Of soil and sandwiches: urban restaurants fund regenerative farming in Colorado
Yellow Barn is a baby of a farm. The 100-acre operation in Longmont started up just a little over 2 years ago, on the grounds of a shuttered horse stable.
Nick DiDomenico is Yellow Barn’s young farmer.
DiDomenico practices regenerative agriculture, a holistic approach to farming and ranching. It rebuilds depleted soils, improves ecosystems and mitigates climate change by putting carbon back in the ground. Farmers in Colorado are increasingly experimenting with those techniques, to different degrees. DiDomenico is among those leading the pack.
The 32-year-old does not come from an agricultural family. He was raised in Boulder and used to be a competitive freestyle Mogul skier. In his early 20’s he started to learn about indigenous methods of farming in South America. Now he specializes in reversing soil degradation in Northern Colorado through farming and land management techniques.
The fields at Yellow Barn are just getting started. DiDomenico has been working to establish a silvopasture here – an integrated system of trees and livestock that work together to produce an overall regenerative benefit – including increased biodiversity on the land, leading to higher soil fertility, and better water retention. “We're farming here, we're running our cattle,” Didomenico explained. “It's this rotational grazing strategy that improves the land.”
On a recent afternoon, DiDomenico adjusted a faulty pump on the water trough that keeps his small herd of belted Galloway cows hydrated. “It's a really niche thing that we're doing,” he said, “which is converting completely decertified, degraded, marginalized land and redeveloping it into agricultural systems that are viable.”
Yellow Barn is a demonstration farm, which means DiDomenico regularly opens his grounds to the public, and to local government officials to showcase the many benefits of his regenerative work. “We can build fertility on the land,” he said, “sequester carbon and create resilient ecological systems with lower inputs that benefit the farm in general over time,”
Inputs and Subsidies
Conventional agriculture costs a lot of money. Farmers typically pay dearly for inputs like fertilizer and pesticides and the fuel needed to spread them in the field. Since the 1930’s, the federal government has subsidized those costs heavily.
But Farm Bill subsidies are deliberately conservative. They aren’t equipped to encourage risk and experimentation. “They’re designed for commodity mid- to large-scale agriculture,” according to Clark Harshbarger, a regenerative agriculture expert with the NGO Mad Agriculture in Boulder, Colorado. “They purposely try to take the risk out of those practices because it's taxpayer money already spent,” Harshbarger said. “And sometimes [the USDA] vetting process hasn't necessarily caught up with progressive regenerative farming systems.”
As a small-scale regenerative farmer, DiDomenico falls through the cracks when it comes to federal subsidies. The farming technique at Yellow Barn is experimental and holistic. Harshbarger is familiar with DiDomenicos’ work. “It's very creative and it's complex,” he explained, but “the Farm Bill is designed to be very specific… very 1 to 1.”
DiDomenico might not use chemical fertilizer and other conventional
inputs, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have high costs. His costs just look a little different: things like spreading compost in his fields to restore nutrients; those thousands of fruit trees he planted to establish his silvopasture.
“There's really intense winds that come through and the trees themselves create habitat for birds and insects that create this regenerative benefit,” DiDomenico said, explaining why he needed to bring so many trees into the pasture. “And then they also serve as a windbreak to keep moisture in the system. It's like this holistic model that creates a regenerative benefit. All of this together builds a natural system that supports healthy soils.”
The USDA doesn’t subsidize this type of work. So DiDomenico finds financial support in some unlikely places…
Strip mall sandwiches and healthy soils
Just off the highway, in the city of Boulder, there’s a strip mall with an Indian Restaurant, a nail salon, and a locksmith. In a corner behind the Goodwill, a Subway sandwich shop does brisk business at lunch hour.
But this Subway is special, because along with the standard steak and cheese, spicy Italian and tuna subs, it offers customers the opportunity to support regenerative farming in the neighboring rural areas.
That’s because of a program called Restore Colorado, that takes a little extra charge – just 1% of the cost of your meal - from urban restaurants, like this Subway, and gives it to rural farmers, like DiDomenico, to invest in their soil. That comes to just a few cents on top of the cost of each sandwich, that shows up on the sales receipt as the 1% Restore Colorado charge.
Tim Schiel is the franchisee who ownsthis Subway and 3 others in Boulder. He says he didn’t hesitate to sign up to fund the program because he grew up in farm country and understands that at some level, his livelihood slinging sandwiches depends on healthy soils that can continue to grow the ingredients he puts in those sandwiches.
