Stuart Cowan, Santa Fe Farms’ new hire, aims to bring ‘regenerative’ business practices to New Mexico hemp company

Santa Fe Farms president of advanced carbons division and chief science officer Stuart Cowan

By Collin Krabbe  –  Technology reporter, Albuquerque Business First Jul 20, 2021

New Mexico hemp company Santa Fe Farms plans to expand the types of services it offers, and is seeking to use plant waste the restore carbon in the earth. To help do so, it recently brought on Stuart Cowan as president of advanced carbons division and chief science officer.

Cowan brings experience as general partner of a professional services firm that applies complex living systems models and frameworks to regenerate communities, ecosystems, and organizations. He also brings financial experience as a founding member at the Portland Family of Funds investment firm, according to the company. But at the heart of Cowan’s experience is sustainable economic practices — working with ecosystems in ways that benefit all members in order to create a profit.

We spoke to Cowan about his professional past and interests, and how they will impact his new role at Santa Fe Farms. The Santa Fe-based company has emerged as a fast-growing hemp player and has already made at least two acquisitions, including one that provided Santa Fe Farms with access to a full vertical range of hemp services, Business First reported.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about your experience and how it led to here?

There are three strands of experience that I’m bringing to the company and the first is really in the field of complex systems, understanding deep patterns in the physical and social sciences. How the physics, the chemistry, the biology all interact [and] the economics and the cultural systems. So I studied that at [University of California Berkeley] and its been a real key set of tools and approaches throughout my work since really since the mid-90s.

The second strand is a field called ecological design or regenerative design and that’s really using design thinking. So you’re tackling some really out-of-the box challenges and you’ve got to find a pathway to design a product, or design a landscape, a system that will meet the needs of everybody at the table. I wrote a book called Ecological Design that was one of the early books on kind of a whole-systems approach to land use planning, ecosystem management and green buildings. And then I’ve used that design thinking approach again throughout my career.

And then the third thing is really around economics and an emerging approach called regenerative economics. So just like regenerative agriculture is getting some real traction now — you know farming in ways that mimic natural systems [and] that work with soil fertility, natural hydrological cycles and so forth. So there’s kind of an [sic.] in this to economics. So regenerative economics means that first and foremost you’re restoring nature’s systems as you work with them. So you have to figure out how the economic signals can really work to make restoring nature profitable. And as you’re restoring nature, ideally you’re getting some really good, well-paying jobs particularly in hard-hit rural areas.

How will all of that inform your new role at Santa Fe Farms and what do you hope to accomplish there?

I see Santa Fe Farms as a company that, you know, is trying to build a solid economic model around hemp and around various value-added products associated with hemp that will allow us to do exactly what I just said around kind of regenerative design [and] regenerative economics… Its a for-profit company — we intend to be extremely profitable and grow [sic.] quickly — but we’re doing that with a business model that is deliberately restoring the fields, the ecosystems that we’re working with. So that’s why I joined the company…

What I’m hoping to accomplish with Santa Fe Farms is, you know, really straight forward — just to do this at scale. To be able to generate sufficient revenues from all the different high-value products we are creating from the hemp plant. To be able to pay farmers really well for their crops and to be able to, you know to maintain a successful set of community relationships… so kind of the flywheel, the way to do that is to take the hemp plant and figure out how to get high-value products, food products, CBD oils obviously, but for us pushing into other areas. Paper, textiles, various kinds of charcoals that can be used as the basis to purify water.

And then one of our key, key pieces is called BioChar… really important to the company. And the idea with BioChar is that you can take the waste products from the hemp plant, so once you’ve [produced] all the high-value products you can do a process called pyrolysis and combust that hemp plant waste at very high temperatures with very low oxygen added. And if you do that in just the right way you can create this BioChar material that looks something like a very fine charcoal. And there are two amazing things about BioChar, first of all its 70-80 percent pure carbon and its carbon in a stabilized form that can last for decades or hundreds of years.

So if you take that BioChar you can put in back in soils that really need this kind of amendment and you’re storing that carbon for very long time periods…. it literally can help rebuild the nutrients in the soil… it can hold water, it can aerate the soil, it starts to support all kinds of organisms at the base of the food web… so this all comes together in an advanced processing facility that we’re calling a regenerative refinery…

We’re talking about a regenerative refinery whose job it is to put carbon back into the ground with BioChar but also into long-term products like building materials. You know like building blocks… All these kinds of building materials can [sic.] restore the carbon for decades [to] hundreds of years.

Deanna Byck

Deanna Byck

Chief of Staff, Santa Fe Farms