Book of the Week: Fibershed

Welcome to Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages!  Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box!

This week’s Book of the Week feature, produced by Chelsea Green Publishing, is Fibershed, by Rebecca Burgess.

The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

What do clothes have to do with agriculture? The simple answer to this question is: a lot. On average, over 80 percent of the cotton grown in the United States annually is genetically modified to withstand the use of a range of herbicides and pesticides, and less than 1 percent is certified organic. And while two-thirds of Americans support GMO labeling for their food, few understand the role GMOs play in their clothing. In fact, we have yet to broach any largescale public discussion of how GMO agriculture as a whole is impacting the health and diversity of our landscapes, rural economies, and personal health.

Due to the omission of these larger conversations we’ve largely left the genetic engineering of fibers out of the land-use ethics debate altogether, and as a result there is little to no transparency offered on garment hangtags enabling us to determine if our clothing is genetically modified or not. Unless we are searching out and purchasing Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified garments. As a result of the large gap between our knowledge of how clothing is made and where the ingredients are sourced from, when we make decisions as a consumer on what to buy, we are largely making them blindly.

Consider this, for example: American-made wool garments are rare despite the United States being the fifth largest wool-producing nation in the world. Almost all of our wool socks and suits are made in Australia, New Zealand, and China. Beyond that, over 70 percent of the fibers we wear originate from fossil carbon, and almost every garment is colored with dyes that are sourced from fossil carbon. Plastic microfibers that are introduced into rivers, streams, and oceans as a result of the washing of synthetic clothing are contaminating the marine food web as well as our drinking water. Significant concentrations of fiber lint have been found in the deepest ocean habitats with yet-to-be-determined consequences. Working conditions for textile employees are notoriously challenging, and less than 1 percent of clothing sold in the United States is Fair Trade Certified.

And now extreme genetic engineering is being offered to consumers as a hightech solution to the issues created by our antiquated, synthetic, toxic chemistry; fossil carbon dependencies; and overconsumption. Most wearers have no idea that these proprietary biotech technologies share a host of supply-chain and business architecture problems and have not yet been assessed for their potential negative consequences to land, water, flora and fauna, and regional economies despite any claim they might make to the contrary.

Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy

Improving the existing centralized systems of textile production, currently based largely overseas in countries with minimal attention to human rights and weak environmental standards, is one avenue for social and environmental change that offers rays of hope. But it has not been without countless disappointments. And novel technologies also have a role to play in reducing negative impacts of the garment industry. But both of these tools for reform on their own do nothing to transform the existing power dynamics and economic models that provoked the environmental and labor rights catastrophes we are currently digging ourselves out of globally. And yet it is these two strategies that dominate the agendas of sustainability teams at the world’s largest textile companies, that are written about and debated within the trade group journals, and that receive awards at global textiles conferences, reaping investor capital. As a result the conversation that inserts economic and climate justice into the DNA of the systems-change thought is still waiting for its day in the sun.

My book Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy seeks to open the door for that conversation, while recognizing that many more individuals and organizations are also expanding this dialogue on a daily basis. It is a vision of change that focuses on transforming our fiber and dye systems from the soil up. This vision embraces everyone involved in the process, including farmers, ranchers, grassroots organizers, designers, manufacturers, cut-and-sew talent, crafters, fashion pundits, investors, transnational brands, and you—the wearer. It is a vision for globally impactful solutions that consider and provide a voice on how to reconfigure the seat of power and begin putting decision making into the hands of those most familiar with the social and ecological infrastructure of their communities. It is a vision that enhances social, economic, and political opportunities for communities to define and create their fiber and dye systems and redesign the global textile process. It is place-based textile sovereignty, which aims to include rather than exclude all the people, plants, animals, and cultural practices that compose and define a specific geography.

I call this place-based textile system a fibershed. Similar to a local watershed or a foodshed, a fibershed is focused on the source of the raw material, the transparency with which it is converted into clothing, and the connectivity among all parts, from soil to skin and back to soil. In the fibershed where I live, for example, natural plant dyes and fibers such as flax, wool, cotton, hemp, and indigo are being grown using practices that are both traditional and modern, and many of these cropping and livestock systems are showing benefits that we are just beginning to document in detail, such as ameliorating the causes of climate change, increasing resilience to drought, and rebuilding local economies.

Fibershed systems borrow considerable inspiration and framework design from the Slow Food movement, which can be traced back to 1986 when the movement’s founder, Italian farmer Carlo Petrini, organized a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s chain restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Petrini’s galvanizing quote ushered in global affirmation of the need to attend to our food system: “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.” The Slow Food movement quickly gained a following, attracting rural and urban residents alike. It joined an energetic effort by people around the world to address how our food is farmed, who is farming it, how it is processed, and who has access to it. Today these questions guide the mission statements of thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on reforming our food system, and yet we do not see an equally formidable NGO presence that has developed a strategy to support a separate but no less significant product from our working landscapes: our clothing. But there is a grassroots movement afoot to change this, led by farmers, ranchers, artisans, and small- to midscale textile manufacturers. Biosphere-based fibers such as flax, nettle, hemp, wool, milkweed, cashmere, angora, and cotton are making a remarkable comeback, and awareness is being raised on the undeniable fact that the soil that feeds us is also the soil that clothes us.

The Fibershed Movement

Similar to the organic and Slow Food movements, the Fibershed movement began small. In isolated pockets beginning in the United States, individuals and organizations began to envision an alternative to the inequitable business-as-usual model of garment manufacture and disposal. Some of the early leaders of this movement were motivated by the human and environmental toll being taken on their communities by the industrial clothing system; some were textile artisans who simply loved the feel and look of natural fibers and dyes; some were local economy organizers looking for ways to expand development opportunities for small businesses; some were environmental advocates concerned about energy use, carbon footprints, and climate change; and some were farmers and ranchers looking for venues to bring their products to the marketplace. 

Over time these isolated pockets grew, as people began to beta-test their ideas and implement fiber and dye practices where they lived, often by linking with like-minded individuals, until a threshold was reached and a movement was born. There were many pathways to this threshold. 

The Ecology of Color

My personal journey began during a summer teaching job in 1998 at the Arts and Crafts Center of the University of California–Davis. Inspired by an interest in textiles passed to me by a great-grandmother and mother who were talented seamstresses, I intended to hone my skills while also learning how hands-on education can be designed to empower the next generation. I had enrolled in a series of courses offered through a new interdisciplinary Nature and Culture program at the university, and that summer the center hired me to provide classroom education in textile arts for eight- and nine-year-old children, which included the dyeing of their garments. Prior to the start of class, I found myself planning my curriculum with the gloves, dust masks, and disposable aprons that I had been given by the center’s staff for the textile-dyeing process. Each time the children and I worked on a textile project, we suited up in plastic before opening up our jars of colorful powder dyes and spooning heaping mounds of the chemicals into vats of water, being careful to not let the powders touch our skin or get into our eyes or lungs. After we finished dyeing the shirts, the students and I would pour the remaining dye down the drain.

As I cleaned the classroom after our group sessions, I began to wonder: Why were we doing this? Where had these powders come from? If we were prohibited from coming into contact with them during the dyeing process, why was it all right to pour the liquid residue down the drain and then wear the dye-soaked T-shirt next to our skin? I asked friends and fellow teachers what they knew about the chemical source of these dyes, receiving a great many I don’t knows in response. Then the director of the Arts and Crafts Center shared a recently published master’s thesis by Rachel Stone, a graduate of the university’s design department. Titled Opening Pandora’s Box of Colors, the thesis described the crude oil and coal tar refinement processes that form the molecular foundation for the synthetic colors I’d been using with the children.

After deepening my understanding of the implications of synthetic dye use, I decided to search for alternative substances that I could put to use in the classroom. A query on the internet (Ask Jeeves in those pre-Google days) provided a hopeful answer: plant-based dyes. Shortly I found myself at our local food co-op purchasing cabbage and beets, as well as collecting onion skins from the bottom of the onion bin. I rode my bike along the greenbelt to collect blackberries and dandelion leaves. At that time I had not read any natural dye books and had never been personally exposed in action or word to any natural dye processes. I decided I’d learn with the students; together we’d figure out how to cook our cabbage, beets, onion skins, and berries to make our own natural colors.

In class we dyed our clothing, ate the beets, and poured the residue water onto the lawn after it had cooled. The process was incredibly easy, and the curious students began to ask questions about every plant and tree around them. Soon we found ourselves walking across campus identifying species by name and gathering leaves and stems while conjuring up hypotheses on which plants we thought would yield what colors. Needless to say, the dust masks were put away, the plastic aprons were recycled, and we no longer had any use for the disposable gloves. Our textile arts class became the ecology of color course. A new curriculum was born that summer, and a new way of living with the natural world had been sparked for the children and myself.

I continued my natural dye experiments and began taking weaving courses at the university. A new question formed: How do I get deeply connected to color and form in a real and meaningful way? How do I get to the “backbone” of color? In the summer of 1999, a friend gave me a book by Canadian dyer Trudy Van Stralen that explained how to use plant and insect species from Europe, Central America, and South America that have a long history as sources of natural dyes, including indigo, madder, and cochineal. Van Stralen also highlighted many local and easily accessible species such as marigolds and onion skins. Inspired by what I was reading, I began to replicate what I was learning and soon developed a hands-on approach to plant-based dye experimentation. During summer and spring school breaks, as well as after graduating from college, I saved money to support further study with ethnobotanists and artisans who had honed their craft in natural dyeing, including the teachers at Tierra Wools in Los Ojos, New Mexico; Michel Garcia in Provence; Carol Leigh in Missouri; Rose Dedman of the Navajo reservation; and Carol Lee in Wyoming.

