What Happens When Two Academics Fall in Love and Start a Farm?
TerraPurezza Farm studies regenerative agriculture just outside Austin
Tina and Orion Weldon met at Rutgers University while working on their dissertations. It was a typical first date until future plans came up. "We were both like, 'Well what do you wanna do after you get your degree?'" Tina reminisces. "'Honestly, I wanna go start a farm.' ... 'No way, me too!' ... 'But specifically a regenerative agriculture farm.' ... 'Yeah, me too!' So it just kind of skyrocketed from there."
Tina was in the dietetics program, studying community public health and community nutrition. Orion was in conservation ecology, studying endangered species and their habitat requirements. Both wanted more than academia. They saw potential in the regenerative model for agriculture, to rebuild native habitats for animals and to grow nutrient-rich crops sustainably, sequestering carbon in the soil in the face of climate change. But there was a serious lack of research in that area – Orion notes that at the time, there were only four regenerative farms in the country.
For two academics, ideals were important, but data was integral. "So we are an institute and a farm," Tina explains. "The last four years, we've been building the farm side, since not a lot of people know the practicalities of these methods, and we're looking forward to the institute side, where we turn that around and teach." Orion explains, "We've partnered with the National Center for Appropriate Technology [NCAT] and the Soil for Water NGO and set up a multitransect study for the impact of these practices on actual carbon sequestration and water infiltration and plant diversity and measurements of microbiota life in the soil."
Regenerative agriculture, as defined by TerraPurezza's website, "is a collection of techniques that together form an approach to food production that focuses on rehabilitating soil health, rebuilding native grasslands, and restoring natural water cycles." Its goals are twofold: 1) Restore soil's water retention and sequester carbon, and 2) restore native ecosystems in the process. But for Tina and Orion, it was equally important to be a fully sustainable farm. To that end, they partner with local organizations in the Travis County community. Their largest "campus" is on Shield Ranch, a family-owned ranch with a conservation easement from the city of Austin, where they raise pigs and conduct their study. They raise chickens on Orion's father's land, and sheep and more pigs at another small property nearby. They sell their products (eggs, chicken, pork) at farmers' markets and the fine dining restaurant Apis in Spicewood.
When they launched TerraPurezza, Tina was a cashier at Whole Foods and Orion was unemployed. They wanted to raise pigs because they were profitable, but feed was expensive. So they started picking up food waste from Whole Foods (that couldn't be donated to food banks due to strict guidelines) to feed the pigs. They collect from the produce department, the dairy, the bakery, the prepared foods, and the value-added department – just not scraps from people's plates, to avoid a biohazard for the pigs. Part of the reason that TerraPurezza is perfect for this kind of partnership is their proximity to Austin – only 45 minutes outside city limits. "A lot of other farms are over an hour or two hours outside of Austin," says Orion. The advantage was that they could pick up the waste every day, avoiding odor and pest issues. The disadvantage was "a lot of miles on the road and a lot of carbon burned in the transportation."
This environmental impact was enough for them to consider buying an electric car, and the only one that could haul anything happened to be "a Tesla Model X. Which sounds ridiculous, but it's the only thing. We now have 70,000 miles on it, and 65,000 of those have been hauling a trailer with food waste in it. We pick up about 1,500 pounds every day. The coolest part about that was that the dream was like, if we get solar panels, we will literally be picking up food waste ... on sunlight ... to feed pigs for regenerative agriculture." (As of press time, they are expecting a letter "any day now" about a federal grant for the solar panels.) "So it's all happening. This is multiplicative carbon negative, because the amount of carbon saved from food waste not off-gassing from the landfill is huge; we're sequestering carbon in the soil; and we're not emitting carbon through transportation."
The first step in the process of regenerating soil is rotational grazing, where animals graze on different patches of land each day or week, consistently moving so that the patches that have been trampled and pooped on have time to yield new growth. "We like to do something we call the animal parade," Orion explains: pigs, chickens, sheep. (They've also recently added wild turkeys to the menagerie.) Manure from those animals helps soil microbiota survive and forage grow. "So because you feed pigs and chickens, you can use them to dump those nutrients [and] restart the system, which is why we call them a 'pasture reset tool.'"
The next step in regenerating soil is finding a cover crop to rebuild resistance to erosion. "The native [grasses] will take up to three, even five years to start germinating after you've cast them on the ground following the pigs and/or chickens," Tina explains. So a "nurse crop" is necessary. James Brown, owner of Barton Springs Mill, provides Tina and Orion with heirloom seeds he can't use, called "overs" and "unders" (over/under the correct size for his mill). When he approached them, Orion says, "everything crystallized for me. Because if you have land that has been overgrazed by cows and goats for 50 years, it doesn't have the microbiota life to cycle the nutrients in the soil anymore, even if you try to put nutrients on it. So I thought, I can use these overs and unders as nurse plants for the future native [grasses], because they will start to punch their roots down and create these channels that infiltrate water into the soil and produce sugars that get the life cycling again."
Rotational grazing replicates the natural symbiotic cycle of these ecosystems before human interference, says Orion. "If those plants just came up, they would not thrive if an animal didn't eat them. That's one of the counterintuitive things, is that they co-evolved with grazers to be eaten. If they're not eaten, they'll die." And because grazers are controlled by humans now, farmers have to mimic the threat of predators that used to force their movement. "We are basically mimicking that predator pressure with electric polywire," says Tina. "No less frequent than every two weeks." They do the same with their chicken coops every Monday, Orion pulling them manually a couple of feet and their dog keeping the chickens in line.
After four years of effort, Tina and Orion have gotten TerraPurezza to be a working farm (in part by not paying themselves); now pivoting to the research side of the operation, they are concerned with preaching the gospel of these methods in the hope that they become widely applicable. But they realize that might be the trickiest part: "The biggest challenge facing regenerative agriculture and its realistic scalability is labor," says Tina. "The labor that's required to rotationally graze animals on a pasture is exponentially higher than a growhouse with one employee that can manage tens of thousands of animals on their own."
For the farmer next door, deciding to change is the hardest part. "Essentially, they have to recover one portion of their land first." They would need a "sacrificial area," a portion of land for the animals to tear up for longer than usual so the remaining land can recover. But that would require more input costs, like hay for feed, which is extremely expensive. "That's a lot to ask, and we're not going to [ask] because we understand the financial realities. If you wanna change their mind that this is a good direction to go, you have to meet them pretty close to where they already are and show them the real steps they can take, not the lofty, bucolic, 'wouldn't this be wonderful' idea."
For Tina and Orion, what it boils down to is government subsidies, which are currently skewed in support of commercial agriculture. "You don't necessarily go to the senators and say, 'Hey, in the next farm bill we want you to switch the subsidies of the big guys and go to regenerative agriculture,' because that'll be fought [and] the bill will fail. However, if there is a carbon accounting system put into place, you could create a new subsidy out of nowhere because of carbon tax. We are already starting to get preliminary data in how much carbon that would sequester depending on rainfall and landscape."
Orion and Tina – trained to be skeptical – know that the kind of serendipitous partnerships and grueling individual work put into TerraPurezza will need financial and popular support to be scalable.
"And that's why we need this data," says Tina. "So that we can actually build a structure for a program like this."
TerrePurezza offers pastured eggs, pastured chicken, pastured pork, and various raised garden beds. They attend the Dripping Springs Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Pedernales Farmer’s Market on Sundays, and offer limited delivery in 78669. Please check www.terrapurezza.com and social media for updates during the COVID-19 pandemic.