Tracing Regenerative Farming to its Indigenous Roots | Civil Eats

Tracing Regenerative Farming to its Indigenous Roots

In her new book, Liz Carlisle shows that carbon can be stored in the soil if we adopt ancestral land management strategies, many of which are held by communities of color.

liz carlisle and the cover of her book, healing grounds

The Mexica, the Indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who ruled the Aztec Empire in the 1300s, recognized some 60 different soil classes and had a word for soil that had been degraded by careless farming: tepetate.

Today, the Aztec people might be saddened by the majority of the farming in North America, where many have stopped rotating their crops, and the soil is often over-tilled, over-grazed, and kept bare between plantings, leading to erosion and fewer nutrients.

“The way in which we structure public subsidies to agriculture needs to shift to align with the public benefits that agriculture provides.”

As we confront the grim realities of climate change, regenerative agriculture has arisen as a promising solution. In Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming, a new book published today, Liz Carlisle shows that carbon can actually be stored in the soil if we adopt ancestral land management strategies, many of which are held by communities of color. The cultures that Carlisle writes about in this book—Indigenous, Black, Latino, Hmong—are still connected to their deep farming histories and they’re using unique regenerative practices that not only enrich the soil but banish pests, reduce erosion, and increase yields. Carlisle believes contemporary farmers from all backgrounds have a lot to learn from these traditions.

She devotes one chapter each to Indigenous efforts to revive buffalo herds; Black land theft and the promise exemplified by one young Black woman who inherits her grandparents’ North Carolina agroforest; a Latina woman’s quest to study soil in the diversified immigrant-owned farms of California’s Central Valley; and Asian farming traditions—with a focus on Hmong farmers and a third-generation Japanese-American orchardist. Throughout, Carlisle weaves in surprising historical details about early pioneers of regenerative farming including agricultural scientist George Washington Carver (a proponent of intercropping with leguminous crops—in the 1890s) and Mexican scientist Efraím Hernández Xolocotzi, who brought agroecology to the public’s attention in the 1970s.

A professor in the Environmental Studies Program at University of California, Santa Barbara, Carlisle is also the author of the Lentil Underground and co-author with Bob Quinn of Grain by Grain. Civil Eats spoke to her about the emerging science behind carbon sequestration, the challenges of scaling up regenerative farming, and the urgent need for land reform.

Your book finds wisdom in cultural traditions—intercropping, integrated grazing, trees as buffers—that you hope to see adopted now at a wider scale to help us become more resilient in the face of climate change. Do you see that conversion happening?

I’m very hopeful about a large-scale transition for how agriculture looks in North America. And it’s because I see this current commodity system clearly failing the people who are necessary to its continuance. Input [i.e., synthetic fertilizer and pesticide] suppliers and processors have been trying to convince farmers for a long time that this system serves their interests, but it is clearer and clearer to people who work directly on the land that conventional commodity farming is a losing game. And people are speaking out about that. A big change is coming, and the question is what are we going to change to?

There are legal and policy pieces of that puzzle. The way in which we structure public subsidies to agriculture needs to shift to align with the public benefits that agriculture provides. We need to align payments to farmers with the kinds of ecosystem services and healthy foods that we want farmers to provide.

And we need major land reform. There’s a bill in Congress [The Justice for Black Farmers Act] that Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and a number of other senators have proposed that includes land grants, specifically to Black farmers. It would open the door to a process that would serve other underserved farmers.

“What researchers are confident in is this: healthy ecosystems that you can observe at the macro scale have a healthy carbon cycle.”

We have an aging farm population, and a number of folks are looking to sell their land. We know that institutional finance is interested in investing in it. And we know that that’s going to be bad news for our whole society if that land is managed as a financial asset rather than as a living ecosystem. I think government needs to buy out these retiring farmers. There’s already a program like this in Rhode Island. This isn’t complete pie in the sky.

As you point out in the book, one of the of the bigger landholders in the country is a teacher’s pension fund, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), which rents land to industrial operations that grow GM soybeans and corn—or just leaves fields fallow. Should we start a disinvestment movement?

I think that’s a good conversation to be having. A significant share of the Mississippi Delta region’s agricultural land is held by TIAA, and that is super problematic. It’s neocolonialism.

We have an opportunity before this generational wave of land is about to transfer hands when we can pass a policy that allows for public investment in that land—before it rises in price. Institutional investors are counting on this land shooting up in value. If that happens, then it’s going to be much harder to intervene with public policy.

