Growing a Regenerative Food System — Episode 130 of Building Local Power

Date: 8 Jul 2021 | posted in: agriculture, Building Local Power, Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by ILSR’s Linda Bilsens Brolis and Amanda Cather of the Million Acre Challenge. The Million Acre Challenge (MAC) views healthy soil as the foundation for regenerative agriculture and is working to achieve one million agricultural acres in Maryland using healthy soil techniques by 2030. Amanda, Linda, and Jess discuss:

  • The different approaches MAC is taking to advance their mission — including working groups focused on science, policy, farmer engagement, public outreach, and the business case for healthy soil practices.
  • What Amanda views as the biggest challenges facing MAC.
  • The ongoing trend of farm consolidation and the importance of working with farms of different sizes.
  • How the current regenerative agriculture movement fits within the long history of Indigenous American agricultural practices.

“The current agricultural system that we all buy into and participate in as consumers creates huge challenges for farmers to make change on their operations, and farmers are squeezed on both sides because consumers expect and sometimes need cheap food and input costs are rising.”

“I think that one of the downsides of the extreme productivity that we’ve managed to achieve… is that we now employ a very small portion of the population in farming. And so I think we really need to work on increasing the number of farmers on the land. So we really need more farmers, not fewer farmers, and to be always thinking about farm profitability and resilience and that balance of efficiency and resilience and increased food security and regional food systems along with, as you said, improving access to land financing and equity in those processes.”


Guidelight Strategies

Soul Fire Farm

A-dae Romero-Briones, Director of Programs at the First Nations Development Institute

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Animal, Vegetable, Junk by Mark Bittman

Perilous Bounty by Tom Philpott

Compost: Carbon Sequestration & Climate Change, a webinar hosted by the Compost Research and Education Foundation.

Farming Honors the Past and Considers the Future by Kristyn Leach


Jess Del Fiacco: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. Hello today we have some great guests. Joining me is ILSR’s Linda Bilsens Brolis who works with our composting program, and Amanda Cather, who’s the Project Director of the Million Acre Challenge. We’re going to talk a lot about Amanda’s work today with the Million Acre Challenge, which focuses on the importance of improving soil health on America’s farmland. So welcome to the show, both of you.
Linda Bilsens B…: Thank you.
Amanda Cather: Thanks. Excited to be here.
Linda Bilsens B…: Great to be here.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. Linda, do you want to start us off with any further context before we jump into things?
Linda Bilsens B…: Sure. Thanks, Jess. So great to be back on BLP and to have Amanda joining us. So for those of you out there who don’t know who I am, I am as Jess mentioned, part of the composting initiative and this Million Acre Challenge, which you’ll be hearing more about throughout this episode is something that’s really near and dear to me because it gets to why I got into composting to begin with, composting as a tool to support more resilient and sustainable food systems. And so the Million Acre Challenge is an initiative that ILSR has been part of the founding core team of organizations that have helped to launch this program over the last few years.
Linda Bilsens B…: And really over the last year the rubber has been hitting the road, if you will, and due large part to Amanda’s great leadership. But just to give context for ILSR’s involvement in this collaborative. We represent the composting piece of the regenerative food system puzzle. The project is currently focused primarily on Maryland, but of course you can’t focus just on one state. It’s broader than that, which I’m sure Amanda we’ll get to, but our belief is that you can’t have a regenerative food system without closing the loop from farm to table and back to the farm again, which is where compost comes in and we’ll get into it. But there are lots of symptoms of a broken food system that I think focusing on generative agriculture really helps to remedy and composting is a tool for getting organic matter back into the soil and closing the loop.
Linda Bilsens B…: We throw away so much food, but a good chunk of the food that is ever produced in the US doesn’t ever get consumed and there’s lots of other symptoms of a broken food system that I think we’re trying to remedy and soil health as a tool for building more resilient food systems is what I’m hoping that we’ll get at in more resilient communities as a result. So glad to have this conversation going. So maybe we could hear more about the Million Acre Challenge from, from Amanda’s perspective.
Amanda Cather: Yeah. Great. Thank you, and really excited to be here. ILSR, as you mentioned, Linda’s one of the Million Acre Challenges founding partners. So it’s really a privilege to get to talk to your audience and be involved at this level. I really appreciate it. So again, as you mentioned, the Million Acre Challenge is a collaborative effort to advance soil health and regenerative agriculture on one million acres of agricultural land in Maryland and to catalyze change towards regenerative agriculture across the Chesapeake region and the goal is to do all of that by 2030.
Amanda Cather: Our goal really is to challenge all kinds of producers that would be row crop, producers, livestock producers, diversified vegetable producers, urban, rural, suburban, peri-urban to start wherever they are and take the next right step for their operations to improve the health of their soils. The reason that we really focus on soil health is because we know that healthy soils are the foundation of regenerative agriculture. And we’re hearing a lot about regenerative agriculture lately. The way that we define it is there’s a definition that was published in a paper by Guidelight Strategies and sponsored by Patagonia that we really like. It’s a system of land stewardship rooted in centuries old indigenous wisdom that provides healthy nutrient rich food for all people while continuously restoring and nourishing the ecological, social and cultural systems unique to every place.
Amanda Cather: So we really love that definition of regenerative agriculture and really see healthy soils as the foundation of that system, recognizing that they have all kinds of co-benefits including increased profitability and resilience for the farmer. And that can mean increased independence from reliance on purchased inputs, which is important, ecological improvements and ecosystem services, including enhanced biodiversity, reduced erosion, water quality improvements, and potentially reductions in emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases and possibly even sequestration.
Amanda Cather: We are really looking at emphasizing the four main principles of healthy soils management, which include keeping so covered, minimizing harmful chemical, biological, and physical disturbance, maximizing biodiversity, and keeping a living root in the soil year round. So there’s lots of practices that express these principles. So the route to help the soil is going to look different on every farm, but our goal is really to get every farm on the pathway to healthy soils and regenerative productions.
Jess Del Fiacco: We have different working groups set up to tackle this mission in different ways. Could you talk about some of those different approaches?
Amanda Cather: Yeah, and I think it’s important for me to point out that the Million Acre Challenge itself, isn’t just one organization. So it’s a movement that’s really bigger than any one organization, One farm, one person. It was founded by six founding partners, including ILSR, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Future Harvest, Fair Farms, which is our project of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and The Hatcher Group. It was founded as a result of a heroic futures grant from the Town Creek Foundation. So really looking at a vision for the food system that goes beyond one change, but really looks at the changing the food system and the agricultural production overall.
Amanda Cather: We’ve also built partnerships with farmers and farm service organizations across the state and into the region. We’re lucky to also have an incredible board of soil stewards. That’s our boss, composer, farmers who are soil health leaders to help us guide and shape the challenge. So it’s a big collaborative effort to move us in that direction. And because soil health is complex, it’s an ecological system. So thinking about it requires holistic approach. So we’re approaching this goal of challenging farmers to build healthy soil from five viewpoints that you, as you mentioned, are represented in our five working groups.
Amanda Cather: So our science working group, the idea right now, our main initiative is bringing the process of sustainable agriculture soil health benchmark study to Maryland. And we’re working there with 30 farms, including organic and conventional diversified veg farms, livestock farms, row crop farms using the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health to connect chemical, biological, and physical soil health indicators to farm management practice records. And the goal there is to really start to see the impacts of different types of management on soil health. So how does tillage really affects soil health? How does synthetic chemical use really affect soil health? How does the use of carbon amendments, including compost affects soil health.
