December 24th, 2013

Can Sheep Restore Patagonia’s grasslands?


Patagonia Inc. is buying its merino wool from ranches that aim to restore degraded land in Argentina with livestock, a controversial concept

by Ellie Winninghoff

"Sustainability is a joke in comparison to the premise of regeneration." Joshua Finch, Daily Kos

Patagonia’s unique and complex grasslands are among the most damaged in the world, and roughly 20m acres have been abandoned. 

As a scientist, Pablo Borrelli has spent his entire career working on desertification—both as a research fellow at Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology and as a trainer and consultant evaluating and planning grasslands for sustainability. But despite his recommendations that farmers reduce their livestock, their land had continued to deteriorate and they were left with less to sell. 

"We were completely stagnant with the old paradigm," he says. "The farmers wanted new ideas."

In 2007, Borrelli and Ricardo Fenton, co-founders of an Argentine company that manages and develops a network of wool producers, met early practitioners of “holistic management and planned grazing,” or HM. They used the process —developed by controversial Zimbabwean and rancher Allan Savory—to heal grassland, eventually doubling the number of animals they grazed. 

The next year, in 2008, they started using HM at Estancia Monte Dinero, Fenton’s 65,000-acre family estate. Within two years, Borrelli says, they saw more positive changes in the grassland than they had seen in the previous 10. New plants were covering the bare ground, increasing biodiversity, including many more plants considered rare—in some cases, plants that had not been seen there for 30 years. 

Thus encouraged, their company Ovis XXI created standards to certify sustainable grazing and branded its wool as sustainably harvested. Then, as Borrelli introduced HM to more ranchers, they looked for a customer. 

This fall, Patagonia Inc., the high-end Ventura, California-based outdoor clothing company that has long worked to minimize its negative environmental impact, began selling about 50 items made with the Ovis XXI brand. Rather than engaging in mere “responsible” sourcing, in which it tries not to hurt the environment, this is part of an effort to actually restore the environment. Patagonia and Ovis XXI partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to create the Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard (GRASS), a set of land management protocols and conservation goals to certify results. 

Degradation or healing? 

But the whole concept of HM remains controversial. Ecologists blame livestock for degrading the world’s grasslands: some 70% of Amazon forest is now used for grazing—and 20% of pastures are degraded through overgrazing, according to a 2006 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Meanwhile, Savory contends that herbivores like cattle and sheep can actually restore these lands. (His TED talk, How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change, has been viewed by more than 1.6 million people since it was posted to the Internet in March.) “Mimic nature,” he exhorts.

By that, he means emulate the behavior of wild animals of eras gone by. Chased by predators, they fertilized the plains with their dung as they roamed broad swaths of land in tightly knit herds. The migrating trampling of their hooves breaks up the surface of the land, he claims, so it can absorb rain like a sponge. In the modern world, this is done via electric fences, which might split a pasture into, say 12 or 16 partitions, in which animals graze for a few days at a time. 

Savory was influenced by French pastoralist Andre Voisin, who, upon observing his cattle in Normandy, noted that if they were left in the same space for more than a couple of days, they over-grazed the plants they liked and under-grazed the others. So he advocated “following the grass”, or carefully rotating livestock in different paddocks to eat grass at the optimum time in its growth, for the optimum amount of time. 

Savory, who brought Voisin’s ideas first to Africa and then to other semi-arid and arid climates, argues that animals left alone in one place for extended periods of time chew their favorite grasses down to the roots, killing them and causing erosion. Ultimately, he says, overgrazing is not about the number of animals on a fixed amount of land, but the amount of time the plants are exposed to grazing and the amount of recovery time in between. 

The evidence, though, is inconclusive. In 2008, David Briske, professor of ecology and ecosystem management at Texas A&M University, and his colleagues published a report called Rotational Grazing on Rangelands: Reconciliation and Experimental Evidence. In this broad study, they found no evidence for the ecological benefits of rotational grazing. There’s only anecdotal evidence; no scientific data, they said.

Briske, who calls Savory’s TED talk “over the top,” says HM shares similarities with what is generally known as “adaptive management,” a concept developed by Canadian ecologist Crawley Stanley Holling in the 80s. “That’s widely accepted as being valuable, and we are looking for more effective ways to implement it,” he says. “But HM is tied closely to intensive rotational grazing, and there is no evidence that as you go more intensive that it’s necessarily better. [Savory’s] results are counter to general ecological principles.” 

Even so, Briske says that grazing, properly managed, can speed up the mineralization process that heals the land. 

Many variables

Daniela Ibarra-Howell, co-founder and CEO of the Boulder, Colorado-based non-profit Savory Institute and an early practitioner of HM with her husband Jim, says HM is not just rotational grazing, but a design technique and decision-making process for planning around many, many variables including ecological ones—where, for example, the birds are hatching, where poisonous plants are at certain times of the year, where water restrictions are.

"In many cases, just doing the planning will allow a rancher to tap into unrealized potential of his/her land, and can immediately increase stocking rates," she says. "With time, ecosystem processes are made more effective, plants increase in number and diversity, soil is covered and fed, and carbon sequestered making rainfall more effective, etc resulting in an increase in the land’s carrying capacity [and thus an even higher stocking rate.]"

But the ability to increase stocking rates is “very, very contextual,” she notes. “It depends on the nature of the land, the initial stocking rate, the weather, the infrastructure, the timeframe and myriad other considerations that are very unique to each whole.”  

Not a nature preserve

GRASS is a revised version of Ovis XXI’s initial sustainability standard—one that took the three partners a year to agree to. Half of the 52 farms certified last year are using HM. But the standard is focused on results; it doesn’t prescribe a specific ranching method. Instead each ranch must have an approved management plan accounting for things like the effect of grazing on wildlife and water quality, along with annual assessments and monitoring confirmed by external on-the-ground and satellite audits. And it includes an overlay of TNC’s conservation goals, which are results-oriented.

"This is a ranching project—not a nature preserve," says TNC senior ecologist Chris Pague. "So how do we get conservation out of these guys doing good grass management? I don’t know what it was like 5000 years ago with millions of guanaco and rheas running down there. But what I can say is: Will that grouse bird be OK? Let’s be sure, and make it part of your ranch plan."

Ranches are scored based on a rangeland health index incorporating about fifteen biological indicators including things like wind erosion, the vitality of shrubs and key species, and percentage of vegetative cover. Each relates to ecological processes and correlates with key environmental services provided by grasslands such as soil stabilization and biodiversity—not just plants, but also micro-and mega fauna and wildlife, above and below ground and in the water. Scores for each biological indicator, which are cumulative, are weighted based on its importance relative to environmental outcomes. Total potential scores range from -130 to +130, with negative values indicating deterioration.

To make evaluations, the scores are compared to those of “reference areas”—sites in each of Patagonia’s 13 ecosystems that are meant to identify the healthiest biological activity.  

Although three-quarters of the farms certified last year had negative scores, the goal is a positive score. Farms in recovery, with a score of at least five, are identified as the Ovis XXI Restore Brand. Full accreditation requires a positive score of 15, which means that the land’s ecological status is healthy. The highest score last year was 45. 

"We are measuring indicators, and if those indicators are moving in the right direction, we have confidence that direction is grossly correct," Pague says. "Borrelli’s commitment and willingness to adapt until the agreed-upon outcomes are achieved is contagious. Their kids are out there monitoring grasses with them. The kids are at the workshops. These people are excited that things can be different." 

In fact, there are already farms beginning to perform better than the reference areas, which were chosen because they had been left alone and “rested” for a long time. Says Borrelli: “We say very seriously that we are building future reference areas.” 

copyright Guardian Ltd. 


A version of this story was published at The Guardian on Dec. 23, 2013. You can view it here:

November 27th, 2013

Investing in Hurricane Sandy

Community Capital Management’s flagship fund, CRA Qualified Investment Fund, will dedicate $100 million of fund assets to invest in disaster recovery and redevelopment projects in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

"We have some existing shareholders in the mutual fund that want a portion of their investment targeted toward Sandy, and other banks and entities are also looking at this," says Barbara Van Scoy, senior portfolio manager at the Fort Lauderdale-based fund. Given that the shareholders include 39 banks and nine other institutional shareholder and separate accounts in the area, she says that $100 million in Hurricane Sandy is a "drop in the bucket" for the fund. "I would not be surprised if we end up investing $250 million."

"There is just so much to be done," she says, adding that the fund has also had a $100 million Hurricane Katrina initiative—and yet continues to invest in New Orleans. "This is not something where it only takes a few months or even a few years to recover. Unfortunately, they are still rebuilding, and we still support the Gulf Coast."

To read the rest of the story, go here:

November 22nd, 2013

Carpe Diem

Howard Buffett is promoting a brown revolution to improve soil productivity and help feed the world’s billions


When it comes to feeding the world’s hungry people, the game-changer is no-till conservation agriculture. “Soil is any farmer’s most valuable working capital,” says Warren Buffett’s son Howard G. Buffett, who spends most of his time managing the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, based in Decatur, Illinois. “Soil fertility has the single  largest impact on production capacity.”

Buffett and his son Howard W. Buffett were in Seattle recently to discuss their new book and manifesto, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. Both men are farmers, and Warren Buffett has said he’d like Howard G., 58, currently a board member at Berkshire Hathaway, to succeed him as non-executive chairman.

