A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture
By Stephanie Anderson
I’m in western South Dakota, rolling across the prairie in a blue 1970s-era pickup truck, when I first see them. Buffalo—faraway brown dots on a hillside that become massive bodies outside the passenger window as we approach them, their faces accented with beards and curved black horns. They are primeval, ancient, mammothlike. They have a wise look about them, but also a wildness, as when they flash the whites of their eyes, spin around, and gallop off, showing us they’ll never be completely tamed.
“Sustainable” has long been the rallying cry of agricultural progressives; given that much of our nation’s farm and ranch land is already degraded, however, sustainable agriculture often means maintaining a less-than-ideal status quo. Industrial agriculture has also co-opted the term for marketing purposes without implementing better practices. Stephanie Anderson argues that in order to provide nutrient-rich food and fight climate change, we need to move beyond sustainable to regenerative agriculture, a practice that is highly tailored to local environments and renews resources.
I’m at Great Plains Buffalo Company, a ranch where Phil and Jill Jerde and their children raise more than a thousand grass-fed buffalo. These buffalo will eventually be slaughtered, providing consumers with meat, but they are much more than food sources. They are the keepers of this grassland. With their hooves they aerate the soil and push seeds into it. With their waste they fertilize it. Through their grazing habits they encourage the growth of grass instead of woody plants. They maintain symbiotic relationships with birds and insects. They make the prairie function in a way it hasn’t since their ancestors walked it, before we converted the Great Plains to corn and soybeans.
The buffalo show us what the prairie once was and how humans have changed it—to some, destroyed it—and this in turn is a reminder of all the landscapes we’ve changed. “Wrong side up,” said a Sioux who watched a white sodbuster rip the grassland open with a plow. The Native Americans knew why soil was best left undisturbed: roots, 25 miles of them in a single square yard of prairie turf just four inches deep, held the soil in place, had done so for thousands of years. With a single plow swipe the settlers set it free to blow. Result: the Dust Bowl. Later result: desertification turning the Great Plains into a desert. Less than 4 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains, and those defiant acres are rigorously protected. Still, it is feasible that the tallgrass prairie could be gone before I die. A human being’s lifespan is roughly how long it took to destroy 96 percent of it, which does not bode well for the last 4.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The buffalo before me represent a new agriculture that can help restore the prairie and other landscapes without sacrificing the amount of food produced. These animals show us that there are many ways to farm and ranch, that we can change how we define those terms, that we can reverse the damage we have done and create a better agricultural future. The buffalo are walking, breathing proof that human beings do not have to destroy the earth in order to eat.
Years ago, I would not have seen the buffalo as keepers of the range. I grew up about 20 miles from Great Plains Buffalo on a conventional ranch outside of Bison, South Dakota, where my parents raise cattle, wheat, corn, and hay. Had I not discovered a love for writing that drew me to college, I probably would have stayed there the rest of my life, working alongside my father until I could start my own operation. I’m serious about this.
Even now, more than ten years after graduating from high school, my “if I had all the money in the world” plan is to buy a ranch somewhere, raise cattle and horses, and write. The ranch I’d run today, though, would be nothing like the ranch my parents run.
We’re longtime pals, my father and I. I don’t know how many pictures my mother took of me as a kid sitting on his lap in a tractor or in a pickup truck or on an ATV (we call them four-wheelers in South Dakota).
Blonde, brown-eyed little me, all smiles, usually gripping the steering wheel pretending to drive, leaning against Dad with his shaggy brown hair, big 1980s glasses, and baseball cap with a cow graphic printed on the front. He taught me to drive a stick-shift pickup at nine, a tractor at 12, and a swather (a hay-cutting machine) at 14. I rode horses on cattle drives and rose before sunrise during calving season to check the pregnant heifers. He taught me almost everything he knows about farming and ranching, lessons I now consider somewhat dubious because, if I wrote them down, they’d form a book on how to farm conventionally, which is also to say industrially.
My dad and I are still pals, don’t get me wrong. We just disagree on almost everything about agriculture, though we don’t talk much about that. Still, it’s a significant rift considering my father’s life is the farm. This is not hyperbole. All my father knows is the ranch; he was in his late 50s before he flew on a commercial airplane or waded into the ocean.
He seldom meets up with fellow farmers for a beer, and he has not a single hobby. He rarely visits his grown children in their far-flung city apartments. He reads mostly farm-related news, and he did not attend college. I respect his salt-of-the-earth personality, his dedication to his trade, and his strong work ethic, and I know his world is small because he likes it that way. My father doesn’t do much besides farming because he simply doesn’t want to. That’s how much he loves it.
So having his daughter call the type of agriculture he practices into question is a big deal. I’m not trying to embarrass, hurt, or accuse him or anyone who practices conventional agriculture. Quite the opposite. I wrote this book because most conventional farmers and ranchers are good people trapped in a bad system. I believe that beyond a doubt. I respect my father and others like him too much to simply write them off. I’m deeply concerned about their future, because it is my future and yours, too—the world’s future for that matter, since the decisions farmers make affect global markets, landscapes, and climates. If we continue farming industrially, then we’ll ruin our planet. But if farmers change their practices, we can dramatically increase the odds of reversing climate change. It’s time to have a serious discussion about which option they will choose—and that conversation won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible.
