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How Regeneration Can Change The Future Of Farming And Winemaking With Carlo Mondavi

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As climate change continues to worsen, the future of farming is at stake. Fossil fuels used in farming equipment contribute to global warming and devastating forest fires destroy crop quality. The best way to mitigate these adverse effects is by transitioning to regenerative methods. Joining Corinna Bellizzi is Carlo Mondavi, Co-Founder and Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractor, the world’s first fully electric autonomous tractor. Carlo explains how their invention, combined with sustainable agricultural practices, helps farmers from all over reduce their carbon footprint, improve field safety, and streamline operations. He discusses what it takes for regenerative farming to reach mainstream status, giving the planet a breath of fresh air – and a huge chance to increase its longevity.

About Carlo Mondavi

Carlo Mondavi is Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractors. Carlo is an expert viticulturist with experience in Organic, Biodynamic, and Permaculture Farming. He is a fourth-generation winegrower from the world-renowned Mondavi family. Carlo is the co-founder of Raen Winery and a partner at Continuum Estate. He is also the co-founder of the Monarch Challenge, an effort focused on elevating farming by eliminating herbicides and powerful chemicals from farms in Sonoma, Napa and beyond.

Guest Links

https://www.linkedin.com/in/carlo-mondavi-063792a0 

https://monarchtractor.com

https://www.instagram.com/monarch_tractor/ 

Show Notes

0:00 – Introduction

3:04 – The Impact Of Climate Crisis in California

7:34 – Wines and the Mondavi Family

13:59 – Shifting To Regenerative Farming Practices

21:02 – Bringing Regenerative Farming to Mainstream

36:36 – An Educational Perspective

49:46 – Monarch Tractors

58:13 – Company Partnerships and Collaborations

1:03:10 – Building An Economically Superior Planet

01:08:13 – Conclusion

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How Regeneration Can Change The Future Of Farming And Winemaking With Carlo Mondavi

In this episode, we’re going to visit two topics that are near and dear to my heart, great wine and regenerative farming as they introduce you to a giant of both worlds, Carlo Mondavi. Carlo Mondavi is a fourth-generation farmer, wine grower and grandson of the legendary Robert Mondavi. He is also the Cofounder and Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractor. This is the world’s first fully electric autonomous tractor.

The Monarch Tractor offers a trifecta of electrification, automation and data analysis resulting in maximum value from a farmer’s perspective. This helps them cast their carbon footprint, improve field safety, streamline farming operations and increase their bottom lines. I got the opportunity to meet Carlo in person at a press event that they hosted as I’m doing the show.

Carlo Mondavi, welcome to the show.

Corinna, how are you? It’s good to be here.

It’s so good to see you again. I had the rare opportunity to be in person with you. It rained so much between. It feels like Ian has passed.

We got two very much-needed things for our planet or certainly for California that day. We got those rains, which were incredible. In 2022, we’re in our third consecutive driest year since 1896. On top of that, we were able to deliver Monarch Tractor to our first customer. It means that we’ll be migrating away from the fossil fuel era of farming into the regenerative, renewable era of farming, which is very exciting. Thanks again for making it in the rain.

I have to tell you that the strength of the last couple of storms that passed through my area had me thinking back to the CZU Fire Lightning Complex or the lightning complex that hit here in Santa Cruz County because it was so windy and so much downpour that I was brought back to that incredible thunderstorm that resulted in me being evacuated from my home for ten days.

Fire hoses in our local habitat and entire forests burning down. This is something that you’ve also been through in wine country. I wanted to start here and talk about the need for us to address, not only farming equipment but what’s happening with the climate crisis and how it’s impacting wine growing and farming in California.

This extreme weather has been terrifying. My wife makes wine in Italy so we’ve seen different climates but climate excess. When it’s dry, it’s extremely dry. The winds are extremely strong when it’s windy. What we’ve seen is hail. Hail is in Italy, Europe and these wine regions for hundreds of years but in 2022, the size of the hail is much more severe. Climate change is starting to rear. It’s ugly ahead and it’s terrifying. The 2017 wildfires were so surreal. I thought it was arson when it happened. How can you have so many fires in so many places at one time so quickly? It was so dry, hot and windy. It seemed like if you were an arson, that would be the time to go out and light fires.

It turned out that it was not arson. It was a whole bunch of things coming together to create one of the most unbelievable and terrifying wildfires. I thought that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This was something that, that year is behind us and more severe because of climate change. The weather was more difficult but that won’t happen again. 2017 was the wildfires that happened and then in 2018, they weren’t in Napa and Sonoma but they were nearby. In 2019, they came back again and then in 2020, they came right back to Napa-Sonoma and this whole area. Those wildfires were much earlier as tragic and severe, if not more.

Even when the vines aren’t impacted, the wine is undrinkable because the grapes end up having this smoky hit to them. You can’t use them.

Smoke taint is something that the world is starting to understand. In 2022, for the first time, there were wildfires in Bordeaux, France, where they get a significant amount of rain each year. That shows you how dry the weather is in between these drought years or in Australia. The data is coming around on propylguaiacol and what smoke tape means. It doesn’t mean that they’re undrinkable but they have been changed. You have this wax on the outside of a grape that collects the microflora.

That’s the resin from the flowers, the grasses at trees, everything that we breathe. Those plants are essentially in the environment breathing that. It sticks to this wax and creates a bloom. That bloom ends up as a part of the wine. Smoke taint, which is interesting in wine barrels, chars the inside of barrels. That is propylguaiacol which is a compound that is not wanted and needed in barrels. That’s a different story. That’s something that’s a part of seasoning the barrel in the vineyard. It’s something that is not desired because it’s erasing the beautiful notes of the flowers, trees and environment in which the wines grew.

