Eco-Ag, Day 4: Exploring the Terrain

The last day of the 45th annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference explored the inner and outer terrain of human health as well as what to do in the event on a zombie apocalypse.

Nasha Winters

Dr. Nasha Winters, a healthcare researcher and author of The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, started the morning with a grim tour of our degraded landscape — pesticide and herbicide use have attacked the biological health of the soil, which we are losing at a rate of 30 soccer fields per minute. We could be facing our last harvest in the 60 years if current trends continue, the United Nations estimates.

You can’t have healthy humans without healthy soil, Dr. Winters explained. To illustrate this connection, she shared a quote from environmental activist and author Satish Kumar: “The words human, humility, and humus all come from the same root. When humans lose contact with soil (the humus), they are no longer humans.”

As the soil degrades, so does our food – which is three times less nutritious as it was just a few decades ago – and our health, Dr. Winters said.

Suicide rates are soaring, she said. One in 6 Americans take antidepressants. “Lifestyle diseases” such as obesity, diabetes and cancer are now seen as an almost-inevitable fate for the majority of Americans.

Our health is under attack, and yet, few will take the measures necessary to protect their health. The average American spends less than 15 minutes outdoors a day. We’re eating junk food. We’re not exercising.

Getting a COVID-19 test and wearing a mask are not the road to robust health, Dr. Winters said. Instead, she outlined a few rules of thumb to follow:

  • Get outside and go for a walk (in the woods if you can)
  • Eat organic, eat seasonally, eat locally
  • Start a garden and get dirty
  • Practice mindfulness and breathe clean air
  • Hydrate with clean water
  • Get good sleep

"One cannot heal in the same soil in which they got sick,” she said.

Dr. Winter is currently working on a new book on therapeutic diets for cancer.

Mark Shepard

Just as the human body has an innate capacity to heal, ecosystems can rebound from near total destruction. That was the focus of Mark Shepard’s presentation on Friday.

Although he acknowledged we are now “living in the zombie apocalypse,” Shepard reminded the audience that an asteroid landed on earth nearly 66 million years ago and incinerated 99% of terrestrial carbon — and yet, the planet somehow recovered.

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 it destroyed the old-growth forest surrounding it, turning the area into a wasteland. However, the forest soon returned. The same can be said for test sites nuclear bombs. No matter what, life finds a way to re-emerge.

“Nature has been able to make it through disaster after disaster,” he said.

As he looks out across the monoculture farms across the country, Shepard sees what many of us now see — dirt not soil, commodities instead of nutritious food. However, he’s confident that if were to walk away from these industrial farms, natural habitats would eventually grow back.

It’s that principle that drives Shepard’s style of permaculture and agroforestry. On his farm in Wisconsin, formerly the site of row-crop and dairy operation, he has designed a food production system based on oak savannah, successional brushland and Eastern woodlands as ecological models. It incorporates animals, both wild and domesticated, and produces an abundance of food.

Panel Discussion

To end the day, Eco-Ag features three farmers who are finding their own unique paths to success within regenerative agriculture. Anna Jones-Crabtree, Kimberly Ratcliff and Steve Tucker are all at different stages in their journey — and also in very different environments.

Jones-Crabtree, along with her husband Doug, runs Vilicus Farms, a 9,600-acre organic operation in northern Montana that grows heirloom grains, pulses and broadleaf crops. She has four full-time team members and an apprenticeship program. She started the farm from scratch more than 13 years ago.

Ratcliff runs Caney Creek Ranch, a diversified, family-owned cattle ranch in east central Texas. She came to the farm after leaving a marketing job on Wall Street and hasn’t looked back. She also owns Farm to Freezer Beef, which markets beef from east Texas ranches, and helped start 100 Ranchers, a nonprofit that seeks to bring together minority members.

Tucker is a dryland, no-till farmer in Venango, Nebraska. He took over the family farm from his grandfather. Over several years, Tucker has transitioned the farm from a conventional monoculture of wheat to a regenerative farm that celebrates a diversity of crops.

Each farmer offered words of wisdom to the audience on Friday:

  • Jones-Crabtree: We need to subsidize ecological land use and not commodities.
  • Tucker: He realized he needed to start selling things by the pound and not by the bushel. That means he started with the end-user in mind.
  • Ratcliff: Farmers must have a succession plan in place if they want to keep the farm in the family.
  • Both Jones-Crabtree and Tucker: Always ask, “Who made that rule?”
  • Jones-Crabtree: It’s not about recipes for your farming system. It’s about changing your mindset.
  • Ratcliff: “If you don’t like how a system is working, get on a committee to change the system.”
  • Jones-Crabtree: She’s not out to convert farmers in their sixties to regenerative agriculture. She wants to open up opportunities for the next generation of farmers.

Farm Tour

Kamal Bell took conference-goers on a drone-powered tour of Sankofa Farms, a 2.5 acre vegetable production operation located in North Carolina. His goal is to provide nutrition to food insecure communities. Bell, a teacher by nature and profession, also uses his farm as a classroom to teach Black youth about leadership, teamwork and personal development. Lettuce, kale, collard greens, squash, okra, watermelon, peppers, mustard greens, and navy beans make up some of the produce the farm is growing.

— Ben Trollinger, Acres U.S.A. editor.

All Eco-Ag Conference Highlights

The 2020 Eco-Ag Conference ran from Dec. 1 to Dec. 4. Here are the highlights of each day below:



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