"Forty chances" refers to 40 seasons—the number of chances a farmer probably gets to plant his crops and improve them. When Howard G. heard the idea, it stopped him cold. Realizing that it applies to other aspects of life, too, including philanthropy, he wondered if he was making the most of his chances-listening to new ideas, learning from his mistakes. He’d been making donations since the late l980s—usually in the area of wildlife conservation. But he had had an epiphany when a colleague pointed out that "no one will starve to save a tree."

In 2006, Warren Buffett announced he was giving away the bulk of his fortune. At the same time, he challenged his son by asking him if he had the resources to do something great, what would he do? Howard G. realized that if he really cared about habitat protection and biodiversity, he’d have to focus of a more fundamental issue: hunger and food security for the world’s poorest billion people.

To read the rest of the story, go here: 

September 27th, 2013

The New Forestry

Ecotrust Forest Management’s fund is earning strong returns by valuing the trees it isn’t cutting down.


A new style of forestry fund is earning solid returns addressing one question: How do you profitably invest in a sustainably harvested forest—not just the wood in the trees but also in maintaining clean water, flood control, habitat for fish and wildlife, and carbon storage? The key principle is to value what is left in the forest as much as what is removed.

To read my entire blog post at Barron’s Penta, go here:

September 26th, 2013

Legacies by the Acre

Conservation easements are the legal foundation for a sustainable bio-economy and a powerful impact investment, as well as an extraordinary estate planning tool


What does the Sewall Bridge Dock in southern Maine have in common with the Crown S Ranch in Washington State’s Methow Valley and the Van Eck Forest in California’s Redwoods?

Each property is subject to a conservation easement.

An easement is a right of use, and conservation easements generally protect wildlife habitat and recreational land by eliminating development rights. Conservation easements are also an extraordinary estate planning tool and powerful impact investment, and landowners that donate these rights rather than sell them for a financial return get substantial income tax breaks.

"You can’t give three days a week to view Picasso, and get a tax deduction," says Laurie Wayland, co-founder and co-CEO of the Pacific Forest Trust in San Francisco. "Conservation easements are an extraordinarily effective way to protect the public trust interests and to reward private stewardship."

Historically, most conservation easements were “forever wild,” meaning all economic use was prohibited. In the case of the Sewall Bridge Dock, in York, Me., however, the conservation easement actually protects  the economic use of the land by preserving the “working” nature of the waterfront, on just one-sixth of an acre, thereby providing a place to land lobster. After sale of the development rights, the lobstermen still own the property, but there is a covenant in the deed restricting its use to commercial fishing even if they sell it.

The same is true of the conservation easement on the Crown S Ranch in Winthrop, Washington, where the farmer was able to plough the proceeds from the sale of the development rights into new capital for the farm. And in the case of the Van Eck Forest near Arcata, Calif., the conservation easement—a so-called “working forest conservation easement”—provides the basis for an entire forest economy, a sustainably harvested forest that includes “ecosystem services” like clean water, fish and wildlife habitat and carbon storage. In contrast, “timberland” is managed solely for the wood in the trees.

To read the rest of the story, go here:

September 3rd, 2013

Guarantees for Good


Is it really possible to reduce poverty simply by signing your name?

That’s the concept behind MicroCredit Enterprises Fund Inc., or MCE, in San Francisco, a not-for-profit that operates as a sort of Lloyds of London Names for the developing world. Rather than using one’s name to make a killing, though, a guarantor uses his or her name to do good. In effect, MCE uses the balance sheet of guarantors rather than cash donations to finance micro-loans to women in 21 countries including Kyrgystan, Moldova, Bolivia and Sierra Leone.

"It’s a way for our guarantors to amplify the impact of their philanthropy without spending any philanthropic dollars," says Sara Hall, guarantor liaison at MCE.

According to Hall, guarantors continue to engage in philanthropy and to also invest their assets as they might otherwise.

"MCE is not the main event for them," she says. "But they also get to [make] a big social impact just based on their balance sheet."

For the rest of the story, go here:

July 10th, 2013

The Financial Returns of Grass

A former JP Morgan executive is using a controversial grazing technique on his 100,000 acres, in the hopes of earning decent returns and improving the environment


How do you cash in on other peoples’ cattle and add value to your ranch-land?

The first part is straightforward enough: manage the folks’ cattle and collect fees based on how much weight the animals gain. The other part is a little more complicated. But John Fullerton, former managing director of JP Morgan, is betting on the “holistic management and planned grazing” practices developed by controversial Zimbabwean biologist and rancher Allan Savory.

The Zimbabwean’s TED talk, How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change, has received over 1.3 million hits on-line since getting posted in March 2013. The principle behind Savory’s radical ideas: Whereas ecologists blame livestock for degrading the world’s grasslands, he controversially insists that animals can restore these lands. “Mimic nature,” he exhorts.

What he means by that is, emulate the behavior of  wild animals of by-gone eras, which, chased by predators and moving with the seasons,  roamed the plains in tightly knit herds. Their migrating, trampling hooves break up the surface of the land, so it can absorb rain like a sponge, while their dung fertilizes the plains.

