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Adapting a fully organic diet and lifestyle requires a huge amount of effort and dedication. Mollie Engelhart responds to the call for healthier living by focusing on regenerative farming. Joining Corinna Bellizzi, she talks about her work as a farm-to-table farmer who promotes organic diet by adopting a closed food loop and getting rid of the use of fertilizers. She explains the benefits of vertical farming technology, how to be mindful of excess food, and why our health is directly connected with healthy soils. Mollie also talks about how to become regenerative beyond farming and even into community-building approaches, food production, and our daily routines.
About Mollie Engelhart
Mollie, a mother of four, is one of California’s foremost advocates for regenerative farming.
She uses sustainable practices on her three regenerative farms, two of which are located in California and the other in Texas. They supply fresh and organic produce to many residents as well as her four restaurants and brewery, including Sage Vegan Bistro, which is co-owned by famous actor and activist Woody Harrelson.
Mollie started Sow a Heart Farm in 2018, which has become known for its exemplary regenerative practices and inspirational volunteer opportunities. The farm now delivers pesticide-free CSA produce boxes throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, and it also facilitates a sustainable food and compost loop with Mollie’s renowned restaurants.
Mollie sits on the board of Kiss the Ground, the foremost soil and regenerative agriculture nonprofit that raises awareness through storytelling, education, and advocacy—it has large followings on both Instagram and Facebook. The foundation produced the film Kiss the Ground to show the potential of stabilizing Earth’s ecosystems through regenerative practices.
Mollie is dedicated to living and sharing a natural and practical earth-minded lifestyle. From her regenerative farms and restaurants to her deep concern for healthy eating and holistic family life (she delivered four home births), Mollie is showing a way forward for Americans.
Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mollieangelheart
Guest Website: https://www.sageveganbistro.com
00:00 – Introduction
01:40 – Molly’s origin story
07:13 – How fake food products destroy mental health
12:45 – Density and overpopulation
19:36 – Animal husbandry and food procurement
25:26 – Hospitality in regenerative farming
36:26 – Death on every plate
42:07 – Living with healthy soil
48:12 – Moving to organic
58:04 – Films about regeneration
01:03:16 – Final words and conclusion
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How Regenerative Farming Can Lead to Healthier Living With Mollie Engelhart
We have taken a deep dive into the future of food, farming, food procurement, and creating communities that people will want to live in. I’m thrilled to further this discussion with one incredible woman who committed to being part of our food solution from the regenerative farms that she owns and runs to the restaurant she owns in Greater Los Angeles called Sage Vegan Bistro, which she founded and co-owns with actor Woody Harrelson.
She also sits on the board of Kiss The Ground, a film narrated by Woody and an incredible educational tool about regenerative farming and the import of healthy soil that I encourage everyone to watch again and again. For those of you who may remember the interview I hosted with John Roulac, who is the Executive Producer of Kiss The Ground, you can always dive back into that episode to learn more too. It’s my absolute honor and privilege to introduce you to Mollie Engelhart. Mollie, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
First, I would love for you to share your origin story. What brought you to this moment?
I was raised on a small farm in upstate New York. My mom made dresses and my dad was a carpenter. We had an apple orchard. I grew up in a family on a farm business. My mom became a fashion designer. Her selling dresses at the farmer’s market did better than the apples. Life evolved from there. When my mom and dad got divorced, my dad started Cafe Gratitude.
I started Sage the same year that he opened Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles. I opened Sage in Los Angeles as well. I had been raised vegetarian. I grew up on a small farm. I felt pretty connected to the Earth. I thought I was doing my part. In my early 30s, I was apathetic to what the future held. I held a view that was like, “We’re going to all burn in hell but I’m drinking my oat milk latte and driving a hybrid. What do you want me to do about it?”
You’re like so many that live and work in Northern California, frankly, and driving their Teslas around, not the Priuses so much.
It went from Priuses to Teslas. I listened to a TED Talk with Graeme Sait. In that moment of the TED Talk with Graeme Sait, there were a couple of red pill moments like, “What if the vegan diet is not better for the environment? Who said that? Where is the science behind it?” I am still a vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life and thought that was the right path. I had opened all these restaurants. He broke it down pretty clearly that the number one cause of methane in the environment was food scraps. I realized that I was owning a restaurant, putting tons of food scraps into the landfill. The first step was how could I compost all this stuff. LA didn’t have a system. I started looking at getting a farm.
My husband was undocumented when we got married. I couldn’t get a loan from a bank and all these things. It took us some years but we bought a farm. We were like, “We can compost all the food scraps,” but then I was like, “What’s next?” We did start a CSA during the pandemic. We grow a bunch of food for our restaurants. We bring all the food scraps from our restaurants. We’re trying to have this closed food loop. That’s how we have gotten to where we are.
We have a brewery as well. We have the only Certified Regenerative hops in the world and then the only organic hop yard in Southern California. We bring the brewery grain back to feed the animals and then compost the poop from the animals, and then that makes more soil. The avocados, lemons, oranges, and vegetables go back to the restaurants in a circle.
The importance of circularity is key. It’s something that we need to talk more about too. Regeneration as a concept is so much more than regenerative agriculture too. It’s thinking about this cradle-to-cradle principle and ensuring that we are using the materials we have to their best stability instead of losing this oil and watching it turn into dust and drift away with the wind.
