A Love Letter to Soil Health & Flavor - Britt Browne

BRITT BROWNE founded Finca Tierra Negra in 2017 with a mission to restore real food nutrition to the soil and vitality to our planet by making small batches of lasagna compost and using natural methods of bio-remediation, restoration, and regenerative land/soil management. Britt is an interdisciplinary artist and grower living in Los Angeles. Her attraction to color and process have been detailed before and seen inside The Shelburne Museum, The Standard Hotel, For Your Art, Fellows of Contemporary Art, W Magazine, The Plant Journal and The Hammer Museum. Today you can find her Finca in the Foothills of LA. She is herself, living with her dog, Samson. Passionate as ever about building a brighter future. Often out hiking, swimming, or steeping tea and escaping through to sonic landscapes among other things.


What is your favorite place in nature? Tell us how it makes you feel. 

I’m in Topanga Canyon hiking the trails with my dog, Samson. We just came from a swim at the beach, so we are a little sticky now sun-kissed with salt, sand and sunscreen. Aromas from the native plants are popping; every inhale sages and grasses in the onshore winds lifting me to another level. These are the Santa Monica mountain range, the Chumash burial grounds. It’s a special place. I know Sam feels it too.

Thanks you so much for taking us there. Let's get started: Finca Tierra Negra translates to Black Earth Farm. The energy behind that sentiment has me in goosebumps. Would you mind explaining what Finca Tierra Negra is and how you came about the inspiration for building and creating this project?

Thank you so much for saying so! I felt such admiration when I was introduced to your work with Milky Oat. What you are doing is so deeply important.

"I practice soil building with a mutualism tethered to all the ways I want to co-create a new earth."

I started in Finca Tierra Negra in 2017 with a mission to restore real food nutrition to the soil (and vitality to the planet!) making small batch compost. I was experiencing a great alchemy with it in my garden and so were my friends and early clients.

A lot of my initial inspirations still thrive today. I wanted to make Finca completely true nature. I wanted my process as a maker to be my product. I would allow all my attention go where it mattered most; taking great pleasure in the creating and learning. Coming full circle was fueling a creative flow state. There was a release, a ritual, a resonance, a feeling of fullness.

Finca is a constellation of shared efforts flowing downstream. For me it represents a regenerative future in solidarity with soil, a grassroots effort to build a new earth. I feel so grateful to work with the kitchens and the growers that I do.

TIERRA is the soil, roots, sun, water and air. It means more than simply “land” or the idea of just what’s beneath our feet. It’s the system from which all things are a part of. The work we do is from the past and for the future.

I practice soil building with a mutualism tethered to all the ways I want to co-create a new earth; from the ground up, recalibrated to circadian rhythms, connected with carbon cycling, bringing the biology back and in doing so; building resilient biomes for the long term well-being of our planet.

Tierra Negra
So what we do at Milky Oat is all about nourishing motherhood. We believe that to support mothers is to also support the ultimate mother, Earth. In your line of work and engagement with soil, what does it mean to you to “nourish motherhood” if we’re talking mother earth here?

I love this question. I want to lean in with the least amount of intervention possible and to be patient... listen and watch for clues on what she needs from me.

I recently took my residential yard and made it into a restoration site. What was once a lawn now is a native rain garden.

I began with the East Indian proverb, “Catch rain where rain falls.” In my garden this looked like building earthworks aka berms or swales and adding layers of mulch. The minerals in our watershed rainfalls are an incredible source of nourishment so this is a critical move. The mulch that I have at Finca right now is a blend of Oak, Mulberry, Popdocarpus, Elm, Sycamore, Citrus, Redwood, Pittosporum, Birch and Laurel Bay. This is our carbon.

Blends build biodiversity and over time will be teeming with microbes. Laying a blanket of mulch on bare earth is very nourishing. My first layer was a patchwork of cardboard to cover the grass and to foster the growth of a mycelium mat before adding the layers of mulch. In about 6 months I had a thin layer of volcanic soil form on the surface where the mulch was kissing the compacted earth.

