Know Thy Farmer

Connecting to where your food comes from is the first piece to protecting the planet— and your health.

Their names are Ben and Karah. And they grow my food.

I shake hands with and hug them on most Sundays when I visit the farmer’s market in my town.

Sometimes I drive out to see Ben and Karah on their farm just outside of town where I pre-order and pick up my food for the week. I walk the farm. I take it in. The pastures, bull calves grazing in the distance, Ben and Karah’s children running down the lane. I duck into a hightunnel greenhouse to see the purple kale variety bursting through the soil in the middle of January (yes, with the right farming practices, you can grow fresh green vegetables in the dead of winter in the soil in Pennsylvania). The same kale that I will sauté for dinner that evening.

This is my spiritual practice.

In 1989, Robert Rodale penned the Seven Tendencies Towards Regeneration, the founding

principles for what is now a burgeoning movement called regenerative agriculture. The second tendency that he wrote about is the idea of Protection.

The idea that Rodale offered to us is that regenerative agriculture biologically creates more surface cover for plants, ending erosion and increasing beneficial microbial populations near the surface of the soil where plants grow. Thus, offering the plants protection.

But what do beneficial microbial populations have to do with protection?

When the soil microbiome is healthy and in balance, it directly, positively, impacts the health of the plants that grow in it and protects them from drought or pests, for example. It can shove out pathogens trying to attack plants, produce toxins to kill them off and trigger the plants to defend themselves. Amazing, right?

Rodale went on to assert that the benefits of regenerative agriculture apply to our own bodies too. He stated that by us embracing a regenerative agricultural system, we will see “an improvement of personal hardiness and an ability to withstand crisis, accompanied by a boost in the body’s immune system”.

How is that possible? What does farming have to do with my immune system anyway?

Healthy soil enables plants to secrete compounds to feed nearby microbes, and, in exchange, the microbes enable plants to capture essential nutrients and manufacture a series of chemicals called phytonutrients or antioxidants.

These chemicals protect plants from pests and other stressors; they also give fruits and vegetables their color, smell, and distinctive flavor. Research shows that these same chemicals directly benefit us by stimulating our immune system, regulating our hormones, and slowing the growth of human cancer cells, and ultimately keeping us healthy.

Perhaps most significantly, Rodale suggested that this same Protection applies to the vitality of our economic system too. The more that society embraces regenerative agriculture, “the more resistance to economic and cultural fluctuations that we will experience because of quantity and variety of businesses and people, which increases overall employment and community stability”.

Huh? What does regenerative organic farming have to do with the economy?

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) released a study identifying “organic hotspots” in the United States, counties that have high levels of organic agricultural activity and are surrounded by similarly highly concentrated organic counties.

According to the study, the poverty rate for an organic hotspot drops significantly. The study also found that median income rises by US$2,000 in those counties. The study suggests that organic operations might hire more local labor, encourage shorter supply chains, and even spur growth as part of the “creative economy” of entrepreneurship.

Thus, our economic prosperity begins in the soil.

Protection for the soil. Protection for the plant.

Protection for the human. Protection for the community.

Protection for the planet.

This is regenerative organic agriculture.

So why is the concept of knowing my farmer, the very person who grows my food, such a radical concept? Why don’t all of us know someone in our community who produces our food?

In 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced roughly 8 million tons of food, which was the equivalent of more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States.

Fast forward to today, and some 17 percent of all the food purchased in the grocery store is imported from other countries. We’ve been on a 70-year march away from connection to our source life – food and agriculture.

For too many years it was much too difficult to connect the source of our life-giving food with the produce lined up anonymously inside massive grocery store chains.

Until 2020 when U.S. farm-to-consumer sales increased by 420 percent because of the pandemic.

You read that correctly. 420 percent increase over 2019 of people buying food directly from farmers in their community.

Know Thy Farmer

Get this – People planted 22 million new gardens in the United States in 2020.

As we saw our grocery shelves go bare (maybe for the first time in our lives here in America) everyone wanted, needed to know exactly where their food was coming from, how it was produced, and how they were going to get it. Humans began to reconnect with the source of our health and vitality — agriculture.

