How Regenerative Agriculture can Turn Competition into Community
As I log on to Zoom, I try to suppress a twinge of nervousness. This is, I hope, the first of many conversations I will have with farmers from around the country. I’ve committed to writing a series of articles about the regenerative agriculture movement—an alternative farming philosophy that offers hope to our worn-out food system. I’m a tree-hugging city kid, never set foot on a farm except to pick pumpkins at Halloween, and I feel rather out of place discussing agriculture—but that is exactly why I started this project.
I can no longer tolerate being so disconnected from the food that sustains me. I’m tired of being followed by a vague guilt about the food I purchase, without a solid understanding of how the food system works. This series of articles is a way for me, and hopefully you, too, to step out of the dark, to take a hard look at the places we’ve messed up, and to find hope in a new kind of relationship between Homo sapiens and the world we eat.
I have a lot of questions about our food web. I know that agriculture is vital for our existence, but I also know that it's currently causing a huge problem for our planet. And I know it’s a problem that I personally support every time I buy food grown on industrialized farms that rely on toxic chemical inputs. I know that our food system wreaks havoc on soil fertility, biodiversity, and the prospects of rural communities, from South Dakota to Guatemala.
I thought the problems with agriculture were inescapable, until several months ago, I spotted a book with an intriguing title: One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture. According to the author, Stephanie Anderson, there was a thread of hope that this “regenerative agriculture” might be able to heal our desecrated land.
A computerized “ding!” announces Anderson’s arrival on my screen. Her smile is cheerful and calm, her smooth blonde hair frames the white Airpod in either ear, and several shelves of books are visible behind her left shoulder. Anderson is an English instructor at Florida Atlantic University, but I’m not here to ask for writing advice. I’m Zooming her from South Dakota—where she grew up and where, years apart, we attended the same university—to ask her about the question she addressed in One Size Fits None: how do we use farming to get us out of the mess it’s gotten us into?
Anderson's devotion to changing the food system is unique because she has lived on both sides of the issue; she grew up on a conventional farm but now advocates for regenerative techniques. Her description of the regenerative mindset is utterly holistic: for a farmer to practice regenerative agriculture, she says, is for them to have “this kind of radical empathy for the environment, for people who are eating their food.” She sighs, admitting that many of our professional food producers don’t think about the fact that they feed other people; they are focused solely on economics. But the regenerative farming community, she explains after a breath, holds a "narrative of building a community and being part of something larger than oneself,” as opposed to a mindset of “this is my business, that is in competition with all other businesses around.”
Those farmers who view their job as a fight to corner a market and beat the competition are also the farmers who treat the land as a place of zero-sum competition.
From what Anderson says, it seems that the way farmers think about their role in the global community mirrors the way they regard their land. Those farmers who view their job as a fight to corner a market and beat the competition are also the farmers who treat the land as a place of zero-sum competition. They fight the ecosystem with pesticides and rely on chemical fertilizers, believing that farming means continuously wrestling life out of ever-deteriorating soil. But the farmers who believe that they play a vital role in creating healthy societies are the same farmers who can see their farms as a living community, one which warrants what Anderson calls “radical empathy” for the land. Regenerative farmers see themselves as cultivators of an ecosystem, not marshals of a battlefield. Fostering community, both on the farm and in society, is the foundation of sustainable agriculture.
How Change Happens
Anderson’s story is a model of personal transformation. She was raised on a ranch in western South Dakota: a world of conventional agriculture with all its linear thinking and wariness of new ideas. Even today, she tells me, some of her family distrusts the ideas that she’s spent years researching. Her father believes that it is impossible to turn a profit at a small scale and without using chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Yet despite growing up surrounded by such mindsets, Anderson now champions a comprehensive change in the way the world grows food. I’m dying to know how such a transformation can happen. “Read, read, read!” is her first answer. “Be exposed to larger truths.” Leaving home to go to college, Anderson explains, woke her up to new ideas about farming and helped her see the big picture of agriculture and the environment. It wasn’t so much the finer points of soil chemistry and water pollution that gripped her, it was seeing the world as an interconnected whole and realizing the necessity of creating change.
The hope is in finding the courage to form a mutualistic relationship with the land. “If we can use the land in a way that we’re partners [with it]”, she assures me, then “we don’t have to feel so guilty about it.”
Anderson exudes optimism about the future of regenerative agriculture, yet she’s realistic about the challenges ahead. “It is asking something massive of [conventional farmers] to change,” she admits, especially since our economy and government make it hard for farmers to try anything new. Even for Anderson, living out her beliefs isn’t easy. “I always have to separate the feelings I have for my family from my ideological beliefs,” she tells me.
