Co-founder of Rhizoterra Inc. and scientific advisor of chef Dan Barber, Jill Clapperton has been focussed on the connection between healthy soils, healthy food and healthy people for the last 25 years.
In this interview with Jill Clapperton talking about measuring the nutrient density of food.
Jill Clapperton’s Twitter profile
‘The Tracer’, a photon gun that profiles the elemental composition of foods www.instagram.com/p/B4VwlZKnImv/
The Third Plate book
Chef Dan Barber’s Instagram profile
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
people, nutrient density, farmers, measure, wheat, year, sweet clover, soil, understand, grow, investors, podcast, experiments, wines, rotation, crops, weevils, plants, focused, change
Jill Clapperton, Koen van Seijen
Koen van Seijen 00:00
This interview is all about nutrient density and how the scientific adviser of chef Dan Barber has been focused on the connection between healthy soils, healthy food and healthy people for the last 25 years.
Koen van Seijen 00:14
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative food and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land grow our food and what we eat. And it's time that we as investors, big and small and consumers start paying much more attention to the dirt slash soil underneath our feet.
Koen van Seijen 00:52
Before we get started, I've been recording these interviews next to my day job, and I will definitely continue to do so and release about an episode a month. And at the same time, I would love to take this further share more interviews, there are many more stories to share on investing in regenerative food and agriculture, more depth, improve the quality, maybe even doing some video series. So I started a Patreon community which makes it easy to support creators like myself. If these podcasts have been of value to you, and if you have the means I invite you to support me and make this happen. For more information, please find the link to my Patreon account in the description below. And now without further ado, the interview. Enjoy.
Koen van Seijen 01:35
So welcome to another great episode. Today I'm joined by Jill Clapperton founder of Rhizoterra. Rhizoterra is an international company based in the Pacific Northwest region of the US that's devoted to creating information and knowledge to assist farmers, ranchers, and land managers in their quest to create healthy, productive soils. And it's all for the love of food, which obviously I enjoy a lot. Welcome, Jill.
Jill Clapperton 01:57
Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Koen van Seijen 02:00
And can you tell, because you've told your amazing background story already to me, but can you tell to the audience why you're doing what you're doing? Why you're so focused? And actually for quite a few years already on soil?
Jill Clapperton 02:11
Well, yeah, okay so my background is I started my career with agriculture in Agrifood Canada as the rhizosphere ecologist. So the rhizosphere is the rooting zone, so it's the root, the soil attached to the root, and the soil that's actually influenced by the root. And what I love about that is it's a whole system look. So I am looking at everything that affects plant growth, and how plants affect everything below ground as well. So it's this beautiful whole systems approach. And what I learned when I was there was that, you know, we can actually influence the soils, we can create and build wonderful soils, and plants are the most critical part of that. And then we started experimenting more with different kinds of plants and cover crops, and companions, and diverse cropping rotations, and what we found was that when just wildly, and I would say wildly, I had this idea that maybe we should, you know, analyze the grain. And so we had to do a lot of work. My technician, she had to work really hard to ramp up the analysis so we could actually do this. And what we found was that when we integrated diverse cropping systems, we had this change in the nutrient density within the wheat, within our four year rotation.
Koen van Seijen 03:36
And when was this? Because this sounds almost, I wouldn't say normal now I mean at least in the regen ag space, it sort of starts to become accepted let's say, nutrient density, the connection to healthy soil. But I'm guessing that this has been, it wasn't last week.
Jill Clapperton 03:52
No! It was, really we started the study in 1997. And it took me a really long time, it didn't take me a long time, but I really had to convince everybody to even have a go. And you know, pushing that. Honestly, I have always thought that it was my job to be 20 years ahead of everyone. The farmers, not my research partners and my research colleagues, but to be 20 years ahead of the farmers so that when they got there 20 years later, I already had the answers. I had practice for them. I knew how to do some of these things. So that when they're ready, the information was there to help them so they didn't have to try and develop that themselves.
Jill Clapperton 04:45
So that was my goal and so we did this work. And it was really interesting because this was the first organic research study in Ag Canada. And so what we did was, I was trying to integrate no till into organic agriculture, is really what I was doing. And so we had, you know, I mean, we had four replicates of every treatment in there, including this one with integrated lifestyle. And I remember the first meeting. The first meeting was amazing, because I had these organic farmers and I had the conventional farmers and some of the people from the commodity groups and stuff and we're all sitting at the table and I felt like I was mediating a labor dispute. I mean, it was like "I can't do anything that you can do as long as I can do it by way, and I'll put my heels against yours any day". And it was like - oh my gosh - and it got people yelling across the table and a lot of passion and a lot of energy and there started to be anger. And so I said, "Okay, everybody outside, taking a break, everybody out". And they all went outside. It was a nice day. So they all went outside, and had a drink and everything, and then they were talking more casually because we wern't around table, and they came back in and they had the answer. I mean, we'd been sitting there for like two hours with people yelling and arguing. And they all went outside, and they came back and we have the answer. But we can't do it in a normal scientific way. And that was a hard sell for me because what they want is: we'll have an organic rotation and we'll have a non organic rotation and we'll have them side by side. So we'll have simple, which is wheat fallow against wheat with an underseeding of sweet clover, and then a sweet clover year. And then the next one, we'll have like a four year rotation and we'll have crops in the sequence that we want them in organic, and you guys will have, you know, crops in sequence that you think's okay. And then we'll go into one that's really wild. And I said, well, that one has to have integrated livestock grazing. Yeah, okay, well we'll have a year of, it'll be a cover, but it'll also be a forage for livestock grazing. And those two were pretty much the same. And then the last one was continuous wheat, with full inputs like, but not full in the normal way, it was in a way that was measured. So we said, we're only going to put in what we think we really need.
Koen van Seijen 07:15
And what was the difficulty for the science part, which you mentioned, what why was that so difficult to to capture?
Jill Clapperton 07:22
Because the rotations weren't exactly partnered. You see, they weren't exactly the same.
Koen van Seijen 07:31
The variables, there were too many variables.