Amanda Cather: Looking at the long-term impact of management on those indicators and farms get their own results as well as comparisons to other farms in their cohort, and then process designs, these beautiful materials that help farmers market their products using their efforts towards soil health. So that’s one of the main focuses of our science working group. We’re also of course, looking at trying to assess the impact of those carbon soil amendments and especially compost on soil health, because that’s such a big question, especially in Maryland, where phosphorus is such an issue. How can we encourage more farms to use compost, to build soil health and close that loop. So to improve that food system cycling and not overload the system with phosphorus as well. I don’t know if you want to add to that, Linda.
Linda Bilsens B…: We’ll be hosting a webinar series focused on on-farm composting and compost use in the coming months. So later this summer, and then into the fall, which I’m really excited about because we’re going to be tapping some experts in the field to help us answer these questions, but basically right now, which is probably the case in any watershed in the world, but you have some places where there’s too much of a good thing and other places that could use it, but there’s not really great connections between the places that have too much phosphorus in the places that need it, even within the state of Maryland.
Linda Bilsens B…: And so things like poultry litter, in which we have a lot of on the Eastern shore of Maryland, there’s too much phosphorus already in the soils there. But then in the Western part of the state, you have places that farmers still have to buy amendments or make amendments themselves to increase their phosphorus and improve their soil in general. So the idea of closing the loop, but doing it sustainably and responsibly, so that water quality is not impacted is definitely a challenge that we are looking forward to helping to tease apart in Maryland working with farmers and policy makers to do that appropriately. But also we’re still working with farmers who are interested in composting as a way of managing materials that could become wastes on their own farms, but also working with the composting industry.
Linda Bilsens B…: So much food waste is generated in cities and urban centers that we’re also seeing a huge need for creating high quality compost by composting facilities that specialize in that process to create a product for farming, getting it back into the soils. So we’re trying to approach it from both supporting farmers that want to compost as a way of managing waste and building their soils and supporting a system that recycles more broadly materials that otherwise get wasted. So yes, you’ll be hearing more about that this fall.
Amanda Cather: Yeah, and Linda’s totally pointing to some of the work of another one of our working groups, which is Farmer Engagement working group, which focuses on helping farmers connect with the Million Acre Challenge and with each other and with resources that can help them take that next step for their farm. Since we know that farmers learn best from other farmers through farmer networks, demonstration days, speakers, educational events, like the ILSR webinars, bringing information that farmers want to see, and our approach to our farmer engagement work is really focusing on what do you want to learn and how do you want to learn it? This is kind of our mantra that we say over and over again, because it’s critical for us that we’re centering farmer voices and farmer needs across the project and what’s their experience, their wisdom, their needs, and their challenges.
Amanda Cather: Those are the drivers for everything that we’re trying to do. So, yeah, so that science and farmer engagement and the third working group is our business case working group, which is looking into the profitability of some of these healthy soil practices. And that’s harder than you’d think because of course in agriculture, it’s really difficult to say this result comes from this cause because it’s ecological system. So it’s very challenging to tease apart the specific costs and benefits of every soil health practice and demonstrate to folks how does each one of these practices contribute to profitability in your whole system?
Amanda Cather: So that’s the work of the business case working group and American Farmland Trust and Soil Health Institute have done some of this work very nicely looking at specific practices like tillage and cover crop use on row crop farms. And so we’re trying to see if we can expand that list of practices into a more systematic look at regenerative ag and incorporate livestock and diversify veg production as well. And that is not easy, but it is really important, especially as we’re looking at trying to figure out when farmers can start to see a return on their investment in regenerative production and think about the ways that they can be supported through any transitional period where they might lose yield, or they might have challenges until they start to see those benefits.
Amanda Cather: So there’s other considerations in that business case too, like the ways that emerging ecosystem services markets might play into farm profitability and how we can try to ensure that those markets are going to benefit farms of all sizes, including small and mid-sized farmers and also reward early adopters and folks who are really out there innovating as well as farmers who might make a change to using one of these practices today or tomorrow. There are folks that have been doing this for 30 years and we feel like they should be rewarded as well.