Valley Oak Mill. Photo credit: Paige Green

In 2005 I traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia to learn from village-scale textile cooperatives that utilize a multitude of plant sources for dyeing, including morinda root, indigo, mango leaves, and plant species that have no English translation. While traveling through urban centers on my way into the surrounding hills and upland communities, I began to notice that many of the culverts carrying water and effluent were ripe with chemical contamination. I wasn’t sure of the source until I walked across a bridge one day and saw a pipe with pale gray water pouring into a freshwater tributary from a manufacturing site where they were doing synthetic dye work. 

While studying in villages near the Mekong River on the border between Thailand and Laos, I witnessed ceremonies held by community members who celebrated specific moments on the agricultural calendar by wearing symbolic garments that were in some cases the exact same ones worn two or three generations earlier honoring the same date. There had been no cultural push to acquire extraneous garments in the intervening years in these communities. The ceremony reflected the deep consideration that had gone into honing the right garment for the exact life experience a person was encountering. The creation and use of textiles that I experienced in these Thai villages was formative for me. It compelled me to reflect on how these values could be translated to my home region and involve a similar level of connection among color, texture, form, use, and landscape itself.

The cycle of learning and teaching is a continuous process in my life. Whatever I learn and synthesize, I quickly want to share widely with others (always with permission from those who taught me). So upon my return, I found myself developing a curriculum for a local museum in my longtime home, the Bay Area. I titled it Ecological Arts, and its purpose was to help children develop hands-on skills in the practice of growing and naturally dyeing their own clothes. Students analyzed every fiber and dye they used through a social and biological lens with the goal of answering key questions: Where does this plant grow? How is it harvested? Who processed it? For children, this understanding of textile culture was best translated through story and tactile experience; tales of the history of silk and tufts of wool were woven together, summer after summer.

As a young person growing into my own understanding of the world, teaching children such foundational human skills as spinning, felting, weaving, sewing, the respectful harvest of plants, and learning to care for their own natural dye gardens provided a window into our own anthropological evolution. I experienced the contrasts between the material culture of the past and the material culture of today. I’d show a child how to spin fiber from the native dogbane plant, a species that has been in use for millennia in our region and used for twine, string, and fish weirs. I would teach students to use a leg and hand to twist the fiber across their thigh, and I would watch as they had to adjust their slippery polyester pants to get the correct traction for the task. I taught them to hand-stitch a patch in order to mend a hole in their clothing, noting the irony that the child was dressed from head to toe in fossil-fuel-derived clothing produced eight thousand miles away by workers not much older than they were.

I watched my students grow into self-reliant, creative, and intellectually stimulated human beings. But a question also arose in my mind: Where in our culture could their new skills be practiced and advanced? Within their modern economy and culture, it was very likely that my students would not have the privilege of time to mend their own clothes, make their own handspun yarns, or work on a farm to further their understanding of the genetic diversity of our fiber system. Instead they would likely experience the pressure to keep up with the high-cost and high-volume expectations of modern living, becoming increasingly dependent upon the consumption of cheaply made things whose biological source (if there was one) would remain deliberately obscure. I wished my students would find a way to remain craft-focused, but the odds were stacked against them. I wondered how many young people would end up like me, searching for wild blackberries on a college campus to dye a T-shirt because they, and everyone around them, had forgotten they didn’t actually need to use a costly and human-health-degrading carcinogen to color their clothes.

Rebecca Burgess, M.ed, is the executive director of Fibershed, chair of the board for Carbon Cycle Institute, and the author of Harvesting Color. She is a vocationally trained weaver and natural dyer. She has over a decade of experience writing and implementing hands-on curricula that focus on the intersection of restoration ecology and fiber systems. Burgess has built an extensive network of farmers and artisans in the Northern California Fibershed to pilot an innovative fiber systems model at the community scale. Her project has become internationally recognized with over 53 Fibershed communities now in existence. Learn more about her here:

How You Select, Grow, Harvest, Store and Cook Your Food

Fruits and vegetables that are dark in color often have the highest amount of nutrition.

By Leah Smith

Food is supposed to do more than simply satisfy your hunger; it is supposed to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function. Good food does this, but as most people in this country continue to be overfed and undernourished, and as we find that the chronic diseases that bedevil society have their origins in poor health and nutrition, it seems that good food is getting harder to come by. However, there are many steps that can be taken to improve the nutritional content of the produce you grow to feed your family. These steps occur not just at one point in your “food chain.” From plot to pot, here are some ways to provide a nutritional boost to your plate.

Building Healthy Soils

Nutritious foods begin with healthy soils for a couple of reasons. Many antioxidants that humans want to consume are produced by plants if they are growing in nurturing conditions. If a plant is struggling to survive, it is using its energy to provide for its basic needs and will not be producing the anthocyanin, lycopene, lutein, and numerous other protective phytonutrients that benefit both the plant itself and us. People also require minerals for health; these need to be in the soil in order to be taken up by plants and thus be made available to humans as well.

So what makes a healthy soil? Soil microbes play a critical part. They are a biological component that works with the physical components of soil to create the overall picture of healthy soil.

Carbon in its many stages of composition (and decomposition) is also essential. It is the building block of plant life and also of soil biology. Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association (an organization whose objective is to increase the quality of food) advocates not only providing soils with minerals, microbiology and carbon sources, but also aiding them in maintaining the necessary levels of air and water.

Providing and maintaining each of these soil components becomes so interrelated that it can be hard to separate one from the other — humic substances increase a soil’s water holding capacity, which encourages plants to grow well, which causes them to send exudates into the soil, which causes the soil microbes to proliferate, which also increases the soil’s water holding capacity and mineral levels, and on and on.

Plants are an integral part of the picture. Remember that various plants should be continually growing in your soil, whether cash crops or cover crops.

Selecting Healthy Plants

Now it’s time to plant. Let’s start with some basic information. Cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini, green beans and fresh peas have little nutrition. They have some nutrition; all fresh produce at least has some vitamin C because it is fresh. But especially when matched against a number of other fruits and vegetables that are simply loaded with nutrition, they have none by comparison.

On the other hand, garlic, red cabbage, red pepper, kale and beets have loads of nutrition. So an initial thought might be to adjust your planting selections with the intention of altering your menu. This might sound like no guarantee that you will eat any healthier if you simply don’t eat these “strange and foreign vegetables” in the end.

On the other hand, if children are more apt to try eating different vegetables when they are involved in the cooking of them, maybe parents would be equally willing if they grew them. But if you love cucumbers, don’t remove them from you diet or garden. Rather, be mindful about how you consume them. Instead of making cucumber salad with three cups of cucumber, maybe you can start to eat more green salads with a “healthy” topping of cucumber instead.

It is not always a question of produce selection. In many cases, increased nutrition can be achieved (more painlessly) by variety selection. For example, purple carrots not only have more beta carotene than orange carrots, but they also have high amounts of alpha carotene and anthocyanins. The Purple Peruvian potato has anthocyanins of its own as well, and because of this it is much more nutritious than white-fleshed and white-skinned potatoes. This is one of the trends in food nutrition: the deeper and darker the color of a vegetable (or fruit), the more nutrition it will have, and the purples, reds and greens (the darker the better in each case) are superior to yellows and whites. So select sweet corn that is blue, red or at least a deep yellow in color. Grow those tomatoes that are deep red, purple or even described as black or brown. And pick the purple carrots and potatoes.

Discover Acres U.S.A.

Learn monthly with Acres U.S.A. magazine

Every month, we feature practical articles about soil health, livestock management, economic farm practices, and tools that work for both organic family farmers and those rooted in large-scale convention. Our articles are written by farmers and experts with in-the-field, first-hand knowledge. Established in 1971. 

Learn more and subscribe here!

A second rule for increased nutrition is that the smaller in size a fruit or vegetable is, the more nutritious. A currant or cherry tomato has more nutrition than a beefsteak-style, large tomato. A pearl onion has more nutrition than one of those one-pounders.

The reason size matters is that nutritional components (the antioxidant-type) are concentrated in the skin and outer layers of produce, so the more skin you eat the better. To approach this another way, for a set volume of food like tomatoes, you need to increase the crop surface area (skin) you are going to eat; 2 cups of diced tomato from large tomatoes is going to include much less skin than if you made your 2 cups from sliced cherry tomatoes.This is somewhat related to the third principle, which is that the more open a crop is, the more nutrition it should have due to exposure to the sun, which stimulates the production of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals means nutrition for you. Selecting for exposure to the sun should lead you to looseleaf heads or leaf lettuce as opposed to tight heads of lettuce, and looseleaf radicchio instead of a firm head of radicchio.

Certain varieties of many kinds of crops are also genetically disposed to being more nutritious than other varieties. The Ovation strawberry has two times more antioxidants than most other strawberry varieties. Packman is a broccoli that is extra nutritious, as is Jersey Knight asparagus. Reading variety descriptions can help to identify these powerhouses.

Additionally, Dan Kittredge recommends selecting any variety that specifically mentions being valued for its flavor. Flavor comes from nutrition, so any time flavor is mentioned, the variety intrinsically has a greater potential to produce nutritious food. It is important to note that the nutrition a plant is described as having is its genetic potential. If a growing plant is showing signs of nutrient deficiency, the potential of the crop is now limited, and it will not be able to be as nutritious as it could have been because it is not getting all the nutrition it needs to grow.

A Healthy Culture

Cultural techniques also impact the nutritional levels of plants. Many practices here overlap with maintaining healthy soils.

Plants (and soils) need water and air, so maintaining moisture levels in the soil is important, of course. This may take the form of planting into raised rows or beds so that moisture drains properly from the root zone. It could include mulching the soil (or planting a cover crop) to hold in moisture and to protect the soil surface from weathering.