Jill Clapperton 07:33
Yeah, they weren't exactly the same. Like ideally, it would have been wheat fallow wheat fallow, and we would have partnered that was organic, but you can't grow organics that way. You can't I mean, I mean, what would I do? I mean, I can't spray weeds, I would have to do a lot of tillage. And my goal was to do no tillage at all. So as a scientist, and scientists are reductionist, and we like to do statistics, and that made the statistics very hard. But I came from ecology and a PhD in plant physiology,
Jill Clapperton 08:02
Which is not about reducing.
Jill Clapperton 08:04
Yeah, which means that I can never have a true replicant. I mean, if I'm in a natural ecosystem, where's the true replicant? Where does it exist? It doesn't. So, I mean, I can go from, I can take a step and it's different, again. And the same in range ecology, if it's really natural range, every step I take, it's going to be different. And it's very true from an underground situation, I can move an inch and it could be different, I can move a centimeter and it will be different. So what we had to do then was go back and go, "Okay, I'm going to use ecological statistics to analyze the study" and that means I'm not going to have true replicates, I'm going to have what's called pseudo replicates and people in agriculture hate that. I mean they hate it, because most of the statisticians in agriculture are breeders. And they have like, 12 replicates and they have all, you know, 12 replicates of everything, because that gives them a better power test, and all these things that, you know, in ecology, there's no way I'm going to do all that. In fact, I am incapable of doing it even with the team of graduate students. So it's like "No, I can't do that". So we so I had to do a lot of convincing to the statisticians. And I had to do a lot of convincing to my fellow scientists who were going to work with us on this.
Jill Clapperton 09:26
And in the end, they all bought in and we had 12 scientists working on it, we had tons of data, and we went for 12 years and it was an amazing experience. And we generated a lot of interesting things, but every year was a sell because every year was like "Oh my gosh, like what is the cows get out they'll ruin all these breeding trials". And because you know, one might actually like leave a cow patty in something and it'll change the nutrition, and that's a really bad thing. But what's important about that, for me, looking back now and saying that is that we had already recognized the value of manure and the value of cattle. Like they were going to change the nutrition of that crop, and that was going to ruin my experiment. And so if you think about that, now you're like whoa, we knew that, and we know how important that was.
Koen van Seijen 10:26
20 plus years ago.
Jill Clapperton 10:27
Yeah. And so then we say "Holy Hannah, here we are". We have got this organic period experiment. We're actually analyzing nutrient density, we did that in the second year of study. And we only analyzed everything four years so we finished the whole rotation. And we had four reps of everything before we went through. Now, what happened in that study that also changed the course of my career, and my life, was that because we were replicating everything every year we had every treatment and every rotation every year. So we started to build up a population of sweet clover weevils, because we were feeding them every year. Which no farmer would ever do! And so I also realized that when we set up these experiments, they have this other value of showing up all the things that you do wrong if you do monoculture and you do the same thing over and over and over again. Because when I did it over and over again, it only took four years for me to have sweet clover weevils that ruined my experiment because now the sweet clover didn't work anymore to control weeds, because I didn't have any because the weevils and eaten it all. And then we didn't get a competitive crop one year on the canola and then I had like Thisles, like Canadian Thisles that, you know, defied any kind of management. And it's like "Okay, well, I guess we're doing tillage, and we're going to learn how to manage Thisles in a different way". And the lesson in that was, you know, build a competitive crop. But it didn't matter, every year I had a field date, every two years, I had a field day, so that people could come out and see what we were doing. And, and it didn't matter. I mean, I had Thisels and they'd be like "Oh my gosh, that's a really big mess". I was like "Yeah, it's a mess. So how are we going to solve that mess, guys? Like, what are we gonna do here? How do we manage this?". And here's how we got there, but now we have a mess, asnd this is a problem. Now we have weevils. But the you know, one of the coolest things that happened in that with a field day was we had wheat sweet clover in organics. So we sewed the wheat, and we under sowed sweet clover in there, and the sweet clover grew up and grew underneath the wheat. And then the next year, we had a sweet clover year. And we had no weeds in the organics, none.
Jill Clapperton 13:02
Which is quite unique.
Jill Clapperton 13:05
Yes, we had no tillage, we had beautiful wheat, we always made protein so we were always over 14%, wnd we had the same yields as we did in the conventional, and my yields were always with the county average. So it was always fine. And I remember somebody thinking, you know, so some of the people in the group said "Give us the map, you're showing us this, but we don't know if they're really the organic plots. So can you give us a map?" And we said "here's the map" and they walked off, you know, it was like, okay, we're having a break right now. And everybody walked off with the maps and went and checked out, you know, I said, you're gonna have to share maps, because I didn't bring maps for, like, 80 people. So off you go. And they walked and they measured and they said "Do you have a tape measure?" and went back to the truck and like, pull up the same measure, and they measured from the corner to make sure that we weren't lying to them.
Koen van Seijen 14:05
That's how little trust there is in the system. Wow.
Jill Clapperton 14:11
So then they measured to make sure that we weren't lying about this being an organic plot. And after they measured everything, and we're clear, we were good from then on.
Jill Clapperton 14:22
And the world of research, which you spend quite a bit of time in, what made you decide to leave that world of, let's say research, and move to almost the applied research side of things to work directly with farmers to start your own company, basically, to work directly with farmers with ranchers with landowners. What was that trigger? And why did you decide to start Rhizoterra?
Jill Clapperton 14:47
So Dr. Ross Welsh, who was the director of the ARS Research Center at Cornell in the United States, became a friend and a mentor. He was an amazing mentor for me. And, and he was very interested in nutrient density. I mean, that's what he did. I mean, he was very interested in soils and nutrient density. And he had written books on the subject and worked in all these countries, building nutrient dense food, and, you know, understanding the relationship with disease. And he was working with a breeder like Robin Graham from Australia, and really understood it. And I said to him, I said "The rhizosphere is where it's at. And we need to work with breeders, but we also need to really build soils and then I think I can optimize almost any genetics, if I can do this".
