On Soil

Nov 13, 2018

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What if we’re standing right on top of the answer to global warming? Unsustainable agricultural practices have a massive effect on the health of our planet, with land degradation now undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people. But by repairing the soil through regenerative farming, we can not only improve the quality of our food, but also sequester carbon. Tune in for an educational, motivational conversation with Ryland Engelhart, vegan restaurant owner and co-founder of Kiss The Ground, a non-profit that advocates for the connection between soil, human, and planetary health.


Jeff: First, help us frame the problem. We have global warming, why? What's going on?

Ryland: Yeah, what's going on? For just easy understanding, human beings have put too much carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that is creating a warming effect. when things start to heat up, you start to have these more frequent storms, fires, the poles melting, oceans rising.

Probably, maybe the most urgent and scary is that we have over 405 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is already too much.

Jeff: That's when we get serious about the problem, right? We're crisis-driven. We've got a climate system that's creating sea level rise, ocean acidification, drafts. Because we have bigger evaporation of water, you're starting to see storms like Florence that we just had. Like the wettest storm or the second wettest storm of all time. You're seeing desertification. First, help us frame the problem. We have global warming, why? What's going on?

Ryland: Yeah, what's going on? For just easy understanding, human beings have put too much carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that is creating a warming effect. when things start to heat up, you start to have these more frequent storms, fires, the poles melting, oceans rising.

Probably, maybe the most urgent and scary is that we have over 405 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is already too much.

Jeff: That's when we get serious about the problem, right? We're crisis-driven. We've got a climate system that's creating sea level rise, ocean acidification, drafts. Because we have bigger evaporation of water, you're starting to see storms like Florence that we just had. Like the wettest storm or the second wettest storm of all time. You're seeing desertification.

Ryland: Yeah, desertification maybe one of the most. You look at a NASA map of what the world looks like and it's the majority dessert. I mean, it's super and manmade, the majority of it.

Jeff: Right. So, with the epicness of the problem, you had an ah-ha moment around what could be the solution to this problem. Can you tell me about that?

Ryland: Yes. I was in New Zealand about six years ago a healthy living conference. I went there to teach them some stuff that I was going to bring from California. I was going to tell them about sustainable business, and you know, what we do at Café Gratitude, and how we're so great, you know, how we have these principles, and we clear our employee's so they're present, and we use compostable cornstarch cups, and all this stuff. I thought I was going to share something.

I ended up in a panel discussion in the audience listening to six scientists speak. Five out of the six said it's dire. It's really dire. Most people are not telling you the truth because it's hard to get people to fund initiatives when it's too far gone. The sixth person who spoke was a guy by the came of Graham [inaudible]. He said, what these last five people have said is accurate and there's been a big blind spot in the climate change equation. That is the thing right beneath our feet and that is soil and that we don't more carbon now than we did at one point, you know, a million years ago. It's just a matter of balance and a matter of where that carbon is located.

In the same way that 500-million years ago, there was so much carbon in the atmosphere and the planet was totally unlivable, and there was no plants on land. As plants came out of the ocean on to the land and started to through photosynthesis started to pull that carbon into creating plants, and then turned that carbon into that biomass, and then into what we know as soil. Actually, that process of photosynthesis is the very thing that cooled the planet, or stabilized the climate, and made it a livable planet for life as we know it, to happen.

This happened over millions of years. But, that's to say the system of photosynthesis, and plants, trees, and soil being the great mechanism to cool the planet was revealed to me in that conversation.

And to seeing for the first time, what I heard this guy say was, so you're telling me that the promises or the opportunity is that we can create a food system that makes food healthy, makes the ecosystem healthy, and we can feed people that food, and while doing it, they can feel a part of solving the greatest challenge that we feel most apathetic about, simultaneously? You're kidding me. That's an amazing ... I was just like, that's crazy. That can't be true.

