Patagonia Provisions Case Competition- The Power of Regenerative Organic Agriculture

by Amanda Archila, MBA ‘18 (6/29/17)

Amanda Archila, MBA ‘18

Leveraging the research and expertise at Cornell to propose building a new kind of food system.

Case competitions that meaningfully address the urgency and complexity of sustainability in business are few and far between. The annual case competition hosted by Patagonia, Inc. and Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is one important exception. Their case topic for 2017 was particularly unique, with a focus on regenerative organic agriculture through their food brand, Patagonia Provisions. The company was looking to actualize a proposal to incentivize farmers to invest in the kinds of sustainable agricultural practices that could not only restore soil health and combat climate change, but provide a livelihood that farmers need to succeed in a rapidly evolving agro-food system. 

Patagonia Case Competition

Ann Bybee-Finch, Amanda Fried, Crosby Fish, Amanda Archila, Seth Olson (missing Anne-Marie Mitchell)

As a student in the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion with a background in food and agriculture, I was immediately drawn to Patagonia’s vision to use the power of business to build a new kind of food system. I also knew that a world-class institution like Cornell would offer the cross-disciplinary expertise needed to create a proposal that Patagonia would value.  My colleagues and I built a team that was made up of six students- four MBAs who each had an interest in agricultural sustainability, a PhD agro-ecologist, and a Master’s student in agricultural economics. 

At the heart of our challenge was the core principle that regenerative organic agriculture could create resilient ecosystems and economic stability for farmers that would result in soils that sequester more carbon and begin to reverse climate change. Regenerative practices go beyond traditional organic production, but reflect the fundamental industry shift towards more sustainable, healthy, and transparent food products. As the growth rate of organic continues to outpace conventional food, major manufacturers and retailers are shifting their policies and sourcing.  

Patagonia Provisions is setting itself up to lead the way in matching innovative, ecological best practices with high quality products that consumers love, in exactly the same way Patagonia has done in clothing for decades. Provisions had already created products to appeal to its core consumer and invested in producers and researchers that were forward thinking in methods such as holistic buffalo ranching and perennial grain farming. Its objective now was to match its innovation with scale, and 70 student teams from around the country submitted proposals to engage more farmers and consumers in its vision and influence the broader food system as a whole.

Cornell’s team developed an ambitious proposal that drew on the research and professional expertise of each of our members, and we were selected as one of the 10 finalists to travel to Berkeley in April and present in front of Patagonia’s CEO and senior management. To see the diversity of proposals was a tremendous experience, with teams presenting ideas that included technological innovation, product development, philanthropic initiatives, sophisticated financial instruments and much more. The common thread amongst all teams, however, was the recognition that the vision of Provisions to build a new and more sustainable system of agricultural production was not simply an imagined dream of the future, but rather a very real and crucial undertaking.  In order for businesses to thrive without further harming the environment, the questions we sought to answer during this case competition must be asked by many more companies beyond Patagonia, and future business leaders like ourselves must be prepared to deliver solutions.