Note that too much water is as much of a problem as too little. It forces air out of the soil, and produce from plants that have been receiving more than the ideal amount of water do not have as intense of a flavor; the taste is “watered down,” and good flavor goes a long way toward encouraging willing consumption. Good cultural practices also means not working the soil when it is too wet, which will lead to the destruction of soil pores used by both air and water.

As mentioned above, sunlight touching plant surfaces stimulates the plant into producing protective compounds that add to their nutritional content for humans. This is why an apple on a sunny portion of a tree will be more nutritious than one grown in a shady portion. So while apples and pears, peppers and tomatoes may need some protection from the sun via their plant’s leaves, growing underneath too dense a canopy would mean too little sunlight and therefore a loss of nutrition. Likewise, it is possible for a crop to spend too much time underneath a shade cloth and to reduce its nutritional performance in this manner.

Before we get to post-harvest handling, a word on harvesting itself. Not only are many fruits and vegetables at the peak of flavor when they are at the peak of ripeness, but this is also when they are at the peak of nutrition. Some crops, such as tomatoes, apples and peaches, give you a little leeway and continue to ripen after harvesting. However, berries, cherries and grapes do not ripen after harvest. So if you are harvesting for immediate family use, allow your foods to be as ripe as possible.

Actually, while on the subject of ripeness, make sure that if you grow winter squash you learn how to test for their ripeness accurately so that you only harvest them when they are fully ripe. Though the difference may not be as stark as with ripe and not-fully-ripe strawberries, for example, a fully mature butternut squash is more flavorful and also more nutritious than one that was harvested too early.

At this point, you may be asking yourself about green versus colored bell peppers. A green bell pepper is immature (there are some peppers whose immature color is a white or purple, but shades of green are most prevalent). Does that mean that once it has ripened and is fully mature (typically red, orange or yellow) that it, too, is more nutritious? Yes, it most certainly does. In fact, the red bell pepper is one of the most antioxidant-rich vegetables there is; the green pepper is nowhere in the running.

Post-Harvest Handling

Anyone who raises produce for sale is familiar with this concept. The way you harvest and handle your crops has a huge impact on their appearance and, therefore, sell-ability.

But harvesting impacts nutrient levels at the same time. A harvested crop is not a dead crop. It is alive and “breathing,” or respiring. This means it is consuming carbon dioxide (and nutrients) and producing oxygen. This process is slowed by lower temperatures. That’s why cooling off crops as quickly as possible is so important for nutrient retention.

Harvest early in the morning so that your crops have been naturally cooled by the night air. Do not let harvested crops sit in the sun. You must get your produce into the cooler as quickly as possible.

But before that there is washing to consider. If you have picked a cool crop and it really isn’t that dirty, just get it right into the fridge. If it is dirty, clean it and drain it thoroughly, as excess moisture creates the perfect environment for decay; just don’t forget about it and leave it out too long.

An important wrinkle to remember is that if you are harvesting a crop that isn’t already cool, let it soak in water for a time, whether it is dirty or not; view it not as a cleaning step but rather as a cooling-off step, as the water will bring down its temperature much more quickly than simply refrigerating it will.

Ideal post-harvest handling means more than just rapid cooling; other steps can be taken, especially when the harvest is for personal consumption and not for sale. Remove the tops from root crop like carrots and beets. Leaving them on during storage increases respiration and nutrient lost. In some cases, just using the produce as soon as possible (no storage at all) is the best step to prevent the loss of nutrition. Spinach that has been stored for one week will have lost half of its antioxidants, and lettuce should not be stored for extended periods either. However, proper post-harvest handling and storage in closed plastic bags with pinprick-size holes to allow for respiration will help to maintain their quality for as long as possible.

Preparing ‘Health Food’

We are now at the final link in the chain, and it is time to prepare your produce to eat.

Fast Food: Different elements come into play for nutrient retention when we talk about food preparation. The first is how quickly produce is used after harvesting. For some crops this is a critically important issue, and for others not so much. Remember the respiration rates we talked about earlier? This is where they become very important.

As you might expect, some crops have high respiration rates and some have low ones. A low rate means that the crop can be harvested and held; it is a good storage crop that will not have used up all of its nutrients before you consume it. Cabbages, beets and carrots are these sort of vegetables; even cauliflower can be stored for roughly a week with negligible nutrient loss.

Vegetables that have a high respiration rate use up their stores of nutrients promptly and are best eaten very fresh. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts, two vegetables with some of the highest antioxidant levels, are very prone to loosing nutrition and sweetness in storage due to respiration. Asparagus is much the same.

Skin Is In (and More): Strange as it may seem, how food is prepared can influence its ultimate nutrition as well — not the cooking method, but the preparation itself.

As discussed above, vegetables and fruits have their greatest nutrition in and below their skin or peel. This holds true for foods you would never think of peeling or can’t peel (celery and strawberries, for example), and also, more importantly, ones that often are peeled. This list is long and includes apples, carrots, cucumbers, peaches, pears, potatoes, etc. So whenever possible you should leave the skin on your foods.

The effects can be dramatic. Potatoes have 50 percent of their antioxidant content in their skin. Another instance of the importance of preparation relates to garlic. Garlic is by far the most effective cancer-fighting component to your diet, thanks chiefly to its allicin content. However, whether or not you reap its substantial benefits depends entirely on how you prepare it for cooking — it is strictly a question of time.

Freezing is a food preservation method that is often a preparation step on the road to a finished dish, and it has nutritional specifics of its own. Some foods loose so much nutrition when they are frozen that this method of preservation should be avoided. Broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are good examples. On the other hand, blueberries and raspberries possess almost as much nutrition when frozen as when fresh. You can conserve more nutrition when you freeze items as quickly as possible (both in terms of how quickly you freeze after harvesting and how quickly the food itself is actually frozen).

In Hot Water: And lastly, how you ultimately cook (or don’t cook) your food is your final opportunity to get the most nutrition out of it. Not only do you need to avoid nutrient loss, but if you play your cards right you will be able to increase nutrient availability as well.

Some foods, such as arugula and kale, are most nutritious when eaten raw. Many foods, however, benefit from light cooking, such as sautéing, because the heat makes its nutrients more bioavailable (it converts it to a form more accessible to the body). This group includes asparagus, beets, carrots and tomatoes. Many foods also benefit from being cooked with a fat, since fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) are more bioavailable in its presence. Boiling is consistently the worst way to prepare vegetables in terms of nutrient loss, and is especially harmful to arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.

Now that you have all of this information, it is time to get active and creative. Trade a low-nutrition tomato variety for a high-nutrition one. Make favorite recipes “potato-skin friendly.” Look for cooking options that will allow you to swap high-nutrition food in. For example, if you want onion on your sandwich, you would benefit greatly from using red or yellow (cooking) onions that are much, much more nutritious than sweet white onions; but you must sauté or caramelize them first to remove their assertive heat (this is doubly beneficial, as cooking will itself increase the content of the antioxidant quercetin in the onions).

Knowledge is power — in this case, the power to improve the nutrition in your food.

Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, Nodding Thistle. She is a home and market gardener, avid reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter. She has learned a great deal of information about plant variety selection and food preparation for increased nutrition from the work of Jo Robinson and her book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.

Want more content like this?

Subscribe to Acres U.S.A. magazine – a monthly publication from Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco-Agriculture. Learn more about it here!

The Benefits of a Diet Based on Organic, Regenerative Agriculture

By Dr Judith Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.
Sponsored by

Regenerative organic agriculture has numerous benefits for the soil, the crops, and the earth’s climate. As pressure continues to grow to improve the nutrient value and safety of food production, and the health of the environment, agriculture will need to find a way to adapt.

One important issue is the conversion from traditional agriculture – and its emphasis on aggressive, often dangerous, inputs – and regenerative agriculture, with its emphasis on ecological systems and food nutrition. As with any major transition, there will be challenges to overcome. Fortunately, there are technological advancements that will assist growers in assessing their soil health practices and allow them to better evaluate their progress as they move towards a fully organic farming system. And with those organic systems come improvements not only for soil health but for human health as well.

Benefits of Organic Practices

Pesticides and environmental toxins are significantly lower in organic produce.  Pesticides are responsible for neurological damage to children which is estimated to cost the EU about 1% of its gross domestic product.  (1,10).   Organic foods decrease exposure to environmental toxins by 70 fold (10).

The significantly better flavors and textures and high level of antioxidants in organic produce (1-13) result in higher consumption of fruits and vegetables by those consuming organic produce (11) — the nutritional value of high vegetable diet is widely acknowledged.  This results in organic consumers contracting less poisoning by pesticides, fungicides, cadmium, and nitrates.  And contributes to better intestinal health due to the much higher level of antioxidants in organic foods (3).  

Organic Diet is associated with significantly lower risk for the following diseases (10): Non-Hodgkin’s leukemia; Obesity; Type 2 Diabetes; Asthma and Eczema; Cardiovascular disease; Hypertension; Hypercholesteremia.

Biostimulants such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) are just beginning to be used to increase the yield, robustness and nutrient level of organic foods(2,7,9,13).  AMF are inhibited in conventional farming. 

Many nutrients in plants (1) are not recognized as nutrients by the USDA (4) which does not recognize differences in the nutritional value of organic vs conventionally grown (4).  The health benefits of these have not been researched. For example, there is almost no research into the large group of polyphenol compounds (>20,000) that are produced in higher amounts and more variability by organically grown plants and have been shown to have antioxidant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antihypertensive, cardioprotective and immune modulating effects.   And the role of micronutrients which are higher in organics is largely unknown.  See chart below from (1)

Interestingly, while protein levels in organic foods are on average lower, there is no evidence that  animals or humans fed organic produce have lower protein levels.   