I mean, literally in my heart, I had this experience. This like, you know, as they say, spiritual ah-ha moment where I felt in my heart, this was true, real, and possible. I could feel from the truth in my heart, I could feel the expansion, and the cascade all the way out to that realization being felt, and realized, and understood by the collective understanding. I just and in my heart, I knew that I was tasked with, your job is to have this story, this new narrative, this new opportunity to emerge.

I came back to Los Angeles after that and I started sharing that with everyone I knew. No one, almost no one that I spoke to at this time, this was six or seven years ago, had ever heard even the idea of carbon sequestration. The idea of storing excess carbon in the soil. The idea of using agricultural to be a system for reversing climate change.

Jeff: Right. I think what you're saying is there's the same amount of carbon, globally. But, essentially, we just mined it out of the ground with fossil fuels, and we just redistributed, or misdistributed that carbon into other places, into the atmosphere, and into the ocean. Is that right?

Ryland: That's right.

Jeff: What you're saying is, let's just put it back in the ground?

Ryland: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, using mother nature. Using the beautiful wisdom or what we like to say, 500-million years of research and development, the best technology ever, and work within that technology. Yeah, cool the planet while we feed and nourish ourselves.

Jeff: Right. To put it back in the ground, you need to begin to institute regenerative farming practices. What are the core ... what does that mean? What do you do?

If you look at a tree, there's a tree right outside here, right? Where do you think that mass of that tree comes from?

Jeff: Well, it came from a seed.

Ryland: But, where did that mass come from? There's a mass of that.

Jeff: It grew from the root.

Ryland: Yeah, most people would say it came from the soil. Like, the tree extracts what it extracts from the soil, and the becomes a tree. Actually, the truth is, all the carbon, which the mass of that tree is made from carbon, call that carbon came from thin air. None of it came from the soil.

Jeff: Wow, yeah.

Ryland: Most people...I didn't get that. I didn't know. I didn't get that.

Jeff: No, I mean, you got me.

Ryland: Yeah, the carbon that makes up plants, trees, all comes from thin air and we knew that. You know, obviously, some people knew that, but what most people didn't know is well, we know that photosynthesis takes place, it grabs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere synthesis takes place, it grabs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it gives us oxygen to breathe, and that's a great thing, but what we didn't understand until relatively recently is that all the carbon that planter tree captures, it shares about 30 to 60 percent of that carbon as carbon sugars, or carbohydrates.

It sends it into the roots and feeds microorganisms, and those microorganisms eat that carbon sugar in exchange for minerals that they've pulled out of the soil and then they feed that planter tree. And that's called "the big exchange." And when that exchange takes place, that's what we like to say, "Voila, carbon moved. It went from the atmosphere into the soil, and it's stored." And it can be stored there, if we manage the soil properly for hundreds, even thousands of years.

There's a really brilliant scene in the Kiss the Ground film that shows a NASA map of the world, and showing the carbon levels, and basically in the wintertime in the northern hemisphere, when things start to die and green starts to degrade, you see these reds and purples, because there's a lot more carbon going into the atmosphere. And then in the springtime ... And actually, it even gets worse in early, early spring when in America they're tilling the soil, and you see just plumes of the dark colors of excess carbon. And then in spring, all that plant life starts to emerge, and all that carbon starts to come down. You see, wow, you see mother Earth taking an inhale through that sequestration, and that soil is then brought back down into the earth. But the problem is, because of our farming systems, we're releasing that carbon year after year, and more and more is being exposed, even though in the springtime it is coming back down. But in technical terms, once that carbon is stored in that soil, there is no time limit for ... Essentially that's now where it lives, and if it's in a system ... One of the tenets of regenerative agriculture is moving to a more perennial based agriculture, where perennials are foods that grow on bushes, vines, and trees, so that you're not needing to till, and expose, and break open that soil again.

Jeff: Yeah, so how does that differ from this traditional farm that we have in our minds, of this tilled soil and these perfect rows that's producing these mass mono crops?

Ryland: Yeah, the difference is,we've tried to make agriculture a machine, and agriculture is working with nature, and nature is not a machine. But essentially we've said, "Okay, you have soil, this is a very complex system of exchanges and flows," and we've said, "All right, no, we're not going to use that system, we're just going to put chemicals in the soil. We're going to plant one kind of crop, and we're going to do that year after year after year, because it's the most efficient way to do it." It works. You know, the green revolution, while misnamed, it worked. We produced tons of food, tons of cheap food, so there was an opportunity on one hand in that system. But the unintended consequences are the degradation of the ecosystem that all of our life relies on. So the question becomes, "Yes, we're feeding people today cheaply, but if the United Nations statistic is true, that we have 60 crops left on planet Earth, on our agricultural soils, until there is no more topsoil to be able to produce food, clearly that cheap efficient system is not a good system." So essentially the question was, "How do they differ?"

One is, you're often times growing one or three crops on a plot of land, mostly corn and soy in this country, and you're just inputting synthetic fertilizer, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, MPK, and then as the soil gets less healthy, then you have more pest pressure from pests that want to take out weak plants in the system. So then you need to use more herbicides, more pesticides, and the system just compresses and compresses, and the amount of chemicals over the last 30 years has just ramped up, ramped up, ramped up, because they're no longer producing the results. So you basically have farmers in this feedback loop, of they need more land, more chemicals, less profit, and on and on and on, and the ecosystem that they're responsible for just becomes more and more of a shadow, or a shell of life.

Jeff: So you have this picture of traditional farming, which is essentially mono crops, pesticide use, tilling, all of the elements that lead to soil degradation. And then on the other hand, you have this alternative, which is more a bio dynamic ecosystem.

Ryland: Yeah, as you build your soil, it's not about how much water can fall. It's about how much water you can retain. On a traditional farm in America it takes an average, I think a half hour, to infiltrate a half of an inch into the soil, whereas on some Allen Williams regenerative ranch, he's able to infiltrate in four seconds. So for every one percent soil organic matter per acre, you can hold 20 thousand more gallons of water on that acre of land.

Jeff: And that's because when the water falls in a "traditional" farm, it doesn't permeate the ground. Or it essentially runs off into ...

Ryland: Yes, it runs off into the rivers, lakes, and then the lagoons it creates, and then that's bringing our precious topsoil, it's also bringing the farming chemicals into another ecosystem that doesn't do well with those farming chemicals. So yeah, it's just a complete lose lose situation. And the other cool fact that can get people's head around ... who has a Brita filter? We've all had a Brita filter at some time in our life, and that's a carbon filter. When you have a high carbon content in your soil, even if there's chemicals, that becomes actually a filter, so that water can actually filter through that soil and actually replenish our water aquifers, and actually we can replenish our groundwater when we have plots of land where we've managed and taken care of our soil. So the ecosystem services and benefits are just so great. Even if it had nothing to do with climate change, the ecosystem services of regenerative agriculture are such a win, including the economic enhancement for farmers.

Jeff: Right, I mean, it's tripling yields in some cases.

Ryland: Yeah. Our dear friend and mentor, and star of the film Kiss the Ground that's coming out in 2019, Gabe Brown, in his farming model he's able to make 300 times more per acre than an average American farmer, because he's diversified his crops. So he's not just depending on corn and soy prices, if the commodities goes up a little or down, he doesn't care because he's diversified his income, and so those commodities can go up or down, and he's got a resilient diverse system that's going to be highly more profitable, not depending on the commodity prices.

Jeff: Yeah. And so what role do animals play in a regenerative system?

