The public-private initiative Restore Colorado is helping finance regional regenerative agriculture through partnerships with restaurants in Boulder. The program is a collaboration between Boulder County, sustainable agriculture experts Mad Agriculture, and non-profit Zero Foodprint, who pioneered the model in California.
In a region seeing the impacts of the climate crisis nearly daily, from destructive wildfires to extreme drought, the need for food systems solutions “cannot be ignored,” says Christian Herrmann of Boulder County’s Office for Sustainability, Climate Action & Resilience (OSCAR). While many scientists agree that regenerative agriculture is a necessary tool for fighting climate change, the cost of transitioning to these methods can be an obstacle for many farmers.
Restore Colorado seeks to ease the financial burden of conservation practices, like compost application. They hope that this will make the adoption of regenerative methods possible for farmers in the community “whose profit margins are already razor-thin,” Herrmann tells Food Tank.
To raise funds, Restore Colorado is working with restaurants who donate 1 percent of each bill toward grants for local farmers and ranchers. This partnership embodies Zero Foodprint’s table-to-farm vision, which imagines a circular food economy with restaurant diners directly funding regenerative agriculture on the farms growing their food.
It is “a chance for restaurants to create a new normal that tackles climate change with healthy soil on local farms,” Herrmann explains.
Esoterra Culinary Gardens, a no-till farm that supplies 30 local restaurants in the Boulder area, is one of the first grant recipients.
Farmer and owner Mark DeRespinis launched his one and half acre farm in 2018 after realizing culinary creatives in Colorado needed local suppliers for specialized ingredients, including spigarello and chicory. Then in 2020, the city of Boulder gave Esoterra a lease on 120 acres of agricultural heritage land. DeRespinis tells Food Tank that the alliance gave him the opportunity to “farm a piece of land I would never be able to afford by myself.”
Since receiving the Restore Colorado grant in April 2021, Esoterra has worked with Mad Agriculture to apply organic compost on 20 acres of pasture, rebuilding the health of land that was conventionally managed for decades.
Alongside restoring soil health, Esoterra plans to use the grant to plant trees and perennial crops, and to support managed ecosystems on the farm by harvesting wild crops. DeRespinis wants to bring lesser-known local fruits, like wild serviceberries, to restaurant menus. He envisions diners having a “small scoop of serviceberry ice cream with their flan…[a] much more powerful and effective mission than yet another scoop of commercial vanilla ice cream.”
By trying to enrich consumers’ consciousness of the source of their food, the Restore Colorado vision extends beyond achieving regional climate targets. With 17 participating restaurants, this table to farm movement is working on fostering reciprocity between restaurants, diners, and the farms that feed them, rewarding stewardship of the land.
DeRespinis believes there is universality in the idea of table to farm. He tells Food Tank he’s excited “to be part of radiating this out to other places and seeing it replicated in the rest of the world.”
Photo courtesy of Christian Herrmann