Member Profile: Mad Agriculture

October 20, 2023

Regional nonprofit is working to catalyze a regenerative revolution in farming

Clark Harshbarger, Elizabeth Candelario, Omar de Kok-Mercado and Meghan Filbert with son Owen, Tanner and Bri Starbard with baby Charlie, Haley Baron, Kaitlin Kimmel-Hass, Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins, Jane Cavagnero, Philip Taylor

Founded in 2016, Mad Agriculture takes a holistic and collaborative approach to helping farmers transition to and thrive in regenerative organic agriculture. The nonprofit began in Colorado with a mission to catalyze the regenerative revolution in agriculture, and a vision of an Earth where land, sea, and people thrive together forever. If the latter sounds poetic, it is. Founder and Executive Director Phil Taylor selected it with inspiration from Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” a poem that urges readers to “every day do something that won't compute.”

In the dominant farming system, which focuses on yield, so much doesn’t compute. Cover cropping, multi-year rotations, prairie strips, and other approaches that feed soil health are unfamiliar to lenders, who are resistant to providing the operating capital these farmers need. Mad Ag aims to support change in agriculture and make the unconventional conventional – fiscally, and otherwise.  

Farmers know the barriers to transitioning to regenerative agriculture, and their experiences (collected, in part, via hundreds of hours of listening sessions, barbeques, and sleeping on barn floors) helped develop Mad Ag’s growing body of interconnected work. Mad Capital offers financial services, Mad Lands builds farmers’ capacities through land and business support, Mad Markets develops supply chains, and Mad Media tells stories to move all of these efforts forward. Mad Ag now has a flexible grant, the Regenerative Catalyst Fund, to help farmers take action  toward their regenerative ambitions. Folks who want to support this work can donate directly to the fund or encourage farmers with regenerative projects to reach out to their team. 

The organization was heavily involved in the revival of regional and heritage grains in Colorado, and recently opened a new office in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Mad Ag’s goal is to take grain systems to the next level by integrating rotational grazing, agroforestry, and native prairies. “We’re here to listen and learn from producers on what their greatest needs are and build on the pieces that are already here to scale regeneration,” said Omar de Kok-Mercado, Midwest Regional Manager.

The Spring Green office is also an audiovisual studio and shares a former cheese depot that is now the Spring Green Arts Lab, a local gallery and learning center. Being situated in a building that focuses on the arts feels fitting to Omar, who values reconfiguring the current food system for many reasons, beauty among them. “When I look at our industrial food system, it’s clear that designing for culture was not front of mind. But it is for Mad Ag,” he said. “Our host of services allow farmers to integrate more biodiversity into their rotation and onto their land,” he said. “Small grains are often an important piece of this equation.”

Omar began his career in medicine, including studying peer reviewed literature on the health impacts of chemically-produced, ultra-processed foods. With an innate sense that the health of the soil is reflected in the nutrient density of food, and that public health is linked to environmental health, he was inspired to become a soil microbiologist. Omar is working directly with farmers interested in diversifying their grain operations via crop rotations, cover crops, grazing, and perennial integration, and has been with Mad Ag since June. He loves working with farmers and landscapes, playing a part in making environments that are dynamic and aesthetically pleasing. He sees his job as helping people problem-solve and have fun while doing it, which he thinks is our native state as a species.

Colorado Grain Chain community gathering at Masa Seed Foundation, Boulder, CO.  Photo by Sophia Piña-McMahon

Mad Ag is particularly excited about diversifying farms with perennials whose continuous living root systems greatly reduce erosion and minimize the need for tillage and herbicide applications. For example, farmers growing Kernza® have the potential to sequester more carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and  its extensive root system prevents nitrates from leaching into waterways. Some growers are finding they can harvest and graze Kernza in the same year.

Mad Ag has been partnering with the Perennial Promise Growers Cooperative to develop their crop marketing strategy for Kernza. As the first perennial grain crop to reach commercial production, there’s a lot to learn from the challenges of bringing Kernza to market. “I don't think I've ever seen such a collective, noncompetitive partnership come about in this space,” said Alex Heilman, Mad Ag’s Director of Supply and Trade.

To celebrate and launch the opening of their Midwest office in Spring Green, WI, Mad Ag held a 'backyard party' gathering in August 2023.

Alex’s career, like Omar’s, involves a pivot. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in fine dining in New York City. The intensity of that lifestyle led him to return home to Minnesota and obtain an agricultural economics degree. After working as a grain broker and then reporting on organic commodity prices, he learned of Mad Ag and was impressed with how the organization works holistically, like an ecosystem, and wanted to be part of it. Alex has now been with Mad Ag for more than two years, and spends much of his time connecting farmers and processors, including working with CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies on direct sourcing.

What’s next on the horizon for this Mad crew? Observing a lack of regional processing infrastructure, Mad Markets has plans to acquire existing processing facilities and launch a standalone public benefit corporation to manage this part of their work. Providing facilities geared toward regional farmers focused on regenerative practices would increase market opportunities for those farms and create channels from farms to processors and manufacturers. “We’ll be able to work more meaningfully with brands and buyers to give them this middle ground,” where farmers can more easily access appropriate markets, said Alex.

Mad Ag is glad to be a part of AGC, and sees the network as a great way to strengthen the regional grainshed, continue collective learning around grains, and stay connected with inspiring folks in this space. AGC is equally pleased to have this energetic organization as partners in our work.

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