Awareness often brings pain; I tell her that since I opened my eyes to the reality of our food system, I've felt constantly guilty about how my food purchases support an industry that is abusing the planet. She understands. “I feel that guilt, too,” she confesses, with a deep sigh and a shrug. As she sees it, “we’ll continue to feel that guilt about [the food system] if we continue to be exploitative.” For Anderson, the hope is in finding the courage to form a mutualistic relationship with the land. “If we can use the land in a way that we’re partners [with it]”, she assures me, then “we don’t have to feel so guilty about it.”
The Logistics of a Revolution
“Partners with the land”...It sounds a bit utopian. Yet despite encountering widespread resistance to change, Anderson believes that the concepts of regeneration are fundamentally realistic. She explains that, for millenia, human societies have sustained themselves without employing giant agribusiness. And even with all its modern techniques, our current system is not able to feed the world well or equitably. Why cling to the industrial model, she questions, when its result is that “the people who need food aren’t getting it, or they’re getting cheap food that makes them sick?” For Anderson, farming regeneratively means rejecting the modern food system, but it also means offering up a better alternative. She believes that a holistic model can work, if it’s given a chance.
Using holistic farming methods may prevent a farmer from qualifying for government assistance, but the accompanying freedom to farm creatively and resourcefully could be the lifeboat that carries humanity through the worst of the coming ecological crisis.
But can a few freethinking farmers make a difference in this real-life game of monopoly? Anderson believes they can. “The most genuine, effective change tends to come from the bottom up,” she tells me, when individuals act out of personal conviction, rather than external demands. Still, she recognizes the power of government to influence society, both positively and negatively. She moves her hands far apart and then brings them toward each other, sandwiching the air between them. “Policy can be the other half of ‘the squeeze,’” she explains. “If we have change rising from the bottom, we can also have change pressing from the top to incentivize and to help ease the transition.”
Top-down administrative policy already plays a powerful role in today’s food system, but not necessarily in a helpful way. Agricultural subsidies (payments made to farmers by the government) allow farmers to maintain a certain level of income, regardless of the impact of weather or market prices. However, these subsidies come with conditions. Anderson gestures behind her shoulder, in what I assume is the direction of South Dakota from her Florida office, and explains how her father, a conventional farmer, has no freedom in deciding which crops to plant or when to plant them. If he wants to receive subsidies, he must accept stipulations which may not be optimal for his particular farm.
I wonder how climate change will affect farms under such rigid government control: if individual farmers, with their intimate knowledge of their land, are not free to adjust their practices, then how will we avoid food shortages as the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable? Using holistic farming methods may prevent a farmer from qualifying for government assistance, but the accompanying freedom to farm creatively and resourcefully could be the lifeboat that carries humanity through the coming ecological crisis.
What About Livestock?
I have one more question to ask Anderson: “What’s your opinion on cows?” The issues with livestock farming seem to run so deep that I wonder if even a regenerative philosophy could salvage the industry. Yet some people believe that animal agriculture can also be a solution to environmental problems. Project Drawdown, a coalition of climate change experts, promotes livestock-centric concepts such as silvopasture, managed grazing, and pasture cropping as solutions to the climate crisis.
Anderson agrees that animal agriculture can be part of a healthy human-land relationship, although perhaps not at its current (enormous) scale. But, she clarifies, animal agriculture needs to change—a lot. “What we’ve done with animal production is just this massive tragedy,” she tells me, and shakes her head in disgust. “Everything about the [factory farm] model is just unethical.” She points out the irony in devoting vast amounts of land to growing corn and soybeans for livestock, while the animals themselves are confined to tiny cages on factory farms. “It’s nonsensical!” she scoffs. Still, she argues, livestock merit a place on our farms, restoring soil carbon, controlling pests, and producing natural fertilizer. Animals belong in ecosystems, and, therefore, they can belong on our farms as well.
As our conversation winds to an end, I’m surprised at the number of times the word “ecosystem” has been said over the past half-hour. Ecosystems tend to be the concern of environmentalists, not agriculturalists. Anderson reminds me that many farmers deeply distrust the environmental movement, believing that it threatens not only their livelihood but also their culture. But in Anderson’s vision of the future, a farm and an ecosystem are synonymous. Perhaps such a vision is, indeed, achievable: after all, the two of us have connected, across a distance of fifteen hundred miles, to imagine a world in which farms are strongholds of biodiversity, and in which farmers are some of the most skilled and dedicated conservationists among us. We imagine a life in which our sense of guilt is replaced by our role as devoted caretakers of the planet, and we imagine a world that takes care of us in return.