It’s not that it’s not drinkable. It alters it. A lot of families, during these tragic fires, have decided to discard the wine. The other side of it is that, during these fires, it’s impossible to get crews to go pick. It’s too dangerous. It’s smokey and bad to breathe. In many instances, the fires surround the vineyard so harvest is essentially abandoned. By the time people get back in, they’ve lost that entire crop. It’s a combination of crop loss due to not being able to harvest at the right time or due to quality and people feeling that the smoke inhibited its value.

CMBB 121 | Future Of Farming
Future Of Farming: Forest fires hinder farmers from gathering crops. It’s either because the area is too dangerous or the crop quality has dropped due to the smoke.

That’s up to the individual wineries to make those judgment calls. I’ve been aware of the Mondavi family and drinking wine with that label right after I was 21 years old. This is opening that door. I wanted to connect on this topic because we’re talking about grapes growing in one arena and many people think Napa for wines. They might think Santa Barbara but they might not know that one of the largest grape-growing regions is along the 101 Corridor between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. I did an archeology dig in college at Mission San Antonio de Padua because I was there. I guess Cal Poly and some of the professors knew some people at Mondavi so they hosted a wine tasting at the dig.

This is back in 1997 when your family still ran it. They brought out a sommelier who did a tasting with us, including some fortified wine that I had no idea that you produced but you were tasting it, testing it at that time and deciding whether to launch. I got to learn a little bit about the Mondavi history in this area and how long you’d been involved in winemaking. Since then, I have followed a lot of what the family has done, how that has changed, how we look at wines on a global scale and even some winemakers choosing to source grapes from other regions around the world and create blends that can help them get over hurdles this moment when you’ve lost your entire crop.

I understand that this has changed the entire business of winemaking over the course of the last few years. If you have something catastrophic like this happen, it might have been something where in the past, a winery would say, “We don’t do that. It wouldn’t be synonymous with our brand,” but they might be at a point where they have to make a judgment call because they’ll have no crop and wine for that vintage at all. What do you think this is doing to change the business of winemaking in Napa?

The biggest thing is there are little things that we need to do during the growing season to adjust our canopy to deal with hotter summers, dryer weather, the vinyl row spacing, the direction and all these little things that we do that are micro-adjusting to the weather. That’s something that farmers do. The greatest way to describe a farmer is how quickly and accurately we can react to what’s happening. The biggest thing is that we need to come to climate stability because our small reactions are getting us through each year.

If we don’t react to the bigger picture of what’s happening on a global basis to our planet, those small reactions will be meaningless. It’s because the weather that’s coming at us is so severe that it’s impossible to continue to farm or have a planet inhabitable to the beautiful biodiversity that’s here. That’s where the whole idea of getting away from fossil farming, getting into renewable farming. There’s another big piece of the pie and that is the chemicals that we use in agriculture that are incredibly carbon intensive in terms of their energy-intensive to create. They’re bad for our soils, our planet by diversity and us.

They get on the skins of the grapes and may not all wash away. We’re speaking about wine but it applies to all foods because they do spray chemicals. Some of those residues rest on the plants or end up in the soil. It doesn’t all wash away when you rinse it.

The overall picture of what agriculture means to our planet is greater than 20% of our planet’s carbon footprint and inhabits.

Isn’t it second only to the industry?

It’s more like 30%. I always try to say conservative numbers. There’s a 9 to 13.

You include things like transport and also the tractors, the emissions that they produce and things along those lines.

That’s a huge piece of it. Tractors are diesel so it knocks particulate NCO2 so they’re particularly dirty. It’s a huge amount of our planet’s carbon footprint. On top of it, agriculture covers greater than 50% of our planet’s inhabitable land and uses 70% of our planet’s water resources from a freshwater resource perspective. When you look at that, whatever we do on our farms, because it covers so much vastness of our landscape, it ends up in our waterways, air and our plate at dinner. As farmers, we are the most important people on our planet.

Agriculture covers more than half of the planet’s inhabitable land and uses 70% of the earth’s water resources. Whatever we do on our farms ends up in our waterways, air, and even dinner plates. Click To Tweet

Back in 1900, half of the United States was in agriculture and farmers. In 2022, it’s 1.8%. It’s this moment where we, as that 1.8%, have to change the way that we’re farming so that we can protect our planet and continue to farm in it. One thing that I love about farming is that when you talk to the most conservative conventional farmer or the most organic, biodynamic, permaculture farmer and every farmer in between, they all care deeply about our planet. They all want to make a difference and care about their families and their dirt. When the conversation is presented about making our planet better for them, they all want to do it.

Comes the problem of economics. When I began, the Monarch Challenge was hit with, which was farming cleanly before Monarch Tractor was economically impossible. It was so much more expensive to farm in a more elegant, symbiotic way to Mother Nature than it was to spray conventional, systemic, synthetic chemicals.

Making the transition from a more chemically traditional agriculture perspective and then moving to a more regenerative practice can take a bit for you to realize the benefits of making that shift. That also is an investment, like any business and it may be a leap of faith in some ways that these farmers have to take. They can see demonstrated successes at other farms taking hold that might require less water.

Each plant that they produce might grow more fruit or produce more food if they space them and feed them water a little differently and if they use different chemicals on the soil. This is a complex issue. I’ve seen this tractor in person. I have to say it was quite an experience to understand that the tractor could have its plotted course that it was going to take and then also have somebody stand in front of it with a few hand signals.