Ryland: Rudolf Steiner, who is the godfather of biodynamics and Waldorf education, and he was quite a philosopher and mystic, what he said basically, I'm paraphrasing, is, "A farm is not a farm without a cow, because if we want a farm to act like nature and have the resiliency and the abundance of nature, it has to have animals in nature, because nature has always had animals as part of that bigger web of life." And so if we want a farm that mimics the beauty and the brilliance of nature, we have to have the ecosystem services of those animals, and the cow is ... it could be other grass eating animals, but basically, one of the big things that I didn't know, is that the way that the great grasslands of this planet evolved, co evolved, with bovines and grass eating animals.

So if you just kind of blocked off an acre of grassland and eliminated any animals from grazing on that, and allow nature, the so called nature, to deal with it without animals, that system would slowly degrade over time and desertify, that actually there is this mutual symbiotic relationship of grassland and grass eating bovine animals, and they actually depend on each other to survive.

Jeff: In some of the regenerative farms that I've gone to, what I've witnessed is let's say you have these orchards that are growing, you have full ground cover, so essentially the soil is not tilled, and then you're creating these sort of paddocks where cows can essentially graze. They're eating the grass, they're pooping, they're creating essentially natural compost. There's worms and other kinds of insects and bugs that infiltrate the poop.

I've even seen rotating little chicken coops, and then let the chickens come out that love to eat the worms and the bugs, but they peck at the manure and essentially spread it. And then all of a sudden you have this incredibly rich soil, from which trees and plants can grow. And then essentially you're moving that paddock to the next area. Is that a pretty fair understanding?

Ryland: Yeah. That's an absolutely great picture of a regenerative system, of using and working with the natural functions of animals in ecosystems, and rotating them through the system in a way that they would naturally move through a system in nature, and often times being moved by predators. There's a really beautiful four minute video called How Wolves Change Rivers. Essentially it shows the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, and in six, seven years, there just becomes this, what they call a trophic cascade, where when one keystone species in the system is behaving in its rightful way, it kicks this kind of expeditious life giving force all the way down through the system. And even though the wolves are killing some of the deer, but they actually start moving them so they're not just hanging out in one area-

Jeff: Eating all the grass, right.

Ryland: ...and decimating one clover that they like so much. They're actually being moved around, and so their little bit of impact actually stimulates impact and creates growth, opposed to their overgrazing impact creates desertification.

Jeff: So this shift to a new kind of farming cannot only have incredibly positive ramifications on the environment and sequestering carbon, but it also can increase yield and be an economic boon for farmers. So then, if that's true, what is the challenge, or how do we help to essentially create this transition from traditional farming to regenerative farming?

Ryland: I literally am having a new insight about this, in this now moment, which the way that young millennials see business, and business for good, and B corporations and that whole thing, and that's what lights them up, and business just for the bottom line that decimates ... that's no longer a thing that people want. If we can plant the right seed and visually communicate the opportunity with agriculture, we can create in the same way that young people are so drawn to entrepreneurship and business for good, seeing this as even a more basic and more opportunity to serve the greater whole by being great stewards of our land, feeding communities, and also being the cavalry that save the day and cooled the planet.

And so that, I just saw that for the first time as far as just in the way that young people are seeing business, and how fun it is to make it more dynamically, socially and environmentally relevant. Seeing agriculture in this new lens of there's this whole new sector of opportunity that could be, can be so meaningful on so many levels, and be an attractive way for millions of people to want to live their lives in service to feeding people, and also cooling the planet, like I said.

Jeff: Yeah. I mean, you gave me an amazing statistic earlier that the average age of the American farmer is in the mid-60s, right?

Ryland: Yep.

Jeff: So if you could harness what you said as sort of the entrepreneurial spirit of the next big generation, the millennial generation, to see their impact generationally as tied to regenerative farming, which can lead to an incredible, fruitful career that gives so much back to you, but that also can tackle the world's greatest problem. I mean, that's a pretty exciting proposition.

Ryland: And the exciting thing is it's not like going back to the stone ages. No, it's like seeing with drones your impact of your working with an ecosystem, and you're able to see that you're bringing death back to life. I don't know anything more fundamentally inspiring than being a human being that gets to work inside of an environment, and you see your hand print actually creating more life, more fertility, more vitality, more biodiversity showing up.

