Regenerative agriculture is one of the best tools we have at hand for combating climate change and increasing biodiversity, but convincing lawmakers, farmers and the public at large of its merits is a challenge. To discuss those merits and how regeneration works, my guest this week is Finian Makepeace of Kiss the Ground, an advocacy organization that promotes soil health as an integral part of the global effort to sequester more carbon.
Finian is the co-founder, policy director and lead educator of Kiss the Ground, where their mission is to awaken people to the possibilities of regeneration and inspire participation in the movement. Kiss the Ground grew out of a 2013 meeting in Venice Beach, California, among a group of activists who had gathered to brainstorm ideas to mitigate climate change. Today, the organization reaches millions with its education initiatives, Netflix documentary and advocacy.
Finian, who is also a recording artist with his family band The Makepeace Brothers, grew up in Ithaca in upstate New York, where he was homeschooled most of his life before attending an alternative high school. During his senior year, he performed soil sample testing for Cornell University graduate students who were studying the relationship between oak groves and mycorrhizal fungi. It was an introduction to the importance of soil that would have a profound impact years later.
The first time the term “regenerative” resonated with me, Finian and I were sitting next to each other at a conference for the U.S. Composting Council that we had both presented at. Finian hit his stride, and the regenerative agriculture movement really took off.
A United Nations report found that in 60 years the world’s remaining topsoil will be gone. What was encouraging in that report is that if we protect the soil environment, it will continue to hold more carbon than the atmosphere and the plants living on the surface of the soil combined. Kiss the Ground spreads the message that soil’s carbon-holding capacity is great and it could sequester far more carbon if the world adopts climate-smart agriculture methods.
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Built on a Dream
Finian says many of us have moments in our lives when we’ve been moved. “Sometimes our life allows those moments to carry over into something that continues our passions and lets them soar or sets them up and sets up our dedication,” he says.
In his Soil Advocate Training course, Kiss the Ground trains people to find and access the points in their lives when they were moved mentally, emotionally — and into action.
For Finian, that moment was a dream he had eight or nine months before he learned about the regenerative agriculture solution.
“In the dream, I was an old man,” he recalls. “I’m living in a refugee camp in Brazil because climate change has decimated a huge amount of the earth and billions of people had died.”
The Gulf Stream had slowed so much that an ice age had come, and part of North America was covered in snow.
In the dream, Finian is 80 or 90 years old. His granddaughter wakes him in the middle of the night saying she had found a hole in the fence surrounding the camp. They leave the camp through the hole and walk all night, until, as dawn approaches, they come over the crest of a hill and see a city that’s been completely destroyed due to havoc and human catastrophes that ballooned after the climate went haywire.
With tears on her face, his granddaughter looks up at him and asks, “Why did you let this happen?”
Waking from the dream and facing that question was one of the hardest things for him to do.
“I just felt heavy,” Finian says. “I felt like I can’t do just a little bit of activism with my music and my career. Like, that’s great. I’m supportive, good for me, pat on my back. But it wasn’t enough.”
He felt he had better get into gear and contribute.
“It might still go there, but you don’t want to say you didn’t do anything, you know?” he says.
Eight or nine months after that dream, Finian’s friend Ryland Engelhart heard Australian soil health and sustainable agriculture expert Graeme Sait speak during a conference in New Zealand. Ryland knew Graeme’s message would be up Finian’s alley. Unlike other experts who said humans could not sustain their future based on the current trajectories, Graeme said it could be done — through better stewardship of soil.
Ryland, a leader in the organic vegan restaurant space, felt energized after hearing Graeme speak, and that enthusiasm rubbed off on Finian. Ryland asked Graeme to make a stop in Los Angeles and talk to a group of like-minded people.
Finian, being a musician, played a song for Graeme’s introduction at that Los Angeles event. Oddly enough, the song Finian chose to perform was “2060,” which he had co-written with his father based on his prophetic dream.