  1. Barański, M., 2014. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of 280 pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br. 281 J. Nutr112(794-811), p.282.
  2. Baslam, M., Garmendia, I. and Goicoechea, N., 2011. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) improved growth and nutritional quality of greenhouse-grown lettuce. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry59(10), pp.5504-5515.
  3. Cheynier, V., 2012. Phenolic compounds: from plants to foods. Phytochemistry reviews11(2-3), pp.153-177
  4. Dangour, A.D., Dodhia, S.K., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K. and Uauy, R., 2009. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. The American journal of clinical nutrition90(3), pp.680-685.
  5. Hallmann, E. and Rembiałkowska, E., 2007. Comparison of the nutritive quality of tomato fruits from organic and conventional production in Poland.
  6. Hoefkens, C., Vandekinderen, I., De Meulenaer, B.; Devlieghere, F., Baert, K., Sioen, I., De Henauw, S., Verbeke, W., Van Camp J.  (2009). A literature‐based comparison of nutrient and contaminant contents between organic and conventional vegetables and potatoes. British Food Journal 111 (10), 1078‐1097.
  7. Ibrahim, M., 2018. Response of Seeds Quality of Sunflower to Inoculation with Single and Mixed Species of Indigenous Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi. The Open Agriculture Journal12(1).
  8. Kapoulas, N., Ilić, Z.S., Đurovka, M., Trajković, R. and Milenković, L., 2011. Effect of organic and conventional production practices on nutritional value and antioxidant activity of tomatoes. African Journal of Biotechnology10(71), pp.15938-15945.
  9. Karagiannidis, N., Thomidis, T., Lazari, D., Panou-Filotheou, E. and Karagiannidou, C., 2011. Effect of three Greek arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in improving the growth, nutrient concentration, and production of essential oils of oregano and mint plants. Scientia horticulturae129(2), pp.329-334.
  10. Mie, A., Andersen, H.R., Gunnarsson, S., Kahl, J., Kesse-Guyot, E., Rembiałkowska, E., Quaglio, G. and Grandjean, P., 2017. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental Health16(1), p.111.
  11.  Peck, G.M., Andrews, P.K., Reganold, J.P. and Fellman, J.K., 2006. Apple orchard productivity and fruit quality under organic, conventional, and integrated management. HortScience41(1), pp.99-107.
  12. Popa, M.E., Mitelut, A.C., Popa, E.E., Stan, A. and Popa, V.I., 2019. Organic foods contribution to nutritional quality and value. Trends in Food Science & Technology84, pp.15-18.
  13. Toussaint, J.P., Smith, F.A. and Smith, S.E., 2007. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can induce the production of phytochemicals in sweet basil irrespective of phosphorus nutrition. Mycorrhiza17(4), pp.291-297.
  14. Worthington, V., 2001. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine7(2), pp.161-173.

Biomedical Agriculture: The Nexus of Farming and Human Health

By Lauren Krizansky

Patterns, cycles and rhythms are the foundation of life. They take the form of habits that shape individuals and communities and of sequences that keep the natural world in motion. One nonconformist nutritionist is tracking particular patterns across the food system to further support his argument that it’s not only what’s for dinner that determines sickness or health — it’s also the rituals and resources that accompany every meal.

“Dietary patterns” is the term Dr. Henry J. Thompson specifically uses when he talks about the causes of illness. The former cancer prevention researcher, educated at Rutgers University in nutritional sciences and biochemistry and trained at the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Molecular Medicine, delved into the notion that a person’s diet, combined with physical exercise, could prevent disease after his colleagues concluded that reactive, synthetic treatments were the answer to chronic conditions.

“I was shocked that fruit and vegetable intake was not a strong factor in prevention,” Thompson said.

He left his mainstream research to become a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Cancer Prevention Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. For the past 18 years, Thompson has infiltrated an often overlooked part of the food and farm system.

“There seems to be no room for nutrition in ag-related classes,” Thompson said, reflecting on his half-century of studies, research and teaching. “I didn’t understand enough about foods. To learn, you must hang your coffee cup where the people you are interested in hang their coffee cup. This led me to a broad interest in food crops — those eaten in large amounts.”

The result of his culinary curiosities are the dots connecting the food crop to the dietary pattern to the reduced risk of the top four lethal chronic diseases: cancer, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and obesity.

“I want to discover what is really true,” Thompson said about human health, its relationship with food and the diseases that kill 60 percent of the global population. “There is so much hype. So much misrepresentation.”

Life, medicine and food

Thompson started the Biomedical Agriculture (BMA) initiative after Crops for Health, a CSU training program, made progress in investigating staple crop health benefits and established a relationship with the CSU School of Public Health. The program’s physical proximity to CSU agronomists allowed impromptu discussions and collaborations that enabled expansion into an effort to discover the human health benefits of most staple food crops. These accomplishments laid the foundation for Thompson and his cohort to build a place for biomedical research.

Crops for Health confronts the plant-food-cancer risk conundrum through “identifying, developing and producing food crop genotypes that show maximum potential to benefit human health while retaining adapted traits that make them profitable to grow and distribute in the global market place.” It is also developing tools and techniques required to understand how food crops prevent chronic diseases while disseminating findings to the global community via public health approaches designed to effectively promote long-term lifestyle changes

The overall goal of BMA is to identify specific genotypes of a food crop that alone, and when combined with other food crops, form a dietary pattern that reduces chronic disease risk.

According to BMA practices, every crop contains a complex chemical milieu. When a crop is prepared as a food, it might undergo a fundamental change in composition. The food is then combined with other foods to form the overall diet. The diet is the sum of its parts, but it might exhibit features not present when foods are consumed in isolation.

Diversity in the diet results in human health just like multiplicity in the cover crop field results in soil health. Across the whole food and farm system, he said, diversity can reduce chronic disease.

“It is the diverse consumption of a whole-food-based diet that results in improved health,” Thompson said. “High dietary quality comes from a diverse food pattern.”

Over time, typical food consumption patterns within a population are categorized and then compared with their chronic disease patterns. Changes in biomarkers have reflected that certain dietary patterns are associated with health promotion and disease prevention.

Though a person’s genotype is considered in this model, there is virtually no consideration of the different crop genotypes that compose the diet. Modifying diet to influence chronic disease risk without this knowledge is sometimes viewed as superficial. The emerging solution BMA presents is to delve into the crop to investigate chronic disease prevention.

“People need to be eating whole foods, not ingredient foods,” Thompson said. “We are rethinking food. There are principals emerging about the power of a food pattern.”

In this case, “we” partially means the governing physicians and policy makers.

He said recently that the medical community is giving attention to the notion that dietary diversity results in human health, but the argument often is that the consumer would take that advice to expand a preexisting eating regimen loaded with processed foods. This interpretation would then result in increased obesity and, in turn, more chronic disease.

In 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture signed off on dietary guidelines that champion both healthy eating patterns and Thompson’s other preventative finding: physical exercise. The guidelines specify to follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan, to consider cultural and personal preferences to make the shift to a sustainable healthy diet and to support healthy eating patterns for all.

“The problem is nutrition is not represented in a way the physicians take seriously from a medical perspective,” Thompson said. “This is the interface between agriculture and human health.”

A study in dry beans

Thompson’s research plate is filled with wheat, rice, apples, potatoes, peaches and pulses. These staple crops are what provide many populations meals across the globe. Understanding the pattern of the widely eaten foods seems the most logical approach to Thompson if he is to improve health across cultures.

Pulses are the dry, edible seeds of plants in the legume family. They are a category of superfoods that includes chickpeas, lentils, dry peas and beans. Their role in the dietary pattern is to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and to help with the management of blood sugar levels and diabetes, according to the American Pulse Association. Pulses are high in fiber and do not cause blood sugar levels to rise as much as sugary or starchy low-fiber foods. They take longer to break down and, in return, provide longer-lasting energy. Research shows that eating pulses can lower blood cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and help with body weight management, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Pulses are a source of prebiotic fiber, which is the preferred food of gut bacteria, which contributes to good gut health — another factor Thompson deems crucial for successful preventative living.

“People love to eat and can afford these staple crops,” he said. “Today, pulse consumption is down, and that is not a good thing. Cancer is linked to gut health … Usually, gut health is linked to a deeper immune system deficiency.”
In 2003, Thompson also initiated collaborative research with Mark Brick, a dry bean plant breeder working in the CSU Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

In two independent BMA experiments, according to Thompson’s research, a twofold variation in cancer preventive activity was associated with the bean genotype domestication center. Andean white kidney beans were found to have twice the cancer inhibitory activity as navy beans from the Midwest. A twofold reduction in tumor mass accompanied the effect, indicating that the protective mechanism is likely mediated either via the inhibition of cell proliferation or the induction of apoptotic cell death in transformed cell populations.

Two carcinogenesis experiments observed the same cancer inhibitory bean genotype ranking by domestication center.

A dose-response study was also completed and showed that small red dry beans reduced the carcinogenic response.

Biomedical Ag in Action

Teaching breast cancer survivors why they should eat healing foods has shown Thompson a not-so-scientific reasons why food patterns are hard to break and equally as hard to form.

“Survivors are highly educated people,” said Thompson, who has participated in seven federally funded cancer dietary intervention projects. “Yet, I still feel I need to tell them that we are eating a cuisine and that it is not a diet.

He directs his students to eat 12 to 17 servings of vegetables a day and make meals out of only two or three ingredients. In spite of everything the survivors have overcome to sit in front of him and share a meal, he said often their biggest concern is whether or not they need to buy organic.

In his research, Thompson addresses the subject from the other side, assessing genetically modified crops. Instead of leaning on science supporting or dismissing the concerns, BMA prioritizes traditional breeding approaches, including single-gene, single-chemical solutions that are not likely to be efficacious for chronic disease prevention. It also trusts that the introduction of one gene is likely to alter the activity of other genes, which would lead to positive and/or negative biosynthetic activity pattern changes associated with chronic disease prevention. Additionally, BMA considers that benefits from a genetically modified crop might disappear when combined with other foods in a typical diet, negating the effort that went into genetically modified crop production. The altered agronomic characteristics of the genetically modified organism might also diminish the likelihood that it will be widely grown.

