The Leading Voices in Food
E140: Russ Conser on Regenerative Ag, Beef, and the Birds
How does someone who spent 30 years at Shell, the massive energy company, and leading its GameChanger innovation program turn into a leader for regenerative agriculture? Today, we’re talking with Russ Conser, the CEO of Blue Nest Beef. He’s an expert on disruptive innovation, scaling up ideas, and has a passion for soil and ecosystem science.
Russ Conser is CEO of Blue Nest Beef – an e-commerce startup bringing 100% grassfed beef from Audubon-certified bird friendly land direct to consumer doorsteps nationwide. Blue Nest Beef spotlights birds as treasurer and measure in a bigger story of farmers and consumers co-creating a new and better food system that enhances the health of both people and planet. He is a mechanical engineer who spent 30 years at Shell and is now a regenerative agriculture entrepreneur and scientist. Having spent the 1st half of that career in big oil finding and extracting dead carbon from the deep earth, he spent the 2nd half investing in scientists and innovators developing novel energy technologies ultimately leading Shell’s innovative “GameChanger” program. Russ retired from Shell in 2013 and has since been focused on the science and business of putting living carbon back into the shallow Earth by working to scale up proven regenerative agriculture
So Russ, how in the heck do you move from a career in innovation with Shell to CEO of a beef startup?
Yeah, great question. Serendipitously, following the edges. My world changed the day when I heard these audacious claims about carbon sequestration in soil associated with different ranching, and I went looking for data to support those claims, because that was kind of the way I went about all my innovation stuff. And someone presented me with sample data, where instantly, I recognized that the quantity and distribution of carbon, rich organic matter, in soil under these regenerative farms was identical to what we would call source rocks in the oil and gas industry, or the things that once, they were buried deeply in the earth, would produce oil and gas. But they were buried initially from sediments 1,000,000s of years ago. So literally, it was an “ah-ha!” moment. I recognized that, oh my goodness, this is not calling on any new, wonderful miracle. It’s just basically how the planet has been functioning as a system for 100s of 1,000,000s of years. And now, pioneering farmers have figured out how to manage their part of that ecosystem in a way to jumpstart it again and get it to do what it wants to do, which is sequester carbon in the process of growing more food and fiber. So behind all that is my rich history in innovation that included investing in other alternative, mostly engineering, but some natural carbon sequestration options, and realizing just how difficult the problem was. So there was a real aha to this discovery that, oh my gosh, nature’s already solved this thing. We just have to learn to work with her again.
So Russ, we’ve recorded a number of podcasts on regenerative agriculture, but for some listeners, this may be the first one that they’ve heard. So can you explain the concept of carbon sequestration?
Well, the whole idea of regenerative agriculture is to farm in a way that we leave the land better than we found it. And that’s not some sort of theoretical thing. There’s some really, really deep physics and science behind it. Most of us that didn’t come from an agricultural background, think of agriculture as something that’s extracting nutrients from the soil, and therefore necessarily depleting it, regrettably. And we try to minimize that damage and hold onto it as much as we can. But with regenerative agriculture, the real miracle is that once you understand how natural cycles want to work, the carbon arrow goes in the other direction. It seeks to accumulate carbon because as it accumulates carbon in the soil, that allows it to grow more of whatever it is that’s trying to grow, whether that’s a grassland prairie or a forest, there’s a net accumulation of carbon in that system. So it’s really a big paradigm change of instead of tolerating or accepting the inevitable decline of our natural ecosystems in the process of meeting human needs out of them. It’s a fundamentally different paradigm. I sometimes refer it to a Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper, except for better. Instead of having a candy that when you lick at it, it doesn’t disappear. This is a candy that when you lick it, it gets bigger.
And so the farming methods that you can use to do this are all about working with those forces of nature. Where I tend to focus here is on the relationship of grazing animals and grasslands simply because it covers a large fraction of the planet and has a lot of potential to sequester carbon. What we do is try to mimic in our management practices, the natural ecological behaviors of dense herds of roaming ruminants that would have been there in history. So just imagine dense herds of roaming bison that once traversed the Great Plains of North America. And they would stay together in dense herds, eat intensely, and then move off. Well, that creates a pulsing in the ecosystem that allows intense disruption followed by long rest, pretty much like going to the gym, and then resting before you go to the gym again. And that helps improve that ecosystem.