I think of regeneration as giving more than we take. Much of our economy is an extractive economy. What if our economy could be more about what we leave behind rather than what we take out? That’s how I think of it. I’m an environmentalist. I’m not committed to selling Teslas or solar panels. I want my kids to be able to drink water in the future, eat food in the future, and procreate if they want to in the future. All of that is at risk based on the forever chemicals and all of that.Regeneration is about giving more than we could take. Our economy should be more about what we leave behind rather than what we take away. Click To Tweet
Clean soil growing clean food and creating healthy microbiology in the gut is the most important thing that we should or could be talking about. It seems to be on the back burner to a lot of the Green Industrial Complex where we’re trying to sell batteries, solar panels, electric cars, and all these things but I’m more committed to the human impact, what are we as humans doing, and what is our environment like. We’re in a fish tank. If we keep pooping in it, it’s not going to be good.
My background started in the omega-3 industry. I’ve been in nutrition forever. I moved away from consuming fish because I was so concerned with the chemicals that are in our oceans, even though I loved to consume fish for years. I put Nordic Naturals on the map as the Head of Sales, Marketing, and Education for almost a decade. My work in the algae space is penance in a way because we can create better solutions that don’t rape our environment.
I use that word. It’s a very strong word but it’s more than extraction. We have pillaged, raped, and taken for granted everything that should be the future. It’s not property. It’s the planet. We get to this space where we start to look at everything as an asset. If you start to look at everything, including our soil as an asset and extract from this extractive perspective, then you’re not necessarily building the future that you want to live in.
The problems of all these chemicals are something that is front of mind for me, especially as I transition away from eating more animal products to more vegetarian ones and then notice that there are so many options that aren’t in the regenerative or organic space, specifically in packaged foods. Let’s say you wanted to go ahead and have a Boca Burger. You can get a Boca Burger that’s well-made but then it’s a lot of grains. Some of them may or may not be organic. You have the Impossible Burger coming in as a solution but it’s not a solution. It’s a bunch of soy and GMO products all packaged into something that is in plastic.
I don’t eat any fake meat products at all. We don’t carry any in my restaurants. I’m a stan for whole foods and whatever that looks like. This is a disagreement with many vegans and people in the same space as me but I don’t think that meat alternatives are the future at all. Packaged food, sterile food, or food that is lacking in microbiology may be the future. It’s not the future that I want or I’m committed to. I believe in smaller food systems and hub and spoke models.
I was on a podcast with a gentleman from Ranching Reboot. He said, “Shake the hand that feeds you.” That needs to be the future. Shake the hand that feeds you. You know your farmer. You’re getting food from somewhere that you know about, whether it’s mail order if it’s something that’s not regionally available to you or it’s local from your local farmer’s market. You are knowing who your farmer is and what they’re doing. I have zero interest in anything that comes out of a lab or printer, or anything that has some special GMO yeast that was invented to make it congeal.
I don’t eat meat but if I was to want to eat that protein, I would eat meat over an Impossible Burger. That might make me seem crazy or weird but I don’t think environmentally or health-wise that eating processed foods is the answer for humanity if we care about health. Mental health is so deeply connected to gut health. When we look around at a society that has severe mental illness, we have learning disabilities at extreme rates compared to a few years ago.
We have to acknowledge the chemicals that are in our food and our water. Also, fungicides and herbicides are deeply damaging our microbiology and mental health. That is unacceptable. We think, “It’s Roundup. It doesn’t impact my body.” The skin and bones that houses my soul don’t necessarily impact that but it does impact all of the microbiology that operates like a fungus, a plant, a bacteria, or a virus out in the world. That is the problem with how a large percentage of our grains are sprayed with Roundup right before being harvested so that they can be on time.
We want to spray it then. It will be dry fourteen days later, and then we can combine and harvest it. There’s no going out and checking, “What’s the moisture? It’s 7:00 on a Friday. We have to start combining.” None of that has to happen because you can spray it with Roundup and then you know the date it will be dry enough to combine it. That is not what Roundup was ever made for. Every time we feed our kids Cheerios or pizza, we are killing the microbiology of anything with a shikimate pathway. It supposedly doesn’t do damage to the skin and bones but we’re 50% of the microbiology that keeps that healthy.
I’ve spent some time talking to people in the pesticide space. The first mistake we made with glyphosate was approving it in the first place because it’s a water-soluble pesticide. When you have a water-soluble pesticide, it gets into the water table and the soil. It sticks around. It leeches out. It ends up in the Mississippi River and the coastlines everywhere. Ultimately, it is creating a toxic environment. I want to explain something to the audience though because they may not understand exactly why glyphosate is used as an agent before harvest. I know this because I’ve been around a lot of farming too.
When you have alfalfa fields or oat fields, and you’re getting ready to harvest, you cannot harvest that field if part of the field hasn’t dried yet. It’s not mature enough. It’s still green. The reason that you can’t harvest it at that point is if you do and you put it in bales, it is ultimately going to start to rot. It gets moldy. They spray the glyphosate. Glyphosate acts as a drying agent. This puts it far beyond its intended use because of the fact that they spray a lot of it all over the grains. I don’t know if you’ve ever conceived of trying to wash a grain but this is not something that gets washed off of them.
