Among the many issues of the pandemic, the fragility of the supply chain will likely endure until producers and other participants in the chain find solutions to make it more resilient. One aspect of doing so is developing better local markets for goods.

Esha Chhabra, a writer and journalist who focuses on sustainability, spoke remotely on the topic at the recent 192nd New York State Agricultural Society Forum with “Going Beyond Sustainability: The Regenerative Era.”

Jeannette Kreher-Heberling, vice president of the NYS Ag Society and forum program chair, introduced Chhabra, lauding her extensive travels to small- and mid-sized farms and businesses worldwide to research mission-driven brands and international development. From these trips, she gathered stories to share in her book, “Working to Restore: Harnessing the Power of Regenerative Business to Heal the World.”

“It’s important we talk about solutions,” Chhabra said. “We’re not often talking about problems with a solution lens.”

She likes that the term “sustainability” has segued into “regenerative” for farm and business practices that bring life and renewal. According to her, “sustainability” sounds more like following the status quo rather than innovating.

“Often in business, you hear ‘What problem are you solving?’” she said. “But it’s more about a customer problem, not an environmental or societal problem.”

Those are the problems she’s seeking to address, both in her public speaking and her writing.

“Scale is not the answer,” Chhabra said. “Growth doesn’t equate to success. It’s rather replication. Can you do growth and do values? We need to scale to a degree, but it’s not the goal.”

She said that “regenerative” is a term used beyond agriculture to describe other industries and is sometimes use loosely to describe sourcing and meeting the needs of the people in a particular community, such as Veja, a footwear brand that sources materials such as rubber, cotton and labor in Brazil so that locals have a market for their rubber and employment in shoe construction.

This strategy enables the locals to avoid razing the rainforest for grazing or crops and preserves mature rubber trees. The rubber farmers receive five times the rate for their rubber than they would receive on the market. This helps incentivize locals to harvest rubber. Veja is based in France.

“Veja worked with them for five to seven years to build a supply chain,” Chhabra said. It cost the firm more money to operate this way, but she said that they allocated marketing dollars to building the Brazilian infrastructure. They also sell the shoes for the “real cost” of their production, starting at $85 for infant shoes and around $170 for adult-sized shoes.

Similarly, farms that source from local suppliers can reduce their carbon footprint and create an authentic brand story that resonates with consumers. Buyers focused on impact rather than price alone are more likely willing to pay a premium for products sourced and produced locally.

“It’s an interesting example of connecting with local resources,” Chhabra said.

She cited other examples of companies that use local farm goods, such as the coffee industry’s “third wave roasters” like Blue Bottle, Stumptown and Verve, which all invest in local coffee farms to help build sustainability. Instead of simply exporting the commodity, the companies build regeneration within the community to help the local economy and environment and to provide a premium quality product.

One caveat is the cost to do business this way. “If you don’t have the funding to do the transition to regenerative, it’s unlikely to happen,” Chhabra said.

That’s why the financial funding of the company buying the goods – especially during the initial stages – is so important.

Chhabra also wants more agricultural businesses (and businesses in general) to rethink waste and look for ways to use byproducts to create useful items to sell. Employee ownership is also a strategy she extols, as it helps employees create both personal wealth and greater job satisfaction.

“How do you engage your workforce?” she asked. “How much is enough, whether you’re a farm, raise food or are in fashion? As business leaders how much wealth is enough for you? Some companies cap how much executives make. Others have employee ownership. Some put money into improving their supply chain.”

She encouraged farmers to “get out and tell the stories and what you’re doing, not preach about values. Consumers are hungry for these stories.”

Social media is one easy way to tell a farm’s story and to share the daily business practices that help build a regenerative farm and community, such as how using food scraps from restaurants helps a methane digester and reduces landfill use.

“Debunk these myths,” Chhabra said. “Why have we [as a society] vilified animals? It would be great to talk about and debunk these myths.”

For example, many consumers may not consider that cows take food undigestible for people and produce meat and milk for human consumption. In addition, their pastures or the fields growing their fodder keep ground covered with oxygen-producing plants.

“Be transparent and honest,” Chhabra said. “Make it fun. We need solutions and to share what we are working on.”

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant