Fighting for Food and Seed Sovereignty in Hawai’i

Nancy Redfeather is a farmer, teacher, writer, program director and activist.

By Allie Hymas

“Start with one row,” says Nancy Redfeather, farmer, teacher, writer, program director and activist. In addition to decades teaching in Waldorf and public schools and cautioning  against GMOs in her home state of Hawai‘i, Redfeather recently retired from a decade of work with the Kohala Center as the director of the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network whose vision was to support schools and teachers to create organic gardens in schools across the big island.

Her advice to would-be seed advocates: “If you want to save seed, start with something you know how to grow, read about how to save that kind of seed, and make sure you do a germination test and store it properly… and don’t forget to use compost! Once you get going, you have something to share with your family and friends.” 

To Redfeather, staying grounded in the work informs the direction and motivation for organizing people. Her life’s arc of prolific educating, organizing and advocacy can be traced back to a desire to see the land flourish and food sources multiply to nourish the community. “You’ll have way more  appreciation for the whole system if you participate in it yourself.”

While it’s well known that tourists flock to the Aloha State, fewer are aware that the biotech companies have fought for decades with locals to carry out their field trials with the benefit of Hawai‘i’s isolated land and year-round 75 degree climate. “In many ways, Hawai‘i didn’t really give them a welcome mat,” Redfeather says. “They use too many pesticides, communities were getting sprayed–especially Kauai.” Some, like Grist’s Nathaniel Johnson, argue that newcomers to the islands eschew GMOs to protect their own vision of paradise. Others point out that small farms are Hawai‘i’s legacy, and monoculture threatens to erase it.  But in these past 5 years, the presence of the biotech companies has lessened.  “Hawai‘i has bigger fish to fry than opposing anything, we need to develop and grow a vibrant community food system and agricultural economy” says Redfeather. 

“86% of farms on this island are small farms, one to nine acres,” Redfeather says. Before colonization, the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawai‘ian Kingdom) grew food in many small, contiguous gardens, and Redfeather contends that this model is as much Hawai‘i’s future as its past. “They fed a population that’s roughly as big as we have now, and everyone participated in the food system.” 

Food prices in Hawai‘i continue to rise, in Oahu, a gallon of milk might cost $8.99, a pound of carrots $3.49. “That’s because we are shipping food here from the Central Valley, which is completely unsustainable,” Redfeather says. “When you think about the price of groceries at supermarkets here, there’s every reason to throw in with small and medium sized farms, and don’t forget about the home producers! Before 1980, they were our biggest growers of diverse food sources,  excluding the pineapple plantations.

Redfeather’s many shades of activism and work in seed sovereignty comes in a long list of directorships and leadership roles, but she sums up her work with a very practical motivation.

“Who owns the seed? This is the time for people to come together and to share their heirloom seed varieties with home and market growers in our communities to help develop regional and local food systems. We need to keep growing varieties that are adapted for Hawai‘i. Our ecosystems and micro-climates are unique.”

From Mainland to Island

“My ancestors were farmers. They came from Scotland in the 1800s and brought the black angus cattle to the United States,” Redfeather says. “People who were breeding animals in that time always had a diverse farm, they had crops for their cattle, produced their own and grew food for their family.” The family had collaborated on the cattle breeding operation for generations until the 1930s, when they lost their business and farm in the Great Depression. “Eventually, when their farm was foreclosed, they sold all their machinery and came to California.” Redfeather’s grandparents bought two acres in the San Gabriel Valley and started the farm where she was born.

“When I was a child in Los Angeles, there were ten thousand of small farms; Los Angeles had become an agricultural center  back in the 1920s. The chamber of commerce had decided that instead of big farms, many small farms would create a stronger economy for Los Angeles.” Redfeather says the early vision for a multiplicity of small farms led to the region’s early success in becoming a food hub for the western United States. “They made it easy for farmers who went bankrupt in the midwest to come out and buy a piece of land–and that’s what my grandparents and great grandparents did. “My grandparents had a small egg farm and bred baby chicks for the many small regional egg farms in Los Angeles,” Redfeather says. “My grandmother bred a chicken that was a good layer but really docile. I grew up spending a lot of time with chickens.”

Initially after graduation, Redfeather was not drawn to the agrarian life, but she turned to it again when the stress of college began to wear on her health. “I was working on my master’s degree in education, and I realized that I didn’t feel that great. If I’m 21 years old and I don’t feel like I have a lot of energy, there must be a reason.” It was around 1971, and a recently-published book, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé had influenced several of Redfeather’s friends. “I read that book and I realized this is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to grow my own food.” 

“There was a big Back to the Land Movement in California in the 1970s and I think it is also occurring today among young adults. It was such a progressive time, consciousness was really opening.” Redfeather purchased a house in Long Beach with a backyard. “When I got there, I dug up the entire backyard and I put it all into a garden. I’d never done this before! I had seen my grandmother’s gardens but I really didn’t know what I was doing at first.” Five rows of zucchini and other rookie mistakes would teach Redfeather that first year about how to plan and organize her garden. “I had so much food coming out of my garden, I would teach all day and then come home and work until nightfall putting all my extra food in cardboard boxes out on the parkway in front of my house with a sign free organic food, and by morning it would all be gone!” 

It wasn’t until Redfeather moved to Hawaii in 1978 that she began to overlap her career with growing food. “Through teaching at a Waldorf School I was introduced to biodynamics,” she says. The soil on Hawai‘i Island was much different from Southern California, and Redfeather needed to majorly pivot her approach to growing food. “I couldn’t believe how hard it was to garden here,” Redfeather says. “Every island is different: Kauai is very old and has soil, but I live on the newest island and there was hardly any soil on the land I had.” Reading Rudolph Steiner’s books offered a framework within which Redfeather could pivot some of her strategies. “I started practicing biodynamics by myself, because I couldn’t find anyone else that was doing [it.]” After spending some time outsourcing her materials from the Josephine Porter Institute in Virginia, Redfeather began meeting other practitioners of biodynamics who lived on other Islands  and they formed an organization, Biodynamics Hawaii. “We had over 65 different gatherings and conferences over a ten year period,” she recalls. “At that time there were many more practitioners of biodynamics than there are today.”

Redfeather’s interest in seeds and seed saving became a passion in 1994 when she took classes from John Jeavons. “One day I was sitting in his class and he told us that he had just read a report in FAO that by 2005 we will have lost over 90% of all crop varieties that were grown in the 1900s. Those are the seeds that fed all our ancestors!” Redfeather found the report herself and launched a personal study into her state’s history of seed-company buy-outs and loss of seed diversity. “Before the 1980s, over a hundred different seed companies used to come to Molokai and other Islands and do their winter grow outs, but by the time I learned about this in the ‘90s, all of those seed companies no longer grew in Hawai‘i.” 

The GMOs Next Door

It was this growing awareness of a threat to seed diversity that sparked Redfeather’s attention when she learned about a massive wave of field trials happening quietly on several islands. “There hadn’t been a word about this in the paper,” she says. “By the time people found out around the year 2000, Hawai‘i was the center for US field trials of genetically engineered crops.” Later, Redfeather would learn that in 1999, the Hawai‘i Department of Health submitted concerns about the field trials, but were overruled. “We had congressional members who thought it would be a great thing for Hawai‘i to become a center of production for a new kind of seed that was going to feed the world.” 

Redfeather remembers a letter to the editor written by a local librarian, alerting the public that at the time roughly five to six thousand field trials for new and experimental genetically engineered crops had already occurred in their backyard. “I called her, asked what we should do as a community. At the time, I didn’t know anything about it, but it seemed wrong to violate the nucleus of a plant that has grown for millions of years and then decide that it’s yours: you can patent it, own it, and change it. It seemed like the wrong thing to do.” The librarian called her back and connected her with five other women who had reached out with a similar desire to take action. “We got together and it turned out that we were all mothers, we were all organic growers, none of us had ever been an activist and none of us understood genetic engineering.” The group committed to a year of study before taking any action. Using a room at their local Extension Station,  they would all meet one night a week,  and shared their research findings with one another, culminating in a position. “After a year and a half, we felt like we knew enough to speak up. It’s always important to take time and develop your public voice.”

As the group began to solidify their arguments that would be questioning GMOs in Hawai‘i, the University of Hawai‘i began to invest more resources into genetic engineering. The university hosted a two-day conference, inviting professors and extension agents from all over the state to come discuss genetic engineering as the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i. In the spirit of discourse, however, the university searched for an organization to present the perspective of organic agriculture. Redfeather recalls that other leaders in the state’s organic agriculture scene were unavailable to join this discussion. “They needed an opposing voice, and they couldn’t find one,” she says. “In desperation, they called me. It was like being thrown into the fire!” Redfeather says she felt nervous, but determined not to miss this opportunity. “To think that we were challenging the biggest corporations in the world–Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont, Bayer, and so on. It was daunting! But it was time to articulate an opposing reality

Redfeather gathered her materials and created a speech outlining the concerns shared by the organic farmers in her group. She walked into the conference thinking her position would be postured as an afterthought, but when she arrived at the conference, she was surprised to discover the organizers had rearranged the schedule. “The person before me dropped out, so they told me I had an hour to speak.” Redfeather says that this speech was a pivotal moment for her, not only in platforming the collective voice of her group, but also in learning the university’s systems and language for discussing the issue. It was an important opportunity to shift the debate away from merely a blanket rejection of genetic engineering itself and present the disruptive impact of seed patents and modified crops on the agriculture and ecosystem of a small isolated island community and the communities really need to grow more food that everyone could eat! That message would become the foundation of Redfeather’s organizing mission in the years to come.

Redfeather and her cohort of activists worked on the GMO issue for seven years, during which they spoke regularly and produced a widely distributed pamphlet. “We didn’t really have the internet in the early 2000s so we traveled across the state and had live gatherings.” The group maintained a good rapport with the University of Hawai‘i, getting speakers for their events and setting up debates. 

The Garden Teacher

In 1994, Redfeather submitted a proposal to the Waldorf school where she worked as a Kindergarten Teacher to begin a school garden program. Splitting her time between the classroom and a new school garden, she was among the first teachers that decade to promote the benefits of agrarian classrooms. 

“I brought the 8th graders out to a big field filled with tall grass and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make a garden here!” Refeather says. This was the beginning of a five year  program with kindergarteners through eight graders. “By 1999 I had a really good idea of the role agriculture could play in education and the classroom.” With her background and decades in classroom teaching and child development, Redfeather saw many layers of benefits in overlapping her skills and passion for growing food. “The children were not only adding to their skills by working in the infrastructure of the garden, they were using the garden for their learning. If every school system in America could create school garden programs linked to the classroom’s core curriculum, by high school, every child would understand and appreciate our farmers and our local and national food system, how to be good stewards of their ecosystem, and how to make healthy lifetime food choices.”

Redfeather had lived in Hawai‘i for over twenty years before she was able to purchase land of her own. “I’d always had gardens everywhere, but the piece of land we bought in 1998 was the first time I’d owned a small farm.” With this new opportunity, Refeather retired from teaching and developed Kawanui Farm with her husband, Gerry Herbert. Herbert is an agriculturist who graduated in International Agriculture from  UC Davis and is a self made  agricultural historian. “Gerrry has been my teacher and listening partner over the past 25 years.  He started taking ACRES USA in 1971 and when he moved to Hawaii in 1996 he brought all his old magazines with him. It’s important to have a partner that has the same vision you do for your work, our early morning conversations are a constant source of knowledge and encouragement!”

Not long later, a local conservation nonprofit, the Kohala Center, reached out to Redfeather with the opportunity to organize a two day conference. “I wanted to include everybody: the dairymen, the ranchers, the farmers, the educators, the policy makers, and the scientist.” In 2007, the Hawai‘i Island Food Summit launched with over three hundred attendees. “One of my breakout sessions was about school gardens and I didn’t think anyone would be interested since there were only a couple of school gardens, but as I watched almost a hundred people cram into this tiny room, I realized the time had come for organic agriculture to merge with education.”

Following the conference, the Kohala Center hired Redfeather to run the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network and for ten years she pursued the goal of starting organic gardens in each of the island’s 75 schools. 

But seeds were always on Redfeather’s mind.

The Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network

“In 2009, the USDA’s Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI) had a grant that would fund  a seed symposium for the entire state, so I applied and we got it.” At this point, Redfeather had been putting on local seed exchanges for over seven years. “They would be huge! Five hundred people would come, but only about five people would bring seeds.” 

The symposium “Hua ka Hua – Restore our Seed” brought together 150 farmers and the Organic Seed Alliance. “The Organic Seed Alliance brought their A team; they put on presentations and did demonstrations—it was awesome.” By the time the symposium was over, a working group of 25 farmers and gardeners from across the state had formed to collaborate on preserving and sharing open-pollinated local varieties of seed. “Everyone in this group was growing seed independently, we just weren’t connected. Many of the group were extension agents or professors, so it was a nice combination of private and public.” This working group became the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network.

Through the Cerus Trust’s fund aimed at supporting state seed initiatives, five members of the network began putting on statewide seed saving trainings. “We called it Seed Basics,” Redfeather says. “One thing lead to another: we  seeded networks, seed libraries, and seed exchanges on the islands.” This work has culminated in the creation of the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network online marketplace that opened in 2018 the collective work and knowledge of so many local seed growers. The unique climate, soil and half rainy-half dry seasons in Hawai‘i heighten the impetus to protect regionally-adapted seeds and the knowledge to grow them. Redfeather and her group began discussing how to build an effective market for sharing seeds and connecting various knowledge bases. “This is what Hawai‘i needed in order to protect food security moving forward.”

The necessity of seed saving came into focus during the pandemic. With many of the Indigenous food systems displaced by colonization and expensive industrial food shipped in from the mainland, gaining back access to fresh, nutritious food is a matter of survival. “After March of 2020 we realized that the pandemic had renewed a local interest in backyard gardens,” Redfeather says. “Home gardening is one of our biggest food security assets, because you can always grow something here all year-round. Even a small yard can have a small garden and fruit trees.”

Growing an Impact

Today, Redfeather and her husband work with Western SARE Farmer Rancher Initiative, on a Table Grapes for Subtropical Hawai‘i research and education project at their farm. Gerry and I have been involved with many trials of diverse crops for Hawai‘i over the past 23 years, but one thing that is impacting agriculture everywhere is the slow march of invasive species due to the impacts of globalization and climate change. Although the work of the biotech companies has decreased in the islands,  genetically engineered seeds are still the number one economic crop in Hawai‘i.”

Redfeather acknowledges that working on policy for small farms is difficult, because many lawmakers and policy influencers don’t see small farms as participants in the agricultural economy. “They would rather there be two or three thousand acre farms rather than a thousand two or three acre farms, but I know from living in Los Angeles what ten thousand one acre farms can do. Adapting to the changes in climate that are already here will be the big challenge of agriculture over the next decades.  Locally produced seed and learning to eat what grows well in your regional area will become ever more important.

Redfeather advises all seed and small farms advocates to start by truly dialing-in their own growing operations. “Grow crops that do well in your ecosystem, find your direct market, feed your family  and share with friends; invest your time in organizations moving the same direction–build the  alternative systems that will take us into the future…systems that we’ll end up with in the end…you might as well start investing in them now.”

To learn more about Nancy Redfeather visit Read more about the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network at

The Albrecht Hypothesis: Investigating the Connection between Soil and Health

William A. Albrecht.

By Anneliese Abbott

Is there a connection between soil fertility and human health?

In the 1940s, this was one of the hottest topics in the soil conservation movement. Researchers had just discovered that vitamins played a critical role in animal and human nutrition, and from the 1920s to 1950s they found that a score of mineral elements — especially trace elements like manganese, boron, copper, zinc, iron, and molybdenum — were essential for plant, animal and human health.

The discovery of certain trace elements cleared up centuries-old confusion about what caused the geographic distribution of some mysterious animal and human diseases. The most famous discovery was that iodine deficiencies in certain soils caused endemic goiter and cretinism. The solution was simple — add a little bit of iodine to salt for both animals and humans, and the goiters and other iodine deficiency symptoms disappeared. Similarly, soil deficiencies of selenium and cobalt were linked to several animal diseases, which could be treated with supplements.

Quite logically, the link between soil deficiencies of these three elements and diseases in both humans and animals made many people wonder what role soil fertility might play in human nutrition. “Even if you prescribe the right sort of food, how are you going to know that your carrots, or meat or greens come from a soil that has packed them full of minerals?” an Ohio conservation educator named Ollie Fink asked in 1941.

It was an important question. If infertile soils produced mineral-deficient plants and the animals eating those plants suffered from mineral deficiencies, then wouldn’t the humans eating those deficient plants and animals also suffer from ill health? Were fruits and vegetables always healthy, or only if they were grown on fertile soils?

These were the questions that many people were asking in the 1940s. And they turned to one main source for information on the connection between soil and health — William A. Albrecht.

Albrecht and Nutritional Geography

William A. Albrecht (1888-1974) earned his PhD in soil science from the University of Illinois in 1919, joined the staff at the University of Missouri sometime between 1914 and 1916, served as chair of the Department of Soil Science from 1938 to 1959, and continued working at as a professor emeritus until the 1960s. Albrecht was a man of diverse interests, studying a variety of topics such as inoculating legumes with microbes to enhance nitrogen fixation, cation exchange on clay particles and the importance of calcium in plant nutrition.

Albrecht’s interest in the connection between soil fertility and nutrition seems to have started in the 1930s, when he became aware of a “nutritional geography” hypothesis that suggested a causal link between infertile soils and unhealthy people in certain regions of the United States. During World War II, the US Navy studied the dental health of over 70,000 recruits and found that young men from the Midwest had lower rates of tooth decay than those from the Northeast. Other studies found that the healthiest young men drafted during World War II came from the Northwest and Midwest.

When Albrecht looked at the maps of the data from the Naval Dental Survey, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that differences in the underlying soils were responsible for these variations in health. The following summary of the “Albrecht Hypothesis” is drawn mainly from volumes 1, 2, and 8 of the Albrecht Papers, especially volume 2, which is a reprint of Albrecht’s 1958 book Soil Fertility and Human Health.

The best soils in the world, Albrecht argued, were those formed under grass. Grass, with its associated legumes, was the perfect food for cows — important producers of high-quality animal protein for the American diet. In much of the midwestern United States — especially the Great Plains — prairie grass was the predominant vegetation before European contact. These lush, fertile prairies had supported enormous populations of buffalo, wild bovines with similar nutritional requirements to domestic cattle.

In contrast, the soils of the East Coast were so leached and infertile that they couldn’t grow “proteinaceous” grass, only “carbonaceous” trees. No thundering herds of buffalo greeted the first Europeans to land on the East Coast; the land was so barren that when they found a few turkeys, “they were so thankful that we have had to be thankful for them every year since.”

The difference between the soils of these two regions, Albrecht explained, was largely due to rainfall. In the semiarid Great Plains, soils were under “construction” and were rich in fertility, especially calcium. These calcareous soils naturally grew protein-rich grass, perfect for fattening bison. In contrast, the soils in the humid regions of the East were under “destruction,” where rainfall had leached out so much of the original fertility that only “carbonaceous” trees could grow. Albrecht even argued that no “human life form” or cow could survive on leached eastern soils — completely disregarding the large number of Native Americans who had lived in his “carbonaceous” regions before European contact, or the ruminants like deer, elk and moose that had browsed the forests.

Some of the assertions that Albrecht made about ecology and plant physiology were inaccurate, even for the time. For example, he thought that a plant first formed “the woody structure that makes up its bulk” and then, “if soil conditions are right, the plant will store up a supply of the raw materials of protein, vitamine, and mineral compounds.” Most plant scientists, even in the 1940s, would have realized that plants grow protein-rich, tender leaves and stems first and form hard, woody stems later. Despite these misconceptions, however, his hypothesis that soil fertility affected animal health was still worth putting to the test.

Biological Assays

Albrecht decided that the best way to test his hypothesis was by conducting animal feeding studies, or “biological assays of soil fertility,” as he called them. His first experiment, conducted from 1939-1941, involved feeding two groups of lambs lespedeza hay from limed and unlimed soils.

To Albrecht’s elation, there was a huge difference between treatments in the first season — the lambs on the limed soils gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those fed hay from the unlimed soils. Unfortunately, however, these results did not really mean anything because much of the hay had been ruined by rain and Albrecht had brought in outside hay, not grown under controlled conditions, to supplement the feed. In the second season, when the lambs were actually only fed hay from the correct soils, those on the limed soils gained an average of 16 percent more weight, though Albrecht didn’t statistically analyze the data or check to make sure that the vegetational composition of the two fields was the same.

One of Albrecht’s favorite feeding studies was done by his graduate student Eugene McLean around 1942. McLean fed fertilized and unfertilized lespedeza hay grown on five geographically distinct Missouri soils to rabbits to see if their growth was affected. The results seemed exciting: Rabbits fed hay from some unfertilized soils were much larger than those fed hay grown on other unfertilized soils. Also, the rabbits fed on fertilized hay were bigger than those fed unfertilized hay grown on the same soil type.

Albrecht frequently cited this study as proof that some soils were better at growing animals than others and could result in drastically different body types. But contemporary critics pointed out that the data were not statistically analyzed, that the number of experimental animals (8 per treatment) was rather small, and that no one analyzed the mineral content of the soils or hays. The biggest flaw in the experiment was that the hay from the poorer fields contained little lespedeza and was mostly grass and weeds — much less nutritious for rabbits.

All the study really showed was that some fields were better for growing lespedeza than others, that fertilization could improve lespedeza growth, and that rabbits grew larger when fed lespedeza than when fed grassy and weedy hay. It didn’t convincingly demonstrate that there was any nutritional difference in the lespedeza itself. But it did inspire other researchers to conduct better-designed experiments on the soil-nutrition relationship.

USDA Research

The possibility of a connection between soil and health was such a hot topic that, in 1939, the USDA established an entire Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This state-of-the-art building, completed in 1941, contained a well-equipped laboratory, a greenhouse, and field facilities for conducting experiments with plants and animals. Research at this laboratory was a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort, combining the expertise of specialists in soil science, plant science, animal science, and nutrition. Its stated goal was “to improve the health and performance of human beings and farm animals by showing how they may be provided with nutritionally superior food and feed.”

One of the first hypotheses to be tested at the Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory was whether the mineral constituents of the soil significantly altered the nutritional composition of crops. Several researchers, including Firman Bear at Rutgers University, had found that crops grown in different regions of the United States often had varying mineral concentrations. If these differences were due to the amounts of mineral elements in the soils, then it seemed logical that fertilization with deficient elements could increase their concentration in plants.

But what the researchers quickly found was that the relationship between soil and plant nutrient composition was extremely complicated. The mineral composition of crops grown on the Ithaca soils did not change significantly even with extremely large fertilizer applications. And contrary to the findings of Albrecht, the researchers at Cornell found that lambs fed fertilized and unfertilized forages showed no difference in growth.

One of the early topics investigated at the USDA laboratory was how soil fertility and type might affect the vitamin C content of tomatoes. As the researchers explained in the 1948 USDA bulletin Factors Affecting the Nutritive Value of Foods: Studies at the U.S. Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory, they discovered that tomatoes grown in Wyoming, California, and Wisconsin had significantly different vitamin C concentrations than those grown in New York. But when they brought in soil samples from these other states and grew tomatoes in pots on the Cornell campus, they all had the same vitamin C content. After testing several other variables, they discovered that the amount of sunlight reaching developing tomato fruits was actually the most important factor affecting vitamin C levels; soil had no effect on this particular nutrient.

By the mid-1950s, the USDA researchers had come to an unexpected conclusion: fertilization could increase crop yields, or make it possible to grow a wider variety of crops (such as legumes), but it did not consistently affect the mineral or vitamin content of crop plants. Other factors, such as climate (soil type, rainfall, sunlight, temperature, etc.), type of plant, and variety of crop had much more influence over the nutritional quality of foods. Since climate cannot really be modified in a given location, the focus of the laboratory shifted toward breeding more nutritious varieties of crops, a project still in progress today.

The MSU Cow Study

One of the best-designed biological assays of soil fertility, as Albrecht would have called it, was an interdisciplinary study conducted at Michigan State University from 1945 to 1955 to test the effect of fertilization on dairy cow health. This study was conducted on a 210-acre “badly depleted farm” that the researchers determined had never been fertilized or even manured except for a few fields near the barn. It was a golden opportunity to see if fertilizer really could increase the nutritional quality of crops.

To make the most of this unique opportunity, the MSU researchers decided to raise two herds of dairy cows, one given feed grown on fertilized soil and one given feed from the unfertilized soil. Since the unfertilized soil couldn’t grow alfalfa or clover, the cows in both herds were fed an identical diet of corn, winter wheat, oats, soybeans, and grass hay, carefully balanced by animal nutritionists. This would make sure that any differences in cow health were due to actual differences in crop mineral composition, not because they were eating different kinds of plants.

After ten years and three or four generations of dairy cows, the results of this study were presented at a 1955 MSU symposium and published in a book titled Nutrition of Plants, Animals, Man. To the surprise of almost everyone involved, the plant scientists discovered that there was no significant difference in the protein or mineral content of the soybeans, corn, and brome hay grown on the fertilized and unfertilized soils. Only fertilized timothy plants had significantly higher levels of protein and minerals than unfertilized ones.

The animal scientists discovered that the cows in both herds were equally healthy. The only significant difference was that the Jersey cows on the unfertilized ration produced significantly more milk than those on the fertilized feed for the first couple years, but the differences evened out after the hay on the fertilized land was cut earlier to compensate for its more rapid growth.

The nutritionists analyzed milk samples from both herds and found no significant difference in total solids, butterfat, total nitrogen, lactose, ash, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, carotene, vitamin A, amino acids, or B vitamins. There was also no significant difference in the health of lab rats fed on the milk from the two herds.

Though it may not have been what anyone expected, the results of this study were pretty clear. Fertilization had made no difference—either positive or negative—on the nutritional quality of the feed grown on the experimental soils. It increased yields and productivity, but it did not necessarily make the plants themselves any more nutritious.

It’s Complicated…

Was Albrecht wrong? Does soil fertility actually have no effect on human or animal health? As with most controversial issues, the reality turned out to be a lot more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Soil health and fertility certainly has a major impact on plant growth, and thus on the amount and quality of vegetation available for animals and humans to eat. Healthy plants grown on healthy soils often show increased resistance to pests and diseases. Soils that can grow higher yields of healthy plants can support a larger number of healthier animals. For these reasons alone, improving soil health is a desirable outcome.

Unfortunately, one reason that little research has been done on the connection between soil and nutrition since the 1950s was that some people took Albrecht’s ideas too far and claimed that it might be possible to eat a properly balanced diet containing lots of “protective foods” like vegetables and milk and still suffer from deficiency disease if those vegetables and milk were produced on depleted soils. There never was any evidence to support this claim, but it provided plenty of material for agronomists to discredit organic and eco-farmers who claimed that fertilization practices were a major cause of degenerative diseases in the United States.

By the way, I do still recommend that people read the Albrecht Papers. They are fascinating documents from a historical perspective, and Albrecht was an entertaining writer with a memorable way of phrasing important concepts. Just remember that he was a fallible human like the rest of us, he sometimes made mistakes, and he was stepping somewhat outside of his area of expertise when he made claims about animal and human health. None of that should detract from the significant contributions he made to the soil science of his day, or to the eco-agriculture movement of the 1970s and beyond.

Anneliese Abbott is a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a B.S. in plant and soil science from The Ohio State University and is the author of Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture. She can be contacted at”

Is Organic Healthier? Settling a Long-time Agricultural Debate Over Nutrition

Sir Albert Howard was the father of the modern organic farming movement in the West.


Is organic food healthier than conventional food?

Aside from the debate over whether or not organic agriculture can feed the world, this is probably one of the most controversial topics related to organic farming. It’s been pretty well documented that good organic farming methods can improve and maintain soil health. There is a lot of evidence that plants grown on healthy soil will also be healthy and will have increased resistance to pests and diseases. But are organically produced foods healthier than conventional produce?

Many people today purchase organic fruits and vegetables because they almost always have lower levels of pesticide residues than their conventional counterparts. While there’s debate over whether or not the pesticide residues in conventional produce are partially responsible for the chronic ill health of many Americans, most people agree that eating organic produce does reduce pesticide exposure. A lot of people eat organic food mostly for what’s not in it.

Before most people were worried about pesticides, however, organic proponents claimed that organic food was healthier because it was grown on healthy soil. Sir Albert Howard, often considered the father of the organic farming movement, blamed the general ill health in England in the 1940s partially on poor farming practices that depleted soil fertility. This view was shared by others in the early British organic movement and has been held by many organic farmers ever since.

With seventy years more research on the possible connection between farming methods and human health, it would be reasonable to assume that we can now definitively state that Howard was either right or wrong in saying that people who ate organically grown vegetables would be healthier than those who did not. But it’s not that simple. The difficulty is that Howard and his successors never looked just at farming methods. They had a holistic perspective in which soil fertility, diet and nutrition were inseparable.

To understand why it’s always been hard to determine what effect farming methods have had on human health, we need to look back at the sources on which Howard and others drew when they claimed that organic food was superior — like the work of Sir Robert McCarrison.

McCarrison’s Vitamin Research

Sir Robert McCarrison (1878-1960) was a British physician who spent most of his career in India, studying a variety of medical problems. One of his earliest studies was on goiter, which he determined was caused by a combination of iodine deficiency and an infectious agent in the drinking water. He proved this by drinking water from the polluted spring and producing goiters in 10 out of 36 volunteers — including himself.

By 1914, the discovery of vitamins and their connection to deficiency diseases was one of the hottest topics in medical science, and McCarrison started doing his own experiments with pigeons, guinea pigs and monkeys. In one of his studies, he found that monkeys fed autoclaved rice and other foods died rapidly, while those fed a non-autoclaved diet of whole wheat bread, milk, groundnuts, onion, butter, and plantains remained healthy. While doing such research on monkeys would certainly be frowned upon today, it demonstrated that a diet of sterilized food could not sustain life.

McCarrison conducted similar experiments on vitamin B deficiency in pigeons and vitamin C deficiency in guinea pigs. He compiled the results from all these feeding studies in a 1921 book called Studies in Deficiency Disease. He felt that, while the diets he had fed his experimental animals were obviously extreme, milder forms of vitamin deficiency might be responsible for many common ailments plaguing the British population — problems like dysentery, dyspepsia, colitis, ulcers and possibly celiac disease.

In support of this theory, McCarrison cited several examples of how therapy with vitamin-containing “protective foods” seemed to cure baffling ailments in some of his patients. One man, whom McCarrison described as a “martyr to dyspepsia,” had been eating an over-cooked diet deficient in fruits and vegetables. McCarrison noticed that this diet was “very similar to that of my monkeys” and helped the man transition to eating milk, eggs, cheese, fish, fresh meat, fresh fruit, green vegetables, and whole wheat bread. Within two and a half months, the man’s health was greatly improved.

Another way that McCarrison used these experimental results to help people was in the prevention of beriberi in the Pagan Jail in Burma. The prisoners in this jail were eating a diet dangerously deficient in vitamin B (mostly white rice). McCarrison advised the jail to replace half of the rice with whole wheat flour and to add “an abundance of root and green leafy vegetables.” The change was dramatic: beriberi ceased to be a problem, even in the winter; the prisoners liked the new diet better; and their health greatly improved.

McCarrison’s most famous nutritional study of all was done at the Nutrition Research Laboratories that he established at Coonoor, a town in the beautiful Nilgris or Blue Mountains in southern India. Here he maintained a population of over a thousand lab rats, which he used for studies to determine the effects that different diets might have on health.

McCarrison fed rats seven different diets, corresponding to those eaten by seven people groups in India: the Sikhs, Pathans, Mahrattas, Goorkhas, Bengalis, Kanarese and Madrassi. He found marked differences in the health of rats fed these different diets, with those given the Sikh diet the healthiest and those on the Madrassi diet the sickest. This was consistent with the health of the people groups themselves, leading McCarrison to conclude that the real differences between their physical fitness and health were nutritional, not racial.

The healthiest rats were those eating the Sikh diet, which consisted of whole wheat chapattis (unleavened bread) with fresh butter, sprouted Bengel gram (a legume), raw vegetables, milk, and meat once a week. The sickest rats were fed the Madrassi diet, which McCarrison said in his 1961 book Nutrition and Health “was made up of washed polished rice, dhal (legume), fresh vegetables, condiments, vegetable oil, coffee with sugar and a little milk, a little buttermilk, ghee (sparingly), coconut, betel-nut and water.”

Perhaps more shocking and pertinent to McCarrison’s British and American readers was his finding that rats fed a diet “eaten by many Western people of the poorer classes” were in just as bad of shape as those on the Madrassi diet. This bad diet was comprised of white bread, vegetables cooked in water to which sodium bicarbonate had been added, margarine, canned meat, sweetened tea and water.

From these experiments, McCarrison felt like he had plenty of experimental evidence to recommend what was a good diet for humans, and the typical British or American diet was not it! “All things needful for adequate nourishment of the body and for physical efficiency are present in whole cereal grains, milk, milk products, legumes, root and leafy vegetables and fruits, with egg or meat occasionally,” he concluded. In addition to his rat studies, he cited the superb health of the Indian people groups who ate such diets.

Research on deficiency diseases continued after McCarrison retired from the Nutrition Research Laboratories in 1935. Subsequent researchers discovered that some of the worst malnutrition in India occurred in “children’s hostels and boarding schools,”  which were “museums for the study of malnutrition and deficiency disease.” When the researchers gave the supervisors of these boarding schools nutritional advice, the health of the children dramatically improved.

McCarrison Meets Howard

After McCarrison retired, he returned to England, where he soon became connected to a movement of physicians and nutritionists who were concerned about the general ill health of the British populace. Most nutritionists of the time agreed that a deficient, overly-processed diet caused many non-infectious diseases which could be prevented by eliminating white flour and sugar and increasing consumption of vitamin-rich “protective foods”: milk, green leafy and orange vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and organ meats (especially liver and cod liver oil).

In 1939, a group of 600 family physicians, farmers, clergy, and schoolteachers, mostly from Cheshire County, England, met together in the Crewe Theatre. This meeting, sponsored by the Cheshire Medical Committee, was convened for the specific purpose of addressing the impact that poor nutrition might be having on chronic ill health.

There were two keynote speakers at this meeting. The first was Sir Robert McCarrison, who spoke about his rat studies in India and the effect that diet had on health. Consistent with the work of other contemporary researchers like Weston Price, the Cheshire Medical Committee and McCarrison concluded that a wide range of diets were capable of sustaining good human health — provided “that the food is, for the most part, fresh from its source, little altered by preparation and complete.”

So far, this was in accord with the views of other nutritionists of the time. But the Cheshire Medical Committee decided to go one step further and point out that these native diets, in addition to being fresh and unprocessed, were all produced without the aid of chemical fertilizers. That was where the second keynote speaker came in. Another British scientist who had spent his career in India, Sir Albert Howard, spoke about how the composting method that he had developed at the Indore Research Station improved soil and plant health.

Howard was a dynamic speaker; the audience was “spellbound” as he described how he had developed his composting method. As Lionel Picton observed in his 1949 book Nutrition and the Soil: Thoughts on Feeding, “That night, in the minds of the audience, the images of chemical agriculture and pest control, to whose shrines three generations of farmers have been assiduously directed, lay shattered to fragments.”

It was not enough to eat a healthy diet; it must be grown on healthy soil; and chemical fertilizers could not maintain soil health and might actually be detrimental to it. At least, that was what the Cheshire Medical Committee concluded after hearing Howard’s passionate speech. They would still focus on improving people’s diets, but in order to really get rid of deficiency diseases, they also needed to transition British agriculture to organic methods. As Howard wrote in his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, “If bad farming is a factor in the production of poor physique and health, we must set about improving our agriculture without delay.”

Weighing the Evidence

Not surprisingly, Howard’s contention that chemical fertilizers produced food that was somehow nutritionally deficient was very controversial, stimulating a huge amount of research. Scientists quickly discovered that organically grown produce did not have significantly higher levels of measurable nutrients, like vitamins or minerals. From a reductionist perspective, there really was no difference between organic and conventional produce — just like, in a laboratory analysis, there was no difference between mineral nutrients from organic or chemical fertilizers.

Howard himself admitted that there wasn’t much reductionist scientific evidence for his claim that food grown on healthy soils was healthier. Instead, he and other early organic leaders relied on case studies for evidence. One of the most frequently cited examples was the exceptionally good health of the Hunzas, a people group in northern India. The Hunzas ate a similar diet to the Sikhs in McCarrison’s experiments and were reputed to be exceptionally healthy, plagued by none of the degenerative diseases of modern civilization. To grow this nutritious diet, they composted organic wastes and irrigated their fields with mineral-rich water from melting glaciers.

The problem with this particular case study was that Sir Albert Howard had never personally visited the Hunzas. He got all his information about them from a book by G. T. Wrench called The Wheel of Health. But Wrench had never seen the Hunzas, either; in fact, none of the organic leaders who cited this particular case study had ever met a real live Hunza or visited their village to see these farming methods firsthand.

The Hunzas aside, Sir Albert Howard and the Cheshire Medical Committee had plenty of other case studies to support their theories. They gave many examples of boarding schools where the health of children dramatically improved when they started growing their own fresh vegetables using organic methods. The headmaster from St. Martin’s School in Sidmouth wrote to Howard that his boys ate an “abundance of fruit and vegetables” grown with manure and compost and were exceptionally healthy compared to boys at other schools.

Then there was the bacon factory in Cheshire, where the manager decided to transform “waste land” around the buildings “into a model vegetable garden by means of compost made partly from the wastes of the factory.” In the factory cafeteria, employees were served potatoes and other vegetables grown on this land, as well as being given only whole wheat bread. “Already the health, efficiency, and well-being of the labor force has markedly improved,” Howard wrote in his 1945 book Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease.

Every other example that Howard, Picton and others gave to prove the superiority of organic produce was on these same lines. A hospital, school, institution or individual suffered from chronic ill health. Usually they ate a typical diet of white bread, sugar, some meat, and little milk or vegetables. The change came when they began growing fresh, organic vegetables, which were undoubtedly of superior quality to the limited quantity of wilted produce previously obtained from the market. Concurrent with increased consumption of vegetables, the diet was usually altered to include 100 percent whole wheat bread and increased quantities of whole milk, often raw milk. Invariably, the health, alertness, and attentiveness of those eating the new diet improved.

There were enough of these case studies to seem to show that a diet rich in fresh vegetables, whole grains, and milk was healthy — exactly what nutritionists had been saying for 20 years. Intriguingly, modern studies on the connection between organic food consumption and human health show similar results—many people who consistently consume organic foods have a lower incidence of degenerative diseases, but these same people also eat an overall healthy diet with a lot of “protective foods.” Trying to separate the effects of organic food and a healthy, minimally processed diet is still difficult, if not impossible.

Maybe part of the difficulty in determining whether organic food is healthier is that many modern people have a different definition of “organic” than the Cheshire Medical Committee did. To many consumers today, the primary danger in conventional produce is pesticides; hence, they assume that organic food, which does have significantly lower pesticide residues than conventional food, is automatically healthy.

But the Cheshire Medical Committee was just as worried about what had been taken out of conventional processed foods as what chemicals might have been added to them. Sir Albert Howard would likely have been shocked to see modern stores selling certified organic white sugar, white flour, and processed foods made from those ingredients. White flour and sugar were the antithesis of the “fresh produce from fertile soil” that Howard promoted.

All of the early organic leaders emphasized that agricultural production practices were only the first step in a holistic system that connected consumers to the soil as directly as possible, bypassing the modern food processing system that had caused the health problems the Cheshire Medical Committee was trying to combat. And in every case study that seems to show that organic food is healthier, it has always been part of a balanced, minimally processed diet.

Anneliese Abbott is a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a B.S. in plant and soil science from The Ohio State University and is the author of Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture. She can be contacted at”

Nutrition, Health and the Organic Farming Movement

Farmer woman holding wooden box full of fresh raw vegetables. Getty Images


From the 1940s on, concern about nutrition and health has been an integral part of the organic farming movement. The American edition of Sir Albert Howard’s second book on organic farming was called The Soil and Health, and Lady Eve Balfour framed her 1943 book The Living Soil around the topic of soil, plant, animal and human health.

One group that was especially interested in the connection between diet and health was the Cheshire Medical Committee, a group of 600 physicians from Cheshire County, England. In 1939 this committee published a brief but widely read document called the “Cheshire Medical Testament,” which sought to assess the health of the British population.

Advances in medical care over the past twenty-five years had helped treat many illnesses, decreasing childhood mortality and raising the general life expectancy. But the Medical Committee noted that modern medicine had not made much progress toward preventing sickness and disease. In fact, chronic illnesses related to nutritional deficiencies — like dental decay, rickets, anemia and constipation — were still causing suffering and lowering the quality of life for many people.

The problem, these doctors believed, was not one of insufficient medical care. It was a matter of poor nutrition. “We conceive it to be our duty in the present state of knowledge to point out that much, perhaps most, of this sickness is preventable and would be prevented by the right feeding of our people,” the Medical Testament concluded.

This idea that diet had a direct effect on human health, and that some diets were healthier than others, was based on cutting-edge nutritional research — like the discovery of vitamins.

Deficiency Diseases

Medical science in the late 19th century was caught up in an euphoria of new discoveries. Scientists discovered that microorganisms were responsible for causing most of the deadly diseases of the time — cholera, typhus, influenza, and tuberculosis. Because they were caused by microorganisms, these diseases could be prevented and treated by killing the offending microbes. Many scientists believed that all human health ailments were caused by one pathogen or another, and that the key to health and happiness lay in sterilization and sanitation.

But the germ theory of disease, useful as it was, fell short of explaining every human ailment. There were several diseases that could not be linked to a specific causal organism — mysterious but deadly conditions like beriberi, scurvy, and pellagra. Meanwhile, nutritionists believed that the only important factors in food were protein and energy; low-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables were considered unimportant. Diet was not considered to be a factor in any kind of disease.

Such was the prevailing medical opinion when a scientist named Christiaan Eijkman was commissioned to search for the cause of beriberi, a disease that became a serious problem in the Dutch East Indies starting in the 1880s, especially among sailors. Beriberi, also known as “polyneuritis,” caused weakness and loss of feeling in the legs, breathlessness, edema, and heart failure.

Assuming that beriberi was caused by a pathogen, Eijkman set about trying to isolate the causal organism. He acquired some chickens, divided them into two flocks, and injected half of them with blood from hospital patients suffering from beriberi. Sure enough, some of those chickens started exhibiting symptoms of polyneuritis. But, very strangely, an equal number of the control birds were infected as well. Then, unexplainably, both flocks recovered and showed no symptoms at all.

In an attempt to figure out what might have caused these unexpected results, Eijkman questioned the man who had been feeding the chickens. He discovered that during the period when the birds had suffered from polyneuritis, his caretaker had been feeding them leftover cooked white rice from the local hospital. After a while, the hospital cook complained that he wasn’t going to give “military rice to civilian chickens,” forcing the caretaker to buy cheap brown rice to feed the chickens instead. Soon afterward, the birds recovered.

With this new information, Eijkman changed his experiment to a feeding trial and quickly discovered that white rice caused polyneuritis in chickens, but brown, unpolished rice did not. After Eijkman returned to the Netherlands, his successor, Gerrit Grijns, confirmed that rice bran contained a substance that he called the “anti-beriberi factor.”

Other scientists all over the world began performing similar types of experiments. They discovered that scurvy, a common ailment on shipboard when sailors ate only salt meat and hardtack, could be prevented by an “antiscorbutic factor” that was found in citrus fruits and fresh vegetables. A fat-soluble “accessory factor,” especially rich in cod liver oil, was found to be important for preventing night blindness and other eye problems.

By 1912, the fact that beriberi and scurvy were caused by deficiencies of certain vital nutrients (sometimes called “accessory food factors,” “advitants,” “nutramines,” or “auximones”) had become widely accepted by the scientific community. The Polish scientist Casimir Funk proposed calling all of these substances “vitamines.” In 1920, the British physiologist Jack Cecil Drummond dropped the “e,” and the resulting word “vitamin” proved to be so popular that it is still in use today.

Protective Foods

During this age of vitamin discovery, there was a flurry of work done on how to best ensure that the general public consumed adequate amounts of all the known and unknown vitamins. The most practical solution was for everyone to eat what the vitamin researcher Elmer McCollum called “protective foods” — foods known to contain high amounts of vitamins A, B, and C. As time went on, more vitamins were discovered, but the list of protective foods did not change significantly because the new vitamins were often found in the same foods as the first three.

What were these magical protective foods that would prevent deficiency disease? They fell into three main categories, based on the first three known vitamins. To provide vitamin A and protect against eye problems, protective foods included whole milk, butter, eggs, cod liver oil, and animal livers. Vitamin B to protect against scurvy was found in whole grains and beans. Protective foods against both scurvy and vitamin A deficiency included fresh fruits and vegetables, especially yellow and leafy green vegetables.

By the 1920s, there was widespread agreement that a diet rich in whole milk, whole grains, leafy green and yellow vegetables, and animal livers would supply all of the vitamins needed for good health. There was some debate as to whether meat was a protective food or not; McCollum and some other nutritionists felt that some animal organs, like livers, were protective but that muscle meat was merely a good but expensive source of protein.

It quickly became obvious to nutritionists that the typical “Western” diet, high in white flour and sugar but low in almost all of the protective foods, was seriously deficient in vitamins. In fact, poor diet was a primary cause of many common ailments afflicting American and British citizens — gastrointestinal disorders, heart problems, dental caries, rickets, and enough other non-infectious ailments to fill a medical encyclopedia.

At the same time, nutritionists became increasingly aware of the fact that many so-called “primitive” people in other parts of the world, who still ate their traditional diets, were remarkably free from these disabling conditions that took up so much of the time of English and American doctors. This inspired many researchers to literally travel to the ends of the earth to see what exactly was different about these people’s diets from those consumed in English-speaking countries. And perhaps the most ambitious of all these world-traveling researchers was the American dentist Weston A. Price.

Nutritional Anthropology

Weston A. Price (1870-1948) studied dentistry at the University of Michigan, graduated in 1893, and started his own dental practice in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He soon moved his office to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became very interested in trying to determine the cause of dental caries. Consistent with the prevailing medical opinion of the time, he assumed that tooth decay was caused by some type of pathogenic organism, so he conducted experiments like implanting decayed teeth into rabbits to see if they developed dental cavities.

But when this work failed to point to a causative organism, Price started to rethink his original hypothesis. “After spending several years approaching this problem by both clinical and laboratory research methods, I interpreted the accumulating evidence as strongly indicating the absence of some essential factors from our modern program, rather than the presence of injurious factors,” he wrote in his the 1945 edition of his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

To prove this hypothesis, Price had to find a “control group” of humans who were getting the essential factors that modern Americans were lacking. The assumption was that such people would have healthy teeth with very little, if any, decay. And so Price set off on a worldwide quest to find out why modern Americans were so susceptible to tooth decay. In his 2012 UC-Santa Cruz Ph.D. dissertation, “Conservative Nutrition: The Industrial Food Supply and Its Critics, 1915-1985,” Martin Renner calls Price’s global journey “nutritional anthropology.”

Price traveled from the Eskimos of the frozen Arctic to the Melanesians and Polynesians of the South Pacific, from Switzerland to Australia, New Zealand to Peru. He looked at people’s teeth, took hundreds of photographs, collected samples of their native diets, and compared the dental health of those who were eating their traditional foods to those who had adopted the “white man’s diet.” Finally, after several years of this thorough study, Price published all the results in a remarkable volume, complete with photographs, titled Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. His conclusion: Dental disease was caused, first and foremost, by a deficient diet.

Price started his journey in Switzerland, where residents of the Loetshental Valley subsisted mainly on whole grain rye bread, cheese, and goat’s or cow’s milk, along with meat once a week and a few vegetables in season. The inhabitants of this remote valley were extremely healthy and had only one carious tooth for every three people. When they went to a city and ate the standard urban fare of white flour, sugar, and canned foods, they suffered from tooth decay; but when they returned to their native homes and diets, the decay ceased.

From Switzerland, Price went next to the Islands of the Outer Hebrides, in the Atlantic Ocean northwest of Scotland. These islanders ate mainly oats, in porridge and cakes, and food from the sea — fish, lobsters, crabs, oysters, and clams. But they were strong and healthy and had little tooth decay — as long as they ate their native diet. In communities that were less isolated and ate “modern” foods (angel food cake, white bread, canned vegetables, marmalades, sweetened fruit juices, jams, and confections), they suffered not only from dental caries but also from tuberculosis.

Price’s next voyage was to the Eskimos of northern Canada and Alaska. These people, who lived in one of the harshest environments on Earth, were extremely strong and healthy — as long as they ate their native diets. They lived on fresh and dried salmon, large quantities of seal oil (very high in vitamin A), fresh and dry fish eggs, caribou, ground nuts, kelp, cranberries and other berries, flower blossoms and sorrel grass preserved in seal oil, frozen fish, and the skin of a whale that was very high in vitamin C. But they suffered from dental cavities and other degenerative diseases when they ate the white man’s flour, sugar, and canned foods.

Everywhere he went in the world, Price made similar observations. Native people ate an extremely wide diversity of foods, depending on the local climate. Melanesians and Polynesians on Pacific islands ate a wide variety of plant foods and seafood. The Masai of northern Africa lived primarily on milk, blood and meat, with some vegetables. Australian Aborigines ate roots, stems, leaves, berries, seeds of grasses, a native pea, kangaroos, wallabies, rodents, insects, beetles, grubs, birds and birds’ eggs. The Maori in New Zealand ate a wide variety of foods, including shellfish and kelp. The Quechua in Peru ate fish eggs, dried kelp, and guinea pigs in addition to a wide variety of vegetable foods.

In all of these places, Price observed that as soon as the native people started eating the “white man’s diet” of white flour, sugar, and canned foods, their health declined and tooth decay became rampant. Some of the worst teeth he found were in the mouths of white settlers, who refused to eat native foods. This made Price conclude that good health and resistance to tooth decay was not genetic; it was a matter of diet.

After completing this impressive tour of the world, Price analyzed the food samples that he had collected and discovered that most of them contained about four times as many minerals and ten times as many vitamins as the typical “white man’s diet.”

Price drew two conclusions from this data. One was that there wasn’t inherently anything wrong with eating grains; it was the milling and refining process that made white flour so unwholesome. Whole grains were healthy; white flour or polished rice caused deficiency disease because the protective vitamins had been removed.

Price’s second conclusion from looking at these diets was that all of them used some animal products. They did not all eat much meat, but if they didn’t they ate large amounts of dairy products or seafood. “As yet I have not found a single group of primitive racial stock which was building and maintaining excellent bodies by living entirely on plant foods,” he noted. Some of the people groups he visited could be considered vegetarians, but none were vegans.

Back in Cleveland, Price decided to test his hypothesis about the connection between diet and tooth decay by offering malnourished local children a meal every day, consisting of tomato or orange juice, “a pint of a very rich vegetable and meat stew,” cooked fruit, whole wheat rolls, “high-vitamin butter” made from the milk of cows grazing fresh grass, and whole milk. After a few weeks on this diet, the change in the children was marked. Not only did their dental health improve significantly, but schoolteachers told Price that some of the children in the program had improved their academic performance.

Nutrition and Health

By the time Weston Price completed his “nutritional anthropology” and started his feeding experiment in Cleveland, the connection between nutrition and human health was quite well established. Other researchers studied other isolated people groups and came to similar conclusions as Price. One other often-cited example was the islanders of Tristan da Cunha, who were cut off from civilization and thus ate little white flour or sugar. They subsisted mainly on potatoes, the eggs and meat of seabirds, milk, and some vegetables — and had healthier teeth than the average American or British citizen.

The doctors of the Cheshire Medical Committee used the information gained from the work of the vitamin researchers and nutritional anthropologists in their medical practices. They advised their patients to avoid white flour, sugar, and canned foods and eat whole wheat bread, oatmeal porridge, raw milk, cheese, butter, eggs, fish, liver, salads, green leafy vegetables, and lots of fruit instead. In his 1949 book Nutrition and Health: Thoughts on Feeding, LionelPicton cited dozens of case studies where patients’ health improved markedly when they switched from processed to protective foods. What was true of every other people group in the world was true of the English as well: People were healthier when they ate natural, unprocessed foods.

Anneliese Abbott is a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a B.S. in plant and soil science from The Ohio State University and is the author of Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture. She can be contacted at”

Agroecologist Nicole Masters Finds the Joy in Soil Health

Nicole Masters
Nicole Masters is an agroecologist and author from New Zealand.


Among the many thinkers, educators and practitioners who have led the way towards the life-supporting practices of regenerative agriculture are an army of women whose nurturing nature has changed the way we think about food and our connection to the soil. With 20-plus years and millions of rejuvenated acres under her belt, agroecologist, systems thinker, educator and author Nicole Masters stands out as an increasingly influential woman in regenerative ag. Her talents are as deep as the roots of ryegrass and as diverse as the microbes in the living soil she helps create. Her personal and often humorous approach to reviving degraded land not only provokes a questioning of land management practices, but also leaves her followers believing that what she describes is not only possible, but much easier, cheaper and more profitable than they could ever have believed.

Born in the island nation of New Zealand, one of the most biologically diverse landmasses in the world, Masters seems to have been endowed with a special lens in her brain that allows her to view the nearly invisible world of soil microbiology in a way that makes it larger than life.

At the age of five, Masters followed National Geographic’s coverage of the Mt. St. Helens eruption on a continent 7,000 miles away. She remembers being struck by how nature was able to heal itself over time. Being fascinated by nature at an early age was just the tip of the landmass in Masters’ life journey. As a young adult she toyed with the idea of becoming New Zealand’s first fighter pilot, then a veterinarian and later a great white shark researcher. Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree in ecology from the University of Otago with a focus on soil science and plant physiology. And while she learned a considerable amount in school, Masters is quick to point out that no one ever once told her or her fellow students that soil was a living thing.

After finishing her first round in college, Masters helped her dad start a farm. They found a place with deep soil and planted an avocado orchard, strawberries and gardens. In a strange twist of fate, the father-daughter duo wound up buying an old run-down worm farm nearby, and it wasn’t long before Masters had taught herself about the subtleties of vermiculture and how to use the worms to make rich compost that would feed the avocado trees and strawberries on the farm.

Motherly Mentorship

In 2002, Masters founded Tigercast Worms while earning qualifications in adult education with postgraduate studies in ag extension and organizational learning at the Waikato Institute of Technology. She recalls that it was about halfway through her studies that she found herself delving through some scholarly papers on soil and began to wonder why everyone wasn’t a soil scientist. Her big aha moment came while watching Elaine Ingham talk about the soil food web. Masters’ early hunch that soil was alive was finally confirmed.

Masters was 27 when she was invited to be co-chair of the Soil & Health Association (SHA) in New Zealand, which is the oldest organic food and farming organization in the world. It was here that she found kinship and mentors such as fellow board member Marion Thompson and Arohanui Lawrence, who was recently awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for community building and sustainable food production. Masters recalls her mentor Thelma Williams, who she describes as a wonderful grandmother figure who taught her how to prevent frost damage with vermiculture. “Of course, it would take me another 15 years or so to figure out how it actually worked, but she was such an amazing source of inspiration for me.”

2021 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show

Learn about soil health in person with Nicole Masters

Nicole Masters is one of four expert speakers who will be presenting full-day Eco-Ag U workshops at the 2021 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show! This annual conference will be held in person, Dec. 6-9, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Focused on eco-agriculture education, this event features two days of Eco-Ag U workshops plus three days of sessions on all kinds of eco-farming topics.

Learn more about Nicole’s Eco-Ag U workshop here.

When asked if she thinks more women are becoming involved in farming and regenerative agriculture Masters said: “I think that more women entering agriculture is a global phenomenon. What has changed is women’s willingness to take a stand and speak out and be acknowledged and respected. But if you think of some of the big leaders in the global ag space like Kris Nichols, Christine Jones or Elaine Ingham, who forged the way, they’ve always been there. And even more young women are coming through and leading us forward.”

For the Love of Soil

With her school days behind her and her future unfolding before her eyes, Masters began transitioning Tigercast Worms into Integrity Soils, a company centered on teaching and coaching farmers, gardeners, ranchers and landowners across the world how to use the principles of regenerative agriculture to renew their landscapes. Today, the company employs four additional coaches offering a wide array of services to producers as well as the organizations and suppliers that service them through international workshops, consulting and facilitating services, and online workshops throughout Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Masters says she approaches each new challenge with a “soils first” attitude. Their programs are, “based on observation, ecological principles and regenerative land management practices” and “covers a wide range of approaches, tools, and the thinking required to build soil and ecosystem health, food quality and profitability.”

“It is not enough to just study or understand the science behind regenerative agriculture,” she says. We must also  “understand how we think about the soil that sustains and nourishes all life on earth.”

When asked how people should think about soil, her reply is succinct. “We should think of it as the source of everything. If we start to see soil as the source of well-being, health, profit, climate change, food quality — everything — we start to relate to it differently when we’re out there. Soil isn’t just a vessel to hold on to plants, which is kind of the way soil science thought of it for a long time. It’s really about seeing improvements and looking after soil health that offers so many other benefits to you and your animals and plants. We have to interact with soil at a deeper level.”

Last year, after 20-plus years in the business, Masters published her first book, For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems. I found that the book was much like her presentations: down to earth, inspirational, informative and altogether entertaining. When asked what her motivation was, she said that she decided to write it because people kept asking her if they could buy a soil book for dummies. “I have loads of books on my shelves that are very informative, but when I looked at some of my favorites, they were also really dry. Some of them are brilliantly written and make some of the soil biology more accessible to the farming audience than ever before, but they aren’t practical enough.”

Masters says that the hardest place to start is at your own front door. Sometimes issues with crops, livestock or land are obvious. Erosion on a hillside, invasive weeds in the rows, or fertility issues in livestock are all things we can see with our own eyes. But not all problems manifest in ways that are obvious to those who are accustomed to seeing them over and over. I asked her to describe some of the not-so-obvious signs of a degraded landscape and her answer was surprising.

“It’s how you feel.” she said. “If you go out onto your land and feel alive and joy-filled as opposed to feeling heavy and negative and like nothing is working — this is often one of the key indicators that something is wrong. It’s actually one of the things I look for when I’m working with people. I watch them and a lot of the time they aren’t even aware of how that land is having an impact on them and how they are having an impact on their land, as well.” she said. “That’s probably a little out there for some people, but it’s something I’m very keenly aware of.”

Fairy Dust & Unicorns

You might expect an agro-ecologist who specializes in soil to talk about dry matter. But when Masters does it, she’s often making you laugh at the same time. She also challenges you to take your soil very, very seriously. She wants you to touch it, love it and even look at it through a microscope. “When you look at soil through a microscope it brings what may seem like fairy dust and unicorns to something that is very tangible.” she said. “To see all this life coming from your own soil, things like nematodes and tardigrades, is such a rush.”

 “So much of this stuff can feel theoretical, and farmers, on the whole, are aesthetic learners — hands-on,” she said. “But we’re talking about hands-on for something we can’t see. And so it’s bringing the unseen into the seen. That’s why I like to play a lot of games during my presentations, like the microbe game where we make these long string lines of mycorrhizae throughout the conference room and just fill it up. People are like, ‘Whoa, we get it now!’ So we use microscopes and some of these games to help people envision living soil a bit better.”

Masters often compares the volume of microbial life in the soil to the bulk of Angus bulls. “I talk a lot about underground livestock. We know that there’s life above ground that we need to manage, but there’s livestock underneath the ground that have similar needs in terms of good airflow, water, food and comfort — just the same as livestock. So, envisioning every acre as having two Angus bulls in biomass and biology underground puts in in perspective. When you go out to your fields just ask yourself, ‘How do I manage these guys? How do I feed them and ensure that they are as comfortable as possible?’ because that’s what gives you the return you’re looking for.”

For Masters, it’s all about the soil. And if she ever comes to your farm or ranch, she’ll almost surely want you to dig some holes. “I’m always looking for something that is going to impact someone emotionally, because there’s always that ‘aha’ or ‘Oh-my-God, what have I been doing my whole life?’ thing that happens,” she said. “Those moments are what triggers the energy to create a shift. So, a microscope might be able to do it, but digging holes definitely will.”

She recalls one particular ranch where digging holes produced the desired effect. “I was on a property with 30 years of holistic grazing on it and we could not get the shovel in the ground. And the guys is like, ‘Well it’s been a hot dry summer.” and I’m like, ‘Yep, that makes sense. The ground is really hard and there is no ground cover.’ And then we dug underneath the fence and the shovel went in like a knife through butter. We dug again and again and again in multiple fields and it was the same everywhere,” she said. “Then he turned to me and said, ‘Have I done this?’ and I said, ‘Yes, this was you.’ But it’s that aha moment, whatever it is or however it looks, that can be enough for people to start looking at things differently.”

Many Parts Make a Whole

In the end, anyone who has taken the time to educate themselves on the various aspects of regenerative agriculture knows there is no such thing as a single magic bullet. Regenerative ag is a system made up of many parts that, when put together correctly, make the whole a cohesive functioning unit. “For me, regenerative agriculture is a mindset where you shift from that reductionist control and separate mentality to something of interconnectedness and a being of observation and how this would work in nature.”

“There is so much about this work that is so amazing and inspiring. And as ecologists, we’re trying to think in systems, which means that sometimes I feel like I don’t know enough – that I’m just a generalist because it’s nearly impossible to know enough about all these different fields. I need to know how to read livestock just like I need to know how to read a plant, or the soil, or the person I’m working with.” Masters explains. “These are all very deep topics in themselves, but it’s when you start to see that it’s all interconnected…that’s when I start to feel like Sherlock Holmes.”

In the end, Masters points out that everything we’re dealing with goes back to the unseen. “I think everything we’re dealing with, even things like COVID, probably comes back to gut health and function. And the quicker we wake up to that the better off we’re going to be. This is why it’s so important to find ways to communicate with people about something that’s invisible, because that’s what it’s all coming back to is that invisible life and how we see it.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz (, a weekly blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Nicole Masters at Eco-Ag Conference

Join us in celebrating 50 years of Acres U.S.A. at the in-person 2021 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show! Running from Dec. 6-9, in Cincinnati, Ohio, this will be the most useful agriculture conference you attend all year. Nicole Masters will present a full-day Eco-Ag U workshop on “Successful Soil Health Management, Diagnostics & Triage.” Space at Eco-Ag U workshops is limited, so be sure to save your place today! Register here. Learn more about Eco-Ag U workshops here, and more about the overall Eco-Ag Conference here.

André Leu: Regenerative Farming is the Next Stage of Agricultural Evolution

By André Leu

“Regenerative agriculture and animal husbandry is the next and higher stage of organic food and farming, not only free from toxic pesticides, GMOs, chemical fertilizers, and factory farm production, and therefore good for human health; but also regenerative in terms of the health of the soil.” — Ronnie Cummins

Hardly anyone had heard of regenerative agriculture before 2014. Now it is in the news every day all around the world. A small group of leaders of the organic, agroecology, holistic management, environment and natural health movements started Regeneration International as a truly inclusive and representative umbrella organization.

The concept was initially formed at the United Nations Climate Change Meeting in New York in October 2014. The aim was to set up a global network of like-minded agricultural, environmental and social organizations.

The initial steering committee meetings included Dr. Vandana Shiva from Navdanya, Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association, Dr. Hans Herren from The Millennium Institute, Steve Rye from Mercola, and myself, André Leu from IFOAM-Organics International. It was soon expanded to include Precious Phiri from the Africa Savory Hub, Ercilia Sahores from Via Organica in Mexico, Renate Künaste from the German Green Party, John Liu, the China based filmmaker, and Tom Newmark and Larry Kopald from the Carbon Underground.

Our founding meeting was held on a biodynamic farm in Costa Rica in 2015. We deliberately chose to hold it in the global south rather than in North America or Europe and include women and men from every continent to send a message that regeneration was about equity, fairness and inclusiveness. Ronnie Cummins raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the travel, accommodation, food and other expenses for all the representatives from the global south.

The meeting agreed to form Regeneration International to promote a holistic concept of regeneration. The following mission and vision statements came out of this consultative and inclusive event.

Our mission: To promote, facilitate and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, farming and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological and economic systems.

Our vision: A healthy global ecosystem in which practitioners of regenerative agriculture and land use, in concert with consumers, educators, business leaders and policymakers, cool the planet, nourish the world and restore public health, prosperity and peace on a global scale.

In six years Regeneration International has grown to more than 360 partner organizations in 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, North America and Europe.

The Third Phase

The need to form an international regeneration movement was inspired in part by the development of Organic 3.0 by IFOAM – Organics International. Organic 3.0 was conceived as an ongoing process of enabling organic agriculture to actively engage with social and environmental issues and been seen as a positive agent of change.

Organic 3.0 has six main features. The fourth feature was the “inclusiveness of wider sustainability interests, through alliances with the many movements and organizations that have complementary approaches to truly sustainable food and farming.”

One aim of Organic 3.0 was to work with like-minded organizations, movements and similar farming systems with the aim of making all of agriculture more sustainable. The concept was to have organic agriculture as a positive lighthouse of change to improve the sustainability of mainstream agriculture systems.

Beyond Sustainable

Many people in the organic, agroecology and environmental movements were not happy with the term sustainable for a number of reasons, not the least that it has been completely greenwashed and was seen as meaningless: “Sustainable means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Unfortunately, this definition of sustainable has led to concept of sustainable intensification, where more inputs are used in the same area of land to increase productivity and proportionately lower negative environmental footprints. This concept has been used in sustainable agriculture to justify GMOs, synthetic toxic pesticides and water-soluble chemical fertilizers to produce more commodities per hectare/acre. This was presented as better for the environment than “low yielding” organic agriculture and agroecological systems that need more land to produce the same level of commodities. Sustainable intensification is used to justify the destruction of tropical forests for the industrial scale farming of commodities such as GMO corn and soy that are shipped to large scale animal feedlots in Europe and China. The rationale for this is that less land is needed to produce animal products compared to extensive rangeland systems or organic systems. These sustainable intensification systems meet the above definition of sustainable compared to organic, agroecological and holistically managed, pasture-based systems. Companies like Bayer/Monsanto were branding themselves as the largest sustainable agriculture companies in the world. Many of us believed it was time to move past sustainable.