At the deepest level of meaning, and contribution, and service, and feeling good about yourself, there's something so intrinsically right about that that I feel is possible. Call me a lunatic, optimistic, but I'm inspired. I just think, yeah, this is the call.

Jeff: This is the call. So let's say you, one, is really passionate about creating impact in their environment, but they're not going to be a farmer.

Ryland: Yeah.

Jeff: Paul Hawkin, who I know is a friend of yours, was on the show. He kind of has this thing of like this is not something that's happening to us. We are active participants, or we can be active participants in this issue. So what's the best way to do that if you're not going to go out and start a farm?

Ryland: Yeah. I mean, it's a big ... It's big. But obviously, to change and make shifts in your life, I'd say you probably need a little bit more evidence and information to have the conviction to bring new practices and a new pathway into your life. We have an amazing book that Josh Tickell wrote, inspired by our organization, and 50% of the profits go back to the organization, Kiss the Ground. But that book really gives us a deep, deep, human, easy to understand relationship to this topic and the opportunity of it. So getting more informed about the potential of regeneration, that's one thing.

We are a propaganda ... It sounds like a negative word, but we are a propaganda company for this idea of regeneration, that sustainability is a broken or ... It's not an inspiring call for the future. Do you want to just sustain your marriage, or sustain your relationship with your kids? No, you want to bring vitality, regeneration, newness, aliveness. You want to continue to create it. So what you can do? We have a speaker training course where we train people all over the world to be an advocate and spokesperson for this mission but also for Kiss the Ground, and we give you all the beautiful assets so you can communicate a great presentation. It's a six week course. If you're in L.A., you can do it here, but you can do it online, and-

Jeff: You're creating "cropagandists."

Ryland: "Cropagandists." Yes. Yes. So, yeah, educate yourself. We're putting out a film early 2019 called Kiss the Ground, which is, again, showing some of the best models and examples of regenerative agriculture. We're working on a farmland. We're co-producing an online farmer training.

Right now in Los Angeles, there are multiple restaurants that are supporting our farmland program, which is essentially a restaurant has an item that talks about the promise of regenerative agriculture, like at Café Gratitude, or my sister's restaurant, Sage, and one of the ingredients in that dish comes from a regenerative system, and then two dollars from every other dish sold goes to a training fund to farmers in how to build their soil back.

So it's a cool way that an individual can ...Because where we want to get to is that there's brands, companies, foods, restaurants that are saying, "We're sourcing," but, again, we're at the tip of the spear, and this is the very beginning. And why I'm madly optimistic and excited is because I got to see in the birth of Café Gratitude ... I remember serving cold brew coffee and that was not a word, and now I was on my way here, and I see 7-11 cold brew coffee, and I'm like, "That's amazing!" That's a win.

Jeff: I had the same feeling, similar, with Wanderlust. Ten years ago, this idea of the millennial yogi on a mountain doing warrior pose didn't really exist, and then I see it on the side of a bus for an advertisement for like a-

Ryland: Kaiser Permanente.

Jeff: I'm like, all right.

Ryland: We're in there!

Jeff: We did something.

Ryland: Totally, yeah.

Jeff: Well, God bless you for being on the tip of the spear, and for all that you and your family has done to advance health and this mission of really trying to change the arc of history towards a better day. So thank you, Ryland.

Ryland: It's my pleasure. It's really been a joy to spend the afternoon with you, and have lunch with you, and get passionate about this on this podcast with you. Thank you.

Jeff Krasno: That’s our show for today! To learn more about regenerative farming practices, check out Kiss the Ground on Facebook and Instagram. Thanks for listening! Subscribe for new episodes every Tuesday of the Commune podcast, where we explore the ideas, values, and practices that bring is together, and help us life healthy, fulfilled lives. I’m Jeff Krasno, and I’ll see you next week.

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