Why Regenerative Agriculture is Revolutionary
by Catherine Bennett of Heuvelton, NY
The coffee my farm intern drinks is sold by Smuckers, a corporation with its claws in a multitude of countries. As I stare at the black and yellow bag on the kitchen table, I am reminded of other agriculturists, of Guatemalan women who must choose to fight, flee or submit, all based on whether or not the Smuckers-run bulldozers have obliterated their family farms, turning biodiverse gardens into sun-baked plantations of small, red berries.
Red is a color I see reflected in my neighbors, in the vivid breast of the ruby-throated hummingbird sipping nectar from the comfrey blossoms. These birds fly 3,540 miles north each year to be here; every time they arrive, I breathe a sigh of relief. They, too, rely on the diversified, southern ecosystems in which those women farm, and they, too, are threatened by Smuckers coffee plantations. For now, as I watch them hunt insects to feed their chicks, I know that they are safe.
My work, my family’s work and my intern’s work is filled with these moments of interconnectedness, of the realization that there is no difference between ourselves, the hummingbirds and other farmers. We strive to practice the once-common regenerative agriculture, a type of farming with the power to enhance ecosystems and produce food for humanity. We rejuvenate soil, plant native hedgerows, provide my aunt with a lifetime’s supply of colored potatoes and maintain a sense of humor when the stress starts to chip away at our wills. For instance, 3 am is a great time for the cows to stand in the middle of the road. And for the sheep to lamb, and the pigs to die. This year, as drought conditions withered squash leaves, we loaded up the car with Gatorade bottles and trash cans, taking advantage of the nearby cemetery’s public faucet.
I never thought I’d be growing food for a living; when a friend of mine suggested the name of my future business, I replied, “Thanks, but I’m never going to have a farm.” The list is substantial, too, of those who don’t actually believe that I am doing this – my gender and slight build cause strangers to look right past me when asking for the boss. The majority of agriculturists in this world are women, but the majority of the recognition goes to men.
Accompanying such ingrained inequalities are threats both direct and subtle. In San Marcos, Guatemala, women face Con-Agra, Syngenta and Smuckers saying, “Sell us your land or be kicked off.” In Depeyster, NY, I wake up to the Round-Up Ready corn fields three miles down the road and the neighbor who wants to flatten the hedgerows and turn 100 year old oaks into tables.
So every day, I wonder if my time would be better spent raging against the industrialized tyranny, dismantling bulldozers, dams and pesticide sprayers. We are the peasant farmers with the most to lose, and we have so much to give. Why shouldn’t I join the battle?
But then I remind myself of what it is I really do here. I teach. I connect. In a community where compost seems to be a foreign concept, I gather food scraps and cardboard. I introduce trust-fund college students to birthing sows and shoveling manure. I expose neighbors to the bleeding purple of a Magic Molly potato. I plant ninebarks and witch hazels, establishing a sanctuary for threatened pollinators. I rejoice when the amphibian population reaches levels so high, I cannot walk six feet without running into a frog.
This is why regenerative agriculture – a practice thousands of years old – is revolutionary. In the midst of an economic and political system designed to tear us apart, it does the opposite. My work is part of a web of beings and happenings that draw us back to our centers, our communities and make us whole. Every small farm that stands right now is a light to see by.
I hope you remember the women, the coffee and the hummingbirds. I hope that you question your decisions daily, then turn around and plant some Great Blue lobelias. See, this winter, 3,540 miles from here, a brilliant, tiny hummingbird will be sipping nectar from the throat of a tropical hibiscus. Said flower will grow on a holdout of small farms, the camaraderie of women keeping them strong in the face of danger. The rapid bird heart will beat, pushing the nutrients of the northern blossoms and the tropical blooms into the bloodstream of a body who connects our two lands.