In this era of the Anthropocene, in which human activities are the dominant forces that negatively affect the environment, the world is facing multiple crises. These include the climate crisis, food insecurity, an epidemic of non-contagious chronic diseases, new pandemics of contagious diseases, wars, migration crises, ocean acidification, the collapse of whole ecosystems, the continuous extraction of resources and the greatest extinction event in geological history.

Do we want to sustain the current status quo or do we want to improve and rejuvenate it? Simply being sustainable is not enough. Regeneration, by definition, improves systems.

Hijacking Standards       

Another driver towards regeneration were the widespread concerns about the hijacking of organic standards and production systems by corporate agribusiness. The neglect of the primacy of soil health and soil organic matter, as well as allowing inappropriate plowing methods, were raised as major criticisms.

Jerome Rodale, who popularized the term organic farming in the 1940s, used the term specifically in relation to farming systems that improved soil health by recycling and increasing soil organic matter. Consequently, most organic standards start with this; however certifiers rarely, if ever, check this these days. The introduction of certified organic hydroponics as soilless organic systems was been seen by many as the ultimate sell-out and loss of credibility.

Major concerns and criticisms about the hijacking of certified organic by industrial agriculture were raised by allies in the agroecology and holistic management movements. These included large scale, industrial, organic monocultures and organic Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs). These CAFOS go against the important principles of no cruelty and the need to allow animals to naturally express their behaviors, which are found in most organic standards. The use of synthetic supplements in certified organic CAFOs was seen as undermining the very basis of the credibility of certified organic systems. The lack of enforcement was seen as a major issue. These issues were and still are areas of major dispute and contention within global and national organic sectors.

Many people wanted a way forward and saw the concept of “Regenerative Organic Agriculture,” put forward by Robert Rodale, son of the organic pioneer Jerome Rodale, as a way to resolve this. Bob Rodale used the term regenerative organic agriculture to promote farming practices that go beyond sustainable.


The term regenerative agriculture is now being widely used, to the point that in some cases it can be seen as greenwashing and as a buzzword used by industrial agricultural systems to increase profits.

Those of us who formed Regeneration International were very aware of the way the large agribusiness corporations hijacked the term sustainable to the point is was meaningless. We were also aware of how they are trying to hijack the term of agroecology, especially through the United Nations systems and in some parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America where a little biodiversity is sprinkled as greenwash over agricultural systems that still use toxic synthetic pesticides and water-soluble chemical fertilizers.

Similarly we have been concerned about the way organic agriculture standards and systems have been hijacked by industrial agribusiness as previously stated in the above section.

The critical issue is, how do we engage with agribusiness in a way that can change their systems in a positive way as proposed in Organic 3.0? Many of the corporations that are adopting regenerative systems are improving their soil organic matter levels using systems such as cover crops. They are also implementing programs that reduce toxic chemical inputs and improving environmental outcomes. These actions should be seen as positive changes in the right direction. They are a start — not an end point. Remember that there are also corporations that are rebranding their herbicide sprayed GMO no-till systems as regenerative.

The opposite of regenerative is degenerative. By definition, agricultural systems that are using degenerative practices and inputs that damage the environment, soil and health — such as synthetic toxic pesticides, synthetic water soluble fertilizers and destructive tillage systems, cannot be considered regenerative — and should not use the term. They must be called out as degenerative.

The Path Forward

From the perspective of Regeneration International, all agricultural systems should be regenerative and organic using the science of agroecology.

Bob Rodale observed that an ecosystem will naturally regenerate once the disturbance stops. Consequently, regenerative agriculture, working with nature, not only maintains resources, it improves them.

Regeneration should be seen as a way to determine how to improve systems and to determine what practices are acceptable and what are degenerative and therefore unacceptable. The criteria to analyze this must be based on the Four Principles of Organic Agriculture. These principles are clear and effective ways to decide what practices are regenerative and what are degenerative.

Consequently, the four principles of organic agriculture are seen as consistent and applicable to regenerative agriculture.

Health: Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

Ecology: Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

Fairness: Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

Care: Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

Why Regenerative Agriculture?

The majority of the world’s population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. Agricultural producers are amongst the most exploited, food and health insecure, least educated and poorest people on our planet, despite producing most of the food we eat.

Agriculture in its various forms has the most significant effect on land use on the planet. Industrial agriculture is responsible for most of the environmental degradation, forest destruction, toxic chemicals in our food and environment and a significant contributor, up to 50 percent, to the climate crisis. The degenerative forms of agriculture are an existential threat to us and most other species on our planet. We have to regenerate agriculture for social, environmental, economic and cultural reasons.

Soil Focus

The soil is fundamental to all terrestrial life of this planet. Our food and biodiversity start with the soil. The soil is not dirt — it is living, breathing and teeming with life. The soil microbiome is the most complex and richest area of biodiversity on our planet. The area with the greatest biodiversity is the rhizosphere, the region around roots of plants.

Plants feed the soil microbiome with the molecules of life that they create through photosynthesis. These molecules are the basis of organic matter — carbon-based molecules — that all life on earth depends on. Organic matter is fundamental to all life and soil organic matter is fundamental to life in the soil.

Farming practices that increase soil organic matter (SOM) increase fertility, water holding capacity, pest and disease resilience and, thus, the productivity of agricultural systems. Because SOM comes from carbon dioxide fixed through photosynthesis, increasing SOM can have a significant impact in reversing the climate crisis by drawing down this greenhouse gas.

The fact is our health and wealth comes from the soil.

Regenerative agriculture is now being used as an umbrella term for the many farming systems that use techniques such as longer rotations, cover crops, green manures, legumes, compost and organic fertilizers to increase SOM. These include: organic agriculture, agroforestry, agroecology, permaculture, holistic grazing, sylvopasture, syntropic farming and many other agricultural systems that can increase SOM. SOM is an important proxy for soil health — as soils with low levels are not healthy.

However, our global regeneration movement is far more than this.

Regeneration Revolution

We have a lot of work to do. We are currently living well beyond our planetary boundaries and extracting far more than our planet can provide. As Dr. Vandana Shiva puts it: “Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy.”

According to Bob Rodale, regenerative organic agriculture systems are those that improve the resources they use, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to farming that encourages continual innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.

The vast majority of the destruction of biodiversity, the greenhouse gases, pesticides, endocrine disrupters, plastics, poverty, hunger and poor nutrition are directly caused by the billionaire corporate cartels and their obscene greed aided by their morally corrupt cronies. We need to continue to call them out for their degenerative practices.

More importantly, we need to build the new regenerative system that will replace the current degenerate system.

We have more than enough resources for everyone to live a life of wellbeing. The world produces around 3 times more food than we need. We have unfair, exploitative and wasteful systems that need to be transformed and regenerated. 

We need to regenerate our societies so we must be proactive in ensuring that others have access to land, education, healthcare, income, the commons and empowerment. This must include women, men and youths across all ethnic and racial groups.

We must take care of each other and regenerate our planet. We must take control and empower ourselves to be the agents of change. We need to regenerate a world based on the Four Principles of Organic Agriculture: Health, Ecology Fairness and Care.

Ronnie Cummins, one of our founders, wrote: “Never underestimate the power of one individual: yourself. But please understand, at the same time, that what we do as individuals will never be enough. We’ve got to get organized and we’ve got to help others, in our region, in our nation, and everywhere build a mighty Green Regeneration Movement. The time to begin is now.”

André Leu is the author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides and Poisoning Our Children. He previously served as president of IFOAM — Organics International and is currently the international director of Regeneration International. 

Sun+Earth Certified Sets a High Bar for Cannabis Production

Interview by Ben Trollinger

Photo courtesy of Sun+Earth Certified

With the federal legalization of hemp and the continuing state-by-state rollout of recreational psychoactive cannabis, the cannabis industry is just picking up steam in the U.S. A California-based nonprofit is aiming to lead the way on setting regenerative and socially responsible standards that empower farmers and farm workers in a rapidly expanding agricultural sector. Acres U.S.A. recently talked with Andrew Black, the executive director of Sun+Earth Certified, a beyond-organic standard for cannabis and hemp, and Josh Gulliver, a regenerative hemp and herb farmer based in Oregon, about the challenges and opportunities for on the horizon for cannabis growers.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, I thought we’d start with you. Could you tell us a little bit about your operation out in Oregon and why you’ve taken a regenerative approach to hemp production?

Josh Gulliver. I started J and J Organics shortly after the Oregon Hemp Pilot Program was put in place. I started it with a farmer who’s owned a mixed vegetable farm for many years, a place called Gathering Together Farm here in Oregon. I made his compost for five years before the two of us started growing hemp together, as a side project at first. We grew an acre and it turned out really well. So, we continued.

John’s farm was organic. It’s organic today. It was a natural transition to grow organic hemp. Also, the vegetable farm’s a production farm, so we had this natural inclination to really try to produce hemp on a larger scale. But, as we got further and further into the hemp industry, a couple things happened. First, we recognized that no matter how much organic product we produced, we couldn’t get it to the retailer. We couldn’t find an outlet that actually brought that organic integrity all the way to the person who would finally use CBD or hemp products for their well-being. The hemp industry has been a wild ride. So, it was very quick that we all of a sudden went from an acre and a couple of years later, we put in 22.

When we put in that 22 acres, it changed my perspective in a large way about how to grow hemp. We put down a lot of plastic. Even this year, which is two years later, I still roam through the field and I pull up plastic. Again, it’s legal for organics and so forth. But I drove about, I want to say it was 15,000 pounds of plastic and irrigation materials off the farm at the end of that season. Just drove it straight to the dump.

When I would reflect upon that, I wondered how much that actually saved me. What was the purpose of that? I’ve always been somebody who likes to identify myself as more than just a farmer. I’m somewhat of an activist generally. It just didn’t feel right to me.

So very quickly, we decided to eliminate plastic use. Rather than use traditional weed control, we would load the fields with interplanting of everything, from calendula to sunflower, and all sorts of different things. We quickly identified the benefits of that just from a pollinator perspective and the ecological support system that we created here on the farm. It just turned into something really fantastic.

Then, about three or four years ago, I want to say, I was doing an event called Organicology. I had the pleasure of listening to Andrew Black talk about Sun+Earth certification. Certifications are something that I’ve always really been interested in. I like when certifiers and certifications align with my values generally, from the farming perspective right through the social justice issues I like to align myself with. It was pretty obvious right off the bat, after listening to them present that their kind of certification was something that we’d been looking for.

At the time—and even today—did it have the clout of something like organics? Not necessarily, but it was definitely something that better aligned with our values.

Acres U.S.A. This might be a good opportunity to bring Andrew into the conversation, and walk us through Sun+Earth certification and what that means, and why specifically that is needed in addition to something like, say, Regenerative Organic Certification.

Andrew Black. Sun+Earth is founded on three pillars. We have earth care, human empowerment, and community engagement. Where organics does a pretty good job of trying to get people to stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Sun+Earth also requires that and goes several steps further with the earth care portion of the standard. It really promotes biodiversity and mulching, reduced tillage, cover cropping, and farms creating their own fertility onsite.

So someone like Josh, who has experience making high-quality compost and utilizing it, and doing companion planting, and cover cropping — already practicing what we would call regenerative organic practices — it was a lot easier for him to qualify for Sun+Earth and meet those earth care standards.

Now, like I said, a very interesting thing about Sun+Earth that makes it different than USDA Organic is the pillars of human empowerment and community engagement. If you look at USDA Organic right now, it’s clear that there’s nothing in those standards that really protect farm workers, or tries to foster sustainable working relationships between the farmer and the farm worker, right?

So, we’ve added some very simple principles that require written contracts between farm owner and farm labor, and requires a commitment to farm worker protections. Similarly, we have added a community engagement piece to the Sun+Earth standard. Again, it comes from this idea of simply requiring a written strategy about how you engage with the community.

We don’t want to go and overregulate the farmers that work with us. But if you have some simple rules that shift the perspective away from me, me, me, and put it outwards towards the landscape, the workers, and the community, then we’ve actually done something radical. We’ve shifted the certification program away from just buying inputs, and pumping out product, and making money to okay, let’s expand our horizons here and consider these things, and actually have conversations with the farms about various aspects.

In that way, Sun+Earth is very unique as a certification standard. I’m excited to see how we can implement more certification in hemp. Josh mentioned that we have, right now, certified over 40 farms. That’s true. Sun+Earth Certified was created with the THC cannabis farmer in mind. We didn’t create Sun+Earth to capture all the hemp farmers in the world. We created Sun+Earth thinking about how are these legacy homesteader medical marijuana farms going to survive in these places where they’ve been farming cannabis for its medicinal purposes for two, three, four generations. That was the impetus of Sun+Earth and it’s grown to include certain hemp farms, like Josh’s, who goes way beyond organic practices and has a commitment to the three pillars that I mentioned.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, it sounds like you were doing a lot of the earth care practices already before going through the certification process. I’m curious, though, how that process changed your business or changed your approach, particularly the community engagement piece. Could you talk more about that?

Gulliver. Sure. I’d say the biggest thing that it’s done — this is a little detrimental on myself — sometimes when you are required to do something, even though it’s something that you really want to do generally, it forces you to find the time to do it. I’d suggest that Sun+Earth’s priorities have helped me align my own in terms of educational outreach. My partner here at our processing center and I try our best to do community outreach all the time, whether it’s just at our local co-op talking to people about organics, about Sun+Earth, about regenerative agriculture, and what that means for their final product on the shelf and so forth. [Sun+Earth] holds me a little more accountable to make sure that I do the things that I want to do, to make sure I find the time to do them.

Acres U.S.A. I think consumer awareness is something that’s always evolving. You might have people who are really in touch with where their food comes from and they have relationships with farmers, et cetera, et cetera. But cannabis is this thing that has come onto the landscape over the last few years through legalization efforts. The transparency and awareness within that industry is in its infancy. Could you contrast what you’re doing with what the industry is doing as a whole, and how those two things are different? In other words, in your case, how is most CBD product produced in the U.S.? How is that different from what you’re doing?

Black. The current model of agriculture is being used in hemp production as well, and for CBD production. You can think of a 50-acre block or a 100-acre plot, where people are planting hemp in rows with black plastic and pumping them with synthetic fertilizers, not considering or making space for plant biodiversity within the rows or alongside the rows. So, you’ve got really monoculture cropping going on with hemp. You can see it. Come out to Oregon in the summer and you just drive by any country road, you can see it north, south, all the way into eastern Oregon. You can see it all over the nation, right?

So, that type of farming, it’s non-organic. There’s very little consideration to treating the landscape as a home place or a living organism. That’s in stark contrast to Josh’s farm, J and J Organics, where they’re not using black plastic. They’re actually planting medicinal calendula crops and other medicinal herb crops, saving the seed back from these herbs. And now they’ve realized well, maybe we can’t make it just by selling our CBD, our dried flower bulk, to another CBD processor. So, they’re processing all sorts of medicine in their own facility. They’ve achieved that over the years and are having success.

There are other hemp farms that we certify, that we work with through Sun+Earth that do the same thing, or a little bit differently. They’ll plant hemp in, let’s say, a quarter-acre block or a half-acre block alongside echinacea that they also harvest and take to market. There is a stark difference between a reality where hemp becomes just another commoditized monocrop versus hemp that is grown in a way where you’d let your children play in the field.

Gulliver. There’s so much noise in the industry that the certifications are, A, very important to get so that whether you’re wholesaling or retailing, it allows you to show people that you’re trying to adhere to some level of integrity.

I also would suggest that hemp farmers—most of them—have kind of come from a cannabis background. If you’ve my age and you’ve been growing cannabis, you’ve experienced it as a real illegal thing to do, in most situations — unless you’re brought up on the west coast. Naturally, it’s created this very internal culture where people don’t really share information. They’ve been in their basement trying to do the best that they can. It’s not a collaborative environment.

I’d say that early on, my relationship with John Eveland at Gathering Together, taught me that to do this on any kind of scale that’s achievable and that you can be successful at, and to do it in a manner that carries values and integrity to the person you’re selling product to, it takes that collaboration. It takes getting out there and talking about it, and settling the dust a little bit, and realizing that a vegetable farmer who’s been farming for 40 years versus a cannabis guy who’s been in their basement for five, the cannabis guy, it’s going to behoove him to talk to that vegetable farmer to figure out how to do it on a scale that he can actually produce a product that gets to a retail outlet.

Early on, I mentioned we recognized that there wasn’t a way to get organic product to a retail outlet, to an individual. We started another Sun+Earth-certified facility actually called SunGold Botanicals. That’s where we take our hemp and we turn it into products. It gets turned into raw oil, it gets brought right through to a finished product.

