Dax Hansen @ Oatman Farms:
A Southwestern, Regenerative Wheat Revolution
Oatman Farms is supporting regenerative agriculture through its portfolio of regenerative organic baking mixes that are made with heritage and drought-resistant wheat varieties grown at Oatman Flats Ranch in Southwest Arizona. The farm has been in the Hansen family since the 1950s.
“We have to eat what we grow and have to grow something that helps the earth.” – Dax
Oatman Farms sells its 6 SKUs of bread and pancake/waffle mixes directly to consumers on the company’s website, on Amazon, and in a number of retail outlets in Arizona including Fry’s and Whole Foods. They also have a robust food service business, selling to some of the leading chefs and restaurants in the region.
The foundation of many of their products is White Sonora Wheat, an heirloom grain introduced 300 years ago by the Spaniards and quickly adopted by the Maricopa and Pima Native Americans in Southern Arizona and Mexico as it thrives in the salty soil and harsh temperatures. They also grow Red 5, Blue Beard Durham, and a modern heirloom varietal created by the Washington State Bread Lab meant for whole grain uses.
So WHAT we grow is just as important as HOW we grow it??
As with many regenerative brands, selling directly to consumers is Oatman Farm’s most profitable sales channel given cost pressures from commodity markets (particularly for grains) and retail margins. As Dax explained it, organic wheat as a commodity is priced between $0.25-0.35/pound; the costs to regeneratively grow and mill his wheat and produce his products adds up to about $0.75-$1.25/pound. By creating high-value items with their wheat and barley, they can sustain their regenerative practices and still create a high-quality, nutrient-dense product.
After decades of struggling with dwindling water and drought, the Hansen family was ready to sell their ranch. Motivated by a desire to preserve his family’s legacy and steward the land, Dax took on the ranch in January 2019 as a side hustle to his job as a lawyer/partner at Perkins Coie LLP where he had been practicing for two decades. The ranch was a liability, to say the least, with broken ditches, sterile soil, and sunken wells. Dax quickly realized that growing food and creating a CPG brand was the best way to preserve the legacy of his family’s ranch.
Relying on hydrologists, ethnobotanists, and experts like Kevin Morse, the founder of Cairnspring Mills, and the Regenerative Organic Alliance, Dax built a toolkit to nurse his land back to health. They committed to introducing White Sonora Wheat and cultivating it using regenerative organic practices that integrated a conservation mindset and place-based indigenous wisdom.
By March 2019, Dax had planted conservation cover crops, pioneering regenerative practices to restore the topsoil. And because the farm had laid fallow for so many years, without chemical inputs, they were able to get organic certification right away.
Within a year, life returned to their soil. They stay away from chemical fertilizers and have introduced managed grazing, focusing less on yield and more on the health of the soil and nutrient density of their grain. Hansen credits his farm manager, Yadi Wang (an environmental science PHD), for much of their success in rebuilding the fertility of the farm.
“When you let Mother Nature do her thing, she surprises you and works pretty fast.” – Dax
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Water and the West
Dax believes regenerative agriculture could be a solution to the water crisis in the West, but sadly it’s been absent from the conversation. Compared to alfalfa and cotton which require about 8 acre-feet of water, White Sonora Wheat requires only about 3 acre-feet. And that number can decrease even further under regenerative management which is building water infiltration levels and carrying capacity in the soil.
“There’s no getting around the fact that in the West, we use a lot of water. With 70-85% of the Colorado River going to agriculture, it’s easy to demonize farmers. If we can find a way to keep farmers on the land they know and love, grow different crops and create markets for what they can grow with less water, everybody wins.” – Dax
Our Path to 50% Market Share 4 ReGen
For Dax, it all comes down to building community. Unlike the current commercial model where the crops we grow are processed and eaten in states and even continents away, Dax believes we need regenerative communities by state and region to work collectively and build markets in their own backyards. He gives the example of the local ranchers he works with to graze his fields and how together they can both profit off the land – Dax, by receiving natural fertilizer to enrich the grains used in his mixes, the rancher by accessing regenerative organic feed for their sheep.
“We have to retool the current food system and prioritize things like rebuilding human health and the environment. As pioneers, we’re not making nearly as much money as we need to. But as soon as we get a bit of traction, start getting consumers, award-winning chefs and breweries demanding our product, we can make this model work.” – Dax
You can check out the full episode with Dax from Oatman Farms HERE.
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This ReGen Recap was produced with support from Kristina Tober