It ends up in the foods, the Cheerios, your pizza crust, and everywhere. This is why it’s so problematic. We’re also using things like petrochemicals as agents for fertilizers and further poisoning ourselves. I’ve heard you talk a bit about this. I’ve heard you talk about fungicides. We have to help people understand why this is such a big problem and why we should be choosing organic and regenerative over everything else at an increased cost but because the cost is not later going to impact our health in such a way that we don’t have fertile children. That’s the extreme.
What is the true cost? People say, “My farm might not be the most profitable situation but what is the true cost of not doing it this way?” People are so concerned about the future. “There are too many people on the planet.” I hear a lot of people talking about it. We’re going to hit nine billion or whatever it is but if you look at statistics and sperm rates, by 2040, when my youngest kid will be 26 years old or something, the average sperm of a man will be zero.
People can google this if you think that’s a crazy thing for me to say. It’s weird that we’re still operating in the paradigm that we’re in an overpopulation. We’re in a mass extinction of the human race. A collapse is happening. We’re also having 1 in 30 children with autism if we continue at the trajectory that we’re on since the ’70s. We will be at 1 in 3 children in the next 10 years with autism if we’re on the trajectory that have been on this time.
It’s not just petrochemicals and glyphosates. There’s a whole industry of fire retardants on everything. Everything you bring into your house like your furniture and television has fire retardants on it because somebody burned something down and then a law was passed. There are these endocrine interrupters that are getting sprayed on everything we bring into our homes.
There are fragrances. Nobody knows what’s in them. They just say fragrance. We have no knowledge of what we’re putting on our kids’ shampoo, what we’re washing our clothes with, and what we’re putting underneath our arms but all of these things are compounding on top of each other. People will say, “You don’t know exactly which one it is.” I don’t know exactly which one it is but I can say that they’re compounding together to make a very uninhabitable environment.
Far before any two degrees are going to destroy us all in the environment, the forever chemicals that we continue to rub on our faces, put in our hair, and spray on our food are going to do far more damage than methane or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s largely ignored by the majority of people that consider themselves environmentalists.
I don’t disagree with you at all. California is a farming state. We do a lot of farming here. The rates of autism in California are 1 in 26, and it’s higher in boys. I have a kid who was diagnosed as autistic. It’s not like it’s going to be a debilitating thing for him. He just has some social issues but those didn’t have to be there. The reality is we live in an area that’s close to farming. You don’t know how much of that is coming through in the water. It’s a challenge that we’re all going to continue facing.
We need to know our microbiome. People who don’t study health may not know this but we have roughly 30 trillion cells in our body that are human and roughly 39 that are alien. They’re the microbiome that we have. It’s an entire second brain that impacts our health. There’s more knowledge about the connection between the brain and the gut.
I go out to a restaurant and have a little bit of bread but when I can consume more grain, I find that I have this feeling like I’m disconnected from my stomach. It affects how I eat, “I need to stop this. I’m going to go off grains for a while,” and then everything seems to round out. I don’t experience things like icky joints as much or some things along those lines.
It’s important too that all of us have this conversation not only about where our food is coming from, the health of the soil, and its ability to sequester carbon and survive drought. I would love for you to talk about this as you’re building soil on your properties using animal husbandry alongside this procurement too why this is so critically important for us all to consider as we move forward and think about food every single day.
We moved here in 2018. It was an inhabitable desert environment. Nothing was here, just a few orange trees. They sprayed Roundup and all that. Imagine a 2-inch tube. You put it down to the ground, poured four cups of water into it, and waited for that water in the PVC tube against the ground to seep into the ground. It was about four minutes. It was at nineteen seconds the last time I checked. You have to imagine how much spongier the soil is.
We had major flooding here in January and we did have some damage. I’m not saying we had no damage but most of our fields were undamaged unless it was a strawberry field where it got buried in silt so it couldn’t survive. Anything that had cover crops on it and even the strawberry fields got lots of silt that came down the mountains but it wasn’t washed away. There were rocks left like some of my neighbors because we have this spongy soil that’s covered the way that it should be.
On one side, we’re experiencing all these successes. I haven’t bought any fertilizer or inputs whatsoever except for some hay for my animals in the last few years. We’re producing $600,000 worth of produce a year but on another side, we’re losing money and it’s not a success. That is because of the style of farming that I’m doing, like regenerative farming as a whole, not necessarily if you were doing meat, grains, cover crops, and stuff, but doing vegetables in this way is very labor-intensive. We need labor.
We don’t have a family of twelve. When people farmed this way a long time ago, they had a big family. Our whole family could live off of that amount of money if it was all coming back but it’s not all coming back to the farm. It’s getting paid out in labor that’s then leaving the farm. How do we build a community for the future that wants to build food for that community and then excess food to sell outside of that community?
That’s what I’m examining and working on with the farm in Texas. I don’t think California is the place because of all the restrictions on how many people can live somewhere, what you can do, and all these different things. The bureaucracy is counterintuitive to what I thought California was committed to if you had asked me years ago.
We’re very pro-business as much as people think we aren’t.