It’s important to mention Sun+Earth on that end too because it’s about maintaining the integrity of the plant right out of the ground, right? Sun+Earth would never certify, say, an isolate made with harsh chemicals. It’s a CBD isolate, right? It has no THC, but honestly it’s terrible for the environment and it’s a terrible thing to make, but probably the most popular CBD product right now.

Sun+Earth helps us carry that integrity all the way through. That’s why we do the outreach. Why we let people know these things. I’d say 15 years ago, I was in California and I ran a microgreen farm. It was similar, right? Microgreens were something I was bringing to chefs and they were like, what the…? What am I going do with this? We had to do an educational outreach. Now, I think we’re doing the same thing.

On the manufacturing end, we get to do it through white-labeling tinctures for smaller companies that want to put their own product on shelf. That gives us this decentralized way to get information to the consumer. Naturally, the centralized system seems to fail in our case. So, I like the educational outreach aspect of everything.

Acres U.S.A. Andrew, could you tell us a little bit more about the history of Sun+Earth? It has a connection with Dr. Bronner’s, specifically David Bronner, I believe. Could you tell us a little bit about that? And why that was something that he was passionate about and wanted to start? Because it seems to me that Dr. Bronner’s has a pretty masterful grasp of supply chains.

Black. Exactly.

Acres U.S.A. I’m imagining that that’s incredibly useful for someone like Josh. I guess it’s really two questions. One is background, history. Then, the other is helping farmers and growers understand how to vertically integrate what they’re doing.

Black. Well, let me tackle the first question first. I’ve been involved in organic certification since 2005. I worked for a long time with Oregon Tilth doing certification throughout the United States. Also in Latin America, I ran the Latin American program for Oregon Tilth for a number of years. That experience really helped me understand standards and how to implement a certification program.

In 2017, I was approached by Dr. Bronner’s. They were interested in putting together a certification standard that was for sun-grown cannabis that went beyond organics. That was the root conversation. In 2018, Dr. Bronner’s funded us to do a pilot program.

We created a technical advisory committee. We had eight meetings to create the standards. During that time, while we were creating the standards, we recruited 12 farms in the Emerald Triangle in California — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties, and Sonoma County, actually, as well — to participate. We tested our certification program with those guys. They helped us flesh it out. We actually went to their farms twice that year, so they had two inspections each. We worked out the kinks. We had a 50-day public comment period, received comments and then published our standard.

Since then, we’ve grown to 40 certified farms. Our goal is to get up to 60 certified farms or manufacturers this year. Dr. Bronner’s is the main funder. They have a program where — it’s called Constructive Capital. They give away a lot of philanthropy money to nonprofits that they’re interested in supporting. A lot of them are in the regenerative agriculture space. That’s where we fit in.

Acres U.S.A. Describe how Sun+Earth is a necessary piece of this particular industry. Why couldn’t someone like Josh just do Regenerative Organic Certification, which Dr. Bronner’s is also involved in? Why was it important to have a specific certification for cannabis growers?

Black. Well, I think back in 2018, when we started, the ROC, which you referred to, was just also getting started. Also, we were dealing with THC cannabis farms. I don’t know if the ROC will actually certify adult-use cannabis. On some level, this certification was needed specifically for sun-grown adult-use cannabis.

I was a part of — and I still am — Certified Kind, which is a certification standard for organically grown cannabis. That certification standard allows indoor famers to get certified, for example. But Sun+Earth goes beyond that and only certifies cannabis that was grown under the sun and in the soil. But the need was there for a high-bar standard. That was created collaboratively. The need is there because most certification standards can’t touch adult-use cannabis. It’s still too much of a stretch. For example, USDA Organic certifiers won’t certify adult-use cannabis, even in states that have legalized it.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, could you talk a little bit about your approach to producing CBD and other products? You seem to have a big focus on soil health. Do you see a big difference in the end product?

Gulliver. The values are dictated by what you want to do with it at the end product. For example, we’ve been making essential oil, hemp essential oil. The plant that I want in the field that I’m going to utilize for hemp essential oil is not the same one that I want to utilize for standard hemp biomass that we might put through an ethanol extraction to product hemp CBD oil. So, I’d say that the biggest thing there is to start with the genetics. We utilized different genetics, depending on what we want to use it for. It’s hard to say that it changes the final product substantially.

In our processing outfit, we’ll have multiple farms bring us their hemp. The final product is typically pretty similar when it comes to CBD oil. The big difference is terpenes, to tell you the truth. The smell. That’s why I mentioned the essential oil as well because we only want to use cultivars that produce that really heavy cannabis smell so we can allow that to transcend through to the final product. But really, I’d say that the way I grow a vegetable is very similar to the way I grow hemp. We test the soil, we figure out what kind of nutrients it wants.

One of the nice things about Sun+Earth is it does limit how much nitrogen we can put down. One thing Andrew and I haven’t really mentioned in any kind of depth is climate change. All these things that we’re talking about, all the regenerative agricultural aspects of this, is completely related to that. To give you an example, we did a test on dry farming hemp a few years ago. This will tie back in, but when we did the test, we determined that with no irrigation whatsoever, we only lost about ten percent of production. So as a farmer, I had to say to myself, “Okay. What does that really mean from an input perspective? Let alone a climate change perspective, but what does that mean from just an input perspective? Can I farm on even more of a shoestring by not applying water?”

To give you the number, 49 gallons of water produced one pound of hemp on an irrigated field, and 4.6 gallons of water produced hemp on an unirrigated field. Which is a substantial difference, and we only lost ten percent in our production. So, I have to ask myself as a farmer, those kind of experiments have definitely shaped how we move forward, and how much we apply, and when we apply irrigation, for example.

Acres U.S.A. You mentioned earlier using different genetics based on intended application. Can you talk more about your approach to genetics? I know it varies by hemp farmer.

Gulliver. I mentioned that I come from a vegetable production farming background. I don’t want to see blanks in my field. I don’t want my hemp seeded. When I put regular seed out, naturally I’m going walk through that field and I’m going pull out all the males. I might have 20 females in a row, and a blank of 40 feet and two females.

When I look at how to efficiently farm in the manner that I want to, we’re tight. We’re tight on margins. It’s hard to be a regenerative farm in today’s agricultural community. Especially with hemp. Hemp is a roller coaster.

I have the privilege of being right down the road from Oregon CBD. Oregon CBD is one of the larger hemp seed producers in the country. They’re really good at it. They have $100 million of overhead and all sorts of things to make these seeds. What’s nice about that is I’m keenly aware that whether it’s an echinacea seed or whether it’s a hemp seed, it’s gonna grow better in your environment if it was bred in your [environment]. Naturally, that is where I source my production seeds from. I source feminized seed only because I don’t want those blanks in the field. Because I can’t afford those blanks in the field, quite honestly. There’s some great farms that are now trying to produce feminized seed in a manner in which Sun+Earth supports and organic supports. East Fork Cultivars is one of those. We use them for our essential oil. They’re also in southern Oregon. So again, it’s a privilege for us because they’re right next door and I know it’s produced here in Oregon, I know it’s going to grow well in my environment. So, it’s pretty simple for me when it comes to that. I definitely would prefer to source seeds locally and I do.

Acres U.S.A. I’m wondering if you had to come up with a few rules of thumb for people who are looking to get into regenerative hemp, what would you tell them? Where would they start? What should they know?

Black. For me, it’s simple. It’s very simple. My number one advice would be to, before you even think about doing this, cultivate a market for it. Too many farmers have been left with thousands of pounds of hemp and incurred tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars of loss because they went big. Start small, know your market.

Gulliver. Yeah. I’d also say that starting out with a regenerative approach, starting out with an organic approach. There’s a general idea that it’s more expensive to farm that way. You do have to do it on a shoestring budget. But when you approach it practically and say to yourselves, “Okay. If I interplant with this type of cultivar, I can avoid weeding.” Especially when you’re first setting up a farm, I think when you go into it with those ideals and those priorities aligned correctly, in two or three years, you can really create a, I don’t want to call it a food forest, but you can create a real ecological system that continues to produce for you. That is not going happen with traditional agricultural and conventional agricultural methods.

Acres U.S.A. Andrew’s advice was to know your market and have a market, build a market. Was that your experience? Did you go into it that way?

Gulliver. I don’t want to be too much of a cynic. The hemp industry is a very tough industry to exist in right now. J and J Organics has expanded their crop line by almost 20 cultivars that’s non-hemp related this season alone just because we need to continue to do things. We need to produce some kind of revenue. Hemp alone, as a company that’s been fairly successful in the industry here — at least I like to think we have been—hemp alone would not keep my farm 100% afloat this year. The industry has gone from something where you’re seeing $80 or $90/pound price points to all of a sudden conventional hemp, you might be lucky to get $1.50, $2/pound right now in today’s market, which is a tremendous crash.

I guess not only do you want to be careful going into it, but you want to really do some realistic numbers and say to yourself, “Okay. What am I going to put into this and what am I going to get out of it? It’s a difficult market to navigate right now. My biggest thing with it is do not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s funny. J and J Organics is very much considered a hemp farm. Like I mentioned, we have a lot of different crops on the list. I don’t necessarily identify myself as only a hemp farm these days because I think it’s going be hard to exist as just that.

Acres U.S.A. What are the factors at play there?

Gulliver. Well, I’ve give you the most simple explanation I can. Last year, it cost me about $11.70/pound to get out of the field. I could sell it for maybe $15.

Acres U.S.A. Even the high-end stuff that you’re producing?

Gulliver. Even organic, biodynamic, regenerative, Sun+Earth-certified hemp. There are customers out there that will recognize the importance of those ideals and those certifications, and they’ll pay you for them. But with an industry that you can get on eBay and buy an isolate tincture that has 5,000 milligrams of CBD and they have no idea where it came from, they can get it for $22 or something. Then, compare that to what we produce on a shelf that’s a much, much different product.

Acres U.S.A. It sounds like there’s got to be a change in consciousness. I was talking to a blueberry farmer in Oregon, up in your neck of the woods. He was talking about his goal was always to produce the most nutrient-dense blueberries he could, certified organic, et cetera. He realized that wholesale distributors don’t care about your nutrient density. They just want your organic certification. It’s like getting all these certifications and then expecting a big premium isn’t necessarily a realistic goal?

Gulliver. No, it’s not. That’s what I mentioned, one thing about certifications that’s really important to me personally is this aligning of values. Because I think once people discover what Sun+Earth is about and what it represents, then yes, those individuals that now have learned about it are going to see the value, going probably try to search out Sun+Earth-certified products. But yeah, they don’t always equate to profits or revenue, or any of that thing, to be frank. Not at all.

Black. That’s clear. The certification itself isn’t going raise the value that you can get at the marketplace by 3X, 4X, in a similar way that some organic crops get. It’s not going happen. Because of that, we have a scholarship fund that basically allows us to do the third-party certification on a shoestring budget, where we only charge the growers $400. The annual fee for the certification is $400, which is a pretty good value as far as certifications go. It’s a flat fee. We can thank Dr. Bronner’s, their charitable arm, for that because they’re the ones that are supporting this Sun+Earth program and allowing us to do that.

Acres U.S.A. To close this out, Andrew, could you tell us a little bit about the future for Sun+Earth, and what your plans are? I know that it’s sort of rolling out in different parts of the country.

Black. Our goal is to be a certification standard that we can offer anywhere in the world where they have adult-use cannabis farming or hemp farming. But right now, we’re really strong in California. We have over 30 farms certified in California. We’re focused on trying to educate the marketplace in California to develop what I call a truly green marketplace in California. If we’re successful there, I think that the same types of projects that we do where we’re going into dispensaries and educating the bud tenders about why Sun+Earth is important, and how we’re making an impact, and why consumers will be interested in having these high-quality products. That type of education at the point of sale is a project that we’re focused on. What we realize is that with this new certification, and just certification in general, it’s that point of sale education and awareness is so important. We’ve got initiatives there.

We hope to expand to the eastern seaboard. We’re talking to some people in Massachusetts. Little by little — just onesies, twosies — if we can certify hemp farms on the East Coast, or even adult-use cannabis in some of these states that are legalizing, then we can continue to put the information out there and raise awareness about these beautiful farms — how they’re farming, why it’s different, why it’s important.

That’s the goal. The goal is just to raise the awareness about these farms and help them succeed. The tendency in agriculture and all things in our culture these days is to point to technology and say this is going to save us. In agriculture, the technology that is put out there is GMO and chemicals, and even sometimes CRISPR technology. These are suspect. We really need to shift the narrative. This type of technology is inferior to the natural technology that traditional cultures have known about for eons and that we’ve added to. That is part of the message that ultimately comes out. We’re saying grow cannabis under the sun and in the earth. It’s better for the environment. It produces a superior product. This seems like a no-brainer to a lot of people who are already familiar with the benefits of organic agriculture. But to a lot of people who know nothing about hemp production or cannabis production, or even how to grow a tomato, the concept of natural farming is foreign to them. If we can bring this through cannabis and hemp, the idea of natural farming and how important it is to cannabis and hemp, then we’ve succeeded.  

Karen Washington, The Queen of Urban Agriculture

By Jill Henderson

Karen readies raised beds in The Garden of Happiness.

It all began in 1985 in the Bronx, when a young physical therapist named Karen Washington, a single mom with two young children, bought her very first home. Right away, she decided to grow a little garden in her yard — something she had never done before. She knew nothing about gardening but decided to do it anyway. She wanted to grow collard greens because she loved them, and eggplant because it was weird, and tomatoes because she hated them. She had heard that homegrown tomatoes were nothing like the pale and tasteless ones from the corner store. And a few months later, when the first dark-red tomato was perfectly ripe, she took a big bite and was hooked.

A few years later, Karen was working in her garden when she saw a man in the empty weed-filled lot across the street digging with a pick-ax and shovel. She went over to see what he was doing and he said, “I’m going to grow a garden,” to which Karen replied, “I want to help!” And before she knew it, the Garden of Happiness sprang from the barren land where once nothing but weeds and rubble had been.

Today, the garden is filled to the brim with raised beds that house a wide array of fresh fruits, flowers and vegetables. There’s also a high-tunnel, a chicken coop and beehives, among many other things. Some of the beds are maintained by individuals, while others are collectively tended by volunteers to produce fresh food for folks in the neighborhood who couldn’t afford to buy it and for the local farmer’s market that Karen would later help establish.

The garden is also a classroom where people of all ages come to learn about healthy food and farming, the history of the black and brown people who live in the Bronx, and social justice issues surrounding racism and food inequality.

“What I try to do is to give people information that is sometimes not disseminated in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. When people start using the term food desert, I’m like, wait a second folks, they’re calling where we live a food desert?” she said. “I ask, what’s this term and why aren’t people really looking at the root cause, which is hunger and poverty and racism?”

“It doesn’t get at the heart of the problem, but sort of whitewashes what’s happening behind the scenes. I’ve been really outspoken when people talk about communities of color and don’t live in our community,” she said. “It’s important that we sit down with young people and educate them about how we got here and the contribution that blacks have made to this country. Because these things are not in our history books.”

Jane Hayes-Hodge, Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes-Hodge & Karen Washington at Rise & Root Farm

Urban Agriculture

A native New Yorker, Washington attended Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics at New York University in 1981. She moved to the Bronx from Harlem and by the time The Garden of Happiness was well underway, Karen saw her community’s need for an advocate. She got involved in the NY Botanical Garden’s program, Bronx Green-Up, and joined the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she cut her teeth as a public speaker, organizer, and lobbyist for the protection of empty lots being used as community gardens. She was co-founder and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, and in 2001, co-founded La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition, which started the very first fresh, locally produced food market in the Bronx.

Over the last 30 years, Karen has been at the forefront of the urban food and social justice movement and has been involved in dozens of organizations that promote those ideals, many of which she either founded, co-founded, or sat on the board. Some of these include the NY Botanical Gardens, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, In Our Own Back Yard (IOBY), Women, Food & Agriculture Network, NYC School of Urban Agriculture and the City Farms Market in the Bronx.

Karen’s tireless work has been featured in hundreds of articles, documentaries, interviews and television shows. In 2012, Ebony named her as one of the most influential African Americans and in 2014 she was presented with the James Beard Leadership Award. In April 2021, Washington was featured in the Weather Channel’s Faces of Change series. Her work and words have inspired millions of young people of color to get back to the ancestral farming roots that predated slavery by thousands of years.

As a result of all this, Karen has often been referred to by her peers as the Queen of Urban Ag.

“I’m humbled by that,” she said. “I’m not caught up in titles, I’m just doing the work that needs to be done. I guess I’ve stirred up some pots along the way, but I think when you come from a place of truth and justice you become fearless and unapologetic. Why should you not speak up when you see injustice?”

