Podcast Episode 44

Finding Freedom in a Sustainable Economy with Brandon Pitcher

Brandon Pitcher | 31 Minutes | May 31, 2022

In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Brandon Pitcher, an advocate for the implementation of a “blue and circular” economy. This means an economy that incorporates sustainable design, reuse, up-cycling, the sharing economy, and more.

The founder of Blue Circle Farms, Brandon is an award-winning change agent and educator, having gained an understanding of social and ecological entrepreneurship nearly two decades ago.

Listen as Brandon discusses the rise in sustainability topics and projects over recent years, the current state of the cannabis industry, and our responsibility to take care of our world.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Brandon Pitcher, founder of Blue Circle Farms, which is a full-service, solutions-based company specializing in agriculture hemp production and processes. Brandon is an award-winning change agent, an educator having gained an understanding of social and ecological entrepreneurship nearly two decades ago. Since 2003, Brandon has been a zero-emissions research and initiatives certified practitioner and promoter of blue and circular economies.

Join us today as we chat with Brandon about social entrepreneurship, sustainability, hemp, CBD, and mushrooms.

Welcome, Brandon. Good morning. How are you, buddy?

Brandon Pitcher: Good, thanks Kirk. I appreciate being here today.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m a little tired after that intro. You’ve got a lot going on. I really, really appreciate your time today. I know you’re super, super busy. Speaking of which, where in the world are you today?

Brandon Pitcher: Currently, up near Shelton, Washington at a lake house. We have a mushroom farm out here that we work with. So that’s what I’m spending my time on right now.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that eastern or western Washington?

Brandon Pitcher: This would be to the west of Olympia.

Mushroom Country

Kirk Bachmann: I gotcha. I’m a University of Oregon product. Somewhat familiar with the Northwest. That’s mushroom climate and territory, isn’t it?

Brandon Pitcher: Oh yeah. They grow naturally everywhere here. It’s a great location. We got lucky and found a business to acquire here. A five-year-old shiitake operation, certified organic mushroom farm. We just thought it was a wise idea, at the time, to be a part of that here and network and the experts and the community of mushroom enthusiasts in this part of the country. The industry is about to explode across the nation. We want to surround yourself with people that are good at what they do.

Kirk Bachmann: Way off topic here, but I can remember – a hundred years ago – I went to culinary school in the Northwest as well. We had a few instructors, one in particular, who was real big into truffle hunting, truffle exploring and mushrooms. He used to do these old-fashioned slide shows – again, a hundred years ago. He would just show the tips and tops of a forest and say, “Yes, this is the area where I located me truffle.” You had know idea where he was. You saw blue sky, and the tips of some evergreens. It’s kind of a little bit of a secretive thing, isn’t it, the whole truffle piece.

Brandon Pitcher: Well, especially when you talk about some of the higher value and outdoor harvested crops, people do protect their territories. There’s a lot of people out hunting, and a lot of competition out there as more and more people are getting into the hunting. Where I come from, people have been using the same kind of patches and areas for decades.

Kirk Bachmann: For decades. Yeah.

Brandon Pitcher: They don’t really tell you either. They’ve got to like you to let you know.

Blue Circle Economies

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. We’ll get a little bit more into the mushrooms in a little bit. I’d love to set the stage. For me, again, thank you. Super fascinating topics. You’ve been in the R&D sector for some time now, specifically in this space of sustainability, renewable energy, and then – of late – more or less pioneering the way forward for the professional cannabis industry.

We’ll discuss this topic, but I’d love for you to speak, if you could, in general – I’m making some assumptions here – for the general public, about blue circle economies. We’re referring to sustainability for economic growth and economic growth to improve livelihoods, jobs, while we’re preserving the health of our ecosystem. Do I have that right?

Brandon Pitcher: It’s the gist. A lot of words. To accomplish is a way to still have industrial civilization and societies. I might even go beyond that, but do it in a way that co-evolves with nature. In a way that takes into consideration the ecosystem services, the true value of nature, and the true value of biodiversity, and having a way of designing and living with it instead of destroying it in our process, in our search for prosperity. We need to rethink and redesign almost all processes of production on earth to meet these goals and challenges of sustainability, and to build a circular economy.

A blue economy, as we know, as we’ve learned, I’ve been sharing is something my mentor Gunter Pauli came up with. It was a book. But it’s really about hundreds of innovations around the world and entrepreneurial projects that we believe can change the world and help lead to this new economic model. And it’s not just about talk. I went to hundreds of lectures when I was younger, around the world into 50 countries studying projects and researching different aspect. It was more important for me to see real projects than it was to see pictures of the projects. To know that it could be done. That there was actually hope out there and there were reasons to search for the opportunities to do projects.

