January 7, 2021

Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

On this week's episode, we meet two farmers who, at first glance, seem very different. One is a first-generation farmer in upstate New York raising fruits and vegetables for the local community. The other is a third generation farmer in Minnesota who sells commodity crops—corn and soybeans—to big industrial processors. But they share something in common. They’re both bucking modern conventions on how to farm. And they're paying close attention to something that is frequently overlooked: the soil. We explore how making simple changes in the way we farm can harness the incredible power of soil to help save the planet.

Calls to action


Want to learn more about regenerative farming?

  • Check out The Soil Health Institute.
  • Watch these videos from Gabe Brown and Dr. Allen Williams, teachers who helped Grant and Dawn learn about regenerative farming.
  • Read Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black, which is brimming with great information on her Afro-Indigenous-inspired approach to farming.
  • Watch the new film Kiss the Ground, which is all about how agriculture, and the carbon-sequestering power of soil, is a powerful climate solution. 
  • Ayana’s mom, an organic and regenerative farmer, recommends the book Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown. Her review: “Excellent job of demonstrating best regenerative farm practices. Great for gardeners and every food consumer to know.” She also recommends checking out the farming magazine called Acres and the array of great books published by Chelsea Green.


If you take an action we recommend in one of our episodes, do us a favor and tell us about it! We’d love to hear how it went and what it felt like. Record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. We might use it in an upcoming episode.

Where to Listen

Transcript

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Would you like to welcome everyone?


Alex Blumberg: Welcome everyone to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg.


Ayana: And I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. And this is the show about what we need to do to address climate change and how to make those things happen.


Alex: So, Doc?


Ayana: Oh hi, Fancy.


Alex: It's our first podcast of 2021. How are you feeling?


Ayana: Well, it's one week into January, and already 2021 is quite a doozy!


Alex: Yup.


Ayana: But I guess, setting aside the coup for a minute, it's great that Democrats just won both seats in the Senate in Georgia, which flipped the Senate. And that means that actually passing robust federal climate policy is more possible today than it was just a few days ago. So I'm gonna just focus on that part for now.


Alex: Yeah. And as we've discussed in previous episodes, the Biden administration has an ambitious climate agenda. So having both chambers of Congress in the same hands as the president's party means at least theoretically it will be easier to get things done—although, you know, we'll see.


Ayana: Yeah. Filibuster, etc. But of course, we're gonna keep tabs on all this and keep you posted. So please stay tuned.


Alex: But on today's episode, we're answering a question that a lot of you have asked about, you've sent us a lot of emails about this one particular topic: regenerative farming.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: So, for example, a listener named Spencer Milikin wrote in to say, "Hey guys, love the podcast! I just came across something that's really fascinating called 'regenerative farming.' I would love it if you guys did an episode about it."


Ayana: Yup. And we had someone named Claire Beale write along the same lines. "Would love to hear an episode about regenerative agriculture, and the potential of the soil carbon sink through sustainable agriculture practices."


Alex: And then Gabrielle Betencourt-Martinez. "I wonder if I could suggest a topic for future episodes: you guessed it, regenerative agriculture." And this is just three emails. There were a bunch of other ones. And when I saw all these emails, I was really excited. You know why?


Ayana: Because we already had an episode in the works? [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] Exactly! When does that happen?


Ayana: We are in a privileged position of being prepared to grant these wishes.


Alex: Because as early as last summer, we were already working on a episode about this exact subject. Remember earlier this summer when we took that field trip?


Ayana: I do! That was a great day.


Alex: Oh look at this lovely house, with like a stucco base and looks like a ski lodge sort of, or a Swiss chalet a little bit.


Ayana: A little bit chalet.


Alex: Actually, it was a farm. The main building just gave us an après-ski vibe. And we were visiting this farm to talk to an expert about the very thing that our listeners were writing to us about: regenerative agriculture.


Ayana: Look at these tomato plants!


Ayana: The way we've primarily grown our food, the way we farm, is a major contributor to climate change. Right now, depending how you count it, around 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally can be traced to agricultural production. And in the US, for decades these agricultural emissions have been on the rise. But this farm is doing things differently.


Ayana: Oh, wow!


Alex: This farm is practicing what's called "regenerative agriculture," which means it's growing its food in a way that actually removes carbon from the atmosphere. That's right. Not only does it not add carbon, like a lot of agriculture does, it actually removes it. This farm, it's not the problem. It's actually part of the solution.


Ayana: And this carbon capture magic doesn't require some crazy expensive high-tech tractors, or even new technology at all. It involves using a lot of these ...


[sound of geese]


Alex: And these ...


[sound of chicks]


Ayana: Oh my gosh, these little peepers!


Ayana: And these ...


[sound of bees]


Ayana: All the bees and butterflies?


Ayana: And doing away with one of the oldest pieces of technology that humans have crafted.


Alex: On today's episode we'll meet two regenerative farmers, two very different ones. One, a first-generation back-to-the-land farmer on a small farm in upstate New York, raising fruits and vegetables for the local community. The other, a third-generation farmer on a much larger farm, nearly a thousand acres, selling corn and soybeans to big industrial processors.


Ayana: The thing they share in common? They are bucking centuries of conventional wisdom about how to farm. And they're paying way more attention to something that's often overlooked: dirt. The soil. So on today's episode, the climate solution beneath our feet, and how making simple changes in the way we farm can harness the incredible power of soil to help save the planet. That's coming up in a minute.


***


Ayana: The farm Alex and I visited over the summer in upstate New York, is a cooperative that's led by Leah Penniman and her family.


Alex: Here comes somebody.


Leah Penniman: Hey, Ayana! Nice to meet you.


Alex: Hi, I'm Alex. Hi.


Ayana: And this is Alex.


Alex: Nice to meet you.


Ayana: Thank you for having us.


Leah Penniman: Of course. Let me show you all ...


Ayana: Leah Penniman opened the farm we're visiting—named Soul Fire Farm—in 2010. She's also an author. She wrote a book called Farming While Black. And in the anthology I co-edited, All We Can Save, she wrote an essay called "Black Gold," about how Afro-Indigenous farming practices can help heal the land and our relationships with it.


Alex: And as a Black farmer, Leah is something of a rarity. The vast majority of farmers in the United States—95 percent—are white. Leah says Black farmers are now so scarce that sometimes people don't know what to make of her. She runs these programs on her farm, where she'll bring kids in, mostly Black kids from surrounding cities like Albany or Troy or Hartford or even New York City, and show them what life is like on a working farm.


Leah Penniman: A lot of their first reaction is like, "Are y'all slaves? Why are you stupid? I don't get dirty. You know, my great grandpa left the peanut picking behind." All those things, right? It's very much part of our cultural heritage, this trauma. Tragically so.


Ayana: Because people don't know. like ...


Leah Penniman: The history.


Ayana: The history. It's important. It's not like Black people forgot to buy land and didn't care about the soil.


Leah Penniman: [laughs] That is not what happened! Yeah. I mean, it's a pretty devastating history.


Ayana: Here in the US, that devastating history for Black people and farming starts, of course, with slavery. But even after slavery ended, the trauma continued.


Leah Penniman: You know, after emancipation in 1865, Reverend Garrison Frazier and a bunch of Black clergy got together with General Sherman of the Union army to make a plan. And the Black pastors were like, "We—all we need is land, actually. We need land and a little bit of space and we'll be good." And that promise of 40 acres and a mule came out of the meeting.


Ayana: This promise of 40 acres, and later also a mule, that was what General Sherman said he would give the newly-freed Black people in parts of the South. This was, at its heart, a very simple and straightforward form of reparations. It was essentially a token for centuries of enslavement. Each Black family was to be given 40 acres of land, upon which they could set up their own farms, and start to generate income and wealth for themselves.


Alex: And if that plan had actually been enacted, if 400,000 acres of land had actually been turned over to newly-freed Black people in the South, I mean, who knows how things might have turned out?


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: We almost certainly would not have the same kinds of wealth gaps that we see today between white and Black households, the same kinds of systemic inequities we see. But it did not play out that way. There was a big system of land redistribution called the Homestead Act, where land was given to settlers in the Midwest in exchange for the promise to farm it. But that land went mostly to white people, and that land often taken by force from Native Americans.


Ayana: So on the one hand, the US government was just giving away stolen land, mostly to white people. And on the other hand, this promise of 40 acres and a mule for Black people was reneged. And it's not just that the promise was broken, but Southern states were passing laws restricting Black peoples' access to voting, and enforcing a system of segregation. And slavery was replaced with this sharecropping system that left many newly-freed Black people impoverished or shackled with debt.


Alex: And yet, despite all of that, Black people still managed to acquire land.


Leah Penniman: You know, Black people managed to save money and purchase almost 16 million acres of land by 1910.


Ayana: 16 million acres.


Leah Penniman: 16 million acres, which was 14 percent of the nation's farms. And almost all of that has gone. And it's gone mostly because of discrimination by the USDA. The US Department of Agriculture gives out things like loans, crop insurance, crop allotments, technical assistance. And they would give these things to white farmers, but not to Black farmers.


Alex: And so like a storm comes or something happens, a drought or something like that, where a crop gets wiped out, the white farmer's fine because they were able to get crop insurance.


Leah Penniman: They get money from the government, yeah.


Alex: And then ...


Ayana: Bail outs for white farmers.


Leah Penniman: There was bailouts for white farmers.


Alex: But not, of course, for Black farmers. And so when droughts or floods hit, Black farmers had no safety net, and were more likely to lose their land. But the decline in Black farms wasn't just due to racist institutions like the USDA. There was also deliberate campaigns of violence to drive Black people off their land.


Leah Penniman: The Klu Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Council and the White Caps, so these white supremacist terrorist organizations, were very upset about this Black land ownership trend in the early 1900s. They wanted Black people to stay in their place, which was on the plantation sharecropping. They were worried about the economic fallout of Black economic independence, and so they punished Black land owners. I mean, they literally burned down their houses, they lynched people and they stole their deeds. There's over 4,000 documented cases of these murders. And that was the major push factor of the great migration. You know, it wasn't just opportunities in the North during World War I to work in factories, it was like, we're running for our lives, because as soon as we try to start our own businesses, you know, Black Wall Street being another example, people burn them to the ground.


Leah Penniman: So all that to say, you know, here we arrive at a time where we went from 14 percent of the nation's farms down to about one and a half percent.


Alex: Are Black owned?


Leah Penniman: Are Black owned. One and a half percent of farms are Black-owned.


Ayana: From 14 percent to one and a half percent. So yeah, Alex, given this context, right? This long and painful history, it's certainly not surprising that some of the Black kids who visit Leah's farm are dubious about this whole working the land thing.


Alex: Yeah. But Leah, she loves farming.


Ayana: Oh yeah. It was super clear from being there with her.


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: And the way she tells it, from the first minute she ever set foot on a farm, she knew that this is what she wanted to do. And so she's been on this mission to repair the broken relationship that many Black people have with agriculture.


Alex: And she's doing that by going deeper into the history of Black people and farming, to before slavery, to the traditions of Black Americans' African ancestors. And she's employing those centuries-old traditions on her 21st-century farm.


Leah Penniman: And so we need to know that part of the history too and take pride in that, in this noble Black agrarian tradition and we find that, you know, exploring that narrative provides a point of connection, in addition to obviously the hands-on experience of just being on the land.


Ayana: So this link to a proud Black agrarian past, that's one of the reasons Leah farms the way she does. But there's another reason too. There's a lot of new science saying that these practices could be a significant part of our climate solutions.


Alex: Yeah, that's right. A bunch of the practices Leah uses on her farm—including many of the Indigenous practices she's adopted, taken together they have a name: regenerative farming. Ding ding ding ding!


Ayana: [laughs] Yeah. The thing our listeners were asking about.


Alex: Right. And it's called regenerative because repairs the soil, and it takes the carbon from the atmosphere where it's causing global warming and stores underground in the soil itself.


Ayana: This term, "regenerative farming," has become pretty trendy only recently, so what it actually entails may still be new for lots of listeners. And I think it's important to say that this is different from organic farming.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: Right? To have food certified as organic actually has a legal definition from the US Department of Agriculture, which primarily means that the use of pesticides and GMOs are prohibited. Whereas regenerative farming refers to a broad set of practices, and for now there's no official standard for certification, right? There's no legal definition of what that means. So a lot of people are just throwing the term around, even though their practices are not what we would consider sustainable per se. But the farmers we talked to in today's episode take this concept of regeneration really seriously. And a farm can be organic or regenerative, or both, or neither.


Alex: Right. And today, we're focusing just on the regenerative piece. And so to show us what regenerative farming looks like on her farm, Leah Penniman took us on a tour.


Leah Penniman: So we're walking through, you know, center campus of Soul Fire Farms. So over to my right …


Ayana: It's this super lush mixture of pasture and forest and cropland.


Alex: It's the kind of place that, like, you—I know for me as a city boy, it seems like this incredibly fertile part of the world, where every seed you drop in the ground will just, like, sprout. But Leah says that when she and her family first bought the farm ...


Ayana: It didn't look like this at all.


Leah Penniman: And when we first arrived here, this was very heavy clay, severely eroded soil. The extension agent came out and was like, "You are stupid if you want to farm here."


Ayana: [laughs]


Leah Penniman: You will never be able to farm here.


Alex: That's the agricultural extension agent. These are experts who go out into the field to help farmers grow their crops.


Ayana: And the reason the agent said that was because the soil was incredibly degraded. It was lacking a bunch of the nutrients that plants need in order to grow.


Alex: Nutrients like nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus.


Ayana: And what most modern farmers do when they're faced with nutrient-poor soil is use industrial fertilizers—these chemicals that contain the nutrients that plants need. But Leah didn't want to do that.


Alex: And that's because most industrial fertilizers have a pretty heavy environmental impact. A lot of the materials in them are derived from fossil fuels like methane or petroleum, or they're derived from materials that are mined from the earth like phosphate.


Ayana: And then all these heaps of fertilizers that we're applying end up running off into streams and rivers and to the sea, and really messing up the balance of ecosystems.


Alex: And so, instead of using these industrial fertilizers, Leah employed a practice from regenerative farming: a very, very old technology known as ...


Ayana: Animal poop. [laughs]


Leah Penniman: The first thing we did was actually run the animals through, because they tend to eat noxious weeds and invasive plants. So that's wonderful. They poop all over the place, and it adds all this great nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium.


Alex: Poop also has phosphorous and nitrogen.


Ayana: [laughs] So step one of restoring soil health at Soul Fire Farm was for two years to just let the animals eat whatever was growing in the weedy fields and have those animals poop everywhere.


Alex: And two years of pooping later, there was finally enough nutrients in the soil that Leah and her family could finally start planting. But ...


Ayana: But ...


Alex: Not the lettuces and corn and strawberries she has growing there now.


Ayana: Yeah, not quite yet. Because first they needed to employ another regenerative agriculture technique, and that is cover cropping.


Alex: Yeah, cover cropping. It's this practice of planting a field or a tract of land with a crop that you are not gonna harvest for food. And sometimes you do this just to keep the loose, unplanted soil from blowing away. In this case, Leah is doing it also to help restore nutrients to the soil. So, for example, there are certain kinds of plants called nitrogen fixers. These are plants that actually take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and put it into the soil. Like, hold it there or fix it there.


Ayana: And these little magical nitrogen fixers, they do what industrial fertilizer does, but naturally through microbial activity in the soil.


Leah Penniman: So then we did two years of cover cropping, you know, clovers and rye, sorghum, Sudan grass, heavy nitrogen fixers. And year four we were ready to plant. And then every year we're adding. So we just keep building, building, building.


Alex: And so right now, if we're looking at—we're in the middle and it's sort of like, there's a lane between these two sort of sections of the farm. On the left—to my left—is cover crop. That's the buckwheat.


Leah Penniman: Yep.


Alex: And then to my right is—looks like cabbage.


Ayana: Rows of beautiful vegetables.


Alex: Kale and beautiful, just gorgeous, various kinds of vegetables.


Ayana: Lettuces.


Leah Penniman: Yeah. Callaloo, cilantro, basil, onions, broccolini, which I like more than broccoli.


Ayana: And everywhere you look on this farm, there are examples of these regenerative practices in use. For example, each spring before they plant, they let these critters out into the field.


[sound of geese]


Ayana: These are some chatty folks!


Alex: Geese!


Leah Penniman: We use the animals to naturally fertilize everything before we plant our crops. And so they're part of our rotation.


Alex: The geese are in these movable pens, and so Leah lets them graze on one section of the field at a time. They eat all the grass or weeds and stuff in a given area, they poop all over, and then Leah moves the fencing section onto the next section of the field, and that part where the geese spent all that time eating and pooping, it's now ready for planting.


Ayana: And this holistic way of thinking about the farm, right, seeing it as an ecosystem where the animals support the plants and the plants support the animals, that's a theme that runs through a lot of practices that Leah uses as the foundation for her approach to farming.


Alex: Leah leads us to this one section of the farm which contains a whole bunch of plants, all growing together.


Leah Penniman: this is called a jaden lakou. It's a Haitian Creole house garden with apple trees that are just, like, surrounded by all of these beneficial herbs. Bee balm, calendula, mint, echinacea, comfrey. Just dozens of others. And they all work together. So this is ...


Ayana: Oh, it smells so good!


Leah Penniman: This is an agri-forest, right? This is, like, the ideal epitome of regenerative agriculture, because all of these wonderful plants are just taking care of each other, and there's not a lot of human management. It's a permanent system.


Ayana: So all these practices that Leah's employing: cover cropping, using animals to naturally fertilize fields, growing a diversity of species, nurturing, regenerating the soil, and thinking of the farm as an ecosystem, these are all core to regenerative farming. But there's one more piece. Farming regeneratively often means giving up on one technology that has been central to how many people have farmed for centuries—the plow.


Alex: The plow. And Ayana, the plow is one of these tools that I feel like I know the word, I've heard about it, but I don't actually know what it looks like. You've probably seen plows, right?


Ayana: I have seen plows. I mean there's plow attachments on big tractors but, like, the traditional one that was often pushed by people or dragged behind horses is like a wedge, like a triangle that digs into the soil and sort of separates it and turns it over.


Alex: Right. And it breaks—it digs these deep furrows in the soil and turns over the earth.


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: And it takes a field that's like a field of weeds or a field of, like, cut down and harvested crops, and it turns it into this field of rowed, crumbly dirt that makes it easier to plant seeds. So, like, when you see a big flat field that's just dirt, that is a field that has probably been plowed. But Leah says there's a problem with the plow.


Leah Penniman: The problem is that when you turn up the soil, it's kind of like, imagine you and your family are all sitting down to dinner and someone takes your house, flips it upside down and shakes it. And so everything that, you know ...


Ayana: Well, that would be a mess.


Leah Penniman: Your whole family, like, falls on the ceiling, there's a mess everywhere.


Alex: And in this metaphor my family is like some soil.


Leah Penniman: I'm getting there.


Alex: Okay.


Leah Penniman: Yeah. So in this metaphor, your family is a bunch of soil organisms. And so with a tiller, what you're doing is taking the home where everyone has a job, right? The earthworms have a job and the nematodes and, you know, the microbes. And their job is decomposition and releasing soil nutrients, and you just, like, messed up their home. And so they need to spend all their time getting their home back together before they can do their work. You've just—you're an ecosystem destroyer, right, when you do tillage. But in biological farming, we're actually partnering with these soil microbes, you know, to release nutrients and create, capture soil moisture and create tilth and all of that.


Alex: And there's this one other huge thing that these soil organisms do if left undisturbed by plowing. They capture carbon. Ayana, this is the part of the podcast that is gonna require a brief bit of explanation. So shall we just, like, step away from Leah's farm for a second? Are you ready to do some explaining, Doc?


Ayana: Are you, like, asking me do I want to get in the nerdy details of something? Like, as if you don't already know what my answer is gonna be?


Alex: Exactly. I knew exactly what you were gonna say. Yes good!


Ayana: Here for it every time.


