The Tipping Point Nears: Regenerative Agriculture in Mainstream Media

New flash: in the last 24 hours I’ve seen no less than three articles in major mainstream media outlets related to regenerative agriculture and land use.

I think what this means for the movement of the culture is that the local food/sustainable ag story-meme is reaching some sort of critical mass.  None of these three topics are at all well-known outside of the permaculture/sustainable ag/land use planning worlds.  And here they are, being reported on in NPR, the New York Times, and the Atlantic!

Something’s shifting in the media conversation around farms, food, and land.  And in the “newness” of it, it’s important to remember when reading “discovery” media pieces like these that people have been using these techniques on the ground for decades.  Furthermore, they’re in many cases based on native land use practices that stretch back many thousands of years, and on ecological patterns and processes that go back millions.  They’re ancient patterns being put to use to solve modern problems and meet modern eco-social needs.

An increase in public attention might not mean much, in immediate day-to-day terms, for established practitioners and teachers of regenerative agriculture and land use.  But zoom out a bit, and I think the marginal position we’ve been in is beginning to change significantly.  Which is very, very exciting!  And I also think it’s going to create a need for us to become even more clear, professional, and effective in our work and communication.

The three pieces below.

1. A local food-focused piece from the NPR blog on pawpaws:

We took the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. “Wow,” was the first word out of my mouth when I tasted one we found on our hike. It’s sort of mango-meets-the-banana … with a little hint of melon. […]

Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals that they were quite fond of the pawpaw. At one point during their expedition in 1806, they relied on pawpaws when other provisions ran low. And from Michigan to West Virginia, people have even named towns and lakes after the pawpaw.

But the pawpaw has only recently been commercialized.

2. A New York Times piece on “working landscapes” (i.e., integration of forestry/ag with wildlife habitat and ecosystem services):

The San Francisco-based nonprofit [Pacific Forest Trust] is rewriting the rules of forest economics by proving that stands like this can remain ecologically valuable while also generating significant income for their owners — goals that have pitted logging communities against environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest for decades.

“The old paradigm was you couldn’t get here without being a goody two-shoes and sacrificing all things,” said Wayburn, whose group has been promoting incentive-based strategies to conserve private forests since 1993. “The new paradigm is you can.”

Instead of clear-cutting 20-acre forest tracts at a time, foresters here selectively remove trees in a process called “uneven-age management.” The harvesting approach encourages more rapid restoration of redwood-dominated stands and old-growth forest structure by consolidating growth into fewer, larger trees.

3. Perhaps most astonishingly, an almost-longform piece in The Atlantic on holistic management (intensive rotational grazing to regenerate pastures and grasslands):

In arid environments, plant matter doesn’t degrade easily on its own — it needs these large animals to break it down in their rumens and stamp it into the ground and generally work the land. This was accomplished naturally: As the herbivores traveled in large herds for safety against their predators, they would cause a great disturbance to the land; then, for their own sake, they would leave and not return until the plants had had enough rest to regenerate.

Now take away the Great Plains’ bison, or the equivalent animals elsewhere, and replace them with cattle, property lines, and fences. The equation still includes large, grazing herbivores, but because they are relatively stationary within the landscape, the symbiosis is lost. Certain areas are overused, and elsewhere plants simply oxidize and die off from under-use; microorganisms decline, water cycles fall apart, and the land gradually collapses.

The basic premise of holistic management is to use livestock like wild animals. But whereas bison on the Great Plains moved through the landscape by instinct, now ranchers must supply that direction. Rather than simply turning cattle into a pasture, these ranchers conduct them like a herd, concentrating bodies to graze one area hard, then leaving it until the plants have regenerated. The effect can be tremendous, with benefits including increased organic matter in the soil, rejuvenation of microorganisms, and restoration of water cycles.

Things are moving fast, folks.  We ready?

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