Every root system breaths new life into the soil. I forecasted seeds for deep rooting grasses and wildflowers before the rains and built lasagna beds with them in Spring. Very passive. Establishing Native plants was laissez-faire. Always err-ing on little moves and letting her rest. Gifting her avenues to hibernation is even better when it comes to soil building.

My lasagna compost is the most nutrient dense compost I’ve ever worked with and I use* it on all my fruit trees, herb and salad gardens, all my tomatoes, potted plants. I make lots of teas with the compost as the microbes can travel much further as a liquid body. A little goes a long way. *Go slowly by introducing the biology with teas and build it over time layering compost on top. Use it consistently for best results.

In the Summer on hot days I give my garden a seaweed bath in the evenings and so it has the night to rest and digest, ready for the next day with more resilience. The kelp is super replenishing, yin moisturizing and you can see the results within hours. I layer the compost on all my garden beds to sleep with it for the Winter. Or I will lay it over compacted soils to remediate over time.

Another way I support the plants is by pruning them back so that their energy can recover and be used to regenerate new life waiting within. This will stimulate growth in the root systems which will spur more carbon cycling and soil health all naturally.

tierra negra britt browne

I ADORE the term “Lasagna Compost” and read about how you liken the creative process of making this gorgeous compost to baking cookies in the oven because you’re truly waiting to see steam coming off the top and smell the aroma that you know means you’ve arrived at the finished product. As someone who bakes a LOT of cookies, of the lactation sort, I can see the resemblance. Please explain the creative process of tending to your Lasagna Compost.

I’ve found that you can really play with heat; you can actually bake with it when you have the right volume of each. Lasagna composting is about layering brown (carbon, mulch) with layers of green (nitrogen, food scraps). Some people say to use a ratio of 2 parts brown to 1 part green. I like to be somewhere around there or 1 brown to 1 green.

At the beginning of my composting I would be so light and lazy about the pile. I had a 3 x 3 foot wood latticed box with a latched door at the bottom. It was a kit that I found online. I would just throw my food scraps in and toss some mulch on top, no measuring, nothing, just close the lid. A year later I had really nice soil. Everything was taken care of and it was dark and velvety. But it had never “cooked” it was a rotting pile that just worked it’s way through.

The way I bake these batches is accelerating that process, making it nutrient dense and bio-available. The heat burns up all pathogens and seed while keeping the biology alive and thriving. I like knowing everything is safe and clean. Finca takes great pleasure ensuring a premium product. I bake the batches and then they cure for awhile. I let them be exposed to the elements.

Every time I see the steam and smell it’s baking is so amazing; it really smells delicious. When someone orders through the Soil shop I bake it again by seasoning and kneading it with re-purposed coffee grounds and so it has one more cycling of heat and is delivered warm, hyper-micro-nutrient available.

To note: Lasagna Compost is a whole food. It is a complete biology.

We source all of our ingredients locally from organic and regenerative farms. Can you tell us a bit about soil management and why it’s so important to the food system and ultimately food nutrition?

Yes. I believe soil management is everything. Soil is the Cosmos beneath our feet. If you want to have any success as a grower you must build your soils and do so wisely.

This project is essentially a love letter to soil health and flavor and a kind of a manifesto on healing and living closer to the earth, a mutualism like I was saying before. I feel very passionate about food systems and nutrition.

There is a distinct alive-ness infused with eating tasty veggies, beans, broths, fresh cut herbs and eggs. Knowing the farms that grew them. Honoring their process and relationship with the soil. Connecting with and nourishing this cycle brings in more peace. Soil building has a calm, grounding for me; it feels very soothing. There’s also a cultivating trust quality. A ‘taking good care of her is taking care of me’ rapport.

To footnote: layering lasagna compost in your garden a few times a year or even in one application is an effort towards building your soils for the long term. When “fertilizers” are applied, they will spike the soil with specific vitamin profiles for short term gains and will leave your soils depleted and vulnerable to infestation and disease.