Alex: Let's go. It's fun, because I was thinking about how to explain this to people last night, and I hit on this thing that I'm gonna run by you. See if you think this is true.


Ayana: Okay.


Alex: You can think of carbon as having two big forms for our purposes. There's carbon that's in greenhouse gases. That's the carbon in, like, CO2 and methane. And then there's the carbon that makes up all living things. Like, my body is made of a bunch of carbon, your body is made up of a bunch of carbon.


Ayana: Yeah. After hydrogen and oxygen, carbon is the most common element in our bodies. And if you think about trees and flowers and the little organisms in the soil, they are all made up of, among other things, lots of carbon. And so for millennia before the industrial revolution, the carbon that was in the air in the form of carbon dioxide, and the carbon that was in all of us ...


Alex: All of us being the currently living and formerly living things of the earth.


Ayana: Yeah. All of that was in equilibrium, right? There was always this exchange. The plants would take up CO2 out of the air and then turn it into other living things.


Alex: Until, of course, we discovered this incredible stuff: oil.


Ayana: Fossil fuels. Yep.


Alex: Fossil fuels.


Ayana: Nothing but trouble.


Alex: Which is really just long dead, super-compressed, formerly living things, like algae and peat moss, that have been dead for a long time and then pressed together and they turn into fossil fuels. And we burned ...


Ayana: A lot.


Alex: Tons of it.


Ayana: And so now, all the carbon in the atmosphere has been skyrocketing, and that's what's causing global warming. And so actually, the way my mother loves to talk about this is there's nothing wrong with carbon.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: It's where the carbon is. Like, we need to get it back into the soils out of being just super concentrated in the atmosphere. So like, let's not vilify carbon per se. That's what we're made of. Like, that's a good thing.


Alex: Exactly. So most of us probably know the oil part of that story. We don't know the soil part of that story.


Ayana: Rhymes with oil.


Alex: That's why I said it.


Ayana: Totally different thing.


Alex: So there are tons and tons of organisms living in the soil. The soil is an ecosystem as vast and rich and diverse as a rainforest.


Ayana: It's just happening on a much smaller scale.


Alex: And underground.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: And all those organisms, like the bacterias and the insects and the little worms that are living undisturbed beneath the soil, going about their lives, eating each other, pooping out nutrients that the plants use, etc.


Ayana: Microscopic dance party happening there in the dirt.


Alex: And the thing about that microscopic dance party is that, for a lot of very very complicated reasons, it tends to take the carbon that is in the atmosphere, and over time accumulate that carbon in the soil.


Ayana: There's a lot of really cool science about this, but basically you can think about the plants as these kind of straws that suck up the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, use it to build their stems and leaves and roots. And also, some of those carbon compounds come out of their roots into the soil, feed the microbes and help to nurture this whole ecosystem, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. So the carbon dioxide that goes into the dirt doesn't necessarily stay there forever. Some is released back into the atmosphere in just a few days or a few years, but some is stored there for decades, or even centuries.


Alex: And so you've got places like the Great Plains in the United States, where this process was happening for thousands and thousands of years, and these soils gradually over time became these huge stores of carbon. But plowing? It releases that carbon. Through some complicated biological processes, it undoes all that work of carbon sequestration in the soil that's been happening over thousands of years.


Ayana: And with the industrialization of agriculture, with the tractors and massive plows that are, like, as big as buses, this intense plowing started to become the norm. And over the course of the 20th century, turning over the soil over and over, this carbon that had been stored in the soil ecosystem was getting released into the atmosphere.


Alex: Modern agriculture has released a lot of carbon into the atmosphere.


Ayana: A lot.


Alex: We don't know exactly how much, but we can tell you this: it's a lot. And I will say that learning about the plow's role in all of this, how Leah doesn't use one and how the plow is sort of responsible for all this carbon getting released into the atmosphere, it was a little weird for me. Like, the plow, it's pretty central to the narrative we tell about western civilization.


Ayana: It is.


Alex: Right? You know, it's—it goes way back. It's in the Bible, for example. You know, "Does a farmer always plow and never sow?” That's from Isaiah 28:24. But now I'm starting to wonder, you know, this tool that's often cast as the hero of human progress, could it actually be the villain? Back at Soul Fire Farm, we put that question to Leah.


Leah Penniman: You know, I always have trouble with trying to categorize anything as entirely good or entirely bad, you know?


Alex: Yeah.


Leah Penniman: So I think with tilling, the reason that people till in the first place is to prepare the soil for planting. It removes weeds, it aerates, it makes the soil friable, meaning it's, like, workable. And so there's a lot of reasons to do it. And in the absence of another technology or another system, I get it.


Ayana: Yeah. In one sense plowing is super effective, but the problem is, as one soil scientist, Dr. Jane Zelikova, shared with us, all these years that we've been plowing, we were essentially withdrawing carbon from a bank that we weren't really aware of.


Alex: And now we're at the point where we have to start paying it back.


Ayana: It's like fiscal responsibility but, like, carbon responsibility. [laughs]


Alex: Yeah, we have to put back the carbon we've withdrawn over the years, back into the soil.


Ayana: And that's what's so revolutionary about what's going on on Soul Fire Farm. They're using all these regenerative techniques to add carbon back into the soil. So they are fundamentally shifted what they're focusing on as farmers.


Alex: Right. Like, that's the thing that really stood out. In the traditional sort of plow-based way of farming, soil is just the medium. The crops are the thing that you tend.


Ayana: But in this new-slash-old way of thinking about farming, the soil is the thing you tend. And if you tend the soil, then the soil will actually tend the crops.


Alex: It's this complete refocus onto soil.


Ayana: Yeah. Switcheroo. Flip it and reverse it.


Alex: Exactly.


Ayana: To quote Missy Elliott. [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] And so it's not surprising that the soil on Leah's farm, is something special.


Leah Penniman: I was just looking at some soil tests. We had the Cornell Small Farms Program do a really thorough soil life analysis all over the farm. And I'm super proud of this, our soils in all areas were in the 95-plus percentile of soil health. So we've been able to restore this soil to its pre-colonial carbon levels, right? And what we imagine would be a pre-colonial overall health metric. So we would expect to see really healthy results in our soil, but it's cool to have the data, you know?


Ayana: Yeah!


Alex: I live in Brooklyn and I have kids, and so I talk to a lot of Brooklyn parents and, like, you sound exactly like a Brooklyn parent who's bragging about their gifted and talented child.


Leah Penniman: That's right.


Ayana: Except it's for soil.


Alex: The 90th percentile.


Leah Penniman: My gifted and talented soil.


Ayana: Yeah! [laughs]


Alex: I loved visiting Leah's farm.


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: It was super, super exciting.


Ayana: It was such a treat.


Alex: But I did have a question while we were there.


Ayana: Mm-hmm?


