excerpt from THE GROUND UP
This part of the story begins in the before time. A time before masks, before work from home, before takeout only. Before the tremor of COVID-19 became an earthquake. Before almost a million Americans took their last breath.
Now, in the after time, we might call the day on which this story starts a normal fall day—normal in the sense that the economy hummed like a song in the background, people shook hands without fear, and grocery stores were always stocked. On this day, which is September 13, 2019, I board a plane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Asheville, North Carolina. I rent a car and wind through the Blue Ridge Mountains on my way to the city of Boone, toward a plotline I am still discovering and a story that will shapeshift soon after I write the first draft. I don’t know it at the time, but on that September day I embark on a narrative road with disorienting and unforeseen twists, much like the mountain roads I drive.
As the tulip poplars and maples flash by, I think about what I do know: The total number of female farmers in America jumped by 27 percent from 2012 to 2017, from 969,672 women to 1,227,461, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.[i] Meanwhile, the number of male farmers fell by 1.7 percent. Women now account for 36 percent of total producers, up from 30 percent in both the 2012 and 2007 ag censuses and 26 percent in the 2002 count. The face of farming is changing, especially in the last eight years.
I know that most of America’s female farmers don’t work on large-scale, conventional, specialized commodity operations with massive machinery, agrochemicals, GMOs, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) like their male counterparts typically do. Instead, women farm on comparatively smaller operations, and they tend to reject standardization in favor of diversification. Many women also market their goods directly to local consumers via farmers’ markets, food hubs, partnerships with restaurants and stores, and other creative outlets.
I also know that women farmers, particularly newcomers, are more likely than men to rely on regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture means using holistic farming and grazing practices that restore soil health, rebuild organic matter, recharge grasslands, improve water systems, sequester carbon, and reestablish biodiversity above and below the ground. These practices help reverse climate change and produce nutrient-rich food far more effectively than industrial agriculture—two of many reasons women gravitate toward regenerative production, according to researchers who have studied them. In The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, sociologist Carolyn Sachs and her colleagues write that, “Women farmers report an interest in sustainable practices for multiple reasons, including respect for the inherent integrity of natural ecosystems and a feeling of responsibility to customers, family members, community members, and future generations. They describe concerns about the current food system, a system that is chemical- and energy-intensive and results in the waste of food and natural products.”[ii] In other words, women are going into farming to fix our broken food system and make agriculture a force for environmental good instead of harm.
In that moment, navigating my rental car past weathered grey tobacco barns and Christmas tree farms, my knowledge about women in the food system comes from researched books, scientific papers, newspaper accounts, and preliminary phone interviews. I’m still in the secondhand when I crave the direct. I am like those women who once lived other lives – as hotel workers, accountants, customer service reps – before turning to agriculture: I have to get to the land.
My desire for firsthand stories is why I am in western North Carolina, heading to Against the Grain, a diversified, regenerative farm owned and operated by Holly Whitesides. Meeting Holly is like encountering a version of myself in another life. We look somewhat alike: blonde hair, fair skin, freckles. We are both in our 30s and a bit over five feet tall with trim builds. She even wears a long-sleeved turquoise and white plaid shirt similar to one I own. Years before buying this farm, Holly worked on a spread in South Dakota, the same state I grew up in; she knows the smell of the prairie after rain, the ripple of wheat in the wind, the otherworldly cold of a hailstone. This is what I might look and sound like, I think to myself as we chat, had I become a farmer like generations of my family before me.
Holly’s agrarian journey started when she left her family’s home in High Point, North Carolina, to pursue a biology degree in Minnesota. While employed on a small farm outside of the Twin Cities, she decided to make agriculture her life’s work. “I started thinking about food and our food system and how it all worked, and I was just realizing pretty quickly that it was overwhelmingly broken. This was back in the late 90s, early 2000s, as GMOs were just starting to be launched. I thought, well, how do I want to plug into that? I felt like farming was something I could do that would utilize my strengths.”
Holly understood that industrial agriculture fuels climate change, destroys rural communities, and produces food lacking in nutrients and vitality—and like a growing number of young women, she wasn’t content to watch the system continue. After a few seasons of farming in South Dakota, she returned east to what she calls “deep family roots” in western North Carolina’s mountains. In 2009, she met Andy Bryant, and the next year they were farming organically together. They purchased a 20-acre home farm in 2012, married in 2013, and bought another 15 acres of land in 2018 for running livestock. Two acres of the home farm are devoted to vegetable production. Holly farmed full-time starting the first year, and Andy joined her full-time in 2015.
