Regenerative Ag in Your Own Backyard

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When Steve Hall bought his 43 acres of farmland in the Appalachian foothills more than a decade ago, he quickly discovered the difference between his dreams and farming reality. The land wasn’t as productive as he had hoped. “More rocks than dirt, really,” he remembers. But he talked with knowledgeable local producers. He sought out experts. He experimented, observed, and learned.

And in the intervening years, a lot has changed – the productivity of his land, and the attitudes of a lot of people who think and act like Steve.

Moving Beyond Gardening

Today, Steve and his two sons operate “Hall’s Regenerative Agriculture”, a consulting company that provides hands-on help for an increasing number of home farmers from the city, suburbs, and elsewhere on how to make their own contribution to the growing focus on sustainability and regenerative practices.

Colin Hall (left) and his father, Steve Hall, work with an expanding roster of clients to apply basic regenerative ag principles to home landscaping and gardening. Photo courtesy of Sonya Mull.

“I’ve worked with bank presidents and average homeowners,” Steve notes. “But they all seem to want the same thing – to use whatever space they have responsibly, not just to look nice or produce a little food. They want to feel like they are doing something worthwhile for the earth we all share.”

Steve has helped clients with as little as one-tenth of an acre, to some with dozens of acres, or more. “I help some folks in rural areas,” he observes, “but more and more it’s people in the suburbs, and even some in the city. It’s about the attitude and awareness people have of our world and our environment, more than how much land they have to work with.”

“The interest in this isn’t really so much a flood as a rising tide,” he notes.

Most of his clients, he says, look for diversity in plants, trees, and other growing things that not just produce some food but maintain the health of the larger ecosystem. “You see some strange combinations sometimes,” he adds. “You want perennials that come back year after year, giving up something edible but also co-existing with each other to replenish the ground and maintain a healthy balance.”

Making the right choices can mean having food from your own land “nine, and maybe even ten, months of the year in this area,” he notes. Maybe just as important, some of these planting configurations will continue to generate environmental benefits that span 50 to 70 years – and maybe more.

On this day, his clients are Ted and Sonya Mull, and their son Connor and daughter Avery. Ted is a medical doctor, his wife a nurse, and his kids two typical suburban high school students. They contacted Steve after realizing their plans to do some landscaping improvements could have a lot more than cosmetic value.

Short-Term Work for Long-Term Results

“It dawned on all of us that what we were doing was more important than just planting a few bushes, or getting our garden plans in order,” Ted reflects. “Maybe it was the effect of being locked away and having so much time to reflect. But we saw a chance to do something more important – something that mattered a lot more than how our place looked.”

Adopting the regenerative approach to home landscaping and gardening led to the addition of a wide variety of plants, all with beneficial environmental qualities.

Making their own small contribution to a healthy and sustainable environment was just the starting point, according to both parents. Ted explains, “Today, it’s so easy for us to forget what it takes to produce the food we eat every day.” He continues:

“We don’t see the effort and the expertise that goes into growing the food we need. Doing this helped remind the kids exactly what it takes to produce food. It teaches them about how connected we all are to the earth and how important it is to make sure we keep that earth healthy and thriving.”

“Covid has been tough on all of us,” Sonya adds. “There’s the isolation and distance from other people, of course. But for kids, there’s also the sense that things are out of control, that the future isn’t what it once seemed to be. Doing this has helped them see a kind of regeneration through nature. We’re doing things that speak to the future – a better future. It sounds kind of like Mary Poppins or something that usually will make teenagers roll their eyes. But they have gotten into this. It’s been great for them. For all of us.

Avery, in fact, soon enlisted friends from school to be part of the regenerative project. Together, they planted trees, shrubs, and other growing things. And as they did so, they talked with Steve, and they learned about the environmental value of the things they planted.

The mix of plants and trees proved to be more diverse than anyone had considered. Beyond the usual suspects of cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and other backyard garden staples, Steve advocates lots of berries – currants, goji berries, sunchokes, pawpaws, and more. Black walnut, pecan, maple, apricot trees — “and lots and lots of blueberry plants and apple trees,” Steve adds with a hearty laugh. “People love those, they are good for you, and they are critical to balance in so many situations.”

