Charles Massy, Gabe Brown, Fred Provenza, Nicolette Niman (not pictured)

Reflections on the 12/8/18 Panel at The Berry Center, New Castle, Kentucky

Saturday, Dec. 8, was the beginning of my Christmas.  Likely the best Christmas gift I will receive this year is the hope engendered in me by the four agricultural experts hosted that day by the Berry Center in their panel presentations.  The bottom line on which all four agreed?  That the huge ship of national agriculture has already begun making the turn from industrial agriculture to regenerative agriculture!  Wow!  If that is true, we are ALL getting the best Christmas present ever!

So what is regenerative agriculture?  As the name suggests, it’s agriculture focused on regenerating natural life on farms instead of focusing on mechanical, chemical, and technological production methods. It’s about biology more than about chemistry.  As one farmer on the panel said, “Now, instead of waking up every morning thinking ‘What am I going to try to kill today? [bugs, weeds, diseases], I wake up every morning asking myself “How will I foster more life on my farm today?”

Regenerative agriculture is holistic.  It considers ecology, people, and economy.  It focuses on abundance and resilience and on developing the biology and fertility of soils as the basis of the system.  Techniques generally focus on integrated management of soil, water, vegetation and biodiversity and becoming more efficient in the use of natural on-farm resources rather than external industrial resources.  In Wendell Berry’s words, it’s the difference between living on the land on the land’s terms and trying to live on the land on our terms!

How do we know that the ship of agriculture has begun to turn in this direction?  The evidence presented by these four, all of whom travel frequently for public speaking, is the massive increases they are seeing in the number of farmers and others who show up all over this country and  beyond for their talks on this new approach to agriculture. Farmers are hurting and are seriously looking for better ways to farm.

Both Charles Massy in Austrialia and Gabe Brown in North Dakota are long-term farmers who changed the course of their own agricultural ships because of farming failures.  Both learned industrial agriculture in college and did their level best to practice it, but ended up with themselves and their families on the brink of financial disaster.   Their failures led them to the public library, to social media, to other farmers, to study new books, to think for themselves, to observe closely their own land and their own ecosystems, to experiment on their own farms, and eventually to succeed for themselves and their families.

The secret to success?  So simple but so complex: coming to understand how nature works!  Gabe Brown says anyone can learn the five principles of regenerative farming described in his book, but most farmers then want someone to give them an exact recipe they can follow back home on the farm.  Regenerative agriculture is not that way.  Different landscapes require different tools, different methods of following the principles.  Perhaps the biggest obstacle is fear of failure – but these experts claim that failure is a learning experience in becoming native to your place.  How?  By trying, observing, trying something else, observing some more…  It is a spiritual and psychological challenge more than anything else, as one begins to substitute the natural mind for the mechanical mind!

Nicolette Hahn Niman was a vegetarian for 30 years – until she fell in love with and married a California cattle rancher. A brilliant moderator of the panel with uniquely incisive questions to each panelist, she managed to convincingly add to the case that eco-grazing and multi-species grazing managed carefully is essential to land fertility, to moisture infiltration in the soil, to weed control on farms, as well as to human nutritional health.  Fred Provenza was fascinating in his comments on new research indicating that animals, including ourselves, adapt to local nutritional resources over generations, creating adaptations of the genes themselves, and that the cells of our bodies possess inherent nutritional wisdom that lead us to choose healthy food sources.

These few paragraphs about the event merely scratch the surface.  To understand more, we need to study the new books by these four panelists.  I’ve begun with Dirt to Soil and am enjoying it immensely.  In the meantime, I am so grateful to the Berry Center for their Christmas gift of hope for the planet!  I wish the same for you this Christmas!  And you might want to pass this info and this hope on to a farmer or two (or an eater or two) you know.

  • Nicolette Niman – California cattle farmer, environmental lawyer, author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production (2014)
  • Charles Massy – Australian cattle and sheep farmer, author of The Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth (2018)
  • Fred Provenza – Professor of Wildlife Behavioral Ecology, Author of Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us about Nutritional Wisdom (2018)
  • Gabe Brown – North Dakota regenerative farmer, author of Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey to Regenerative Agriculture (2018)

Written by Claire McGowan OP, Executive Director
New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future
Springfield, Kentucky