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Why “Regenerative Agriculture” Is Not Enough
Daniel Firth Griffith on the Wise Traditions Podcast by the Weston A Price Foundation.
Wise Traditions is a podcast by the Weston A Price Foundation.
Why “Regenerative Agriculture” Is Not Enough
Regenerative agriculture has been hailed as the solution for restoring the health of the soil…and the entire planet. But this label–“regenerative agriculture”–is limited in its scope. And more is needed for true healing to occur. Daniel Griffith, author, co-manager of Timshel Wildland and President of the Robinia Institute, today calls us to something deeper: a shift in how we perceive our relationship to the land and to ourselves. He reminds us that we ARE the earth in the soil, in many respects, and that we need to heal in ways we may not have previously understood. Returning to our roots may lead us down a new path, that has no label.
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He reframes the conversation about farming and healing in today’s discussion. Daniel also shares insights about his own health story and how he went from physically broken to restoring his natural balance and renewing his health.
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda Labrada Gore and the regular text is Daniel Griffith.
Many of us consider regenerative agriculture as the best system to heal the planet and regenerate the soil. Meet A Farmer who thinks the label of regenerative agriculture and its approach is insufficient. This is episode 430 and our guest is Daniel Griffith. Daniel is an author, the Comanager of Timshel Wildland in Virginia and the President of the Robinia Institute. He works with Allan Savory and his team is committed to regenerative agriculture. To a point, he would even go so far as to say it saved his life.
Nevertheless, Daniel challenges our approach to the land and the label that we often use. He suggests that we need to wild the regenerative movement. He reminds us that we are the earth and the soil in many respects and that rediscovering our roots reframes the conversation about farming and our relationship to the land. He also dives into where to start to make a difference in healing that relationship. Along the way, Daniel shares insights about his health story and how he went from broken and I mean really broken to restoring his natural balance and health.
Before we dive into the conversation, I want to invite you to connect with your local farms and buy food from them. It’s good for your health and the local economy. It’s a way to ensure stable food for the future. If you’re not sure where to find real food, find your local chapter leader. The Weston A. Price Foundation has a system of volunteer chapter leaders around the US and the world. Their only job is to help people find real food. Go to Weston A. Price and click on the Find Food/Local Chapters tab. Click on the Local Chapters list to see who is near you to help you out. A side note, this is how I first got involved with The Weston A. Price Foundation. I was just looking for raw milk for my family and one thing led to the next.
Welcome to the show, Daniel.
Hilda, it is an absolute joy and blessing to be with you. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m excited.
I can’t wait to hear some of your stories. I got to hear some at the Force of Nature event that we were at together and I was wowed. You’re reminiscent to me of Wendell Berry. You got that poetic heart and also that desire to connect with nature, which is so lovely.
I appreciate that. I hope to live up to about 10% of what Berry has accomplished. It’s a deep accomplishment.
I know truly he’s out there. I wanted to start by asking you about what brought you to the regenerative agriculture space. What brought you back to the earth and understand your place in it? You were outdoorsy as a kid. You were active but then there was a health crisis. Tell us about that.
That’s a great starting point. A lot of these conversations that I’m itching and you’re itching to have stemmed from my upbringing and this pivotal moment in my health journey. It happened in my junior year of high school. I keep wanting to say sophomore. Before we get there, here’s a quick unpeeling of the previous years. I have three other siblings. I’m one of four. All of us were homeschooled on 30 acres outside of Cleveland, Ohio. As I remember it, it was the last harbor of acreage and the last periphery of the suburbs of Cleveland. All of our neighbors had 1/2 acre, 1/4 acre and 1/8 acre. Maybe they had 1 acre or something. We had this 30-acre chunk there. It was this last remnant of a rural community.
When I graduated high school, I remember we built this photo album. In almost every picture in the photo album up until high school, I was pretty much naked and covered in dirt. The older I got, I was a little more clouded underwear. It’s a different childhood from a lot of the community in which I was raised. One of the highlights I love to touch on at this moment is as we were homeschooled, this whole unschooling movement maybe was being birthed or coming into popularity. I don’t think my family even knew of it. My mom was entirely focused.
Most of our school day was play outside time. It was like, “Go play outside,” and we would read books. The thing that we did the most, looking back, is pivotal to where I am in my life. She would have these things called tell-backs, where no matter if you read a book, had an experience, went out and talked to a butterfly or something, you can come home and she would ask, “What happened?” Tell me back about this thing that you lived in.
Sometimes you were a participant in a story floating down the Mississippi River with Huck Finn or maybe it was a butterfly, toad or some make-believe character that you played outside with your siblings all day long covered in dirt. It was this moment of connection internally. How did you perceive the event? Connect with yourself and tell me the story. At the time, I’m a child. I had no bearing on that powerful reality.
As we jumped forward, I was a very good high school athlete, football player, division one scholarship, wrestler and national champion type stuff. In my junior year in high school, I was jogging around the football field. In high school athletics, especially football, you have these things called two-a-days. It’s the beginning of the football season and you do two practices a day. Typically, it’s very early in the morning. It’s your entrance into the varsity football season.
It was the first practice of the first practice. You have two practices a day. It was the first moment of the first practice. It was the entry moment to my junior year. If you have any interest in playing college athletics, this is your moment. If you don’t shine in this exact moment, you don’t fulfill those scholarships. You get scholarships as a sophomore and fulfill the purpose. It is your junior year and then you play around your senior year. That’s the idea of athletic scholarships.
This was the moment and I’ll never forget it. We were running around the football field as a little warmup and I collapsed. I went from this unbelievably perfect health, no pain or anything and I collapsed. At the time, the athletic directors of the Ohio State Medical Center had no understanding of what happened. We thought it was a hip flexor strain. We thought my body was just X, Y and Z. We were stretching and going to therapy.
What we didn’t know is I had this strange degenerative type genetic disease from moral heads to the ball-and-socket joint. There’s a ball inside of a socket and that’s how your arms and legs can move as they so do. I was born with squares and sockets. The head of my femur was a square and the head of my whatever arm bone was a square.
In my whole life, I had been a ticking time bomb, physically. My labrum was deteriorating. I had no rotator cuffs. I was scraping my pelvis bones with my head of the femur bone. It was all of this deconstruction. The second we started looking into that, we noticed that I had a lot of deepened autoimmune diseases.
Skipping a bunch of the details, I stopped athletics at that point and never pursued college athletics. I lived about 7 or 8 years in immense medical trauma. I had all my limbs taken off and had to relearn how to walk again. I spent a year at the Cleveland Clinic where I would lay on a table and the physical therapist would touch a muscle. Maybe it was my quad muscle and I would have to focus for an hour on flexing down. I was building these neural pathways all over again. It was crazy.
I thought you were speaking metaphorically before you started rolling when you said, “I have my limbs taken off.” You literally had your limbs taken off. It sounds horrific and shocking, considering your near-idyllic childhood when you were talking about being outside in the sun and half naked. I’m like, “That sounds amazing.” Somehow you had these issues that suddenly appeared. Let’s fast forward. I don’t mean to fast-forward past it all but it’s very involved. Talk to us a little bit about the recovery process. What helped you?
Everything changed. We would go through periods of my life where I would lose 80 to 90 pounds in a singular month. I would work for two months to gain it back. We were in this unbelievable rotation of degeneration and then a little bit of health and then degeneration. One spring years ago, I was sitting on the back porch of my childhood home, married to my wife by this time. She was away working full-time. A good friend of mine, my godfather, was the only person in my life that was an agriculturalist or a farmer. He was a local cattle rancher, grass-fed and finished type cattle rancher. He had given me Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. I was sitting on the back porch enabled to do anything else and I was reading it.
My mom walked out of the back porch sliding glass door. She looked at me and I’ll never forget her face. She had this smirk as if she was about to say something interesting and funny but also there was pain, grief, joy, pain and happiness. It was all together in one. I’ll never forget this moment. She says, “Daniel, we’ve tried everything and we have.” I’ll skip those details. We had tried everything like Eastern medicine, Western medicine, acupuncture, taking my limbs off and everything in between. She said, “The only thing we haven’t tried is chickens.”
It’s funny looking back. Her point was this whole time we had been very passive in our understanding of health. We had been seeking these gurus, shamans, medical directors and everybody in between. What she was saying is, “What if we become active participants in our natural world? What if we started raising chickens?” We knew nothing of Joel, Polyface, poultry, pastured poultry or the difference between a chicken tractor and a free-range. We knew none of these things.
That day, we bought 100 chickens. It was an absolute turning point in my life. My wife and I joke. We’re full-time farmers. We always joked that it was always my decision to get into farming because she got home that night and I said, “Morgan, we’re farming.” To her unbelievable credit, she just said yes. She’s fallen in love since.
The key to this story is this is the turning point of our lives. We started participating, not just receiving health. We were active members. We had active membership in this world of health. We then started eating locally. As we started eating locally, we started to fall in love with the local farmers producing the local food. As we started to fall in love with the local farmers producing local food, we started to volunteer at those local farms. We started to fall in love with farming. 10 years later, we’re running a 400-acre farm here in Central Virginia raising cattle, sheep, goats, orchards, pigs and everything else.
Daniel, that’s a beautiful story. Yours does mirror many people. It’s a journey of gradual discovery and more integration from a certain way of living in a whole new shift. Yet, I want to know. When did you become disenchanted with the terminology that we’re using like regenerative agriculture? That’s the kind of farming you were describing that Joel exposed you to and that is around you. When did you realize something’s limiting about this label or maybe our whole approach?
Let’s start here. You, myself and maybe some totality of all Weston A. Price audience can all agree and start at this underlying foundation that monocultures are a nutritionally impoverished environment. As life participates in those monocultures, it also becomes nutritionally impoverished. We can accept that uniform tenant. Let other episodes bring the science. For now, let’s accept it. Where our challenge begins is this idea of maximizing production. The idea of the monoculture environment is that production is maximized inputs, soils, local communities and social structures. It doesn’t matter.
Monocultures are nutritionally impoverished environments. As life participates in those monocultures, it also becomes nutritionally impoverished.
Let’s just maximize production. When we maximize production for national or international distribution or trade, it’s directly proportional. Therefore, then to a decrease in the nutritional availability of the local landscape. We then export that production, those “nourishments, nutrients, calories,” let’s call them. We’re not just impoverishing those who eat those food items but we’re impoverishing the landscape in which they are grown. That landscape is not just physical or ecological. It’s social and everything else.
My point is monocultures have in the theory of soil health and in view of social structures a natural legacy of poverty that follows or I should say works within this idea of food production, food distribution and food sovereignty. I say those things to say this. Long has this regenerative movement, which I entered years ago, postulated, which then turned from a postulate and a scientific inquiry over to something that is more or less universally acknowledged that with a better food system, a better way of growing that food, better practices, paradigms, views and visions, we can regenerate the soil. We don’t have to destroy the soil when we farm. We can heal the human body with good real nutrient-dense food. Those are things that are all possible.
However, it is also possible to do things that look similar to this while they are still a monoculture. What I mean by that is this. Look at the individuals like the scientists, Stephan van Vliet, Fred Provenza and Dan Kittredge of the Biological Food Association. They have brilliant minds that are leading a scientific inquiry into this idea of nutrient density in food. What their science is associating is that micronutrients have micro-processes that are relative to place. We have this idea of place. Fred Provenza, Dan Kittredge and I haven’t talked to Stephan van Vliet as much, but we all agree that the idea of place is as important to the production of nutrient-rich and nutrient-dense foods as any other factor.
For instance, let’s go over a little bit of ecology. The sun shines and plants photosynthesize. We’ve learned this in biology class or maybe we know something about the soil food web. It’s via that photosynthesis and through this thing that we call the hydrologic cycle, which is the water cycle. Let’s use a more simplistic word. Through the water cycle, minerals cycle and nutrient cycle, the plants send down roots and trade carbon for other plant-available nutrients to bacteria and fungi. Fungi swim around. They’re eaten by predatory nematodes. This is that soil food web, the gut of mother earth if you will. This is an important cycle.
As this cycle takes place from solar energy, let’s say to beef production, because the cows eat that herbaceous material, that grass has its cycles from the sun to the cow. We have this cycling of nutrients from the soil to the plant matter to the cow back through manure, perhaps back to the soil surface for regrowth. The idea of regeneration is, 1) The opposite of a monoculture. We need many plants, types of bacteria and fungi communities. We need predatory nematodes and non-predatory nematodes. We have a great microbiota all around us. Diversity is the opposite idea of monocultures.
2) We have to start to view this idea as located by place. If we were to grow nutrients in place A, let’s call that This Place, and we export those nutrients to place B, let’s call that That Place, we are growing and taking the nutrients from here and moving them to there. We have degenerated place A to “regenerate” place B. Where we come at this is we start our questioning if science and rationality tell us that micronutrients or micro-processes are produced by a place for the healing of that place. If we can’t start to build a regenerative revolution or a regenerative system that understands its connection to place, we have to revise what regeneration means. That is also to say we have to limit what regeneration means.
Regenerative Agriculture: If we can’t start to build a regenerative revolution or a regenerative system that understands its connection to place, we have to redefine and limit what regeneration means.
Two things are coming to mind. 1) I remember interviewing Jack Kruse where he talks a lot about biological or evolutionary mismatch when we eat food that is from a different place. For example, if you eat pineapple North of the equator, it doesn’t make sense to our bodies. In part, it may be having to do with the soil and all the things you’ve mentioned, these micro activities that we’re not aware of. We think, “No big deal. We have a small world. I can eat pineapple North of the equator.” Yes, I can but can my body absorb the nutrients when it is meant to be for a different place? Is that part of what you’re saying?
That’s exactly right. I’ll let him speak to the inner dimensions of the scientific process there. I’m not a scientist. I was a Mathematics and Computer Science Major in college. I’ve become a full-time farmer since. I understand what I understand and I’ll leave the other thoughts to the experts. What I focus on is this very simple understanding that picks up any book on regenerative agriculture, from Greg Judy, Gabe Brown and Joel Salatin to all these other pioneers like Allan Savory, a personal mentor of mine.
Contained within every one of those volumes, verbatim is the exact phrase, “Regenerative farmers don’t export nutrients.” Every one of those leaders is claiming that a regenerative idea cannot be exported from a nutrient perspective. The first thing we look at is in a hay field. If the photosynthesis via the soil to the food web, carbon and nutrient exchange process is producing let’s say nutrient-rich forage or grass and we cut that forage and put it over here, we have degenerated that first environment. Hayfields are much less diverse and less nutritious. Hayfields require a lot more fertilization.
For background, my wife and I run what’s called the Robinia Institute. We’re a savory hub here in the Mid-Atlantic with the Savory Institute. We do a lot of consulting. We manage tens of thousands of acres indirectly through these local managers that we have in place. We do a lot of soil and diversity work. It’s interesting, we concluded a five-day ecological monitoring course here in Virginia. We stood in the hayfield with the students. There were about 5 to 7 of them. We said, “Take a breath. Sit down. Start to converse with the natural world and you’ll see it as dry. It is decadent, degenerating and singular.”
You don’t sit down in a lush, diversified meadow of 73, 75 to 100 different perennial grass and herbaceous perennials that are wildflowers, forbs, legumes, trees, sedges, rushes and shrubs. You’re overwhelmed with the community. It’s moist and wet. It’s living. It almost seems to hum, buzz, move and pulsate. You go to these environments that have been exported and a hayfield or cornfield. You pick which you can access and it’s the entire opposite reality.
The point in bringing that up is to say this, “Ecologically, a lack of diversity because of exporting nutrients.” If we see that as degenerative and we then instill this “regenerative world” with the idea of verified regenerative labels slapped onto products that go very far distances, all of a sudden, even if we remove the understanding of humans needing nutrient-dense, real raw foods, remove that concept entirely for the moment.
We are destroying the environment to feed other areas. That’s what we’re saying here. We’re producing food, removing the minerals from that system and instead of returning those minerals and nutrients, we’re exporting those things elsewhere. From a regenerative practice and agriculture perspective, that has problems. You enter everything else. I disqualified the human nutrition and nutrient density and it intensifies.
