Philip Taylor - Mad Agriculture
By: Sam Henke
A Mad farmer
is one who asks the questions that have no answers, who has chosen to be like the fox, making more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.
That is at least, according to Wendell Berry in Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, a poem which serves as a manifesto indeed to Phil Taylor's Mad Agriculture, part farming non-profit, part community building hub, part Ag Business accelerator, and a radical engine for agrarian agitation and revolution in whole.
Berry's series of 'Mad Farmer Poems' represent the ire and disdain (and humor, and contrariness, and as always with Berry, full-heartedness) of a contemplative steward of the land turned on a world that has turned on him. 'Mad' is here both anger at a system that ignores and buries the truth, and apparent madness displayed in those who resist the dominant paradigm of how humans relate to the Earth. Taylor has taken the Mad Farmer spirit of defiance and compassion for the Earth and elevated it into a vibrant and dynamic association of farmers, researchers, students, food lovers, and community members.
Before founding Mad Ag, Taylor's research career in ecology and biogeochemistry was accelerating toward academic prestige. Our conversation began to scratch the surface of how Phil's transition from academic researcher to community organizer/ag-tech entrepreneur/holistic radical came about, but in truth, you would probably find more fulfilling answers by turning to Berry's expansive writings, which serve as a foundation and constant inspiration to Taylor. The work of improving our agricultural systems, and healing the cultural and economic fissures through which authentic experiences of, and genuine spiritual connections to, Land and Sea are falling through, unite the various projects of Mad Agriculture.
What is your name and what do you do?
Phil Taylor, I’m the founder of Mad Agriculture, which is an organization that’s dedicated to creating the new agrarian culture, constantly asking the question “what does it mean to live well, at land and sea?”
What is your favorite food?
I don’t know if its my favorite food, but it's my favorite experience eating food--blue crabs out of the Chesapeake bay with my family, mid-Summer. That’s my favorite eating experience.
What first drew you to working in the food world? What is the origin of your food passion?
Probably my mom. I grew up in a household where food was the center of our family activity, and the dinner table is still the center. We always eat together and it's always delicious food. My mom takes a lot of care to make really good food, and I think that’s where my cooking passion came from, and that kind of paralleled my interest in understanding where food comes from and at what cost, or what benefit.
What do you love most about working with food?
Being happy. Yeah it make me happy, not only working with it physically, but you know for me it’s a form of meditation, kind of like fly fishing on a river, or going on a long hike where you find a cadence and a rhythm and you drop out of the cerebral space of thinking or cogitating and just get into that zen like state of chopping onions and walking the kitchen. You can do it with companions and it's different but still fun, I just love that way of being.
Who has inspired you in your career?
Wendell Barry is my spiritual guru, he’s been with me in a couple different revolutions in my consciousness expansion. As I was exiting what was a pretty conservative Christian ideology, he gave me the route to ground what was valuable in that, and expand into something new. And when I got lost in academia and the analytical world and kind of became unmoored from my value system and listening to my heart and what I love to do, I returned to his poetry and writings and they brought me back home.
". . . local food often clarifies the bonds of the system that you’re working in, so if you buy local food, you can be sure that you’re buying into an economy and system that is vibrant and beautiful and supports the type of social and ecological systems that thrive. "
What do most people not understand about local agriculture?
Well, very few people take part in the local food system. I’m not a local food militant, I love my coffee from Ethiopia. For me, all food is local, in that we live on a very small rock floating through space. Local food is about what type of system you are helping build with that purchase, and local food often clarifies the bonds of the system that you’re working in, so if you buy local food, you can be sure that you’re buying into an economy and system that is vibrant and beautiful and supports the type of social and ecological systems that thrive. That said, I eat fish out of the ocean, they’re caught sustainably and they’re not local, I buy coffee that’s not local from places that I trust, so I would just say that all food can be local food, it just depends on the value transaction there.
What about carbon farming?
