Environmentalist Paul Hawken at Rock Bottom Ranch. 

Noted environmentalist and author Paul Hawken, who will speak to a sold-out crowd tonight at Paepcke Auditorium, took a visit to the Aspen Center For Environmental Studies’ Rock Bottom Ranch Friday afternoon to discuss the ranch and the work being done there with RBR Director Jason Smith, agriculture manager Alyssa Barsanti and ACES CEO Chris Lane.

As Hawken took in the view of the fields, with their cattle, sheep, vegetable beds and three rolling chicken coops, Smith related how the ranch wasn’t doing as well as it should production- and health-wise until ACES began to see themselves first and foremost as stewards of the land rather than producers of agricultural products.

“That mentality has allowed us to shift our practices to where things like eggs and meat are byproducts,” he said, “and the services that the animals provide are more important.”

The free-ranging chickens help loosen up and fertilize the soil while the cattle love trimming the native grasses that Smith used to mow, and the pigs (which are actually gone from the ranch for now) did a tremendous job of churning up the mud near the river to help saplings take root in a cottonwood grove.

“The pigs did all the work, and we were making pork and bacon the whole time,” said Smith.

It’s all part of a movement toward regenerative agriculture, wherein farms and ranches that may have been damaged by generations of pesticides, herbicides and unsustainable practices are allowed to get back in harmony with nature. It’s a way of farming that makes sense on an ecological level and, notably, a financial one, too. People are seeing that sustainable practices add value to the products and the farm. They’re also sensing that they have no choice.

“Farming the way we’ve been doing it has reached the end of the road,” said Hawken, who founded one of the country’s first natural foods companies, Erewhon, in the 1960s and has gone on to found several other ecologically conscious companies.

He is also the author of five bestsellers about business and its relationship to the environment, He speaks around the world about climate change and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

“Regenerative farming like we see here is the future of farming,” Hawken said, “and every regenerative farmer is doing it for themselves, and not because they’re being told to or the FDA is forcing them to. In communities where farming is generational, there’s a sense of legacy and pride. You can’t lose the family farm, and people are doing this because it works.”

It’s something that, if implemented on a global scale, could help the world take a big step toward slowing down and eventually reversing our carbon output (much of which comes from our current food systems), and it’s sure to be one of the subjects Hawken will broach tonight when he gives his Hurst Lecture Series talk, which starts at 6 p.m. He’ll also be discussing other ideas outlined in his latest bestseller, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” As the title suggests, the book outlines 100 solutions, all backed by peer-reviewed studies and research, that we can implement to address climate change.

It’s a book and a subject he was also going to touch on Thursday night as the keynote speaker at ACES’ 50th anniversary An Evening on the Lake fundraiser, but a canceled flight in Naples, Italy, and delays due to thunderstorms in Newark, N.J., meant that Hawken couldn’t get to Aspen in time for the party and didn’t arrive in town until Friday morning.

After two days of frustrating travel and very little sleep, Hawken seemed content to sit on the veranda at RBR, lemonade in hand, and talk regenerative farming as young campers scurried by after collecting eggs from the chicken coops. It was a scene that spoke to Hawken’s predictions of farming’s future, as farmers-to-be (and their communities) are starting to learn, in places like farm camps and farmers’ markets, how locally sourced food and sustainable practices benefit everyone.

Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we have places like RBR, Farm Collaborative at Cozy Point Ranch and Sustainable Settings in Carbondale as shining examples of agriculture done right, but, happily, we’re not unique. If you believe Hawken, we’re just displaying the symptoms of a fever that is taking over America.

“It’s everywhere,” said Hawken. “Regenerative farming is exploding right now.”

For more information on RBR and ACES’ other programs, visit aspennature.org.

Todd Hartley writes for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at todd@aspendailynews.com.