“My colleagues tell me that it — organic — is important and that it is good for the environment,” Thompson said, “but then there is the question of production and yields. I can’t tell you there is a definite benefit. Can you afford it? If you can, well, why not? There is no harm, and it probably does some good, but there is no reason not to eat conventional. Do not feel guilty.”

That guilt can negatively affect the mind, he said — the mental health of consumers. He hears the same sentiments when he is asked if it is better to “buy fresh.”

“Our food is so intertwined with our culture,” Thompson said. “Sometimes the most unhealthy crop is the freshest because of the abuse it will take in the kitchen.”

The food system works hard to package and deliver food in an appealing smell, taste and texture, he said. If you eat a mix of fresh, frozen, canned and moderately processed foods, anyone can reduce the risk of or rehabilitate from chronic disease.

Training, discovery and dissemination

Critical thinking is important to Thompson. He teaches several online graduate classes in the CSU Horticulture and Landscape design department. Exposing his students to as many conflicting views around biomedical agriculture is part of his finely tuned teaching pattern.

An obstacle in developing a curriculum for BMA is a lack of integration among offered courses. For example, according to BMA practices, a plant breeding course that does not discuss biofortification or a nutrition course that ignores aspects of plant diversity does little to build a student’s broader conceptual framework.

“Agriculture’s goal is to make enough food to maintain and increase society while public health accuses agriculture of ruining the environment,” Thompson said. “They don’t recognize the small profits and the level of risk or how international and domestic markets work. This is where we need critical thinking.”

BMA distinguishes itself from its counterparts because of its transdisciplinary approach. Thompson invites participants “to develop a shared conceptual framework that integrates and extends discipline-based concepts, theories and methods to address a common goal.”

Standard components of BMA training include experimental design and statistical methods for agriculture and biomedical research, experience with “omics” technologies and bioinformatic techniques, and course work that exposes students to plant breeding, nutrition and biomedical science, according to BMA practices. Group discussions and online inter-university course work ensure students gain access to a broad set of perspectives on agriculture and health.

Thompson said that through taking an honest approach to his students he has learned how to mentor, to expose relevance in work and to provide support from start to finish.

“Our [higher education] system discourages understanding,” Thompson said. “The students that are on the fringe, in that quasi-science, are missing critical thinking. This is critical to the interface of agriculture and human health.

He said he often brings to light the skeptical modern medicine practitioners that mock the notion of proactive, healthy living. He chooses to model for his students thoughtful methods to disseminate their approaches and visions in a society that, in the opinion of some, greatly supports reactive living, which is essentially prolonged dying.

“We need agriculture, human health and all people working together,” Thompson said. “We need fact and truth, not a bunch of semi-scientific concepts. If we don’t make the change to whole foods, the result will be pain, suffering and low productivity.”

Lauren Krizansky is an agricultural journeywoman. She loves, lives and works with her partner, Brendon Rockey, on Rockey Farms in Center, Colorado.

How Understanding Carbon Cycling Can Transform Your Farm

Cattle graze a green cover crop to provide the resources that next year’s cash crop will need in order to grow without synthetic inputs.


Manipulation. The word stirs up images of clever characters or bodies twisted on a chiropractor’s table, not of farmers examining the soil. This art of deliberate control, however, is becoming deeply connected to agriculture, and the practice is giving farmers a fresh relationship with the carbon cycle.

Agriculture removes large amounts of carbon from the cycle in the form of food. Replenishing the carbon in this part of the cycle is possible, but modern crop production methods have stifled the flow. Linear carbon management in the fields has tipped the scales, taking the carbon exchanges out of balance. The quest for high yields with synthetic inputs has made agriculture the villain it ought not be.

“An amount of carbon always comes into the soil, and an amount always leaves the soil,” said Joel Williams, an independent plant and soil health educator working internationally to improve food and farm systems. “The question is how can we manipulate micro-organisms, how can we manipulate our management with each pass of that loop to capture a little bit and keep it in the soil and release the rest that feeds into the cycle?”

On farms and ranches, carbon is primarily lost through mismanaged tillage, erosion, burning, overgrazing and frequent low-carbon crops. These same tools are also critical to balance out the carbon cycle. When carbon becomes the cash crop and a living system becomes the priority, agriculture can manipulate the cycle for the better.

“In order to sequester, you have to strengthen the cycle,” Williams said. “There is nothing wrong with releasing carbon from soils. That is completely normal. That is what helps plants breath. It is to the extent that we have done this that it has become out of balance.”

In agricultural systems, carbon plays four parts. Retired North Dakota-based USDA-NRCS Soil Health Specialist Jay Fuhrer explained how the element moves through a corn crop. It begins, he said, with the harvest and the third of the crop’s carbon that is found in the grain.

“We usually put tires under this part,” Fuhrer said. “Exporting 100 percent of this portion for people food, energy or livestock feed.”

The second part considers that one third of the crop’s carbon is in the residue, of which upwards of 85 percent is oxidized into the atmosphere. The remaining third of the crop’s carbon is in the root mass, where about 70 percent is no longer available to the agricultural cycle.

The fourth part of carbon’s role in agriculture is found in the root exudates of a young, growing, green plant, he said. The soil food web consumes this resource for energy to complete its tasks, especially during the first one to two months of growth.

“The microorganisms are carbon hungry,” Williams confirmed. “We need to bring carbon into soils to feed microorganisms to drive nutrient cycling, which then drives production. We need those microorganisms to be releasing that carbon, to be respiring.”

This is what the farmer can do to support the efficiency, the health and the connectivity of the carbon cycle. Agriculture can feed not just the people, but the life that begets human life. It can look beyond just transferring atmospheric carbon dioxide into long-lived pools.

An example of healthy root mass.

Under Cover Carbon

Contrary to their reputation, fallow lands do not restore fertility in a crop rotation. When a farmer decides to remove plants from the field, he or she also chooses to have a counterproductive interaction with the carbon cycle.

“One is maintaining the carbon cycle when we have living cover,” Williams said. “You are maintaining that flow. When you have a fallow period, you are not. Typically, you are going to be losing carbon.”

Fallow lands result in chemical oxidizing, he explained, because the sun is cooking the ground.

“Fallow is turning it off,” Williams said. “Cover crops are engaging with the carbon cycle through photosynthesis.”

Cover crops contribute to the carbon cycle through a diverse network of specialized personnel underground. They fill the carbon gap that fallow lands and commodity crops leave behind.

“When we use cover crops we are feeding the soil system for a greater time throughout the year, and we start a soil-building process through biology,” said Lance Gunderson, president and co-owner of ReGen Ag Labs in Pleasanton, Nebraska. “Remember that soil without biology is called dirt, and that is geology. When we do fallow, we are creating dirt, because we are not supporting the biology that supports our crops.”

Gunderson believes that fallow fields are more detrimental to soil than tillage, but it is a combination of the two practices that creates serious problems.

“Yes, we should reduce tillage when possible, but I have seen far too many long-term, twenty-plus year, no-till fields exhibit many of the same symptoms of a poor soil as those seen in conventional systems,” he said. “It all boils down to a lack of carbon and diversity.”

Bringing carbon into a cropping system through cover crops entices the carbon cycle to sustain the microbial life under the ground that performs many tasks that improve the soil’s health. This manipulation of carbon also contributes to the cash crop that will find its way into the cover cropped fields in coming seasons.

“Carbon is the backbone for providing structure to the soil,” Gunderson stressed. “Plants exude a relatively large portion of their photosynthate carbon into the soil through the roots.  These root exudates help aggregate the soil both directly and indirectly as food for microbes.”

The simple compounds are then used as a food source, he said. The well-fed microbes are then able to produce many secondary compounds that act as a glue to hold soil particles together.

“I like to think of it as the mortar that helps hold together the bricks of our homes and businesses,” Gunderson said. “The microbes are building and altering their habitat through the use of carbon.”

The stronger and more available the underground habitat, the more productive the microbiology are, for example, in building immunity. Williams said soils rich in carbon, or, more specifically, soil organic matter, are consistently found to possess mechanisms of pathogen suppression.

“There is a highly specific interaction between a couple of organisms between the pathogen and some other beneficial microbes, bacteria or fungi that attack the disease,” Williams explained. “There are many unknowns, which is why we maximize diversity in the hopes that some of those antagonistic species will be present.”

Fuhrer added, “It really is about food and a home. By providing a diversity of plants, we help maintain and encourage the diversity of microbes and the balance. Allowing the microbe community to self-regulate, which our cropping and grazing systems benefit from by reduced disease impacts.”

A seeded potato field after a season of fallow. Water is not moving into the soil.

When Cycles Collide

Carbon is at the center of the water cycle.

Although soil texture plays a role in water dynamics, Gunderson explained that the amount of carbon within a certain textural class also has a profound effect. Increasing soil carbon increases soil aggregation, which increases infiltration. Increases in carbon also reduce bulk density or increase the pore space between aggregates to allow for greater water holding capacity.

“Carbon itself can act as a sponge to increase water holding capacity as well,” Gunderson said. “Some people might be thinking that they have too much water or that their soils are too wet, so why increase carbon? Increasing soil structure allows for better drainage throughout the root zone, but it also helps with better gas exchange at the surface, which can moderate soil moisture in wetter environments.” 

Increasing the functions of the water cycle means being able to capture every drop, hold that water and allow roots to explore the entire soil profile, he added. All of these lead to better water use efficiency and help increase photosynthetic capacity.