“I truly believe that rejuvenating the soils is top priority,” he said. “Because if you don't, you've robbed the soil of all its nutrients and you can't grow anything anymore.”
That’s why he added the 1% Restore Colorado charge at all 4 of his locations last year. Customers can opt out of the charge, but no one has. “Obviously 1% is not much,” he said, adding that his customers don’t even notice the small charge on their receipt. “And if you can do that in masses, obviously, it really adds up in a hurry”
Case in point: Schiel reports all those pennies have come to about $20,000 that he’s sent to the Restore Colorado fund in the last year and change. “And that money then can be well spent to restoring soils and helping farmers and taking care of our land and our food supply.”
Debbie Seaford-Pitula is co-owner of the Whistling Boar, a private chef and catering service in Louisville that has also signed up to contribute to the Restore Colorado fund.
“We have this mission of being part of the local agribusiness and supporting our local farmers,” she explained. “We know how being stewards of the land is important, and we know where our food comes from”
Rather than add a charge on top of the bill, Seaford-Pitula raised her up-front prices by 1% in order to make the contributions. She makes sure her clients know that funding the next acre of regenerative farming is part of what they are paying for. Even with the higher price point, she says the response from her clientele has been overwhelmingly positive. People want to pay a little extra to have an impact.
“We want the kind of clients that understand the environmental impact of their choices and the choices that we make,” she said.
Connecting restaurants and rural soils
The extra charges at Schiel’s Subway stores, and Seaford-Pitula’s catering service do not pay for the ingredients in today’s meal. They are a local investment in next year’s crop.
Anthony Myint is an award-winning chef, and humanitarian, and the brains behind Restore Colorado. “Subway can't buy the regenerative beef or the heirloom tomatoes,” he said. “But they can send a couple of cents to help a Colorado farmer apply compost or plant cover crop and get that next practice happening on the next acre.”
Early in his career, Myint built several extremely popular restaurants in San Francisco and New York. He noticed a hunger among his urban restaurant clientele to be part of the conversation about how their food is grown. So, he created a way for them to do that, through his non-profit Zero Foodprint, which launched Restore Colorado in 2021.
Myint says he’s tapping market demand among urbanites to support regenerative farming.
“The program is really trying to just give consumers what they want, which is a way to make a sustainable choice, have a local impact,” he said.
Regenerative farming as a climate solution
Myint’s primary interest in regenerative agriculture is the potential for carbon sequestration on a massive scale. Scientists estimate that human agricultural activity over thousands of years has caused the release of massive amounts of carbon that used to be contained in the earth. As the soils get depleted, the carbon ends up as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“All of the soil used to have quite a lot more organic matter before conventional extractive, chemical, industrial agriculture,” Myint said. “And so the proposition with regenerative agriculture is sort of that we can bring it back to where it was.”
About 30 food proprietors in Colorado have started contributing to the Restore Colorado fund so far, and 11 local farmers and ranchers have received grants.
But that number will soon grow. The Colorado Department of Agriculture has signed on to expand the program across the state. They will help Restore Colorado connect with more farmers and ranchers who want funding for regenerative agriculture and healthy soils practices.
Closing the loop
Not long after Yellow Barn Farm launched, in 2020, the Calwood Fire ripped through the area. It came within just a few hundred feet of DiDomenico’s silvopasture. “The fire came right up to it and then burned, kept burning north,” he recalled, “and then burned across the property, but didn't hit any of the structures, which is pretty amazing.”
Wildfires are a growing risk in a region that is experiencing more extreme heat and drought. They are one of the more dramatic ways that climate change impacts agricultural areas.
“The flood and fire cycle is intensifying in this area,” DiDomenico said. “We're seeing more often fires, fires during parts of the year in which we never saw fires. So just this time that we are in in the world, I think it's really important to do whatever we can to build resilient ecological systems, human habitats, farming systems.”
Yellow Barn got lucky in 2020, but it was a close call. The fire scar blackens the hillside just above the the silvopasture DiDomenico is working so hard to cultivate. He plans to apply for more Restore Colorado funds in the coming years, so he can keep developing the field, improving land for growing crops, and sequestering more carbon in his soils.
When it comes to funding for this work that comes directly from consumers in the city, DiDomenico likes how it balances out the conventional relationship between urban and rural economies.
“Cities and urban areas … draw resource out of rural areas, whether it be food, gas, commodities, people, whatever it is,” DiDomenico reflected. “The way we see it, humans have created these urban models that are inherently out of balance.”
He says direct funding from consumers to pay for regenerative farming is a way to close the loop and bring resources back to the farms and channel it directly into the land.