The next was into things like cannabis and then into the mushrooms, because one of things, currently cannabis is probably one of the most environmentally atrocious plants on the planet, the way that we’re producing it. But it also has one of the biggest areas of hope for humanity as well as an industrial applications of the plants, more than just the recreational aspects. That’s what led me into wanting to get more and more into that as it became legal. But that’s a very long-term endeavor to get people, the industrial system to really change.

We’re starting to see that now that legalization has happened. It used to be toilet paper manufacturing popping up. You’re seeing plastics manufacturing, different things that are starting to utilize the plant, which is important. There’s going to be more and more as time goes on and the infrastructure is developed. Now is more about building infrastructure for that business than anything.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s helpful. Brandon, in recent years – you’ve been involved in this space for many years, decades. Have you found the momentum and support, the evangelistic part of it, increasing in recent years, given all of the concerns about not only the economy, but the world as we know it?

Brandon Pitcher: Yeah. It goes up and down depending on where you’re at and which part of the world you’re in and which country. Here in the United States, really, with this new administration and this new round of infrastructure funding, a lot of things that are coming down, you’re hearing a lot more talk from communities and community leaders, city leaders, people who have the resources trying to do something. Cities like Chicago are really getting aggressive on the urban farming, bringing in mushrooms and other alternative crops to help redevelop parts of the south side. People are open now to new ideas more than they ever have been, so now is the best time for entrepreneurs and people in my lifetime to implement projects or to go out and get projects, and get funding for projects because the demand is there.

People are really realizing the problem. 20 years ago when we started and I started lecturing on sustainability, a lot of people laughed at me. A lot of people didn’t even know what the word sustainability was. Now it’s a catchphrase in almost all industries using it. Now, we’re talking about our carbon footprints and all these things. Once you really realize how to do it and solve the problems – which there is a framework out there that ZERI really helped provide for me and Gunter probably in his work – for us to move forward with this new and very large-scale endeavors and not have to sacrifice our quality of life in the process.

But if we don’t make the changes, we’re going to sacrifice our quality of life, we’re going to sacrifice our standard of living, and potentially sacrifice our ability to survive on Earth.

Implementing Change

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Super helpful. I can’t help but think as you’re sharing, the correlation to the food industry and everything that we’re doing to prepare the next generation of cooks and chefs and pastry chefs and such. Sustainability, food waste, local practices have become just commonplace in our curriculum. The correlation is real, intentional, and very, very important.

On a more personal level, can you speak a little bit on the overall goal of Blue Circle Development and Farms?

Brandon Pitcher: When we started, it was really a way to help spread the ideas and go beyond just the education. Like I said, I’ve given five to six-hundred lectures. Really think if I had to educate people to build a market or build an audience, or to get people to understand what we were trying to accomplish. Then we can move towards real projects.

The time now is for the implementation. For me, the last decade was what the U.N. called the decade towards education for sustainable development. Now should be the decade for implementation of sustainable development.

Kirk Bachmann: Makes sense.

Brandon Pitcher: We need to get to work, now. I thought I was just following those trends. It makes sense. For us, my goal with the companies is to expose people to the five kingdoms and the opportunities to solve our problems through there. From what I’ve learned traveling the world and studying under some of the world’s best leaders in sustainability, people like [Winter Carly and Fritjof Capra and Janine Benyus, Amory Lovins, and so many other names like that. I couldn’t list them all. Learning from all these people and understanding different perspectives from the globe what’s happening and the challenges that they had, you have solutions. We need to be able to expose them to people. This is a platform and a way for us to do that.

We got into the hemp industry. We got into some fresh organic hemp farms back then. We helped tried to spread that. The hemp industry has had its ups and downs, as everybody knows. Some challenges in there. We had some of the first issues when it comes to hemp being confiscated. We looked at things like that. There was a lot of learning being done across the country. We were glad to be a part of all that.

Currently, everything is about infrastructure. We need in this country folks building industrial-scale infrastructure for what I would say is the solution we find within the five kingdoms. The five kingdoms we’re living in are plants, which is where cannabis comes in. This is the most useful plant for the circular economy. Then we have fungus, so right now we’re really heavily focused on infrastructure for building and supporting the mushroom industry, the fungus industry. Not just mushrooms, but substrate production, different things like that. Maybe it’s time to look into partnership with other companies that would utilize mushrooms for different things like construction materials or packaging, and all that.

Then you have algae, protista, which is another great thing to clean water, sequester carbon, generate energy and produce food. All these different kingdoms. Bacteria. And then animals. All of them provide the solutions that we need to support all the basic needs of humanity going forward. We could probably have ten or twelve billion people on Earth if we design properly towards a zero waste, circle economy model.

We finish up with the numbers. You mentioned food and food waste. We produce more calories now than the world could consume, we just don’t spread it equitably. Some of those calories are wasted before they even get to the dinner plate. We throw it away, or scraps that don’t look right. It’s a freaky looking carrot or an ugly potato, so it never makes it to the grocery store. We designed our system to be wasteful from the start. That’s got to change.

Five Kingdoms Dinners

Kirk Bachmann: I appreciate that. I was going to dive into the type of research, but you brought up the five kingdoms, which I know very little about, but I’m learning more. Mostly because I sit in Boulder, and we do some fun things with Donna and Greg over at FED. I was introduced – I have to tell the funny story that I shared with you earlier – tragically, we had the martial fires right at the end of the year here in the Boulder area. Superior, Louisville, lots of communities were impacted. The next day, several folks that you know got busy. We started cooking. We started taking care of people. I spent the day with my son at the FED commissary, and little did I know – because I didn’t find out until after because he’s so incredibly humble – I was sitting there next to this hippie with these strangely large hands. It turned out to be former NFL player, Jake Plummer, who’s very, very involved in the mushroom business here in Colorado.

Would you mind? I know that we’ve had one five kingdoms dinner, probably a month ago now, and some of our Escoffier students were able to participate and help out. There are several more five kingdoms dinner planned around the country?

Brandon Pitcher: There are. We have many, up to ten, going on later this year. We have a few in the different states. Colorado is kind of where the hub is, I believe. This year we’re shooting for eight or nine in Colorado. We had one about a month ago now. It went really well. About a hundred people showed, that’s about all it could hold. Jake Plummer, he was there. He was one of the speakers talking about his mushroom business. It was a blast. We had one of the musicians, Frank is his name, from Thievery Corporation. Had some dancers. It was a blast.

We had FED, of course, there doing the five kingdoms dinner. Your students helping out. In this case, this is the year of the mushrooms. We’d been hosting these five kingdoms for a while now. It’s a methodology that I created basically in response to going to all these sustainability conferences and things and them feeding us whatever junk they normally had.

Kirk Bachmann: Ironically, right?

Brandon Pitcher: Exactly. We were talking about all this stuff, but none of it was living. That kind of bothered me. So I started hosting my own events, and I started working with chefs and coming up with ideas of how to educate around what I was talking about while you were eating. The five kingdoms became one of the smart approaches to do that.

In this case, Donna would come up with or the chefs that we work with would come up with to have at least five species of mushrooms, five varieties, and we would have five courses minimum. They would be paired with five kingdoms of nature. We would have to pair the mushroom with a bacteria, a mushroom with a plant, a mushroom with an animal, a mushroom with an algae, and a mushroom with another mushroom or another fungus. You’d have to be creative.

This case, we really like people to try to be a little bit more local-oriented, too, learn to use your ecosystem and eat your ecosystem, because that’s the healthiest way of eating biodiversity. It’s probably the smartest way of keeping our ecosystems thriving and alive, is to make them useful for us, productive for us, so we don’t lose these species. So it’s a lot of fun. A nonthreatening way to experience something new and educational and potentially a future form of eating. We’re looking at, if we’re going to colonize space, Mars or whatever, we’re probably going to use the five kingdoms diet more than we are vegan diets or carnivore only diet.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. I love the education piece about it. I’ve let Donna and Greg know, please keep Escoffier involved. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m really glad to hear that there will be more in our area. This next time, I’ll say hi to that hippie.

Brandon Pitcher: May 21st is the next one in partnership with Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance, so your students hopefully will be there. I believe Donna is talking with them already, but they should be there.

The Cannabis Industry

Kirk Bachmann: That’s beautiful. That’s great.

Let’s shift a little bit to – I’m not an expert – but the cannabis industry as we know it today is nothing like the one of old, I’ll say. Today, gosh! Obviously here in Colorado, maybe most states, marijuana has been legalized, at least for medicinal purposes. I believe a handful of states, seven or eight, have legalized CBD oil only. You’ve been researching hemp and developing products in support of the cannabis industry for many, many years. For our listeners, our students and others, can you provide a high-level narrative on the specific difference between hemp and cannabis?

Brandon Pitcher: It’s all cannabis, right?

Kirk Bachmann: It’s all cannabis. Yeah.

