An Ecosystem of Things: My Week at the Climate Farm School


By Caroline Santinelli

Imagine a farming and food system two decades from now when we have largely solved the climate crisis facing us today.

I recently had the opportunity to consider this future world. While exploring the Soil Centric App, I discovered Terra.do Climate Farm School—a 4-week hybrid online/on farm course designed by Dr. Laney Siegner, where eight other students and I had the opportunity to explore the science, business, and anthropological angles of regenerative agriculture and agroecology.

Empowered with two-weeks of asynchronous online classes, we were asked to respond to the prompt that begins this post—our first (and only) pre-farm homework assignment. “Imagine…” it instructed, and so, we limned regenerative agroecological worlds into being.

Imagine you belong to a CSA for shellfish—a protein that regenerates pockets of ocean water through filtering out excess nitrogen, algae, and other microorganisms. Imagine you elected a local land manager to public office, and voted for policies replete with developing wildlife corridors for migrating grazing mammals and reestablishing perennial grasses. Imagine private businesses utilized their capacity for efficiency to bring clean energy to all transportation and local green houses. Imagine you live in a cultural moment where the rhetoric of an “Internet of Things” comes second to that of an Ecosystem of Things—a biologically rich web of data exchange, mutualism, and interconnectivity that existed long before machine learning and the world wide web.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an atavistic future composed of luddites. It is a future where human beings have recognized that they are part of, not apart from, our ecosystem. One where technology enhances the ecological solution rather than trying to engineer ways around it. And it is a future that asks us to reflect on a set of salient questions: will we design an agroecological system that cultivates a mutualistic relationship between the human species and our planet? Or will we continue to operate as the mega-parasite we’ve become?

Two-months ago, as I browsed through Soil Centric’s curated list of learning opportunities, I didn’t even know that “agroecology” was a term. As a former high school English teacher and lover of words, I find the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations definition the most thorough and compelling:

“Agroecology is a holistic and integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems. It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while also addressing the need for socially equitable food systems within which people can exercise choice over what they eat and how and where it is produced. Agroecology is concurrently a science, a set of practices and a social movement…”

In short, it is the practice of using an equity-focused, transdisciplinary, systems-thinking approach to cultivating crops while restoring, versus degrading, the planet’s ecosystem.

As we entered our third week of the Climate Farm School, imaginations now alight with possibilities, we gathered at Green Valley Farm and Mill in Sebastopol, California to explore the realities of regenerative farming in-person. The experience was electric! Through Soil Health Classes with local organizations like Point Blue Conservation and experts such as Daphne Miller, we studied the vast web of microbiology below our feet. On neighboring farms such as Singing Frogs, we sunk our hands into steaming compost, tucking delicate lettuce plants in between a row of baby brussels sprouts as we learned about the benefits of intercropping. And back at “home”, we walked the grazing fields with our host and Green Valley Farm’s Land Manager Aubrie Maze, who captured us with her passion and curiosity about everything from hedgerows to milking cows.

As the afternoon sun brought in midday heat, we convened in the barn for discussions, guided by our instructor Ryan Peterson, to unpack the events of the morning, each of us stunned by the depth and breadth of the farmers’ knowledge. The farmers we met were experts, it seemed, in not only ecology, crops and best-practices, but also in soil chemistry, microbiology, natural history, local and national politics, business and economics. A farmer’s repertoire could fill a library.

In the evenings, despite having pre-assigned days, we jockeyed for a chance to prepare dinner for the group alongside the visiting cooks. The kitchen was where food transitioned from commodity to community. We chopped cucumbers. Dipped squash blossoms in batter. Cut microscopic cilantro flowers off equally delicate stalks.

One afternoon, I was mixing two salad dressings under the tutelage of Gary Podesto, a longtime restaurant cook at Chez Panisse.

“Add everything to the vinegar,” he kindly instructed. Feeling like a kid discovering meal prep for the first time, despite cooking for myself for nearly a decade, I asked the enduring kid question: “why?”

“Oil is a fat,” Gary responded with the same teacherly generosity, despite the fact that he was managing meal prep for a multi-course, 30-person dinner—a celebratory staple of Climate Farm School at the end of the on-farm week. “The salt and other flavors you’re adding right now aren’t soluble in fats, so it's best to add them first and add the oil at the end. You’ll have a more flavorful dressing.”

“Is your background in chemistry?” I asked, measuring some lemon zest for one of the dressings.

“I studied English Literature in college,” Gary told me. This, of course, made me smile. 

At dinner that night, the final course set before us, Gary came out to explain the dish—a Candy Cap Mushroom Shortcake with summer berries and Frog Hollow Farm O’Henry Peaches. As he spoke about joining his friend to harvest the Candy Cap Mushrooms—which taste shockingly like maple syrup—and taught us about the nutrients and regenerative properties of fungal systems, I thought back to the lessons of that week. Like the farmers, chefs like Gary know the food system with an intimacy and depth that feels so central to being human, and yet, is far from being common knowledge. These food system professionals possess the type of transdisciplinary thinking that will empower us to design an agroecological system that sees humans as a crucial part of our Ecosystem of Things. We have the knowledge, but without the economic and political pressure to employ that knowledge, it will continue to be siloed on farms and in kitchens. Rewriting systems is hard work, but the first step is to have the capacity to imagine a new one. I still have a lot to learn. But after the Climate Farm School, I know enough to imagine that a regenerative agroecological future is possible. The next step on my path? Keep learning and start building.