Graeme delivered a four-hour lecture that helped Finian connect the dots in terms of the science surrounding soil and climate change. Finian and Ryland got together that night at Ryland’s house and decided to dedicate themselves to spreading the message.
“This was a moment where we said, ‘We have to do whatever it takes.’ And from that day on, every Monday, every single Monday at least, we had a meeting at Ryland’s house to start whatever it would be, to manifest whatever turned into Kiss the Ground a year later — but we didn’t know what it was going to be when we first got started.”
When they had their first meeting nine years ago, there weren’t a hundred short-form videos and a Netflix documentary making these ideas easily accessible to the layperson. Due to their efforts and the efforts of others, now those resources are readily available.
Kiss the Ground’s Mission
Finian says Kiss the Ground’s mission is awakening people to the possibilities of regeneration.
He says they asked themselves: “Could we, as an organization, help propel this movement as champions? Not as the scientists, not as the farmers and ranchers, not as the Indigenous leaders who hold this wisdom and knowledge, but as the champions. What could we do?”
The answer was to get the word out to senators, governors, high schoolers, chefs, influencers, business owners — you name it — and help them have that “aha” moment that Finian and Ryland both had.
“You don’t have to be an expert to be a champion,” Finian says. “And arguably, tipping points are reached because of champions. And what I mean by that is people who are supporting, quote-unquote, leaders, the folks who are at the front, front lines.”
The second person who comes along and supports the leader makes an idea more available to others, Finian explains.
When an idea continues to grow, eventually it reaches a critical mass where those who aren’t in on it feel like outsiders. So Kiss the Ground emphasizes the importance of the second person.
Getting the Word Out
Using his background in studying policy at UCLA, Finian began doing local and state policy outreach.
“We really were dedicated to boiling down the message,” he says.
The first video project they made, in 2015, was called “The Soil Story.” It was just a few minutes long. They were later able to convince filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell to direct the 2020 feature-length documentary “Kiss the Ground.” The organization also followed up “The Soil Story” with more short-form media, including the celebrity-driven video “The Compost Story.”
Kiss the Ground is also leading programs to get more people to be advocates of soil and farmland programs.
Finian’s advice for combating climate change on a personal level is “become unstoppable.”
We’re always going to make slight errors, but we shouldn’t deem them as mistakes, he says. Sometimes we try to say something and support an idea, but we shut down instead because we’re not totally sure if we’re right. “What happens then is that we kill our opportunity to expand a conversation.”
In Kiss the Ground’s advocate’s training program, participants are taught to become comfortable with where they are on the learning curve so that when they are asked questions they don’t know the answer to, they don’t feel pressure to make things up. Say, “I don’t know,” be humble in your lack of knowledge, and connect the people with questions to the people who have the correct answers.
Experts at the countless conferences he’s been to don’t sweat when they don’t know the answer, Finian says. They say they don’t know.
Sustainability vs. Regeneration
“Sustainability” and “regeneration” come from the same desire to be kinder to our planet and protect resources for future generations, but these terms have unique meanings that are important to understand and distinguish between to accomplish the goals of each.
“Words have power, but what has even more power are thoughts and thinking — the active process of thinking,” Finian says. “How we’re thinking often derives from the words.”
To understand regeneration, it helps to recognize its antonym: degeneration.
As human populations have grown, they have tended to have a degenerative connection to their surroundings, Finian says. “Most communities of people across the globe tend to degenerate land as they produce their food, fiber and fuel. This has created the expectation that in order to feed and clothe ourselves and [produce] fuel that we need, our landscapes have to get beaten up and degraded to produce our food.”
We know that this is ubiquitous because countless people adopted the practice of leaving land fallow, which means it is left out of production so nature can do the work of regenerating it. Then it is used again — and degenerated again. “That’s an abusive relationship,” Finian says.
As the population has increased, less space is available and more land is needed for farming. Then the ideas of conservation and sustainability came along.
Sustainable means “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed,” Finian notes. He questions why we would only sustain the planet when so much land has been degraded in the past 200 years. “We’re starting from a highly degraded place. Why would we want to sustain degradation?”