All farming is carbon farming, because carbon is the essential element at the heart of life, it’s the basis for all growth and decomposition. The mystics call it the wheel of life, biologists call it a decomposition cycle, and we all have different words for it, but carbon is the center of that. It speaks to how we are part and parcel of the world, how we are a part of the biogeochemical cycles as much as a tree is or a rock is. . so for me carbon farming at a high level is about a large scale shift in consciousness in who we are and how we’re here.
Practically speaking, carbon farming is just trying to figure out a holistic plan for your farm that maximizes and aligns ecological and economic outcomes. It’s not always possible to do carbon sequestering practices and make money, but often times you can make that alignment. So a farm could put into place an array of strategies that not only enhance their bottom line, but also build carbon rich soils and restore that soil health. A couple examples [of strategies] would be cover crops combined with no till, livestock integration, doing perennial and annual seed forage stuff, restoring pastures, you know there’s all kinds of strategies.
In the modern ag system they’ve tended to strive for monoculture and simplicity, and I think it’s time to reintroduce diversity, because in that diversity there’s actually much greater resilience, not only biologically but economically. So if you only sell one or two things to the commodity market, you live and die by that pricing, but if you have 12 different income streams, and two go belly up in the market, you can still survive—even thrive on the other revenue streams.
What is the key to improving our food systems?
I think valuing the farmer is probably the top, and there’s all kinds of strategies to do that. You know food is really the foundation of life, and its our connection to the Earth. Once we realize that, which can happen in a variety of capacities, I think that’s where change begins to happen.
Would you think about that in terms of bringing back a spiritual dimension, or at least an acknowledgment of a spiritual dimension of food?
Absolutely, yeah I think the sacred has been left out, especially in the western mind, and I think that it's critical. Spirituality is as or more important than any kind of science, I think, speaking as a scientist.
What is your definition of a sustainable business?
A sustainable business is ultimately a business that gives back more to the earth than it takes, and that is really hard to do. I think most businesses thrive on a model of extraction, and a model of regeneration lives by the idea of giving back more than you take, and that’s possible, it's just really hard to do.
"Our vision for the world is to create a culture that cherishes and restores our relationship to Earth, so people and ecosystems can thrive for generations to come. "
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and what would be served?
I’d probably have a dinner with Jesus, and it would be the Last Supper, and I’d eat exactly what they served, and I would just ask him what he truly meant by the whole thing, that’s probably what I’d ask.
Well it’s a Passover meal, right?
Yeah, yeah I’m not Jewish, I don’t even know what it is, I mean I’ve done Passover meals, but . . . you know the dude was really a revolutionary, that’s the only way you get that kind of following, I mean he seriously messed with the system, and I hope to mess with the system in some way, I think it needs to be messed with . . . and how does someone do it? I don’t know.
Or Thomas Jefferson. . .I’d eat duck confit with Thomas Jefferson and bring a bottle of really modern but natty (natural) wine, that has zero inputs, that would also be a great meal.
Would you describe Mad Ag as a mission-driven organization? What is your mission?
Yeah, totally mission driven.
Our vision for the world is to create a culture that cherishes and restores our relationship to Earth, so people and ecosystems can thrive for generations to come. That’s kind of the core of it too, there's a practical component but that’s kind of the high level vision.
We need to decommodify food in a way that lets everyone know where it's coming from and in understanding that provenance, we can start revisiting ideals around justice and social and ecological equity.
Can you talk a bit about alternative animal feed? Where is the sector headed?
We’re trying to invent what we think is the first regenerative animal feed, so that is defined as animal feed that enriches the earth and doesn’t destroy it. That is further defined as, every pound of animal feed produced eliminates waste and/or builds soil and sequesters carbon, creating a system that enriches instead of destroys.
So we’re doing that by defining a new category, we don’t actually think animal feed is designed in the right mentality, its designed around the assumption that the animal is living its life in a cage, it's basically like the animal is on life support and you have to give it everything it needs in that feed. We like animals that live happy lives until their last day, and that’s life out in the pasture, on the range. So if you can design a feed that is cognizant of what they’re receiving off the land you can kind of tune it differently, potentially saving cost on the ingredients, but you can also think of it as a supplement.
"There’s a whole space out there, that you can just wade into, if you have the courage."
