Zumwalt Acres: At the Intersection of Farming, Faith, and Applied Science

A youth-led initiative dedicated to restoring the environment through farming, community building, and applied science.

Photo of Julia Borland
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Please confirm you meet the following criteria

  • We have submitted the supplemental form linked in the description above
  • We are aged between 14 - 20 as of February 11, 2021
  • We live in the United States or its territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa)
  • We are not employed by, or directly related (parents or siblings) to a current General Motors (GM) or Ashoka employee
  • We have been working on this project for at least three months
  • We consent to Ashoka and/or GM featuring our work on their website, social media, and in other materials regarding this Challenge using the information in our application
  • We confirm we have the rights to use and share any content uploaded on this entry form

Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Website: https://www.zumwaltacres.org/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/zumwaltacres/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ZumwaltAcres/

Date You Started Your Project


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Corn and soy fields cover the Midwest, producing low-quality food, degrading soil, and emitting tons of greenhouse gasses. Forests, prairies, and wetlands have been ripped away and rural communities have been stripped of jobs. The food center of America can and must be transformed to be just, sustainable, and resilient. If we don’t act soon, the effects of climate change will deplete food sources, destroy ecosystems, and devastate communities.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Zumwalt Acres (ZA) is a model for how conventional farmers can transition to regenerative practices. We are in a unique position to demonstrate how midwestern farms can pivot from chemical corn and soy row crops to a diversified model of fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables as we learn from the challenges of making this shift on our farm. Savanna Institute, a regional nonprofit dedicated to expanding agroforestry, recently accepted ZA to join their network of agroforestry demonstration farms. Gavi Welbel, one of our team members, researches the impacts of biochar (a form of carbonized wood) and crushed basalt rock (a waste product from mines) on soil fertility and carbon drawdown in agricultural land under the Earth and Planetary Science department at Yale University. She recognized the need for field-based trials to verify model-based predictions and to demonstrate to farmers how and why climate-smart practices should be implemented. With the help of these partners, ZA was created to transform the Zumwalt family’s conventional farmland into a research center and model of regenerative agriculture that is scalable across the midwest and beyond.

3. Please tell us how you are using science, technology, engineering or math to address your environmental challenge.

To offset, or even prevent, climate catastrophe, geo-engineering solutions that are low-risk, cost-effective, and viable in the near-term are required. We are primarily employing three approaches: (1) Enhanced rock weathering—applying crushed basalt rock to increase a natural process of rock weathering, (2) biochar—burning organic material such as wood to store carbon in a stable form, and (3) agroforestry—growing food-bearing trees. All of these strategies are recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change as effective carbon drawdown methods. We developed an experimental setup to apply different application rates of biochar and basalt rock to hay fields and to test soil and biochar samples in a laboratory at Yale University. Through webinars and publications, we will share our findings. In terms of agroforestry, we will plant 2,000 fruit and nut trees this spring, which will provide ecosystem services including carbon drawdown and wildlife habitats for decades. We are helping a neighboring farmer plant 200 trees this spring. By communicating openly about our research findings, we will continue supporting other farmers in adopting eco-friendly practices.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

Last summer, I interned for a mission-driven environmental firm, Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT, expanding organic farming in the US. I worked on their 10,000 tree agroforestry initiative in Peotone, IL, building connections with the local community. I learned about the tremendous potential for sustainable, community-orientated agriculture. I was inspired by the shared enthusiasm. Our Facebook posts were flooded with over 200 loving responses, and farm neighbors came to visit. In August, a friend told me about her vision to transform her family’s farm through agroforestry. I was so excited. We had the opportunity to build a regenerative agriculture initiative from the ground up. Armed with knowledge and passion gained at Iroquois Valley, I joined my friend and our peers to start Zumwalt Acres on their family farm.

5. Video (Keep it simple, your phone on selfie-mode is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”


6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

Ordered over 1800 trees and shrubs for spring planting; Produced 3200 L of biochar; Secured $35K for research, apprenticeships, and farm operations, most notably 1) BOOST 2020: The Midwest’s Emerging Entrepreneurs in Sustainability Pitch Contest Winner 2) The Lumpkin Family Foundation Nature-Based Climate Action Program Grantee; Hired 8 spring farm apprentices and received 50 summer applications; Established relationships with the Savanna Institute and the Delta Institute

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

We are a youth-led initiative dedicated to restoring the environment through farming, community building, and applied science. Our farm and organization is built by 18 - 21-year-olds who are creating the future we want to see, with mentorship from farmers and researchers. Our initiative centers around a Jewish and interfaith, queer-affirming, women-led community. These identities inform our work and inspire us to advance sustainability through farming practices based on scientific research.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made.