Then there is regeneration, which means repairing something to its highest state. Finian says this means that land can actually be restored as we produce our food, fiber and fuel on it. Maximizing sunlight, maximizing water efficiency, increasing biodiversity and increasing land’s abundance regenerates its ecosystem to its highest functioning capacity
Healing the Soil, Healing the Planet
We’ve long known that plants take in carbon as they grow, making that carbon a part of themselves. What scientists have learned more recently is that plants take 30 to 40 percent of the carbon they draw out of the air and they put it in the ground in the form of glucose (C₆H₁₂O₆) to feed their own root system as well as microorganisms.
That pumping of glucose into the soil is the difference between desert and fertile ground, Finian says.
“Yes, you can go shovel some compost onto dead soil and make it look pretty for a little while, but you’re not recovering the regenerative feedback loop that life depends on,” he adds.
Finian explains that the microorganisms that are fed glucose from plant roots are themselves made of carbon, and they produce a glue-like substance, also made from carbon, that makes sand, silt and clay stick together, forming carbon-rich aggregated soil.
Those soil aggregates are super sponges that can hold 20 times their weight in water. The aggregates simultaneously have many compartments that create a city for billions of microorganisms to hang out in.
“There can be more organisms than there are people on planet earth in healthy soil,” Finian says. “So you’re creating the conditions for life to live. When you have life and water in a place, you are maximizing how much mineral availability you have for the plant.”
With more water and more nutrient availability, plants grow bigger, conduct more photosynthesis and take more carbon out of the air. It’s a positive feedback loop that sequesters more and more carbon both above ground and in the soil.
Microorganisms in soil do produce more carbon dioxide than lifeless soil, but the plants growing in that soil sequester more carbon than the soil can release. It’s in the absence of plants that the carbon released by soil becomes an issue. This is part of the reason why we should refrain from tilling fields: tilling causes carbon to be released from soil aggregates
“We are stopping the soil building process in its tracks and actively losing soil to carbon release,” Finian says of tilling. “But also when it rains, that becomes vulnerable to erosion, both with wind and water erosion. So we lose 5.6 tons of topsoil per acre, per year on our agricultural land in the United States. That’s equivalent to more than four pickup trucks full of topsoil.”
Agriculture Has to Change
The “Kiss the Ground” documentary features Ray Archuleta, a soil scientist with the Soil Science Society of America who goes around to hardcore traditional farmers who are accustomed to tilling and using chemicals and telling them there is a better, kinder, gentler way. Making Ray’s job even tougher is that many farmers no longer own their land.
“Absentee landlords and lack of ownership of land is a huge, huge issue,” Finian says.
The United States Farm Bill — federal omnibus legislation adopted every five years — is another obstacle to Kiss the Ground’s goals.
“Currently, the U.S. farm bill is one of the biggest contributors using taxpayer dollars to help farmers degrade and degenerate land,” Finian says. He suggests that funding could instead be used to help farmers transition to regenerative farming.
To that end, Kiss the Ground launched a campaign last month titled “Regenerate America: Soil Is Our Common Ground.”
The U.S. Farm Bill is up for renewal next year, so between now and then, the campaign will promote putting provisions in the bill to robustly support the transition to regenerative agriculture.
“Whether you’re a writer, whether you help with website stuff, whether you like government stuff, whether you like school, education things, there are so many parts to play to move the needle on this conversation. … Literally any skillset that wants to get involved can find a nation here to help move it forward. Because if it’s just up to the scientists and the farmers and the folks who’ve known this stuff, we’re not going to move fast enough. We need this to be a phenomenon that other folks from every different walk of life are finding a path to get involved.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Finian Makepeace. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
What regenerative practices have you adopted? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
What is Regenerative Agriculture? From buying guides to regenerative learning tools for children, Kiss the Ground has a multitude of information on regenerative practices.
Regenerative Learning – KSG stewardship program
Kiss the Ground’s latest videos
Sign up for KTG membership or newsletter
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.