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    PloughCast 10: Amish Regenerative Agriculture and Transhumanist Medicine

    Creatures, Part 4

    By John Kempf, Susannah Black Roberts and Peter Mommsen

    June 22, 2021

    About this Episode

    Pete and Susannah discuss Pater Edmund Waldstein’s piece “Lords of Nature.” What does it mean to respect the nature of human beings, including the integrity of their bodies? If we can reshape our own bodies and customize our children using new genetic technologies – should we? What does it look like to honor human nature rather than seek to dominate it?

    Then, the hosts speak with John Kempf about his piece “Regenerative Agriculture: An Amish Farmer’s Quest to Heal the Land.” What is regenerative agriculture? How is it distinguished from organic farming? Isn’t it more labor intensive, and doesn’t that mean that it will require some unrealistic percentage of people to return to farming? Above all, can it feed the world? Don’t we depend on high-input farming, complete with fertilizers and pesticides, to be able to produce as much as we do?

    Kempf makes a strong case that not only is regenerative agriculture – which seeks to rebuild soil health and plants’ own immune systems, as opposed to depending on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – the only kind of agriculture that will enable our farmland to feed many generations in the future, it’s also more productive now. And it honors the intricate interdependency of plant, animal, human, and microbial life that reflects the wisdom of the Creator.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    I. Pater Edmund Waldstein: “The Lords of Nature”

    Susannah: And we’re back with the “Lords of Nature” edition of The PloughCast. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of Plough. Today, we’ll be talking about a piece in the most recent issue of Plough, the Nature issue, which takes a look at the ethical and religious implications of medical technologies that allow us to mold our bodies to our desires. Should people be able to claim absolute lordship over their bodies?

    Susannah: Then we’ll be talking with Amish farmer John Kempf, who’s emerged as an advocate for regenerative agricultural practices.

    Peter: Let’s dive into this article by Pater Edmund Waldstein, a longtime Plough contributor and monk at the Stift Heiligenkreuz monastery in Austria. Susannah, this is one of the more philosophically heavy pieces in the issue, but it’s very readable.

    Susannah: Yeah, Pater Edmund is one of our two non-boring Thomists who we repeatedly ask to do the deep philosophical pieces.

    Peter: What do you think the other Thomists think when you say the two non-boring Thomists?

    Susannah: I’m not saying that there are only two non-boring Thomists. I’m just saying that those two are non-boring Thomists.

    Peter: So the question Pater Edmund poses is: New medical technologies promise to let us mold our bodies at will. Should we use them? And he starts with two examples from the news. Recently, one is the example of a Chinese biophysicist who in 2019 actually gene-edited two twin babies to make them resistant to the HIV virus using CRISPR technology. And then he uses another example of a surgeon in Italy who claimed to be able to, or prepared to, perform a head transplant – a somewhat grisly example, which may not be actually technologically possible. We don’t know that.

    But as an example, it does usefully help pose a question, together with the CRISPR gene editing example: Should we just be able to switch out parts of our bodies or switch out genes or make our kids different, so that they’re either better or more resistant and healthy? And I’m not sure – in this podcast, Susannah, what do we want to focus on? Because there’s so many things that you could focus on. I know that to me, part of this piece and the necessity of doing the genealogy behind some of these modern moves to have radical lordship over the human bodies has to do with long development at least in Western society, right?

    Susannah: Yeah. And he does this long intellectual genealogy, a kind of, I don’t know, Alasdair MacIntyre style thing, from Descartes to Bacon and so on.

    Peter: But if you’re not interested in Descartes and the Romantic reaction, don’t tune out now, because actually, this comes down to some stuff that’s a lot more intuitive. Like, why do we think it’s a bad thing that blue whales might go extinct?

    Susannah: Or why do we think there’s something wrong with it if, I don’t know, an elephant is stuck in the Bronx Zoo with no other elephants around just on a concrete pad all day? It’s a question of whether there is such a thing as nature, and whether there are such things as the natures of creatures, and this is the Creatures issue. And so this is really getting at the question of human nature. And at the end of this piece, he ends in a place where I think we want to begin, which is with this quote from –

    Peter: Joseph Ratzinger.

    Susannah: Joseph Ratzinger.

    Peter: Pope Benedict XVI. To the German Bundestag in 2011. And the German parliament, of course, has a pretty strong Green Party element who have rightly and in admirable ways actually advocated for ecological consciousness with great success. And with climate change looming, this is a topic that can’t just be waved away. And the Pope, and I think it would be good to read this, the Pope applauded their efforts to protect nature, to protect, in Christian terms, creation and to see the inherent dignity of it.

    But he asked them to extend the same line of thinking to human beings. So if nature ought to be respected, then perhaps human beings should be too. And their nature … It would be better to hear it in the pope’s own words.

    Susannah: Why don’t you do it?

    Peter: [reading]

    I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past. There is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature. And his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way and in no other is true human freedom fulfilled.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and obviously there’s been a lot of reflection in, particularly, Catholic theological circles. Most recently, Pope Francis has in an encyclical expanded on some of these insights. But let’s talk a little bit more about this in layperson’s terms. Let’s go back to the origins of the modern ecological movement. So let’s say, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, where she raised people’s consciousness of the effects of pesticides on birds. And there was this intuitive sense across the country that resulted in all kinds of protections, eventually, the Endangered Species Act, to protect birds.