So we’re making what we are calling a complete pasture supplement, and that doesn’t really exist yet in the market. The core innovation right now is using insects for the protein to replace fish meal, which comes from the ocean, and the insects are produced using food waste, so that’s the first time that will ever be done. On the other ingredient side, the grains and legumes that are being used are all being grown on this really cool, innovative farm in Nebraska. It's a highly diversified 4000-acre row crop farm that has livestock integration and measurable increases in soil carbon. They’ve never tilled in 17 years. so we’re combining the insect integration with the other ingredients and we’ve designed this complete pasture supplement which will probably be done in about a month and a half, two months.
Insects are what chickens crave, its really good for them, they lay more eggs, (not a lot more but 5-7%,) they have harder shells, deeper colored yolks, and you’re feeding them what they want to eat, so you can feel good about it. It a little more expensive, but its not terribly more expensive. Our feed, since its not going to be certified organic, is going to be called “Regenerative Climate-friendly Pasture Supplement,” it's going to be something completely new.
How does the feed supplement fit into the organization financially?
Mad Ag is non-profit, and I’m launching this in the non-profit, but if we get early traction, we will probably launch a for-profit and raise money around it. I think it’s a massive category that we’re kind of inventing, and I think that we’ll see consumer demand, you know, people in Boulder, small farms and people raising backyard chickens.
And we’re not even caring about labels, you know we’re not going for a regenerative label, we’re not going for an organic label, or non-gmo label, we’re just going to tell the story online for people and they can evaluate what it is. We’re not going to hide anything, we actually have drone coverage for the farm where it's grown. Steve and Rachel Tucker are gonna stand there and say “hey, this is our farm” and you know they use strategic herbicide occasionally, because they don’t want to till their soil. They’re living in that grey space, you know because organic relies on tillage, which is bad for the soil. There’s a whole space out there, that you can just wade into, if you have the courage.
What is on the horizon for Mad Agriculture in terms of innovation?
We have three technical innovations, the pasture supplement is one, the second is heritage perennial grains. We are planting 20 ancient varieties of grains, it’s kind of an experimental phase, that we’re planting at two different farms to see how they do. They’re whole grains with really high nutritional density, for pasta and for baking and pastries and all that stuff, and we’re growing in a regenerative way, so we’re not going to till the ground, we’re going to bring in livestock.
So our grain innovation is really awesome, and then we have this holistic carbon farming planning that we’re doing, it's basically a new model for conservation planning that links farmers and ranchers to existing technical and financial resources that they don’t know how to access. There’s tons of money in the government that’s set aside to help farmers implement healthy soil practices, so what we do is we help develop a conservation resource plan for them, which opens the flood gates of resources to the farmer, allowing them to receive economic and ecological benefits to their farm, and using the resources that are already there through the USDA NRCS [Natural Resource Conservation Service].
So those are the three [technical] innovations we’re working on, and the other innovation we’re doing which I think is actually far more important, is cultural innovation, building community. Like Farm Forum stuff, and the Mad Farmer Film Series. We actually started that last weekend, 9 vignettes 9 minutes long, of basically Mad Farmers.
So the ancient grains piece is sort of in an R&D phase, the farmer soil building piece more of a traditional non-profit role, and pasture supplement is potentially for-profit. It sounds to me like Mad Ag is a sort of hybrid, organizationally.
Mad ag is a total hybrid, I think the whole division between non-profit for profit is total bullshit, I get it, it protects the public, and it protects private interest, but I think its just totally weird. I mean everything we do should be done for the common good, you know private capitalism, hording money for oneself, is such an egregious idea, and our entire economy is based on accumulating wealth, ie dollars, paper dollars, but that is completely the wrong orientation of what it means to live well. To live well in the world is to be a good steward, to love you neighbor as yourself, to have compassion, these are what make the human economy tick, the financial economy doesn’t tick on those, and that’s what’s so messed up, and so Mad Ag is spanning the whole thing, and resisting categories. Because once you fall into a category, you’re sucking up to an ideology that you haven’t inspected, and I just can’t stand that.