Amanda Cather: And then there’s some benefits you can’t put a price tag on in a partial budget analysis. Like how do we account for these as a society? So I think for decades, we’ve externalized a lot of the risk from farming onto the taxpayer and so reforming our crop insurance and subsidies and financing across the country to ensure that these systems are really rewarding good stewardship. That’s super important at the federal level, but not really what we’re working, we’re working on at the state level, but these are things that we really support. So our policy working group, which is number four, is aging state lawmakers to listen to farmer voices about the importance of soil health.
Amanda Cather: That’s a really important framework for agricultural conservation and helping farmers get their messages across to policy makers, as well as helping policymakers connect the important issues of their day back to soil health and agriculture. We’re planning a series of in-person farm tours for our state lawmakers that are focused on soil health this summer. And we’re hoping to work over the next year or so to find funding for the state’s healthy soils program that was established in 2017, but it was never funded. So we’d really love to see some kind of consistent funding for that program.
Amanda Cather: We also have seats on the state’s Soil Health Advisory Committee, and that includes farmers, nonprofits, ag retailers, extension, and other important players in the state. And the goal that committee right now is to figure out ways that farmers could be incentivized to work on improving their soils for all the reasons we’ve talked about before. So we’re also engaged with the National Healthy Soils Policy Network, and that is a great network that connects organizations from all over the country, doing soil health policy at the state level, and helps us learn from one another and share our experiences about advocating for farmers and healthy soils for healthy food systems. So that’s the work that we’re doing in policy right now. And again, we’re moving forward with that and Linda may have more to say about that as well.
Linda Bilsens B…: At this point, we’re looking forward to the tours, right? I don’t know if you just mentioned that, but that will be the direct line connecting farmers with policymakers so that policymakers can understand what it is to farm in a holistic regenerative way. What does that actually look like in real terms, not like conceptually, but actually in Maryland on the ground, what are the real benefits of that? What are the real challenges and really being able to connect those two groups I think is critical. But then also of course, the consumer piece, which I know is the final working group is public outreach.
Linda Bilsens B…: So I really respect the way that the Million Acre Challenge project is set up is to really try to tackle. It’s a huge undertaking to try to shift the way that we view agriculture, the way that we view farmers and taking on more broad than that, putting all of the responsibility of everything on the farmer’s shoulders, which I feel like farmers just have so much on their shoulders in terms of responsibility, but as consumers, we need to demand the products who need to be willing to pay for things that are produced sustainably and regenerative only if we want farmers to be producing things that way.
Linda Bilsens B…: And then there’s the policies that need to be in place to support farmers, to be even able to make those choices. And then there’s also of course the financing and the financial support. So it’s all very intertwined and very complicated as Amanda’s already alluded to. I don’t know if there’s anything you want to add to how the public outreach group is helping to tackle that of consumer piece of the puzzle.
Amanda Cather: Yeah, I think you said it really well, but I think it’s important to just reemphasize that public outreach, it includes farmers and consumers, and it’s all about creating demand. So building demand for healthy soils programming and technical assistance and policy among farmers themselves, and also demands for a product like raised and healthy soils among consumers and supply chain partners. So like you said, the key is helping build those incentives for farmers in the marketplace.
Amanda Cather: So consumers who are willing to pay more when they’re buying directly from farmers who are farming direct regenerative and when they’re purchasing from a company that’s supporting farmers to use regenerative systems and then by extension companies that are willing to help farmers in their supply chain, build soil health and transition to regenerative production and that can take a number of different forms. It can be guaranteed contracts, innovative financing, increased prices paid directly to farmers and the policy makers themselves who are going to support that work.
Amanda Cather: So public outreach is kind of focused on all of those things and we’ve been doing a lot of work on messaging to farmers and just beginning to work on our messaging to consumers and how to engage them directly in the project. Those are our five working groups.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you. That’s you tackling a lot of them, different things. We’ll go to the next question in just a moment, but first we’re going to take a short break.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for listening to the show. If you’re enjoying this conversation, I hope you consider heading over to to help support our work. Your donation directly supports this podcast and all the work we do here at ILSR. Visit to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated.
Jess Del Fiacco: I wanted to ask you about some of the challenges you face in this work, and this may or may not be the same question. I also just wanted to ask you, correct me if I’m wrong, but we’ve seen for decades a trend of consolidation in the agricultural world. I was wondering if that plays into the work you’re doing at all. I mean, do you see that as something we need to change? Do you often work with the big, big, big farms?
Amanda Cather: Yeah, you’re totally right about consolidation. I think, well in Maryland, the average farm size about 160 acres. So there are a lot of very, very small farms in Maryland and a lot of large farms in Maryland and there’s some of those mid-sized farms as well. I think from my perspective, those farmers of the middle are really important. It’s very important to recognize that those farms have been left out of a lot of policy work and left out of a lot of consideration. Those are farms that can produce a lot of food and produce a lot of jobs and don’t have a lot of support.
Amanda Cather: We have a lot of micro farms who are doing amazing work, maybe not producing enough to feed the region. Aggregation can help with that and then we have on the other end, these very large scale farms whose main goal is efficiency and those farmers in the middle, they are the ones that can really balance efficiency and resilience and production and ecological mindset. I think focusing on those and their real importance to the regions that they are in is critical. So I think you’re totally right. I think Linda touched on one of the biggest challenges, which is that there are so many barriers that farmers have to overcome in order for them to take that next right step, like to move in the direction.
Amanda Cather: So it’s so easy for us to fill our garden with compost and say, “Oh, my garden is so healthy. It’s so full of worms. Why can’t farmers just do what I do and get the same results?” Or to say, “Well, the benefits of these practices are so clear and obvious. This should be an easy decision for any farmer to make to transition to this kind of production.” But I think what you touched on is that we all need to realize that the current agricultural system that we all buy into and participate in as consumers creates huge challenges for farmers to make change on their operations and farmers are squeezed on both sides because consumers expect and sometimes need cheap food and input costs are rising.
Amanda Cather: So I think that our system right now views agriculture as an industry, right? Which it has efficiency at the top of the line in terms of importance, and rather than looking at it as an ecologically based business that needs to balance resilience and efficiency, because it’s necessarily interacting with natural systems, including ones that are seriously out of control of a lot of farmers right now because of climate change, which they are experiencing as extreme weather.
Amanda Cather: So money is going to be the most important factor for decision making in agriculture because farms are businesses and farmers need to make a living and create jobs that provide a living for people. And most producers are operating on really thin margins and are what we like to say, they’re risk saturated. They’re dealing with so much risk every day. It can feel absolutely impossible to take another risk to make change. And so I think what we’re looking at is about half of farm households in recent years have negative farm income every year. So a lot of them are relying on off farm income to make ends meet and so it’s scary.
Amanda Cather: It’s scary to make change. It’s scary to think about the fact that you might, if you adopt a whole system of new practices and you’re learning how to do that, you might have reduced farm revenues for an additional transition period. And if you’re coupling the prospective loss of revenue with this really tight financial position of most farmers, the risk is just going to be too great to realistically, change your practices unless you have access to capital or other incentives that are going to de-risk your transition. So I think that’s the biggest challenge is really getting folks to step out of the whole system, that’s really encouraging them to maintain the status quo, to really work towards production, production, production.
Amanda Cather: It’s all about yields and maximizing yields, and instead think about profitability. Managing the balance of yields with resilience and income with expenses. That’s just a different framework. And so encouraging farmers to, oh, you’re already a systems thinker. The way in which you’re thinking about your farm as an ecological system. So it’s a mindset shift. So that’s another big challenge. So there’s a lot of barriers to overcome, but I think we’re fortunate as a project in having a lot of different ways in which we can approach these barriers and try to overcome them from all these different angles, if that makes sense.