Alex: Is it actually possible for big commercial farms to pick up these same techniques that Leah is using? Because Leah's farm, it's not representative of most commercial agriculture in the United States.


Ayana: [laughs] That's definitely true. For one thing, it's much smaller than most commercial farms in the US, right? It's only about 10 acres of land that they have under cultivation.


Alex: Yeah.


Ayana: And the average commercial farm in the US is way bigger. Like, over 400 acres. And also the farming, the actual production of food is only one part of what they're doing at Soul Fire.


Alex: She also runs a non-profit that's funded in part by grants and program fees. She has this program that delivers fresh produce from her farm to low-income people in the surrounding areas. She runs classes and workshops on the farm.


Ayana: So Leah's whole operation is pretty different from what we'd think of typically as a commercial farm, where they depend for much of their income on selling the crops they're growing. Because here at Soul Fire Farm, most of the money that runs the place and pays for the staff and the programs, a lot of that is funded through their non-profit work.


Alex: In other words, it's awesome that Leah's able to do this kind of regenerative farming, but would these same techniques work on a large-scale farm that's competing with other large-scale farms out there?


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: Like, could you run a commercial operation that looks like most commercial farming in the United States and use these same techniques?


Ayana: I'm so glad you asked Alex, because in the second half of today's episode we're actually gonna answer that question.


Alex: Yeah. We talked to a couple of farmers who have nearly a thousand acres of land and who've been farming the same land the same way for over a century. And these farmers, they never really thought that much about the environment or the climate, but now? I mean, when we talked to them, they sounded like hippy eco-freaks.


Ayana: [laughs] I don't know if I'd put it quite that way.


Alex: Maybe it's a little strong.


Ayana: But our conversation with Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz on how regenerative agriculture is not just good for the environment but also for their bottom line, that's coming up after the break.


***


Ayana: Welcome back to How to Save a Planet. So we promised you we'd be meeting two farmers in this episode, so let's meet our second set of farmers.


Alex: Why don't you start by introducing yourselves?


Grant Breitkreutz: I'm Grant Breitkreutz.


Dawn Breitkreutz: I'm his wife, Dawn.


Grant Breitkreutz: Well, we farm and we ranch. But we farm and ranch way different than most of our neighbors.


Ayana: Grant and Dawn live outside of Redwood Falls, Minnesota. It's a rural area a few hours west of Minneapolis.


Alex: And initially, at least to me, Grant and Dawn seemed very different from Leah Penniman. For one, their farm is much bigger. Almost a thousand acres. And it's very commercial. They grow big, commercial crops like corn and soy beans, they raise cattle. And they've been on the land for four generations now, as opposed to Leah who is a first-generation farmer.


Ayana: And Grant and Dawn and most of their neighbors who are farming on a larger scale, they've been essentially farming the same way for generations. Lots of plowing, which is again a type of tillage.


Grant Breitkreutz: So 20-plus years ago when Dawn and I started out, we bought out my parents. And at the time I was farming with a very large, very large conventional farming operation. And we got the opportunity to take over mom and dad's, so we bought them out, and we continued down that path.


Ayana: Like, what was the farm that you took over operation of?


Grant Breitkreutz: Full tillage, mono-crop. You know, corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, that's all we grew.


Alex: And you're just pulling these gigantic tills through the soil, making these big furrows. And it's attached to a tractor?


Grant Breitkreutz: Yeah.


Dawn Breitkreutz: Yes.


Alex: Yeah.


Grant Breitkreutz: It's attached to a tractor. Actually, in the spring of the year, what we're using that tillage pass to do is to level things, level and smooth things, so the planting equipment runs smooth.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Grant Breitkreutz: And then you've got rows of crops, and you're running tillage equipment in between those rows to destroy the weeds that are coming.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Grant Breitkreutz: Yeah. Life for us at that time was just burn as much diesel fuel as you could through equipment to get it all done. I mean, that's what we did. We just lived in machinery.


Dawn Breitkreutz: Plus spray.


Grant Breitkreutz: Plus spray. One pass of herbicide at the time.


Alex: So lots of plowing, right?


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: And then plus, they were doing tons of spraying, right? Like, they were spraying herbicide and pesticides.


Ayana: Yeah, there was a lot going on. It was a lot of work, and sometimes quite toxic. And they also had a bunch of cows, and they were raising them again, in this industrial Western approach, where they would have them on pasture eating grass, but when the grass was gone, they'd bring the cows inside and feed them tons of grain, which they had to purchase.


Alex: Right. And so they had, they were telling us, all these expenses. They had to pay for the grain for the cows, they had to pay for the fertilizers and herbicides, they had to pay for the equipment that they needed to do all the plowing, they had to pay for the fuel to put in that equipment.


Ayana: So Dawn and Grant both had to work off their farm to pay for all the expenses of running their farm.


Dawn Breitkreutz: I was working for another farmer. He did aerial spraying and another little side business. So I was basically an office person full time.


Grant Breitkreutz: And then I would work just ...


Dawn Breitkreutz: Odd jobs.


Grant Breitkreutz: Just stupid, stupid hours, usually trucking at night. I mean, Dawn would get home from work, she'd do the harvest with my mom and my dad if they were around, and I'd be going trucking somewhere, helping haul sugar beets or gravel or something in the local community. So then I'd get home at 10, 11 o'clock at night, and try to help in the dark with whatever we could 'til we couldn't do it no more and take a nap and start it all over again the next day.


Alex: Take a nap. In other words, what most people call going to bed. Like, you were working.


Grant Breitkreutz: Seriously a nap. I mean, one to two hours of sleep at night.


Ayana: Oh my gosh!


Grant Breitkreutz: Was not uncommon for us the first five years.


Alex: And this cycle of working nonstop, taking out loans—they even refinanced the farm—getting deeper and deeper into debt, all of that continued until this one moment when things changed for them. That moment was this big freeze in 1997.


Ayana: Not a metaphorical freeze.


Alex: No, no. An actual freeze.


Ayana: It actually got really cold.


Alex: Exactly. It got really cold.


Ayana: And things were extremely frozen.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: And it was in the fall around the time they'd usually be doing this first pass with the plow to get ready to plant their crops, but because the ground was frozen solid, they couldn't do that this time.


Alex: And so in desperation, they bought this piece of machinery that Grant had heard about, something called a no-till drill. It's a machine that plants seeds directly into untilled soil. And Ayana, I found a picture of it online. Here, I'm gonna share it with you.


Ayana: Ooh!


Alex: Just follow that Ecosia link I sent you.


Ayana: You Ecosia'd "no-till drill."


Alex: [laughs]


Ayana: It's an attachment that would go on the back of a tractor that looks like it has these little discs that don't—they're not angled to turn over the soil, but just to sort of like puncture it.


Alex: Puncture it, and then they plant the seeds directly into untilled ground. So they don't turn it over. But it's a big piece of machinery, basically, that you stick on the back of a tractor.


