, and then a bunch of campesino farmers. So in the middle of that farmland, they bought some land and started a demonstration project and water retention, which is where they went into the natural flow of water, started creating permaculture projects to just bring the water back to life. And they’ve connected it to organic farming, and local produce that they can sell in the local marketplace. But they didn’t just do this on their own land. They also connected with 14 other farms, and created a cooperative business to sell coffee. Where the coffee is basically a type of what’s called agro forestry, agriculture. That’s done by building a forest. So you grow coffee trees, which are other kinds of trees. And they’ve taught these 14 Farms, how to grow diverse, agro forestry products, things like building materials, food products, and medicinal plants, while at the same time supporting themselves by selling coffee. And because they work as a network, when the coffee plants need to prune all their trees, they gather all of them and agua Santa is one project. And they do composting and build soil. And then the soil is taken back to all the 14 farms. So it’s a network of building soils for 14 farms that are doing agroforestry projects. And this is a model of food production. It’s a way of creating agriculture for an entire region. And about 70% of the food that is eaten in buddy China comes from this local agriculture. So this isn’t just on the side, you know, expensive organic, this is your typical produce that most people here eat. And this is a way of building soil while producing that food. So these are just a couple of examples. I could actually spend our entire conversation with more examples. There are so many of them here. But hopefully that’s already starts to paint a picture of what kinds of projects are here and how they make it possible to create this different kind of economy.

(Music Break)  14:43

AW  This is Alex Wise and Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Joe Brewer. He’s an environmentalist and complex scientist in Barichara, Colombia. So Joe, you mentioned some of the projects that you’re working on in terms of water. I’ve read a little bit about what you and your colleagues have been doing to try to transform the sewage system there and the wastewater, why don’t you explain what you encountered when you arrived at body chatter and where it is now and where it’s heading in terms of the sewage systems?

JB  16:25  Yeah, let me start by giving a very quick politics lesson on Columbia, which is that it’s very well known that the institutions mostly don’t work. And there’s a lot of corruption, especially in local government. So we, well, we didn’t my family arrived a year ago. But in the 1990s, like 30 years ago, there was a mayor of Barichara, who was very corrupt, and he privatize the water supply. So he got money from the national government to build a water treatment plant. When they built the water treatment plant, they damaged the groundwater supply, which contaminated the wells that fed the water to all the houses in the town. And then they charge people money to buy water from this corrupt and ineffective water treatment program that they built. And one of the things that happened when they built this is that there’s a very important technical thing, which is to know the difference between grey water and black water. Black Water is the water you flush from your toilet that has feces and urine. Basically, you have to do some pretty serious processing to make it safe. grey water can be like when you take a shower, or when you wash your dishes, it might need to be processed a little bit. But for the most part, it’s not that dangerous. And grey water includes rainwater that falls on the roof might get dirty on your roof. So you still have to filter it before or boil it before you could drink it. Well, here’s the thing, the grey water system and the black water system run into the same pipes. So what that means is all the water that runs through Barichara runs into the same water for everyone flushing their toilets. And because there was a corrupt mayor in the past, even when a university came in with a big grant and said, we have the money to build the waste treatment system and fix your problem. The corrupt mayor said, No, I’ve got a nice little Ponzi scheme. Thank you very much. I want to keep making money off of my corrupt system, I want you guys to go away. What that means is the entire town of 6000 people and all of the tourists here, every time they flush their toilet, the water goes directly into the river, completely unprocessed at the bottom of the town. And then that water runs into a much bigger river called Rio Suarez that eventually runs into Rio Magdelena. So what it’s basically doing is polluting the next 1000 miles of rivers that runs between here and the Caribbean ocean to the north. And so we have an interesting situation that because of local corruption, and incompetence, all of the wastewater just gets literally flushed into the river without processing any of it. So it’s a pretty serious problem that we have to do. There’s a little history lesson in Colombian politics.

AW  19:17  Explain the logistics of what you and your colleagues have embarked on in Barichara, how its funded, how you’re planning on moving forward the vision for it, and you know, your five year plan, and maybe how listeners could get involved.