From day one, the couple knew they needed to rebuild the farm’s soil fertility after decades of conventional, extractive agriculture. “We realized after looking at an old soil survey map that we actually didn’t have any topsoil anymore, that we were farming basically in our sub soil,” Holly says. “We realized, wow, we have a lot of work to do to build our farm into something that’s really nourishing, not only for the community that supports us financially, but also regenerates what we have, biologically and environmentally.”
Holly and Andy—who shares Holly’s commitment to what she and other regenerative farmers often call “the three pillars” of environmental, social, and economic regeneration—started incorporating biodynamic practices on their land in 2013, which complemented USDA organic techniques they were already using. Biodynamic agriculture has much in common with regenerative agriculture: the farm is treated as a living organism; fostering biodiversity and on-farm fertility is a priority; animals receive ethical treatment and participate in the farm ecosystem; pests and diseases are dealt with holistically rather than with chemicals; and such farming should boost the social, physical, and economic health of surrounding communities.[iii]
Some people view biodynamic and organic as forms of regenerative agriculture, and most theorists would agree (as do I) that both are preferable to conventional ag or shallow organic ag. One way regenerative goes beyond both biodynamic and organic, though, is its intense focus on building soil organic matter and sequestering carbon. Biodynamic and organic operations can certainly enrich soil, but it’s more of a side benefit than a requirement on its own. Holly saw this firsthand: after a few years, her soil wasn’t improving fast enough with biodynamic and organic methods. And for an operation starting with no topsoil, speed mattered.
The main problem, Holly realized, was cultivation, a practice allowed under both biodynamic and organic standards but that reduces soil fertility, releases carbon into the atmosphere, and disrupts the delicate ecological life in the soil. But how to eliminate tillage, which is to say go no-till or low-till, on a vegetable farm? No-till farming means planting crops directly into the soil instead of cultivating first to kill weeds and break up the ground. That process did not seem like an option for vegetable seedlings that cover crops or weeds might crowd out, or for the farm’s heavy, clay-based soil that seemed to require cultivation, or for a temperate rainforest like the Blue Ridge Mountains, where high rainfall equals serious weed and disease pressure.
A conversation with prominent regenerative agriculturalist Gabe Brown led Holly in October 2017 to Singing Frogs Farm, a regenerative vegetable farm in Sonoma County, California, helmed by Elizabeth Kaiser. There Holly learned regenerative practices like companion planting, or growing two or more species together that benefit one another. For example, marigolds repel pests, so they are a common companion for vegetables. Holly also learned how to cut out crop debris (instead of pulling or tilling it out) and use geotextile fabric and burlap to keep soil covered when necessary. She upped compost applications, diversified the crop rotations even more, and intentionally committed to the tenets of conservation tillage: disturb the soil as little as possible; grow many species of plants; keep living plants in the soil; keep soil covered; and incorporate animals and animal manures. Holly, Andy, and their team of employees implemented these new ideas in 2018 and built on them further in 2019. “We have worked to drastically reduce our tillage and only work the soil when the conditions are right,” she says.
Livestock are another important component of regenerative agriculture at Against the Grain. Holly started with goats the first year and has since introduced beef cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. The livestock make the farm resemble a natural ecosystem with symbiotic relationships between plants and animals; think livestock fertilizing soil with waste, or predator insects (abundant because of the pesticide-free crops) controlling flies or worms on the livestock. Livestock deliver economic and biological stability, Holly says. “They provide this loop that we feel is super valuable in terms of cycling nutrients on the farm,” she tells me. “We feel like the animals do contribute to the overall regenerative picture at our farm. In terms of the regenerative picture for ourselves and our quality of life, we really want to eat meat from our own farm, so there’s that piece, too.”
In two growing seasons, Holly has already witnessed the power of regenerative agricultural practices to improve soil health and boost crop yields. “Our soil organic matter continues to climb and is at around 5 percent in most of our fields,” she says. “This may seem low compared to farms like Singing Frogs, who have upwards of 10 percent-plus organic matter, but we’re only seeing the numbers climb, which for our old mountain soils is a big improvement.” The farm is also making more money: since 2015, the gross income on the two acres in vegetable production has increased by 15 to 20 percent each year. Holly looks forward to unlocking even more potential in the 2020 growing season and beyond. “It’s this beautiful unfolding and refining process constantly,” Holly says. “That’s one of the really amazing things about farming – you’ve never fully arrived. I think that can be frustrating for some people, because they feel like it’s not completely predictable and it’s not totally systematic. But in another sense, the farm is always revealing itself more, and you’re always learning more, and you’re always diving deeper. There’s always more to be gained. At the same time, you have [arrived] because here you are and you’re doing your thing, you’re on your path, but there’s always more to uncover, and I think that can be really stimulating and inspiring to keep working toward.”