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: And Grant and Dawn, they started using that.


Dawn Breitkreutz: 1998, we bought a no-till drill to seed soybeans.


Alex: And so instead of taking that big machine that turns up the soil and, like, levels everything, you were just like—the field looked to your conventional eyes as, like, this field's a mess. It hasn't been turned up. It just looks like a field that's been left to lie there, and you planted directly into that field with this drill. And was it weird doing that for the first time? Like, doing it a different way for the first time in your life?


Grant Breitkreutz: Oh, yeah. We were immediately called the lazy farmers in the neighborhood.


Ayana: What? You sound like the least lazy people ever.


Alex: From a conventional standpoint, it does seem like laziness. Like, you didn't even till it. Why are you just plunking it down in a field that's not ready?


Ayana: Dawn, how did you feel about it? Were you nervous?


Dawn Breitkreutz: No, I wasn't nervous. You got to realize I didn't grow up on the farm, so I didn't have the hold backs that, you know, the ties that he had to the past farming, you know, methods or whatever. I was all about finding some new stuff, learning new—you know, let's do it a different way.


Alex: You bought the drill, you're trying it out. What about that, the result of that, made you want to continue to experiment?


Grant Breitkreutz: Just the massive amount of cost savings.


Alex: Remember all that plowing Dawn and Grant used to have to do? A couple of tilling passes in the fall, then another one in the spring, and then one or two more as the crops were growing to cut down the weeds? All that plowing costs money.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: You have to buy the fuel for the tractors that pull the plows. Plus it adds wear and tear to all that machinery. You have to repair them or replace them. With no-till planting, it's less expensive. They still have to use machinery to plant the seeds, but they have to use way less of it, way fewer passes. And so they're saving a bunch of money.


Ayana: It was like a little trick, right? Way less work. Way less use of super-expensive equipment. And better results.


Alex: And so Grant and Dawn started looking more into this whole no-till thing. This was the late-90s, there were no YouTube tutorials online, so they just started asking around and eventually they found other farmers in the Midwest they could learn from, farmers who were practicing the same kinds of regenerative farming that Leah Penniman showed us when we were on her farm visiting last summer.


Ayana: They learned about planting cover crops from a farmer in North Dakota they would visit periodically. And there was a farmer in Missouri who taught them new ways to manage their cattle by letting them graze on these cover crops, and then the cattle would fertilize the soil naturally with their poop.


Alex: Poop. Remember that technique that Leah Penniman told us about, from the geese?


Ayana: Mm-hmm. Super high tech.


Alex: Super high tech. Works with cows, too.


Ayana: [laughs] And they started to notice these changes. Like, there were parts of their land, these shallow depressions, where they'd never been able to graze their cattle before, because it was too swampy. Rain would just roll down the hills and gather there in these puddles.


Alex: But after they'd been doing this regenerative farming for a couple of years, planting cover crops and then grazing their cattle on them, they noticed this change.


Grant Breitkreutz: All of a sudden we had swamps and bogs that we could never graze that were now dry. Well, why was that? I couldn't understand it. Well, went to a few more sessions or seminars or something that was going on in the community and understood water infiltration. We were putting a massive amount of vegetation down on the ground, which was feeding the biology in the soil, which now let the soil be able to infiltrate water where the raindrops hit on top of the hill, instead of all running to the swamps and bogs at the bottom.


Ayana: Hmm.


Grant Breitkreutz: All of a sudden, we understood water infiltration. That was probably the key to it.


Ayana: Water infiltration—the way that the water gets absorbed into the soil. Between the roots of the cover crops helping to open up the soil and more little critters and microbes living the soil and doing their thing, the soil becomes more permeable.


Grant Breitkreutz: We took a piece of land that could only infiltrate, I believe about six-tenths of an inch of rainfall per hour. And in two short years, we had changed that to eight to as high as 30 inches per hour rainfall infiltration.


Ayana: That is a dramatic change.


Alex: Yeah. And the more they continued to adopt these regenerative practices, the more benefits they started to notice. Like, there was this moment in 2014 ...


Grant Breitkreutz: We got the great opportunity to do a huge experiment here on the farm, basically, with a project called the Pasture Project, where instead of just planting two or three species of cover crops, we planted 14. That was a big step for us. And while we went through this Pasture Project, they were grateful enough to explain to us what was happening. We had different species of cover crops in there to harvest the different nutrients that were coming either naturally and available in the soil and just needed to be changed into usable form by plant biology.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Grant Breitkreutz: Or we were using these cover crops to harvest the nutrients coming out of the backside of the cows that were walking across this land.


Ayana: [laughs]


Grant Breitkreutz: And we just saw this go from what we thought was one of our worst pieces of soil, to now it was going to be one of our highest-producing or the capability of producing the highest possible yields in two short years, by changing what we did.


Ayana: So in their earlier farming days, they'd had to apply lots of industrial fertilizers to their crops every year, to supply the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that the crops needed to grow. But now, by planting the right cover crops, like nitrogen fixers, and letting the cows graze and poop, those nutrients were appearing in the soil naturally.


Grant Breitkreutz: We have not applied phosphorus or potassium on our farm for 12 years, because the cover crops are naturally harvesting, changing them into a readily usable form for our corn crop. We have taken our nitrogen use, our synthetic nitrogen used to grow a bushel of corn from 1.2 pounds per bushel, down to 0.2 to 0.4 pounds of synthetic nitrogen to grow a same bushel of corn.


Alex: And it's not just fertilizer that they're using way less of, it's also pesticides. They don't need as many pesticides because the pests are also controlled naturally by the other animals that are drawn to their farm now, now that it's a healthy ecosystem.


Grant Breitkreutz: All of a sudden, we saw a massive explosion of birds.


Ayana: Huh.


Grant Breitkreutz: We've got birds in the air that blacken the sky for three weeks at a time. So all the birds are feeding off of all the insects. We have broke the insect pest population through cover crops and crop rotations. We don't deal with those problems on our farm anymore, because we've addressed soil health and the biology of the ecosystem that we're managing here.


Ayana: So things are more in balance in terms of insects.


Grant Breitkreutz: So two weeks ago here in the upper Midwest, a common problem over the last 10 years has been soybean aphids. Soybean aphids affect the soybean plant to the point where it will cause economic damage. We have not had to spray soybean aphids on our farm for ...


Dawn Breitkreutz: Seven years.


Grant Breitkreutz: Seven years. By changing our cropping practice. Every time we spray an insecticide on our land—and this has been researched by people way smarter than me—we're targeting one pest, we're killing 1,700 beneficials. So we don't spray those products anymore. Overall, our insecticide use has gone to zero. So it was the great realization that it all—as farmers, we're managing an ecosystem, and we got to quit looking at just managing for crops, crops, crops. We are managing ecosystems.