Ask it to pause, shift its direction or do anything to make it a functional tool in a way that I wouldn’t have imagined before for something like a tractor. I was hoping that as we dig into the subject and as people understand things like particulate matter from a tractor, which burns diesel, its miles per gallon are going to be very low because it’s doing heavy work. You’re burning a lot of diesel. Now, you’re not.

It’s super efficient to inefficient. Diesel is 20% efficient. It’s so inefficient in terms of its ability to convert to energy for the use of a diesel engine.

That’s why we get all that super particulate black smoke because there are unburned elements within that too.

You have to burn a significant amount of diesel to get that work done versus something like an electric engine, which is more than 90% to 95% efficient. Electric energy is so much more efficient than twice torque compared to diesel. Ultimately, even if it was less efficient, you’re taking 300 million-year-old sunlight in that energy that grew plants that then were buried and became what we know as fossil fuel. You’re taking that 300 million-year-old carbon, burning it and adding it to our carbon total. Our saturated air with greenhouse gases is not a path forward.

Even if it was less efficient to go electric in terms of putting the foot on the throttle and accelerating ahead, it would still be the right direction to go. The fact of the matter is that it’s significantly more efficient. The magnitude of 90% efficient versus diesel being 20% efficient, then diesel engines being 20% efficient. It’s crazy. There’s also a misnomer that people oftentimes think. If you’re hooking your electric tractor or your electric car up to a coal power plant, you’re not helping the planet.

It’s true. Renewable farming using renewable energy to farm is going to be significantly more beneficial than coal. Coal is more efficient than diesel tractors because they’re 60% efficient in converting energy versus 20% efficient in diesel and all the refining. It’s not ideal to use coal. That’s something we have to get away from. I’m super excited that this new fusion nuclear ability creates even more resourceful and efficient energy. Whether it’s nuclear, wind, geothermal, hydro or solar, we have to get away from hydrocarbons, including coal, to show you how efficient electricity is compared to diesel. It’s a magnitude or greater.

CMBB 121 | Future Of Farming
Future Of Farming: Using renewable energy to farm is significantly more beneficial than coal. But coal is 60% more efficient than diesel in converting energy. This is something farmers must get away from.

Our readers may remember this too from a subject on clean cooking that we covered as we introduced our audience to this concept with a tech, which is a company that makes clean cooking stoves that are usable in rural environments where you can take cow dung which releases methane and burn that for fuel. You produce some carbon from that but if you want to talk lesser about evils, methane to CO2 is vastly different.

They’re able to clean up their cooking and reduce their incidents of things cancer because they were cooking using dirty fuel before and ending up inhaling a lot of smoke. The smoke leads to things like carcinogenic outcomes and other health states of disease. We’re looking at solutions all over the globe that can help us get here to where the carbon equivalent is reduced. We’re at how many parts per million at this point?

We’re over 420 parts per million of CO2.

I remember that from your presentation. I felt like I was watching An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore when you shared those graphs.

If you want an interesting moment, watch An Inconvenient Truth. It was 2004 and we’re almost 20 years later in 2022 and everything you said is happening. It couldn’t be more contemporary than it is now. It’s terrifying. It’s easy to get into climate fear of what’s happening with the chaos and all that but I feel optimistic about the future because of technology. We will have a more sustainable, beautiful planet if we can migrate and adopt all of these technologies. The first coal power plant was in 1883, which was the Edison in London, followed by 1885. It was the first combustion engine automobile.

That was a huge technology at that time. We know it’s terrible for our planet to migrate away from that but we have to constantly progress and get better. It’s about accelerating that and getting to a much cleaner planet as quickly as possible because if we don’t, we will get to a point where we are at a point of no return. We’re at that point where we can’t make decisions as a planet and come together to get away from the fossil fuel era and get into a renewably powered era, which is infinitely better for our planet, then we shift creek without a paddle-type of thing. It’s a scary time.

Let’s talk for a moment about that because most people get a basic understanding of what regenerative farming or regenerative agriculture is. It’s essentially utilizing nature’s ability to resolve the challenges that we face to regenerate, utilize less toxic resources and perhaps eliminate them, at the same time, working with the natural ecosystems with how plants grow together. We don’t live in a mono-crop world. In the world of farming for wine, you will commonly see something like rose bushes at the edge of each row of grapes.

This was to reduce pests and infiltration onto the grapes. You also need to look at cover crops that can work in concert with the environment that you’re growing in and moving in a new direction. How long do you think some concepts like regenerative agriculture and regenerative farming make more with less working with nature as opposed to against it? How long will that take to become mainstream? How close are we? Are we at the tipping point?

When you look at agriculture and why the chemical industry has been so successful is because of education. When we graduated school, a lot of my friends got thrown the tractor keys and the keys to the farm from their family and their formal education stopped at high school. They didn’t go on to college and in walks a PhD from a chemical company, you name it. Their formal education begins from that perspective and they’re learning how to farm in that realm. The reason why that has been so successful is that it was such a profit. $200 billion of pesticides each year being sold and 100 million tons of fertilizer.

There was so much money and a whole team of people educating, both working with universities and individual farms. That was where the education direction was and that’s where farmers began to adopt. Even from lobbying with insurance companies to say, “If you want insurance, you have to use these chemicals.” It’s honestly been a mess. Now, it’s about education. This is one of the things that I’m excited about with Monarch Tractor because we are electric, driver optional, smart and connected to all those things.

There’s this huge data piece because it’s a vision stack like Tesla. You get down Vineyard Road autonomously and it’s capturing an incredible amount of data. You can take that data and it’s an open app system similar to the Apple platform so people can develop apps and put it onto the tractor, whether it’s implement companies or any third party. Farmers can decide if they want to share that data with the technology and then they can get insights. This begins the journey of being able to have a higher level of education in terms of anyone being able to go out there and have access to the data that they want to access. On the regenerative organic dynamic, permaculture, that whole realm, it’s going to happen fairly quickly. That needs to happen by 2030.