Linda Bilsens B…: Yeah. That’s a great answer. Again, just gets at the complexity of the challenge that faces us, but it’s obviously a very worthwhile because it has to do with literally our ability to continue to feed ourselves as a society and viewing farmers as allies and really recognizing the critical role that they play. They’re so undervalued and we really need to be supporting them and being able to make the choices that are going to be best for their long-term profitability, right? Not just year to year or season to season, what’s going to get them through. It’s I mean, what business really can function that way. It’s in everybody’s interest to think more long-term, but I think it’s also very interesting to think about where the power lies in making these decisions.
Linda Bilsens B…: And right now it’s not really generally in the hand of the farmers and then who actually owns the land and then who has been pushed out of land ownership historically over the last hundreds of years. So you have the type of agriculture that maybe would have had more of an ecological priority through indigenous and people of color owning land, and the way that that was managed once. Now you have consolidation and really people who have to fit into the industrial structure of agriculture in order to really make ends meet. Amanda, if you have anything to say on the idea of regenerative farming and may be where that stems from.
Amanda Cather: Yeah, I just was really lucky to hear A-dae Briones Romero talk about this. She’s Director of the First Nations Development Institute and she spoke so eloquently about the difference between the way we currently think about this expertise based or simplistic, transactional ways of managing land and the observational place-based relational cyclical, complex interconnected ways of knowing and understanding the natural world. That’s traditionally been the ways of knowing of indigenous folks and also under resource farmers, because that’s what they had to do.
Amanda Cather: I think we’re just beginning to recognize that in our scientific ways of knowing. So the science of ecology is the very beginning of understanding that interconnectedness and looking at our farms that way, recognizing that we’re not separate from these systems, we’re not just the manager of these systems where we’re intimately part of them. So all of that is really key. And so then these are not new ideas. As you said, Linda they’re old traditional ideas and integrating them into the way we manage land more ecologically, no matter what scale we’re working at.
Amanda Cather: Recognizing our relationship to that land, working to understand the cycles, relationships, the specific cycles and relationships that exist in your place. The complexities of non-living and living things beginning with the soil, that’s the foundation of regenerative agriculture. I think we can really work to re-imagine the fundamental goals of our agricultural systems and that they can be reflections and replications of natural systems with the goals of moving towards that balance of resilience and productivity born of those old traditional indigenous wisdom. But we can’t do it if we keep looking at things through this very reductionist lens that’s solely about production.
Linda Bilsens B…: Right. It’s like putting the people who know the land, most intimately. Those people that have had to subsist off of the land. You figure out how to work with the system and not work against it and I think that the broader challenges we have with our food system is that you have people who don’t understand the land sort of making rules that make it much more difficult for people that do work the land for them to be able to do what they do best.
Amanda Cather: Yeah, and I think that one of the downsides of the extreme productivity that we’ve managed to achieve, which the upside is that we’re feeding a lot of people, but the downside is that we now employ a very small portion of the population in farming. And so I think we really need to work on increasing the number of farmers on the land. So we really need more farmers, not fewer farmers, and to be always thinking about farm profitability and resilience and that balance of efficiency and resilience and increased food security and regional food systems along with, as you said, improving access to land financing and equity in those processes.
Amanda Cather: I think we can do all of that while building a system that still produces, all lot of food while also producing all these co-benefits and reducing food waste is a huge part of that because we don’t need to be quite as productive as we’re being. If we reduce that waste of food we can have a little margin, I think.
Linda Bilsens B…: Well, I think yes, in many ways we are producing a lot of food, but it’s not necessarily reaching the people that need it as we saw, which has been a problem for a long time. Millions of people in the United States are food insecure, but during the pandemic you saw people waiting in line for hours to get food. At the same time, farmers were having to throw away perfectly good milk and potatoes and produce. Just having to throw stuff away and that I think is a clear symptom of a broken food system and this is where I think the more locally-based regenerative model where you are building in local loops of food production and that reaching consumers in the immediate vicinity, so that you’re not thrown off when a big catastrophe of something like the pandemic hits, there’s more resilience built into the system.