    For instance, bald eagles, right? When I was a kid, to see a bald eagle in the Hudson Valley was like this once in a lifetime thing. I remember seeing my first bald eagle when I was probably in fourth grade and thinking that I might never see a bald eagle again. Now, when I go striped bass fishing on the Hudson, I see several bald eagles every time in just a two, three hour fishing spot.

    So [Carson] was great. But why was that so powerful? And it was because people felt, It’s really, really bad for bald eagles to go extinct, and for all these other birds to go extinct; for there to be a “silent spring” with no songbirds; we really think that there’s an intrinsic value in songbirds, even if that doesn’t show up in GDP or anything else.

    Susannah: And then also, I think the other thing to think about is the way that we’ve started to think about agriculture and humane animal-keeping practices and the problems with factory farms. It’s not just that it’s good for animals not to go extinct, but it’s also good for animals to be able to be themselves and to have what they need in order to thrive.

    Peter: And it’s not even just a matter of “Are they suffering?” So, some conventional farmers will say, well, Pigs actually prefer to be indoors, right, where it’s heated, rather than out on a pasture where it’s cold and potentially wet. But there’s a gradual growing recognition that a pig really needs to be allowed to be a pig. It needs to be able to root around. It shouldn’t just be on a concrete pad in close confinement, even if supposedly the pig is comfortable being a couch potato pig full of antibiotics. And we have a great piece in one of our earlier issues, by the way, with a pig farmer, Joel Salatin, and we’re going to be talking with another farmer in a few minutes.

    Taquen, The Past, acrylic on handwoven fabric

    Taquen, The Past, acrylic on handwoven fabric Used by permission from the artist.

    II. More Waldstein: Human Ecology

    Susannah: And I think that we intuitively feel this with ourselves too. There is something – as much as we were talking over lunch about how much I love Twitter and how I think it’s an actual good in the world, we do intuitively feel that being inside on social media all day, even if we want to be, or it’s comfortable emotionally and physically, that’s not being fully human. The kind of creature that humans are is the creature that needs to go out and play with dogs.

    Peter: Right, or plant a garden.

    Susannah: Or plant a garden.

    Peter: Or build something.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: Or whatever it might be. So, Pope Benedict here talks about that a little: What is the ecology of man? What does it mean to respect human beings as part of nature? Right. And the irony is, okay, so I think we need to acknowledge up front that a lot of people are a little uncomfortable about this discussion, although it sounds so high minded and philosophical, because it inevitably impinges on some pretty hot button.…

    Susannah: Culture war issues.

    Peter: Yeah.

    Susannah: And we do not want to do that. That is not our not our MO here at Plough. We’re not culture war people.

    Peter: But it is important because those issues do matter. It’s not like they don’t matter. But you can’t really persuade people across some of those divides. But I think what we can do is come to a respect for human nature no matter where are you land on stuff like the roles of men and women, biological differences, gender theory, transgender. That’s one set of issues. Another set of issues might be assisted suicide or, as Pater Edmund points out, gene editing, right? These are all hot button issues that people can easily get passionate about, and that obscures talking about things that we might actually agree on.

    Susannah: Right.

    Peter: So, since we’re peace loving Anabaptists – I am. And you’re a peace-loving –

    Susannah: I’m peace-loving Anglican.

    Peter: Yeah. Why don’t we at least start by talking about some things we could agree on? Like, what is the natural human habitat? What is a natural human life? What is good for human beings? What makes human beings flourish? Just like we want the elephant in the Bronx Zoo to flourish. And we want the blue whales to flourish and want the bold eagles to flourish. I’m not sure I want deer ticks to flourish.

    Susannah: I don’t want deer ticks to flourish.

    Peter: But we want there to be some deer ticks because they probably do play a role. They’re just playing too big a role right now. And I think one aspect of this is that, for instance, a lot of people could agree on is human beings are a species that recreates itself. So you need fathers and mothers and kids being raised happily with parents who are able to take care of them. So that’s a whole bunch of economic questions that gets down into, how do you support families? How do you allow parents to spend time raising the next generation? In other words, not to be so driven by their jobs and careers, that they don’t have adequate time to be good parents, which is really, from a nature point of view, really the most important thing a parent can be is to be a good parent. Not that everyone has to be parents, of course.

    Susannah: Yeah. And obviously from a Christian perspective, there is something more to us than just being parts of nature, but that doesn’t mean that the nature part is obviated. And the other aspect to this is that it’s true, and he talks about this a bunch in the piece, that part of human nature is a cooperation in our own self making, and it’s also the case that we don’t live alone: man is by nature a political animal, an animal that lives in the polis. And so we live in cities, many of us do, and that is also part of our nature.

    But even in those terms … so it’s not that technology is bad. It’s not that we all need to be living on rural communes in upstate New York. Some of us can be living in New York City. But even in terms of living in the city, my girl Jane Jacobs talks a lot about the natural ordering of cities. Philip Bess is also great about this, and John Massengale, whom everyone should follow on Twitter. There’s a sense in which even in our built environment, even in our art, even in our technology, there are ways to work with our nature and ways that are kind of punishing towards our nature.