If any body wants a primer on where we went wrong on soil management I like recommending the incredible Dust Bowl series by Ken Burns. Or read Wendel Berry’s The Unsettling of America among other great works: The Third Plate by Dan Barber, Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka, all works by Michael Pollan, Naomi Wolf, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is also a good place to start.

In your soil shop, the Seaweed Dashi makes parallels with the use of seaweed in postpartum nourishment. The utilization of seaweeds in the fourth trimester lends itself to revitalization after birth due to its high content of restorative vitamins and minerals. What are its uses and benefits in the garden?

The way I understand it is that seaweed has 10x the mineral levels of land based plants. Kelp contains micro-nutrients critical for bringing a healthy biology back into the soil, helping convert unavailable nutrients into forms the plant can digest and use. It increases Chlorophyll production for foliage health. Seaweed also promotes vigorous root systems with it’s Cytokinins (plant growth hormones). Using seaweed dashi will give your plant a greater resilience to pests like nematodes and mites. What I make is very similar to a dashi broth that we cook with in our kitchens. It’s so healthy for our bodies, toning our adrenal and endocrine systems while building umami.

"I love the symbiosis with our bodies and the earth especially when it comes to all the benefits of nourishing with seaweed."

I use the seaweed dashi to start seeds and as a root bath when I transplant the seedling babies. ­I make a root bath with it for any kind of transplanting. I also love a foliar treatment, right when the sun is setting, inoculating my yard and garden like a sea water spa treatment, and breathing deep ocean inhales.

I read that you can be found steeping tea. As someone who spends a lot of time steeping tea or making herbal infusions this caught my attention. What are your favorite teas? Do you have any tea-time rituals?

It’s true I love drinking tea and having tea close by.

I’ve been making an Oat Straw infusion and then steeping it with some nubs of fresh ginger and Leaves and Flowers’ Tumeric Wellness tea which is citrus peel, tumeric, black pepper, ginger and rosemary — it’s a delicious tonic and I feel really restored by it! Another favorite is making tea with a moroccan mint I have growing in my garden. So simple and refreshing, all about hydration. Masha Tea’s Holy Basil is so special and transports me to another time. I’ll easily drink a pitcher of strong Egyptian hibiscus, tart and quenching. Divine Spice, a dusty herbal chai blend that I drink all the time. I’m at my desk writing this with a cup of Earl Grey. As far as rituals, yes. I like to light beeswax candles with a fresh pot. I definitely feel a ritual with tea when I fill my soil orders. Steeped Tea makes great compost.

Thank you so much for all of your insight and for the work that you’re doing. I like to end on this note. On your perfect vision-board of the world, what does the postpartum experience look like for modern mothers?

I think what you are making at Milky Oat is the ultimate postpartum experience for modern mothers. Honestly what a gift to have your kind of quality nourishment made with such love.

I would like to see healthcare that’s on a grassroots level, a network devoted to protecting divine rights for all. Where rest and nourishment are aligned with Mother Nature and prioritized. There would be access to the healing that is in the fine lines of integrated medicine and Native wisdom.

I wish every postpartum experience could feel held by nature. Time in the garden as the balm to start each day. Slow mornings. Dappled sun. Access to clean natural bodies of water. Naps. Fresh herbs. Warm socks. Baths. Beeswax candles lit when you wake and as the sun goes down. Lots of loose leaf tea. All the love and support you need.

Cocoon-ing is definitely ‘a thing’ on my perfect vision board — these radical new earth dwellings are grounded and peaceful. Low impact, natural light. Milky Oat delivery. A big pile of fresh flour sack tea towels for swaddling. Warm blankets and quilts, flax linen bedding dried on the line in the sun! Clay tile floors. Handmade rugs. Community gardens. (Hearts.)

Thank you for all you are doing, Sydney. And for shining a light on this part if the healing cycle. I’m so grateful that our paths have crossed. I can’t wait for you to be here in LA!!



Photos: Yuri Hasegawa & Oriana Koren

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