I don’t think we are pro-business. We’re pro-large corporations owned by BlackBuck and Vanguard. We’re pro-lobbyists or whoever has a lobbyist. I don’t think that small and medium-sized businesses are at the legislative table at all anymore. They’re discarded. Running a brick-and-mortar business in California is practically impossible. They intentionally make parts of your business illegal so they can then fine you for it and they can have a whole other stream of revenue from taxation.
It’s like, “Those are COVID seats. You’re not allowed to have umbrellas. You have umbrellas. You have to pay a fine because you put umbrellas on the outdoor seating. We only allowed you to have tables and chairs but no umbrellas and heaters. You’ve broken that law.” That’s not like, “Your compost pile is more than 6 feet tall and you have to pay a fine. You’re only allowed to have 1 farm worker per 40 acres and you have to pay a fine.” It’s on and on.
I am looking at this future. How does it look? I hope that as people are moving to other states like Idaho and Texas, they’re committed to the environment. They don’t then vote in such a way that ushers in these same things that have destroyed the economics of California for the small and medium-sized businesses because often people go and vote with their heart with very little regard for the real-world effects that these bigger government, oversight, and bureaucracy have on the actual innovation of people trying to do the best.
Do you have any familiarity with David Wann and his work? I would be happy to make an intro. At any rate, he’s part of a community that’s similar to the one that you’re hoping to build in the state of Colorado. I interviewed him for the release of a fiction work that he put out called Tickling the Bear, which was about many of these subjects. It’s an interesting effort. They do have a farm on location. It feeds the community and then they sell the surplus. It sounds very much like what you’re describing. Colorado is another area that you might want to look at.
I’ve already purchased 250 acres in Texas. I’m highly invested in Texas. The project is a regenerative farm with a hospitality component, an on-farm restaurant, and an on-farm brewery. As we have the brewery in LA, I realized the grain has to transport to the brewery. The beer always has to leave the brewery except for what’s sold on-site. It has to go to the grocery store, other restaurants, and wherever but if the brewery is on the farm, some grain can be brought from the farm or grown on the farm, and then 100% of the grain can then be fed back to the animals on the farm.
That’s something that doesn’t need to travel. The beer is going to have to leave. This model is where we will be able to have the grain from the brewery right on site. We will have an on-farm taproom, a restaurant, 30 tiny houses, and this regenerative farm that supports neighbor nearby farmer’s markets, CSA programs, and everything. It’s a way that agritourism supports the greater mission because it’s much easier to make money on a tiny house for $150 a night than a head of cabbage for $0.80 that take or $1 or whatever a head of cabbage goes for that took you 4 months to grow.
It’s very hard. I’m always lining my prices up with what I would call degenerative organic produce that is disregarding the whole soil’s health. They are doing it all mechanicalized with machines using herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. They’re organic ones. I’m trying to keep up with that. There’s no machinery. It’s all hand weeding, rotating the crops, and growing 300 different kinds of produce on one farm. It’s challenging for me to match the price but I can’t charge my restaurant more. My investors are like, “We’re buying premium cabbage from your farm.” It has to be fair to everybody.
It’s very hard to make it all match up in this current model but in the model where the restaurant is the farm on the farm, we’re the end user. This is a different model. I hope that it’s going to work better in the long run and that there’s also space for people to live on the farm, contribute, have work trade, have a discounted rent, or get paid less money but they live there, or how that would work out. I’m trying to build that community and come up with ways that we can feed people the healthiest food and also move to a place that’s not a highly agricultural area.
People have cows and there’s hay being farmed but there are no rows and orchards like there are here in California because I recognize that even though I’m an organic farm, the farm behind me is an organic farm, and I have wilderness on this side, there’s this other side where there are helicopters spraying on a regular basis. I notice that my kids get rashes and stuff after the spraying. We’re drinking the well water here. Part of moving to a very rural place in Texas where there are no rows that are getting sprayed, and there are just cows and pasture, is I want clean water for my children to drink.
It sounds so basic. This should be a human right but we don’t line up our policies and practices around ensuring that we have clean water to drink and air to breathe. I wanted to use the strawberry example for a moment because you have experience growing them. I’m here in California, Central Coast. If I drive down through Watsonville toward Monterey along Highway 1, and many people have experienced this beautiful drive, you drive through farmland.
A lot of the things that are being grown along that corridor are strawberries, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and berries. We do a lot of raspberries, blackberries, lettuce, and things like that. This is why you say degenerative organic. I want people to be aware of what the difference is here. I grow strawberries that are fruitful year-round in my front yard. It’s a cover crop for me underneath the trees. I take care of them. Every once in a while, we get some great fruit from it that the slugs don’t get. Even when I try to buy almost everything local, I still get deliveries of things from authors that I’m going to interview on the show.
I have five kids because I have a big son that’s grown up that I adopted from Guatemala as well. I have dogs and cats. I try to get everything local but I unfortunately also support the big corporations that I’m challenged by sometimes because I’m trying to make it all work. I own 3 farms, 4 restaurants, and a brewery. I’m building this project in Texas.