    Peter: So, let’s talk about Jane Jacobs and urbanism from the point of view of what Pope Benedict said about respecting man’s nature, because I think a lot of people, when they hear this whole “ecology” stuff, they think national parks, they think about endangered species, they think about the Amazon rainforest, and they don’t think about cities.

    Susannah: Yeah. And so John Massengale, again, is this guy who is very into the walkable city. And there’s a lot of research [about how certain kinds of built environments are better for us], but it’s also like, you don’t need that much research. It feels good to be in certain kinds of cities and it feels awful to be in other kinds. And the kinds that it feels good to be in are the kinds that you can walk around, and they’re architecturally interesting, and they make you feel welcome, and they’re not boring. And there’s beauty and there’s variety, and it doesn’t feel like they’re built for cars or giant, mournful robots. And those kinds of cities … go to lower Manhattan, that’s the kind of city that makes you feel human, even though it’s not being in nature. It’s being in a kind of nature that’s appropriate to humans.

    Peter: And in an earlier episode of this podcast series, Susannah, you actually mentioned that one of your first semi-mystical experiences of nature was actually in Manhattan.

    Susannah: Yup. Yup.

    Peter: And I love upstate New York, I grew up around New Paltz, I feel probably most at home in the country, but I love going to Manhattan. I always have. And there’s just a sense of – this is humanity. This really is a symbol of, a kind of fallen symbol, obviously, of what we’re all aiming for. The peoples of the world together, people interacting, the interpersonal reactions you do have, the kind people you do encounter.

    Susannah: Even on the subway.

    Peter: And the sheer variety of humankind is a remarkable and good thing. And that’s what makes me suspicious, even as a guy who does live in a rural commune, you could say, of visions of the human good that just involve withdrawing to the Isle of Innisfree, far from the madding crowd.

    Susannah: But the nine bean-rows are appealing sometimes.

    Peter: They’re great. But come back to the nine bean-rows. Just have a Manhattan that you can go to when bean harvest is over.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: There’s another aspect of, and we’re just … I think we’re just teasing things out here, but there’s another aspect of respect for human nature, which is how kids are raised, right? What does your education system look like? Is it an education system that’s designed to create a workforce, or is it an education system that’s good for kids? And of course that’s deeply intertwined with expectations on employees, and whether there’s going to be parents at home when the kiddos come home, or are those parents going to be required to do unquestionable shift hours? Are they going to be there for the weekends? Are they going to be subject to the demands of their boss via Slack and Asana and other evil –

    Susannah: – things with which you oppress me.

    Peter: Yeah. Well, exactly, things that we too use here, but we try to avoid, I think, pinging each other at midnight or after five, because we’ve recognized that we all have friendships and family lives and things that are also important, right? And that on Sunday – Sunday should be a Sunday. I love in this regard, I’ve just been thinking in terms of the pope’s remarks about the nature of man; reading, again, Fredrik deBoer’s book The Cult of Smart, where he really takes aim at this very utilitarian view of education as there to produce a bunch of smart workers, rather than human beings.

    Susannah: Highly qualified in a very specific semi-technical way.

    Peter: But they’ve had impoverished childhoods. They’ve sat in classrooms for far too long each day, far more than they should. And the fact is that, yeah, there’s a certain percentage of kids who may thrive with a lot of academic challenge and maybe bookworms and all that, but there’s actually a whole bunch of kids who aren’t that, right? Particularly, a whole bunch of boys at certain ages of their development were sticking them in a classroom and expecting them to behave for six to eight hours a day is just madness, and talk about something unnatural, right?

    Susannah: It is bizarre to sort of … When you start to think about it, like, these are child zoos half the time. These are child zoos.

    Peter: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Speaking of elephants, we have child zoos.

    Susannah: Yeah. Okay, one more piece in this issue that everyone should read is Maureen Swinger’s piece about basically spending her second grade year in the forest, and that just sounds ideal.

    Peter: Well, it is ideal. And the thing is that it doesn’t need to be an ideal. And this is where conservatives love to knock the idea of socialist nirvanas in Scandinavia, and yeah, there’s nowhere that’s heaven on this earth right now. But there are countries where the school day is actually short, where kids start doing class later – at age seven or even eight they start first grade, where you have your academics done by noon, and then you go out and do stuff. This is eminently achievable, and it’s actually just really crazy to me, that we try to force kids, and in many cases, medicate kids into behaving in environments that kids were not made to be in.

    Susannah: Yeah. There’s a reason that it’s a problem, and it’s because it’s not working with the way that kids are.

    Peter: Yeah. So that’s kids. We’re going through our human ecology manifesto here, aren’t we?

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: So we’ve done the Matt Bruenig Family Fun Pack, and we’ve done education. Is there anything else that we can solve right here quickly on this podcast session?

    Susannah: Yeah!

    Peter: We’ve done urbanism too. So, and, yeah. So, city designs, suburbs.

    Susannah: Yeah. I want to do work, because – so a lot of what we’ve talked about seems to have an implication that leisure is better than work, and that leisure is more natural. And I think that actually the way that we think about work is profoundly unhuman and that there is a way that we can think about work – like actual productive, economically fruitful, materially fruitful work – that works with human nature. And there’s a lot of indications in this from our tradition. There was work before the fall. Work is not the result of the fall. And it seems to me that another thing that we can solve here is how to fix work.