It’s incredible because of the social dynamics and podcasts like your show, Corrina. With the ability to communicate and how connected we are, there’s the opportunity for it to happen quickly. There is a platform that Monarch enables farmers to go beyond the organic realm and save more money than they would save on, for example, conventional farming. To give an example of that, I have a friend who has 4,500 acres. Each year, he spends about $500 per acre to buy glyphosate, a herbicide. That’s about $2.25 million a year that he pays for a chemical.

That ends up in the water tables too. I look down because it’s terrible.

That chemical is essentially mowing the field versus being able to mow the field with an implement like a mower and a tractor. By being able to be electric and autonomous, you can go out and mow as often as you want. You can bridge the economic divide and then the carbon footprint. That saves $2.25 million. It doesn’t include the savings on autonomy and being electric versus diesel. It doesn’t include all of that. It’s just saying you’re going to get rid of this chemical. First off, we have to address the 9 billion pounds of petro pesticides on our planet and then the 100 million tons.

Is glyphosate a petro pesticide?

Before jumping in, I want to say that the educational realm is how we are going to be able to get rid of yesterday’s farming and get into a more regenerative farm. That’s where we talk about soils and the amount of carbon sequestration. You can get into soils, have a healthy soil microbiome and farm biology with all the biodiversity and how much better that is. It’s all happening. It’s going to happen and it needs to happen because otherwise, we’re in this realm.

The educational realm is the key to getting rid of yesterday’s farming techniques and moving into a more regenerative farm. Click To Tweet

As a stance, I interviewed Tom Newmark on this show. He was the Cofounder of The Carbon Underground. He has a farm in Costa Rica, which he used to supply New Chapter. He led New Chapter, which is a supplement company for many years. He used to supply all of their ginger and he was using all these biodynamic growing conditions. Animals grazing underfoot. He was working to sequester the carbon and was operating from the perspective that they must be doing better than other organic farmers in the area. He tested the soil.

He found that their carbon sequestration was not nearly as good as he thought it would and the carbon in the soil of the forest that was budding his property was ten times better. I might be remembering that number incorrectly but it was so much better that he was like, “I could be doing better. There’s something that’s missing. There’s another way to do this.” It had to do with tilling. It was 100% tilling.

As we get to this new era where we’re saying, “We can get tractors that have attachments. Instead of having a traditional plow behind them where they’re raking the soil from one end of the plot to the next and can cut in through the grasses and plant seeds way.” Until I saw a video of this, I had a very hard time understanding what was meant by it. I enjoyed this simple video called Kiss the Ground. I ended up interviewing John Roulac on my other podcast, Nutrition Without Compromise. He funded Kiss the Ground so he was the executive producer behind it.

Those guys were at the launch. They’re a great team.

I can’t believe I didn’t get to meet them.

They are good people.

Perhaps you can make another introduction but at the same time, help people visualize this, because as Paul Hawken said to me on this show when I interviewed him, he said, “Earth does not want to be bear.” We all intrinsically understand this when we have our gardens and there are these unwanted weeds that show up. Often, they show up as an indicator that you might not have enough nitrogen in your soil. This nitrogen-fixing weed shows up in your garden and seems to thrive and then suddenly, you see something else growing up.

We instinctually want to remove the unwanted and only have the thing that we want but this method of farming and agriculture may be harming us more than helping us. What I’m getting to here is you’ve got this beautiful tractor. It’s so friendly and does its job with fewer resources. It doesn’t emit a truckload of noxious chemicals. It could also be used in more of this conventional farming way. A conventional farmer could utilize this tool and continue to till their soil, spray noxious chemicals and use glyphosate and not be part of that solution.

Also, a lot more money doing it. They will be the 45% of farmers in America that are not profitable versus the people that get away from those chemicals. They don’t have to buy those inputs. It’s pretty crazy when you say to a farmer, “What if I could save you X dollars on these chemicals?” They’d be like, “Please, tell me how.”

It’s all about education. On the regenerative piece, talking about your friend who was farming biodynamically and the forest had so much more carbon sequestration or organic matter in the soils, it’s pretty interestingly logical when you think about it. If you think about an acre of land and you take the topsoil, which is 6 inches of soil, that weighs about 2 million pounds. Let’s say you have 2 million pounds of topsoil in an acre and then if you go from 0.5% of carbon, which is normally what conventional farms have, it is 0.5% of organic matter or less. The way you get organic matter is you take the dirt. You cook that dirt to a point where all the organic matter burns off.

You weigh it before and after. That’s the percent of organic matter in your field. That’s how he was measuring. He was probably doing that with the forest and his field. When you till, spray pesticides and herbicides and use fertilizers like nitrogen, which oftentimes oxidize the organic matter in the soils and break it up, you’re exposing it to air and all that, which also oxidizes it. You’re losing your organic matter. When you look at it from a magnitude of 0.5% or less organic matter in the soil, it’s essentially dead. When the rains come, it sweeps that all away.

There are a couple of things. For every percent of organic matter in your soil, that’s how much rain it can take in a very quick order of time. If half 1/2 inch comes, it’s pulling the soil away. It’s not absorbing. It’s erosion. When you get into beautifully no-till farms with 3%, 4%, 5% or 6% organic matter in the soils or if you have 5%, it’s 100,000 pounds of organic matter you have in your soil versus 0.5%, it’s 10,000 pounds. When you pick a place like California where you have 100 million acres of land total and 43 of those million acres are agricultural and if you were to say, “Don’t use these pesticides like herbicides or don’t use these fertilizers or use them very sparingly,” don’t till.