It’s unavoidable. Sometimes you need a delivery. In this case, it’s an author. I’m excited about this. She wrote Baby’s First Book of Banned Books. It will be a fun discussion. Diving back to strawberries, I want people to know how much plastic is used to grow strawberries. It’s lined on the fields, and then they have these little pockets between where each of the strawberry plants is planted on the ground. It’s these giant sheets of plastic. It’s tilled every year. They remove the sheets of plastic, which I’m sure goes into the landfill, and then place new ones every season.
They spill the shit out of it first, put in fungicide, and then put the plastic back.
It’s so gross. I know not everybody can grow strawberries but there are varieties that produce fruit year-round that are relatively easy to grow. I encourage people to try that one out even if you have to get one of those strawberry pots that you can grow on your deck or something like that. I have to tell you that the fruit I get is so sweet and divine.
It’s operating as an ornamental too because they look pretty. They’re underneath my cherry tree in the front yard. You can grow a lot of your stuff even if you have a little bit of soil. It’s something that I like to point to. I would love to know how you are growing those strawberries differently so people can get an idea of what that looks like on a regenerative farm.
We grow our strawberries. For the first batches of strawberries we did, we used a weeded barrier, which was also plastic. It was a post-consumer woven plastic but it was still plastic. That bed lasted a few years. We planted marjoram and oregano in between to try to keep the slugs, the snails, and the roly-polies off of them. We went into doing a different model where we use those smart pots that are above ground. They’re felt pots. They’re able to still have the microbiology going between.
It’s still connected to the ground but it’s above ground. It’s a little bit harder for the slugs and the roly-polies. It’s long rolls of these round pots. In the connections where the greenhouses come together, we have house gutters that have been retrofitted as well as recycled old PVC pipes that were sitting around the farm that have holes in them with soil inside of them above ground in between the greenhouses.
Those are the different ways that we grow strawberries on the farm. We use oranges cut in half to draw the roly-polies away. I don’t know what pictures we sent you but there’s a picture of me breastfeeding in front of the greenhouse that’s often used for podcasts and stuff. There are oranges between all the lettuce in the greenhouse. People always ask, “Why is there half an orange between all the lettuce in the greenhouse?” It’s to keep the roly-polies eating that instead of the butter lettuce heads.
I love using the half-oranges to draw pests away from things. We do it for a lot of different things. It biodegrades into the ground. It’s a byproduct. We make orange juice every day for the restaurants. We have an entire bucket full of orange peels. If you have a small garden on your patio or something, buy some oranges. You can juice them. There’s still some fruit inside. You put them upside down. The roly-polies and other bugs will go to that because it has higher carbohydrates than whatever you’re growing.
I’ve also heard about people using beer traps for their slugs and such. I did that once and had a hard time seeing all the dead slugs.
In farming, I thought I had a very naive view. I grew up on a farm. It was an apple orchard. I wasn’t present to what was what. I had a naive view from my vegan restaurant owner of what was going to happen on the farm. I thought, “There will be no death on my farm.” In the first couple of weeks, we bought these special short sheep. We still use them for the vineyards and the hops. They’re babydoll sheep. They’re short so they can only eat so much. You can graze them in orchards and other places.
In the first couple of weeks that we had them, a neighbor’s dog came and killed all of them. They were inside of a thing at nighttime and then they were out free in the daytime. This dog dug under into their thing and killed them all. We found them. He was sitting in there with all the dead sheep in the morning. That broke my barrier of thinking I was going to have a farm with nothing dead and nothing dying.
What I realized about whether you’re a paleotarian, a vegan, a vegetarian, or a pescatarian is to be alive is to be on the back of death. If it’s on your plate specifically or it died out of your sight and you don’t get to see it, there’s death on every plate. You live in a world where you think that there’s no pure naivety. We need to be realistic. Look at cabbage or strawberry fields. You tell me how many moles, voles, ground squirrels, and everything else died for those strawberries to exist. You look at a field of cabbages, artichokes, or any of those things. You tell me what had to die for that to exist.There is death on every plate. It is pure naivety to think that we live in a world where that is not the case. Click To Tweet
To think I am a vegan, and I don’t kill anything for my diet is putting a higher value on a cow than on a squirrel. I’ll take it even one step further. Twenty-five percent of life on the planet lives in the top eight inches of topsoil. For us to think that it’s okay to plow the topsoil over and over again, think about the ocean, the coral reefs, or the Amazon rainforest. If you tilled the coral reefs or the Amazon rainforest and then planted one species of coral or palm trees, it would no longer be the Amazon rainforest or the coil reefs. That is what we’re doing to the soil over and over again.
I’m not saying people have to never till. I’m a radical centrist. People always say, “I’m the radical left. I’m the radical right.” I’m logic-based. I’m saying we can’t do it over and over again and not think that there’s an impact. That’s 25% of life on the planet. We can scream about the polar bears on the polar ice caps but honestly, that microbiology or 25% of life on the planet in the topsoil is much more impactful to our life than the polar bears.
We have to care about it at least as much as we care about the polar bears. That’s all that I’m asking or requesting from humanity. As a lifelong environmentalist in the truest sense of the word around chemicals and the clean cleanliness of the commons, the water, the food, and the soil, it feels to me that people are mostly ignoring that 25% of life on the planet as if it has no value. It is 70% compatible with the 39 trillion things in our bodies. There are 39 trillion microbiology in our body on top of our cells. It’s 70% compatible with life in healthy topsoil.