To the right: Avery Mull, Gabby Sutcliffe and Sarah Katy found that a home landscaping project could be valuable both to a sustainable local environment and their own understanding of regenerative agriculture. Photo courtesy of Sonya Mull.

Every situation is different and demands some thinking and careful planning. “The big thing is to understand how all different types of growing things interact with each other and the world around them,” Steve notes. “It’s a dance…planting the right things in the right places and treating them right. It’s thinking not just about right now but what happens next.”

Steve’s parting advice? “Don’t just go stick some things in the ground and expect to get the results you want. Think about it. Do some research. Ask somebody who knows more than you do. What you are doing is important, so take the time to do it right.” He also provided some great tips to introduce regenerative ag in our backyards, no matter the size…

10 Simple Tips for Home Regenerators:

  1. Plant trees in pairs to promote effective pollination
  2. Always place taller plants to the north so smaller plants get the sunlight, too
  3. Use eco-friendly sun-blockers to control weeds (cardboard, hemp mats, cocoa mulch, burlap)
  4. Don’t skimp on nitrogen fixers (such as beans, clovers, and lupins)
  5. Consider investing in a simple device to monitor nutrient levels in your soil
  6. Diversify what and when you plant to help stagger your harvests
  7. Monitor your water use carefully to avoid overwatering and water waste
  8. Consult your local ag extension agent or gardening expert to find out what is right for your situation. Also, ask about micronutrient accelerators — plants that help gather micronutrients and minerals important to local soil replenishment.
  9. If you use commercial products to nurture or protect your plants, always follow label directions closely
  10. Observe what works well and what doesn’t. Take good notes and learn from them. Share them with your neighbors.

For a more comprehensive look at how to make your home gardening and landscaping more regenerative, check out this “Food Forest” article at Modern Farmer.

Need more help or have a comment for Steve? Contact him at

A Farmer’s Life on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Every morning, Brandy Johnson cooks breakfast for her 6 and 3-year-olds and her husband, Russell. After kissing each other good-bye for the day, Brandy takes their children to school and Russell checks on hundreds of cattle on their family’s ranch. Before leaving the house, they each tuck a holstered 9mm pistol in their waistband.

While some Americans carry a pistol for basic protection, very few must consider defending themselves when they wake up in the morning. The Johnsons are not protecting themselves from grizzly bears, but rather the sometimes-dangerous situations that arise from those trying to cross the border right onto their backyard.

Immigrant Workers as an Essential Part of the U.S. Workforce

Many people from around the world have flocked to this country to build new and better lives for their families and future generations. They provide the labor behind countless essential job functions. Many immigrants harvest our crops and process our meat. Some maintain our households and tend to our homes and gardens. They ceaselessly study to pursue the knowledge and training that opens doors to more opportunities, better lives, and better futures. Some bring special knowledge and skills, already present yet unable to be used as productively as they should.

In total, immigrants of diverse backgrounds, capabilities, needs, and dreams provide an essential source of the energy and commitment that pushes our nation and our world forward. It is an approach to nation-building that has worked well for years. It remains a cornerstone of the traditional view of the American dream.

Many U.S. industries are reliant on this workforce. As of the most recent U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers’ survey report, almost half of farm laborers are unauthorized immigrants. And this isn’t just in the interest of labor costs…many farmers and ranchers have difficulty hiring local workers, as they just aren’t interested. As for the value of the immigrant workforce, a dairy industry study found that if the foreign-born workforce is reduced by 50%, 3,500 dairy farms would close and dairy product prices would increase by 30%. And this study was conducted before COVID-19…who knows what that figure would look like now?

But that vision of immigration as a good and positive thing is under assault. Desperate people taking desperate actions have made the question of immigration increasingly polarized. It is an unpleasant fact that Mexico and Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are rife with poverty, drug cartels, and crime, forcing many citizens to leave their homes. Compassion toward those who come over to escape for a better a life is necessary – intolerance for criminals is mandatory.

Illegal immigration today produces a political and social firestorm – a polarization of opinion that can be traced to the dangerous difficulties that face people across our nation – and none more so than those at the front line of the immigration question, like those along the U.S.-Mexico border.

