“Healing Grounds” Makes a Case for the Climatic and Social Powers of Regenerative Agriculture

by Lela Nargi

Published: 3/24/22, Last updated: 3/24/22

It’s a mist-shrouded early morning and a small group of journalists is gazing openmouthed at a miraculous sight. For miles and miles, hundreds of thousands of almond trees are synchronously, pale-pinkly in bloom on the flatlands and rolling hillsides of California’s Central Valley. While the group breathes in the stunning scene, our hosts — the almond farmer on whose ranch we’re standing and several representatives from the Almond Board of California trade group — point out a variety of tinier miracles: an owl pellet plopped under a desiccated tree; grasses sprouting up between planted rows; some pollinators. The landscape feels alive.

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Amid the blooms and the cool mist and the faint sweet scent and the buzz of bees, a person might feel moved to extol the magnificence of Nature. Except, nothing about this landscape is exactly natural. About 25 percent of America’s food supply is grown here in the Central Valley: mono “crops” of almonds and pistachios and tomatoes and cattle. But to make room for it all, grasslands and oak savannah and wetlands and forests were eradicated and along with them, untold numbers of native animals and plants and microbes; Central Valley’s monoculture keeps it that way, and an owl, a handful of bees and some dandelions don’t quite count as biodiversity. Neither do the majority white men and women who own this Yokut tribal land that’s now worked by majority brown farmworkers.

The irony of these interwoven equations is not lost on Liz Carlisle. Her new book, “Healing Grounds,” published this March, covers the intersection of losses brought about by America’s industrialized food systems — the place where diverse diets, diverse wildlife and Indigenous knowledge all meet and plummet, to the ongoing detriment of our planetary health.

“There’s a large consensus that agriculture as it’s currently being practiced is not good for the environment, it’s not producing healthy food, and it’s not working for the real economy,” Carlisle says. “And that there’s a need to do something that’s more environmentally sustainable that also contributes to social justice and healthier product out the other end, where people are experiencing food security and good nutrition and all of that.”

To that end, in her book Carlisle explores the virtues of regenerative agriculture — a term that’s being extensively bandied about these days and that’s defined in so many different ways, with varying degrees of complexity, depending on who you ask. For some, it is a comprehensive set of five farming principles that are used all together to achieve soil health. For agribusiness companies like Cargill, it is defined by primarily two of those — cover crops and no-till. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it’s “climate smart” practices — voluntary for farmers — that include any action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions or sequesters carbon.

By Carlisle’s definition, though, regenerative agriculture is a longstanding, traditional way of farming, developed separately by Indigenous agrarians across the globe. “It’s kind of this elegantly simple concept, to give back to the land as you’re raising food on it, in a reciprocal relationship,” as opposed to the “extractive” methodologies inherent in industrial agriculture that deplete soil, pollute air and water, she says.

Carlisle, an environmental studies professor at University of California Santa Barbara, began researching the book with the aim of answering two questions: Where does regenerative agriculture come from, and can it really be a powerful climate solution? As she looked for answers, “What became apparent is that all of these techniques that US farmers have gotten interested in in recent years, like planting soil-building cover crops or using compost, all have their roots in Indigenous agricultural practices,” she says. Which led to her next question: “Well, what happened? What disrupted those regenerative agricultures that have existed for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years? And the answer was colonization.”

Throughout the book, Carlisle interviews BIPOC holders of this traditional knowledge and its history, who are working to resuscitate it. In this, she occasionally covers well-trod territory, featuring some farmers who have had much written about them already, including David “Mas” Masumoto, who wrote “Epitaph for a Peach” back in 1995; leader of Soul Fire Farm and author of “Farming While Black”, Leah Penniman, as well as her spiritual opposite, the Green Revolution’s Norman Borlaug.

But where the book excels is in clearly and simply laying out the trajectory of how industrialized American agriculture came to be — starting, notably, with English colonists arriving with their maladapted seeds then proceeding to foist them on the land. Carlisle then links that history to the farming practices that led to the desecration of landscapes and soil health — think, the Dust Bowl. And then to the vast suffering imposed by those practices on enslaved African, “imported” Central American and migrant Asian workers who were tasked with wreaking the destruction, even as they themselves understood how to do it better, growing their own vibrant and earth-nurturing subsistence gardens at home.

Perhaps most hopeful of all, Carlisle finds the places where regenerative agriculture is happening sometimes right under our noses. On the plains of Northwest Montana, for example, Latrice Tatsey is working to bring back the Blackfeet Nation’s bison herds. In a North Carolina forest, Olivia Watkins is raising mushrooms on land her family has farmed for 127 years. And in California’s Central Valley, Mexican and Hmong farmworkers are tending some of the most biodiverse small farms in between the massive tracts of almonds, building up soil health and attracting a large selection of diverse pollinators in the process.

Also threaded through the book’s pages, though, is a strong message about the power of cooperative work — families and communities working together to raise nutritious food, working with organizations that can better support their livelihoods, and most of all, working in tandem with Nature and the cooperative structures that exist in soil microbial communities, which support the plants that support insects, and so on across the food web.

How might this cooperative model work in a place like the Central Valley, where 100 tiny, personal-use regenerative farms are flourishing but are by far the anomaly? Carlisle thinks making any meaningful change requires multiple solutions. For starters, creating an incentive structure that will help farmers make the transition to regenerative agriculture — on a state level, California’s Healthy Soils Initiative is a “great policy, so if a farmer has never done cover crops or composting and they’re concerned about the economic risk, there’s a public program to support them getting started,” Carlisle says.

Equally important, she believes, is California’s Farmer Equity Act, which gives access to land to those who want to farm. The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which is forcing water districts to come up with plans to in some cases drastically reduce water usage, will incentivize practices like regenerative that naturally do a better job of using less water, says Carlisle. And finally, the Good Food Purchasing Program, which incentivizes the purchase of sustainably raised local produce for massive-scale buyers like school districts, hospital systems and government agencies; this “ties spending to the larger goals we want to accomplish in the food system,” Carlisle says.

Although Carlisle hopes the tenets of regenerative agriculture will be embraced and expanded widely, it’s her students at UC Santa Barbara she is most eager to inspire. “So many of them are low-income, first-generation college students who are people of color,” she says. “They’ve come up to me and said, ‘Agriculture isn’t something that my family has encouraged me to pursue because in our family history, it’s been a source of oppression.’ I wanted to write a book in which they could see people who came from their communities, who are doing the really, really important work on the frontlines of climate change and racial justice.”

Top photo by Lela Nargi

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