When considering carbon in the form of soil organic matter, there is an opportunity for the system to hold onto moisture and possibly to help the plant access water, Williams said. Water will infiltrate and photosynthesis will take place.

Amplifying the Cycle

Livestock is yet another tool to manipulate carbon.

“The act of grazing itself, if managed properly, can stimulate plants to produce greater root mass and increase root exudation to increase soil carbon,” Gunderson said. “Grazing also helps reduce many of the higher carbon or more lignified plants into readily accessible forms to speed up nutrient and carbon cycling by secondary consumers such as macroinvertebrates and microbes.” Grazing also removes very few nutrients compared to haying or silage operations, and the additional manure and urine help support soil habitat while recycling the nutrients back to the land. It increases root exudation and increases feeding microbes and nutrient cycling so the pasture can recover and regrow.

“Plants which are grazed respond differently,” Williams added. “They can boost their photosynthetic capacity.”
The grazed material is put through digestion of the animal’s rumen and spit out in its manure. The rumen does the work, making more nutrients available to the microorganisms in the soil.

“They are more palatable to the microorganisms,” Williams said. “They can digest it easier. Wherever animals are included in cropping systems [and] farming systems, that soil organic matter increases.”

Fuhrer added, “Our soils evolved with a diversity of plants, animals and microbes. Consequently, we need a diversity of livestock on our landscapes.”

When hooves on the ground isn’t an option, compost or manure spreading is often used to fill this need. Control of this input is critical, too.

“Manipulation,” echoed Mark Inness, a veteran composter in southern Colorado “[is] the difference between good compost and manure.”

His belief in maturity time and pile turns result in balanced proportions of carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein production. If the C:N ratio is too high, excess carbon decomposition slows down. If the C:N ratio is too low excess nitrogen, the compost pile will have management challenges.

Compost manipulation also influences the amount of moisture present and conductivity. Moisture affects handling and transport. A desirable moisture content ranges between 40 and 50 percent. Conductivity or soluble salts measures the conductance of electrical current in a liquid-compost slurry. Excessive soluble salt content in a compost can hinder seed germination and proper root growth.

Land managers have a choice for how they manipulate the carbon cycle. In addition to the actual tools available to make practical changes, there are also resources to champion a greater shift to carbon-conscious agriculture

“As a society, we ask a lot from our farmers and ranchers, often with very little thanks or appreciation,” Gunderson said. “I don’t think that we should expect them to do this alone. We need the right support groups and organizations in place to help and support them in making this a reality.  I believe, however, that agriculture could have a greater positive impact on the carbon cycle as a whole than nearly any other industry.”

Lauren Krizansky is an agricultural journeywoman. She loves, lives and works with her partner, Brendon Rockey, on Rockey Farms in Center, Colorado.

Oregon Winemaker Rethinks Relationship Between Soil and Social Justice

Mimi Casteel stands beside a tree at Hope Well Vineyard in Oregon
Mimi Casteel at Hope Well Vineyard in Oregon. Photos by Aubrie Legault

This has been a momentous year for discussing systemic change, both in the halting of normal life during the COVID-19 quarantine and the widespread dialogue surrounding race in America following the murder of George Floyd. Food systems are inseparable from these conversations, and farmers have to grapple with how to nurture and protect people from all walks of life. For those committed to long-term ecological and social wellbeing, the question during these times remains “How can I do better?”

Mimi Casteel of Salem, Oregon, has spent her life wrestling with this question. She offers a unique perspective for white farmers wanting to acknowledge their privilege, pursue justice and move toward a more equitable and regenerative future. “My approach is to assume that people, like ecosystems, really want to be cooperative, work together and heal together,” Casteel says about owning Hope Well Wines, a beyond-organic vineyard. “Let’s blow open every single door and think, ‘If everything were possible, what would that look like in respect to my farm and the people I work with?’”

Casteel’s outside-the-box thinking has resulted in an ecologically flourishing, successful wine business that employs workers year-round with full benefits and retirement. In contrast, federal law allows farms and vineyards to remain exempt from providing insurance to agricultural workers, even those who work over 30 hours. Many injustices still plague agricultural work environments: Oregon state law requires crop businesses to make up the difference when piece-rate or pound-rate wages fall below the minimum wage of $11.25, but the law offers no accountability, requiring workers to dispute these disparities with their employer, which they are often reticent to do for fear of retribution.

Hope Well dials in a multi-species approach to growing grapes that seeks high production, water retention and soil health, while keeping the equitable treatment of workers as a first priority. Casteel believes these things are not in conflict but come from the same set of values. “There’s so much broken with how we view our relationship with people and with nature,” she says. To Casteel, you can’t effectively heal one of these things without the other. “The way we do agriculture has to change: it’s not just our practices; it’s our entire culture.”

2021 Healthy Soil Summit info

Mimi Casteel Joins 2021 Healthy Soil Summit Speaker Lineup

Learn practical, economical approaches to soil health management at the 2021 Healthy Soil Summit! Mimi Casteel joins our regenerative farming experts to provide two full days of educational content. Join this virtual event from anywhere on Aug. 25-26 and learn how to create a real ROI for your soil health management system.

Learn more here!

The Hope Well Story

Casteel’s parents started Bethel Heights in the Willamette Valley in the 1970s, transforming a degraded walnut, cherry and apple farm into a vineyard. While her family instilled a strong appreciation for agriculture and its impacts, she was initially drawn toward botany, wilderness ecology and conservation as a career. However, the more time Casteel spent doing field work in the wilderness, the more she recognized that land degradation in agricultural spaces was the biggest threats to the remote locations she was working to conserve. She knew something about how to change that. “That is where I learned I wasn’t fighting the right battle,” she says, “If I really cared about these spaces, my roots in agriculture was where I needed to go.”

Casteel’s strongly integrated mindset is what drives her focus on regenerative agriculture. “When I was in college and doing my graduate work, I never wanted to imagine systems without all of their integrated parts functioning at the highest possible capacity.” To Casteel, studying agriculture and the natural sciences is impossible without understanding all the connected layers. “Why is it that we think it’s so important for somebody who works in chemistry to have a very strong foundation in physics, but if you go into agronomy you take those classes, but then you’re forced to forget that stuff or it’s suggested to you that those rules don’t apply?”

Jumping back into viticulture with a regenerative mindset wasn’t simple for Casteel. “I was very honored to come back to my family farm, but I couldn’t insist that we change everything overnight.” Casteel began focusing her attention on the oldest vines at Bethel Heights, implementing more natural practices to reverse the impacts of a root louse called phylloxera and reboot the vines’ productivity. “I started getting very experimental with those old vines, and the successes that I had started to open the minds of my family. It became clear over a decade that if I wanted to do everything I thought was necessary, it was a little too risky to force on my family, and that directed me to break off and start my own project.”

In 2007-08, Casteel planted a separate vineyard 8 miles from the Bethel Estate property. Originally, it was meant to be a fallback if the project of reviving the old vines fell through to phylloxera. “This became where I was allowed to work independently and practice a lot of my ideals. I fell in love with this place.” Over years of selling the fruit and testing different permaculture and ecologically sensitive viticulture practices, Casteel arrived in 2015 at an intention to fully distinguish her efforts from the Bethel Estate brand and to create the label now known as Hope Well Wines. “It’s important to me that we didn’t take a pristine bit of habitat and turn it into a vineyard. That is a terrible use of land. We shouldn’t be converting any more habitat to agriculture. The focus should now be on degraded land that is being abandoned.”

Hope Well’s landscape is a striking contrast with conventional vineyards. Instead of bright orange chemicals between the rows, Hope Well has diverse forage growing to feed the sheep that harvest the suckers and effortlessly manure the plants. Birds dart in and out of the root stocks, indicators of diverse invertebrate life. The fluffy soil holds moisture and a panoply of microbes. “Over time we get a deeper connection to the multiplicity of energies that are growing here. There is an exponential threshold with diversity when things start to come back. It becomes quadratic, then exponential. What you see changing gets bigger and bigger every year.”

Immediately upon starting her own venture, Casteel recognized that it was her responsibility not only to nurture the land but also to equitably compensate the staff who work on every corner of the operation. “Our workers are such an important part of the story of this place, our wines and our future.” She says. “There is a really alarming trend to not only diminish but demonize the people who do the most work in agriculture. Each one of these people has a precious and important story; their experience needs to be elevated in our culture and our lexicon.”

Mimi Casteel kneels beside rows of vines at Hope Well Vineyard in Oregon
Hope Well isn’t your typical vineyard. Casteel has created an ecosystem that includes animals and native plants.

Black and Brown Farmers Matter

In the week after George Floyd’s murder, more than a few farmers took to social media with dismissive words such as, “I’m not a racist. I have Black and brown friends, therefore I’m not responsible for the systemic oppression.” This moment, however, is a time for humility and for recognizing the ways in which our agricultural system does stratify people in unfair ways because of their background and the color of their skin.

As white participants in farming, the ways in which we have ignored the oppression of Black and brown farmers makes us complicit. “Right now we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, but there’s a larger conversation about all the cultures we’ve oppressed,” Casteel says. She acknowledges that she didn’t always understand how agriculture takes advantage of vulnerable demographics of people. Just as she believes adopting regenerative practices is difficult and costly, but worth it in the long run, she has submitted herself to the process of listening to Black and brown voices, unpacking her own privilege and learning how to dismantle racist architecture in her farm operation.

After all, Casteel says, permaculture itself is adapted from land practices used by indigenous peoples for centuries. “They’re the people who cared for this land,” she says. “They’re the only community of people we can point to who has ever successfully lived with this land without doing harm.”