And how these unauthorized immigrants arrive at their destination can be a very different story…

Welcome to Cattle Ranching on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Russell is a fourth-generation rancher, grazing sometimes more than a thousand head of cattle in the rugged country of southwestern New Mexico.  His big spread abuts the U.S.-Mexico border for eight miles, marked by sparse vegetation and sparser water, protected and defined in long stretches by crude vehicle barriers or a single strand of barbed-wire fencing. The nearest city of any size is 40 miles away.  Everything here is big, and the scale of things immense.

Russell and Brandy work hard to make a go of it in the demanding world of cattle production. It’s hard work keeping tabs on the cattle 24/7, protecting them from predators, and doing it all in a way that preserves the delicate balance that protects the natural resources they and their predecessors have relied upon for more than a century. It’s a rugged life made even more so by dealing with desperate immigrants passing through.

Russell patiently paints a scary picture of how illegal immigration has changed not just the way he manages his cattle operations, but maybe more concerning, how it has changed the way he and his family go about living their day-to-day lives.

He says the core of the problem is where his ranch lies. For miles and miles of that border, on either side of his ranch, there is no substantive barrier – other than that strand of barbed wire – standing guard against those intent upon entering the U.S. There is nothing to stop individuals from coming across their land. Increasingly, these newcomers come in waves of all-terrain vehicles, rampaging across the countryside in a headlong dash for that elusive better life somewhere north of the so-called border.

“It can be individuals, or groups being taken in by somebody with a van or a panel truck,” Russell explains.  “Sometimes they may be drug runners, or smugglers bringing cheap labor into the country for whoever wants them, or just people grasping for something better, no matter the cost or the danger for them or others.”

There’s no one way to define who is coming over. And that may be the point. “There’s just more and more of them all the time,” Russell observes.

“I have no problem with people seeking a better life,” he says in the laconic western drawl. “We all want better lives for our families. I get that. But what I don’t like is what I see happening to my life because we won’t face up to the big issue – which is building a workable immigration system. I’m tired of waiting. And frustrated.”

When a western cattle rancher says he is frustrated, it’s time to pay attention.

A Dangerous Way of Life

The increasing number of undocumented immigrants entering Russell’s ranch carries with it a lot of collateral damage.

“Well, it starts with my fences being taken down,” he says. “I get a call at 2am from Border Patrol telling me somebody has run down my fence. I have to get up and fix the fence all over again. And again, and again.”

But what animates Russell is something far more frightening than the repair expense, or the inconvenience, or more hard work. As a rancher, he’s used to that.

“It bothers me when I find one of my line sheds has been broken into for shelter,” he says. “Or even burned down to keep warm.”

Or consider the situation faced by Russell’s father and uncle during one of the worst cycles of immigrant flow into his farm. “My father and uncle’s pickup was stolen at gunpoint while they were checking on the chili pepper harvest. There were young men blending into the chili picking crew, but apparently, they were actually guarding a marijuana field in Mexico that had been raided. They needed a pickup to escape, but got it stuck in the mud just before they could cross into Mexico. The young men left the truck…some fled to a village just across the border and engaged in a gunfight with Mexican law enforcement, while a few others ran back into the U.S.”

“I’m not happy about it,” Russell adds. “But there are places on my property that I won’t let my children go – at least not without me or Brandy being with them, and without at least one of us being armed. The local police can’t be of much help. They just can’t cover all this ground.”

Asking if these kinds of episodes are a frequent problem or an occasional annoyance, Russell responds, “it goes in waves. We’ll go a while with only an occasional sighting, or even nothing happening. We’ll have a single drive-through, then have three or four for about a month.  Then they’ll move on to a new spot, the point of least resistance. They’ll move to where the Border Patrol isn’t…to where they aren’t focusing their limited resources.”

Trying to get state and other federal authorities to take action hasn’t produced much to help alleviate the problem.

“We contact all the right people, and sometimes they will send somebody out from the Border office to walk around and look at things,” Russell says, choosing his words carefully. “They don’t see anything or anybody of interest at that moment. So they sorta shrug it off and go back.”

