Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Ash Glover-Ganapathiraju, one of our earliest Soapbox Project members, is the founder of Ojaswe, a new regenerative food company. In this fireside chat, Ash highlights how Ojaswe is demystifying planet-friendly food while making it approachable, easy, and fun.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Ash dives deeper into how climate activism and delicious food can go hand in hand.
What does “regenerative” mean?
The term is often used in relation to agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a system of holistic agriculture—it broadly encompasses a set of practices that restore ecosystem and soil health, while addressing inequity and how humans are integral to the system. The goal is to leave our planet in a better shape than we found it for future generations.
There’s a handful of practices that are broadly thought of as regenerative. The first practice is to not disrupt the soil, which requires you to not use tilling or industrial mechanisms. You keep your soil covered at all times, which fosters soil health. The soil microbiome feeds all the germs in the soil, even when there are no crops growing.
Second, you can plant a diverse range of crops if you don’t mono-crop—this is done in cycles of succession planting, interplanting, or companion planting, which minimizes the use of synthetic chemicals.
Third, you can incorporate animals into your ecosystems—it could be cattle who graze or bees who pollinate.
But overall, regenerative is a word that’s gaining momentum in the food space and the future of food.
What does it mean to build a regenerative food company?
When we say we’re building a regenerative food company, it means we’re building a company that thinks about the planet and our role in our own ecosystem in a really holistic way.
Ojaswe is being regenerative through food access and composting. For example, my products right now are vegan and gluten-free, but they’re that way by design. They’re meant to be diverse for someone that doesn’t follow a vegan or gluten-free lifestyle; however, you can still eat them regardless of your diet and realize that it’s a nutritious and ethically-made product that you can eat.
On the other hand, Ojaswe also prioritizes compostable packaging. If we’re not building a regenerative company, that could easily be sacrificed because compostable packaging costs 10x as much as petroleum-based plastics. That’s going to hit your bottom line if you’re a bootstrapped, tiny business. It’s not going to look very profitable.
What makes your products regenerative?
We make culturally rooted food with a fusion element. We are currently making 2 types of pancake mixes. They’re called Chickpea Chilla Mix, which is a savory pancake made with two different types of chickpeas: Desi and Kabuli chickpeas. We’ve had people use our pancake mix in a whole bunch of ways, so our products are pretty versatile. I’m excited to put it out in the world and see where it goes. In the future, we want to use other kinds of chickpeas and expand our portfolio.
We’re regenerative and climate-friendly by working directly with our farmers. When creating our products, we want to maintain a level of traceability to our farms. In this way, you know exactly where your food’s coming from. Also, we deliberately choose diverse ingredients that aren’t a part of everyone’s diets and we make them accessible and approachable for anyone to use.
To build climate resiliency in food systems, you also have to build them regionally and shorten the supply chain of food. For example, we mill our flour ourselves, which makes a full difference. However, when we start with all of these non-negotiables, it’s hard to find the infrastructure to scale a regenerative business model, especially as a small food business. because our food system is not set up for it. For instance, there aren’t any gluten-free mills in the Pacific Northwest where I can ask if they can mill flour for me. I want to maintain traceability, but there are limited options here in the area.
What inspired you to create a regenerative product?
I realized there’s no direct market between us and farmers growing ingredients that are common in South Asian cuisine such as millets and black chickpeas. These crops often get exported. My own cultural culinary background uses a ton of these crops, even if they’re not a part of our diet here.
We want to take an existing product that is available in other countries and make it regenerative and more accessible to people who want to take action against our industrialized agriculture system.
What are the biggest challenges you faced in creating a regenerative product?
There’s a lack of regional infrastructure for small to medium-sized businesses. It makes it nearly impossible to try to do what I’m doing.
But there’s so much enthusiasm at every stage and from every single partner I’ve worked with. That was surprising because I wasn’t sure what to expect.
How did you find farmers that aren’t participating in industrialized and conventional agriculture?
I used to work on a farm called Midnight’s Farm. They grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and they have some livestock integrated into the farm as part of the ecosystem.
However, most farms now focus more on growing fresh fruits and vegetables and prioritizing high yields. After talking to these farmers, I learned there are so many smaller-scale farms that practice regenerative farming and specialize in growing other crops like beans.
I also learned that chefs, culinary folks, farmers, and farm market managers are deeply collaborative. They’re all willing to share, which allowed me to find Ojaswe’s current partners.
How do smaller-scale farms succeed when they’re not part of the capitalist food infrastructure?
My biggest moment is talking to those farmers on a farm visit and having them walk through how they made their transition towards regeneration. Farmers are closest to the soil and there are plenty of farmers who really care about soil health. They want to do what’s right by their farms, waterways, animals, and the land they’re stewarding in their community.
The transition between industrialized agriculture and a more organic or regenerative way of doing things is about a 4-5 year period. It’s a very tumultuous period for most farms, but once you have that transition, the crop yields are much better. They’re also spending less on pesticides, which is a huge goal for them. Farmers are just like us—they’re thinking about their families and want to move away from pesticides and chemicals.
Once they’re on the other side, regenerative agriculture can be really profitable. But, our system in North America is set up in a way where you get incentivized for growing a handful of crops. Even if your yield fails, you’re guaranteed income by the government through insurance policies.
Our government essentially subsidizes those crops. If you diverge from that model, farmers are taking on a ton of risk that wouldn’t otherwise sit on their shoulders.
After building a regenerative company from scratch, what does “regenerative” mean to you now?
Despite the challenges, my intention is to frame my actions in terms of fostering equity and prioritizing rest. In our capitalist system, we’re conditioned to be active all the time. Being regenerative is training yourself and building the capacity to love our planet enough to want to challenge the system.
When you see the planet, you realize how amazing and beautiful it is. My actions aren’t coming from this place of sacrifice just because I’m regenerating. It’s more of centering this joy and fullness of caring for a planet.
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