We can go from 0.5% of organic matter to 5% organic matter, you’re talking about trillions of pounds like 4 trillion pounds of organic matter that you’ve created. That leads to nutrient-dense foods, healthier, more nutritious farms and foods and greater carbon sequestration and real carbon sequestration because you can get that very quickly but then you till it and release it. You’re talking about a deeper sense.

On top of that, if it rains, 2 inches in a very quick order of time, you’re not pulling your topsoil away and putting that into a river, which should be crystal clear but instead, it’s a murky brown. You’re getting that water absorbed into your field down to your roots. The whole regenerative movement is empolyculture. Talking about multiple crops in a field versus a monoculture is so important. This is where cover crops and a no-till program with a lot of biodiversity on the farm are important. There’s a climate and overall farm health side to it.

There’s a nutrient-density side to it and all these things and then there’s a cost-saving side to it when you get rid of those chemicals, which is important. This is what Monarch unlocks. This is why Monarchs can become a major predator in the education of the right path forward. Whereas before, the education was, “Sell more chemicals because I’m Monsanto, Dower or Syngenta. I’m going to sell more chemicals. That’s my goal. That’s what my objective is.” For Monarch, it’s like, “How can we save farmers?”

One way to save farmers is by selling fewer chemicals. The objective changes and the whole shift allow for a world of what is best for Mother Nature versus what is best for the company. The whole idea is, “How do we make what’s best for planet Earth economically superior to anything else?” That’s something that’s in our founding documents with my cofounders and our team and that’s why we’ve been able to inspire such an incredible team to come from aerospace and on-road and all that to help address this agricultural universe.

CMBB 121 | Future Of Farming
Future Of Farming: Monarch Tractor’s main objective is to save farmers by selling fewer chemicals. This entire shift is best for Mother Nature instead of the company.

It is this idea of how we’re going to protect our planet going forward. That’s at the core of what we’re doing. Whereas at the core of many years of farming has been about, “How do we sell more chemicals? How do we squeeze more out of our land without looking at what the actual effect was? What’s the actual cost to Mother Earth?” There’s an exciting future for all that. The carbon piece is so true. I love Paul Hawkins. We have to have covered soil, which is so true.

It doesn’t have to be naked. As a stance, you’re bringing together a couple of subjects that are critically important to both the success of the movement and how Monarch lays into that. As you look at this tractor, it’s about one piece in a much bigger puzzle that is farming, autonomous vehicles and a technological approach to climate challenges, a technological approach solution.

The applications of this technology could go far beyond farming. I don’t want to say just farming but could be applied in other arenas. I also understand that what we’re getting at here when we talk about what you’re doing from this educational perspective is that your company also has a platform to help educate these farmers on shifting away from some of these petrochemical-based fertilizers and what exactly they are. I don’t fully understand what glyphosate is. Is it a petrochemical? Where does it come from?

It’s based on dehydrated fossil fuel molecules and that’s what most of the 9 billion pounds of pesticides sprayed on Mother Earth do each year. 98% to 99% of those were petro-based before World War I and World War II. The first time that we were able to fix nitrogen was in the 1860s out in Germany. They were the first ones to fix nitrogen but it was so energy intensive to create nitrogen that it didn’t make sense for farmers and the industry to use it.

World War I happened, World War II, a potassium nitrate bomb came along and all of a sudden, huge factories were spun up to fix nitrogen to create these bombs for war. After the war, they were all there and it was like, “What can we do with this?” That was when it was commoditized. It became economically available and pharmafrugal to be able to buy that as a farmer and use it in lieu of having to turn your crops to have nitrogen fixtures and depleters. Before, the only way you could fix nitrogen in the soil was through the root and photosynthesis pulling nitrogen out of the air and fixing it in the soil.

There were nitrogen fixers and then nitrogen depleters. After this, it was like, “We don’t need to turn crops anymore. We don’t need to rotate crops. We can plant what we want to plant and augment it with chemistry.” This is where the Green Revolution began. It is called the Green Revolution, which allowed farmers to industrialize farming and become more monoculture and focus on, “I’m going to do corn. I don’t need to rotate and have legumes to fix the soy. I can crank through.”

The Green Revolution began with farmers realizing that they didn’t have to rotate crops. They planted while augmenting them with chemistry. Click To Tweet

This began the era that we’re talking about. With that, there is so much research. Billions of dollars were invested into agri-technologies in the chemical sector. That’s where things spun out differently. It’s a very dangerous herbicide and eventually, they got to glyphosate, which the theory was a very clean herbicide compared to a lot of the other ones. My stance is that all herbicides are bad.

I’m not this person who says, “Roundup and glyphosate is the only bad one.” They’re all bad because, first off, they’re chemically mowing. I’ve gotten in trouble for saying, “This means that we’re being lazy as farmers.” It doesn’t mean that we’re being lazy. It’s a terrible thing to spray into the ground and kill the grass. There’s a 100% reduction to get rid of it.

It’s symptom treatment. It’s the same approach that pharma has. It’s like, “Go take a bunch of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.” Who cares what it does to your guts, heart health or anything else long-term? You want to kill the pain. It’s the same thing. You’re treating the symptom as opposed to the cause and you’re not working with nature at all.

Isn’t it funny that pharmaceutical companies are also one of the largest chemical companies?

Isn’t that Dow?

No. That’s Bayer. Bayer and Dow are big. They’re all quite large. When you think about, “We’re going to do this in our food systems. Don’t worry, we have got pharmaceuticals to deal with the health impact that comes from it,” it feels like a very dark film. The good news is that we’re smarter than that as the human species. We’ve gone as far as we can go and we’ve learned. Think about this. Since 1974, the introduction of Roundup glyphosate, the flag in the ground for when chemicals got sprayed directly into our food ecosystem.