What they don’t seem to appreciate, he adds, is that the problem is like water seeking the lowest level. “There are hundreds of miles of border” in this region, he says, including lots with nothing more than the wire fences. “When the flow of illegal immigrants builds up in one spot, Border Patrol might send out what resources they have available to help. But the runners always seem to sense when that is happening, and they just shift to another weak point and make that their way in. Then the whole process repeats itself somewhere else.”

It’s not that Border Patrol doesn’t want to try to help us, he adds. “It’s just that they don’t have enough people or resources of technology to cover it all.”  Russell knows; he used to be a Border Patrol agent, covering 67 miles of territory.

What Can be Done for Farmers at the Border?

“We need to secure our border with a barrier, put Border Patrol agents in place with the proper technology, and have immigration reform for those who want to be good productive citizens of our country.” 

Russell adds, “Long-term is the real reform of immigration policy. Let’s find a way to let people in the right way so it works for them – and not the criminals.”

As it turns out, things are moving in Russell’s favor. As we prepared this post, significant progress has been made on their 3-mile stretch of unprotected border. Russell was eager to report that things have changed drastically on his ranch and, “for a change, it’s better”.  Wall construction has started on his family’s ranch and, furthermore, Russell received a status report that a contract has been in place to fortify the 3-mile stretch of barbed wire they feared was going to be left as a gap. This gives his family much relief in knowing that their property will no longer be a funneling point.

Communication here is key, as Russell had to elevate his needs to the Administration for this additional coverage. Though it’s not an answer to a much larger, pressing issue, it’s a step in a better direction that protects the Johnsons’ ranch while helping to direct flow through the proper channels.

Our Agricultural Extension Service: From Gardening to Food Safety

Have you ever visited, or even heard of your local agriculture extension program? Extension services provide an amazing array of resources, instruction, and assistance to people everywhere – from those living in the inner city to the most rural locale –to educate about food and farming and to help bridge the distance between dirt and dinner.

The United States’ Cooperative Extension system is a vast network of offices and resources specializing in all things ag, from helping you plan your seasonal veggie garden to providing assistance to large farm producers. These services are available nationwide at the county level and you can find your local office here. What’s remarkable about the system is that it’s backed by local colleges and universities to provide current information and in-depth research for the county’s specific location.

In this post, we take a look at how one state’s extension service works to fulfill the ambitions laid out in legislation dating back more than a full century. We spoke with Dr. Gary Bates, director of the The University of Tennessee’s Beef and Forage Center and professor of plant sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville.

The program is a huge undertaking

Over 400 agents, working in offices, fields, and homes across Tennessee’s 95 counties, backed by university researchers, scientists and scholars. Education and support to 71,000 families, over 200,000 children and nearly a quarter-million people engaged in farming and food production. Practical help and instruction for more than a half-million state citizens, to the benefit of all 4.3 million Tennesseans.

In this case, the “undertaking” is the University of Tennessee’s Extension Services program – the outreach program of the school’s Institute of Agriculture. Its mission: to improve people’s quality of life and solve problems through the application of research and evidence-based knowledge about agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, 4-H youth development, and community development.

Behind the somewhat cool institutional language, the real message is far more compelling.

“Our extension services seek to answer real-life questions,” according to Dr. Gary Bates, director of the University’s Beef and Forage Center and associate professor of plant and soil science. It’s learning for the real world, not just a classroom or a course exam or even a dinner-table discussion.

“Our approach is to look at three sectors in what we do,” Dr. Bates explains. “There’s the ag side – the producers. Then there is the average person, the homeowner, and consumer — urban, suburban and rural. Then there is the 4-H.”

Why does the 4-H get such special attention?  “Here in Tennessee, we have one of the larger 4-H groups in the country, roughly 180,000 kids. Sustainability is all about the future, and those kids are our future.”

Through the extension program, young people learn not just basic agronomics or animal husbandry or sustainable farming practices but also a host of other demanding subjects. “A lot of science goes into feeding the world,” Dr. Bates says.

“Just look at what science has done in our lifetime to boost corn yields. We’re feeding a bigger, hungrier world thanks to science. Think about the importance of plant breeding, how we can use drones to be more productive, how to turn precision agriculture and big data into practical improvements in how we farm. We help kids understand all that, and how important and exciting career in agriculture and food can be for them.”

