Koen Van Seijen on Investing in Regenerative Agriculture by Judith D. Schwartz

I first encountered Koen van Seijen when I was walking down a hill in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda and my cellphone rang. Koen from the Netherlands was calling to invite me to be on his new podcast, Investing In Regenerative Agriculture, to talk about soil. Well, I thought, kicking up dust on the road, why not? From our first interview I felt part of a community, a growing group of people working toward a regenerative future. Since 2017, the podcast has published more than 300 interviews with impact investors, fund managers, farmers and others, and has expanded to include courses, webinars and special series including “The Water Cycle” and “The Regenerative Mind”. 

Koen is also a manager at Toniic, an impact investor community nonprofit. Koen, his wife and podcast publishing partner Antonella Ilaria Totaro, and their two children toggle between Italy and the Netherlands. Soil Centric’s Judith D. Schwartz turns the tables and interviews the interviewer about finance, regeneration, and the opportunities created when we bring them together.

JDS: Many see finance and regeneration as opposites, worldviews that cannot be reconciled. When did you realize there could be synergies?

Koen: There are definitely huge tensions. We have a world of finance that’s mostly extractive. In the long run we have to fundamentally change the financial system to be based on regenerative principles. The financial system will collapse at some point. This could be in two days or ten years, though it’s proven extremely resilient to shocks. In the meantime, finance is a tool that the regen space can use. Let’s take as much as we can and put it to work. There’s always a risk that it becomes extractive finance—we have to be super careful with that. But it can help things go faster, especially in circumstances where we have already examples of successful grazing, cover crops, agroforestry, and the like.

The aha-moment for me was looking at holistic grazing in Australia and seeing the cost benefits for farmers. It completely changed my outlook on food and agriculture and opened my eyes to soil. Even if you’re a cynical investor and don’t care about climate, animals, biodiversity, or health, it’s cheaper to run a system if there’s a regenerative edge. 


JSD: Why a podcast?

Koen: Because it was the simplest way to start. I didn’t know what to do in this space. I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer. I knew I couldn’t be an investor because I didn’t have the wealth. I knew that if I hung out with people who were building things in this space then I might learn what my role is. Hanging out with busy people is way easier if you record them and tell them it will be a podcast. As it turned out, my role was to listen to people, connect them, ask clarifying questions, and, somewhat unexpectedly, build a media company—a tiny media company—out of this.

It is an amazing medium because you’re in between people’s ears. It’s very intimate. You can hear people breathing. I’m always thinking: how do we bring decision-makers to the land? Of course we need them to visit, but for some that could be one step too far—maybe this is the first step. After an hour of listening someone may say, I want to know more. Maybe I want to invest, maybe I want to work with them, maybe I’m inspired and want to bring this solution to my country. We want to move people, and in order to move people you need to get to know people. And audio is just a really good way of doing that.


JDS: What advice do you have for would-be podcasters?

Koen: You can set yourself up with an internet connection and microphone, but you also need perseverance. It takes years to build up an audience. Most podcasts run three episodes or ten episodes and then stop. Make sure you can support yourself somewhere else, or decide that will help your company. Because it will take a bit of time.


JDS: What are the biggest constraints to investment in regenerative agriculture?

Koen: Many people are far away from agriculture and food in general. Many believe the narrative that we have to feed the world so we should douse everything with chemicals, even though the data suggests otherwise. People need to hear stories and see examples of aligning with nature. It sounds almost too good to be true that you can step off the input treadmill and have a more financially and environmentally sustainable operation.

One challenge is that many in this space haven’t kept financial and operational records. I’m not saying they don’t want to. Most farmers have really poor data because they’re very busy. So there are limited before-and-after case studies. If you’re starting a big transition, I’d say find a bit of money to do some good benchmarking on finance, air quality, biodiversity, and water quality.  Big financial institutions need long-term track records, meaning 10 or more years of data before they can make investments. 

JDS: What do you say to finance professionals looking to contribute to a regenerative shift? 

Koen: We have an amazing video course, which would be a place to start. Joking aside, I would say get out on a good, innovative farm. Spend time and listen. Because most of the things you thought you knew about agriculture are probably not the reality. Get your hands dirty, so you understand the daily reality of stewards of the land. 

The biggest mistake people make is time—to think things go quickly in nature or in agriculture. Sometimes it does, generally when it goes wrong. Patience is a big theme in our interviews. All the money in the world won’t make a tree grow faster. Don’t expect quick returns. If somebody promises amazing returns in a couple of years, something is probably wrong.

JDS: Your podcast and courses reach a global community. What are you seeing in the global arena?

Koen: It’s interesting to talk to a farmer in India and someone in the Midwest US and someone in Ghana and someone in the Netherlands. The challenges are fairly comparable: market access, getting a premium for a better product, inputs, and of course the weather. The regenerative journey looks similar even if the machinery looks different and the landscape looks different. I’d emphasize that you’re not alone, and encourage you to connect with the global movement. Maybe somebody has figured out solutions to issues you face. It could be technology, or amazing open-source design, or ways of structuring sales. There’s a lot of depth and a lot of solutions have been built already. 


JDS: Your episodes always end with two questions: If you had a magic wand, what would you do to promote regeneration? And what would you do with $1 billion? How do you answer that?

Koen: I knew you’d ask, of course! I’d use the magic wand to create a mindset shift: for people to wake up tomorrow morning and realize they’re part of nature. That would change everything. It may be a stark realization for some, but it’s needed. We need to wake up to this and take seriously our role as beneficial keystone species.

With the money I would dedicate 80 percent to biodiversity hotspots and indigenous people. I would take a very long-term view and find a way to get indigenous tribes on the investment committee. And leave the rest to them, for it’s not for me to decide.

Then it’s down to a way more manageable 200 million. As one guest suggested, I would seek out the wisdom of those I’ve interviewed and of the audience, regular listeners who have a good basic understanding of regeneration. I would hear their advice but more importantly see what they would actually invest in, actually do. Talk is cheap, but action is not.


Learn more about investing in regeneration by checking out Soil Centric's Better Money Guide, Koen's video course, and Koen's stellar podcast !


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