Alex: Grant and Dawn had arrived separately at the same realization Leah Penniman had, that by concentrating on the soil and using this suite of practices that comes under the heading "regenerative farming"—not tilling, planting cover crops, using animals to fertilize, basically thinking of the farm as part of an ecosystem—the things that they needed to get their crops growing well, they just happened naturally.


Ayana: Grant says that now you can feel the difference when you walk through the fields.


Grant Breitkreutz: The pollinators in these cover crops, as we're going through grazing them with the cattle, are so loud on a quiet morning, all you can hear is pollinators buzzing from our yard.


Ayana: Just buzz. Yeah.


Grant Breitkreutz: As we're going through, moving the livestock through these 14 species of cover crops, you're just covered in cobwebs.


Alex: Cobwebs from all the spiders which, like the birds, also control the pests, and are an indicator in general of overall ecosystem health. Grant and Dawn are also cutting way down on fungicide and herbicide use, with the goal, they say, of getting to zero chemicals one day.


Ayana: And when Grant and Dawn talk about their farm, the pride, you can just hear it. They look at their fields with these 14 different species of cover crops, and cows pooping everywhere, and the stalks from the harvested corn just sitting there unplowed, and the glorious spider webs everywhere, and they see a miracle. But their neighbors? Their neighbors see something else entirely.


Dawn Breitkreutz: If they were looking at it, they'd say it was a weedy mess. That it was just a field of weeds.


Grant Breitkreutz: We were at her great aunt and uncle's place for a family celebration, and her great aunt walked right up to us and said, "How's the lazy farmers doing?"


Ayana: [laughs]


Grant Breitkreutz: And I looked at her and I said, "June," I said, "What do you mean?" And she says, "Well hell, you're too lazy to till your corn stalks." She says, "You just must be lazy farmers."


Alex: Wow!


Ayana: Wow!


Alex: How was she saying that? How was—what was the tone?


Dawn Breitkreutz: [laughs]


Grant Breitkreutz: Just in the way a great aunt with an attitude would say it.


Alex: [laughs] How's that make you feel?


Grant Breitkreutz: By that time we were pretty used to it already. And we realized that we were going to take a lot of those kinds of comments from the community that we farm and live in. And it hasn't stopped.


Dawn Breitkreutz: No.


Grant Breitkreutz: In fact, it's—if they're not talking now, we're not pushing ourselves hard enough. If we don't have the community talking about what we're changing and doing on our farm, we're not pushing ourselves hard enough to change.


Ayana: How have the finances changed? How has—how are the economics of this dramatic turnaround shaping up?


Grant Breitkreutz: Well, in this region—you know, in this region everybody bases things on corn, what it costs to produce a bushel of corn. And so I've taken our data and compared it to our neighbor that'll share his data. We can produce a bushel of corn for $2.59 cents a bushel. Our neighbors are at about $3.25 cents to $3.40 cents a bushel. That's how things have changed.


Alex: Wow.


Grant Breitkreutz: You know, Dawn hates raising soybeans, and the farther and farther we get down this path, the more and more profitable soybeans are. Our cost of inputs for soybean production has dropped to about $6.35 cents a bushel to produce a bushel of beans. My neighbors are at about $8.10.


Ayana: In other words, Grant and Dawn are spending a lot less, 20 percent less than their neighbors to produce each bushel of corn or soybeans. And that's because they aren't spending all this money on pesticides and diesel fuel for their plowing equipment.


Alex: Also, they're no longer working second jobs. They said they don't have to do that anymore. And Grant said he no longer has this nagging fear he used to have about the health hazards of working with pesticide-covered seeds. He talked about, like, what it was like to open up a bag of corn seeds that came pre-coated with this industrial pesticide, wondering what are all these chemicals doing to me?


Grant Breitkreutz: Do you know how good it feels to dump a bag of seed corn into a planter, and not have to worry about the fungicides and the insecticides that are on that kernel of corn coming back up in your face? You know, I don't have to wear any protective equipment to farm anymore.


Alex: And that's what you had to do before. You had to, like, wear, like ...


Dawn Breitkreutz: You should.


Grant Breitkreutz: You were supposed to, but we didn't. And as far as herbicides, you know, to kill the weeds, we may spray once every three years now.


Alex: So there's all these benefits to Grant and Dawn that they're experiencing every day on their farm. But then, of course, there's also this huge benefit of all of this as a climate solution. You asked them about that.


Ayana: Yeah. And I was kind of tiptoeing up to the question, because it had been almost two hours into the interview and it hadn't come up yet. So I was kind of nervous.


Alex: Right. Like, bringing it up felt somehow impolite in the way that it sometimes does to bring up political things.


Ayana: Yeah. Like, you don't want to talk about religion or politics or sex at the dinner table kind of thing.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: I was like, you know, in their house, so to speak.


Alex: Yes. Well, and you modeled what we should all do in those situations. You got over your discomfort and you asked them the question.


Ayana: Very gently. [laughs]


Ayana: One of the things that we've been talking to some others about is, along the lines of the importance of soil health, is that healthier soils when they're restored can also hold a lot more carbon, they absorb more carbon out of the air. They hold it in the soil. Is that benefit, this sort of climate and carbon aspect of it, is that part of what you think about? Is climate part of your thinking when it comes to regenerative?


Grant Breitkreutz: This has gotten to be huge for me. Everything we're dealing with in the United States, in the world, comes right back to soil health. In our particular region of Minnesota here, where we farm, we have found undisturbed prairies that have never had a plow. They're at 12 percent organic matter. Organic matter is a measure of carbon. Dawn and I, we're farming some soils that would have been at 12 percent before man plowed, that were down in the one, high one percent.


Ayana: Hmm.


Grant Breitkreutz: So in our short history of plowing and growing cereals and grains to feed the world, look what we've done.


Ayana: Yeah.


Grant Breitkreutz: We all survive on carbon. We have to have carbon. We have to have carbon in the soil to survive. So we've gone from 12 percent to two percent in a short hundred and some odd years of farming. How much time do we really have left?


Ayana: Just depleted.


Grant Breitkreutz: And if Dawn and I would have kept doing what we were doing for the last 15 to 20 years on that land, I'll bet we would be down in the high one percent on that land. So we would have taken another percentage of carbon away. At the same time, what Dawn and I have done over the last 15 years, that soil is now at five percent organic matter. We have put one-fourth of it back in there. You can talk about climate change all you want, like climate, you know, we're warming, we're cooling. I don't care. I farm. The climate changes every single day of my life. Every single year, I deal with a different climate. And the more and the faster Dawn and I improve our soil biology, the health of our soil, The less the climate change affects us.