I worked for a farm-and-ranch newspaper in Sioux Falls right out of college. The biweekly had a total writing staff of two, myself included, so I covered the big stuff right away: the closing of the Sioux Falls Stockyards, the annual Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, four state fairs, freezes, floods, and the status of the corn harvest. Some people scoffed at my job—You write about cows? And corn?—which only increased my “I’ll show ’em” attitude. Before long I was promoted to special sections editor. And I got to wear jeans and cowboy boots to work, an undeniable plus.
I was 21 and naïve, a good little worker bee, born and bred to believe American agriculture was sacred. My writing, I thought, was a beacon of truth in the lies being spread about farming by the liberal media and the tree-hugging hippies in places like California and New York City. I felt a sense of honor in protecting the farmer and rancher, my heroes, from slander. I sought the facts, which in my mind were as follows: U.S. farmers nobly feed the world by producing nutritious food, protecting the environment, and keeping their rural communities alive.
I believed what my sources told me, because my sources were land-grant university professors and state agriculture officials, scientists and county extension service specialists, people my journalism professors had taught me to seek out. Unbiased people, or so I thought. My sources were also farmers and ranchers like my parents, people whose families had farmed the same ground for generations. Good people.
Some stories were harmless, such as profiles of teenage Future Farmers of America state officers. Other stories were less innocent. I wrote on the benefits of genetically modified corn varieties and the latest and greatest machines able to plow, plant, spray, and harvest in record time. I did an especially troubling story about how consumers needn’t worry about antibiotic residues in ethanol by-products that are fed to livestock all over the nation. I kept interviewing “family farmers” on “family farms.” But I grew increasingly uncomfortable. The tractors, fields, livestock herds, dairies, farm buildings—everything was super-sized, way bigger than what my father and most of our neighbors had. I toured concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOS for short, where the cattle looked miserable, and megadairies with sophisticated stainless-steel machines that sucked the milk right out of the udders. I watched massive sprayers douse fields with chemicals. The more I learned about how these farms operated, the more shame and confusion I felt.
I suppose most people have a moment when they realize something they’ve believed all their life is wrong. For a long time I believed that farmers and ranchers were stewards of the land and that they acted differently than corporate or industrial farms. Now I see that I was part of a powerful agribusiness system glorifying the “progress” of conventional agriculture, a model in which the farm is treated as a factory, industrial farming packaged to look like family farming. My time at the newspaper revealed that everything I thought I knew about farming and food was a lie.
I quit the job at Tri-State Neighbor after a year, not only because of my altered perspective but also because I wanted an adventure. I moved to Florida and, a few years later, enrolled in Florida Atlantic University’s master’s program in creative nonfiction. Agriculture was still bothering me, and it showed in my writing: I produced stories set on ranches, elaborate descriptions of cows, a strange tale about a blizzard that kills thousands of livestock. People in Florida asked me about the ranch back in South Dakota and I never knew quite what to say. I didn’t know how to talk about agriculture anymore. All I had were questions: What might a better version of agriculture look like? Are people already doing it, and how might their disparate efforts create a whole, a national conception of what farms should strive to do and how they should think? Is it feasible for conventional farmers and ranchers to switch to something more sustainable? What philosophies should we reject, and what ideas should we hold dear?
When it came time to select a topic for my graduate thesis, I knew exactly what I had to do: answer the questions. Through extensive research I came to understand the concepts behind regenerative agriculture, but I couldn’t visualize them. I had to see them in action, so I traveled to five farms and ranches as part of my quest. I wanted to know what ideas might apply to all farms and how they could be tailored to fit individual environments. On another level I was searching for something very specific: a model for my family’s ranch. I needed to know whether we had a place in this better agricultural future.
Because my father believes we probably don’t. I can’t number the times he’s said, “It’s too late for us.” By this he means it’s too late for our ranch to stop being the conventional, industrial operation it is. It’s too late for regenerative agriculture. I understand why he believes this. Our farm is big, far too much for him and my brother to handle. He owns a fleet of industrial-sized equipment and has invested all his resources in growing just two cash crops: wheat and cattle. He depends on chemicals and fertilizers and on fattening cattle in a feedlot. He’s beholden to operating notes—practically everyone who farms conventionally is. He’s afraid that switching to a new system will mean bankruptcy and learning how to farm all over again. This is a fear he shares with people around the world, not just other farmers. What if we try to create a better agriculture and fail?
If I’ve discovered one thing from the farmers and ranchers in my research, however, it’s this: it is never too late to change. Two of them converted existing conventional operations to regenerative ones. Two others entered farming at middle age, starting from scratch with no experience. People like this show us change is always possible, and it’s not as hard as we think.
The changes described in One Size Fits None are not revolutionary or new. They are about returning to time-tested philosophies and perspectives about growing food and reimagining them for the modern world.