They’re soil-based organisms 100%.
If we want to believe in God or science, I don’t care. We’re 70% compatible with the soil, which means we are meant to eat the food of healthy soil to replenish the 39 trillion microbiology in our bodies. That is what that means. No matter whether you want to believe in the perfection of divine order and God or the perfection of science or the accident of science, it’s obvious that’s where we’re meant to be connected. The more we try to eat food from a package, a factory, a printer, or growing cells in a tube or a tank and all that stuff, we are disconnecting from that 25% of life on the planet. If we lose that life that is in a mass extinction event, we’re going to lose ourselves because that is how we replenish our immune system.
You’ve talked about growing food in a more sterile way AKA vertical farming and hydroponics. I would love for you to share your views on that and then open a discussion about why this might not be the best path.
This is a controversial opinion. I am confronted by the “green movement” trying to make everything so technological instead of recognizing that the perfection of our health comes from healthy soils. I was a hydroponic pot grower for years. This was one of my past lives. I did that for a living. We’re growing even organic liquid nutrients that have been extracted and made extra strong and then putting nitrates into water. In that water, we’re growing a tomato. The roots are taking up the nitrates but without the microbiology in the soil to transform those nitrates, those nitrates are going right into the tomato.
A fresh tomato off the vine grown in soil has all this stuff that is cancer-fighting on it and in it. That is not the same in a tomato that is taking the nitrate straight up from this very highly extracted version of it with no microbiology to transform it into anything else. We go back to that miracle of life that we are meant to live with healthy soil. People know that we need to ground. They can buy bamboo sheets that you plug into your wall and never have to take your shoes off outside but the reality is we’re meant to live with the soil. The more we get away from that, the less healthy we’re going to be as human beings.
I feel like a dinosaur and a relic because everybody is like, “Get with the times. We’re going to drive electric cars, extract all the cobalt, grow vertical farming, and live in smart cities. Your antiquated way of life is the problem.” Farming is not the problem. The extractive consciousness around getting the most is the problem and how we are constantly surrendering. I say this over and over. We are surrendering our resilience for convenience. At some point, we have to realize we can be the apex species.
We don’t need to rewild the whole world. If you look at the mountain that’s wild across the river from my farm and look at the soil at my farm, there’s much more carbon sequestered, soil health, microbiology, and diversity because I’m stewarding the land to be even better than wilding. We don’t have to villainize the farmers, take their land away, and rewild it. We can work with the farmers to train them on how they can steward the land.
Instead of putting all this money into vertical farming and growing food in cities, we can use those subsidies instead for corn or soy to grow more carbon in the soil. I liken all this vertical farming to when we brought cows into New York City in the early 1900s. We started feeding them garbage and keeping them in buildings. Their milk started coming out blue. People got brucellosis and died. All this stuff happened.
We didn’t say, “The cows don’t belong in Manhattan.” We said, “Let’s sterilize and ultra-pasteurize all the milk. Let’s kill all the bacteria.” Milk is healthy, even if it’s my milk. We are giving our immunity to the next generation. If you kill that and sterilize that, then it’s not a healthy product. It’s not good for you. That’s the same thing. It’s like, “Let’s grow food in the cities. It’s going to be awesome.” It’s shortsighted. It’s not looking at the long-term. What do we need to have human health? What is the real cost of growing food in a sterile environment?
We have come into an age when there are many people who are even afraid of soil because they see things like, “There was some listeria issue with romaine lettuce. Maybe that came from the soil,” not realizing it came from unclean conditions for the farm workers most likely. Additionally, we have so trashed our microbiomes that we’re more sensitive.
If we were consuming food that we got from a local CSA that was growing regenerative organic or going to the farmer’s market and getting only organic produce that’s grown locally within 100 miles of our doorstep, we would be feeding our bodies the nutrition they needed. I buy organic almost everything. I also acknowledge that when I dine out, I’m mostly not getting that because I don’t have a beautiful Sage restaurant to walk over to up here in Northern California.
As hippie-trippy-dippy as Santa Cruz County is, there aren’t that many options. I would love to see us move in a direction where this is the norm but the only way for it to become the norm is if more of these large farming operations buy in and change. What do you think we can do to move them in that direction? We’re talking about Bronzoni Farms up here on the Central Coast or the Locatellis. There are all these old Italian families.
They have to lose market share. This is sad for me because this is what we’re struggling with. During the pandemic, I was selling a lot of boxes from my CSA. We bought extra vans and did all this stuff and all this infrastructure. We have lost 70% of those gains that we got during the pandemic for our box program. We’re losing money on our box program, “Do we keep doing it? How can I do it?”
We’re doing more advertising and all the things I can but I need to sell 250 boxes a week. I live 45 minutes from Los Angeles. We delivered to every neighborhood in Los Angeles and I can’t get 250 people a week. During the pandemic, it was far more than that but that was fear purchasing, “I’m scared to touch the keypad at Whole Foods. I’m going to order from this farm.” It’s not, “I’m committed to what this farm’s practices are.”