Casteel remembers back when Oregon winemakers first began to address the issue of healthcare inequities for Latinx vineyard workers. Rather than work to address systemic problems so workers could have regular access to healthcare, the community created a nonprofit: ¡Salud!. This fund, fed by an elaborate annual fundraiser, provides a resource to uninsured winery workers for catastrophic hospital visits. “As much as I like the intention behind this, I was horribly uncomfortable with it from the first day.” Casteel says. “It’s really upsetting to me that this is how we’re dealing with what is a completely unacceptable way to treat these people who make our wine.”

While ¡Salud! might help stem a small bleed in a gushing hemorrhage of inequity for Oregon winery workers, Casteel is saying that business owners can do more. “We sat down with the budget and asked, how can we fully benefit all of our employees? Per month, it costs $1330.41 for every family and $466.81 for each individual we add [for] zero-pay-in health insurance, but that’s what we were paying for every white person who works for the company without it seeming like an extraordinary ask.” Casteel says living wages and benefits are simply the cost of doing business. “If you can’t be profitable while [ensuring] the human beings who work for you have whole lives at the same level as you, then your land ownership needs to be torn down.”

Sustainability and Social Justice

Casteel says that “the work of regenerative agriculture is to repair the functions of the ecosystem: the structure, the gas exchange, the nutrient cycling, the biological productivity. Bringing those functions up to a level that is not only thriving, but truly resilient and able to operate in spite of its surroundings. How we treat the land, how we treat people — it’s all the same. Those two things can’t be teased apart. We can’t heal agricultural woes, solve climate change, address the problematic treatment of the natural world if we can’t at the same time address the injuries between human beings.”

Learning to adapt her mindset to a regenerative agricultural model helped Casteel to question her assumptions about race. “I always make the assumption that I know nothing and that there’s nothing but information coming at me. You have to crack open your preconceptions in order for information to be able to make it past the shields we build up. The same is true with race. As a white person, farmer, land owner, business owner, you’re walking in with your shields up, whether that’s because you’re trying not to offend people to the point of paralysis or trying to defend your point of view.”

Casteel says a difficult aspect of reckoning with why field workers were less benefitted than office workers was unpacking the class and race biases surrounding agricultural labor. “People think of it as unskilled or for a certain demographic of people because it’s considered drudgery,” Casteel says. “I completely reject that.” The reason farming has been slower to receive the respect of other highly specialized crafts that directly influence the wellbeing of land and people is the direct result of slavery: forcing de-valued humans to do this work for free. Part of the way Casteel works to dismantle this perception in her sphere of influence is to participate with her workers on every level of the business. To Casteel, nobody is “too good” to tend vines or move the sheep that graze between rows; in fact, those activities require significant prowess that deserves respect.

The regenerative mindset and model isn’t limited to Casteel and then distributed to her employees as a series of instructions. Casteel and her staff have spent time learning and discussing the regenerative model so that they’re collaboratively building on this method as a team. “It’s hard because I don’t speak perfect Spanish and many of them don’t speak perfect English, but I’m sharing with them the philosophy behind these regenerative practices, so we work together.” Casteel says that she would be so limited if she used an exclusively top-down method of leadership. “The thoughts and feelings of all these people working the land could really be saving the world right now, and we don’t ask them their opinions.”Casteel believes it’s not enough just to support her staff in the present. She takes an active interest in their future. “I would only hope to be a launchpad for the people who come and love this work. I don’t want to trap my workers here.” Casteel says she’s constantly offering her employees encouragement about their talents and support if they want to pursue more learning and opportunities. “We need love and intelligence more on the landscape, so if anybody gets impacted by that here I want them to impact others, maybe pursue more education or start their own crew or do the same kind of model.”

The way forward is as complex as untangling an entire system, but that doesn’t mean healthy systems can’t exist alongside the broken ones and challenge norms. Black and brown voices like Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms have been advocating for democratic, cooperative ownership of land where the cost of farming is leveraged by the collective power of groups of farmers who work together to both raise ecological standards and lower food costs. “What would it mean to reclaim the land that has been abused, like child-protective services, but for landscapes?” Casteel asks. “How could that be involved in reparation? Why not have that as a goal?” Casteel thinks giving back land can function not only as a part of reparations, but also as a way to fight climate change and support the regional food system.

Ally in Agriculture

Casteel acknowledges that owning a farm business is some of the most mentally-consuming work. It can be challenging for farmers to pay themselves, much less think about equity toward their employees. “And yet this is the moment when we need to reach out.”

Casteel is transparent and honest about how inheriting a place in her family’s wine business is an example of white privilege. “For me, this means being as vulnerable and honest with myself as I can be,” Casteel says. ‘None of us that own land right now can say that we got here fairly, and none of us are trying to make up for that. We’re all culpable: nobody has gotten here through boot-strapping. If you’re a white farmer, your experience is different. Even just getting in your car and going to the store is a different experience than it is for your brown or Black employees.”

This first step can be the hardest for those who are new to this concept or perhaps felt like this process is limited to a specific political party or ideology. Having privilege doesn’t make someone bad; it’s saying that they have had access to something that everybody should have. For example, every person who is interested in growing food should have access to some land where they can do that, but that’s not the case for many people who grow up in inner city areas, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black and brown due to racist housing policies. Acknowledging privilege looks like seeing that disparity between one’s own experience and the experience of a person of color and then recognizing it shouldn’t be that way.

Listen to Black and brown voices

It is essential to follow Black and brown thought leaders on social media such as Houston area farmer Timothy Hammond (@bigcitygardener), read books like Farming While Black by Leah Penniman and research the systemic racism in agriculture. But white farmers who have Black and brown staff also need to create an environment for their employees where they can have candid, honest conversations. Listening to her staff has opened Casteel’s eyes to the vastly different experience of these Latinx employees. “They get pulled over maybe 60 percent more often than I do for no reason at all. Think about the background stress that that puts on people’s lives.”
Use your influence to edify

“A lot of farmers really care about and love their employees. Perhaps they would even go as far as to say that their employees are like family. But if you really dive into that what does that mean, does your family get paid the same as your employees? Do they have the same benefits that you have? Do they have the same access to the resources of your community that they have? Are you a part of keeping them from having those resources?”

While Casteel has set a great example for compensating, benefitting and collaborating with her Latino staff, many farmers don’t have employees or live in communities where they come into contact with many people of color. This doesn’t mean farmers can’t be advocates for change and call out problems with systems and organizations. “There’s this entire system that needs to be broken down. It’s our job to point out the flaws with the way they treat people, the way they treat the land and the way they treat animals.”

Be a lifelong learner

Rather than asserting “I’m not a racist,” it’s important for white farmers to accept that racism exists in the fabric of our experience. Rather than dismiss it, it’s our job to constantly grapple with our whiteness and how it impacts those around us. “It’s a surrender. It takes a suspension of ourselves,” Casteel says. She recommends having compassion toward those who are beginning this journey of asking themselves hard questions, especially compassion towards one’s self. Authentic change can happen when we properly grieve our mistakes and blindnesses rather than allowing shame to drive us away from the challenging questions.

“I don’t buy that we can’t change the way that we use land and how we treat people in this country,” Casteel says. “If we can’t change, then we are admitting that we’re done for.”

Learn more about Mimi Casteel and Hope Well Wines at

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. Subscribe here.

Meet Mimi Casteel at the 2021 Healthy Soil Summit!

Mimi Casteel is one of our expert speakers at the 2021 Healthy Soil Summit taking place virtually this Aug. 25-26. Come to learn practical, applicable soil health management techniques and connect with fellow growers from all over the world. Learn more here!

How Microalgae Are Helping Growers Increase Marketable Lettuce Yield

Are you looking to get more lettuce from your fields? If so, you’ll want to learn about the latest science on soil health and how microalgae can be the key to better harvests in many ways.

Sponsored by Heliae® Agriculture

Experienced lettuce growers know that just below the surface of their fields is a complex world—a microbiome—made up of many types of beneficial microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. The soil also contains non-living plant and animal matter that, with the help of these organisms, is continually releasing nutrients and enriching the environment as it decays. This organic matter, and the active carbon it contains, feed the microbes, which ultimately die, and the cycle continues, producing the kind of vibrant soil in which crops thrive. 

New studies have shown that microalgae can be a powerful catalyst in this process, especially when applied as a microalgae-based soil amendment. Remarkable lettuce yield improvements have been made by utilizing microalgae to improve soil health. For example, results from a field study with a microalgae soil amendment observed an 18% increase in root area, 12% increase in shoot biomass, and 110 cartons/acre overall increase in lettuce production. These kinds of numbers can only increase the grower’s profitability per acre.

Coming to the Rescue of Thirsty Crops

Not only do microalgae play a key role in soil health in terms of nutrient availability, they also improve water management. With ongoing tillage, compaction, and surface crusting, lettuce fields lose their ability to absorb and retain moisture. Water from precipitation or irrigation starts to run off or pool on the surface and evaporate. As a result, lettuce crops do not get nearly as much moisture as they should, which indicates diminished water use efficiency.

When a microalgae-based soil amendment is added to the soil, it joins forces with the bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms present to fix this problem. The byproducts of their combined work in breaking down plant and animal matter help create formations in the soil called aggregates. The spaces between these clusters eagerly accept water and make it available to lettuce roots.

Aggregated soil moves moisture to optimal depths, drawing roots with it, thereby helping to protect them from drought conditions. And, of course, roots need moisture in order to absorb nutrients, so increased water holding capacity in the soil can lead to better “hydrated” lettuce heads. 

Regenerative Agriculture: Strengthening the Foundation of Your Success

The near-term benefits of applying a microalgae-based soil amendment to fields are well-documented and important to the success of a growing operation. But just as important to forward-thinking farmers and agriculture businesses are the long-term benefits that come from treating fields today.

