Unearthing the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming: A Conversation with Liz Carlisle
Regenerative agriculture is having a moment. As a researcher interested in the relationship between food production and biodiversity, I’ve noticed an explosion in articles, books, podcasts, documentaries, and other media using the term “regenerative” to describe farming practices that improve humanity’s relationship with the land. I remember my bemusement when President Biden mentioned cover crops in his 2021 State of the Union Address, and my astonishment when, a year later, the Inflation Reduction Act included $20 billion dollars for “climate-smart” farming practices.
At the same time, I became uneasy about the trendiness of it all. Was “regenerative” just a new buzzword that, like “sustainable” before it, was being stretched into meaninglessness? Did it now serve the interests of agribusiness in attempts to greenwash and entrench power? And who was being left out as the regenerative movement gained momentum?
Fortunately for us all, Dr. Liz Carlisle is on the case. Liz is a professor of Environmental Studies at The University of California, Santa Barbara and celebrated author of several books about sustainable food systems. As regenerative agriculture was making its way to the White House, Liz interviewed dozens of farmers and scientists to understand its origins and why its time in the spotlight was so overdue. What she uncovered is a global story of Indigenous, diasporic, and immigrant communities persisting in the face of colonial violence. This story is captured in her latest book, Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming. I was fortunate enough to chat with Liz in September 2022 to discuss the book, her writing process, and the future of farming. A truly regenerative agriculture, Liz argues, is more than just cover crops and compost—it must begin with justice for land stewards who have been marginalized for far too long.
Stream or download our conversation here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ben Iuliano: How did growing up in Montana—a rural state—inform your interests in agriculture?
Liz Carlisle: I think it was huge. My grandmother was my closest connection in terms of family of having an agrarian life. But going to Hellgate High School in Missoula, Montana, I was surrounded by people who, before they came to first period, had fed the cows. There was a way of life that was all around me.
And I was really interested in the stories of other people with a farming background. I was really interested in these values—people’s stewardship values and the kinds of stories that were passed down in families, because that seemed to get at something really, really deep about the meaning of life and the meaning of being human.
And I also really loved country music when I was in high school. And that was a red thread for me. When I went to college in Massachusetts, I was playing country songs on this acoustic guitar that my dad had given me in the practice room in the basement, and it became a cultural form through which I could make sense of my own experience and who I was and where I came from. And so I started playing open mics, and actually kind of had a career as a country singer starting in college.
That experience sent me all over rural communities all over this country. And I was blown away by the people that I met, and also by the parallels in their stories, that people had all these different personal stories about where their land stewardship connection came from in their family or in their own understanding of the world, that they had a lot of similar stories about the barriers to being good land stewards. It kept coming up again and again: “this is what farm policy encourages us to do” or “this is what farm policy makes it difficult to do, whether that’s cover cropping or growing a more diversified set of crops that at that time, you still couldn’t really get decent insurance for.”
I started to realize, there’s this really similar set of economic and political barriers that people are facing. And so it was hearing from all those farmers that inspired me to think about: what are the solutions to really empowering people to exercise these land stewardship traditions?
BI: The title of the book is Healing Grounds: Climate Justice and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming. So I want to start with the question: What is “regenerative farming” or “regenerative agriculture”? In particular, what does regenerative agriculture mean for different people? And then what does it mean for you, in your use of the term in the title of the book?
LC: That’s a great question. I think “regenerative” is one of these big terms—not unlike “sustainable”—that are always going to mean a lot of different things to different people and that are always going to be contested. Unlike some terms that are more precise—I think about “organic,” which was given some precision by the national organic law and the organic standards that give it some very precise meaning, or “agroecology,” which has been given some very precise meaning by a massive social movement and a series of processes. I don’t think regenerative is ever going to be that precise. I think its role in the conversation is precisely to be this big term that is contested.
My choice to use it in this book, and in the title of this book, was about entering that conversation, and saying what I think “regenerative” should mean in order for it to accomplish its most ambitious goals. When people use the word “regenerative,” an aspect of it is always the acknowledgement that climate change is a really important contemporary social and ecological problem. And the word “regenerative” indicates an ambition that agriculture can be part of the solution to climate change, rather than part of the problem. As we know, a quarter to a third of greenhouse gas emissions currently are coming from the food system.
I would say the kind of mainstream understanding of its meaning clusters around, “can we build up soil health through agricultural practices in ways that sequester carbon and actually draw it down out of the atmosphere?” And then sometimes there are layers added on to that about other forms of regeneration. But I think it really came into the popular lexicon around that dream of soil carbon sequestration and agriculture going from a climate problem to climate solution.
So that’s all something I’m really deeply interested in, from that deepest origin of my work in agroecology, and my grandmother in the Dust Bowl. I am all about the idea of restoring soil health in a way that makes agriculture an environmental solution rather than an environmental problem. And I think there’s deep potential social implications to that.
It’s really important that we look at this in some historical context, and actually go back further than the Dust Bowl, to understand the root causes of the Dust Bowl that include settler colonial occupation of western Nebraska and other parts of this country. But really, think about, what is the 500 year process of extraction that the loss of carbon from soils is embedded in? And that 500-year process is colonization—Indigenous dispossession and genocide, the experience of enslavement, the way in which immigrant labor and the displacement of people from their own places where they have their own farms in order to serve industrial agriculture.