We ordered over 1800 trees and shrubs to plant as the start of our agroforest this spring. We secured more than $35,000 in funding through research grants, a family foundation grant, and a sustainability entrepreneurship pitch contest. We produced 3200 liters of biochar. We received 66 farm apprenticeship applications. We established perennial nursery beds consisting of 45 research test plots. We collected and analyzed over 100 soil and 30 biochar samples. We presented research at the Savanna Institute's Perennial Farm Gathering, a conference with over 400 attendees. We presented at the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, allowing us to share how our work is inspired by Jewish teaching. We visited three regenerative farms and had countless calls with experts in agroforestry, biochar, enhanced rock weathering, Jewish farming practices, agriculture policy, environmental education, and more.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

In addition to establishing our agroforest, we will be cultivating fruits and vegetables in our raised beds and in our greenhouse for our team of farm apprentices. In the next few years, we will begin producing enough food to sell to the local community. Eventually, we strive to produce enough marketable goods to sustain our farm and organization financially. In addition to growing our agroforest, we will be expanding our network of farmers, students, and scientists. Through connecting with farmers in our region, we aim to learn from one another and form lasting partnerships. When it is COVID-19 safe to do so, we are excited to host community gatherings, educational events, and Jewish and interfaith events

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

We engage youth with regenerative agriculture via our apprenticeship program, in which 8-10 young people live communally in the farmhouse while maintaining our crops and building new infrastructure. Seven apprentices have been through our program, with eight more coming in the spring, and we received over fifty applications for summer. Through the program, apprentices learn about agroforestry and gain environmental communication skills through community discussions and outreach.

11. How would you partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

We collaborate with other environmental organizations, such as the Savanna Institute (SI) and Chicago Environmental Educators (CEE). We are a mentor farm for SI apprentices, which allows us to work with agroforestry experts and take advantage of resources SI provides their apprentices. We work with CEE to develop virtual modules to teach students in Chicago about sustainable agriculture. Our partnership with Delta Institute also expands our network to environmental changemakers in the Midwest.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

We tell our story. Our farm mentor has long dreamed of transforming this farm, and now his dream lives on through young environmental leaders. We have made great strides in the short months since Zumwalt Acres began. Our team brings unique experiences to the table; we have scientists and writers, athletes and dancers, people from coast to coast. Virtual community events such as The Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, research partnerships, and community collaborations have greatly expanded our reach.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors

14. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you? You’ll be able to select only one option.

  • Project Plan & Strategy

Are you employed, or directly related (grand-parents, parents, sibling) to a GM or Ashoka employee?

  • No

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media


Join the conversation:

Photo of Carson McBain

I can tell that this initiative is deeply rooted in your hearts. I love how focused you are on creating a community of land stewardship - emphasizing the importance of the bonds and values you share in addition to responsible land management. I did some research on agroforestry for an initiative last year and absolutely fell in love with it. It's the future of farming and we need to transition away from monoculture if we want to win the 'long game.' I love the creativity of your apprenticeship program, and that you've cultivated an interfaith, queer-affirming community where people can embrace and celebrate their true selves, in addition to caring for the planet. In the future are you going to add elements such as beekeeping to help diversify and pollinate your farmland? There is a fascinating documentary I watched called Biggest Little Farm that you might enjoy, all about the complex ecosystem balancing itself on a zero pesticides, multi-species farm. I wish you all the best of luck, and keep up your agroforestry research bc new findings are always surfacing. Keep up the great work, and hope you can spread this model to many other farmers!

Photo of Julia Borland

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and encouraging words, Carson! To answer your question, we do plan to incorporate beekeeping on the farm. We also enjoyed watching Biggest Little Farm as a group in the fall. As a fun update - Our Spring apprentice cohort arrived last week. They've been busy planting asparagus and burning biochar. I'd love to invite you to follow their progress on our Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ZumwaltAcres) and/or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/zumwaltacres/?hl=en)! :)

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