Chef Aaron Ziegler Explains Regenerative Agriculture

By David Jenison on January 9, 2019

Aaron Ziegler, the former Executive Chef for Wolfgang Puck's catering business, now hosts eco-conscious Herb Project dinners through his company Bull&Dragon in Venice, California. Chef Ziegler's media coverage typically centers on his use of culinary cannabis, but he admits his true passion is regenerative agriculture, which he explained to PRØHBTD.

Cannabis is as important [an ingredient] to me as thyme or basil, and it's important to the experience like a good wine is, but my thing really is regenerative agriculture. My main focus as a chef is the craft and using it to teach people about regenerative agriculture so that we can start building a groundswell. We need to completely change our agricultural system in North America. If everyone was doing regenerative agriculture and replacing carbon back into the soil, we could actually reverse global warming in five years.

The main focus is on regenerating the soil so you have higher yields and more streams of revenue. So, instead of one farm just producing corn, it can now have corn, an orchard, a vineyard, cattle, eggs, chickens [and] goats. For instance, the industry standard for a head of cattle in the system is almost three times the amount you can grow when you just use the unmanaged scattershot grazing method. Then you're in a situation where that whole property can only sustain cattle because you can't grow anything on it. It barely grows grass because the cattle are overgrazing it and eroding the soil, and that's bad news.

When you bunch livestock together really tight with portable electric fencing and move them every day, that mimics how buffalo grazed on the plains when the Native Americans [controlled the land]. When we got here, us invaders, there was eight feet of tilth, of loamy soil, and now we're down to two feet because of using the pesticides, the herbicides, the fertilizers, the monocropping and the tilling. When you till, you kill the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.

When you manage grazing and let the grasses and weeds send their roots down, it holds everything together, and you get a mesh of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Through biodiversity, and having the animals there, you're putting so many nutrients into the soil that you don't need fertilizer. You have the mycorrhizal fungi, a beautiful exchange of minerals and nutrients from the soil to the plant, and carbon from the plant to the soil, which helps encourage the retention of nitrogen. So you don't need to add nitrogen, you don't need to add fertilizers, because it's already there naturally. And then the cows poop, obviously.

Naturally, in the prairie, that's what happened. The birds followed the cows that chewed the grass down enough so they could pick through the grass and reach the grubs in the soil. While they're getting the grubs and eating the little nubs of grass and weeds, they're spreading everything around for you.

[On a micro level], it's about biodiversity through the plants and encouraging healthy insects, rather than unhealthy insects, and then fertilizing through compost and mulching to keep the moisture in the soil. I basically dry farm in LA. I water once a week, while most farmers are watering every day, and I was yielding enough to do a few thousand dinners a month from my garden produce.

Right now I'm back to buying from the farmers' market, but I have ranchers and farmers that use that ecosystem in some form. You can do it with pigs, you can do it with goats, you can do it with just chickens, but the ultimate [goal] is to have a thousand acres and create a big ecosystem on the whole property so that it's cyclical and the livestock are moving around through different areas. Then you have beautiful-tasting produce. I mean, there's no steak like it. It really is quite amazing.

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