Jill Clapperton 15:39
So we were having that discussion and, you know, he was visiting for the field day. And the field day was really well attended, but then we had a public lecture and they had 15 people at the public lecture with this man, that new more about nutrient density than anything. I was, like, shocked. And that was in the early 2000s. And I was talking to Ross, we went hiking in Waterton National Park and we were hiking together and I said to him "We're going through transition at Canada, and they want me to move and they want me to do more of earthworm taxonomy", because I was at that time was very well known in Canada for founding the worm watch program, which is a very successful citizen science program on having people monitor earthworm populations and whatnot. And they were changing from multi disciplinary studies to more single studies, and they wanted to take the emphasis off of Applied Research and put it more on pure research, and I spoke to him I said "You know, I don't really know what to do here". And he said to me, he said "Well, Jill. I'm going to retire soon, and I've written all these books, and I've authored all these papers, and it doesn't matter". He said it doesn't matter. He says "What really matters is that somebody implements what you're saying, and the research you're doing. At least I don't think anybody's implemented anything that I've ever done". And he said "So now as I approach 65, I'm thinking about, I'm doing all this extension work" which he said "I'm, you know, sort of good at, but not really, to try and, and promote what I think is really important". And he said "You are way ahead of me on that" like he said "All these farmers are here at this field day and they're following what you're doing. And they want you to do more and they are implementing what you're talking about in their fields and it's making a difference". He said "You can't stop. You can't stop doing this because it's too important". And I said "Well I don't know how I'm gonna keep going, you know, I'm gonna take a break and do these things". And he said, "Well why don't you quit?". And I just felt I was gonna fall, I just felt like, fall off the trail, and, you know, like "What? Thats easier for you to say you had your whole career and you've done all these things and now, you're gonna have this pension and all this other stuff and you're asking me halfway through my career to like, walk away. And you think it's a good idea?". And he said "Well, it's either that or try and convince everybody to do something else". And he said "But I think you need another job, like one that really uses your skills, and where you can use your skills". And I went and talked to my financial advisor, and he said "You know, I think you'd be a great entrepreneur". I said "Really? I know nothing?" and he said "No, I really think that you would be". And so with the government, I could take a year off for personal leave. And I did. And when I came back, I resigned.
Jill Clapperton 19:00
And when was this?
Jill Clapperton 19:02
That was in 2007.
Koen van Seijen 19:05
And then you were searching for customers, farmers to work with, where did you start?
Jill Clapperton 19:12
Well, I didn't have to search very long but people weren't used to paying for that kind of stuff. So it was a little tough, a little rough at the beginning because people like "Uhm... we don't normally pay for this". And they were expecting it for free, because I'd always been free because I work for the government, and it was hard for me to ask for money because I love doing what I do so much that I was like I wanted to do it all for free. Like I wanted to do it all for free.
Koen van Seijen 19:39
But that's not possible. Yeah.
Jill Clapperton 19:41
I can't live and feed my family and send my son to school if I don't get paid. And it was a bit rough on everybody because they're like "Oh my gosh, like, ahhhh!" but, you know, there were a lot of farmers that really supported me in that venture. And were willing to, you know, pay for a little time, get me studies, like where I did research studies where I was a contracter on research studies and whatnot. And I managed to get going. So my first company was not Rhizoterra, it was Earth Spirit Consulting. And I still have that company, it's my Canadian company. And then it was really obvious for me that in the States, I had more opportunity. I think I have the opportunity now in Canada, but we still had, even though they have a lot of extension in the states and whatnot, I think it was still an opportunity for me to have a company in a different way, I did have more opportunity there. And the universities were more into it, like, you know, having an Ag company, and a consulting company and things like that.
Jill Clapperton 21:01
And I feel like now we've just kind of tipped, like really tipped where people are ready to pay for advice. I mean, I did a lot of research experiments for companies and things like that. I tested a lot of varieties. I introduced new varieties with Rhizoterra into the Pacific Northwest and there's a lot of farmers, you know, growing winter wheat that probably wouldn't have grown winter wheat if they hadn't been on my field days.
Jill Clapperton 21:28
So I really feel like I've been very, very lucky. Well, I don't feel that way I know, I've been very lucky and I've worked with great farmers and people who really believed in taking the change, like being the change. And we were the change. And I can see it changing. I mean, during that time, through Rhizoterra, I did a number of workshops in Oregon for Oregon State University, and they were measuring, you know, the adoption rate of what we talked about. And what was really interesting they said "Well, we don't know if, we don't think we've succeeded, because there was only 3% adoption rate." Like full adoption rate of change, and they thought that was terrible. I was doing the happy dance.
Koen van Seijen 22:19
Because to you that's a lot.
Jill Clapperton 22:21
Yeah, because farmers take a long time to change. And in five years, that 3% of the farmers that we talked to, which really represent about four or five farms had made a full transition? That's huge!
Koen van Seijen 22:37
That's enormous. I mean, I think there's a lot of research around tipping points, etc. and I think usually they put it somewhere, it depends on the system and the complexity and the variables, I think it's around 10 or 10 - 15 before a full system starts to switch. So with three, you're like one third there, basically.
Jill Clapperton 22:57
Yeah. And I thought that was just absolutely amazing. And I'm jumping around and they're thinking it's a failure, because I don't know if they figured that they were gonna get 90% or something like that. But if they were holy, yeah, I mean, good grief. That for a farmer to change in five years like, and if they've changed in five years that means they started immediately to make the transition.
Jill Clapperton 23:20
Yeah. So there's probably a second group basically, following that a few years later would be similar. Yeah. And so what do you now work on with your clients, with your customers, with your partners? What is where you spend most of your time, as Rhizoterra?
Jill Clapperton 23:37
Well, right now - so welcome to the new year - nutrient density has really taken off. So all that work that I did all those years ago now people are going like "Well, where is that?" And I was like "Well, I've got to revisit all that" and there was some stuff we didn't even publish, because nobody would publish it, because it was like, too weird.
Jill Clapperton 24:03
Like, an example. What was too weird?