Linda Bilsens B…: Obviously, healthy soil is critical to resilience in our food system, but what are some of the other ideas that you think would help to shift us towards a more resilient system? Like what’s the vision that we’re aiming for? I know the map is focused on one thing, and we can only tackle so much, but some other concepts that get at the more resilience in the food system.
Amanda Cather: Well, I think one thing when we start to talk to our Board of Soil Stewards, that immediately comes up as improved agricultural infrastructure. And that is about rebuilding regional aggregation and processing and distribution networks like you’re saying Linda. They’re not so one pathway, but that there’s loops and redundancy built in that it creates more resiliency. Particularly, we’re seeing that among our livestock producers in terms of small and mid-scale regional processing facilities for livestock, that is a huge, huge bottleneck even now. So that’s really important, but also aggregation facilities. So that smaller scale producers can sell into a broader network, can connect with larger scale buyers, including schools and hospitals and all of the folks that we would love to be able to get the healthy foods to. So that’s a huge piece of a regenerative food system.
Amanda Cather: In addition to the waste management and waste recycling, enhanced and streamlined conservation programs. I think the USDA has a program called the Conservation Stewardship Program. That is a tremendous program and not widely used enough. So really building on what exists there at NRCS in order to support farmers to transition to more regenerative production practices. And again, that’s an on the ground practice, but I think building that into the system can help build the whole system more resiliently also, obviously at USDA and across the board programming that provides support for equity, community food sovereignty, and as I was saying that agriculture of the middle from the ground up, that’s going to help us. I think the other key piece is healthy soils are really the foundation and we do want regenerative agriculture to be a big tent movement that allows farms to opt in and start and make changes that they need.
Amanda Cather: We also really believe that it can’t stop with the soil. So like we can talk about all the principles that we mentioned. We can talk about biodiversity and keeping the soil covered and all of that is great and you’re shifting to a holistic system of managing your farm and we can work on that all we want and we can create a healthy and functioning environment. But if we’re doing that using labor practices that aren’t equitable or just then that really isn’t regenerative and we can work on soil improvement, all we want, but if the results of that work aren’t addressing the social and economic challenges that farmers face. And as I said, especially those farmers of the middle, then we’re not working on fully regenerative agriculture.
Amanda Cather: So it’s always about farm profitability, resilience, what’s going to work to keep farmers on the land and that includes all those things. It includes infrastructure, finance, incentive programs, and all of those other pieces that work to help improve our whole food system.
Jess Del Fiacco: I was just thinking like it just stretches so far out, right? There’s this piece that one of our colleagues, Ron Knox published a few months ago early on in the pandemic about how consolidation in the meat processing industry has… Well, I mean, it was endangering worker’s lives during the pandemic because of those huge spikes of infection rates in big slaughterhouses. So many pieces that all fit together in the system and like improve one piece and then it goes out in so many ways.
Linda Bilsens B…: It does. It’s a matter of… I mean, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance is focused on self-reliance and you can’t really have self-reliance without the ability to feed yourselves. And our system has just gotten so big and so centralized that it really makes it vulnerable to these catastrophes that we should be preparing for, but we can never predict exactly when they’re going to happen. And so another thing that I’m so excited about with this concept of building more localized food systems is the idea that it really creates an allyship between farmers and consumers, because they both need each other.