“Farming isn’t Jim-Bob in a pair of overalls today, if it ever really was,” Dr. Bates notes. “If you are interested in science, agriculture is one of the best fields you can go into. What we do helps kids see that.”

Teaching Life Skills

But that is far from the sole focus of the extension service, he adds quickly.

“Our programs help develop those young people, and not just to farm. We want people to know that their food didn’t just spring up magically from the ground, or just appear on a grocery shelf or a restaurant plate from thin air,” Bates says. “But we use agriculture to teach life skills. How to care for animals and plants and other living things. How to be responsible.  How to work with others, and to listen and communicate with people, including public speaking. And a whole lot more.”

That philosophy is nothing new. It’s been part of the extension service program since the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Even then, the Act’s objectives went beyond education for rural Americans in agricultural production to home economics, leadership and other skills contributing to an improved quality of life.

Dr. Bates notes that commercial producers represent only about 2 percent of the state population.

“You would be surprised at how many other kinds of agriculture are out there – home gardens and small part-time operations, local food businesses like restaurants and sidewalk markets, and that kind of thing,” he says. “And beyond that, there’s one really important thing to keep in mind: everybody eats.”

Dr. Bates also emphasizes the importance of extension services to people in making the best use of food, not just producing it.

We help people learn how to set up and manage a home budget, how to prepare food safely, how to plan out a wholesome, nutritious meals for the whole family, how to manage your time wisely… pretty much anything we can think of that will help people and families live better lives.” 

Through the extension services, local operations offer instruction in small-acreage agricultural production for home gardeners and part-time producers.  They sponsor farmers’ markets and local community gardens. They provide courses in food preparation and nutrition, and even advice on budgeting and managing small business operations.

“It’s a continuous education process,” Dr. Bates explains. “It can’t stand still, or stop thinking about new ways to help people.  We’re constantly evaluating what we do and how effective it is, and how we can do it better. Above all, what we are doing is helping the entire local community to have locally produced food and to use it safely and wisely.”

What Lies Ahead

What are the biggest challenges? What issues are you wrestling with today?

As with every industry, keeping pace with technology presents its issues. “There are new systems, new equipment, new management programs, new everything, it seems some days. We have to stay on top of all that, and be prepared to help people understand it and what it can do for them as producers –and consumers.”

The fast pace can create a new sense of urgency, too, Dr. Bates notes. “People want answers faster. They want help faster. They want results faster. That keeps us on our toes, to say the least. We have to be responsive, and we work really hard to do that.”

He also points to complications arising from the cyber age. “There’s tons of data out there. We want to use the science and research generated by the University to accomplish something in the real world, to make things actually work better or deliver more.”

Then there is social media, he adds. “How do we use it to help consumers learn about food and where to find it and how to prepare it and so on. Our extension agents are clamoring for help in understanding how to make the best use of social media.”

Healthy Ag, Healthy Economy

Why is that ambitious goal of promoting the general welfare of the state population the role of the extension services?

Dr. Bates has a quick answer to the question: “Why shouldn’t it be?”

“We’ve built our programs around the simple idea that if our state economy is going to be healthy, we have to have a healthy agricultural sector…we want everybody in the state to be able to benefit from that.  Not just the men and women who produce agricultural products…we teach people how to get the most from that system, in how they choose the right foods, how they preserve food and avoid waste, how they prepare safe meals for their families, and on and on and on. We teach everyone how important it is to make the system truly sustainable.”

So extension services are about far more than helping farmers make more money?

‘We’re working to make sure our ag sector thrives, and that it is profitable, sure, but also that it is sustainable,” he adds. “When we do that, we give our agricultural system real stability – and make sure it stays a cornerstone of a healthy state economy.  Those aren’t just words we say, either.  We’ve got people in 95 counties working to make sure it’s a lot more than just talk.”

Thoughts from a Bystander

Whether we’re a farmer, manufacturer, or consumer, extension programs, like the University of Tennessee’s, help us produce more of the food people need and want, profitably and sustainably. They help us develop new and better crops and more alternatives for meeting our food needs. They help us feed our families with better, safer, more nutritious foods. And they help us waste less. They help us make the best use of our natural resources, and preserves and protect them for future generations.