Her work as a physical therapist taught her that many of the chronic illnesses that her patients suffered from were caused by a lack of nutritious food options in the local grocery stores. And when Karen lost her brother to complications from diabetes in 2010, it motivated her to double down on her efforts to fight for justice and equity in the local food economy.

“You go over to the white neighborhoods and they have all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables and organic and healthy choices, and then you come to the Bronx and all we get is crappy food that’s high in sugar and fat with little or no fresh produce,” she said. “We are marginalized by the color of our skin.”

Slavery, Farming and Politics

Two of the most wonderful things about Karen Washington are her fiery passion and contagious smile, both of which you might experience while she explains the history of African American slavery, northern migration, land ownership and the loss of almost every right granted to whites, including the right to read or write, practice religion — even to marry or own land. She points to the Black Codes of 1832, which were directed primarily at free slaves prior to emancipation but would continue for many generations. She also points to Jim Crow and segregation laws that, in some southern states, weren’t ended until the mid-1970s.

“After the Emancipation Proclamation, General Sherman was going to sign the 15th Order [Special Field Orders No. 15], which would put over 400,000 acres of land into the hands of newly freed slaves. But after Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson stepped in and said, ‘Hell, no. That’s not going to happen.’ He rescinded the order and put the land back in the hands of white slave masters. Can you imagine what that would have meant to newly-freed black people to have that much land?” she said. “As a result of those decisions, we lost a lot of our legacy.”

Karen explains, “If you look at the history of how wealth was built in this country you will see that blacks were continuously denied. Even as they tried to move forward they were driven off of the land by unjust laws and into the cities for factory work. Some tried to find a better way, but by leaving the land, they left their wealth and their legacy,” she said.“I’m 67-years old and when I was growing up even the mention of farming was equated to that of a slave mentality. That thinking has trickled down throughout our history and survives to this day.”

Karen admits to feeling that way herself, even after working in Garden of Happiness for several years. It was 2008 and she had been accepted into a 6-month internship at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, (CASFS). Out of 40 interns, Karen was the only black person. When they came to the 9-acre farm field, Karen suddenly felt fear and apprehension.

“All of the sudden, those things in my head started to surface. I thought, ‘This is slave work. What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’ But then I said to myself, ‘Look, you have two options. Either you get back on the train, to the plane, and go back home or you gotta face your demons.’ And I remember going up to the edge of the farm field and something just overcame me and compelled me to put both of my hands in the soil,” she said. “There was a quietness. I’ll never forget that sensation; that connection of belonging.”

Farming While Black

Karen’s experience at CASFS challenged her in many other ways during those six months. As part of the program, the group toured several working farms. And everywhere they went, Karen said she kept asking, “Where are the black farmers? Where are the farmers that look like me?” So as part of her end-of-the-season presentation, Karen decided that hers would be based on the 2002 PBS documentary, Homecoming: The Story of African-American Farmers by Charlene Gilbert and Quinn Eli. She called the USDA Census Bureau to find out exactly how many black farmers were in New York and the man on the phone said, “There are 57,000 farmers in the state and 116 of them are black.” Karen said she froze and for a moment, lost her voice. Finally, she said, “Can you say that again?”

As soon as Karen returned to New York she called her friend, Lorrie Clevenger, and they decided right then and there to start a conference specifically for black farmers. When she asked a white man (who she won’t name) that she knew who had experience hosting conferences what he thought about her idea, he said, “Karen, black people don’t want to farm. All they want to do is play music and sports.” Those hurtful words only spurred her on and within a few months, the first Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS) was underway. Karen said that everyone, including the speakers, pitched in to help. They paid $200 for the venue at Brooklyn College and worried if anyone would come. But they did – over 500 of them.

“I had been to farming conferences and workshops before and there never were more than a handful of people that looked like me. And this was the first conference where black people saw black farmers, black speakers, black authors, black statisticians, black chefs, black everything,” she said. “And they were telling us about the system, and the southern farmers were telling us stories of pig foot soup and all the things they were up against as black farmers. Those black farmers were passing the torch to us.”

Today, BUGS is going on its 10th year and at 67-years old, Washington says it’s time to pass the leadership torch onto a new generation of black farmers and growers. “It’s time for new voices and a new outlook,” she said. “I will always support BUGS but I want to step down and step back because it needs to go in a new direction and I’m excited to see what the future of BUGS looks like.”

Rise & Root Farm

The spring after Karen returned from California, she and her friends Lorrie Clevenger, and Michaela and Jane Hays-Hodge (who are now married), discussed their shared dream of owning a farm. In 2012, all four women took the Farm Beginning Program at GrowNYC, which helped them define their goals and make a plan. By 2014, they started searching up and down the Hudson Valley for land when Karen met a man on a bus tour who told her about the Chester Agricultural Center (CAC) and gave her a number to call.

“I was hesitant because I didn’t want to be rejected,” Karen said. “But I called anyway and the guy on the other end said come on up. So we did.”

CAC is comprised of 270-acres of fertile black dirt with roughly 40% organic matter. Every farm at CAC must adhere to organic methods and are encouraged to achieve their organic certification. Not only did the land suit their needs, but their principles of the organization mirrored their own and the cooperative nature of the community of small farms was a welcome bonus. Rise & Root leased their first three acres of land and not knowing how to do it any other way, built row upon row of raised beds.

“We took our skills from growing in the city and used it to grow on a large scale,” said Karen. “It was a huge learning curve and it took a lot of work to switch from growing in small spaces to growing in large spaces. But we did it.”

Karen retired from physical therapy work after that and currently spends her weekdays at Rise & Root and weekends at The Garden of Happiness.

“We are going into our sixth year on the farm and have one full-time and two part-time people working for us,” she explained. “And we just leased another three acres of land, so now we have six acres. We’re growing a ton of vegetable starts for community gardens and we sell our produce in markets in Union Square, the Bronx, and Kingston. We believe that everybody, no matter what their income, deserves to eat our food. So we make sure that happens.”

“When we first got the land we wanted to grow everything,” she continued. “And because we are a for-profit farm we have to make money. The first year we were growing three types of collards and kale and a lot of crops that were labor-intensive but brought very little money, so we had to go back to the drawing board and find out what our niches were…what we could make money on. We still grow other things, but our five specialty crops are lisianthus flowers, edible flowers, and medicinal and culinary herbs.”

And in a twist of sweet irony, Karen said that Rise & Root Farm is best known for its vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes.

Gary Zimmer on 50 Years of Biological, Organic Farming

Roller in cover crop field
A roller lays down covers crops at the author’s farm in Wisconsin.

By Gary F. Zimmer

A little bit about myself before we dig into my 50 years of experience in biological farming: I was born and raised on a dairy farm in northeastern Wisconsin. I worked on the farm for two years after high school, but I wanted to be a veterinarian so I left the farm and went to college. After further evaluation of what a career of life as a veterinarian would be like, I switched my major to dairy nutrition and furthered my education with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. I was getting a lot of book learning but not much practical training. I always said I was over educated and under trained when I came out of graduate school. 

When I was in graduate school, I was involved in a project finding a fiber source for the Hawaiian dairy industry that was grown in Hawaii. In the late 1960s, that meant pineapple. Pineapple byproducts consist mainly of leaves, which are high in fiber. Shortly after starting to feed pineapple leaves to the dairy herd, cows began to abort, and some people drinking the milk got sick. The problem turned out to be the insecticide used to grow the pineapples. Milk had to be dumped for six months because the insecticide accumulated in the cow’s fat and it took a long time to clear their system. It was a real eye opener for me. People were eating these pineapples that had made the cows sick.  I started questioning agriculture. Maybe “better living through chemistry” wasn’t the answer.

Along with questioning agricultural practices I had always trusted, in graduate school I began questioning other things as well. Maybe the military doesn’t always take us where we belong.  Maybe all politicians aren’t honest. Maybe the college professors don’t have all the answers. Maybe if I get sick a doctor can’t bail me out. I didn’t want to live my life given all of the answers. When it came to questioning agriculture, the question I began to ask was, “how do I get soils healthy and mineralized?”

My start on my path toward biological farming came from my first job: teaching a farm operations and management class at Winona Technical College in Winona, Minnesota. It was a two year, post-high school course with half the year spent in class and the other half on a farm. It was a real learning experience. My training was in dairy nutrition, and in addition to teaching nutrition I also had to teach soils, agronomy and farm finance. I needed help. I brought in a lot of outside speakers and I also regurgitated a lot of stuff from books. Teaching was a much larger learning experience for me than sitting in class trying to learn from a professor.

One of the outside speakers I brought in to teach about soils was a Brookside Labs consultant. He talked about soil balance, the need for calcium, choosing better fertilizer sources, earthworms, and using a Miller offset disc and a Graham chisel plow for better soil physical structure management. I had never heard of such things.  After the speaker left, the students evaluated what they had heard.  They asked me what I thought of the Brookside speaker’s recommendations, and I said that for me it made perfect sense. 

From the Brookside speaker I learned that soils can be managed similar to how we manage a good dairy cow. Dairy nutrition is a program encompassing all we do for the cow: mineral balance; using a variety and balance of feed stuffs; providing a balance of types of feed for maximizing the biological function of the rumen; and adding the extras like kelp, natural sea salts, probiotics, yeast, chelated trace elements, and natural mined minerals; and feeding highly mineralized home grown forages. Farming soils biologically is similar.

Teaching at Winona Technical College was a learning experience for me.  I have always liked school, and I continue to be a student of farming.  I get about 15 agricultural magazines a month for my reading, and then there’s the internet, meetings, getting out on farms, and going to major farm shows like Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag and the MOSES conference, to mention my favorites.  There are a lot of great books written a long time ago about farming that most people don’t read any more but that are filled with great knowledge.  Two series’ that have been very influential on me are the LH Bailey series from Cornell and the Albrecht papers and books.  I have read them all.  I also enjoy Newman Turner’s books and have learned a lot from Louis Bromfield’s book, Malabar Farm.  Louis Bromfield held field days at his farm in Ohio in the 1940s and 1950s, and one field day brought in over 8,000 people!  The theme of that field day event was building six inches of topsoil in five years.  Bromfield did this by leaving straw on the fields as a mulch, growing clover and applying manures. He took soil tests and applied not only the phosphorus and potassium that was needed but calcium, sulfur, and traces and all from natural sources.  He had a rotovator for shallow incorporation of residues, and used a chisel plow because root growth was needed as top soil was being built.

I left teaching because these were young students and dad controlled the farm — so trying all the new ideas wasn’t happening. A few students did manage to do on-farm trials. One student tested a product on his hay field called Planters II, which was made from gypsum that had been mined in Colorado with a few extra ingredients added. The feed test from that field changed. The question now was not what to add to your home grown feeds to balance the ration, but how do you grow the ideal feed for a dairy cow? Soluble calcium, sulfur and boron were essential. What started the phrase I often use, “calcium is the trucker of all minerals and boron is the steering wheel,” was observations I made from these initial trials with my students. The farmers were getting higher quality forage with more mineral content and higher digestibility by applying calcium and boron to the soil.

After I left teaching I went to work for Brookside Laboratory. They followed the Albrecht principles of balancing soil minerals, and I had some incredible teachers and farming experience all across the country.  The farmers I was working with taught me a lot, partially through their questions and partially their constraints, be those money, desire, old habits or skepticism. They were skeptical in part because the local educators and fertilizer companies didn’t say good things about Brookside. But I was never good at sales. I don’t like talking someone into buying a product or system by twisting their arm. My method was educating the farmer, and I still certainly had a lot to learn myself. I also lacked confidence as I hadn’t used many of these practices and products on farms. I needed a farm where I could test out for myself what I was recommending, so I packed up the family and moved to southwestern Wisconsin.  We bought a small farm there where I could test and learn about these products and farming methods I was recommending. I also left Brookside and found a job closer to home. 

Shortly after moving to Wisconsin I met a couple of young ambitious people wanting to start a natural farm inputs business. Their project was headed by Ralph Engelken from Greeley, Iowa. He had written a book called The Art of Natural Farming and Gardening and focused on making and selling compost. I was brought in to do the soil testing and consulting with the farmers. Compost alone is not a complete fertility program; minerals need to be added to meet the crop’s fertility needs, and from this Midwestern BioAg was started. This was in the early 1980s and interest rates were sky high. Farmers were going broke every day. Did you ever try going to the bank to borrow money to start a business when 25% of the businesses like yours were going bankrupt? They laughed us out the door!

What made us different from the other ag businesses was that we had different products, different sources of NPK than the industry standard, as well as calcium and trace elements. Instead of recommending anhydrous ammonia, DAP and potassium chloride, we recommended and sold ammonium sulfate, MAP and natural rock phosphate. These products weren’t available anywhere else in the Midwest at the time. We started working with dairy farms because of my background in dairy nutrition, and because the dairy farm gets paid twice for growing high yielding, mineralized crops: once for growing it and once more for feeding it.

Our business goal was to have 10 consultants, each working with 40 dairy farmers. I told the farmers if they let me work with their forage fields and their dry cows, I could change their farm. With the high interest rates and low farm prices, times were tough. Farmers didn’t have money. They needed to get better at what they were doing or lose their farms. Sustainable agriculture got started during this time, and many farmers switched to the principles of organic farming, including tighter rotations, better manure use, and a higher quality of natural fertilizers. 

To get this new company off the ground, I wrote newsletters, went to farm shows, spoke at field days and put on farm meetings during the winter. This was an education company making its living by helping farmers to become biological and selling unique products for the soil and for the cow. I taught farmers about how to choose the right source of calcium to fit their farm, how to minimize tillage, and how to feed more quality forages to the cows and less purchased feeds and supplements. Some farmers started doing intensive rotational grazing. When farmers had no money for fertilizer other than the manure they had on their farms, soil mineral levels would start to go down because they were using up soil reserves of some of the nutrients. By applying a balanced blend of minerals to fit their soil’s deficiencies, crops improved, cows got healthier and my fertilizer business was growing. 

Five years after starting, we’d reached our goal of working with 400 farms. Now what?  Charles Walters, the founder of Acres U.S.A., wanted me to write a book. I had been speaking at his conferences and he said I had a lot of good ideas but talked so fast many people missed a lot of it. So, write a book, he said. 

In addition, after being on many farms, I found that getting farmers to trial new products and practices was hard. I wanted my own research farm. So at one of our annual meetings I announced my future plans to write a book and own a research farm. I didn’t want to lock myself into a box like I had before with my goal of 400 farms, so I said I wanted to change agriculture in the world. To do that, I needed to reach more people and that meant writing a book and owning a farm. 

The farm purchase was relatively easy, and one year later we owned a research farm. Writing a book was a lot harder. It took me 10 years to finish it. Charles Walters kept asking where the book was, and I told him I kept changing my mind every year as I continued to learn more.  He said, “If you keep doing that you will never finish it!” and told me to send me what I had so far. I eventually did, and The Biological Farmer came out in 2000. The release of the book got me invited to speak around the world, and what an education that was! Within two months of the book’s release I was on a tour in Australia, then I was off to South Africa, Europe, New Zealand and China, not to mention all over the U.S. and Canada. Seeing the same biological farming principles applied to different climates, soils and crops — and adopted by different types of farmers — was eye opening. It was like a big jig saw puzzle was starting to come together for me. I could see where some of the pieces fit, but not all.

No matter where in the world I was, the principles of biological farming were the same. Biological farming is all about soil health, promoting root growth and supplying needed minerals. You have to create that ideal home for the biology — they like their food on top and to be mostly left alone. They need to be fed well — not by soluble, high salt fertilizers, but low salt, slower release nutrients tied to carbon to feed the microbial life.

In the beginning, the research farm was trial after trial, as we implemented and tested products and practices. In one plot I grew corn on corn for ten years in a row to see what would happen to soil quality over time, with one part of the field getting manure, a second part getting a biological starter, a third getting soluble nitrogen, and the fourth plot just corn on corn with a starter and nothing else. The whole field had an interseeded mix of rye grass and clover yearly. No herbicides or insecticides were used. I was trying to prove that with manure and a cover crop you could grow corn on corn and keep it healthy and high yielding. In the end what worked best was mineral balance and cover crops.

Another area of the farm was put into a multi-year calcium study comparing three different sources of calcium: high-cal lime, gypsum, and Bio-Cal, which is a fertilizer I designed. These are silt loam, neutral pH, high magnesium soils. I grew corn and beans on the plots. The high calcium lime never did respond, and it wasn’t the right fit for those soils and that cropping system. The gypsum, applied at 1000 lbs/acre, took a while to get a response. The Bio-Cal was instantly off to a great start. I applied 1000 lbs/acre each year and at first saw a big response, but after a while that was overkill and I had to stop because my calcium levels were getting too high.  But it was a great way to compare products and proved to me where these calcium inputs worked best.