Linda Bilsens B…: And so if you create smaller systems where you know the farmer or the community that’s being fed, that kind of builds relationships, but this concept empowers consumers in urban centers to participate in maintaining soil health and rebuilding soil health on farms as consumers, but also something like 80% of all food that’s produced ends up in urban centers, or well, sometime in the future. So that empowers people living in cities, we get to decide basically what food we’re purchasing, who we’re purchasing it from, and then what happens with the food that might get wasted. Ideally, we wouldn’t be wasting food, but if there is food waste, it should go back into the soil, continue growing food for ourselves. So I think when you chip away at this really huge system and make it more localized, this is where you create opportunities to participate and create participation on both sides of the loop.
Jess Del Fiacco: Amanda, I don’t know if there’s anything else you wanted to add to that, but I see that we are running out of time. So I have a wrap up question for you if we want to do that.
Amanda Cather: Yeah, sure.
Linda Bilsens B…: Let’s do it.
Jess Del Fiacco: I just wanted to ask if there’s any reading or resources generally that you Amanda or Linda too, that you want to point listeners toward.
Amanda Cather: Yeah. I mean, I have so many and I’m so lucky to be able to read and listen to so much incredible stuff as part of my job. I just feel so fortunate in that way, but I would highlight reading about Soul Fire Farm. Anything that Soul Fire Farm is doing, it’s connecting African-Americans with traditional ways of farming and focusing on land access and food sovereignty and food justice and land justice. Such powerful work. Worth looking into for sure. Again, as I mentioned A-dae Briones Romero from the First Nations Development Institute, if you get a chance to listen to her do. The way she talks about interacting with land and different ways of knowing incredible wisdom, powerful wisdom there.
Amanda Cather: I just also listened to Kristen Leech talk about seed sovereignty and the importance of diversity of seeds. That was incredibly powerful. I love Mark Bittman’s commentary on our food system. His new book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk is really a good one to start with. And Tom Philpott’s work his new book called Perilous Bounty, which is about how regenerative production can help sustain our American farming system and rebuild. I think those are really powerful. What else? Linda.
Linda Bilsens B…: From that composting perspective, I just listened to a great webinar that was hosted by the Compost Research and Education Foundation, which is part of the U.S. Composting Council. And they hosted a discussion with Sally Brown from Washington University and the concept she’s been writing a lot about the role that exogenous organic matter, which is basically like food scraps, things that come from outside of a system that get added back into the soil to increase organic matter. The important role that that plays and she kind of breaks it down. I would definitely recommend that webinar and more of Sally’s writing on the topic, but definitely echo Soul Fire Farm. They’re doing some great work, inspiring work and training for anybody that’s interested in helping to dismantle the racism in our food system. So anybody that’s interested in that should definitely check out the resources.
Amanda Cather: I’m also a huge fan of James Rebanks, who is a shepherd in Irish sheep. So he’s a shepherd in Britain and he’s written a book called English Pastoral about the ways that he has regenerated his family’s farm in Britain and gone against the trends towards consolidation and efficiency, and really seen the biodiversity on his farm and the productivity of his farm take off as a result. And he writes in a very poetic and emotional personal way and also brings in a lot of historical trends. I love James Rebanks. So he’s my personal recommendation.
Linda Bilsens B…: We could go on. There’s so many great writers but I think that just touching on Amanda, Amanda is a farmer herself. So the right person to be leading this charge with the Million Acre Challenge and that didn’t get, I think, brought up earlier.
Amanda Cather: Still very much working on my own soil health and regenerative journey though. So I should say that it’s really important to realize that you can’t snap your fingers and turn these systems on. It’s something that’s the journey of a lifetime and there’s always more you can do. And I think one of our farmers said it best, the only bad thing is not doing anything, and moving in the right direction as a farmer. That’s all we can ask for is folks being curious about what the next step is and trying to take that for their operations and trying to support them in every way we can.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. Thank you so much. This was a great conversation and I wish we could keep going.
Amanda Cather: We’ll have to come back. We’ll do it again. Thanks, Jess.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, You can find links to everything we discussed today by going to and click on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website.
Jess Del Fiacco: Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. The show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL now. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco, and I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Brenda Platt

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