Not until ’98 and ‘99 with the GMO-resistant corn and soy that could take a herbicide hit without killing that plant. Let’s put that 74 as the flag in the ground. The monarch population of butterflies, which are these beautiful monarchs that migrate from the North down through Mexico and back up, is declined by 99%. It’s beautiful. They’re having a little bit of a comeback for a couple of years but in 2020, their population overwintering count, which is held by the Xeri Society, was down to 1,910 individuals. They were on the brink of extinction. They’re on the endangered species list.

I got the chills. I’m here in the Santa Cruz area and I lived in Pacific Grove for a while. The emblem for Pacific Grove is a monarch butterfly. We go to Natural Bridge State Park here and that’s one of the spaces that the Monarch Butterfly comes through. Some things are positively impacting their health. It’s a drop in the usage of some of these chemicals. It’s also the fact that people are getting wise to create even what is called the pollinator corridor and working to plant bushes that they thrive consuming along the way on their journey through their migratory path. That’s so astonishing.

They’re incredibly resilient. As an invertebrate, they are strong flyers. Think about the thousands of miles that they fly. They have this ability to survive yet with the climate, the environment and everything that we’re going through, they’ve declined. This is a crazy study that came out in Europe. They have shown that 70% of the insect biomass has disappeared since the year 2000 and 50% of the bird population is with it.

This does not include aqua invertebrates and vigilant. As an indicator species, monarchs indicate the health of an ecosystem. When you look at that study, it’s like, “Not just the monarchs are in decline. Everything is in decline.” You then look at the full circle of life. What happens with the birds and the effects? What if the birds disappear? This writer from Monarch says it’s an insect apocalypse.

It’s a great extinction. We’re in the midst of possibly the largest extinction that we’ve ever seen.

It’s unbelievable but if we can protect our planet’s indicator species like monarchs, the polar bears of the North and the wolves of Yellowstone, we can protect whole ecosystems underneath it and then eventually, we can protect ourselves as humanity. The way that it is now is terrifying. This is why I’m so optimistic because the platform that we’ve built at Monarch does allow farmers to make more money while getting away from these chemicals. It does allow us to have a platform where regenerative farming can become the future. It’s not getting away from fossil fuel farming and into renewables. It’s getting away from till farming and into regenerative.

If we can protect the planet’s indicator species like Monarch butterflies, polar bears, or Yellowstone wolves, we can protect the entire ecosystem and humanity. Click To Tweet

I grew up understanding crop rotation was the norm of conventional farming. This is what everybody was doing. However, I live in Santa Cruz County and I drive the Coast of Monterey. I don’t know how many times over the course of the last years. It’s like, “This is where artichokes are always grown. This is where strawberries are always grown. This is where raspberries are always grown.”

It is a mono-cropped world here. I have not seen any farms, aside from a few small CSA-leaning farms that are integrating multiple crops into a small area and using no-till operations and things along these lines. In a community like Santa Cruz where people want to eat organic and understand or at least are starting to understand regenerative farming, we’d be further along down the line than we are. I applaud your position here to work to push this because we need to tap in a lot faster than it is.

I agree when you look at these monoculture farms. If they can get rid of the chemicals, it is very important. After all the chemicals are gone, if you can take 25% of that space, have that be a pollinator garden and all sorts of biodiversity, you can continue in this monoculture way where the farm has a singular focus. If you get away from fossil fuel farming, you can get into renewable energy farming too.

You’re farming strawberries. Your 25% of the farm is a pollinator-friendly garden or land dedicated to being for pollinators and biodiversity and then you get away from fossil fuel and all that. You can create a farm that can be singular and it’s focused but still not be beneficial to the planet. I believe in polyculture and multiple things in farming, whether it’s livestock. It can be carbon positive and not negative. There are all sorts of things that can be done. We have to rethink it and it’s all been rethought.

There are roadmaps for any farming sector that you can follow that will be pollinator-friendly. It’ll be friendly to the soil and the water table. It’s about education and then speed and scale because it’s a lot of lands. When I say 50% of the inhabitable land, it’s half of India, half of Europe or half of America. It’s a significant amount of land that is dedicated to agriculture. We’ve got to move quickly.

I was happy to see that it was talked about at COP27 2022 a bit. It’s always about alluded to industry and transportation. Agriculture is what we eat every single night when we go home for dinner. It’s what we have at lunch. It all comes from farming and has a carbon footprint. This is as big. If not, they’re all big. You can’t choose in the future. We have to progress in all of these segments.

This type of food that’s grown this way tastes better. Perhaps not to your point but to the point of Alice Waters, who was the restaurateur of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She came to your event.

It’s her baby.

I thought she’d retired.

No way. She’s just getting started if you try to get on her schedule. Alice Waters is one of my heroes in the way that she’s able to connect food to the farm. She wrote The Farm to Table Movement. She’s been talking about regenerative farming. She’s working with the government to try to make sure that every family and every child in school can have an organic, healthy and nutritious meal. We’ve all bitten an apple. You’re like, “There’s no flavor,” versus buying. That’s the soil. She’s an incredible human.

She used the example of finding a carrot that tasted so much better when she was in France and then wanting to bring that reality back here. That’s phenomenal. The work that you’re doing is important. I did want to ask you one more that is perhaps fairly deep. You have high hopes and a big dream when it comes to Monarch Tractors and what you can do as it is within the space of the wine industry and beyond.