In another project, I grew alfalfa on alfalfa, and started by taking a soil test and doing the math, applying whatever nutrients the soil test said were missing. I did that for several years in a row, and proved that while a soil test is a great guide, following it to the letter isn’t going to get you where you need to be.  There’s a lot more to soils than just the numbers on the soil report, and while you need balanced minerals you also need to take care of the biology and do “tillage with a purpose” to control air and water and manage the decay of residues.

We hosted field days on that farm for 25 years so I could share what I’d learned. As time went on, we ran out of places to test things. The whole farm was changing from all of the trials I was doing. We used balanced fertilizers everywhere, dropped the chemicals, and converted the farm to organic production.  We later bought the farm across the road as my son was getting older and wanted to farm. My son and I bought a dairy herd and added more land, and in the end the field days weren’t about plots and testing things, but to show what had been achieved on the farm after 25 years of biological farming.

Developing new fertilizers was at the core of what I wanted to accomplish. At first it was just using other sources than what was commonly sold: MAP instead of DAP, potassium sulfate or KMag instead of potassium chloride. I created blends adding rock phosphate, ammonium sulfate, and sulfate trace minerals. As time went on, I saw a need for creating a homogenized trace mineral blend. So instead of adding one pound of zinc per acre and trying to get it mixed well into a blend, I tried mixing it with other minerals like humates and natural rock minerals and then pelletizing the mix. I wanted each pellet to have the exact same analysis so I could get better distribution across the field. With homogenized blends, we could spread that pound of zinc throughout a 50 pound homogenized blend with other traces added. At the same time I was working to deliver a high-quality fertilizer that was time released.  I was not so concerned about pounds and solubility, but about nutrient delivery. I came up with a fertilizer formula that all of my fertilizers had to have:

  1. A balance of soluble nutrients to timed release.
  2. A balance of all of the nutrients a crop needs, coming primarily from natural, mined sources.
  3. Low pH.  Instead of having the soil on the acidic side in order to release nutrients, why not have the fertilizer low pH so around each pellet there is a microclimate where the pH is lower and nutrient availability is higher all season long?
  4. A low-salt index so the fertilizer is soil life friendly.
  5. A carbon source in the fertilizer blend.

My “five things” requirement for fertilizers led to the development of new fertilizer blends that were carbon-based. I started including humates or composted manures in the pellets. I also had several different calcium sources for different conditions. The question was always: how fast can I change my soils, grow good crops, and stay within a budget? How much, how often, what blend, and what are the expected results? You can take a soil test and see excesses and deficiencies, but that addresses your soil correction — improving the soil condition overall. You also have to have high-quality crop fertilizers that include nutrients specific for that crop in those soil conditions, adding nutrients above and beyond what the soil in its present condition can provide. It’s not a small task.

In order to gauge how the fertilizer is performing you need to test the plants. Tissue tests and sap tests give clues as to what nutrients the crop is able to access.  The downside to these tests is that they give you a picture of how the plant is doing that day, so they need to be taken regularly to get a sense of what’s happening across the growing season. But testing the plants is one of the best ways to see if your fertility program is really performing.

I believe in using dry, blended fertilizers as it is still the most cost effective way of growing healthy, high yielding crops if the soil is managed properly. If you have decent soils, they are rich with balanced minerals, great soil structure and biological life. If your soils are in great shape, do you need to add a crop fertilizer and add biologicals? Not many farmers ever achieve that level of soil health, so crop fertilizers provide what your crop needs each year.

While I am a big advocate for dry fertilizers, liquids also have their place. Applying liquids as a starter or a foliar and adding nitrogen and some minerals seems to be a profitable practice for many farmers given their soil conditions. Seeing that I want carbon in my fertilizers to feed biology, for a time adding humates seemed to be the best choice. Then along came the use of molasses. A sugar source works great with many liquids, but what about adding plant stimulants to the mix as well? Things like kelp, fish meal, or biologicals containing specific organisms that fill a need in the soil. I’m sure many have their place, but you need to know when, how much, and what problems you are trying to solve.  Are you just covering up a problem in your soils that could be addressed by using cover crops, balanced minerals and better soil building practices?

In my career I have come a long way in my understanding of minerals. I now have a much better understanding of mineral use, products that are available, and how and when to apply them to grow bumper crops. I know it can seem confusing, but once you start making positive changes you will be pleased with the results. Of course minerals aren’t the whole story, there are still the physical and biological aspects of soil health.

Soil health has become a much more popular topic of conversation in the farming world. There is a lot more information out there, and a lot of success stories being shared. Regenerative ag, soil health, cover crops, compost, no-till, minimum tillage and strip till are all becoming main stream. For tillage, compaction is still a major problem, maybe even a bigger problem now given our big equipment and wild weather patterns. I’m a real believer in shallow incorporation of residues and subsoiling to build good soil structure. We can’t have a crust on the surface or let the soils get water logged, and we need to grow “roots.”  Fill the soil with both living and decaying roots. For this to happen the soil needs to be well aerated. That’s why I like strip tillage. Not only can you concentrate added nutrients in the root zone, but if they are the right ones you’re planting in a zone that allows roots to really grow. 

The story of soil organisms hasn’t changed — they like a roof over their head, they need to be fed and mostly left alone, and they need to breathe. Keeping the ground covered, having a diversity of plants, creating an ideal home for soil life to flourish is now also better understood and value is being put in the need to do so. I like the minerals I add to my fields to be in the carbon/biological cycle, meaning my plants and then soil life takes up minerals and then releases them in a plant-available form across the growing season. Once the plants take up minerals or they’re tied to carbon in compost or humates, the minerals can’t leach or get away. They are there to be released slowly as the plants need them.

In this country we have created problems that need solutions, but we also have opportunities to fix them. The large farms with lots of livestock and lots of manure are not close to enough land to haul it and effectively spread it all.  I see the future as making energy from the manure on those farms and then taking the concentrated biology and nutrients left over from that process, adding a balanced mineral blend, and using them to make carbon-based biological fertilizers. Now the manure is in a form that can be trucked so it can be moved to where it’s needed. 

And here we are in 2021. We are ready to regenerate the soils. Soil health, human health, cover crops, and biologicals are all topics of conversation and I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. We have no choice but to make changes as our climate is changing. Farmers must adapt. The need for putting more carbon in the soil certainly comes as an opportunity for farmers that are ready. 

We are hosting a field day event at our farm in July, and will be sharing what we are doing now and what we’re planning to do as we look to the future on the farm. I am always experimenting with new things: new types of crops, agroecology, perennial crops, or just the best use of the land for the current climate and soil conditions. I have invited the Savanna Institute to our summer field day to talk about some of the perennial crops I’m putting in, including blueberries and elderberries. They’ll share their plans for infrastructure, market research and training in southern Wisconsin to help farmers successfully incorporate perennial crops as part of a whole farm system.

There have been a lot of changes over the past few years. I still farm with my family, and have also started a consulting business with my daughter, Leilani, who speaks on biological farming and co-authored my last two books with me. Zimmer Ag is just beginning, and our kick-off will be the classes we are doing at the farm this July with the Acres U.S.A. team. We’ve also made a lot of changes on the farm over the past few years and I’m looking forward to sharing what we’ve been up to. We have changed from growing row crops, silage and forages to growing 100% forages for the cattle and one-year corn followed by one-year soil building for the crop acres. If you want to change the soils on your farm, you can take baby steps or you can jump in. We have slowly gotten to where we are today, but you certainly don’t need to go as slowly as we did. We are willing to share our farm, our knowledge and our experiences and look at a new model for land use in our area. Come visit our farm this July and learn and enjoy the beautiful scenery around Spring Green, Wisconsin. I hope you can attend.

Gary F. Zimmer is the author The Biological Farmer.

The Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

By Spencer Smith

Cattle graze a diverse field at Springs Ranch near Fort Bidwell, California. Photo by Abbey Smith.

Regenerative agriculture is a hot topic. Presidential candidates discuss it, there are several documentaries released recently about it, universities across the world hold space for conversations about the potential for regenerative ag to reverse climate change, undo the global biodiversity crisis, as well as bring nutrient density back to our food supply. I certainly want to be among those farmers who are increasing profitability while building a farming business, and helping to create a landscape that is healthier and more resilient. 

Regenerative ag, recently defined by Terra Genesis International as,“ a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. It aims to capture carbon in the soil and above-ground biomass (plants), reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation and climate change. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.”

To boil this definition down to its most basic elements, we must farm in a way that not only protects our soil, but also enhances it. Five simple soil health principles will transform your farm into a regenerative business regardless of the production model you are in, from large scale livestock running across thousands of acres to the market gardeners producing fresh food for their local farmers market to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. Using these core principles will enhance your soil, while storing carbon, and increasing health and productivity.

Principle 1: Soil Armor

The first step to improving soil health is keeping litter on the soil. The benefits of this are so grand it is hard to capture them all. Covered soil increases habitat for soil biology that will cycle nutrients better, builds aggregate structure that will accept and hold greater quantities of water, as well as mitigates soil temps, and protects against erosion.

Principle 2: Diversity  

Manage for maximum diversity in your fields, pastures, fencelines or wherever you can increase diversity on your farm. Nature abhors a monoculture. Plants have the capacity to mineralize nutrients.  In order to see the true benefits of this, you must have as much diversity as possible because different plants mineralize different nutrients.  Like a diverse diet for yourself, where diversity in foods increases your health and well being,  he more diversity of plants and rooting structures in the soil, the healthier the farm, and everything that you harvest from it, will be. 

Principle 3: Continual Live Plant/Root

As long as you have green, photosynthesizing plants in your fields, you are capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and using it to grow your products, and feed the soil. A principle of every regenerative farmer is to maximize the amount of time in a year that you can have a living root interacting with the rhizosphere, building soil aggregates, and mobilizing nutrients for the current, and subsequent crops. The benefits to the soil that you bank this year will be there to use in years to come. Every year it gets better and easier.

Principle 4: Livestock Integration

Managing for covered soil, diversity and green growing plants long into the year will get you on your way to regenerating soils, but the real benefits start to appear when you add livestock. For several reasons, livestock create compounding and cascading benefits. For example, you can use your livestock to break capped soils and lay armor on top of the soil. This increases gaseous exchange in the soil, and allows for the soil biology to flourish. Livestock function as a walking composter; dispersing seeds, bringing biology and fertility back to soils that are otherwise poorly functioning. Research published in 2012 titled “Plants Can Benefit from Herbivory: Stimulatory Effects of Sheep Saliva on Growth of Leymus chinensisfound health and growth benefits in plants are achieved when enzymes in saliva are left on the plants. 

Principle 5: Minimizing Soil Disturbance

To maintain the benefits to the land from the work of photosynthesizing plants, animals and your management efforts outlined above, do not till. If you are working to shift your farm to regenerative, all the efforts you do to get there can be undone with heavy tillage, combined with a fallow period. Disturbance comes in more ways than just tilling, disturbances caused by synthetic fertilizers are also devastating to soil biology.  

Regenerative agriculture is about outcomes and farmers asking the question: “is my land improving in ecosystem function as a result of my management? And can that improvement be measured and quantified?” Measuring and quantifying the improved functionality of the ecosystem process is important when assessing landscape health. As a manager we need to track the effects of our management associated with decisions that we make. The Savory Institute offers holistic ecological monitoring training, as well as monitoring services that will track the outcomes of your management decisions in terms of creating a regenerating landscape, and open up marketing channels for your farm products. Keeping the feedback loop as short as possible is key when using monitoring information to inform future management decisions. Monitoring makes sure that our farms continue to improve.

Where do I begin?  What are the five simplest steps to shift my production system to regenerative?  The most common methods to move toward regenerative agriculture are:

Holistic Planned Grazing of Livestock

I have been using livestock to improve ecosystem processes for more than a decade, the first method for moving toward regenerative ag is using livestock within the Holistic Planned Grazing framework. Holistic Planned Grazing gets livestock to the right place, at the right time with the correct behavior to stimulate soils and plants to improve ecosystem function. Whether it is using cattle to terminate a cover crop in a farming system, or using large herds across arid landscapes to spread and plant seeds while stimulating perennial growth. Properly planned livestock grazing selections will increase effectiveness of rainfall and irrigation by creating a soil profile that can more quickly infiltrate water, and hold that water in the rhizosphere. It removes old vegetation, and stimulates regrowth while stimulating plant root exudation and the soil microbiology. Once you integrate properly managed livestock into your system, you will see the landscape improve rapidly, and in a way that brings back more revenue and profit. If you would like help integrating livestock or monitoring the outcomes of your management, I suggest that you reach out to the Savory Institute at The Savory Institute has people all over the world who can assist you with integrating livestock in your farming operation.

Moving to a no-till farming system

For many conventional tillage producers one way to go from an eroded simplified system to a more complex regenerative system, is selling off the old tillage equipment and using no-till practices instead. Benefits of shifting to a no till method are:

 1. No-till farming requires less passes over the field with the tractor, which results in lowered input expenses.

2. By stopping the tillage, you are slowing down erosion exponentially, and contributing to a more complex soil microbiome. 

3. Year after year of no-till farming increases water infiltration rates, and builds soil structure. This contributes to better crop performance every year on you farm.

Planting cover crops or interseeding more diverse grasses and forbs

This is a frequently used first step for many farmers who want to move in a regenerative direction.  Typically this is a go-to for commodity tillage crop producers who already have the equipment needed to incorporate plant species diversity that add nutrients instead of using synthetics. An example is a farmer who plants a legume cover crop for nitrogen fixation prior to the planting of the cash crop. I have seen this work for farmers who historically used a fallow season between cropping to “bank water,” and for weed control. By planting a cover crop that is complementary to the subsequent crop, you increase the length of time during the year when you have a green and growing crop, which feeds the soil, and adds armor. It increases the amount of water captured for the next crop, while mineralizing nutrients for the cash crops. For help looking into cover crops, or beginning with no-till farming, the Soil Health Academy and Green Cover Seed Company are helpful resources.

Feeding underground livestock

Compost applications or other organic inoculants used to stimulate soil biology are some of the first tools that farmers reach for when transitioning. Careful with this action, though, as it can be extremely expensive, and only gives mediocre results back to you, if you are not combining this action with the previous three methods listed above. Incorporating biological inoculants when planting cover crops, and cash crops, can be a good way to incorporate new biology that will increase mineralized nutrients to your current and subsequent crops. This method falls short, however, when you still incorporate tillage into your protocol. If you are disturbing the soil following the use of an inoculant, you will likely see little benefit to your system. In market gardens, or high value crops, compost can be an effective way to increase soil fertility or health. Carbon accumulation in the soil is increased with the addition of compost, but at a high price to the producer. Many people suggest that compost be added to rangeland. It does increase fertility, but it will typically not do so in a cost effective way, unless you get a grant to pay for it. 

Silvopasture or other woody vegetation

A hot trend in regenerative ag is planting trees and shrubs in your fields, or along the field borders. Incorporating trees and shrubs is a good way to attract pollinators, and create habitat for birds, and other diversity while adding intermittent shade to your fields. Any diversity is good diversity, and many farmers are benefitting from incorporating tree crops, or shelterbelts, in cropping or grazing areas. The benefit here is several fold as well, it adds:


Most plants that we produce will benefit from some shade during the day. In fact, the most productive and biologically active state for our fields is a savanna, where the trees and bushes contribute to 25 percent scattered shade on the understory. This shade will contribute to longer and more robust growth of understory crops. 


The trees and shrubs create habitat for all sorts of pollinators and birds. This includes birds of prey that will help in rodent control. 

Carbon sequestration

Fast growing tree crops sequester a lot of carbon in their structural material, i.e. the wood. The diversity that the rooting structure adds to soil building, as well as the decomposition of the leaves in the fall and winter, can increase fertility and tilth. Potentially, the trees provide another cash crop. Mark Shepard of New Forest Farm is a great resource for learning about the addition of trees and shrubs to your farm.

All biological systems, including agricultural ones, want to flourish. Mother Nature will incorporate weeds in a monoculture to increase benefits from diversity, or to cover exposed soils. She will incorporate animals in all landscapes to spread seeds, stimulate plants and soil, while bringing biology and fertility in the manure. And Mother Nature will always move toward more complexity. Regenerative agriculture works because it mimics nature, and works to increase the speed at which a natural system can improve itself. Remember, when selecting or adding these techniques to your farm, that first and foremost your farm must stay profitable. Enhancing ecosystem function to the detriment of the bottom line is not sustainable, and if you cannot stay or become profitable, whatever improvements that you make will be short lived if you cannot stay in business. Be creative. As we discussed here, are many ways to improve ecosystem function that can stay within your farm’s financial plan.

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional. He lives in Fort Bidwell, California on Springs Ranch where he produces grass-fed beef, provides Holistic Management training, consulting, and holistically manages the ranch.