Like they say again and again across the extension service network, we’re all in this together.

D2D on the Farm: GMOs

Green Cay farm talking with Dirt-to-Dinner

D2D recently visited Green Cay Farm, also known as Farming Systems Research, in Boynton Beach, FL. Green Cay is a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, that has operated between 10 and 15 acres of farmland for 17 years. CSA means they are a direct-to-consumer farm that delivers fresh veggies weekly or bi-monthly to their subscriber list. The farm grows over 30 different vegetable crops, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, peppers, kale, squashes, watermelon, and lettuces, as well as different varieties within those crops.

Farm manager Nancy Roe gave us an expansive tour of the farm fields and we discussed the successes of the farm as well as the various challenges they face from season to season. One of the most interesting conversations we had was about a heavily debated topic in Ag. You guessed it…GMOs.

Nancy’s farm does not grow genetically modified crops, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a fan of the technology!  Because of consumer misconception, Nancy cannot integrate GM seeds into her farm without the fear of losing customers. But, every year Nancy estimates they lose roughly 30% of the crops they plant. And last year they were required to spend more money on pesticides in order to keep up with the disease and pests that threatened their crops.

These leafy greens are still a viable crop but have been the snack of different insects. If you look closely you can see how they have damaged the leaves.

“We cannot grow genetically modified crops because our consumers won’t buy them, but it would help with crop loss. What consumers often don’t realize is that traditional crops farmers plant today have also been modified! The seeds they plant are not the seeds that were originally found in the wild. Using plant breeding technology, scientists have created better crops. Genetically Modified technology does the same thing— just a lot faster. ” Nancy Roe, Ph.D.

The hot, humid climate in South Florida offers its fair share of challenges. Ultimately, GMO technology would allow Nancy to experience less loss on the farm and require fewer pesticide treatments. Corn, for example, is a profitable crop for the farm, but because of pest threat, Nancy must treat the crop 2-3x a week in order to fight off insects and disease. This does not mean she is haphazardly spraying her crop in excess pesticide! She noted, “Farmers don’t put pesticides on their crops because they’re bad people! My grandchildren run through my fields and pick the salad we eat for dinner. Conventional farming is safe. And pesticides are so expensive— we wouldn’t spray our crops if we didn’t have to.”

If she were able to grow and sell genetically modified corn to consumers, she estimates she would not need to treat the crop with any pesticides or herbicides until the very end of the growing season, when the corn silk fly becomes an issue for the crop. In Florida, this pesky little bug will lay its eggs on the corn, which will then bury as maggots under the protection of the corn husk. This is a pest that is specific to the humid temperatures of Florida, so corn growers in a cooler climate might never need to spray any pesticides on their crop! In Florida, if she was able to grow genetically engineered sweet corn seeds she would be able to spray 1/3 less than she does now. Nancy also noted that many organic farmers in the climate are forced to spray more frequently in order to keep up with the pest and bacterial diseases of the south Florida climate. (Yes, organic farmers use sprays too.)

Additionally, this season, the farm’s broccoli and cauliflower crops were knocked out due to bacterial disease and damage inflicted by the Diamondback moth, which eats the leaves and flower buds of crucifer plants. On average their crops are threatened by 8-10 different types of disease and 12 different types of insects.

Diamondback moth leaf damage.

Three years ago, Nancy saw the benefit of growing GE crops first hand. After losing her entire squash and zucchini crop to an unforeseen virus, Nancy was visiting a neighboring farm to discuss the issues and successes the farm was experiencing. When walking those fields, she noticed gorgeous squash and zucchini plants. Because the seeds were genetically engineered to not get the bacterial virus, the neighboring farmer had a great growing season and successfully sold his crop. Since genetically modified crops have been proven safe by 275 organizations, including the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and NIH, and they help our farmers, shouldn’t we support it, as well?

Farmers are constantly trying to heed the needs of their consumers, but at the same time, they need the flexibility to create a more sustainable farm that not only benefits its customers but also the land and its workers. 

This beautiful purple Brussel sprout crop is actually a loss for Green Cay farm. Due to the hot, humid climate, the sprouts themselves never grew.