I heard Constellation Brands, President of the Wine and Spirits Division, tell the story. Robert Hanson told the story of how you came to him with this concept early on. They are the owner of Robert Mondavi Wines, your family’s wines, as well as many other brands, including plenty of spirits and beers that I didn’t even know they were involved in. I had to do a little scrub on their website. I was like, “They have that brand.”

They’re the largest drinks company in the world. They’re huge.

I wanted to hear from your perspective how you got this from a pipe dream through to that first committed, at least indicator and then two now where you have these incredible founders, the facility in Livermore and you’ve got your first fully autonomous electric tractors.

It’s been a journey. I’m a farmer and a winemaker first. That’s where my heart and soul are. When I saw what was happening to our planet, not just here in Napa and Sonoma but when I traveled abroad to wine regions, I knew that if we could create awareness about these dangerous chemicals and what was happening, for sure, we would migrate away. That wasn’t the case. That was how I got the introduction of a lifetime to my cofounders. Mark, Praveen and Zachary are brilliant. When you look at what we’ve been able to create, it’s a real testament to them because these are three of the smartest guys. They could have gone off into aerospace.

They were in aerospace and on-road. They were doing all sorts of technological challenges and incredible things. They said, “This is where we want to spend our time.” The reason why they saw it is that they saw not for vineyards but the whole food ecosystem, fruits and vegetables for orchards. They said, “This is a huge opportunity. It’s a sleeping giant that needs to be awoken because if we don’t focus on this sector, then it’s all for nothing. We have to. It’s so important.” With the team, we’ve been able to create this incredible technology. It’s going to revolutionize our food ecosystem.

It’s making farmers more and making them more profitable. It’s coming full circle to being able to seek Constellation by the first Founder Series Tractors. It’s been amazing. We knew that for our company to be successful, it had to have a massive impact. To have a massive impact, we have to have the big, large, global companies that are at scale be able to adopt the technology. Meanwhile, the small farms and all that as well. Within the Founder Series, it goes to all sorts of wonderful small family farms as well as to some large corporations that can make a major impact. For me, that day was massive to hear Robert talk about that and the vision for Constellation. These are the companies leading our planet’s charge.

If I decide to go and I am, Raen the winery and my brother makes it regenerative. We’re permaculture first and then we use biodynamics and regenerative farming practices. We’re a no-till farm and well beyond organic but we’re 18.5 acres. The impact that we can do is nominal. Not to say that but all the small family farms are the ones making the little adjustable progress forward into a beautiful farming landscape.

When you look at the consolidation of small, medium and large farms, what’s happening on our planet around the world, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia, the large corporations have to step up. That was one of the reasons why I was so particularly happy that Constellation Brands came out and said, “This is something that we’re dedicated to.” It was an exciting day and it’s been a journey.

Granted, you had the connection because they had procured Robert Mondavi Wines.

I wouldn’t want to say that it’s not been exactly the most peachy connection as well. My family didn’t want to sell Robert Mondavi Winery. It was an unfortunate series of events. When we sold, the companies were bidding for it because we were publicly traded. After surveys in Oxley, all public companies are perpetually for sale if you can write a big enough check that will get the shareholder votes to vote over for you.

With Oxley’s compliance, you’re perpetually for sale essentially. It was not a great beginning. The good news is that when we began Monarch and this talk, all the large corporations wanted to have a seat at the table and talk about this because this is something that they all care about. Constellation was not correlated to my family’s history with them but it certainly is a very touching element that the first tractors are going to be on parcels of land that my family was once upon a time involved with.

That can feel very full circle there. The reality is your name comes with a certain amount of weight in that industry because of that history. The fact that you were able to get a conglomerate as large as Constellation. They have cooked champagne, I believe, among them. This is a sparkling wine that you’ll find on every shelf across the world. If you look at the other brands that they manage, it’s huge.

The fact that you could make this introduction happen and that they’d come in so early could mean huge things beyond the scope of the wineries that they manage that might even be within California to other countries around the globe. Be that tipping point in a way for a movement to gain more traction and for us to build more change. I say us because as a consumer of wine, I’m part of that.

It affects us all and that’s why farmers are the most important people on the planet. It’s been incredible and a testament to my cofounders and their ability to create incredible technology. Our team is close to 300 people so we have an incredibly brilliant team to create something that can win over the eyes of some of the largest, most sophisticated corporate companies on the planet. It’s been a good journey. I’m also equally as proud that the small family farms are near and dear to all of us to make in our communities what they have also signed up for.

CMBB 121 | Future Of Farming
Future Of Farming: Monarch Tractor has an incredibly brilliant team who creates something that can win over the eyes of some of the largest and most sophisticated corporate companies on the planet.

For us to be successful as a planet and thrive forward, we need to all adopt. The hardest ones to get to adopt can be equally the small family farms and the large corporations. It’s been a journey. I have to say that none of this happens without the incredible ingenuity and brilliance of the team that we have. It’s an incredible, special team.

You’re uniquely here in Northern California, where there are a lot of people working in the electric vehicle space. The first that I know of is in the tractor space. You have Tesla, Monarch and Joby Aviation here in Santa Cruz County. My husband works for them. He’s in the eVTOL, Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing. I imagine that you have built interesting connections with each of these companies. Are there any collaborations that you’re at liberty to share?

We have a bunch of collaborations on the implement side so everything from mowers and under-the-vine weeders and all the implements that we have. Also, the agricultural ecosystem that we used every day on farms. We have collaborations with several implement companies to not just connect to the implements that they have now but build more efficient and intelligent implements for the farms of tomorrow. This is something that Monarch is unlocking and enabling. It hooks up to all implements but we’re going forward on the app side and the future of energy grid technology.

