One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl's Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture
University of Nebraska Press, 2019
a Cc interview with Stephanie Anderson
Carbon Copy (Cc): While some have made the transition to regenerative agriculture, why do you think there is still resistance, barring the seemingly ever-present financial hurdle?
Stephanie Anderson (SA): I think resistance happens for numerous reasons that often occur simultaneously. In many rural communities, there is deep suspicion of systems that seem to put environmental, animal, or social concerns above business and profit, and ideas that appear liberal or leftist. Regenerative agriculture, of course, prioritizes quality, abundant food and animal production, environmental health, fair income for farmers, and healthy rural communities all at once, and it’s not at all a fringe leftist philosophy. But some folks don’t see regenerative agriculture that way; they see it as an attack on conventional agriculture and, by extension, them and their way of life. Many farmers recognize that weather events are more extreme and weather patterns are changing, but many of those same people deny the reality of climate change. Because regenerative ag is connected to the climate change discussion, some producers want nothing to do with it.
More broadly, doing things differently from one’s neighbors, whether it’s going regenerative or just trying something as minor as a new crop or holding a different political opinion, can result in social isolation and scorn that’s difficult to bear. I hear this over and over from regenerative producers. Plus, people fear change, which is natural and human. That’s why we need to provide financial and social support for farmers, so they feel more confident to embrace change.
Cc: In the larger conversation surrounding conventional vs. regenerative agriculture there is a general theme from the perspective of the latter that argues regenerative agriculture requires more mental and emotional fortitude than the conventional approach. Do you think this is true? Or do you think statements like this are missing something?
SA: Farming and ranching take nerves of steel, whether it’s regenerative or conventional. Agriculture requires immense mental and emotional fortitude, period. I respect farmers and ranchers whatever their practices. In my view, one area where regenerative ag demands more courage is in a social sense. Regenerative producers often experience social rejection for reasons I mentioned above. I also think regenerative takes more mental and emotional complexity in the sense that it requires empathy and concern not just for one’s bottom line, but for a much wider range of things: ecosystem services, soil health, animal welfare, symbiotic relationships between species, equitable conditions for workers, and so on. Thinking regeneratively means seeing yourself and your operation as parts of, not in opposition to, the environment.
Cc: In your book, One Size Fits None, you describe your personal transition from conventional to regenerative farming as a process in which you become disillusioned with the former. That process seems like it was a monumental shift because it challenged a foundational belief. Is this something you’ve seen others go through?
SA: It was a monumental shift! Many farmers I talked to for the book or afterward when doing public events described their transition that way, too. Usually, I don’t have the chance to witness the transition firsthand, but in one instance I did. My brother, Josh, was much like me growing up in terms of our beliefs about farming. But once I began researching the book and telling him about the people I visited and practices I witnessed, his ideas began to shift. I am so proud of him for being open-minded.
Cc: In both of your books, it is clear you did a great deal of field research with people like Holly Whitesides, Kevin O’Dare (KO), and Gabe Brown to learn about regenerative agriculture. During this process it also seems you were able to learn about their personal journey’s with the practice. Did you notice anything that seemed common across the board regarding the mental and emotional change regenerative agriculture requires? Or did each person seem challenged in different ways?
SA: Each interviewee experienced unique pathways into regenerative ag and a variety of challenges along the way. But I did notice some common themes. These farmers aren’t working alone; they have family, friends, and experienced workers surrounding them. This support is so important not just for getting work done, but for idea generation, affirmation, and joy. Another key theme is the next generation. Everyone I spoke with talked about how they worked for the sake of their children and future generations more broadly. They want to leave the land healthy and productive for those that come after them.
Cc: In, From the Ground Up, you talk about the regenerative practice known as “companion planting,” e.g., planting marigolds with vegetables since marigolds repel pests. What is the most interesting pairing you have come across?
SA: This isn’t companion planting exactly, but learning about intercropping, or planting two crops at the same time, blew my mind. Gabe Brown told me about planting wheat (a cash crop) with clovers (a cover crop) for instance. I never imagined a person could plant something else with a cash crop. How would it be harvested? Could you keep the cover crop separate from the cash crop? Turns out a combine is perfectly capable of straight cutting wheat without gathering up the shorter clover. I think some of my former conventional mindset lingered in that moment because, until Gabe opened my eyes, I had always seen cash crops as isolated or independent entities. But they don’t have to be.
Cc: In, From the Ground Up, you also state that women are more likely than men to adopt the regenerative approach to agriculture. While I was reading this I wondered why, and I couldn’t help but hear phrases like “systemic”, “gender roles”, etc. though I’m sure it’s much more complicated than these buzz words. Why do you think women are more likely than men to use regenerative agriculture? Have you learned why this is the case?
SA: This is a question that I’m still parsing out. Based on dozens of interviews I’ve done with agricultural experts, women working in the food system, and social scientists, the answer is complex. A common theme is that women might be gifted at seeing connections within the “whole” of the world. They see links between soil and nutrition, between their decisions and life for future generations, between their farms and the surrounding community. Women tend to be less resistant to change and more collaborative in how they approach agriculture. They also take climate change and health more seriously. I don’t want to essentialize all women or all men, or anyone for that matter. I don’t want to reinforce harmful gender stereotypes either. But I am seeing women leading the way toward regenerative eating in many spaces—on the land and in the food chain, in financing, within advocacy groups and government, and in science.
Cc: Why do you think growing food for our local communities and regions rather than national markets is so important?
SA: COVID showed us what can happen when national markets get interrupted. The war in Ukraine is revealing even greater risks to international markets. Long supply chains are risky, whereas shorter supply chains are more resilient. Large corporations bear great responsibility for building a food system that is top-heavy, cumbersome to control, and inefficient. To me, local and regional eating is about food security in a world that’s rapidly warming and thus more vulnerable to all kinds of disruptions. Farmers and ranchers are much more likely to receive fair prices in local and regional markets. The connection between farmer and consumer is closer in such markets, too, and seeing one another can lead to greater care and concern on both ends. Obviously some food needs to be sourced nationally and internationally. But we can greatly reduce the amount.
To end on a positive note, women are working hard to create such a system. I can’t wait to share more on what I continue to find on this subject!
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.