Students Focus on Better Farming Methods in Patagonia Case Competition

UC Berkeley’s Team Greenscape members: Adrian Lu, PhD 18, Ali Ticker, MBA 18; Michael Fleischmann, MPP 18; Olga Ballard, MBA 18; and Ryan Peterson, MDP (Master of Development Practice) 18; competed in the case competition. (All photos by Manali Anne Sibthorpe)

Ali Ticker and Olga Ballard, both MBA 18, took the stage at the Patagonia Case Competition last Friday, pitching the judges a land-financing idea for the outdoor apparel company’s sustainable food division.

Their target was Patagonia Provisions, which sells responsibly sourced food and drink, such as ale made from a grain planted to reduce erosion and jerky made from bison whose grazing is helping to restore the prairie. Their idea was for the company to create or invest in a real estate investment trust that would encourage farmers to shift from conventional to regenerative and organic agriculture (ROA) methods that bring soil back to health after years of heavy pesticide and fertilizer use.

“It’s a solution that will scale,” said Ticker, who shared the stage with fellow Team Greenscape members Ballard, Adrian Lu, PhD 18, Ryan Peterson, MDP (Master of Development Practice) 18, and Michael Fleischmann, MPP 18. The group was among 10 finalist graduate school teams—culled from a total of more than 70 teams—selected to pitch last week at Berkeley-Haas.

Patagonia leaders joined forces with Berkeley-Haas last year on the case competition, which grew out of a conversation between the company and Robert Strand, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley-Haas.

“The goal is to take our most intractable environmental problems and bring them to the best young minds in the world,” said Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, who also served as an event judge. “We have real business problems and we use this work and we put it into action.”

“Patagonia demonstrates such leadership by putting its greatest sustainability challenges out there in the open and humbly asking for help,” Strand said. “The sustainability challenges we face are simply too big for any single company to effectively address alone. It takes confidence without attitude to acknowledge this and open oneself up as Patagonia has.”

Ali Ticker and Michael Fleischmann of Team Greenscape head to the case competition.

Last year’s competition focused on finding an alternative to widely used but potentially toxic poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs) which apparel makers add to their water repellant gear and clothing.

The winning University of Michigan team pitched an entirely plant-based nontoxic solution composed of materials from soy beans, potatoes, rice and corn, called the ‘SoyShield.’ Patagonia connected the team to the company’s material innovation engineers and Beyond Surface Technologies, one of Patagonia’s venture portfolio companies, to work on developing SoyShield. Phil Graves, managing director of Tin Shed Ventures, Patagonia’s venture capital arm, said the goal is to understand whether SoyShield will be commercially and technically viable.

This year’s case is a nod to Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s focus on the critical role that food will play in solving the world’s environmental crisis. In the 25-minute documentary “Unbroken Ground,” the company argues that the vast majority of our food is produced using methods that reduce biodiversity, decimate soil, and contribute to climate change.

Competing teams in this year’s agriculture case competition pitched a variety of ideas, from scholarships for the children of farming families to mobile apps for farm expense tracking. Aside from UC Berkeley, competing teams included Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Babson, University of Virginia, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and the University of Michigan.

Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario (third from left) with Team Greenscape

The 2017 winning teams included:

Yale’s Plant Power Team (first place): Plant Power offered regenerative recommendations to optimize soil quality management from Oregon to Iowa. The plan included health metrics and benchmarks, and addressed both cost and cultural barriers to adopting these practices. The team also recommended forming a network of ambassadors to evangelize regenerative practices.

UPenn’s (Re)Generation Y Team (second place): The team proposed Field ExChange, a mobile learning exchange that would provide a checklist to guide farmers through the steps to shift to regenerative farming. A financial and environmental impact calculator would help farmers develop business plans with financial projections; and a social network would connect key partners and promote information sharing.

MIT’s FARM Fair Agriculture and Resource Management Team (third place): Team FARM recommended a scholars-and-research fellows program for small family farmers and their communities. Other ideas included purchasing farm equipment to be shared in pilot community programs, and growing the company’s network through a new mail delivery service (like Blue Apron) and dinner parties.

The top three teams won a trip to Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, Calif., to present their proposals and—as a bonus—to do some surfing with Patagonia employees.