“Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.”
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
A few weeks back, before a succession of Nor’Easters and winter colds settled down on our house like a thick blanket, I had the great pleasure and privilege to be with my colleagues in the RSF Social Finance Fellowship at Paicines Ranch in California. The ranch, a few hours south of San Francisco, is the muted green-brown palette of rolling hills dotted with sheep and gnarled oak trees reminiscent of a William Wendt painting. The ranch is owned and stewarded by Sallie Calhoun, a maven of sustainable ranching and one of the most interesting and purpose-driven women I’ve met. An engineer by training, Sallie and her husband cashed out of the tech sector at the right time and with their fortune set out to save this 8,000 acre tract of land from development. But lest you think that meant retiring the land to a languorous form of conservation, let’s be clear, Paicines is a working ranch. Conservation at Paicines encompasses the thoughtful interactions of people, animals, water, and a very robust web of life beneath the soil that is actively and thoughtfully nurtured and where the re-establishment of native grasses is a pressing goal. Sallie made us all feel tremendously welcome at her home and spent hours discussing her particular approach to integrated capital, that heady form of mission driven money that combines philanthropy and impact investing along with social action, network building, and technical assistance. The list of things launched, funded, and nurtured by Sallie’s capital and attention are too numerous to cover in a single blog post. But I’ll briefly touch on two components of her remarkable work.
First, the discernible mandate that determines where Sallie’s money flows appears to be that it must enhance and enliven the community, nurture the delicate web of life, and ultimately help restore the ecological integrity of the planet. Its not surprising that this compelling intention attracted the able-minded Esther Parks to be CEO of Cienega Capital; Sallie’s family office which invests to “. . . improve soil health, regenerative agricultural practices, and local food systems.”
According to a 2016 interview in B The Change, “Calhoun has invested about $21 million in soil-related opportunities: farmland investment, direct land and operating loans for independent farms, and investments in food companies that support the right kind of farmers. It’s our strategy to use all of our forms of capital — investment, philanthropic, ecological, and human — to work toward improved soil health. We think that’s the most valuable, most fundamental, investment.”
What’s truly astonishing about this work is that there is no blueprint. This uncharted course; combining forms of capital, listening for opportunity, finding strategies that strengthen the system, and then investing a combination of time and money, is very much an approach built on courage and curiosity rather than custom and habit. Yet it serves as a potent model for how we might marshal whatever resources we have to address the issues we’re passionate about.
Second, the interrelated strategies of Paicines Ranch, The Globetrotter Foundation, and Cienega Capital, have now intentionally combined under the #NOREGRETS initiative, whose mission is,”…to improve soil health and grow soil carbon in the agricultural soils of North America. To those ends, we demonstrate and advocate for a Regenerative Assets Strategy that deploys human, ecological, and financial capital toward soil health and its effect on climate change.” Got that? The idea is to build the capacity of healthy soils to sequester carbon. This is a way to mitigate the effects of climate change while also fostering a host of other essential benefits.
To say Sallie is excited about soil and its capacity to support life would be a vast understatement. In wind-driven rain (it may actually have been sleet), Sallie walked us through her fields showing us various plots to illustrate what the progression from poor soil to healthy soil looks, smells, and feels like. By the way, in case you’re wondering, healthy soil holds together like moist chocolate cake, has roots, worms, and thousands of other creatures you cannot see, living in it. With our mud-caked boots drying on her porch Sallie explained that #NOREGRETS is a clear intention to act and invest in a way that allows her to look her grandchildren in the eye and with certainty, know she did everything she could to protect the planet and their lives. It’s not surprising then, given the urgency of climate change, that Sallie’s work is now as much about education and knowledge-sharing as it is about investing and grants. The hope is that successful strategies can be replicated and that a body of knowledge can be open-sourced for mutual benefit. This inclusive instinct and multi-layered approach, encompassing many disciplines, is an extraordinary feat of determination.
Sallie’s work, her partnership with Esther and many other advisors, serves as a potent model. So, in part, this post is a thank you to these women, leading at the edge of something new, important, and inspirational. It is also where I finally arrive at a proper answer to the question I have been asked repeatedly since I launched Celina Adams Consulting, “Who is your perfect client?” Meeting Sallie brought my thinking to a place of extreme clarity. Seeing how she and Esther work in concert to create meaning and bounty in the world through a place-based lens, presents the closest thing to a road map I have encountered. So, if you know someone who is curious and driven, who is willing to take risks in pursuit of innovation, who cares deeply about the planet and people, and is willing to use all the tools at their disposal so they can leave this mortal coil with no regrets, send them my way. I’m in search of a client like Sallie Calhoun.