"This is permaculture on a huge scale," Fullerton explains, referring to a concept that brings together whole-scale sustainability with respect to energy, waste, water and fields.


To read my full post at the Barron’s Penta blog, go here:

June 22nd, 2013

Follow the Fish

Spencer Beebe is helping to build the 21st century deep green economy in the Pacific Northwest


Haisla youth paddling, photo by Sam Beebe

"The global economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment."

          So says Spencer Beebe, founder of Ecotrust, a nonprofit think tank, incubator and investor in Portland, Oregon, quoting former Senator Gaylord Nelson, co-founder of Earth Day. Ecotrust has collaborated on a dizzying array of groundbreaking innovations in support of a local economy based on environmental stewardship and respect for traditonal people.

          Among them: Ecotrust joined with Chicago-based Shorebank to launch Shorebank Pacific (now OnePacificCoast Bank), the first bank in the country to include environmental stewardship in its lending practices. Ecotrust is helping fishermen acquire fishing quotas and, with the use of its award-winning web-based ocean mapping software, working with the state of California to create marine protected areas with minimum impact on fishing communities. It has coordinated farm-to-school programs in eight western states and is conducting the first global life-cycle analysis of a food product (salmon, of course.) Unafraid of controversy, it has even helped native tribes repatriate land and establish ecological forestry in a joint venture with a company that environmentalists fought for years.

          Beebe is developing his own brand of natural capitalism—a blending of environmental, societal and economic interests. He talks about bioregion-based economies, and he’s dubbed the Pacific Northwest “Salmon Nation.” Incorporating a whole-systems approach, his goal is restorative.

     “I didn’t start Ecotrust to save the rainforest,” he says. “I started Ecotrust to develop the rainforest in a different way.” 

 To learn about the essence of Beebe’s work,  go here: helping-to-build-the-21st-century-deep-green-economy-in-the-pacific-northwest-by-ellie-winninghoff/

June 14th, 2013

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved


            The revolution will not be microwaved.

            That was the title of a 2006 book by food fermentation king, Sandor Katz, and it may well have been prescient.

            Social media is changing our food culture in ways that could not have been imagined a decade ago. It’s changing the way we think about food, and the way that we experience food. It’s changing how we prepare food—and it’s changing how we eat.

           These are some of the Hartman Group’s findings during the Seattle-based consultancy’s research for a study, Clicks and Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture.


          * 82.3 million Americans (49% of those who use the internet) say they learn about food via social networking.

         * 67.2 million Americans (40% of internet users) say they learn about food via websites, apps or blogs.

         * 54% of the people that use social media discover and share new food experiences.

           “I love chicken fried rice,” one young man from Seattle said. “But I was so confused about adding the egg [that] I watched six YouTube videos to figure it out.”

            Not so long ago, food was a utilitarian affair—“uniform, predictable, efficient and economic,” the consultancy says, “packaged and processed.” Today, though, eating has become a “form of creative consumption.” Food has become ”pleasurable, beautiful—and real,” and now, through social media, we have become a nation of “food voyeurs.” We are learning—gasp!—how to cook.

          Does this mean that the impact of social media on food culture is yet another example of what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christiansen calls creative disruption? Christiansen argues that a disruptive technology usually creates a new market and value network over a few years or decades—one that eventually displaces an earlier (and usually very successful) technology.

          The signs are certainly there. Social media, after all, does not operate in a vaccum. Consumers are becoming active participants in food culture, and the underground movement Sandor Katz described seven years ago is in public view.

copyright ellie winninghoff

May 20th, 2013

Nature’s Fortune touted by former Goldman director


          Nature is as important to the economy as manufacturing or agriculture, and remains an untapped investment opportunity, according to Mark Tercek, a former Goldman Sachs managing director, now president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. He argues that the concept of conservation must be expanded to include not just the “dynamics of the forest” but also specific decisions businesspeople make up and down the supply chain.

         In an interview, Tercek said he agrees with futurist Hazel Henderson’s paradigm-shifting depiction of the economy—not as a pie (divided between the public and private sectors) but as a cake, a four-layer cake where three layers of infrastructure support the private sector. In addition to bridges and roads (the public sector,) there are families and communities (which she dubs the “love economy.”) And the foundation of that cake—the mother of all infrastructures—is nature, or natural capital.

         Or, as some put it:

         “The global economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.”  

          Tercek takes this a step further by actually comparing the economics of built or gray infrastructure such as pipes and treatment plants with green infrastructure consisting of woodlands and grasslands, wetlands and rivers.

          “Green infrastructure is usually cheaper than gray,” he says, “and it’s more efficient. And unlike gray infrastructure, it accomplishes many things at once.”

see more here: