Woody Tasch: What made you go into the soil business?
John-Paul Maxfield: I started with the desire to push toward a more sustainable food system. Soil is the place to start. We saw an opportunity to innovate around products and technology that reconnect people to soil. Long term, we want to be an agricultural innovation company.
Soil seems like a funny place to start with innovation . . . as basic as it can be.
Soil is incredibly complex. Just as with the human microbiome project, there is so much we have yet to discover. If we want to fix climate change, the answer is literally right beneath our feet. Da Vinci had it right when he said we understand the movements of the heavens better than we understand what is happening underfoot. We understand the soil at an intuitive level but not at a practical level.
What do you mean by the “intuitive level”?
It’s the place where all life comes from and to which it returns. We all pretty much know this. It’s not an accident that kids gravitate toward playing in the dirt.
What do you mean by the “practical level”?
We need greater understanding of how to work with soil to achieve broader goals of feeding people without destroying humanity’s ability to continue living on the planet.
So, what was the first thing you did as an entrepreneur?
I was working in private equity, but I was a square peg in a round hole. I’d always admired my grandfather. We’d drive along I-25 to go visit my grandparents in Wyoming, looking at corn fields as we went. My great-grandfather was the largest sheep producer in the country, pre-WWI. He lost everything in the Great Depression. My grandfather had feedlots and corn farms and had one of the largest livestock-sale barns in the country. It was not a mom-and-pop operation. It was vertically integrated. He was a tough old cowboy. My father and brothers sold the operation to their employees back in the ’90s. Torrington Livestock is based in Torrington, Wyoming. But I hope that, if he were here now, he’d recognize the need to redesign the food system.
Do you mean he was a smart businessperson for his time, and now a smart businessperson in agriculture would be looking in a very different direction?
Yes. There is a new agricultural story to be told. The idea that, as standards of living rise, people demand more meat. As economies grow, demand for agricultural production increases. So, we’ve been told a story that food has to be industrialized in mega-farms. But just think about what happened with computers. Someone once said, “There’s a market for only five computers.” They were imagining roomfuls of computer consoles in the home. Technological advances brought desktops and chips and mobile devices and the Internet. The same thing is going to happen with food. Just as computers became personalized, advances in renewable energy and information will enable more-personalized forms of food production. Personalized systems of food production are going to be integrated into urban living systems in ways we are just beginning to imagine.
What are personalized food systems in the city going to look like?
I’m afraid to say this in a Slow Money discussion, because. . .
Go for it.
Industrial ag is about control. Trying to manipulate the plant so that it operates in certain ways. Controlled environment is not about controlling the plant, but controlling the environment. With advances in technology, management of complexity will improve. So I’ve got this tension. I want to connect people to the soil, but I also want to change mindsets about what’s possible with new technology. We started off selling soil products that help people grow at home. Our products are made from organic sources, inoculated with microorganisms. We sell 1-cubic-foot bags of potting soil and soil conditioner. This is a way of boosting fertility to make entry into home-growing easier. But we want to do more. We want to solve some of the other hurdles to growing at home—knowledge and time.
You started off near Denver in a dense suburb. What did you project?
The food gardening market is a $2 billion market. Seeds, soils, fertilizers, tools. It has grown tremendously. The National Gardening Association reported that the number of households gardening grew 17% from 2008 to 2013. Tens of millions of households. We can see that there is growing enthusiasm, but this enthusiasm can go only so far if it is not matched with know-how. The U.N. [United Nations] says that home gardens can be 10 times more productive, in terms of human nutrition, per unit of land as compared with commercial farms. Twelve crops make up 75% of our diet and they are mostly cereal crops, but there are 80,000 edible varieties of plants. There is opportunity to feed people better by encouraging production at the home level.
Are you talking about vertical farms in the city?
Yes, as a step on the journey, just like we had to go from mainframes to desktops on our way to mobile devices.
So, in that scheme, what is the “home production” equivalent of a mobile device?
Automated systems run through connected gardens, with an operating system that monitors soil conditions, personalized nutrition, light, water, pests. These systems would be a major leap forward for the home grower. There’s a whole other issue as well, and that’s employment. As jobs are lost to automation, devoting more time to home growing and urban small-scale gardens will make sense for more people. Way down the line, if you really want me to go for it, I’d say that we’ll need to re-wild the big industrial farms and sequester the damage they are causing.
But aren’t you substituting mechanical complexity for the complexity of a farmer’s know-how? But don’t even answer this . . . I don’t know how to even respond to conjectures that are this bold.
We have a project called Beyond 12, which is exploring different plants that would expand the repertoire for home growers and controlled-environment agriculture.
And to think that I thought of you as a high-functioning Luddite with a good mind for marketing.
I am a Luddite in the sense that I believe that so many of the climate and ag issues we are facing are a result of our perceived human need to continue to innovate. I started the company as an homage to Wendell Berry. This is still where my heart is. Decentralizing our food systems, either by shift of consciousness or technological innovation, is central (Hah!).
There’s a lot to discuss about appropriate scale. Wendell Berry once said—in the early days of a start-up called Farmers’ Diner, which had a very ambitious rollout strategy for a series of diners that sourced locally and organically—“What will make Farmers’ Diner remarkable is knowing when to stop.”
Yes, but there is also tremendous urgency. I’m imagining that we, and others like us, have the opportunity to grow into a major company. There is not an ounce of innovation going toward alternative food systems because the companies that are on top are shifting attention toward creating a slightly better version of what we have now. Like creating more fuel-efficient cars instead of going toward electric vehicles. We need alternative food systems. A whole new kind of ag tech. Not drones and precision agriculture to drive remotely over vast swaths of land, but to grow more diverse things in an urban context.
But you are still starting with soil. So, tell me more about your soil.
We began in 2009, collecting and composting food waste in Arvada, Colorado. Next, we started aggregating and mixing feedstock materials and bagging soil products. We thought of it as a “microbe brewery.” We sold through local nurseries and hardware stores. Then we got into Whole Foods and Lowe’s in the region. We got noticed with a few local awards.
What do you think earned you those awards?
We are telling a story that inspires people. Rebuilding soil is a basic story of hope. It goes back to that intuitive level. At the same time, we found that providing hydroponic solutions to the cannabis industry was profitable. This is Colorado, after all. I see cannabis as a gateway drug to more farming. I watch cannabis growers getting excited about mycorrhizal fungi. One of the more successful greenhouse tomato growers I know got his start with cannabis. So, we’ve developed products for the cannabis industry.
Our initial funding was friends and family, then angel investors. Now, we are in this perilous place where our growth requires a larger infusion. We’re shooting to grow to tens of millions of dollars in sales over the next five years. At that point, we’ll be a national company.
Most of the folks who are involved with Slow Money are not going to have an initially positive reaction to your impulse to go national.
I know. I share that. I feel a strong creative tension between the goal of decentralizing and deindustrializing our food supply, on the one hand, and the urgency of the environmental issues that we have to address, on the other hand. We need to catalyze mass change.
This is like folks telling me we need slow money . . . quickly. But let’s get back to the soil. Tell me what’s in it.
We mix biochar from pine-beetle kill, coconut husk, alfalfa meal, compost, and other such ingredients. At our original location near Denver, Colorado, we had a 14,000-square-foot yard and warehouse, where we produced our mixes. We were moving thousands of units a year. Now, at our new location in Western Colorado, we are moving hundreds of thousands of units. We’ve doubled each of the last few years. We’re evolving into a company that can create a range of products and systems to significantly expand small-scale, diversified urban food systems. It’s gratifying to create an organic starting point for people to bring food production home again.