So, to me, “regeneration” or “regenerative agriculture” means healing that whole extractive process. It means reckoning with and healing colonial processes. And I do think that agriculture in the food system has a key role to play in that, because so much of the extraction happened at the site of agriculture in the food system on the land. We need social and ecological repair at the site of the food system, and Healing Grounds centers the stories of four women of color, who are approaching regenerative agriculture from those lenses, because that’s the history of their communities. They experienced extraction, and agriculture as extraction, from their communities, starting way back before the Dust Bowl, and so there’s a vision of regeneration that is inclusive of everything that needs to happen in order to heal that extractive process.
BI: I definitely want to get into the stories of those four central characters that make up each of the chapters. First, to step back a little bit, could you paint a picture of what’s often called the “industrial food system” (or perhaps we should call it the “colonial food system”) that we have, particularly in the United States, although there are global dimensions as well?
LC: It’s the way the food system is currently organized. It really has to do with with profit, and specifically financial capitalism, and that is a legacy of colonialism. Before we had the financial sector that we do now, we did have this kind of hierarchical global order with Europe at the center of it.
The whole idea of of industrial agriculture is that there are certain places that are essentially sacrifice zones where raw commodities are grown, and labor is exploited and is as cheap as possible. And the purpose of those places is generally to grow monocultures. Think the plantation model, but in various forms of some kind of raw product and export it as cheaply as possible to places that are then going to process it into foods that people eat.
And over time, one of the objectives of that whole system was also to create cheap food for working people so that their wages could be kept low. So the purpose of the whole food system is all about serving this sort of larger global capitalist order and not about how we create sustainable lives in a place, whether you’re thinking about the plants in the food system, or the soil in the food system, or, of course, the people in the food system. So it’s very global, it’s export oriented, its purpose is cheap food, and it’s been drawing on a non-renewable pool of resources for a long time.
BI: The central argument in Healing Grounds is that this is not the only system that currently exists. What are some of those alternative systems?
LC: Yeah, so community food systems are coexisting with this industrial food system. And those community food systems have a very different purpose, which is to meet the nutritional needs of people in the immediate area, and to sustain the ecological base from which they spring. Which is to say, if somebody expects to be in the same place for a while and they’re going to continue to feed their family from that land, you know, seven generations into the future, built into their food system is the idea that you have to put organic matter back so that you can continue to grow that food into the future. You have to make the land whole, if you’re taking something out of it, and not just use up resources until it can’t grow food anymore.
There are all kinds of incredible community food systems all over the world and rural areas and urban areas that parallel this industrial food system, and, you know, often hidden often in the informal economy or not involving cash transfers at all.
BI: The characters in your book seem really intentionally selected as this set of young women of color that are working in agriculture in various ways—as researchers and scientists, but also farmers and leaders of nonprofits. How did you go about making the decision that those are the people you wanted to feature as the main characters? How did you go about finding and recruiting them, and gaining their trust in order to tell their stories so beautifully?
LC: The racial identity piece was very intentional, and came from that sort of process of thinking through the question of what is regeneration that we were just talking about. Gender and age were not intentional at all. But it was interesting that when I sort of got far enough along in the book, the characters were kind of stable, and I realized, “Wow, young people and women are clearly playing a really important role in this process of regeneration.” So now that’s an analytical question for me to reflect on, because that’s a lot of who I found.
And it was also, I have to say, very interesting as somebody whose entire career to this point has involved from interviewing my elders to interviewing people who are younger than I am. It’s actually awesome. As a person who teaches undergraduates, it really made me reflect on how I am going to take leadership from youth going forward. It’s exciting!
The whole tapestry of the book is informed by dozens and dozens of people whose names are in the acknowledgments. As I was learning more about histories of African diaspora agroforestry, for example, or Mesoamerican polyculture, I was also thinking about people whose personal stories intersect the histories of these large, heterogeneous communities that they’re a part of. They offer opportunities for me to make those connections like a narrative writer. I imagine most readers connect most strongly with a contemporary character who’s living in the same time and place more or less as they are.
Those people become a guide to walk you through history. I was thinking about experiences of people like Aidee Guzman—her story as both a scientist and as a person raised in a farmworker family in the Central Valley intersects so much of the story of the encounter between US industrial agriculture and Mexican-American society. It’s just an incredible opportunity to weave the present and the past together.
BI: I would recommend anyone that reads the book read the acknowledgments, too, and look up all the incredible people that are part of your community that helped bring this work to life, because it’s really an all-star collection of agroecologists and other cool people.
LC: Yeah, I had an incredible amount of help with this project. I learned so much along the way of this book, so I was the first to be taught along the process.
Featured image: Hmong farmer and produce company owner Vue Her who grows several Asian specialty crops in Singer, CA, an area where many immigrant growers practice polyculture farming. Photo by US Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2018.
Ben Iuliano is the Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research is concerned with the ecological and social dimensions of beneficial insect conservation in agricultural landscapes. Ben also holds an M.Sc. in Agroecology from UW-Madison. Twitter. Contact.
Liz Carlisle is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses on food and farming. Born and raised in Montana, she got hooked on agriculture while working as an aide to organic farmer and U.S. Senator Jon Tester, which led to a decade of research and writing collaborations with farmers in her home state. She has written three books about regenerative farming and agroecology: Lentil Underground (2015), Grain by Grain (2019, with co-author Bob Quinn), and most recently, Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming (2022). Contact.