You emphasize that it’s hard to pin down how much carbon is being sequestered by regenerative farming methods. What, to you, is the most persuasive scientific data on carbon sequestration?

We have an emerging science of understanding the movement of carbon at the microbial level and literally being able to track the carbon itself using an entirely new generation of research technology. Any researcher who does this work will say that this is emerging.

The biggest challenge is going from research at the scale of a microbe to models that then extrapolate to the scale of the globe. The “4 per mille” study is one of the soundest scientific attempts to take the data that we have, model it out, and extrapolate it to the entire globe. What that group of researchers concluded is that if we improve soil organic carbon by “four per mille”—so four out of 1,000 or four-tenths of a percent—across the globe, we can achieve meaningful carbon emissions drawdown—20 to 35 percent. There’s even an initiative. The French government got behind it in a big way.

What researchers are confident in is this: healthy ecosystems that you can observe at the macro scale have a healthy carbon cycle. When we think about designing policy, I think it’s important that we not ignore that indicator. It’s easy to get excited about being able to look at a carbon atom. And I think that research is really important. Yet we have existing ways of looking at the health of a forest ecosystem or a prairie ecosystem that are extremely reliable indicators of what’s happening with the carbon cycle.

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You write that the Blackfoot Nation and other Indigenous tribes of the plains co-existed with buffalo for thousands of years and that the buffalo actually spurred “compensatory growth” in the grass, making the North American prairie “some of the most carbon rich earth in the world.” That is an audacious claim. What sort of proof is there for that?

“There are also some basic reasons that would have been one of most carbon-rich pieces of Earth. Prairie plants have really, really deep root systems.”

Researchers have done work on natural prairies that have not been converted into agriculture in North America, to try to get to some estimate of what the carbon would’ve looked like thousands of years ago. The challenge there is, in most cases, you don’t [currently] have bison. You might have some other herbivores, which of course bison would have coexisted with historically. And in most cases, you don’t have fire. So, the best estimates are coming from two preserves—one in Kansas and one in Oklahoma—that have not only conserved natural prairie, they have tried to add back some of those elements of those ecosystems. Professor Sam Fuhlendorf at Oklahoma State University has tried to reinstate a similar burning and grazing regime.

There are also some basic reasons that would have been one of most carbon-rich pieces of earth. Prairie plants have really, really deep root systems. And that’s the mechanism for carbon rich soils: robust root system in the ground, on a perennial basis, constantly putting out root exudates, which are the form of soil carbon that is most easily stored long term. Because they are very labile—in the language of a soil scientists—the microbes just gobble ’em right up. They stick them into what soil scientist Francesca Cotrufo calls their “savings accounts.”

A peer-reviewed lifecycle analysis on White Oak Pastures’ practices recently confirmed that multi-species pasture rotations sequester enough carbon in soil to create an emissions footprint that is 66 percent lower than commodity beef production. That said, the regenerative approach also requires 2.5 times more land. How are those doing regenerative grazing going to find more land?

The immediate answer when it comes to buffalo in Montana is that Blackfeet people are collaborating with Glacier National Park and also with the Forest Service and Waterton Park on the Canadian side. If you take areas that are currently being managed for conservation that are adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation—actually part of historical Blackfeet territory—you can put together a really large area. The shift that’s been made in those conversations between Indigenous communities and agency managers is to think about buffalo as wildlife [and not just livestock]. There will be wild buffalo and buffalo raised on private ranches who will be managed like regeneratively grazed cattle.

Dr. Bruce Maxwell—an agroecology professor who has been at Montana State University for decades—has been thinking for a long time about how that state’s agriculture is going to cope with climate change. Some of the crops that are currently grown there are already becoming less viable in the context of a hotter, drier climate. That means the crops aren’t as high quality. Often, it means they’re more susceptible to pests. It takes more supplemental irrigation. For all those reasons, there are already farmers who are asking, “How do I get out of this and into something that’s going to work better in a new climate?”

I think you’re going to see some commodity crops farmers in places like Montana looking for an alternative. If we can build up a really solid market for high quality, ecologically raised meat, you could imagine that being a better deal for the land, a better deal for the farmer, and also an opportunity for Indigenous communities. These communities are already building out multi-species processing facilities. In theory, this should appeal to consumers who want to see humane handling, and want to see animals treated as sacred beings. Here are cultures who have seen these animals as relatives since time immemorial.