Even as we face human health and environmental epidemics of massive proportions, here is why I have hope.

Regenerative organic agriculture offers us the invitation for protection.

When we engage with farmers in our community that are practicing regenerative organic agriculture and support them based on how they produce the very food that we are to consume, there is an element of protection and safety that we usher into our lives and into our community.

First, protection of our precious soil.

Why does soil need protection?

Conventional farming practices, such as monocropping (planting the same crop on the same plot of land year after year), repetitive deep tillage, the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the absence of living cover crops, all contribute to the destruction of biodiversity below ground that depletes the nutrients in our food.

Soil is alive. Healthy soil is teeming with life. Scientists estimate that there are some 10 billion microorganisms in one teaspoon of healthy soil.

Soil is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet.

However, conventional approaches to agriculture, using vast amount of synthetic chemicals, destroy all the life int the soil.

Moreover, without abundant microorganisms in the soil to feed crops, the plants become more susceptible to infections and pests, requiring the use of even more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow to maturity. The result is increasing dependence on synthetic inputs that require the burning of fossil fuels to create and apply, reduced carbon stores in the soil, and the destruction of soil life. Damaged soil structure also exacerbates erosion, and, ultimately, creates nutrient-deficient food.

Scientists hypothesize that a decrease in the diversity of microorganisms in the soil driven by industrial farming methods could also contribute to loss of diversity in the human gut microbiome, decreasing immunity and contributing to chronic health conditions.

Which leads me to the next layer of protection: our own bodies gain a heightened protection through the consumption of foods produced in a regenerative organic manner. The kind of protection that we need now more than ever.

You do not have to look too far to see that we are collectively getting sicker, not healthier. And our agricultural practices are contributing to the collapse of human health, thus making us more susceptible as a society to chronic illness as evidenced over the last two years.

My farmers Ben and Karah go to great lengths to grow healthy food in healthy soil. They are motivated to maximize nutrients in the soil so that those vital micronutrients, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals end up in my food.

They practice cover-cropping, complex crop rotations, and the integration of crops and livestock to maximize the health of the soil.

When I consume food from Ben and Karah’s farm, I can literally see, feel, smell, and taste the difference in produce coming off their farm verses the kind of produce purchased in the grocery store. And I challenge you to do the same.

Ben and Karah aren’t just farmers. They are artists, mentors, and entrepreneurs. Ben and Karah have a bold vision for the community in which their farm resides. They are actively working to help other farms in their region to flourish.

On my last visit to their farm, Ben took me over to another farm across the road that they recently purchased. We walked into a small building that was once a chicken coop. That building has now been restored and reclaimed into what will serve as a library for farmers in the community that have a desire to explore regenerative organic production methods.

They also have a vision for opening a retail market in the valley in which their farm resides, with the goal of creating an outlet for other farmers to sell their products to people in the community like me.

Their larger vision is to transform their entire agricultural region (known as The Butter Valley) to a hub of regenerative organic production, and to help farmers and the community to flourish!

On that cold, grey January afternoon with Ben, a visit to pick up my weekly produce box became an experience that transformed my heart.

I felt protection at the soul level as Ben walked me through his vision for a regenerative community.

Robert Rodale helped us all to see that a community flourishes when we decide to keep our food dollars in our own back yard. And I believe that Ben and Karah are one of many farmers across the United States that are beginning to live out the kinds of communities that Robert Rodale imagined. Regenerative communities where everything in the system gets better and better over time once we re-establish a right relationship with the soil.

The concept of knowing my farmer offers exponential impact to all of us. When we all step outside of our normal routine, from the convenience of big box grocery stores, to form an intimate relationship with farmers in our community that are stewarding soil in a regenerative organic way, the potential for human and planetary transformation are endless.

The transformation begins in my heart but ricochets outward to my immunity, my community, and to the world.

Whatever your place in our food system, you are part of this process of transformation and healing.

Let’s all make a commitment to get to know a farmer in our community this year, shall we? And then let’s watch our entire community and world, flourish.

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Photo courtesy of the Rodale Institute