It really comes down to six principles of regenerative agriculture. The first is to understand the context of the place you’re working in. The second is to minimize disturbance of the soil. So you’re not constantly resetting it back to go by tilling it up. Third is to keep it covered. Fourth is to add diversity. Fifth, integrate livestock or animal production in the system. I keep a living root in the ground. What a lot of people don’t understand is that all that carbon in the soil is coming from the air, and the way it gets there is by going through the leaves of a plant through photosynthesis. So the way you build carbon in the soil is not by letting it stay fallow, it’s by having a living plant there, that’s pumping carbon from the air into the ground for as much of the year as you possibly can. So when we apply these principles, we find that we can take an ecosystem, and indeed, leave it better tomorrow than we found it yesterday.
That was a very impressive explanation. And in all the podcasts that we’ve done on regenerative agriculture, you’re the first to mention Willy Wonka and going to the gym. So those are great examples. I really appreciate them. And they paint a very nice picture of this. So just back to the sequestration for a moment, so the idea then is that these plants and this thriving ecosystem that can be created through regenerative agriculture will draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. And otherwise, it would be up in the atmosphere doing bad things, so is that a good description?
I often call soil the dirty iceberg. The real important part is the part you can’t see, that’s under the ground. What you see is above the ground is the living plant. But what’s really happening is, as the plant photosynthesizes, it’s taking a significant fraction of those sugars and other complex organic chemicals that it’s making, it’s taking that, and it’s feeding the microbiome in the soil. And it’s not doing that out of some sort of altruistic goal to spread the love of sunshine. It’s doing that because it’s basically paying the microbes and other life in the soil. They go out and mine the nutrients from the parent soil material and bring it back to the plant that the plant needs to grow. So all the magnesium, the calcium, phosphorus, all those things that we typically think we have to add in a bag of fertilizer are very often already present in the soil. And the reason the carbon accumulates is it’s the currency of this underground barter economy that trades sugar for nutrients between plants and microbes. It’s really cool, it’s just, like I said, it’s a dirty iceberg; you can’t see it.
Well, let’s talk about cows. So cattle often get cited as an important and negative contribution to climate change. And so people think about raising of cattle as a negative thing, but you talk about climate positive beef. Can you explain?
All the negative attention on cows is primarily focused on methane emission, which is a legitimate and material concern. What people fail to recognize is that the cow is participating in a larger ecosystem. So I grew up in Nebraska, for what it’s worth, and I was a city kid, and we had this deep, dark, rich topsoil. And I guess I didn’t even really think about it, but what I’ve learned is that it’s the consequence of the prairie grasses and their interrelationship with these roaming herds of bison and other ruminants that were there before.
If you can kind of imagine a blade of grass like a carbon pump, and if you just leave it alone, it grows up, and at some point, it grows as tall as it’s going to grow. And then it just sits there and it dies, and what we call, senesces, and it doesn’t really do any further. But if a herd of ruminants comes in at the right time and eats some of that grass, the grass goes, “Hey, I just lost my head, it’s time to regrow.” And it goes back into growing mode. And when it’s in growing mode, it’s basically pumping this carbon into that underground economy that I described, that accumulates soil carbon.
One of the phrases I coined years ago that’s become quite popular is: it’s not the cow, it’s the how. We often unwittingly associate the problem with the noun, the thing, the cow itself. And in reality, the thing we broke when we implemented industrial agriculture with animals standing behind a fence when they are in pasture or standing in a feedlot is, we broke this healthy relationship that a grazing ruminant should have with its natural ecosystem, grassland. It’s really important to the overall food system on the planet as well.
There’s a lot of attention that often goes to the negativity of the cattle, like, okay, all this land is associated with grazing and cattle production. But the reality is, that’s typically land that’s much less-suited to crop production. And cows managed rightly on that land are the thing that not only help that land stay healthier, but they’re eating and bringing into our net food system, the products of photosynthesis that other animals and other food production systems just aren’t designed to implement. So they’re basically up-cyclers of photosynthetic products of grasses that evolve in arid climates that constitute about 2/3 of the agricultural land on planet Earth. So you have to see those bigger system things in order to realize, okay, there are legitimate issues with livestock productions or with any production, but once you see the system and you can appreciate, to some extent, trade-offs, but really, the potential synergies of different management, then you realize, “Hey, we could really make important progress here “by changing the how, and not necessarily the cow.”