That’s one thing I wanted to speak to when I said I had two ideas. One was the conversation with Jack Kruse about light. He talks a lot about light and how light has given information or nourished the animals and the produce in certain areas. We take then it somewhere else and it doesn’t exactly match up. The other thought I had was when Dr. Price traveled the world. He found healthy traditional indigenous people groups isolated from modernity. They were thriving eating their whole real foods. He talks about it in his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
What I’m getting at is they weren’t eating the foods from other regions, Daniel. They were eating the foods that were growing right where they were. This is something that’s been overlooked. I’m so glad you’re bringing it to our attention. How regenerative are we? How much are we living up to that label? Speaking of labels, I do want to ask you too. You’ve talked about the need for a wilding of this movement. Tell us what you mean by that.
First off, you’re right. Prices, nutrition and physical degeneration. I’m not saying anything that wasn’t covered more expertly in that book to be very clear. What I’m talking about is what Vandana Shiva is talking about this idea of localism. First and foremost, we have to build a system that’s not sustainable, regenerative or nutrient-rich soil producing nutrient-dense foods. It’s localism. In localism, we have sustainability, regeneration and nutrient-rich soils producing nutrient-dense foods, echoing Price, Shiva and many other brilliant minds.
In localism, we have sustainability, regeneration, and nutrient-rich soils producing nutrient-dense foods.
How wilding or rewilding comes to the fore? It comes down to control. That’s how we perceive it. To be very clear, when I discuss rewilding or wilding as we like to call it, to separate it from this modern and conservation-minded approach of rewilding, it’s not getting humans out of the landscape or putting fences around these “natural systems” and saying the eradication of a species, that the human species is a positive thing and that nature should just be. We understand. There’s no such thing as a natural environment. It doesn’t exist.
Thanks to Charles Mann and many other historical anthropologists, archeologists and thinkers. What a weird comment it is to say that the world has ever been natural. Of course, the world is natural. How could it be anything else? In some sense, humanity who has been there for many millions of years has become ingrained into that system. We are Mother Earth. Mother Earth is us. We don’t have a relationship. We are the relationship, that is to say. A lot of people talk about harmony. “We must live in harmony with Mother Earth.” In my opinion, that’s inappropriate phraseology.
Think about the word human. Doesn’t it have its root in the word hummus, which means soil?
Absolutely. That’s in the coin A Greek in Latin. Human, humus soil, all of that is intertwined. As I mentioned in the Force of Nature, What Good Shall I Do conference speech where we met, my family and I practiced Messianic Judaism. Long have I studied the biblical Hebrew language. It’s interesting, that the same thing goes back to the early traditions of the Hebrew people, which is that when God creates man, he calls them ha Adam. It’s man, like mankind, the human species. It’s debatable whether or not he meant male or female. It doesn’t matter. For that, we’re not getting into it. The human species man is ha Adam.
When he creates the earth and looks at it, he calls it dirt or soil. He calls it Ha Adamah. Al Hafiz is put at the end of the idea of man. It is the earth, the man. We are one step different from each other. The step of difference is breath. Al Hafiz is this idea of breath. I won’t get all into this.
I can hear even the words you’re saying, the sound of breath, “Ha.”
In Genesis 1:2, we would call it better sheet 1:2. The second verse of Genesis or better sheet says, “Wəḥōšeḵ ‘al-pənê ṯəhôm wərûaḥ ‘ĕlōhîm məraḥep̱eṯ ‘al-pənê hammāyim.” Other than being ridiculously gorgeous, in my opinion, it’s a beautiful language. What it says is, “In this idea of the beginning, the earth was welter and waste and the darkness. I focus here and her divine breath hovered over the waters.”
It’s so interesting. Not just in the creation of the human species do we see the interplay, the relationship between man and earth, ha Adam and Ha Adamah but at the beginning of creation when there is only just these darkness and water for that which we all emerge the idea of water in many different religions and modalities of health and thought. We have this thing called this divine breath. It’s called Bo Ruach Elohim. I’ll end here because I can talk about this for a while.
At the beginning of creation, we have this idea of divine breath. At the end of creation, when God creates Eve, he calls her Hawwah, which is another unbelievably breathy word. It means the giver of breath. We have this interplay between creation and this feminine idea of water and birth. At the end of creation, we have the giver of breath and man means earth. It’s an interplay. In my opinion, that eradicates the modern language of the human world versus the natural world.
What do you say to the person who’s like, “This guy is so poetic. We need to dominate the earth and subjugate it under our feet so that it gives us the yield that we need. Forget all this nonsense?” What do you say to a skeptic who has that utilitarian or reductionist view of our relationship with the planet?
That’s a good question. It keeps me honest and I thank you for it. Let me answer it this way. We, modern humans, live in two stories and you can pick which story you participate in. The first story is what I call a carbonic messianic theology or the messianic theology of carbon, which is we live in these times of chaotic, jumbled messes of priorities where we reduce the great entirety and panoply of our problems down to this singular reductionistic linear view of, let’s say, food, carbon or feeding the world. For this case, let me say carbon.
We do everything we can to deny that, which denies the sequestering of carbon or doesn’t produce excessive amounts of food for the world. We look at that action of denying that thing as this, “I’m the messiah to the world. We’re doing climate work and God’s work.” It’s still keeping humans very central. It’s interesting because even there, there’s a deep problem.
Farmer’s Footprint is an amazing organization with Zach Bush, whom I know you guys probably work with very closely. They came out with this and I’ll let them provide the source. Thirty percent of all conventional foods are wasted in the distribution system. If we grow 10 apples today, only 6.5 or 7 apples will reach the market. Out of that, if we were to solve for 25% of the 33% of food waste so doing quick math, that’s 8% or 9%. If you were to cut food waste down by 8% or 9%, we could feed almost every developing country sufficiently with 8% of the food waste.
Whenever I hear people talking about feeding the world and we have to increase the production and carrying capacity of land, vegetables and corn versus cattle, we have to realize that this is not a singular system of inputs and outputs as if we’re running some diesel engine. Diesel engines are complicated systems. Diesel engines are combustion engines in general. They have parts that can be reduced and they’re very complicated. Think about it. If you take a carburetor, let’s say out of an engine and you put it on a shelf at AutoZone, you walk into AutoZone because you need a carburetor and you ask for one, they can give you one. It’s not difficult. A carburetor is a carburetor in an engine or out of an engine.
As we get into the natural systems of Mother Earth, that which we belong and which we are, we realize that as we pull a tree out of its environment, there is no AutoZone shelf to put it on. If there was and you walked into that AutoZone shelf and asked for, let’s say, a black locust tree because that’s what sits outside of my window as I talk with you here, what is the black locust tree sitting on an AutoZone shelf?
It’s not the same thing as sitting in front of me here in Central Virginia overlooking the James River. It’s identity. It’s being. It is an aspect of its life. It’s changed. It’s different. When we see the world from this very first view, which we call the carbonic messianic theology, we have misrepresented diversity with a singular problem. We’ve reduced the entire complexities, beauties, love and everything else of this world down to a singular source, which can only produce negative aspects.
It reminds me of what if I had that same utilitarian view with my spouse. I was like, “I give you food, you give me shelter.” It wouldn’t be a very healthy relationship and it wouldn’t last very long probably.
What you’re saying is there’s something infinitely deeper to the truth and beauty of your relationship with your spouse or our relationship with ourselves, which is Mother Earth and every other relationship that resides in that whole, which is this understanding of wholeness. This is why we are a hub with the Savory Institute and we follow Allan. This is the essence of what holism and holistic management are about. If we don’t operate within that paradigm, we can’t operate within a system of abundance.
The first myth, this first story, if you will, cannot produce abundance. No matter the intentions, desires and visions, we can’t find abundance through control linearization and reductionism because nature can’t be reduced. She is complex. She is not complicated. The second story is about what I call the damsel in distress mythology.
Nature is this damsel in distress who is perfect in her way but all she needs is her prince charming to ride on this Disney channel-infused white horse. We come in and save the day. Instead of reducing the great panoply of problems down, what we say is “Humanity alone can save the earth.” We are at a pivotal point where we can reduce greenhouse gas and sequester carbon but that also places us into a modality of control. I can regenerate the earth.
I was podcasting with Gabe Brown, one of the thought leaders and founders of the modern regenerative movement. This was the conversation. “You can do all of these things that regenerative agriculture talks about. You can jump on the horse and gallop with your sword of the blaze through this king’s forest of ancient English oaks.” I’m visioning a Disney channel movie. “You can ride to the damsel in distress and save her. You can do all of these things but through controlling, colonization, enslavement and all of these other truly unholistic, unethical, immoral, unjust and user-perfect word avenues.”
If you think about it from a regenerative agricultural practice perspective, think about cover crops. For instance, maybe I’m managing 1,000 acres of corn soy and wheat in a monoculture environment and it’s through the essence of control. Maybe I’m managing 1,000 acres of perennial grass species through cattle and that’s my goal. However you attack this thing and whatever background you come at it, we reach the same result if we were to both go out and buy 1,000 acres of cover crops.
If you were to go out and go buy life, you would go to Western Oregon, probably Washington state-based monoculture of white clover or field P, annual rye or winter wheat, and pick your cover crop. You would buy, “I need 10,000 pounds.” We’d buy it and ship it over via a two-day FedEx air package. It arrives and we plant it. It grows and we say, “Look at us. We are regenerative farms.” There are a little bit of technicalities from the agriculture side, which I realize not all agriculturalists but I bring it up for the consumer because we as the consumer believe that just because it’s regenerative or labeled regenerative, that it is.
When we hear cover crops, I think of a beautifully diverse meadowland with bees, butterflies, birds, happy cows and all these other things. That’s not where it’s grown. If you can go online and buy 10,000 pounds of white clover seeds, it is not harvested in a 1 million-acre, gorgeous rolling hilled metal and full of bees and hundreds of different species. There’s not like these little white clover fairies going around picking the seeds out of it. No. This is a linear reductionistic mono-crop of white clover grown in a chemically infused cornfield. It just happens to be white clover that’s growing.
That’s what I mean by we can regenerate our place. We can do regeneration here through the colonization of many thousand acres over there. As long as it’s over there and our eyes can’t see it, our hearts don’t know it. We can continue pushing these ideas of regeneration forward without coming to an acceptance of a vision of reality that says, “Unless we all rise, we don’t rise. Unless we all become regenerative.”
It’s not just my land that matters. This is not to sound like a rambling fool here but to continue real briefly. This is why I dislike fenceline photos. In the farming world, you see all of these fenceline photos like, “Look at my lace.” You take a picture looking down your fenceline. Let’s say your neighbor’s field is on your left and your field is on your right. You say, “Look at the regeneration of regenerative agriculture and look at the degeneration of conventional agriculture.” Don’t get me wrong. It is a beautiful A and B concept of the success and the lack of success of both of these systems.
However, if you truly believe that the human body is healthy but its liver is not, you have a misinformed idea of health. You believe that your fields are healthy but your neighbors are not, although they share the same aquifer, climate, hydrologic cycle and human community. The same mice that go from there come into my fields. It’s the same snakes that predate the mice. It’s the same ticks, spiders, birds, bees, mammals, opossums, skunks and everything else. They come from that landscape. How can I have a regenerative field if I’m saying that mine is regenerative and theirs are not if they are right next to us?
I can continue. The idea is regeneration requires the eradication of these two stories of control like the carbonic messianic theology, where as long as we fight that which fights the singular metric, we’re fine. The damsel in distress, meaning that we are swords of blaze riding on the white horse, humanity’s going to save the world. We have to change our language. We’re not saving the damsel in distress. We are the damsel in distress. The solutions aren’t outside of us. We are the solutions. We are not supposed to have a better relationship with the earth. You are the relationship. You are it. She is you.
The solutions aren’t outside of us. We are the solution. We are not supposed to have a better relationship with the earth. We are the relationship.
It comes down to wilding and that was your original question. Our farm is called Timshel Wildland. It’s 400 acres. It’s an entirely different place. We’re not finding answers or resolving. It’s impossible. There’s so much work that needs to be done. We’re trying to question, “What does it look like in a highly productive agricultural system?” We produce a lot of beef, pork, chicken, fruits and nuts. We are “far.”
We call ourselves a wildland because we’re not interested in flying in 10,000 pounds of white clover seed in a FedEx 2-day air package from Oregon. We’re not interested in controlling breeding. We run herds and cattle. Nobody’s ever castrated, separated or weaned. Moms get to decide when they wean their babies. Boys get to be boys. With the systems, I can say the world is in place here. It’s a little bit slower and harder. It presents many challenges. The question is, to restate it very simply, “What does it mean for humans to be the relationship or harmony while still being able to produce enough food to be alive in the modern world?”
That’s an amazing question and I’m so pleased that you’re asking it. We need to ask more questions and not see ourselves in that archetype of a hero riding in on the white horse. Otherwise, it’s very much like the conventional system. We’re dominating and subjugating it in simply a different way. I want to ask you because you were saying Daniel something about the consumer. A lot of our audience lives in cities. They’re not agriculturalists. They’re more consumers. The question is how can they start to understand these concepts of relating differently to the earth as opposed to just buying the food with the right label?
The power of the modern human being, regardless if they live in rural, urban, downtown New York City type urban or suburban, no matter where you live, this applies to you. Don’t feel distressed or pressured. We have to begin the return to localism. What that means is you don’t have to start growing an orchard garden in your condo, although that’s a great option. Maybe you want to start there. Do that.
We have to start returning to our local community and asking what is being produced here. If you’re in downtown New York City, maybe that is a little bit bigger than it is in a rural community. You might have to extend it a little bit farther. There are maybe 75 to 100 different farms that are all within an hour’s driving distance of New York City. They’re just right there. They delivered it to downtown New York City and it’s a collective of the regenerative farm.
My point is even if you’re in the most concentrated city center in the United States, there are still farmers in the periphery. What we advise is this and this is very simple. Look at your feet, start there and find the most local farm possible. Do not ask if they’re regenerative or if they care about nutrient density. Do not ask if they run Polyface design chicken tractors. Don’t ask them anything. Don’t ask if it’s grass-fed and finished beef. I’m not even asking you to buy their products. Walk to their farm, drive to their farm if you have to, take a subway to their farm, a bus or whatever it is, and find that most local farm. It does not need to be a regenerative farm. It’s almost better if it’s not and ask, “How can I help?”
My health, in scientific reality, depends upon you and my nourishment, which might be the foundation of that health. It depends upon your ability to produce it. If you don’t produce my food, even though I might buy from a better farm that’s on the opposite side of the continent, I can’t be as healthy as I need to be, could be or should be. Don’t ask about any of their practices. Just ask, “How can I help?” Maybe they need $500. Maybe they need you to help them pull some weeds. Maybe they say, “I don’t need any help. I just need you to start buying my products.” The average farm in the mid-Atlantic makes $18,000 a year. They work 87 hours a week farming and 37 hours a week marketing.
It’s shocking. That’s pre-mortgage and pre-tax. That’s just cash flow. That’s revenue top line. Maybe it means that you start buying their food. I’m not even starting there. To repeat, walk and find the bus, train, tram or subway to the most local farm. Don’t ask them about their products or practices. Just ask, “How can we help?” If localism is going to win, it’s going to win when consumers turn inwards. It’s when good-minded, heartfelt nutrient desiring health nut consumers turn to the local farm and say, “How can we help?”
Putting my Robinia Institute hat back on, we manage many tens of thousands of acres of farmland. I have never met a farmer who farms locally that doesn’t have to desire to do it well. They might have never had the finances, the help and the knowledge to do it well. Maybe they need to go to a $ 500-weekend course because they’ve never understood how to rotationally graze their landscape. The solutions are simple and small because they’re local. Go to the local farm and ask how to help. That’s what we advise.
You’ve given me a great idea for the minisode. I’m going to talk to you a little bit about your health because I’m sure folks will want to know the rest of the story but our time on this full interview is coming to a close. I want to pose to you the question I always like to pose at the end here. If the readers could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
If you’re a reader and a consumer and you buy these products, do what I described. Start caring about local farms, helping and asking those questions. Don’t do anything else but ask those questions. If you’re a farmer reading this or someone around the agricultural landscape, I believe that the thing that we can do to fix this problem is the eradication of this rugged and siloed individuality of farms.
I’m telling the consumer, to find your local farm. That’s true. As farmers, we need to start collecting, collaborating and working together. We have to build synergies, symbiosis and communities. We have to stop being like, “This is my farm. It’s amazing. It’s better than everybody else’s.” That is just as degenerative as degenerative agricultural practices. We have to start working together in this collaboration and hyper collectivity or even some people have described it as the de-individualization of local food. However you want to phrase it, start there.
Beautiful words to end on. Daniel, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
I am more blessed than you could imagine to share the space. Thank you.
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