The project will take place across acreage from which Ancient Nutrition sources its ingredients. This includes the Missouri-based 4,000 acre Beyond Organic Ranch and Heal The Planet Farm which has been owned and operated for the past 12 years by Ancient Nutrition co-founders Jordan Rubin and Dr. Josh Axe, and a newly-built 110-acre farm in Middle Tennessee, the Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Sustainability, which opened in April 2020 and serves as the location for the company's new headquarters.
The project aligns with the company’s 2024 sustainability commitments, which include carbon negative operations through regenerative agriculture practices and supporting carbon offsets. Other company goals include transitioning to more sustainable packaging and marketing materials to reduce plastic and waste by 25%, through practices such as a swap from PET to HDPE plastics and no longer using plastic neck-band safety seals.
In total, the project aims to plant a 1-million-member food forest containing superfood-bearing perennial trees, vines, bushes, and shrubs. Many products offered by the company in the future will feature ingredients exclusively sourced from this forest, with others featuring ingredients sourced from it in part. Ultimately, the million-member forest will serve as a base for new product development, in which perennial plants far outweigh annuals, each grown in a way that has synergistic benefits to the ecology of the farm, Jordan Rubin, co-founder and CEO of Ancient Nutrition, said. A heavy reliance on perennial crops is one key differentiating factor in the operations of the R.A.N.C.H. Project even specifically among dietary supplement supply chains.
“We’re heavily relying on perennial crops, which are essentially trees, bushes, and vines, where you plant a seed or seedling once and can literally reap dozens if not hundreds of harvests,” Rubin said. “A walnut planted in the ground could theoretically produce walnuts to my great grandkids from that same tree—they don’t require the topsoil production that annual systems or annual crops do, things like carrots, beets, spinach, and kale. Tilling once per year disrupts the soil, the microbiology, and, most strikingly, releases carbon into the air. With a perennial system, each year, the leaves come on, the fruit comes on, and any leaves or fruit not harvested would either feed animals or would naturally be composted. To me, the heart of any regenerative agriculture system should be based on perennial plants.”
The Million-Member Forest
Currently, the farm grows over 100 plant varieties with a focus on biodiversity and native pollinator species, and is home to ducks, chickens, guinea fowl, bees, horses, cows, sheep, and water buffalo. Located on top of a natural aquifer, the certified organic and non-GMO site is not located near any conventional farms, thus avoiding runoff and spray drift on the organic plants. Working with such a diverse range of native plants, referred to as guild planting, enables the plant and animal life to mutually benefit other species without the use of traditional farming methods detrimental to soil and water quality, and emissions.
Polyculture, for example, requires layering mutually-beneficial plant species to limit the disparate effects of monoculture on soil health – one row of the antioxidant-rich Russian crabapple, for example, might be placed adjacent to a nitrogen-fixing plant such as clover, with middle rows containing perennial cereal grains such as rye grass, and waterways filled with aquatic superfoods such as watercress, Rubin said. “We’re trying to maximize every inch we have.”
“Massive fields of corn or soy might be easier to plant or harvest, but I think polyculture in any field or paddock is ideal,” Rubin said. “We might have a row of as many as 1,400 of a certain tree or bush, but the next row behind and in front of that will be a different species. Monoculture requires pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that could be avoided through a polyculture system.”
“We also use mob grazing, or holistic planned grazing, which is about grazing an area with lots of animal pressure, triggering massive regrowth while it’s resting,” he continued. “It’s something which mimics the North American bison and other animals that migrate, and don’t return for another 6-12 months. They eat and trample everything they can, and each year, you have so much more carbon-rich topsoil. “
Rubin said that plant species native to Tennessee will be abundant at the R.A.N.C.H. Project, as part of a permaculture philosophy with a special tribute to “America’s forgotten superfoods.”