Brandon Pitcher: Scientifically, it’s all cannabis sativa. One of them it says low THC. It has the different attributes and grows differently. It has more nutrition in the seed or more strength in the fiber. Depending on what we’re growing for and what the genetics are for. Currently, which you guys have in Colorado, mostly marijuana and more of the CBD industry, so it’s grown more like marijuana, the majority of it. But that’s changing really rapidly. Colorado wants to be a leader of the industrial side of it as well. It’s just not so well suited for it environmentally and culturally. But I think it has a lot of potential.

Once hemp is legal, again, all over the world, there will probably be other places that pop up as the best places to farm the logistics of a fiber crop or your grain crops. Those places will take over those markets over time.

Again, it’s an infrastructure issue currently for us. That’s where we’re at when it comes to the industrial side, trying to get a t-shirt made here. That’s more difficult than it is to get a joint made.

Naming the Feeling Inside

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. What are some of the critical shifts in the industry that you’ve witnessed that continue to motivate you to continue to do the work that you do in this industry?

Brandon Pitcher: The five kingdoms approach and even some of the cannabis and hemp stuff and the mushroom side of it I’ve been doing for 20 years now. Maybe even longer, some of it. I’ve got ZERI-certified and zero-emissions research training in my early twenties. That’s really what got me motivated to say, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” And I’ve just done that in my life. I’ve just done that. I said it when I was 19 or 20, when I first learned the term sustainable development. I saw a man named William McDonough. He gave a speech in San Francisco at a conference I was at. His talk was called Cradle to Cradle. He ended up writing a book about that, but he was the first American to really put what I was feeling inside into a terminology and framework that I could understand academically or theoretically. That’s when I looked at my dad and was like, “This is what I’m going to do.” And I just never turned back.

So I don’t know. This is something that I always had internally, if it’s something to have that kind of drive for something like that and a purpose. I was lucky to find it young. I started giving five or six hundred lectures on the subjects, 30 or 40 countries. I just kept going and going. Now I’ve shifted. I don’t do the education as much. I’ve turned it more into these dinners, a little more private and smaller groups. I don’t do as many public lectures and stuff like that. I might get back into that again. I think now I’m more focused again on implementation and networking with people who can help me implement what our goals are.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that story. All of us need, at times, a mentor or an inspiration to validate. I love how you referred to “what you were feeling inside.” Then this individual who you’d never met before was able to articulate it for you. Our students tell us stories of this all the time. It might be a technique that they’ve never seen before. It could be a grandmother who had a special way of cooking that really impressed or inspired them. I love that story.

Talk to me about the journey that hemp or cannabis has made into the wellness space. I can speak from personal experience that the pain that both of my parents have experienced dealing with cancer over time has been eased by some of the topical cannabis products that they use, even as simple as a hemp muscle and joint balm or something like that. Can you speak a little bit to this journey that this became mainstream?

Hemp’s Tangled History

Brandon Pitcher: From my own perspective, I can talk about it a little bit, and I can talk about it from a national perspective or historical perspective. We the people who have used the products have always known its benefits. We’ve been misled and maybe lied to by our own government for up to a hundred years.

That’s the only problem. That’s the only real issue why it is not the number one wellness product today. Back a hundred years ago – maybe a 120 years ago – when you went to a pharmacy in this country, over half the products had cannabis in them. Then all of a sudden they tell you it’s not medicinal? That makes no sense! Eli Lilly had one of the largest marijuana farms in the world up until 1920, and it was in Indiana, a place called Conner Prairie. They were using it. They had their own strain named Cannabis Americana [CAPITALIZE?]. But then they hide all that information after it becomes illegal and try to say they never did it. They lied to us for 100 years. I guess that’s the problem with it.

Now that we have it legal again, we can use it. They still haven’t given us clearance to use CBD and topicals. You listed these things. They’re working for people; we still don’t have federal clearance to do these things. It makes no sense. I don’t know what their agenda is, so I can’t really speak to that. I don’t sit in those rooms with them. But whenever they made it illegal, they had reasons for that. I do know this: it was easier to grow marijuana in this country for many years than it was to grow hemp, and hemp does not get you high. If getting high is what they’re really afraid of, I don’t think that was the truth.

True Freedom in Sustainability

Kirk Bachmann: Kind of backwards, right?

Let me segue a little bit. I appreciate your transparency and honesty. It is so clear, Brandon, that the notion of sustainability is incredibly important to you and has been for a long time. You served as the chief sustainability officer for Fortune Management for over 20 years. From a purely academic perspective, because students will listen, what is your definition of sustainability? And what is our obligation as a current generation, a new generation, to set the foundation for a more sustainable future, whether that’s here or in outer space? What’s our obligation?