    Peter: So, how do we fix work?

    Susannah: I don’t know, man. We podcasted this morning and then I went back to have lunch with you and Wilma, and then you went for a walk with your dog and I went for a wander in Fox Hill, and then we’re podcasting again. And I’m living in the primitive communist paradise or something.

    Peter: Well, I do think, living within a community in which we don’t own anything and nobody’s paid for their work, I can only say that people naturally do want to work. And so I’ll stretch back to a year ago when we had our first Covid lockdowns and we too, within the Bruderhof, [were] kind of stuck with our own families and we couldn’t go to work because nobody quite knew where this Covid thing was going, what was safe to do, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is the first few weeks. And very naturally, everybody with their kids found work to do.

    Some people built extensive paths through the woods, all over the property. Other people started large gardens. Our family worked on this – we have like a four hundred fifty foot row of raspberries that we tend for the community. And you just wanted to do something in the morning. There’s something that theologian and former church of England, Bishop N. T. Wright, Tom Wright, Plough contributor says: There’s two kind of things that naturally happen when human beings are anywhere, and one is friendship and the other is gardening.

    And it’s absolutely true. I think so much of the … people talk a lot about leisure and [say] We’ve got to give ourselves time off, and I get it – and I also realize, just to be candid, that I don’t live under the pressures that ninety-nine percent of people do in terms of having to earn a salary and please their boss, because they can’t really fire me. Like, what are you going to do? They can give me a different job, but I’m still going to be around. But people really do want to work and this idea of leisure and just getting away from work and not doing anything is really not so super human. Yes, there should be a Sabbath, but on the other six days, people actually want to be up and doing and kids want to be up and doing.

    Susannah: Yeah. So here, let’s now talk about the human ecology of families and families doing projects together and families working together, because I think … so, but we’ve talked about –

    Peter: To many people, this is like, again, like this neo-agrarian throwback, right? And yet it’s the most natural thing in the world.

    Susannah: Yeah. And I think we’ve also talked a lot about ways that individuals can thrive in our gigantic solution to all the world’s problems that we’re going through here. But another thing to focus on is the friendship part and the family part. We are naturally – we are social creatures, we are political animals. And that means that we need to be with each other in community experiencing a common good in order to be fully human. Like if we’re not doing that, we can have the best projects going in the world, we can have a garden – and obviously, there are some people who are called to be anchorites and stuff, and hermits. But in general –

    Peter: Which is a form of work though too, because they’re praying.

    Susannah: Yeah. And it’s a form of social work because they’re praying with the saints in heaven and with the angels, et cetera. But in general, we need to be, part of our human nature is being in community and loving each other. It’s not natural for us not to love each other, and like each other too, I think.

    Peter: So, yeah, to some of the more contentious issues, that’s why I’m often so suspicious of attempts to solve things like – well, take conservative evangelical Christianity, there’s this ongoing debate between complementarians and egalitarians in terms of men’s and women’s role. And it seems to me so often the premises are all wrong, that if we were a community of brothers and sisters, where people were allowed to be themselves, which also involves being created male or being created female – that can vary from individual to individual, and yet there are certain commonalities. It seems almost silly to say these things. But then you don’t need to worry so much about solving theoretical issues because people are just going to be who they are, and they’re going to flourish being who they are. And you don’t need to build a whole set of procedures to ensure that-

    Susannah: Or a whole ideology about that.

    Peter: A whole ideology about it. You do need to make sure that you can really love people and take care of them and that people are able to flourish. So, I think there is, just in this little paragraph from Benedict – and you really should dear listeners, read Pater Edmund’s piece – there’s so much more that actually ought to be teased out. We mentioned , Pope Francis’ encyclical, which is actually quite a long document, and it gets into all kinds of things. And I’m not criticizing the document at all. I think it’s actually really wonderful.

    But I think there’s actually so much more here that can’t be solved [independently]. It needs to all be solved together; the economic, the social, the built environment, the educational system, the way that we relate to each other between the ages and between the generations, between the sexes. And it’s really only then – up till you’ve worked toward that, you’re shadow-boxing over some of these more contentious issues.

    Susannah: Which is not to say that we need to pass the Family Fun Pack before we can plant a garden. There are ways to start being human, more thoroughly human, even without a perfect society.

    Peter: Yeah, and you can have a Family Fun Pack on a local level, like a church could work to make sure that its members, to the extent that we really love one another as ourselves, would work to make sure that its members are able to flourish and families are able to flourish.

    Susannah: Hashtag Bruderhof. Sorry.

    Peter: Well, there’s many examples of it, and it takes all kinds of different forms. We’ve talked about some of the different ones on this podcast, Susannah, whether it’s Casa de Videira in Brazil, the Pilsdon community in England. The list isn’t endless, but it does go on. And there’s also just parish communities that are quite intentional about looking after each other.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: So I guess this can sound like one big game of Imagine, but is eminently practical.

    Susannah: Go out, plant, I don’t know, plant an herb box on your window sill or something. Start somewhere.

    Peter: Start somewhere … with meat rabbits?

    Susannah: Man, we’re back to meat rabbits.