Thank you, so let’s dig a little deeper. Why should people care about this? And what do you think they should know?
The first order thing they should care about is their own personal health. I mean, I’d like to start with the broader picture of the health of the planet, but I think the health of people and planet are coupled. Our food system has been on a long-term path towards cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, and more and more yield, yield, yield. It really honestly hasn’t helped the farmers, as I’m sure you well know. They’re caught in an endless cycle of squeezed margins, and government subsidies, and so on. But the cost of that is also byproducts of agriculture, but they all come associated with a cost to human health as well. I mean, this is where I get really excited, and I am a sucker for big picture, big challenge-type stuff. If you zoom all the way out to the health of the planet as a whole, you’ll realize that the prosperity of life on Earth is directly coupled to how much of the incoming solar energy we capture in our food and farming system. And one of my friends taught me early on in my own journey to look at bare soil like I would an oil spill. It’s solar energy that’s falling on bare ground and going entirely to waste, and doing nothing but destroying land and ecosystems. And so when we keep living plants growing, like in perennial pastures, but this can be done in crop land with diverse cover crops, crop rotation systems that help keep capturing that sunlight, we are inevitably, and directly going down a path that leads to a healthier planet. One of the challenges of course, is how to make all the costs and benefits visible and meaningful to people. And I think we need to get better at that over time. It’s one of the reasons here with the Blue Nest Beef thing, we’ve hooked up with the National Audubon Society to put a spotlight on birds to help make this accessible for people. But there’s probably many ways to do that.
We’ll come back to birds in a minute, because I have a question about that, but before I do – you said one thing that got you started in this was seeing an early piece of research showing positive results on the land of raising animals in the fashion that you’re talking about. So now that some time has passed, what does the research show about the impact of this type of agriculture?
I remain deeply involved in several research projects, and still more under the planning stages, but the research continues to support this direction. Michigan State University, under the auspices of Dr. Jason Rowntree, continues to be a leading highlight of research in all aspects of regenerative agriculture. Dr. Richard Teague at Texas A&M University, who was some of the earliest research I came across, has been leading a number of projects to help us get out there.
One of the things that’s different here, that’s even challenged our research model, is so much of our research historically has been in controlled experiments where we try to do things in a very linear way, changing one thing at a time. The big thing that we found important to understanding regenerative agriculture is shift into deeply insightful observational research out in the field where we can compare and contrast the aggregate set of decisions that farmers of type A and farmers of type B are making on the land, and their net aggregate income. It’s not just carbon, it’s water infiltration, it’s other biodiversity, it’s farmer prosperity, and it keeps piling up.
We’ve done a major project in the Southeast United States comparing regenerative and conventional ranches. The first papers from that have started to be published. Sam Mosier from Colorado State University did a great paper on carbon and nitrogen differentials that we found there. Tommy Fenster and Jonathan Lundgren on regenerative almond orchards in California. It was a great paper, it was truly fascinating, really rigorous, multi-dimensional. And one of the things that Lundgren, who’s the leader of that overall team, has done, is demonstrate this isn’t coming at some sort of sacrifice to the farmers themselves. They documented in that paper where the profitability of the farmers is about twice as high as the people that were following conventional methods. So get this, you can heal the Earth, and make twice as much money at the same time. Who wouldn’t want that, right? So the challenge is to learn to think differently.
What I see in regenerative agriculture is the leading practitioners learn to think in loops. But learning to think in loops instead of lines, farmers are figuring out how to close their loops over and over again. There’s a famous farmer in Georgia by the name of Will Harris at White Oak Pastures. He has his own processing plant onsite. And then, they take the waste from that processing plant and they compost it and they feed some of it to fly larvae that they then, go back and feed to the chickens. So Will and his team just do an amazing job of closing loops. And I think, we’re still really early on in terms of figuring out total quantitative bottom line implications of all this stuff, but all of the progress continues to be incredibly encouraging. One of the terms that is increasingly getting traction in this space, Professor Hannah Gosnell, I think she’s at Oregon State, documenting what you would call co-benefits regenerative agriculture. It’s one of these things where we get a win, win, win, win, win type thing going on. And depending on your context and what you need for when, and what you want to achieve. Really, the only people that lose are the chemicals salesmen, that they just become moot, if I can say it that way.