The concept of regenerative agriculture is one that many organizations are embracing for a good reason: it increases the value of their most important asset—their fields. In young fields, microalgae enhance the soil biodiversity, helping fields reach their maximum production potential faster.

In older fields, this type of soil amendment can provide a “new lease on life.” Tired fields depleted of nutrients and with a weak microbiome and poor soil structure get a powerful boost that can increase their productivity and extend their viability. This happens, in part, because microalgae help produce an environment that is welcoming to other microorganisms for an increased benefit.

Adopting a regenerative agriculture approach has marketing benefits as well. Consumers like to know that the fruits and vegetables they buy are grown by people who are focused not just on what they can get out of the earth, but also on what they can put back into it. And wholesalers and retailers like it when their customers are happy!

Putting Science to Work for You

Test samples of soil.
Test samples of soil.

One of the great things about agriculture is that every grower can also be a researcher and come to their own conclusions about the effectiveness of products. By applying a microalgae-based soil amendment to one portion of your field while leaving another untreated, and then planting in both, you can see the benefits for yourself.

In fact, by selecting fields where abiotic stress is high, and where past crops simply haven’t been as resilient as you would like, you can understand the full potential of microalgae to help you cultivate better lettuce crops. Some soil amendment providers will even offer a performance guarantee. If you don’t agree that treated fields outperform untreated fields, they will refund the cost of the product. In other words, there is no reason not to give microalgae a try.

To learn more about how microalgae-based soil amendments improve soil health and increase lettuce yields, visit or call (800) 998-6536 to speak with the soil experts at Heliae® Agriculture about PhycoTerra® microalgae-based soil amendment.

Solutions with PhycoTerra

Tractor Time Episode 45: Agroecologist Nicole Masters on Her Love of Soil

With us on our first live episode of Tractor Time is agroecologist Nicole Masters. She has a new book out. It’s called, “For the Love of Soil,” and there’s an excerpt of that book in the August edition of Acres U.S.A. magazine. Go to to subscribe. Nicole has 20 years of experience working in Australia and New Zealand, in North America, to create regenerative food systems.

Nearly a third of arable land worldwide has been lost to degradation and erosion over the past 40 years. With decades of experience in regenerative soil systems and their management, Nicole delivers solutions to rewind the clock on this increasingly critical crisis.

To face the challenges of today, we must take a soil-first approach to our landscapes, restoring natural cycles, and bringing vitality back to ecosystems. All while putting the food back into food.

7 Questions to Ask Yourself for Your New Website

By Jorge Abrego
Advertising Director at Acres U.S.A.

Having worked on and developed numerous websites for clients in agriculture, irrigation and technology over the last fifteen years, most of these clients hired my company for three reasons:

  1. They needed a website that was easier to update and maintain
  2. They needed a website that offered a better user experience
  3. They needed a website that aesthetically projected an accurate depiction of their company, and skillfully communicated their product’s/service’s value proposition, unique attributes and tangible advantages

For better or for worse, in today’s world your website is the front door to your customers and your most visible marketing tool. Ensuring that your website can attract potential customers and serve them in tangible ways is critical to the success of your overarching marketing efforts.

Deciding you need a new website is step one in the process. Step two centers on determining what you want from your new website, so let’s talk about seven important questions you need to ask yourself before engaging a partner and requesting a website proposal.

Question #1: What is the main purpose of your website?

Different companies have different goals for their websites. Some websites exist to produce sales leads while others are designed to sell product. Most clients want to use their website to engage prospective customers by educating them and demonstrating their own expertise.

Question #2: Who is the main audience for your website?

This should be one of the simplest questions, but clarifying this key point ensures that the website design and development efforts are aligned to accomplish this goal.

Question #3: Who are your main competitors?

You’ll want to review your competitors and even your customers’ websites to understand what your prospective customers will expect for your website. Identify ‘must have’ features and determine opportunities for you to differentiate yourself. Be mindful of how your industry is progressing and which new players are moving into your space.

Question #4: What does your website need or not need (from a technology standpoint)?

Different technological needs can certainly influence a proposal and a project. Different technologies ranging from e-commerce capabilities to faceted search that allows users to customize their product search to integration with a client’s customer database so website visitors can check order history, etc. Just about everything is possible in today’s world, so determining a clear scope for the project is critical.

Question #5: What new features or functions does the website need?

Another way to look at this is, what features do you absolutely want to keep from your current website or wish you could add to that website? What parts of the current website do your customers value the most? What do you wish your current website did that it doesn’t do?

Question #6: How will you measure whether the new website is a success?

Answering this question can be difficult in our world since not too many clients transact sales online. So, will you use traffic growth to evaluate success? Are you going to count on anecdotal feedback from the market to indicate how well the new website works? Or, do you have some other measuring stick?

Question #7: What’s your budget?

Yes, any good designer/developer is going to ask this. Sharing these details – even if you only have a range – helps ensure everyone shares the same vision and expectations for your project. Depending on the complexity of the architecture and what you need to accomplish (Qs 4 & 5), the cost of a new professionally developed agricultural website can range from as low as $3,000 to $15,000 – $20,000. There’s no need to bust the budget, but given that it’s something that most companies do every 7-10 years, skimping usually does not yield real value or lasting ROI

Jorge Abrego is the Advertising Director for Acres U.S.A. and has 26 years of advertising agency and B2B media experience in the agriculture, energy and technology sectors.

Native Advertising: Leveraging Endemic Engagement

By Jorge Abrego
Advertising Director of Acres U.S.A.

Most everyone in marketing has heard the term “native advertising” and now marketers in agriculture need to engage themselves with how to effectively incorporate it into their marketing and communication strategy in a targeted, business-to-business environment.

We’ll look at three key questions around the topic of native advertising:

  • What exactly is native advertising?
  • Is native advertising just a faddish buzzword, or does it offer long-term potential in regenerative ag?
  • How do marketers effectively incorporate native advertising into their marketing tactics?

What exactly is native advertising?

A good working definition of native advertising is “a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.” Most often, this means that native ads are content-oriented ads placed within targeted content environments and media. But, rather than looking like standard display ads, native ads are stories and narrative building articles and/or videos that engage the audience organically, or endemically.

The word content is a critical element to defining a native ad and differentiating it from traditional advertising. All advertising ultimately aims to sell a product or service, but a native ad’s immediate goal is to engage the prospective customer more so than to sell him or her something. Advertisers using native ads do so looking to boost prospective customers’ awareness and perception of their company while informing and educating, with the objective of building credibility and fomenting trust with potential customers as they move down the purchasing funnel.

Remember the above definition – the native ad experience “follows the natural form and function” where it lives. So, marketers who buy native ads want to create an ad that looks and acts like the rest of that e-newsletter or website. That typically means producing a story that is hosted in a location just like any other featured editorial content. And native advertising doesn’t have to be limited to stories. In fact, companies use videos and even photo slideshows as native ads that fit very well with the rest of the content on a website and/or e-newsletter.

Is native advertising just a faddish buzzword, or does it offer long-term potential in regenerative ag?

Native advertising is undoubtedly a buzzword, but the concept offers real value to marketers and is becoming increasingly popular for a couple of simple reasons.

  1. It works. According to the Content Marketing Institute, native ads that have run in B2B content brands consistently since 2016 have produced the highest click-through rates within industry e-newsletters or websites and the audience spends nearly as much time on the native ad pages as they do on pages featuring editorial content. In fact, our audience of Acres U.S.A. e-newsletter subscribers have clicked through on native advertising at nearly twice the rate of banner advertising and as high as the editorial content.
  2. Audiences are always looking for new information to help them run their business better, and well-executed native ads that offer valuable information consistently produce strong metrics. (By comparison, poorly constructed native ads that are little more than not-so-subtle product pushes don’t fool many people and yield little engagement.)
  3. Native ads deliver continued exposure in this age of display advertising disruption. The shift to mobile (very real in our market – roughly 40% of the sessions) combined with the increase of intrusive digital advertising demands ad formats that help marketers deliver their message to prospective customers in a more endemically engaging manner. Native ads do that.

How do marketers effectively incorporate native advertising into their marketing tactics?

First off, just get started. Part of digital media’s beauty is the ability to experiment with something, measure the results, adapt and try again. This is true for native advertising too.

Getting started means learning about the native ad offerings from your key media partners. A forward-thinking media outlet can be your best resource, even if they’re tweaking it as they learn what works best for their clients.

From there, start the process of thinking through what aspects of your product/solution needs to be explained and broken down for farmers to use effectively and how your core ingredient or inherent substance (not your brand) fits into a comprehensive regenerative farming strategy. What key knowledge and insight can you share that would truly interest that audience?  How can you help your audience better understand why key substances, technolgies and processes have been proven to be effective? Bring data and research that enables the practical application of a particular aspect of soil and plant health, farm management or resource stewardship. Keep in mind that prospects aren’t likely going online hunting for information about your product. They’re looking for solutions to problems!

If you don’t have the bandwidth or expertise for creating content, find a partner who can provide you as much or as little help as you need to produce content you own and can use on your website (highly recommended for increased organic traffic) and that can be repurposed by tweaking or updating for dissemination in various forms.

Next, get a native ad buy in place and see how well it performs for you, remembering that native ads are often evaluated with different metrics than traditional digital ads. Although they can, native ads aren’t likely to drive traffic to your website, so you’ll be more interested in engagement measured by click-through rates, the number of page views produced by each native ad page on the media partner’s website and the average time spent on those pages by the audience.

As noted above, we think native advertising holds great promise for marketers who appreciate the importance of digital marketing and are willing to learn something new, because farmers are always willing to learn something new.

Learn more about advertising opportunities with Acres U.S.A. here.

Jorge Abrego is the Advertising Director for Acres U.S.A.and has 26 years of advertising agency and B2B media experience in the agriculture, energy and technology sectors.