JB  19:34  Yeah, the first thing is that there are a lot of local organizations that are doing things. And so I don’t want to try to paint the picture that what I’m doing is the only game in town. I just want to name that because I’m new here. And this is a place that has a really long history of outsiders coming and hurting the local people and what’s called colonialism. This has happened for a long time and it drove the indigenous people to extinction. Here, I want to name that because what I’m doing is I’m trying to bring coordination and cooperation to the local projects. And so the part I’m doing is actually pretty small. But I think it’s very strategic. Even though the vision of what we’re doing is really big, almost everything being done is by these local projects that were here before we arrived. With that said, what we’re doing is we’re using crowdfunding to gather money with donations, to enable us to bring the projects together, to map out the territory, to provide money to create projects that the local projects that already exist, that they have to cooperate, to get the money to help them cooperate better. And we started a campaign on GoFundMe to start raising money for this. And one of the things that we’re trying to do that I think is really important, and maybe sort of, it may not be obvious why it’s so important, is we want to use some of this money to buy land that is owned by a nonprofit organization. And so we don’t want to buy all of the land, we’re not trying to raise millions of dollars and buy all of the land here. But we want to very strategically, when there’s a piece of land that is in danger, like people from outside are coming in and trying to divide this piece of land and 230 lots and sell a bunch of houses and cut down all the forest, could we buy that land, and create a community project. And can the community project serve everyone who lives here in the entire territory. So this way of having a budget that would allow us to buy and protect land, and then create reforestation projects is a really important piece of what this fund can do. And so we need the ability to work directly with the people who are funding us to participate in the learning process. So we all learn together. What that means is everything is completely transparent. Anyone who donates to this work, or as part of our global network, we have a global network called Earth regenerators with more than 2000 members that are participating in this process, that they could come and join us in the work and volunteer, they can partner with the organizations that they already have, or they can come as individuals, there’s a lot of flexibility about how we work together. Because we’re not ham streamed about how to use the money, because we’re required to report that the way we’re using the money is what we said we would do, which is that we asked for $10,000, we have a very clear line item of budget. And if we stray from that by any more than 5%, then the funder will not give us any more money. Well, that’s not a way to create new solutions to really complex problems. So what we’re doing is creating something called the Barichara regeneration fund, where people are donating money. And so far, the largest amount of money given to us is $250. And the smallest is $5. And we raised almost $6,000. And that started a little more than a week ago.

AW  23:14  And how many people do have on the ground working day to day there?

JB  23:19  Well, if you think about all of the projects that I alluded to, when I named a couple of them, if you start thinking about those projects, it’s probably around 50 people, but they’re not in the same organization. So it’s not that we have an organization with 50 people, it’s that we have a network of 50 people spread across 15 or 20 projects with different numbers of people in those projects. Because it’s a small town, all of these people are friends, this is a town you can walk from one end to another in 10 minutes. So you go down to buy groceries, you’re going to run into some of these people and just chat with each other on the street. So the idea is for this money to support the network of these local people, to coordinate their projects with each other and to create new projects. And all the while be learning and sharing what we’re learning back to everyone in the world who cares to learn through our global network and through the different media outlets that we have to share our story. And this includes people who want to come here as volunteers. So someone might say, I love to come and volunteer and just be in body char for three months. It sounds like a beautiful place to be, how can I get involved. And then we just have a conversation about what that person would want to do and what they really need in their lives right now and what we’re doing at the moment which projects are going on that they could be involved in. And we co create and this open dialogue by actively cooperating with each other in a transparent way.

AW 24:49  So if you went back to the states and started a another chicken farm in Missouri, let’s say What lessons do you hope to learn from the experience embodied? Maybe you can give examples on how an industrial farmer in the United States might be able to take some of the lessons that you’re learning and apply them to their business.

JB 25:13  Well, one place I would recommend farmers in the US to go is, there’s an organization based in Evanston, Illinois, called Iroquois Valley, it’s just Iroquois And they’re set up as this strange thing called a real estate investment trust. And basically all that means is that they are able to bring money that can support farmers during the time when they’re transitioning the way that they farm. Because the problem that most farmers have is they have such a debt treadmill, that they’re constantly just running faster to stay in the same place. That if they try to change the model of what they do, they’re just going to go under and lose their farm. And so what Iroquois Valley does, and I think it’s a good lesson for farmers all across, especially in the Midwest, is to have support money. Well, what eloquent Iroquois Valley does, is they buy the land from the farmers, and then lease it back to the farmers with a very transparent agreement that says, we are going to carry the burden of debt for your land, so that you can take more risk and change your operations and spend a couple years learning how including to create different models of agriculture, that are not monoculture crops. So instead of just growing f1, hybrid corn, you might grow five crops or 10 crops, you might grow fruit nut trees, while also growing vegetables, for example. And this way of changing the process that depends on financial support is very much what we’re trying to emBarichara as well. If we can create a development fund for the entire territory, then we can bring some of that money to help local people to change their businesses, and manage the risk with them to make those risks easier to take. And that lesson that we’re learning here is the same lesson that Iroquois Valley is teaching to farmers in the Midwest. So I think this sort of thinking that we know we have to change what we’re doing. But how do we find the structures and the supports to help us to do it? That level of question is the same everywhere. The specific example of what Iroquois Valley is doing and what we do here, they do it differently than we do. But the lesson is still, how can we share the risk together so that we can co create and make a pathway that wouldn’t be possible without cooperation, that lessons the same? I think this way of thinking is how we can apply what we’re doing here to every place on earth.

AW  27:54  Well, we appreciate you giving us a little snapshot of your efforts there. Joe Brewer. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

JB  28:02  Thank you Alex. It’s lovely to be here.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by James Brown and Fog swamp, check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.