“I think that the idea of practicing permaculture, stacking multiple plant systems and layers within our plant guild, and using plant material and species native to the environment is a completely unique combination,” Rubin said. “We’re using plant material and species native to our environment, and while there are several other superfoods I’d like to grow, we had to see what Native Americans in Tennessee were using, some of America’s forgotten superfoods. Some include a species of dogwood tree which produces a very high-antioxidant berry, with others including the black chokeberry and goji berry, all of which have some of the highest antioxidant contents there are and an advantage of pest resistance. We’ve borrowed practices from everywhere—the Bible, agricultural science, history, and global horticulturalists, to create a permanent established garden, ultimately avoiding carbon loss.”
Beyond the production of crops, the company will also be using the farm to launch a major seed-saving initiative, by collecting and banking seeds from every harvest from the 100+ species on the farm, while also collecting food waste and seeds from local organizations for use on the farm rather than a landfill. Additionally, the farm will be open to anyone who wants to learn, participate in, or deepen their understanding of agriculture, the company said.
“We hope to engage not just the Ancient Nutrition team in our R.A.N.C.H. project, but also to engage retailers, the local community, local schools, suppliers, and even ‘competitors’ to play a role. We want this to be more than just an Ancient Nutrition thing, and if this can lead other companies to take on some of these efforts we’ll be thrilled,” Rubin said.
Pioneering the Permaculture
According to Rubin, setting an example of a larger-scale permaculture operation at a thoroughly sustainable level is a heavy undertaking, and in the superfoods category, is still in its nascent stages. While no one regenerative agriculture technique is entirely unique or novel at the R.A.N.C.H. Project, it’s certainly an entirely unique and ambitious tapestry of sustainability strategies, setting the tone for a regenerative future.
“We’ve decided to not only put our resources, capital, and people behind this,” Rubin said. “We’ve put it out there that we want to become carbon negative, and we’ve got to reduce our carbon footprint in all aspects. I like to make goals and grand statements but don’t like to have delusions of grandeur. There are many companies in this space, including companies I’ve started, that have sound farming methods. To take measures into our own hands and endeavor to have every product with a sustainable ingredient and a sustainable story is a heavy undertaking.”
“I’d say that those who have done well in this space are a handful of herbal companies from North Carolina to Oregon which I hold in very high esteem,” Rubin continued. “These companies typically rely heavily on annual agriculture, but they farm organically, use organic fertilizers and inputs, and have cared for their environments. They’ve been doing it for a very long time, and I think they’re starting to get credit where credit is due. On the food side, I think it’s very difficult to be vertically integrated […] What we’re endeavoring to do as a superfood-based company is definitely unique.”
Rubin said that he believes many of the regenerative agriculture strategies employed by the R.A.N.C.H. Project are beginning to integrate into the mainstream, beyond that which has been seen in some botanical and smaller produce supply chains, largely by virtue of the fact that people today are voting with their dollars more than ever before for sound, regenerative, and sustainable food supply chains. For those reasons, he believes that the messaging surrounding sustainability in the food supply will need to become more earnest for a discerning consumer base, and discerning retailers aware of the paradigm shift to come for the food industry.
“People and companies follow the money, and right now, this is the first time that people are voting with their dollars when it comes to regenerative agriculture and sustainability. I think companies big and small are going to take notice,” he said. “In the next several years, we’ll see several dozen nutraceutical companies who are already talking about sustainability and regenerative agriculture seek certifications and tout their sourcing, and I think that’s great. Whole Foods, in 2020, identified regenerative agriculture as one of their top food trends, and based on discussions, this is an area they’re very, very focused on. Where we can’t practice it domestically, we’re trying to partner on an international level.”
“I believe most major retailers have a position with sustainability in it,” he continued. “They’re looking to feature U.S. grown, regenerative, sustainable products. It’ll force people’s hands […] Brands are ratcheting up their messaging and ingredients procurement, and it’s ultimately going to lead to better business results. I see the whole landscape changing over the next several years, and it’s necessary.”
What this often means to companies is to reframe sustainability as an endeavor beyond ecology—many herbs and botanicals on the market today come from regions of the globe where farming communities, some of which are indigenous, face serious sociological problems.
“We’ve partnered with Mully Children’s Family, which is not only planting trees to fight climate change, but is fighting for the health of orphans, of widows, and vulnerable child and adult populations,” Rubin said. “I see sustainability in this industry moving in this direction, and I wholeheartedly support it.”