Brandon Pitcher: I believe we all have an obligation because we’re alive. We’re all a part of the system at play, and we can all be a part of the solution if we want to be. That requires an open mind. It requires educating yourself. It requires being honest. It requires true freedom. Sustainability, in my mind, is where true freedom lies. We crave it, as Americans especially.

But true freedom requires accountability and responsibility for every solution. It means your environment, your neighborhood, your community, your planet. All these things are our responsibility to take care of. I think just by being alive we have some effective obligation to look for solutions to be a part of.

We live with a society and we live in a business model that goes against almost everything that we in the sustainability world we try to go after. We know our business are all very extractive. It’s very wasteful. Those whole things need to change. Our ways of living need to change a little bit. I don’t want to put the push-back on the individual people and say, “Your individual carbon footprint or ecological footprint is a problem.” It’s really not the problem. It’s the industrial side of it. It’s the producing. It’s the extraction, the production, and how we do handle that. That’s the largest problem that we have. But we like to push it off on individual consumers so that we they don’t hold businesses accountable. But we really need to hold accountability at the production side as much as we do at the individual level.

Kirk Bachmann: I love “where true freedom lies, sustainability.” It’s a great algorithm.

I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about technology and innovation> I’m fascinated with farming. Of course, we talk to our students about farming a lot. How has technology improved the process of, let’s just say, the farming of hemp?

Brandon Pitcher: It all depends on your perspective. Some of the best farms I’ve been to were the most low-tech.

Kirk Bachmann: Interesting. Okay.

Brandon Pitcher: Methods, going back to an older way of farming. Some of the more high-tech ways with the plastic and the drip tape and the drones and the precision nutrients and all that stuff didn’t produce as well of a product. I’ve seen both happen.

I’d say technology has its place, but I don’t think if we’re going to rely on the technology to solve our problems, that’s not going to lead to the most sustainable solutions.

Kirk Bachmann: What are some of the challenges around that?

Brandon Pitcher: It’s just getting people to accept change. That’s the hardest part. It doesn’t matter if it’s a farmer or an industrial system, or a mayor or city or city hall talking about a wastewater treatment plant, getting them to adopt any kind of change is very difficult. It can be slow and cumbersome. If you can prove that it works, usually with a neighbor or a friend, then they’ll adopt it.

There’s a good book called “Diffusion of Innovations” by Everett M. Rogers. it gives a lot of great examples about how ideas and technologies diffuse. He really studied how pesticides in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s took off. But it’s really, really good knowledge. When a farmer gets pesticides, for the most part, you can still learn from it.

Kirk Bachmann: If you can share any secrets, what’s next on the horizon for Brandon?

Brandon Pitcher: I really want to push these dinners more. People are starting to really attract to them and understand the wisdom of the message. We’re marketing as a group to open a network of substrate infrastructure farms for mushroom production across the nation. Really zeroed in on that right now. In our experience in the hemp industry and other stuff, led us to want to be more heavily involved in the mushroom side of it before it takes off. We want to acquire a few different businesses, help educate and guide the industry from the ground up.

Kirk Bachmann: What do you spend most of your time? I know you’re in Washington currently, but where do you spend most of your time?

Brandon Pitcher: Honestly, Kirk, for the last couple years I’ve just been traveling. I don’t really stay anywhere too long. I think the longest I’ve stayed anywhere was maybe 90 days. Then on to the next place. It’s somewhat challenging, but I’m single. I don’t have any kids. I have the message to tell. If I sit at home, I don’t really do much.

Brandon Pitcher’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Interesting. It reminds me – I don’t know where the time goes – you were here on the campus. Boy, it was right before the pandemic, and then the pandemic hits. Before you know it, a couple of years pass and we got reconnected for the five kingdoms. I’m so glad that we did.

We’re getting towards the end, but before I let you go, I want to bring it all together full circle – pun intended – with food. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. I think I know what you’re going to say, but if I had to ask you, Brandon, what’s the ultimate dish, what would that be?

Brandon Pitcher: I have to say it would be one that includes the five kingdoms.

Kirk Bachmann: There you go.

Brandon Pitcher: All of them in it. I’ve been trying to convince several different groups of people to start – and I’m probably going to start doing it myself – that all of our products should have some type of resemblance of the five kingdoms included. That’s going to lead to the health of this body, the health of this human, and hopefully a better relationship to our environment.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. I hope you stay in touch. I need to reach out to Donna today. I want to get the agenda, May 21, see if we can be of some assistance with that particular event. I look forward to it. Thanks for all the work you’re doing. Super, super educational. And I know we’ll be in touch more. So thanks for joining us today.

Brandon Pitcher: Excellent. I appreciate it.

Kirk Bachmann: Thanks again.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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