My experience is that the consumer is unwilling to be flexible and eat seasonally, “I was getting your box but it’s wintertime. We’re only getting citrus and avocados. There’s no other fruit.” It’s California. It’s winter time. You’re getting citrus. You don’t live in New York where there’s no fruit through the winter. Be grateful but people don’t have it that way. They’re like, “I want peaches, this, and that. I’m not going to get the box through the wintertime because your only fruit is citrus in the wintertime.”
You’re getting a lot of broccoli and you’re sick of broccoli.
You’re sick of broccoli and cabbage. The summertime comes and you’re like, “I don’t like to eat any nightshades.” Your box has too many tomatoes and eggplant in the summertime.
Much of that is propaganda too. Few people are sensitive at all to tomatoes. It’s amazing to me that we have bought into that. I’m Italian. You might get that from the last name but I’m also French. There’s this love of food that we’re losing in this endemic in these cultures where we want something fast and cheap. Real good nutrition isn’t fast and cheap. How do we shift this? The norm in France is you might spend 30% of your money on food. Here, we spend more than 30% of our money on rent.
There’s only 10% of our money on food. I don’t know the answer. I was having this conversation with my social media guy, “How do I connect with people for them to want to see the value?” We did a cost comparison at Whole Foods for my box. We went to Whole Foods. It was $122 for the $55 box. It was $190 for the $55 box. That is a major saving for the person who’s getting it delivered right to their door but they have to be flexible. It’s July 2023 and I still have broccoli because we did have a very cool spring. We got an extra selection of broccoli.
We’re having watermelons, cantaloupes, and cucumbers. It’s summertime. We’re having summer things. Are people willing to eat that way? On SurveyMonkey, people were like, “I want it to be a make-your-own. I want to be able to have exactly the produce I want.” How does that work for the farmer? Do you want me to buy it from New Zealand? That’s all these farm-direct-to-you where you can pick potatoes or broccoli year-round. It’s not farm direct to you. It’s farm direct to the consolidator.
It’s the distribution center that’s compiling it and then sending it to you.
The produce that you get when you buy my box is never longer than 48 hours from being harvested with the exception of maybe avocados. We send out avocados hard so they’re pretty fresh too. It’s only avocados because we pick a bin at a time. It’s 1,000 pounds at a time. The average avocado that you get in the grocery store is 30 days old. The produce you’re getting is two weeks old. There’s degradation. Forget about how it has been dipped in bleach and high-pressure packaged to kill all the microbiology.
The other thing is the nutrient value has dropped as it’s dying. I’m giving you something that is still alive that was just harvested but I don’t know how to communicate that. I’m doing a bunch of podcasts and stuff mostly to communicate. We did a film with Kiss The Ground. They’re doing a docuseries and the first film was about my farm. I’m trying to get people to care. You’re saying, “How do we do that?” I don’t know.
We have this conversation more.
We continue to have the conversation. People are quick to get onto things that are easy for them to do and then have the feeling of, “I’m doing good.” I always say people want to be able to have the sin but have it washed away, “I want to be able to eat the fried food but at the vegan restaurant so it’s okay.” I don’t know how to have people genuinely care. People are apathetic. I don’t think people know that 25% of life is in the topsoil. I don’t think people know that they’re eating sterile food that’s not replenishing their microbiology. People barely even have enough attention span to listen to a whole podcast. It’s 30 seconds. Swipe.
I do think we have to figure out ways to communicate with the consumer to have them care and even know what the differences are. I don’t want anything I’ve said to be like, “Don’t buy organic.” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying to buy local first from a farm that you can trust. It might not be certified organic but talk to them, ask them what their practices are, and say, “Can I come visit the farm?” That might sound crazy but I know plenty of small farm producers that are not certified organic and are doing amazing practices but if I didn’t have my team from the restaurant and my office staff, I don’t know if I would be certified organic or certified regenerative.
It’s a lot of work. It’s some money. It’s every single seed. The more biodiverse you are and the more food you’re growing, the harder it is. If you have a field and grow cabbage in the wintertime and cilantro in the summertime, handing in your receipts and doing whatever was being grown is not that hard. It’s pretty easy. If you’re growing 300 things and you need to provide receipts for 300 different kinds of food, the seeds for them, and then also the plan of where everything was planted and what was rotated, and make sure you’re not growing the same thing in the same place the next year, that’s a much harder job.
A resilient community is the answer to everything. I don’t know how but it’s asking the consumer to care and purchase in their community and asking people to then make requests of the big agriculture. Gabe Brown has millions of acres in regenerative agriculture. It’s Pepsi, General Mills, and all these companies. Companies are switching but the market share has to demand it. That’s where we’re at. We have to demand it. Someone sent me a TikTok. It was like, “The real problem is we have to stop growing food.” I want to throw my phone. The real problem is not that we have to stop growing food. It’s that we have to care about the way that we are growing food.
There are some new films coming out that are also helping people better understand this issue. Aren’t they releasing another film called Common Ground? Is that an unrelated project?
It is related. Kiss The Ground, the organization, is part of it. Some of the executive producers are the same. My brother was a producer on it. My brother is the founder of Kiss The Ground, the nonprofit. There is some connection there. It was premiered at Tribeca in New York. It is coming out. We’re very excited about that.
