When Matt Maier bought some land near his childhood home in Clearwater, Minn., and started using regenerative agriculture to raise grass-fed cattle, he went into the beef business with a high-minded ideal: Improve the environmental degradations wrought by the industrialized food system by using more natural processes.
It became clear when he saw the numbers that the food industry was threatening the earth: that conventional agriculture contributes more than a third to global greenhouse gas. That U.S. soil is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished. That the chemicals we're putting into our soil is ruining that land for the future.
Maier started researching regenerative agriculture. He learned about the farming and grazing practices that attempt to reverse climate change by rebuilding organic matter in soil and restoring soil biodiversity. He found out that the animal so vilified for its contributions to climate change — the cow — could, with regenerative agriculture practices, be the single biggest way to improve the environmental problems brought by the conventional food system. He built his Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed brand to include 60 family farms around the country that observe the same regenerative agriculture protocols.
Now he's turning to the fashion industry.
On October 1, Timberland will release its first boot — the Courma Guy EK+ boot — made of regenerative leather sourced from Thousand Hills ranches.
"On one hand it's this whole uncharted territory for us," Maier said. "On the other hand it makes complete sense. We make sure these animals are expressing their natural behavior. We feel a responsibility to use the whole animal: Organs, oxtail, bones for bone broth, liver for braunschweiger. I've gone on five years of product development to try to fill every void we could to take advantage of the nutrient density of these animals."
When he got to the hide, though, he confronted an entrenched, conventional supply chain. He had to figure a way to break out of it.
That's where one of the world's most recognizable footwear brands came in.
This month Timberland announced the New Hampshire-based company's 2030 goals in new product innovation. It plans to create only products that have a net positive impact on the earth.
The company has begun pilot programs to source regenerative products across the globe: leather in Australia, rubber in Thailand, cotton in India and Haiti, sugar cane (for EVA soles) in Brazil, and the Thousand Hills leather pilot based in Minnesota.
The goal is to go one step beyond sustainability and work to reverse climate change and environmental degradation.
"Sustainability is no longer enough, especially when we have the ability to restore the environments we source our product from," said Zachary Angelini, Timberland's manager of environmental stewardship. "The environment has a pretty impressive ability to heal and restore itself. But that happens if and only if humans work in harmony with it. That's exactly what regenerative farmers do."
Even if it works, it will be an uphill battle for this group that calls itself "regenerative renegades" to bring about change in the massive, entrenched industries of food and fashion. Maier calls his brand "a small voice in the woods."
"It does go against the conventional model," said Maier's daughter, Melissa Larsen, who does communications for Thousand Hills. "But it's a journey to continue improving the earth, the land, the species. Sustainable really just maintains. Regenerative improves."
Reid Forgrave • (612) 673-4647