“Unfortunately, there are a number of governments—I’m not going to exclude the U.S.—that serve a small segment of financial elites.”

Between the kind of wildlands that are hosting buffalo and the croplands that probably should be going back into prairie, I can imagine a transition to a scenario where all meat is raised regeneratively on grass. And, of course, in the larger scheme of things, that involves meat making up a different share of total American protein consumption than it does today.

Many have heard about Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, so it’s refreshing how your book centers Mexican botanist Efraim Hernández Xolocotzi (Maestro Xolo), who worked at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program and championed agroecology at the same time. Are governments finally seeing the negative consequences of the Green Revolution?

It hinges on whether those currently in power are committed to a vision for their country’s future that involves all of their people. Unfortunately, there are a number of governments—I’m not going to exclude the United States—that serve a small segment of financial elites. And when governments are structured like that, it makes sense within that calculus to focus on exports that ultimately enrich the elites who participate in the global financial system in a certain way—but that don’t improve the lot of the majority of the people in that country. We still have ag policies like that in a lot of the world.

However, as we’ve recently seen in India, Maestro Xolo and his movement are not alone in building mass popular uprisings against those policies in order to force government to move in the direction of agroecology and farming policies that are about serving the food sovereignty of communities within the country.

You write about Olivia Watkins, a young Black woman with a passion for regenerative ag, who took over her grandparents’ farm in North Carolina. But, as you discuss in your conclusion, most BIPOC farmers don’t have access to land. You introduce some fairly radical models for accessing farmland. Which of those do you think are the most viable? 

I got really excited about two land justice projects: The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust and Minnow in California.

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The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust has brought two existing models of land trusts together. They have a land access model that stipulates how that land will and will not be managed. What’s new, though, is they want land to serve a variety of purposes at once.

Both groups include Indigenous governance from the beginning. So before acquiring a piece of land, putting an encumbrance on its title [specifying how the land will and won’t be used], they consult the Indigenous community that lived on this land. There’s a series of conversations about [what they want] and there’s an arrangement for Indigenous management on that land that will coexist with farmers of color raising food on that land.

“There’s this understanding at the core of both organizations, that fundamentally, land is a relation. Fundamentally, it is not property. So, while both organizations are using existing property law, they also have a long-term vision to transcend that property formation. Multiple people will be accessing the land, different kinds of regenerative activities will be happening on it, and they’ll be developing collective business models and cooperatives. There’s this shared understanding that, as Minnow puts it, “the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land.”

Minnow is doing a launch this year. Co-founders Neil Thapar and Mai Nguyen brought on two teammates this fall and now they’re poised to present themselves to the world. Their first client is Pixca Farm in San Diego.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act would provide land grants of up to 160 acres for both current and future Black farmers. Do you think it has a chance of passing? 

I don’t think it’ll pass. But pieces of it are going to get picked up—if they are politically viable—in some larger package that is moving. For example, the debt relief got picked up and shoved into the pandemic relief bill.

When Booker and the other senators were putting that bill together, a bunch of Soul Fire Farm people were in the room. They had no idea that there was going to be a global pandemic. They wouldn’t have had any reason to expect that they’d have a snowball’s chance in hell! Then the pandemic happened and there was debt relief on a large scale. So, I think it’s smart for people put out prefigurative policy.

The fact that all these senators are putting it out there and saying, “We think this is good policy” elevated serious land reform to a level that it has not been in a long time. If you don’t move the bar higher, then the possibility space remains limited. A lot of things become imaginable now at the state level. Hopefully that emboldened Rhode Island to reserve some land for Somali refugees or Indigenous folks. They can take their policy and improve it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hannah Wallace writes about food politics, regenerative agriculture, wine, cannabis, and travel for a wide variety of publications including Bloomberg, Conde Nast Traveler, Inc., Food & Wine, The New York Times, Reasons to be Cheerful, Portland Monthly, Vogue, and Wired. She has been a regular contributor to Civil Eats since its founding in 2009. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Kimberly Gleason
    This is the conversation everyone should be having.
  2. Bw
    Choosing one racial segment over another for public expenditure is not a unbiased approach for unbiased market results. This causes politics to rear it's inefficient ugly head. Policy should be color blind to achieve the best environmental outcomes. Reward the farmers who achieve the goals and outcomes not their race.

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