Against the Grain went regenerative just in time to avoid the worst effects of several 100-year floods that hit the Boone area in 2018. The phrase “100-year flood” means a flood so strong that statistically it has just a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year based on historical data. Note that a 100-year flood does not mean a flood of that strength will occur only every 100 years; such floods can happen more often, as they did in 2018.[iv] The combination of climate change and our reshaping of nature’s water pathways—think urban building on floodplains and the draining of wetlands—means 100-year floods are more common. Regenerative farms are better positioned to survive extreme floods because their soils contain more water-absorbing carbon and, because they are kept covered, are less prone to erosion. Such was the case at Against the Grain. “We saw increased fungal disease pressure, and we definitely saw some loss to all that,” Holly says about the 2018 floods. “But we still had a better season than we did the year before, and we’re attributing it to the beginnings of our regenerative practices.”
Disasters like strong storms, droughts, or floods are just one way climate change threatens American farms. Another threat is the breaking of norms established over millennia. Climate change is already causing warmer seasons in some areas and cooler seasons in others, shifting insect, weed, and animal populations, and varying rain and snow patterns. We see the fluctuations clearly in the wine industry, as grapes that thrived in a region for hundreds of years suddenly (within the last 30 years, that is) cannot fruit properly and sometimes die. Conversely, regions that were too cold for grapes are now home to thriving vineyards. In America, the wheat and corn belts are creeping north as temperatures rise, and if the trend continues then the nation’s mid-section, traditionally our breadbasket, will be too hot and dry for production, or at least the industrial production that happens now.
I ask Holly what climate change looks like from her perspective. “It’s hard to pinpoint, but I feel like it’s more extremes. Like it’ll warm up a lot in the spring, and then it will get really cold again. Or it’ll cool off in the fall and then it gets really hot again,” Holly says. “Like right now, it’s in the high 80s and it’s mid-September. Like, what is going on? It’s dry here; it hasn’t rained in two weeks and we’re in a temperate rainforest. It’s just more erratic, I would say. Last year, we had over 100 inches of rain in the season, which is a lot to manage and deal with. But we saw, with our practices, we still had a better year in 2018 than we had in 2017, at least financially and productivity wise. We saw weaknesses in the farm, and that’s what these wild, erratic weather patterns will do. They show you weaknesses, and sometimes they can be catastrophic for a farm. The question is, what do you do with that then as a farmer? Do you have the reserves, emotionally and physically and financially, to come back from an extreme or a catastrophe, like a crazy windstorm or hail or whatever? Or is that it for you?”
What Holly is getting at is the concept of resiliency, and it is a crucial way regenerative agriculture helps steel farms against both temporary extremes and long-term shifts. Industrial, conventional farms are too specialized, too large, too dependent on chemical inputs and technology, too hog-tied by global markets, and too focused on yield per acre to adapt quickly. The weaknesses climate change reveals on a conventional farm can seem insurmountable. How do you cut carbon emissions when the entire farming process is mechanized? How can crops survive without inputs in soil deadened by decades of industrial production, soil that offers no moisture buffer during droughts and can’t capture water during floods? When prices crash for one crop or livestock type, how can a large farm that has spent thousands or millions specializing in one or two products transition to something new?
But farms that produce their own nutrients instead of relying on oil-based fertilizers are resilient. Farms with soils that absorb water during wet times and store it for dry times are resilient. Farms that address insect and disease pressure not with chemicals but with natural processes, like intercropping and diversification, are resilient. Farms that refuse to specialize in one or two cash crops or animals and instead grow what works with the environment around them are resilient. Farms that grow food for their communities and regions rather than fickle global and national markets are resilient. Farms that store carbon instead of emitting it are resilient. Resiliency means we can avoid the crop failures, food shortages, and rural economic collapses that will surely happen if we continue relying on industrial agriculture in a changing climate or, as we saw in 2020, during a pandemic.
[i] Producer data is from the USDA’s 2017 and 2012 Census of Agriculture.
[ii] Carolyn E. Sachs, Mary E. Barbercheck, Kathryn J. Brasier, Nancy Ellen Kiernan, and Anna Rachel Terman. The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture. University of Iowa Press, 2016, pg. 83.
[iii] To learn more about biodynamic farming, visit the Biodynamic Association’s website: www.biodynamics.com.
[iv] Information about the term “100-year flood” is from the United State Geological Survey (USGS): https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/100-year-flood?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
is the author of One Size Fits None, released in January 2019 with University of Nebraska Press. Stephanie’s essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch, The Chronicle Review, Sweet, and others. Her essay “Greyhound” won the 2016 Payton James Freeman Essay Prize. Stephanie’s work is also featured in the essay collection Permanent Vacation: Eighteen Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks, Vol. 2.