I saw it’s already seeing critical acclaim, which is fantastic. There’s this other documentary that is presently out and available to watch for free that’s narrated by Rosario Dawson called The Need To Grow. While I didn’t love all of it, frankly, one of the pieces that I found enticing that they covered pretty well was the whole concept about the nutritional value of food shifting from the time of harvest to a much later moment. While it might not still be available for free, you can get lifetime access to it for only $7. I’ve been waiting to be able to see Common Ground. That is one I’m excited about as well.
Kiss The Ground is doing a mini-documentary series once a month. The first one came out. It was about my farm. They’re going to be right on their website. It is free. They’re called Stories of Regeneration. The first one is about Sow A Heart Farm. The second one is going to be about Yadi Wang who has Oatman Flats. They’re doing regenerative grain in Arizona. I look forward to the subsequent films coming out. They’re doing this mini-doc series. The first one that is out is mine.
I invite people to watch that. It’s only 11 minutes or 13 minutes. Not everybody has the bandwidth to watch a whole film about it but it does break it down in a shorter period and shows that I did everything we did in five years. We have 18 inches of black dark soil where there were rocks and dust. We’re growing 300 different species of food and $600,000 worth of produce a year with half the water that my neighbors are using to grow oranges or avocados.
There is compelling evidence that a little bit of commitment to a shift in how we do things can make a big difference in how much food you can produce. It’s just a matter of, “How do you get that labor? How do you build a community that is willing to pay that labor to be built into the cost of the food? How do you get a community that wants to participate in the growing of their food?” Those are the big questions that I’m investigating in my life.
I want to follow that journey. Something that we didn’t talk about is I grew up in a commune myself. We grew a lot of our food. I have distinct memories of even bringing a goat into the kitchen into a yoke to milk it in the morning so that I would have milk and that my mom would have milk for her coffee. This is a much different way to grow up than many people experienced in our generation, Gen X-ers.
My kid walked out every morning with their cup with a scoop of organic hot chocolate mix. My oldest son is milking the cows. Each of them has a cow that they think their milk tastes the best.
It’s probably uniquely suited for their microbiome. It’s addicted to that cow’s milk.
This is a beautiful way for kids to grow up and also probably antiquated but I do think that it’s a powerful way for people to grow up. I hope that my doing this makes a difference for my children in the long-term.
I’m sure it is and it will. I’m hearing my kid and you’re probably having similar experiences with your kid. He’s parroting to me things like, “I have a sore throat. I’m going to go into our garden and grab some peppermint. I’ll make myself some tea.” Some things are so freaking easy to grow. If people are intimidated, get started with something simple but remember that if you plant the invasives like peppermint in one place, it will end up everywhere.
I always say, “Everybody is indoctrinating their kids. Make sure you’re indoctrinating them with what you want in the future.”Everybody is indoctrinating their kids. Make sure you indoctrinate them with what you want for a better future. Click To Tweet
Thank you so much for joining me, Mollie. I look forward to our next conversation because I do want to invite you back to talk more about these issues, especially as things continue to develop with the community that you are working to build. I applaud your efforts. I hope to one day get to meet you in person.
I hope so as well.
Thank you for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me.
To learn more about Mollie’s restaurant, especially if you happen to be visiting LA anytime soon, visit SageVeganBistro.com. There you can find links to her other work. I include links to past episodes that cover similar topics so that you can deepen your understanding, and in this case, interviews with John Roulac who was the executive producer of Kiss The Ground, Paul Hawken who wrote Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, Tom Newmark who is the co-founder of The Carbon Underground, and so many more.
In this particular topic, it’s almost like you can choose your adventure and continue to deepen your understanding as you hear from experts in their fields. If you go ahead and subscribe to our newsletter as well, you will receive a five-step guide to help unleash your inner activist. I include several links to resources around climate activism and regeneration as well because those are two primary topics of this particular show. That document can also serve as a project management tool. It’s super easy to use. I took my business school into an activism perspective to create it. I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter even just to receive that. It comes as your welcome gift with an email almost immediately.
As we prepare to close this show, I want to say to all of you that I appreciate you. I appreciate your time and attention. If you loved this episode, I hope that you will subscribe and share this episode with people in your community and somebody that you think deserves or would benefit from learning it. This simple act will help so many more people discover the show.
If you leave me a written review, know that I read every single one and may even feature it on this show. Thank you now and always for being a part of this community because together we can do so much more. We can care more. We can be better. We can stop using poison to grow food, create regenerative systems and communities, and build a future and a planet that we want to live on. Thank you.
- Sage Vegan Bistro
- Regenerative Agriculture Soil Health, and Carbon Sequestration with John Roulac, Executive Producer of Kiss The Ground – Past Episode
- Cafe Gratitude
- Nordic Naturals
- Ranching Reboot – Past Episode featuring Mollie Engelhart
- David Wann on How to Create Simple Prosperity Through Sustainable Living – Past Episode
- Tickling the Bear
- Baby’s First Book of Banned Books
- Common Ground
- The Need To Grow
- Sow A Heart Farm
- Oatman Flats
- Oatman Flats – Past Episode
- Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation
- Regenerative Agriculture: The Answer to the Climate Crisis with Tom Newmark – Past Episode
- The Carbon Underground