The Regenerative Paradigm: Cultivating the Next Generation of Farmers at MUM

This article was originally written for and published in the December edition of The Iowa Source newspaper

This January, aspiring farmers, food activists, and environmental change- makers from across the globe will gather together in Fairfield for the launch of MUM’ s Regenerative Organic Agriculture (ROA) Program, a cutting-edge professional certification born of the vision of Appachanda Thimmaiah, Ph.D.

I’ve been eager to learn more about this program since hearing murmurs of its inception, and I recently had the great pleasure of meeting with Dr. Thimmaiah to get the details. I left our conversation with far more than I bargained for: not only a wealth of exciting information to share, but also a renewed faith in our future and the transformative power of farming.

While some focus on the “doom and gloom” of climate change, Dr. Thimmaiah seeks to inspire and empower the next generation through education and collaboration. He crafted this 10-month course to fill a void in our current agricultural paradigm: to cultivate a new breed of farmer with the wisdom, skill, and support necessary to feed the world and cool the planet. Through a powerful combination of learned theory, hands-on experience, and expert guidance and mentorship, graduates of the ROA Program will be poised as innovators and the next great leaders of a new movement in food and agriculture.

Leading By Example

Dr. Thimmaiah has spent his career developing successful low-cost farming solutions all around the world. Born into a family of farmers, he received his Ph.D. in Biodynamic Agriculture from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, and has advised businesses and governments in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Italy, Holland, and Costa Rica. Most impressively, he wrote the book on organic certification for Bhutan, and facilitated the country’s transition to become the world’s first 100 percent organic and carbon-neutral nation. Dr. Thimmaiah became a member of MUM’s faculty in 2014 and teaches courses in both organic and Biodynamic agriculture.

Dr. Thimmaiah (center, in red shirt) worked with officials in Bhutan in their transition to 100 percent organic agriculture. 

Holistic Beginnings

Through this program, says Dr. Thimmaiah,“students will gain a holistic understanding of food and agriculture, a broader perspective on the nature of our relationship with the environment, and a radical shift in perception from domination of nature to cooperation and coexistence.” He speaks of having his own “aha” moment with the principles of Biodynamic farming during his studies at IIT. “Even at its best, farming is not just about seeds and crops and compost, or managing pests—there is something beyond the plant.”

Dr. Thimmaiah shared with me how the Vedic tradition describes food as being a “signature of the entire cosmos,” a profound view that perceives a greater connection. “You see, organic agriculture can have a very shallow understanding,” he says. “It’s like a type of ‘substitution farming’ whereby the chemicals and practices of conventional farming are just being replaced by more ‘natural’ means.” Dr. Thimmaiah describes the deeper understanding of agriculture through analogy: the farm as a living organism itself. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach—or solution—to farming.

The Regenerative Paradigm

The name of this program was chosen very deliberately, representing a shift from the “sustainable” mindset to that of regeneration. “Sustainable means maintaining the status quo,” says Dr. Thimmaiah. “We must ask ourselves how our actions can bring an incremental improvement to our soil, to our environment, to our culture, to our health.”

n the words of the Rodale Institute, “Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.” Dr. Thimmaiah speaks of regenerative agriculture as biomimicry at its finest: drawing inspiration and guidance from the intelligence of nature: “It is farming in the way that nature would ‘farm’ if left to her own devices,” he says.

So what does this look like? In the ROA program, “students learn to create self-sufficiency and closed-loop systems wherein all of the inputs of the farm—from seeds to compost to naturally derived fertilizers—are produced on the farm using local resources.”

Dr. Thimmaiah adds that the success of Bhutan’s nationwide transition to organic agriculture was largely due to an emphasis on small-scale farming systems and a regenerative mindset. “Organic (and regenerative) farming is a knowledge-intensive system. Build the capacity of the people, of the farmers themselves, through courses like this. In this course, we want to inculcate smart ways of thinking, smart ways of planning, and smart ways of acting.”

About the Program

The Regenerative Organic Agriculture Program has three components: three months of theory classes, six months of hands-on learning in the field, and a one- month apprenticeship on any of the Biodynamic- or organic-certified farms in the U.S. or abroad. Areas of particular empha- sis include in-depth soil science, greenhouse design, season extension, seed saving, and intensive crop cultivation. Students will work in small teams to develop a business plan that they bring to life during their time in the field, including the opportunity to market and sell the fruits (and veggies) of their labors.

Solutions for a Bright Future

Dr. Thimmaiah’s vision for agriculture is fueled by intelligent young farmers with a deep reverence for nature. “If you do something right, in tandem with the laws of nature, you will find support,” he says, reflecting on what he has learned over the course of his career. “Keep your mind, your ears, all of your senses open to learn from nature all of the good things that are already there.”

Farm Manager Kris Johnson (pictured) preparing the fields last fall.

Farm Manager Kris Johnson (pictured) preparing the fields last fall.

Leading members of the community shared their enthusiasm for the ROA program during a public groundbreaking ceremony in October.

Leading members of the community shared their enthusiasm for the ROA program during a public groundbreaking ceremony in October.