This interview with Doug Tompkins was recorded two years before he died in the wilderness areas he adored and had helped to restore. Our Chief Executive, Patrick Holden, had the enormous privilege of visiting his farms and protected nature parks in Argentina and Chile in late 2013 and found them to be truly inspirational – Sustainable Food Trust 

Doug Tompkins

Doug Tompkins

Doug Tompkins is certainly more than a household name in the world of fashion. He is the founder of the brands North Face and ESPRIT and had grown ESPRIT into a billion dollar company by the time he sold his majority shares, over 20 years ago. His passion for nature and the outdoors dates from his youth when he began rock climbing at the age of 12. This led him to mountains and wild places and inspired his love for wilderness and wildlife. Early participation at the anti-war movement, especially during the Vietnam War era, formed the activist side of his personality. The combination of environmental activism and conservation ethics has made him an example for others.

Focusing his activities on Chile and Argentina, where he lived for a long time, he has become a part of what one can consider the Patagonian mythology. Never really interested in owning land, he became most likely the biggest owner of nature conservation land in the world. Starting with close to 300,000 hectares of volcanos, mountains, rainforest and rivers brought together to form the Pumalin Park. Meanwhile together with his wife Kris he bought up over a million hectares in Chile and Argentina to dedicate it to the conservation and protection of fast disappearing biodiversity and wilderness. Doug and Kris have invested a lot of effort, time and money in setting up the parks and an infrastructure for eco-tourism purposes. At the end, after having created high quality infrastructure adapted to public access, they turned over the parks and offered them to the government as ‘ready to go’ national parks. Kris and Doug have become world famous for their philanthropic nature conservation activities. On the other hand, less known so far are the activities and projects of Doug in the area of organic agriculture. When I met Doug a few years ago and heard him saying “Listen, Bernward, the last big thing I want to do in my life is organic agriculture,” my immediate reaction was “Wait a minute I better have a closer look at what Doug is up to!”

Such a statement from a person who made it big and became very rich in the fashion sector and who then became the leading nature conservationist in the world, could raise everybody’s expectation. I must say that my imagination was not big enough for what I saw and learned during my visits to some of Doug’s organic farms. Having had the privilege of visiting many impressive and beautiful organic projects around the world in the last 35 years, I must say that what I have seen in Chile and Argentina is not only extraordinary but unrivalled – especially when it comes to the beauty and aesthetics of agricultural landscapes. After fashion and nature conservation, Doug is now engaged successfully as a ‘land healer’. Together with his partner Eduardo Choren he is buying completely run down and ruined farms which he brings to a new and prosperous life by converting them to organic agriculture. While supported by a very dedicated team, they are healing the land with soil conservation strategies, contour farming, crop rotation and biodiversity management with likely the highest agricultural diversity anywhere at this scale. They are also restoring, with an extraordinary sense of aesthetics, old farm buildings and building new infrastructure on each farm. And all this with a clear business plan and goal to make these farms economically viable.

The pictures along with this article and interview are taken from the flagship farm Laguna Blanca, in Argentina. You don’t see it but you have to imagine that around this ecological paradise there is the sheer madness of GMOs and monoculture farming. There is no better way as Laguna Blanca to confront the failed experiment we know as the Green Revolution, born from technological arrogance and hubris that has brought us one of the biggest drivers of the global environmental crisis through bad agriculture. Doug, Kris, Eduardo and their team have intentionally not made much noise about what they are up to so far, as they were still learning. But now the time has come for more than just the organic world to look at what is happening on these farms of beauty.

What triggered your enthusiasm for environmentalism?

Well, I joined the Sierra Club (nature conservation group in the USA) as a teenager but at this time I was only at best, ‘light green‘. I didn’t really know the deeper issues and complexities of the eco-social crisis. It took years of scholarship and engagement in campaigns and projects to get myself up to speed to a deep systemic understanding of what was driving and provoking the crisis of nature and culture. I read and studied a lot and certainly activism helped me. Slowly over time I realised that I was with the business (the large ESPRIT company operating in 60 countries) doing the wrong thing. My interest had completely changed to environmental work: I was spending my mornings totally immersed in activism then jolted back to reality by noon concentrating on running the business. Something had to change. I then set about how to extricate myself and dedicate my life to conservation and environmental work. Since then I am working twice as hard as in my business life, too!

Why did you make such a radical cut in your life 20 years ago and not just stay at ESPRIT making lots of money?

My parents showed me how important it is to get pleasure out of what you are doing. If this is not the case, then don’t do it. I realised that I had more satisfaction and importantly more fun in my world and activities outside of the fashion business. So I left the world of making stuff that nobody really needed – also because I had realised that all this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis, which is the mother of all crises.

Do you see a certain logic in your change from fashion to nature conservation and organic agriculture?

If I had another lifetime, I would become a farmer right away and devote 100% of my time to this endeavour. This is simply because I realise that there is no way out. I grew up on a small farm in a rural part of New York State. My father taught me many of good principles. He had a brilliant eye for design, for proportion, for good lines, for workmanship and for quality in all things. He instructed me at a very young age to train my eye. That has helped me all my life in whatever I was involved in. I have applied this also to farms and agriculture, to architecture and to landscaping. The technical agronomy of agro-ecological management is something that takes centuries to develop. We are only going to be small contributors towards this universe of knowledge as a new model of agriculture evolves as we see it evolving now. My hope is that we can be a substantial help in developing a no-till organic agriculture, but the end of the line I see the need to return to perennial polyculture, but that may still be several decades out in the future yet.