So let’s talk about scalability. So if you’re using conventional animal feeding operations, and you have a lot of animals, you’re using relatively little space and land per animal, and regenerative agriculture obviously requires much more. So can this be done other than on a small scale?
That’s exactly the right question. And that’s the mission we’re trying to prove here with our efforts, starting with the Blue Nest Beef program, and why we’re working with Audubon on 1,000,000s of acres in North America in grasslands because, whereas I really appreciate the value, the merit, the benefit to small holder farms, unless we build a different kind of scale in other than ever-larger feedlots and ever-larger processing plants, we’re never going to reach what we call feedlot parody. I come out of the energy industry where the whole industry was motivated for decades by achieving grid parody. That would be when renewable energy can be produced for the equivalent cost of coal and natural gas. And we passed that some years ago now, but we need to achieve a similar thing here. Mathematically, we’ve got models that suggests that’s a very achievable goal for us, but we have to go through the same learning and production curve of scaling. We got to start working with 10s and 100s of 1,000s of acres, and develop business models that integrate the production effort of 100s of farmers. You start with a premium product that has unique features for people who really care and can afford it. And over time, you develop a strategy that allows you to drop that cost because you’re increasing the scale of production and supply chain issues. And then, at some point in the future, can become the norm. And we need to do the same thing with regenerative agriculture. And that means trying to figure out how we can get scale more quickly for something that’s authentically regenerative.
When I made the decision to become an entrepreneur in this space, it was because I started looking around me and recognizing that, hey, this looks just like renewable energy did 25, 30 years ago. Small, isolated pockets of small scale projects, and what we need is commercially, entrepreneurial-minded people to enter this and figure out new business models, new structures and systems that allow us to bring some scale to this in a different kind of way.
So you mentioned birds along the way, so what do birds have to do with it?
It turns out that grassland birds are the most imperiled category of birds in North America. We’ve lost more than 50% of grassland birds in just the last 50 years. And it’s because we plowed up their habitat and sprayed it with chemicals. The National Audubon Society had come to that insight quite some time ago and recognized that if they wanted to save grassland birds, they couldn’t just put up a bird preserve. They needed to restore the ecosystems across scale where birds live and migrate. And the only people that still manage intact grasslands are ranchers and farmers. So working with one of my colleagues, they developed protocols for grazing in a way that restores bird habitat. And then, they implemented the Audubon Conservation Ranching protocols that basically certified ranchers that follow those protocols, where they’re the same protocols to sequester carbon and heal soil and create all these other co-benefits. It kind of makes sense, right? If you restore an ecosystem and you get thriving, living life in it again, the birds come back. I mean, to me, that’s the biggest aha on my own journey here. What I’ve learned is nature already has the perfect sensor that will tell you which land is regenerative and which it isn’t, it’s called a bird. A bird gets to vote with its wings. There’s so many different birds. They all have different ecosystem preferences, that when you farm and produce food and fiber in a way that restores habitat, the birds will come back because the food is back. The insects are back, the seeds are back, and life starts going, and sometimes they say, “Let life be the judge.” And I think I can get my mind around that. Some of these major issues facing our planet, like biodiversity and climate change, are actually two sides of the same coin. And if we can take actions that benefit both sides of that coin, then who wouldn’t want to do that? So this is just another example of that.
One final question. What can consumers do in their everyday life?
Choose better. I realize that sounds too trite, but you know, we’re just all so hardwired to choose cheap. We’ve done a great job of getting a lot of calories cheaply to people. We’ve probably unintentionally created a lot of other human health consequences, diabetes, obesity, these kinds of things, but we still kind of obsessively choose cheap. If I could invite people to, when they’re making food choices, to choose better. We think in our case, by virtue of working and adhering to the Audubon protocols, we can offer a legitimate option that people can choose from. But I wouldn’t claim to have a corner on that market. If consumers wake up in the morning and say, “How can I choose something that’s doing better for me “and better for the planet?” Ask questions of the people that are producing your food, whether it’s on their website or social media, or read up a little bit, but ask tough questions and see if what you’re buying truly is doing better for you and better for the planet, we’re going to move the needle in the right direction.