Say a farmer comes to us and says, “I like what you guys are doing. I want to get into renewable energy.” We have partnered with solar companies with a new cool company called Aeromine. It’s like a wind turbine but it’s about 10×10 feet. Instead of having a big blade, it’s like a Dyson hair blower. It’s a hollow thing that takes wind and creates 5-kilowatt hours of energy off of a 10×10 foot little square. We have renewable connections in all of our partnerships. We have inverter partnerships where we can marry that renewable energy to an inverter that can marry our tractor, which can store that energy.

Imagine in the daytime, energy prices are quite low because there’s all the sun and everything. When the sun sets, energy prices spike because there’s no solar available. If you have ten Monarch tractors, you have a megawatt that’s essentially a microgrid. If you connect that up to the inverter, you can sell that energy back to the grid and farmers can profit from that. When you look at the landscape of 3.2 trillion terawatts of energy that the United States uses each year and you look at half of the United States as farmland or 50% of the inhabitable land as farmland, farmers can get into renewable energy. We don’t need to buy oil anymore. Farmers are rich with energy so there’s another crop.

You could place a turbine or what you mentioned is being a wind tunnel almost. I’m curious. I’ve seen some that look like tulips and that turn and take up a smaller footprint but there are so many different ways that you could fuel your farm that way. That’s cool.

The partnerships are all in those sectors, in today’s and yesterday’s sector but then the new sector of renewable energy and then the ability to be a part of the grid solution on edge. There are all of these things that we have partnerships with to ensure that when farmers say, “I’m ready to go.” We also have an impact department at Monarch. The impact department works with the government to try to help set up subsidies so that as these farmers invest in the future and dive from yesterday’s technologies like diesel tanks and diesel tractor equipment, they can have subsidies to help them invest in the solar, other renewables, the infrastructure that connects it all and then to Monarch Tractor.

These are partnerships that are important because it performs. These are legacy investments. To be able to shift them into a profitable future, it sometimes needs a little bit of nudge. When you look at our dollar-for-dollar metric and a subsidy for an electric car versus a diesel car or a fossil fuel car, one tractor size of the Monarch is turning on fourteen cars. Taxpayer dollars go so much further in subsidizing tractors to be replaced by electric tractors than it does in cars.

Not to say that this is a competition between electric on-road vehicles and tractors is all the same. We have to get away from the fossil fuel era but there is that bridge. There’s a lot to be said about these government partnerships. The ability to work with them to make sure that their budgets that are going towards clean tech are also being addressed in agriculture.

CMBB 121 | Future Of Farming
Future Of Farming: Farmers have to get away from the fossil fuel era. Government partnerships serve as the bridge for this transition.

I’m so glad you brought that up because this is the intersection. We also talked with Jen Molbak on the show. He started a corporate benefit corporation or benefit corporation called NewImpact.care. He specifically spoke of what he’s calling a tri-sector way of growing companies, which involves a public sector, meaning government social and then business as well. It’s bringing them all together to create solutions that will ultimately help us all. I appreciate that you’re pulling that lever as well. I’d love for you to leave our audience with a closing thought or if there’s a question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had, you could ask and answer it.

Thank you, Corrina, for having me. My closing thought would be that the more that I’ve dug into this world of what’s happening to our planet, the harder it was for me to sleep at night because it seemed hopeless when you look at what’s happening to our oceans, forests, meadows and planet with the biodiversity. The more I’ve met incredibly brilliant people that our team at Monarch, I am so optimistic about the future because there are incredibly brilliant people working towards solutions that are going to create change and help get us there.

My closing thought for other people that are interested in technology or in helping change our planet is that the conclusion that I came to when I was at my most depressing moment when the modern challenge was going to fail because of the economic and carbon footprint divide, the realization was that, for us to be successful as a human species on this planet, we have to make what is best for our planet economically superior to anything else.

That’s where when we start to see challenges out there for a lot of the audience and the people that are interested if we can create the mental space to go there to how we can make our planet more profitable by being best for our planet, that mindset is where the future is. That’s also where a lot of these technologies have led us. Monarch is making regenerative and economically superior to conventional farming. There’s a bright future, even though when we peel back the layers of what’s happened to our planet, it’s terrifying. There are solutions out there. I’m optimistic about it and grateful that you are talking about this on your show. I’m happy to be here with you. Thanks for sharing this time.

I could keep you for the rest of your day but we both have other things that we need to do with our daily life too. You have me thinking of one definition of regenerative that Paul Hawken has put out there. He wrote the book Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. He defined regeneration as putting Earth at the center of every action we take and every decision we make. I love that it rhymed. I’ve been able to remember it for all of that time but I do think that’s something you are speaking to. It’s like, “If we define how we build as we go forward, as we build back better, this is how we do it.”

Paul is a brilliant human being and someone whom I look up to. I’ve been able to meet him. I’ve read his books. He’s an amazing guy.

Thank you so much for your time. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I hope that you’ll come back at some point in the future too.

It would be an absolute pleasure. Thank you for telling the story and all of the incredible stories that you’re telling. I appreciate it. Thank you, Corrina.

Thank you, Carlo.

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  • Carlo Mondavi

    Carlo Mondavi is Chief Farming Officer of Monarch Tractors. Carlo is an expert viticulturist with experience in Organic, Biodynamic, and Permaculture Farming. He is a fourth generation winegrower from the world-renowned Mondavi family and is co-founder of Raen Winery, as well as a partner at Continuum Estate. Carlo is the co-founder of the Monarch Challenge, an effort focused on elevating farming by eliminating herbicides and powerful chemicals from farms in Sonoma, Napa and beyond. The Monarch Challenge is the namesake of Monarch Tractor.

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