Jill Clapperton 24:05
Well, some of it was like, why would you measure nutrient density that doesn't mean anything, so what if it changed that you need to measure that over 20 years or something like that. Well, we measured it over four, isn't that enough? Or like, we measured over three, isn't that enough? And it was like "No" I mean, like "If you're gonna make a claim like that, you better have measured it, like over 20 years".
Jill Clapperton 24:27
What kind of claims were you making?
Jill Clapperton 24:28
Well, we showed that when we put a cover crop ahead of wheat, for example, because that was where we went after, we had the weevils, we had to develop more crops to go to under seed. So we started working on companions in the early like, in 2003, we were working on companions. We were working on all that. And that was also really weird. I people like "Oh, Jill she's so weird". Like, that's too weird. But what we showed when we were testing all these different crops and putting them all underneath wheat, was that we could change the nutrient density one season.
Koen van Seijen 25:07
And like significantly? Obviously significantly, but what kind of levels are we talking about in terms of change?
Jill Clapperton 25:13
Oh, we could, we could double zinc.
Koen van Seijen 25:17
And zinc deficiencies, it's a huge issue around the world.
Jill Clapperton 25:21
Yeah. Well we were focusing on zinc, because some of the nutritionists that I met at a conference in Tufts when I met Ross Welsh, they said to me "Well measuring quality is really, really hard". I mean, it is outstandinngly hard, and they will tell you that again today. That measuring quality, nutritional quality, is like something they don't know. It's sort of like measuring soil health and soil quality.
Koen van Seijen 25:47
So you need a proxy basically. Yeah.
Jill Clapperton 25:50
And I said "Well, okay..." so Ross said to me said "Okay, here are the important elements: zinc, iron, beta carotene, so vitamin A". So he said "If you focus on those three, you know, that will make a huge difference". And we couldn't really measure vitamins very well, and they were expensive, and we didn't have the money. Because obviously, I was doing really weird things so it's not like I was super well funded. But we can measure nutrient density, because we had this ICP for measuring all these other things. So we were measuring nutrients. And we could see that in our four year rotations, like even when we took the fellow out and just added a legume for one year, we doubled the mineral nutrient density in the grain in the wheat. We doubled it. And so we could say at that point, and I have said this publicly, that if you're growing wheat fallow wheat fellow in your grain is rubbish.
Koen van Seijen 26:55
They probably didn't like that.
Jill Clapperton 26:56
No, they didn't like that but I had the data show it. I mean, I could prove it. I can put it up on the screen for you and you can see that you don't have the calcium, you don't have the potassium, you don't have any of that. It's terrible.
Jill Clapperton 27:06
And does the wheat look the same? Like if I would have two plots of land with like a little road in between, it looks the same, but it's absolutely not the same.
Jill Clapperton 27:16
It's absolutely not the same. If I eat this one, I get what I need. If I this one over here, I mean, no I have to eat like three times more of it four times more of it in order to even get the nutrition, which is what Ross had taught me. You know, like we can grow bushels and bushels and bushels. But is it? Is it just calories? Or is it actually good for me?
Koen van Seijen 27:37
And this is the central - I mean you were mentioning 2020, a new year, and I think it's going to be one of the central themes in in ag and food in this decade. Like wheat, although it seems the same, or this tomato, is not the same as its neighbor.
Jill Clapperton 27:52
No, it's not!
Koen van Seijen 27:53
It could be fundamentally different depending on, obviously, even variety, etc. but let's say they're the same, it depends on management, soil health, and what happened underneath.
Jill Clapperton 28:02
Totally! It totally depends on your management. And my grape growers, the grape growers that I've worked with in South Africa will tell you that when they started growing cover crops between the vines, they knew it was going to change everything. I mean, they knew right, it changes the terroir. It changes it!
Jill Clapperton 28:21
The winemakers, I added this discussion today on that, the winemakers and wine people have been very, very advanced, in terms of marketing, in terms of terroir, in terms of soil science, in terms of of a lot of things I think in agriculture, they've been the leading edge. And we should really look at how they have been doing that.
Jill Clapperton 28:41
And they know in coffee too, like I mean in Guatemala, I mean we, Hector saw that when he started putting cover crops in, it was changing his coffee in the in the cutting of the coffee. And if we change the diversity, if we shift diversity a little bit we're changing the game. So at Avondale vineyard in Paarl South Africa, Jonathan had been really advanced in the cover crops. Like I mean he had covers between all the rows and he had a whole system and he had ducks eating all this slugs and snails and then he was marketing the ducks afterwards and then he said that when you start doing this, and we were having a conversation one night away from the workshop, and he said, "You know, I started to see hyrax coming in", like native ruins and he said "And then when I heard a civet cat, we havn't had cats for years" and he said "I started to realize that it was growing an ecosystem, I was growing an agro ecosystem".
Jill Clapperton 29:48
So then he did something revolutionary by all his agronomist standards. He went and let the native veldt come back into his vines.
Koen van Seijen 29:58
What is the native veldt?
Jill Clapperton 30:00
A native veldt are the native small shrubs, like its native plant vegetation that would have been there. And most of these plants are melaleuca, so that means that they are like Tea Tree related, so they have a very strong, you know, well it's like Roiboos too, very strong. The roots exude a lot of interesting things, and he knew it would really change.
Koen van Seijen 30:26
What happened to the wine?
Jill Clapperton 30:27
The wine was amazing! He created these two wines that were from the native Veldt and we got to taste them at the workshop, the first time we had cracked the bottles, and they were so complex. I mean, the flavors, the spiciness, the overtones, I mean, it was like nothing I'd ever tasted, and nothing like anybody had ever tasted. And then he was partnering these these wines with these ducks that had eaten in there and eaten all the, you know, and the whole story became, and he calls his wines Au Natural. It became the story of Au Natural, I mean where everything was going natural, not everything, because I can create these wines by just changing what grows between my rows.
Jill Clapperton 31:14
And, I mean, you won't be focusing I think the whole year on wines. So what does that nutrient density for you mean, now, practically, in terms of your work, in terms of your week, your day to day, your months?
Jill Clapperton 31:29
It means it's changed everything for me. It's now, it's become where I was just really mentioning to people every now and again. And what now everybody's going "Well, how do we do that? How do we get there? And what does it mean?"
Koen van Seijen 31:44
What does it mean for me? You know because I met you personally but before I saw you on Instagram stories of, or actually a number of photos and a small video of Dan Barber, because you are the scientific advisor of chef Dan Barber, which most people know from the Third Plate. I actually know quite some listeners of this podcast are in this space because of the Third Plate. So how did that happen? And tell us more about nutrient density there.
Jill Clapperton 32:11
That was magical. So I was at Climate Underground, sitting on a panel, and Dan was chairing that panel. So he was the moderator for the panel. And he was really challenging me, like, you know, I've all these amazing chefs in my kitchen and we can tell you what tasty food is. And he said "I think that if it's tasty, it's really good for me" and he said, he challenged me, he said "Well, you're measuring this, like, you know, what's the correlation?" I said "You know, actually, I don't know." And he said "Well, can we measure it?" and I said "Well, I think, you know, we'd have to work together because I need to have a tasting panel, and they'd have to say, you know, we'd have to have a few things out, and they'd have say, Okay, this is the best tasting. And then we have to go and analyze it, to see what if there were differences between them to try and understand.
Jill Clapperton 33:14
And who is better than the chef's of Dan Barber.
Jill Clapperton 33:16
Well who is better, right?
Koen van Seijen 33:16
Who probably have an internal sensor in terms of, like his team, him and his team, probably in terms of tasting experience are probably at the top.
Jill Clapperton 33:27
But they're all about taste. I mean, their restaurants are all about tasty food. And Dan recognizes genetics are important. But I think that we can also optimize genetics with the way we do nutrients and whatnot. And I know from the work that we've done in the vineyards, and in the coffee plantations that it makes a difference. Like, I mean, I don't think that vegetables are any different, and wheats any different than anything else. And so we analyzed all this wheat, like the Barber week grown in four locations.
Koen van Seijen 33:57
So how did that happen? So you're in the kitchen of Dan Barber with all these amazing chefs, including Dan Barber, discussing nutrient density, and you have your tracer, which is this nutrient density measuring gun between brackets? What was that experience like? And we can see some pictures. I will link that below in the show notes of the Instagram report, basically that Dan Barber did, but how was that experience of being there? Measuring nutrient density? What did you measure? How did you measure it? What was it like?
Jill Clapperton 34:24
It was an incredibly exciting time. It was so fun to be with people who cared so much about food. I mean, cared so much about food. And really, really love food. So first of all, we just started with the grains like, okay, Barber wheat.
Jill Clapperton 34:44
Yeah, because what's Berber wheat for anybody who didn't read, definitely should but, the third plate?
Jill Clapperton 34:50
Yeah, so we were sitting at the back of the kitchen and we set up this instrument, and we're all standing around it, and everybody's like "Whoa". And it does look like a gun. So we're getting ready to do all this analysis. And everybody's standing around and we're all really excited, like, I'm excited too. And it's like "Well, what should we start with?" Well, I said "anything, you know, we can just do everything". So that's what we did. I mean, it was pretty amazing because we were there at five o'clock. So it was after I'd done seminars all day. So the kitchen was busy. I mean, chefs running around. Waitstaff running in and out. I mean, for me, it was amazing, because I was actually in the kitchen, and then they would just come over and hand me something. Let's measure this! And then Dan and I'd be sitting there talking and looking at the screen, and it was fabulous. So anyways, Berber wheat is just that, it's Dan Berber's wheat. It's a variety of wheat, but he's also been having it grown in four different places. So we had wheat in the bakery that had been grown in four different places. And so we took that grain, we ground it up in my coffee grinder, because I need to have it ground a little bit, because we want to measure the whole density. So the one thing is, is that when you're measuring grains, this instrument will actually measure what's in the outside and then if we cut it, we can measure the inside. But if we want to measure the whole grain, because with those restaurants, you're actually measuring the whole grain. I mean, Dan's using whole grain flour, whole grains, fermenting whole grains. So we grounded up, measure it, and there was differences between all four places it had grown.
Koen van Seijen 36:43
So the same variety but very different climate, management, maybe even different rotations? And you could see significant differences between those four types. Wow.
Jill Clapperton 36:55
Yes, we could. In calcium, and potassium, and zinc, and iron, and some of the other trace elements. So we're like "wow, okay" so that's where you say "okay, maybe we blend it all? Or maybe we just haven't grown here? Or maybe we talk to the people who are growing it somewhere else, and then actually look at, well, how they're growing it. And maybe we change that, so that everything becomes more nutrient dense". Then we measured grass fed versus grain fed beef. And at first, we didn't have the same cuts, and I said "Well, that's not fair. I mean, we have to have exactly the same cut."
Jill Clapperton 37:32
Or you have to blend it again in your coffee blender, but I'm not sure if that's...
Jill Clapperton 37:36
Yeah, so, you know, we had the same cut, and then we analyze that, and then we did fermented grains, and then we analyze bread, and then the last day - I was there for three days - and the last day, we're like "well, maybe we can create whole meals".
Koen van Seijen 37:51
Oh, yeah, I saw that picture. It was fascinating. What What happened there?
Jill Clapperton 37:54
Well, so we blended them all up in a blender. And I had the chef's running the instrument, so they were running the instrument. And I said "okay, you know, it's instruments easy to run, so you guys run it". And we could see where we had more salt, like, you know, we can see the salt, I mean, we can see a lot of differences. And we can see the differences between the meals. And they were like, well, how did we create that difference? And then how do we create this difference? And then we started with what are the differences? So then it was like "okay, you know what, I'm gonna have to analyze, I'm gonna have to actually create a calibration for pureed meals, so that we can start to understand, you know, what the whole nutrient package is if you eat this meal".
Koen van Seijen 38:39
Because that's the big difference. This tracer is a device, and just to explain for people who haven't seen it, it's basically about let's say, half a meter high maybe a bit less, basically sticking up so up from the table, and you put whatever you're measuring, which it could be a powdered weed, could be the mixed meal on top, and basically, it's connected to, in this case, your laptop, and that's where the magic is, because that's where the calibration so far is to actually understand what comes out. Because this tracer is something, you explained it to me before, it's something that you can buy off the market, it's not cheap at all but it's actually a thing that has been there and has been used in museums to understand the paint job without actually destroying the the painting and getting the paint so it's basically a device to understand the quality or the density or the paint mixture, what has been used, photons.
Jill Clapperton 39:28
Yeah, it measured photons. It measures the number of photons coming from each element that's in whatever you are measuring. And you don't need to do a whole lot of prep, I mean, you really just pure it. Or we could have done each thing separately but if we wanted to know the value of the whole meal. So now I have to actually go ahead and create a calibration for pureed meals because...
Koen van Seijen 39:49
... it makes sense.
Jill Clapperton 39:50
We had to add some water so you know we diluted it. I mean it was the first time, I had never pureed a meal and I felt terrible pureeing these beautiful meals. I mean, because they looked gorgeous and there we were, like sticking them in a blender.
Koen van Seijen 40:04
All for science.
Jill Clapperton 40:06
I was just like "Oh my gosh, look at that beautiful meal and we are pureeing it!"
Koen van Seijen 40:11
A Dan Barber meal. Yeah, that would be...
Jill Clapperton 40:15
Yeah, it almost seemed wrong. But we did it and we could see the differences. And so now what we were thinking was, well, what if we could create these meals, and even meals for people who had unique requirements. Because we could actually go out there and say "Oh, you need more of this or we already know if you're diabetic, we can do these other things, but then we can add nutrients that we know will improve, like help you with your diabetes and things like that". So not only do you get this amazingly tasty meal, but it's awesomely good for you.
Jill Clapperton 40:47
And then we get to the fundamental discussion of food as medicine, which has been thrown around a million times, but we're finally - it seems like and correct me if I'm wrong - getting to a place we can actually start having a serious discussion. I think John Kemp says that a number of his interviews, like we can actually finally have or it seems like we can have a serious discussion for food as medicine, which we couldn't have until now.
Jill Clapperton 41:11
I think there are a number of people who have been having it. I mean, I have a quote from a scientist at UCLA, she's in 2003, that says: now that we have solved, you know, our food shortage that, you know, now we can really focus on food as medicine.
Jill Clapperton 41:27
So why did it take so long to get to, let's say, a more general audience, like myself and other people on the podcast before we start using that?
Jill Clapperton 41:37
I think we as scientists are not really good at communicating what we're doing. Because we're really focused. I mean, we have tunnel vision, and we are really narrowly focused. And you're saying "whoa". I mean, we're just diving into this in a deep dive way and we're also speaking in terms that generally people don't understand. If somebody has really done a deep dive, you're not going to understand that they're talking about pathways and for doxon, and doing all these other things, they're like "oh" and you know, you watch people's eyes glaze over. Um, scientists are really excited about it. But a lot of people aren't. Like, I have a graduate student now, right now working on iron and zinc and selenium and how they affect inflammation. And we are actually scanning tissues with the tracer looking at where, if you're really inflamed, like, where all the iron is, and where all Selenium is, and if you're not inflamed, like, Where is it? And how is it broken down? And we're starting, I'm trying to bridge the gap. Literally. I am, I'm trying to bridge a gap where, you know, this is really exciting work and we as farmers can change that. I mean, we can grow things that are really good for people.
Koen van Seijen 42:58
In a very regenerative way. Like we're not talking here about spraying some weird thing, like adding something to the system, no you're actually doing an amazing job for soil, an amazing job for the farmer, and long behold, actually the food, it's a different thing. And it's full of the specific iron you need.
Jill Clapperton 43:15
Yeah, it's a very different thing. And the thing is, I know we can do it. We're not there quite yet. But we know. And actually, I think the only way we can do it is regeneratively. I'm gonna say that, that I think the only way we can do it is through regenerative agriculture.
Jill Clapperton 43:31
What makes you say that? There's no way to to cheat or to to play because I asked the same question to Dan Kitteridge. I said, like "Can't we like in greenhouses, like really play with all the different elements and variables we have and stuff you can add?" And he said "maybe possibly, potentially, we could, but it will be so costly that it doesn't, like it will be so costly to beat Mother Nature or to beat nature in that way, to beat healthy soils, that it wouldn't make any sense". You might be able to get to that level, but you're actually saying "no, I don't think we can get to that level of nutrient density without region ag".
Jill Clapperton 44:08
I really strongly believe that. I mean, I have worked in hydroponics, I do work in hydroponics. And, you know, okay, so we've known this for a very long time. Plant physiologists have understood that if roots aren't stressed, and I don't mean like nutrient stressed or water stress. I mean, if they actually don't have to push through something, they don't develop property.
Jill Clapperton 44:30
So in hydroponics where you're developing in water or some kind of liquid, they don't have that stess.
Jill Clapperton 44:37
They don't have that stress, and they don't have to develop in the same way, they don't have to push. It means that okay, they take everything up and it goes straight into the plant, and the plants are weaker. We've always understood that the plants are weaker. I mean, historically, we've understood that.
Jill Clapperton 44:52
Yeah. Which comes back to nutrient density and how is the full picture of nutrient density, and not just a few things that we've been measuring so far.
Jill Clapperton 45:02
No, I mean, it really comes down to whole plant health. And it's much like us, plants have to be fit. And the fitter they are, the stronger they are, the more they can fend off disease and insects, and the more they talk to each other. And we are exactly the same way. I mean, if you're sitting around swilling nutrients, and you're not using your body, you're not healthy. Plants are exactly the same, they have to exercise themselves.
Jill Clapperton 45:28
And to switch gears a bit in this interview and get to the finance and investment side. You mentioned before, we've known, we as scientists have known this for a long time. What do you think are, for the investors listening to this podcast, are the biggest things to look out for, things to understand more, things to dive deeper into when it comes to regenerative agriculture and specifically actually in nutrient density? What excites you most if you put your enterpreneur hat on, and maybe even your investor hat on, over the next years?
Jill Clapperton 45:58
Well, and this is always the tricky question for me. From an nutrient density perspective, we are going to develop new methods, we have to develop new methodology. And we have to make that methodology accurate. And we have to also have the methodology accessible for farmers. And and it's not a hard thing to understand, but it once again, it's about putting the information in context. Because quite often, context gets blown out of proportion. And I really want, so I would really like investors to be making decisions based on science. Ask for the numbers, ask for the data. I mean, you make decisions based on numbers like dollar numbers, and metrics and economy metrics and stuff like that but we're not asking for scientific metrics. And I think we need to ask for more of those. And we have to not take no for an answer like say "Okay, well show me your numbers. And Show me how you did this". And we also need to understand that a lot of the studies that are going to generate these things are things that are going to be a little bit more complicated. And we have to involve the farmers. And fortunately, some scientists are seeing that now that instead of creating these experiments, yourself, some of these experiments are already on people's farms, go and use them, just go and use them.
Jill Clapperton 47:28
And then, as an investor, invest in some of these farmers that are doing those experiments, and the people who are going there and analyzing them, knowing that those numbers are going to help you invest more wisely, and is going to help you understand the potential of that system to really generate food that is really nutritionally dense. And it's going to help you develop all these other markets, like food is medicine, and develop cover crop seed and companion crop seed markets, and genetic markets. I mean, there's all these are markets that just some simple experiments could spin off. And we're not seeing the whole picture. Because a lot of times we're focused on the genetics, or we're focused on this, or we're focused on that. And we're not looking at this whole big picture. And we need to see that we're not just spinning off one thing, we're spinning off all these other things. And we're actually creating momentum for other people to change when we do that.
Jill Clapperton 48:29
So going back to the whole idea of transition, we're actually creating the transition and the movement for transition by showing people that these things are possible, and that investors really care because they see the value in, you know, these other markets. And and I think that's just now starting to happen, where we're seeing those things. And one other thing that I want to mention there, and I thought about this a lot is that I've worked in Africa quite a lot. I've worked in all the poorest countries in Africa, because I believe very strongly in helping people grow their own food. And that doesn't matter, it doesn't matter where I am, I really believe strongly in that. And I want them to grow good food, I want it I want them to grow healthy food. But I also want them to integrate everything. And the one thing I would say about investors, and what I really noticed in Africa, and there's a lot of money invested in Africa, is that investors do not pay attention to culture. And I mean the culture of the people. We're focused on growing food for them but a lot of times we don't realize that we can't even, they can't even go there unless we're actually embracing their culture first. The things that really matter to them as a group of people,
Jill Clapperton 49:58
I think that's a point for, not just pathetic global south, but any community, any farmer of community I've seen way too many people easily step in to another home or another culture and assume X, Y, Z and tell what to do or what to grow or what to use in terms of tools, etc. etc. etc.
Jill Clapperton 50:19
And tell them! You know, tell them what to do. And it's the same with the peoples of the First Nations.
Koen van Seijen 50:24
Jill Clapperton 50:25
We're not respecting their culture, when we come in. And so I've seen, I mean, I've seen in Africa, like "Well, why didn't you bring in big tractors?" I said, "Well, you know, as a woman, I think about women carrying fuel on their heads for 10 miles and think I wouldn't want to do that. So why would I ask somebody else to do that?" And but I have all these oxen around me, I have all these horses, I have oxen? Well, why wouldn't I use something, a piece of Amish equipment that's really advanced, but is pulled by animal traction, of which I have lots of. And then why wouldn't I do that? Because the culture of men in in a lot of these tribal system, and a lot of these systems, and a lot of these countries in Africa, men are looked upon as herders, and they are responsible for the livestock, and their status in the community, and their self worth is based on their livestock and the quality of their livestock and how many animals they have. And if we just focus on growing vegetable matter, then that changes that whole aspect of their community, and their self worth. And I don't want anybody to feel like they're not worthy. I want them to feel that they're part of this change, and that they're an integral part of this change, and that everybody needs to work together. And if I'm telling them that they need to throw away this really important part of their culture, and just go here, because you just need to feed everybody. It's not gonna happen. And it doesn't happen. And it hasn't happened.
Koen van Seijen 51:59
Yeah, we've seen way too many examples of that going wrong.
Jill Clapperton 52:03
Yeah, so that's the one thing that I would say to investors is, you know, be there for the culture, respect the culture of the people, it may not be what you think should be right. But they have to take tiny steps. And the one thing I've also learned in developing citizen science programs in that, is that everyone, including the people in developed countries, need to succeed at the first step. So if we're making a transition, every farmer needs to succeed the first step. Because if I don't succeed in the first step, I have no confidence, I don't know that I can go the next step. But if I succeeded, the very first step, I will go the next step. And if I succeed at that step, I will take the third step in that and by the time I get past the third step, you can walk away from me because I'm just going to innovate like crazy, and I'm good.
Jill Clapperton 52:56
And too many times, we're not respecting influence theory. And we've learned a lot about how to influence people in influence theory and about how to cut to the core of, you know, what is inhibiting the behavior. And really start working with people to do that. And part of that is, is your culture in your community. Every community is different. Every farm has its own agro ecosystem. And oftentimes, we're not respecting that. We want everybody to be the same. And, you know, and I'll use a French term at this point, vive la difference. We need to celebrate the difference, and know that one size fits no one.
Koen van Seijen 53:41
Which is a very, very nice bridge to AG, obviously. I want to be conscious of our time and finish with two questions, which usually becomes more, but to start with a very difficult one, because you've been saying: you investors, and investors should. What if tomorrow morning, you wake up and you are in charge of a $1 billion investment - or euro, the Canadian dollar, depending on what you choose - investment portfolio? And I'm asking this question, because I think in the sector, we need to get used to larger amounts, we have to get more comfortable with that. And we have to start asking ourselves the question, What would we do if people start knocking on the door and they want to place larger investments in the space? Because I think we're gonna see a lot of that happening over the next decade, and we need to be ready. So I'm going to ask you that difficult question. What would you be focusing on? How would you go to put that to work?
