Collaboration is Like Regenerative Agriculture

January 12, 2023
A group stands near a fence on a farm in NJ with large clouds above them
Bryce Cotton of Cotton Cattle Company talks with a group of Delaware River Watershed Initiative members in New Jersey.

We’ve heard the voices of frustration and challenges about how long it takes to create a productive network, alliance, or partnership. And the questions come – How long will this take? Why can’t we move faster?  Is this worth it?  Will this actually work?

I’d been pondering these types of challenges when I had a light bulb moment of revelation in the early fall.

ICL had the opportunity to organize a networking event for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative that included a tour of Cotton Cattle Company.

Bryce Cotton is part of this fourth and fifth generation family farm near Asbury, NJ. With a beautiful pasture and the low mountains of the NJ Highlands as a backdrop, Bryce described to our group their shift to regenerative agriculture:

We saw it as a new and exciting idea that has the potential to make a large-scale change. 

It was easy to get caught up in the idealism of the work and vision. We believed we could benefit the environment and make a living.

But we had to figure out how it worked at scale and if we could grow it to a level that works as a business. We wanted to not have it end with me, but to create something that would work for several generations down in my family.

And then he said the thing that made the light bulb pop for me.

 We might have quit there at years 3, 4, or 5. Honestly, many farmers would have walked away. And if we had, we would have been months away from our big breakthrough when our profits began to take hold. 

That sentiment parallels what we see in building collaboration.

In a follow-up interview, Bryce offered his broader perspective and approach to regenerative farming. To my ears, what he shared about farming also sounded like a master class in lessons for building successful collaboration:

Foundational work is essential. You build and you spend the time at the beginning, down in the ditches, and build the foundation out of all the pieces you want to put in place.

We had to grow slow and steady, and we went very slow in the beginning.  We took the time to filter through who was going to help us get all the goals we wanted.

It’s so pervasive now – everything on social media drives us to have an expectation that we can get things done easy and fast. Things of long-term value take time. We tried to look at it in a 5-to-10-year horizon.

We have relied on the team approach—I’m always calling our partners and checking in because we need them. We depend on the conservation folks, all the way to the butchers and processors, the distribution folks, and those delivering it to the customer without a wild amount of overhead.

You want to be the one your partners will call – you have to treat your partners really well. Build trust and relationships – that is where the payoff will come from.

We had to take the time to try things, to make the mistakes. We had to be able to deal with the slow and dark times.

Based on this learning and sage approach, the Cotton Cattle Company has shifted to rotational grazing, riparian buffering, and conservation mowing. This shift has yielded significant results – enhanced soil fertility, increased water quality, and a hot spot for NJ grassland bird species. And, most importantly, it is a business model that has 70 to 80% repeat customers and a profit margin that can support their family.

The Water Center at Penn surveyed eight water-related networks in 2019.  In their research paper summarizing the interviews they noted many of the same themes that Bryce Cotton named. They especially called out the number of years it took to form each network. The collaboration formation time ranged from 6 months to 8 years and averaged 3.5 years. And they noted that the one collaboration that formed in only 6 months ended after 2 years.

Based on this research, our experience, and the lessons from regenerative agriculture, we encourage you to build or even re-build your collaboration well.  Then, wait for the breakthroughs.

4 thoughts on “Collaboration is Like Regenerative Agriculture”

  1. Your experience and advice are echoed in the history of the Ontario Stewardship Program, a community based stewardship program that ran in Ontario, Canada from 1995 to about 2014. It involved a county scale Stewardship Council made up of landowners, business people and conservation minded citizens, with the support of one government paid coordinator. When we made the pitch for government support, we emphasized that it would depend upon excellent relationships being established that would support the collaborative effort. We expected it would take 10 years to achieve our goals. We met our goals in half that time. After 10 years we had close to 50 Stewardship Councils doing about $21 million worth of projects each year with only $3 million of tax dollars…an excellent ratio for a government program! One of the keys to success was the control that the Councils had to identify the priorities and develop the projects to address those local priorities, within the context of the provincial strategy. (The government staff person ensured quality control.) That autonomy was perhaps the downfall of the program, since the government was not comfortable with it, even though there was a 7:1 leverage for every tax dollar and every tax dollar was fully accounted for. Without government support the Councils lingered for a few years and most have disappeared. Search for those that remain by looking for . Don’t be confused by returns that use the program name “Stewardship Ontario”…the government gave that name to a recycling program.

    • thanks so much, Owen Williams, for sharing this excellent example and success story! That is an excellent return on investment of tax dollars! And you also raise an interesting tension about autonomy, ownership and control issues, especially in regard to funding sources. My guess is that while it was less comfortable for the government, the sense of local ownership was probably a key driver to the successes on the ground. I appreciate you sharing this story!

  2. I appreciate this as I know how difficult and how time consuming a project can take to build even basic momentum. I guess my challenge is when to push through and keep going another year versus when to accept that a project just was not the right one (or right time, place, etc.) and to either pivot or to cut your losses.

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