    Peter: So we’re going to be true to human nature, and this article of Pater Edmund’s actually ties into, implicitly at least, a host of other stuff that we published in previous issues, which we should probably drop into the notes. We mentioned Joel Salatin’s piece, a series of pieces by Claudio Oliver. …

    Susannah: Probably a couple of pieces from the “Cities” issue.

    Peter: Exactly. And with Leah Libresco’s two pieces with us that we’ve also talked about.

    tractor driving near a field in the setting sun

    Cover crops such as the winter rye in this canteloupe field form a key part of the regenerative approach. Photograph by Darius Clement. Used by permission.

    III. John Kempf: What is regenerative agriculture?

    Peter: So, welcome to the podcast, John Kempf. John Kempf is a Amish farmer in Ohio, and he has a consulting firm, Advancing Eco Agriculture. Your project, John, is to advance regenerative agriculture: So agriculture that heals the land and creates healthy food. Is that a fair definition of regenerative agriculture, or what is that thing?

    John Kempf: Regenerative agriculture, what is that thing? That’s a good question. Regenerative, that phrase, means many different things to different people at this moment in time. It’s not well-defined. People are attempting to come up with definitions, and I hope it takes twenty years to come up with a definition, or perhaps that it’s never completely defined, because from my perspective, the process of regeneration is exactly that: it’s a process, it’s a journey. Our intention [is to follow] the pathway of developing an agriculture that regenerates the landscape, that regenerates soil health and plant health and livestock health and ultimately human health, as well as economic health, and that is going to be a journey. And we need to acknowledge and recognize that the moment we begin taking the first steps, we have already begun the process of regeneration, even though we have not yet arrived.

    And this perspective, I think, is almost inherently not in alignment with the idea of a certain standard or a certain certification: to say that farmer A is “regenerative” and farmer B is not. And not only is this not really in alignment with having a standard, but [having a standard] also necessarily creates an included group and an excluded group, which is not conducive to creating the change that we want to see in the world. We need to be inclusive of everyone who is just beginning to take the very early steps and the very first steps, and not to unnecessarily alienate people who are just beginning to become more open-minded, perhaps.

    Peter: My brothers-in-law are big corn and soybean farmers in South Dakota, and I think they would be glad to hear that, John. But I think that’s one thing I find so fascinating about your work and the whole regenerative approach. There is usually this dualism and hostility almost: the good, organic farmers who are tending the earth and the bad GMO- and Monsanto- using farmers who are not. And of course, it’s really tough then to convert people over the line. You create camps. I’d like to get into that a little more later, but would you, just at the beginning here, John, tell us why we need regenerative agriculture?

    I think many of our listeners will be familiar with Plough’s interest in ecology and good ways of farming, but may not understand just what’s at stake in terms of soil health, what’s happening with the use of chemicals and the use of antibiotics, and why the way we’re farming right now doesn’t seem to be a good path forward.

    John Kempf: Is it really the case that people don’t really understand that our current system of agriculture is a problem?

    Susannah: I’m a Manhattanite; I think that a lot of people just are oblivious. They might have a sense that like, obviously, factory farming is bad; there’s the sense that something’s gone wrong, but I think that people really genuinely do have very little detailed knowledge of what’s gone wrong with the soil.

    Peter: They think Whole Foods tends to be sort of good, but they’re not quite sure why.

    Susannah: Yeah, how is that related to like … is this about healthy food? Is this about “organic”? What’s gone wrong? What’s gone wrong with the soil? This is a big, good question. How did we get here? Why is it not a great idea to continue on this path?

    John Kempf: That’s interesting. I suppose I get so deeply immersed in the system and the work that we do every day that, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that many people are not closely connected to agriculture today. But the simple summary … well, let me say it this way. Let’s look at human health and what has happened with human health over the course of the last six or so decades as the ultimate expression of the relative health of agriculture. With human health, we are now experiencing this epidemic of degenerative illnesses – diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, et cetera – to the point where we now have the majority of the adult population experiencing one or several of these degenerative illnesses in their lifetime. Fifty percent of the adult population is expected to have cancer in their lifetime. So we have these appalling statistics about our general state of disease.

    And this general state of disease is in many ways the ultimate end conclusion, the end manifestation of the state of our agricultural health and the state of our soil. And the reason for this continuum is because the degree of soil health determines the degree of plant health, which determines the degree of livestock and animal health, and all of those contribute to our personal health.

    There certainly are other contributing factors as well. Our water quality, which is also influenced by agriculture; our air quality, which is influenced by pollutants and so forth. So it’s not exclusively agriculture. And yet agriculture … if we believe the mantra that we are what we eat, agriculture is a significant factor in our general collective state of public health.

    So that’s one perspective on why we need to have a different agricultural model, from a very thirty thousand foot view, a very high level view. But then when we look at it more closely, more granularly, directly on the ground, we see that we have a system of agriculture today that actually radically and rapidly degrades soil health: it degrades the very foundation upon which our food production is based. I’ll use one convenient statistic. The state of Iowa has some of the richest top soil in the world in the Great Plains grassland, where the topsoil was ten to fourteen feet deep. There’s only a few places in the world that have the rich topsoil that is in the corn belt Midwest, centered around Iowa.