Ayana: All of this, of course, raises a big question. If this way of farming regeneratively is so beneficial—not just personally, but also globally—if Grant and Dawn are restoring carbon to the soil while also working less and feeling like their health is more protected, if it's more profitable, why aren't all their neighbors jumping on the bandwagon? Like, what is the holdup? Can you hear the incredulousness in my voice? [laughs]


Alex: Yeah, I can hear it. Well, it's really weird, right? It just feels like, wait a minute, the way you're talking about it, it just seems like much better.


Ayana: Like, why would we not all be doing this? This seems like the obviously better thing.


Alex: And part of it goes back to something we talk about all the time on this podcast: policy. There is a whole tangle of federal farm policies in the United States which can get in the way of adopting regenerative practices. And we could do a whole podcast on that, and we will at some point.


Ayana: So definitely policy is a big part of this. But also, there's just human nature.


Grant Breitkreutz: As humans, what's the hardest things for us to do? Admit we're wrong.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Grant Breitkreutz: And change. That's the two things as humans we have the biggest problem with. So—and I've struggled with this the whole way along. I have to admit I was wrong. I thought I was so damn right, but I was wrong. And then the second part is, is that I had to change. And we've made those changes. So from a human being mental aspect, that's the part we're dealing with there. Granddad paid for the land this way. Dad hung onto it. And now dammit son, you're gonna do everything the way I did to hang onto it. And we see this in our neighborhood, in our community. I'll give you a good example is when Dawn and I got married, we joined the small community rural church here.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Grant Breitkreutz: The people that we'd visit with in the back of the church—this was a rural church. I mean, there was some school teachers there, there was some retired farmers, but for the most part, it was all farmers. So for 20-plus years, I stood in the back of this church and talked to another guy that had started no-tilling about the time we did. And at the same time, there was another member of the church that farmed, actively farmed. And he would listen to Bob and I talk back and forth about what we're trying on our farms and how it's turning out. 21 years of this discussion, he finally shows up one day in our farm office and says, "I've listened to you guys for 20-plus years. I'm 59 years old. I need to change, because it's not working."


Ayana: Wow.


Grant Breitkreutz: That's one. One family out of all the families that we went to church with.


Alex: Wow!


Grant Breitkreutz: You know, so there is only three of us families that are now taking this approach. That's the dynamics you deal with in agriculture.


Alex: We don't have time to do—sort of to convert one farmer every 20 years. [laughs]


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: You know?


Ayana: We're gonna have to move a little faster than that.


Alex: Yes. And you know, the good news is that, like, no-till farming practices are being adopted at a higher rate in the United States than I was aware of. It's over 30 percent of farms are now using some sort of method of no-till farming.


Ayana: Yeah. That's a great start.


Alex: But it varies a lot by state. So Minnesota, where the Breitkreutz's are, is one of the lowest no-till states in the country. Another pretty low one is California, where a lot of the country's agriculture is located. And so the question is, like, what can we do to accelerate the transition to regenerative practices?


Ayana: That is indeed the question. And as always, we're here to help you become more deeply informed and find ways to be part of the solutions. So we've got a list of a few things you can do, and links will be in our show notes and in our newsletter. So please check these out.


Alex: All right. So if you want to learn more about regenerative farming—maybe you're a farmer yourself, and you want to learn more about this, a good all-purpose resource is the Soil Health Institute. It's a non-profit which has lots of resources. And we will have a link to that site. And we'll also throw some YouTube videos in there featuring the teachers who helped Grant and Dawn learn about regenerative farming.


Ayana: Yeah. You may also be inspired after listening to this episode to support farmers of color. In which case, we would direct you to the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, which is a coalition of a lot of organizations that are figuring out how to get more Black farmers trained and farming the land again. So we'll throw in a link to that as well. Lots of resources on their website. And I'd love to encourage you to check out Leah Penniman's book, which is called Farming While Black. And that's brimming with great information on her Afro-Indigenous-inspired approach to farming. And it's a beautiful book.


Alex: And of course, like always, there's things that we can do on our own. And then there's things that require policy.


Ayana: Policy!


Alex: Nowhere is that probably more true than in the agricultural system, which is one of the most cockamamie, heavily-subsidized parts of the US economy. And all of that ...


Ayana: That's an underused word, cockamamie.


Alex: Cockamamie? [laughs]


Ayana: Probably applies to a lot of things when it comes to getting climate solutions to become real.


Alex: Yeah. And a lot of the craziness is encapsulated in the farm bill. And the US in the Congress is going to be considering the new farm bill soon. And there's lots of subsidies in there that could do a lot to actually make things a little bit smarter and incentivize adoption of these regenerative practices.


Ayana: And we're talking about a lot of money. Like, even just in the stimulus package last year in March, there were over $20 billion went to support farmers. So just imagine how much we could accelerate the recovery of ecosystem health and soil carbon sequestration if that massive bill were used in that way. Also keep your eyes out for the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which is likely to be reintroduced in this new Congress, and that would support things like training and access to land for Black farmers.


Alex: So keep your eyes peeled for windows of opportunity to push your elected officials to get on board with this. For now, there is this super helpful blog post from the World Resources Institute that will get you up to speed on the issues, and the kinds of things that we would want to see in the new farm bill. And we'll post a link to that.


Ayana: I also wanted to recommend a film. There's a new film called Kiss the Ground, which is all about agriculture and the carbon sequestering power of soil as a climate solution. And although obviously, Alex, we are devoted to the magic of audio, sometimes it is actually really helpful to see what all this looks like in practice.


Alex: I have no idea what you're talking about. What is this film thing you speak of?


Ayana: Moving images. I don't know. It's really weird.


Alex: Pictures with audio?


Ayana: Overrated, probably. But yeah.


Alex: Malarkey. And a lot of you have actually sort of emailed to recommend that film, and so we're happy to amplify that. And then some of you also email asking for book recommendations. Doc, you have some?


Ayana: Well, my mom does. My mother who is an organic and regenerative farmer recommends a book called Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown, who's one of the farmers that Grant and Dawn learned a bunch from. And my mother's review is specifically, "Excellent job demonstrating best regenerative farm practices. Great for gardeners and every food consumer to know." And it's published by Chelsea Green, which puts out a lot of books on agriculture, so it's worth checking out their whole roster. And lastly, my mother wanted to give a shout out to Acres Magazine, this great farming magazine for people who want to stay up to date on the latest.


Alex: Those are good recommendations and you're a very good daughter.


Ayana: Thanks, Louise! So we covered a lot in this episode, and there's way more to discuss around agriculture. So we will definitely be coming back to this in future episodes. But that's it for this week, and let's do the credits.


Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.


Ayana: And me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd, and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


Ayana: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Emma Munger and Billy Libby. And we want to give a very special thanks this week to Dr. Jane Zelikova, a research professor with the University of Wyoming for giving us the inside scoop on soil science.


Alex: Thanks for listening, everyone. We'll see you next week.


Ayana: See ya!