Jill Clapperton 54:34
Wow. Well, I would be putting it to work to change. I'd be building some demonstrations. I'd be looking to certain farms and I'd be, you know, not helping them but I'd be looking to really innovative farmers to see if they're, first I'd be asking them "What can I do to assist you? Like, is there something that you really need? You know, if I have this money? Is there something that I can do with this money that would change your life? Change the way you do things?" And you know, and honestly, I know already, that it might be something simple as "Well, yeah, if I could have a mobile seed cleaner, or I could have a mobile avatar or something like that. You know, which honestly, is like, if you had like, a few million dollars, it's not a big investment, but you'd go. Really? Like, okay, well, yeah now, what do I do with the rest of the money? But I'd be starting there, I'd be starting to ask people, not telling them, but asking them to really look at what it is that would make their life, which would help them change or make a transition to something else. Or I'd even ask them the question of what helped you make this change to this next phase? Like, what drove that change? Because if you're dealing with an innovator, well, what what drove your change to do this? Well, it was this. Okay, so how can we make that next change? And what do you need from me to make that next change, and it may be as simple as I need a 10,000 gallon tank to put on my compost extract. And then I need the money to run a field day or to bring people in, you know, and run workshops, for all the people in my area, so that we can all change. And I think that's where, some time ago, some of it would be going into like working with people in the First Nations and working people in Africa, who are struggling with nutrition, and asking them what I've just asked the farmers like "No, I don't want you to tell me what the donors think you should do, I want to know what you want to do. Because if you want to do this, you will make a change. Like you will actually embed the change in your culture, you'll embed the change, and it will make a difference". And so I'd be using the money to make a difference. And I've used my time. So you know, I will get a sweat equity was my company. And I donate my time. Because a lot of times I don't charge, and I donate my time and my expertise to asking people those things and then trying to find and match investment funds. And create studies and put people together and build teams that actually make that difference. And so I'd be doing the same thing. And the last part of what I've been doing with that is looking at bringing in government officials and people who are influencing government and who are influencing policy change, and bringing them to the table as well. But not bringing them to the table. You know, I'm going to put covers on their fancy shoes, and I'm going to put a coat over their suits, and I'm going to make them walk the field with me.
Koen van Seijen 58:04
And get dirty boots.
Jill Clapperton 58:06
And get dirty boot, because I want their boots on the ground. I want them to be out with the farmers, I would love them to take the time to spend like two or three days on a farm with the farmer in their home, understanding, or in a community of farmers and sitting there everyday and talking to them. Not in a town hall style. I don't want politicking I want them to really hear and experience what these people are doing. Sit in a combine, sit in a combine in the Pacific Northwest and have the ride of your life in a self leveling combine. Scare the wits out of you, and these farmers are doing it every day. Like just you know riding the side hills, coming straight down, things that you know, defy gravity, and understanding what they're doing. And also understanding how important it is what they're doing. When they start doing these regenerative practices, stand out of their way. Don't try and legislate them all to pieces, like stand out of the way and let them innovate and support the innovation.
Jill Clapperton 59:09
You know, so if I think in the states, like the risk management agency, well, I need 20 years of data before we can change that practice, and we can insure this. Well, how does the new farmer, if they're buying a farm from the bank, they have to have insurance. So how do they use this, I'd be using money to change that to. I mean, I'd been using money to get after that, and even if it meant starting my own insurance company to actually insure these young farmers so they could actually do those practices or creating a bank that actually paid attention to that and actually gave preferential loans based on soil health, and based on the fact that I'm building all these ecosystem services in and, you know, give me a preferential loan based on that basis. You know, help me out.
Jill Clapperton 59:57
That would be truly revolutionary. And now for the final question, if you could change, so you're unfortunately no longer in charge of the $1 billion investment fund, but you have the power to change one thing in the food and agriculture system. And overnight with your magic wand, you Jill can change one thing, what would it be?
Jill Clapperton 1:00:18
If I could change one thing, I think I would do the last thing, I would actually create a bank. Much like the micro loan system, I would create a bank that allowed farmers that were doing regenerative practices to be free to innovate, be free to try things, be free to do what they thought was, you know, to brainstorm and do their wildest idea. I would support that. I would still want to see some data on it, and I would support them to keep records on it, but I would be supporting that kind of innovation. And some of it would be really simple. Like, well, I just want to try this mixed cover crop, and I would also support a system of people that were there, just like the chat, you know, when you are on a new software system, and you can hit the button to chat with somebody, it's like, well, I want to talk over, you know, I'm going to try this new system, you know, what is the background that I would need to, you know, understand, like, should I have these species together? What would this be, have something there that would support them so they just like, go, Okay, well, now I'm gonna go and do that. And because I think more farmers would, and everywhere around the world gardeners, anybody would do some more things, if they, you know, felt like they could be successful. And that there was somebody that really cared behind them, like standing there to just support there change, for them to be able to talk about their change or their crazy wild idea. That was like, totally off the wall like I did. And and just say, Okay, well, you know, I think you should go for it.
Koen van Seijen 1:02:00
Let's go and try. Yeah.
Jill Clapperton 1:02:01
Just just the Aussies have a great saying "give it a go, mate". Just be able to give it a go.
Jill Clapperton 1:02:08
And they need some regenerative agriculture.
Jill Clapperton 1:02:10
And they need regenerative agriculture, just like the rest of us.
Jill Clapperton 1:02:13
With that, Jill, want to thank you so much for your time. I don't think it's the last time we'll be talking on the podcast. I wish you a lot of luck with all the work you've been doing. And it's going to be a very interesting year. Thank you so much.
Jill Clapperton 1:02:26
It is and good luck to you, too. I mean, I hope more people support your podcast, I really do. It's well worth supporting, you're doing a great job.
Koen van Seijen 1:02:34
Thank you so much.
Koen van Seijen 1:02:36
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5 comments on “Jill Clapperton, a 25 years learning journey on nutrient density, healthy soils, food and people”