    The state of Iowa loses two pounds of topsoil down the Mississippi River for every pound of corn produced. The obvious question becomes, how long can we sustain that cycle? And the answer is, Not very long. It’s a question of decades, or perhaps at the very most centuries. It’s not a question that we cannot continue that level of degradation in our agricultural landscapes, our agricultural production systems, and expect to continue to produce food into the future for our future generations. The reality is when we look at this land that we are here to steward from a stewardship perspective, and from the perspective perhaps of indigenous agriculturalists, we are borrowing from future generations. And at this moment, historically for the last seventy years or so, we have been borrowing at an unsustainable rate and it’s time to begin paying back. And that is why we need a regenerative agriculture.

    Peter: Let’s talk about the details of that a little more, John. So what are the practices that contribute to this robbing from future generations and what are the ways to get away from those, that you’re developing and working on?

    John Kempf: Well, agriculture inherently is a very multi-faceted system. There’s lots of different moving pieces and parts. And it’s difficult for me to give a very simplistic answer that is all encompassing. It can’t be both of those things at the same time. But I would say very simply, or as simply as I can, that we have an agriculture today where three of the large contributing factors to rapid degradation are excess of tillage where the soil is tilled and is now … the right term is not soluble, but it can be carried by water. We have destroyed soil aggregate structure and the soil is now erodible. So it can be eroded by wind and water and be lost down the Mississippi River and other rivers, which is exactly what is happening in very large volumes.

    In addition to tillage, we also have two other foundational challenges, which are the overuse of synthesized or mined fertilizers, and the intense use of pesticide applications. The combination of those three practices has significantly degraded our soil health. And every civilization in the millennia before us which has used these types of practices has ended up destroying their soil, resulting in the destruction of that civilization. And if we continue down that path, we should not expect to get any different results.

    Susannah: Can you talk a little bit about your story and how you got interested in this? You talk in the interview a little bit about a “Eureka!” moment that happened with the powdery mildew.

    John Kempf: Yes. I can describe that a little bit. And I should also, to finish up on my previous comment, I’m not intending or attempting to scare people or provide a terrifying perspective. I think it is reality. We need to look at reality with a very dispassionate view, if you will. And I actually believe that there is tremendous hope today because we are seeing the challenges that have developed over the last 70 plus years since the Green Revolution with the adoption of all these different technologies. And there is a lot of hope because with this recognition comes the desire to change and we collectively are now developing the tools and technologies to change this and to have a very different agricultural model in the near future, if we want that to be the case, so that we do not end up destroying civilization.

    So, to respond to your question, my personal story: I grew up on a family fruit and vegetable farm, where we were using very intense pesticide applications. We were the first people in the region to try the newest, latest, and greatest pesticides. And over a ten year period, we observed this gradual intensification where the more insecticides and fungicides that we applied, the worse the insect problems and the disease problems became. It was this very vicious cycle of the more pesticides you applied, the bigger the problems became and the more difficult they were to control. And looking at this now in hindsight, with what I’ve learned in the intervening fifteen or twenty years, it soon becomes very obvious that these chemical “solutions” are actually contributing to the problem. They are actually creating a diseased state of soil health, and they are amplifying plant disease and predisposing them to future diseases.

    So with these intense pesticide applications, we were seeing ever more increasing disease pressure and insect pressure until in the early 2000s – 2002, 2003, and 2004 – we had a three-year period in which we lost greater than seventy percent of the crops that we were growing to a number of different insects and diseases that we were not successful in managing with pesticide applications. And in 2004, the third year of that three-year period, we began renting a field from a neighboring farm that bordered right up against one of our own fields, and we’d plant the crops across the field border. So we planted out towards the road where everyone could see it driving by. We planted this field into cantaloupe. At harvest time, the old soil that had a prior decade of pesticide applications, had eighty percent of the cantaloupe leaves infected with powdery mildew. And on the new soil, there was no powdery mildew.

    There was not 5 percent or 10 percent. There was zero. There was this sharp knife line, right down through the center of the field where the former field boundary had been. And this clear delineation where on one side, you had plants that were healthy and on the other side, you had plants that were susceptible. And this was the same variety, had been managed the same way, but we got two completely different outcomes. In fact, it was so pronounced that there were healthy vines intertwining with the unhealthy vines, right on the field edge. And I wanted to know, what are the differences between these two plants?

    What allows one plant to be resistant to powdery mildew when the next plant two feet away is susceptible? And what I learned over the next several years in its simplest essence is that plants have an immune system much the same way that we do. We know that each of us has our own immune system, but they don’t all work equally well. Some people become ill very easily and others not at all or very seldom. And the difference between those two is how well their immune system is supported with their microbiome and with their mineral nutrition. And the same concept also holds true for plants.

    IV. More Kempf: But can it scale?

    Peter: Well, that’s really fascinating. And in hearing that, I think a lot of people will nod along John, and yet there’s fixed in a lot of people’s minds this idea that organic agriculture or natural or sustainable or regenerative [agriculture] is a hippie thing involving small one- to two-acre plots with intense labor inputs. And that is just not scalable to, for instance, our entire nation’s agriculture. What do you think about that? Because you obviously work with some large scale growers.

    John Kempf: Yes, we do work with large scale growers. We work with growers on a scale of tens of thousands of acres and thousands of acres and hundreds of acres. And even we work with growers who have as little as less than an acre and who have revenue in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. So it is appropriate for all kinds of scales. It is appropriate for large scale. Yes, it is more management-intensive – well I actually used to say that it’s more management intensive, and perhaps in some ways it is. But the key difference, I would suggest, is that it requires proactive management rather than reactive management. Rather than seeking to treat diseases or insects that are present after they arrive, instead we have to seek to prevent them with nutrition management and with microbiome management. So that requires good management and good analytics. It requires measuring what’s happening and what’s going on, and it requires proactive applications to prevent those diseases and insects from ever showing up in the first place. So it is perhaps more intense, there is a greater labor requirement, but it is scalable.

    Peter: A lot of people will have this nagging question though: How is what you’re describing different from the way great-grandpa used to farm, say before World War II?

    John Kempf: What is different from our historical approach is that we are better understanding the science behind some of the practices that older generations used. Previous generations used cultural management practices, such as cover cropping and grazing livestock and crop rotation and so forth. So we’re understanding the science behind why some of those practices were effective better because we have better tools today than they did at that time.

    But there’re also significant differences, in that because of the better tools that we have, particularly the better analytical tools, we are now able to measure plants’ nutritional profiles, we’re able to measure what is happening in the environment, in the landscape, and effectively predict disease and insect susceptibility well into the future, which is very powerful, because if we’re able to predict disease or insect susceptibility based on nutritional profiles or microbial profiles, that means we also have the knowledge base to prevent those. And this is all knowledge that – the fine details of how to manage the system effectively is not something that we have had historically.

    Peter: It is remarkable that even for human beings, with medicine, the understanding that the microbiome might play a role in our health is a new recognition that met with a certain amount of opposition from the medical establishment.

    John Kempf: It’s actually a very similar perspective in that we are now learning the details of how the microbiome influences our immune system, or perhaps I should say how our microbiome is our immune system. And so we are better understanding the details and the science of that. And our grandparents knew that if you wanted to boost your immune system, you should consume apple cider vinegar and sauerkraut. So again, historically some of the practices were understood, but what wasn’t fully understood were the details of how they were effective. And we’re getting a better and more defined understanding of that with some of the emerging science in both human health and in agriculture. It’s a very similar parallel.

    Susannah: You mentioned the Green Revolution. And I think probably one of the major things that people ask or are asking themselves is – this is the annoying question – is it possible to feed the world on this? Is this form of agriculture at its best as productive as Norman Borlaug style?

    Peter: Sounds like you have your answers.

    John Kempf: Well, it’s really interesting because I’ve asked this question in a number of times of guests on my podcast, , and there is unanimous agreement amongst all of the practitioners and the scientists who are deeply engaged in regenerative agriculture, that not only can this model of agriculture match the current system’s performance, but in real practice every day on many operations for the last couple of decades, it in fact exceeds the performance and the productivity of the mainstream system. And so this whole mantra of the need to feed the world is actually not supported by data. It’s not supported by science. It is simply a marketing mantra of the agribusiness industrial complex that is used to support the status quo.

    Look, in the world that we live in right now at this moment in time, 2021, the data says that 70 percent of global food production of the actual food that is consumed by people is produced with thirty percent of the pesticide and chemical inputs by small scale farmers. That’s the data globally by the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO.

    And so this model of agriculture that we think is ubiquitous, is only ubiquitous in the North American sense, and in the mechanized and developed world. The majority of the world is still driven by smallholder agriculture. And smallholder agriculture produces the majority of the world’s food – greater than seventy percent. And at the same time it’s using the minority of the inputs. So there is the perfect rebuttal in and of itself of the mantra that we need synthetic Norman Borlaug-style agriculture to feed the world. The evidence doesn’t bear that out to be the case.

    Peter: These smallholder economies, of course, employ more people in agriculture than the US does. I believe in 1920, thirty percent of the American population lived on farms, and now it’s one percent. Does turning to agriculture that’s more regenerative need to involve more of the population in agriculture? And do you see that happening? I should add that I think a lot of people would actually love to get more involved in agriculture, and there’s signs of interest, the growth of small farms and CSAs and so forth. What have you been seeing in your work in that regard?

    John Kempf: Well, you asked the question, is it needed? And so to reframe that, Is it necessary for more people to become involved in agriculture, to adopt these regenerative models? I don’t believe it’s necessarily true that that needs to be the case. I believe it would be optimal and desirable for more people to become involved because you get better efficiencies from the land and better efficiencies from the local environment and ecosystems when you have closer management and more human involvement. And there are many people who have – agriculture economist John Iker, Wendell Berry, and others – who have written about some of this phenomenon. So I believe that from an ecosystems perspective, it would be optimal to have more humans on the landscape, but it’s not required as such.

    Peter: Earlier in this podcast, we were talking about a quote from a British theologian, N.T. Wright, where he said, Wherever there’s human beings, two things will happen. You’ll have friendship and you’ll have gardening. And it does strike me that there’s something about being human, right, that makes people interested in getting their hands dirty – at least many people. I think you’ve remarked on that. There’s a quote from you that I saw: [you said] that people have a tremendous inherent desire to have a connection with life and living processes, and that a lot of younger people are also attracted to agriculture. I have friends down in Brazil who are running an urban agriculture program, and they’re just having college age kids flocking to them, just wanting to milk goats.