Where do you see as the greatest problem, or more so, the disaster in conventional agriculture?

Widely known is the fact that today’s conventional agriculture is based upon the machine as model, rather than nature. This leads to all kinds of serious problems. Unfortunately it is the inheritance of the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and Cartesian reductionism that has led us into the technological trap. Agriculture is only one area, as it is inclusive of all of civilisation now from medicine, to architecture, communications and to economic models such as capitalism itself which is no more than an economic technology. This has led to the massive environmental crisis we are all ensnared in. They are all manifestations of these traps. So I see this as a problem first of epistemology and world view, even of cosmology seen in the macro sense. Whether there are exits from these traps remains to be seen. For agriculture I see as a first step a complete rethinking and evolution towards a smaller scale certainly from the large industrial model and a shift towards ecological and organic management. This is luckily already underway in various forms as one can see in the diverse IFOAM membership. The Biofach Fair is also an annual expression of this shift and evolution. Yet a long term paradigm shift will not just be on the land and actual techniques but will require a radical social, political and economic shift. These changes come slowly of course.

Will the needed radical paradigm shift in agriculture really still be possible?

Well, I believe that to accumulate the body of knowledge and to refine the techniques for a radical shift in the agricultural paradigm we need foremost a major cultural shift. Restructuring the calculation of internal costs will lead to a new economic paradigm and encourage more and more farmers to shift into organic or better yet agro-ecological management. The paradigm shift is without question a possibility, but more so a necessity. It requires a bit of imagination and then getting out there and doing it. But it will take time, and hard work. The techniques will have to be custom made to each ecosystem, each farm and to each crop. We will get into a paramount eco-social crisis if we don’t come to a serious paradigm shift in agriculture. Farming has the biggest impact on the landscapes, water, climate and biodiversity. Therefore we need to convert worldwide to a new highly and locally customised organic model of agriculture and food production towards a wholly integrated food system.

How does your way of organic farming look in practice?

First I see the need for high agricultural diversity versus the current monoculture model. We actually break down our bigger farms into smaller farming units. The different units are for example orchards, animal husbandry, grains, apiculture, horticulture, as well as culinary and achromatic/medicinal herbs, but there is also always space for wild biodiversity reserves. My passion is to build healthy soil and I love the challenge of holistic organic management. The health of the soil is where it all begins and ends in a sense.

You are farming broad acres. What is the special challenge for organic agriculture when it is on a large scale?

Well, as I see it, agriculture at any scale will have to be rethought. It is already being rethought now of course as we see it in the impressive rise of many movements like organic agricultural, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Slow Food, the locavores or the permaculture movement. All of this can be practiced on a small scale much more easily than on large scale. I believe that ultimately all agriculture will have to be small scale. Simply said, we need ‘more eyes and hands to the hectare’. Yet today’s structure of the economies and the now recognised failed globalisation model still remain to prolong the agony of industrial agriculture. Our farms may appear to be large scale (in Argentina they are medium scale), but they are really multiple farms layered onto one property. It is high agricultural diversity at separate entities intertwined on one piece of land. Yet, in the long run farms should never be as large as our large farms. We are just in a moment of time when strategically thinking it is best to work at this scale. It requires compromises though, that in twenty to thirty years may not have to be made.

Laguna Blanca

Laguna Blanca

From a landscape and especially aesthetic point of view you created with Laguna Blanca the most beautiful farm I have ever visited in my 35 organic years. What does it take to create such beauty?

Many people, in fact, mostly everyone who visits Laguna Blanca and also Laguna Blanca’s sister farm, Malambo, say the same, and I even think so myself. But of course I am partial and biased! Really, it is simple to make a beautiful farm. We have made twenty of them by now. You have to start with the idea that only a beautiful farm is a good farm. So everything you do should add beauty to the farm. This doesn’t mean at all that it must not have all the practical and functional qualities as well. No matter whether you are putting up a fence, or harvesting a crop, building a shed or a barn, laying out an orchard, designing a garden, putting in a road, planting crops, or choosing the colours of the buildings, each and all those things can be done with the thought to the aesthetics of the whole. Then there is the issue of maintenance. Nothing is nicer than a well-kept house or farm. These things bring pride to the farm. With pride comes care and with care comes good results. Life itself becomes a pleasure and work has changed into pleasure. The soils will feel this affection and pleasure, which contributes to their healthiness. Beauty is not something that can be calculated as love cant also be calculated.

Where will be agriculture be when you celebrate your 90th birthday?

Well that is only 20 years away! I hope I can contribute in that time much more to the development of a better agriculture. I will see a huge change as the agro-ecological movement is unstoppable. This may surprise people but just looking backwards for the last fifty years we can see the evolution of the organic agriculture movement, which certainly has not been getting any smaller or weaker. Of course there may be an occasional step backwards but then accompanied by two forward. Seen in the macro view it is only moving forward and doing that for a number of reasons. Among them is the failure of chemical industrial agriculture. And the fact that environmental regulations will become stricter in the future. These are just two reasons organic agriculture will one day eclipse and roll over techno-industrial and chemical agriculture. Whether I make it to 90 or not, I am convinced that we gain strength on the way and I will continue to enjoy my organic farming life.

This interview was originally published in March 2013 by Schrot un Korn

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