One argument of One Size Fits None is this: it is time for agriculture to go beyond “sustainable,” the food and farming buzzword of the last decade. “Sustainable” has long been the battle cry of books and blogs, and in theory the term means agriculture that returns the resources it takes from the earth, whether through biological practices or careful use of nonrenewables. But the farmers and ranchers I interviewed say this “give back what you take” approach does not do enough to restore soil health, recharge grasslands, fend off desertification, or provide nutrient-rich food for consumers.
That is what Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer, told me as we bounced over a field in his Polaris Ranger on our way to see some soils. “That’s the cliché word; everybody wants to be sustainable,” he said. “But why do you want to sustain a degraded resource? We need to be regenerative. If we are going to have healthy food and healthy soils for the next generation, and generations to follow, we’ve got to build our soils back.” Given that much of our nation’s farm and ranch land is already degraded, sustainable agriculture often means maintaining a less-than-ideal status quo. Industrial agriculture has also co-opted the term for marketing purposes without implementing better farming and animal production practices. Even Monsanto, the company that first created genetically modified crops and sells dozens of harmful agrochemicals, claims to be “a sustainable agriculture company” and produces an annual sustainability report. Unfortunately many “sustainable” farms and ranches are just large-scale conventional operations in disguise. Regenerative agriculture, in contrast, creates new life and resources—and it is already leading the next wave of green food production.
Such agriculture only works, however, when farmers tailor its implementation to their local environment. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in practicing it, and that’s another argument here. We have used a one-size model for the last 60 years, which is the “get big or get out,” input-focused philosophy known as conventional agriculture. As we continue the transition away from conventional farming, we must be careful not to think of regenerative agriculture as a specific set of practices or rules. We need to avoid the one-size-fits-all thinking that got us into trouble and instead embrace the idea that one size fits none. Even large-scale farms, so often vilified, can play a role in the new regenerative agriculture, as can super-small urban farms. Midsize farms, however, will likely be the backbone of a regenerative agricultural system.
I turn to farmers and ranchers for evidence. Meet Ryan Roth, a conventional vegetable and sugarcane farmer in Florida whose story reveals how producers became mired in the conventional system in the first place, to the detriment of their finances, the environment, and their communities. This section of One Size Fits All explains why conventional agriculture is no longer feasible, even when combined with sustainable practices. Meet Phil Jerde, the South Dakota buffalo rancher using a form of regenerative agriculture called holistic management and an unexpected animal, the buffalo, to restore native prairie and provide an alternative to the industrial feedlot. Phil proves that livestock are the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture in many environments and that, in some cases, large-scale farms actually work. From there, Kevin O’Dare of Florida and Fidel Gonzalez of New Mexico show how regenerative agriculture that is organic, local, and urban can revitalize communities.
Kevin and Fidel also highlight the positive role of super-small farmers who defy the conventional logic of “get big or get out” and have the unique ability to feed their neighbors. Finally, midsize farmer Gabe Brown combines livestock and grain farming to revive soil, heal grassland, feed the local community, and bring back wildlife—regenerative agriculture in diversified form. Gabe also trains the next generation of farmers through his internship program, and he spends half the year on a speaking tour spreading the word about regenerative agriculture. These farmers tailor their operations to their specific environments and goals, proving that, when it comes to regenerative agriculture, one size fits none—an approach that offers more life-giving benefits for the consumer, land, livestock, community, and farmer than sustainable agriculture does in its current form.
I captured a roughly one-year span in these farmers’ lives through on-farm visits supplemented with follow-up interviews via email and over the phone. I also learned the history of their operations. Since those conversations several years ago, they have made changes, expansions, and improvements. Due to the nature of book publishing, it’s impossible to have an up-to-the-minute picture of anyone’s life—but what is included in One Size Fits All is what I saw during my time with them, and their stories are as authentic now as they were then.
All this brings me back to the buffalo.
As I watch the animals graze, I imagine that I’m on the prairie of old, before white settlers arrived, when buffalo marched in herds thousands strong. They remind me that nearly extinct things can be resurrected. We can make these resurrected things new, retool them for a different time, as Phil has with his herd. The buffalo also call us to remember what we’ve forgotten, and they promise that if we do we can recover some of what we’ve lost.
They are all this, yet more—they are a symbol for the future. They represent the variety we need in our diets and our agriculture, the end of monocultures and the revival of diversity. They stand for the use of ecosystems, not chemical solutions, to grow food. They remind us of the tools nature provides, tools that are free and regenerative. Buffalo almost disappeared from the earth because we wanted to farm the prairie they lived on. Now the buffalo gazing at me through the pickup window embody an agricultural change that’s already started.
Stephanie Anderson is a writer living in Boca Raton, Florida. She holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University, where she currently serves as an instructor of English. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Pinch, Hotel Amerika, Midwestern Gothic, Grist Journal, The Chronicle Review, Sweet,and others. Her debut book One Size Fits None appeared with University of Nebraska Press in January.