    John Kempf: Yes. There’s a reason that gardening is the number one hobby in the world. And I do believe that there is this deep perhaps soul level need or desire within all of us to be closely connected to life and to living systems. And that’s why people wanted to garden. And, for young people who want to become involved in agriculture, there is tremendous opportunity and tremendous need right now. I receive messages every month, in fact, probably several times a week from farmers who have existing operations that they do not have anyone to take over. And they ask me, Do I know someone who can take over these operations? So right now there are not many young people who have the skillset to be able to do that, unfortunately. So I believe that the most valuable thing that young people can have is the skillset.

    And there’s lots of conversations about the difficulty of accessing land and accessing capital and being able to get started. And I personally happen to be of the opinion that you don’t require access to land to get started. You don’t need to own land, and you don’t need to have large amounts of capital. You need a small amount, a few thousand dollars, but that’s something that should be attainable or within reach by most people. And with that, you can begin leasing a small amount of land and – we have very low capital requirements –and build a mobile farming operation. Joel Salatin speaks about this very effectively in his book Fields of Farmers.

    Peter: I love that book.

    John Kempf: Yeah. I would say very simply there’s tremendous opportunity for young people to become involved in agriculture today. And the most valuable thing that you can have is the skill. If you have experience and skill, there are many farmers who want to give you the opportunity, but you have to learn that skill on your own.

    Susannah: Seems like a conversation about agriculture has to start with the fact that there’s a design in the natural world, a multitude of processes that follow a specific order. Just the relationship between what the soil is and the relationship between the microbiome and the plants themselves, which we’re only beginning to understand. This does seem like an aspect of the created order and conventional agriculture seems to willfully disregard the function of those relationships. Can you talk a little bit about that?

    John Kempf: Well, I think it is really interesting to me how agriculture as a whole tends to, not universally, but tends to [in the] majority be comprised of people who profess to be Christians. And yet our approach to agriculture, as Christians, has not been to steward, but instead to dominate. Even though we profess that we know that we are here to steward God’s creation, we have taken a very “warfare mentality” approach of subjugating and dominating natural systems. And I could go on at length to describe why that is a problem, but we could also just say very simply that, Mother Nature bats last. She always has. Any civilization who has taken a hubristic approach of dominating and subjugating natural ecosystems for an extended period of time has not survived And, why would we be any different?

    Peter: You said earlier that you actually have tremendous hope. Why do you have hope?

    John Kempf: Why shouldn’t I have hope?

    Peter: You’ve talked to a lot of farmers and we’ve talked about a lot of problems, but you’re obviously actually optimistic about where this is going.

    John Kempf: I’m very optimistic about where things are going, and sometimes things need to hit a crisis inflection point before they can rapidly improve. And one of the reasons I’m optimistic is because in my personal story, on the farm that I was growing up on and was managing fifteen years ago, we hit the proverbial brick wall. Things had to become bad enough before we realized that there was in fact, a better way to farm. It was hidden. It was not widely known. The information was not as accessible then as it is now, but there was a different pathway forward.

    And one of the reasons I’m hopeful is because we were just earlier at hitting the proverbial brick wall than many other farmers, because we were using pesticides more intensely. So today there are a rapidly growing number of farmers who are hitting that proverbial brick wall. And we are now here to offer them a pathway forward and to share the things that we have learned in the last fifteen years on how to implement these regenerative agriculture systems.

    Look it’s really simple. No one has the intent to be harmful. Farmers don’t have the intent to harm their soil. It’s a very common refrain that “We want to leave our soil better for the next generation.” And yet we’ve adopted a model that doesn’t deliver that, it leaves the soil worse for the next generation in many cases, but we’ve been told by our advisors in academia and in government that that is okay, that this is acceptable because it’s the best way that we know to accomplish a certain outcome.

    Well, the incumbent system is still there, but now there are all kinds of cracks in the armor appearing where there are hundreds of farmers, hundreds of producers around the country saying, hey, we have tried a better way, and it works. It’s more effective. We’re producing higher yields. We have better quality. We are eliminating our inputs. We no longer need fertilizer. We no longer need pesticides. We no longer are dependent on crop insurance. The list goes on and on. So there are enough people raising their hand to be noticed to say, I’m doing something different and I’m more profitable. I’m making more money. I now see a future for my farm for the next generation. And as that momentum continues and as it grows, I believe that the majority of younger farmers, and older farmers as well, will want to move in a different direction, where there is hope and opportunity, not the depression that normally surrounds mainstream production commodity agriculture.

    Peter: Thank you, John. This has been fascinating and I’m so glad to have this conversation, and we’ll direct any listeners who want to know more to your website in the notes to this podcast. And also of course, to your article in the new issue of Plough. So thanks a lot and all the best with your work and look forward to talking some other time.

    John Kempf: Have an awesome day and a blessed time. Thank you.

    Susannah: That’s all for this episode of The PloughCast. And if you like what we’re doing, tell your friends to give us a listen.

    Contributed By JohnKempf John Kempf

    John Kempf is an entrepreneur, speaker, podcast host, and teacher. He is passionate about the potential of well managed agriculture ecosystems to reverse ecological degradation.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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