Co-author, Hannah Wilton. All Photography - Julie Ann Fineman, unless otherwise noted.
In late June, I had the pleasure of visiting Soul Food Farm—an expansive 55-acre plot of pasture and farmland among the bucolic, rolling hills of Vacaville, California. Under the golden afternoon light, myself and others gathered around a beautiful, locally-grown meal for the first of a three-part dinner series on regenerative farming. Hosted by owner Alexis Koefoed as well as Abbey and Spencer Smith, founders of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, Healing the Ecosystem Through Regenerative Farming was an evening of rich conversation and enlightening presentations on building a more socially just and sustainable food system. The dinner began with a talk by Spencer Smith over appetizers and chilled cocktails followed by a family style dinner and after a walk about the farm. The evening walk is a perfect chance for guest to ask questions and see what a small diverse farm looks like.
I was lucky to arrive early to Soul Food Farm, and joined Smith's daughter, Mazey, and Alexis's husband, Eric, to collect farm-fresh eggs from the henhouse for dinner. Clutching a blue wire basket of eggs, Spencer’s daughter led me through the olive orchard and heirloom fruit trees, fields of lavender, and an organic vegetable garden. Bearing witness to this sweet moment—shared between the two spanning over three generations—reminded me of the event’s larger purpose and vision: the health and happiness of our future generations. Spinning webs of shared, intergenerational wisdom, our conversations were informed not only by those to come, but those that have come before us—our mothers and grandmothers, farmers and ranchers, and thought-leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement.
One such pioneer in the environmental and agricultural field, Allan Savory is co-founder of the Savory Institute, which strives to spread holistic land management practices across the globe. Creating a network of international “Hubs,” the Savory Institute supports community grassland restoration projects and initiatives through consultation, training, and educational outreach. At the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management Hub, Abbey and Spencer work at the intersection of land, agriculture, and environmental sustainability, teaching Holistic Planned Grazing through online courses and trainings. At the heart of their mission, Abbey and Spencer question and investigate how we can better live within the complex ecosystems that we are all a part of.
“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.” - Vedas Sanskrit Scripture, 1500 B.C.
Although we may not be able to see all life forms in the soil beneath our feet, the interactions between organisms like fungus and earthworms are dynamic, active, and complex. “In one handful of soil, there is more life, more individual beings than there are people on earth by a factor of nearly five.” As plants use light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates, their root systems filtrate these sugars into the soil and provide fungi and bacteria with the necessary food to build high-mineral, nutrient dense soil. Supporting plant health and biodiversity in an ever “cycling biological fertilizer loop,” these lively soil communities are necessary for our survival and the security of our food systems—a fact that is often overlooked within the current agricultural paradigm.
In Savory and Spencer’s model of Holistic Management, cultivating healthy soil and grassland ecosystems also involves livestock management and stewardship. Contrary to popular belief, proper herding and grazing practices can build soil and even bring dead landscapes back to life—a process that traces back to the coevolution of herbivores and grass species. As herbivores like buffalo began freely moving and grazing across the American landscape in large herds, they trampled grasslands and created a compost mulch beneath their hooves. Evolving with this kind of periodic defoliation, grasses soon came to depend on rhythmic or seasonal grazing to build and aerate the soil. When tall grasses are grazed or pruned their roots die, leaving rich organic matter in the soil that microorganisms use to create plant-available nutrition and minerals.
Our current agricultural and livestock management practices, however, do not support these incredibly important biological systems and natural ecological cycles. Rather, today’s resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture and farming methodology mines the soil through overgrazing and improper land use like heavy tilling. When animals regraze before grass has had time to recover and store sugar, microorganisms in the soil do not have enough carbohydrates to support healthy, diverse soil biology and thus a strong, biodiverse plant community. Rather, plants that do survive have short root systems and are susceptible to stress, drought, and disease, increasing the need for high-input chemical and fertilizer use to sustain growth. Breaking up a plant’s root system by over-tilling or overgrazing also causes land degradation and soil erosion—a phenomenon sweeping across the nation at an alarming rate. Loosened top soil often laden with chemicals and fertilizers is blown away by wind or washed into our rivers and streams by rain.
Our current farming practices also have drastic consequences on human health. “[M]ost of us don’t realize that on average the fruits and vegetables that we eat have dropped between forty and sixty percent in mineral and vitamin consistency…since the 70s” The trend of nutrient deficiency—the loss of important trace minerals like phosphorus, selenium, and magnesium—since the Industrial and Green Revolution seems to correlate with an increase of “lifestyle diseases” related to metabolic function from diabetes to forms of cancer.
Given the many ecological and health services that soil provides, I continue to ask myself, why are we treating our soil like dirt? The issue of environmental and agricultural degradation is a complex socio-biological problem that traces back to a multi-billion-dollar industry built around the degradation rather than the health of our soils. There is not a single, silver-bullet solution that will fix the American agricultural crisis. Through their daily work and teachings, however, Spencer and Alexis extend a hopeful path forward in the possibility of regenerative, biodynamic farming. A regenerative system that builds twenty pounds of soil for every pound of food is indeed a seed of hope, and offers an alternative world-vision based in the regeneration of life and future generations. Hearing Spencer speak about soil and microbiology with such reverence was quite humbling, and reminded me of the sheer brilliance and in some ways unintelligible genius of earth’s systems. How deeply indebted we are to the life beneath our feet. “Ultimately, the only that can sustain any community, economy or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process—green plants growing on regenerating soil.”—Allan Savory
The conversation will continue at the next Farm to Table Dinner event on July 15. . Come join at the farm for a summer evening of good food, conversation and community. They are are planning another delicious menu using produce / meats from local ranchers and small farmers. To buy tickets use this link .
Note: Children 5 and younger are free; $30 for children six and older; $150 per adult
Relish the menu and enjoy more photos from the first farm to table dinner below.