Can you tell us more about yourself, your role at Land Core, and overall what Land Core does?
My name is Katie Fettes & I’m the Programs Manager at Land Core - a 501c3 non-profit organization advancing soil health policies and programs that create value for farmers, businesses and communities. In particular, we focus on building the missing infrastructure and economic incentives that will make the rapid adoption and scalability of soil health possible. We’ve been around since 2017, and got our start in federal agriculture policy, with some of our early wins including building a broad coalition to pass legislative language in the House & Senate supporting healthy soils, & securing over $50M in federal investment in soil health in the 2018 Farm Bill. In my role, I support all of our program areas, which include federal policy, risk modeling, education and land leases - which together aim to bring the benefits of healthy soils to all Americans.
Why is soil health so important?
Soil is the foundation of life on earth, and of our food and farming system - 95 percent of the food we eat is grown in our soils. Healthy, living soil produces healthier food, people and communities, while maintaining the long-term health of land and ecosystems.
Unfortunately, the soil system has been broken. Our industrial agricultural system is contributing to soil erosion at a rate of 10 to 100 times faster than it is being replenished, which is jeopardizing farmers’ economic security, worsening costly vulnerabilities to flood and drought, and threatening biodiversity, food security, and the security of all industries that rely on agriculture. At the current rate of soil loss, the UN estimates we have 55 years of harvests left.
The good news is that rebuilding soil health can reverse this trajectory, and provide incredible benefits to producers and our country. In healthy soils, we have a non-partisan, keystone issue that provides the common ground to seriously address climate change, restore biodiversity, and provide clean water and healthy food, while also building rural prosperity, food security and resilience.
Can you tell us more about the importance of regenerative agriculture? What does regenerative truly mean and why is it important?
Regenerative agriculture is essentially farming and ranching in harmony with natural systems, with an aim to sustain and enhance natural resources, rather than degrading them. It is a holistic approach to land management that produces food while working to enhance soil health and ecosystem function, improve on-farm resilience, restore biodiversity, and contribute to thriving rural economies and communities.
While the techniques vary across each farm, regenerative practices generally include limiting mechanical disturbance of the soil by reducing tillage (or plowing), and instead focus on nourishing the biological life of the soil through planting cover crops, increasing diversity, reducing chemical use and incorporating livestock, among other practices.
Though the principles are not new -- and have been used by Indigenous communities for thousands of years -- many farmers are turning to regenerative agriculture today to decrease their input costs and improve profitability; build the resilience of their lands to withstand climate change impacts like flood and drought; diminish erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality on and off the farm; and improve the nutrient density of their food.
Despite all the benefits of regenerative agriculture, only a small percentage of farmers have adopted soil health practices, partly because farm policy does not incentivize them. Our goal is to create the incentives & infrastructure needed to support producers at every stage of their journey, and make regenerative agriculture economically viable for all stakeholders, including producers, businesses, financial institutions, and governments.
Could you elaborate on how healthy soils and sustainable farming practices impact climate change?
Our agricultural system plays a significant role in contributing to climate change, contributing roughly 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). However, agriculture is also one of the only industries with the potential to be carbon negative. In fact, agricultural soils are the largest available carbon sink on the planet. If we can help producers to change their management practices, we can shift agriculture from a massive emitter of GHGs, to mitigating and even reversing the impacts of climate change.
Drawing carbon into the soil, through living plants and properly managed livestock, is among our biggest and least expensive opportunities to address climate change. According to NRDC, “with proper care, soil can draw down 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide–equivalent greenhouse gasses every year—and that’s just in the United States.” At the same time, carbon-rich soils make farmland and local communities more resilient: a 1% increase in soil organic matter increases water holding capacity by up to 27,000 gallons per acre, which helps farmers deal with the increasingly extreme impacts of flood and drought.
What campaigns or policy efforts are you focusing on in the year ahead?
Policy plays a fundamental role in shaping American agriculture, from influencing what and how we grow to how our food is distributed, and ultimately the impacts on our soils. Land Core remains focused on creating economic incentives for producers to adopt soil health practices. Our efforts this year include building a broad coalition to support soil health and regenerative agriculture systems in the 2023 Farm Bill, our nation’s major piece of food & ag legislation, which guides everything from federal nutrition, crop insurance, conservation, rural development programs and more.
We’ll also be working closely with Congress & the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that lending and crop insurance policies and practices better recognize the reduced risks of using soil health practices and the value that regenerative producers are providing back to our ag system and our country; and to provide capital that rewards these practices and helps producers invest in transitioning to regenerative management systems. This builds on our current work building an predictive model of the risk mitigating benefits of specific soil health practices.
Can you tell us more about how you work alongside local farmers and communities?
While we’re based in California, our policy work is federal in scope and grounded in listening deeply to farmers and ranchers across the country about what’s working and the real barriers they’re facing in their communities and regions, and to ensuring these issues are brought to our policymakers. We learn from so many amazing farmers across California who are building resilience & restoring soil health, from Farmer Mai (Sonoma County heritage grain farmer and and social justice activist) to Apricot Lane Farms (a regenerative farm north of LA known for its incredible diversity of crops and livestock- you can learn more about their story by watching the film The Biggest Little Farm!).
Thanks to the work and advocacy of countless organizations and individuals, California has incentive programs like the Healthy Soils Initiative, to promote the development of healthy soils while increasing carbon sequestration and reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions on our working lands. We’re also thrilled about the expansion of complementary, private-sector initiatives like Zero Foodprint, which encourages participating restaurants to add a few cents per meal to help farmers implement carbon farming projects through grants from their Restore California program. CA also just became the second state (after Vermont) to enact a composting law requiring all residents and businesses to compost! The mandate is rolling out city-by-city and county-by-county, with some city programs already in place.
What gives you hope for the future, in terms of mitigating the impacts of climate change and promoting a more equitable and sustainable society?
We’ve seen unbelievable growth in the soil health and regenerative agriculture movement in the past few years, with new producers, businesses, farm organizations, and the public not just acknowledging the importance of soil health but actively contributing to scaling it in unprecedented ways.
We’re also encouraged to see soil continue to create common ground in Congress, with real interest from policymakers across the aisle to support producers in building soil health, and through new programs like USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative. The opportunity to shift towards a regenerative, resilient agricultural system is within reach and is needed now more than ever. As we move forward, we need to ensure programs are providing equal opportunity and access to all producers, including historically underserved producers & small farms.
Lastly, how can our community get involved and make their voices heard?
There are so many ways to get involved in the regenerative movement:
Learn more: There’s a wealth of resources available to learn more about soil stewardship (start with this regenerative ag deep dive from our friends at NRDC). Some of our favorite books are The Hidden Half of Nature & Growing a Revolution by David Montgomery & Anne Bikle; The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson; & Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown). You can also join our monthly newsletter for the latest in soil health.
Buy regenerative: Consumers have a huge opportunity to support producers in growing food that restores our lands and ecosystems. Connect with a local farmer or rancher in your area (check out this regen farm map) & learn more about their practices.
Get your hands in the soil: Start a garden in your backyard or join a community garden - take a look at Kiss the Ground’s “Grow What you Know” series on regenerative gardening.
Follow our federal bill tracker: Land Core tracks legislation introduced into Congress that could impact soil health and resilience in our federal soil health bill tracker. Subscribe to our e-list, where we provide monthly reports on the 70+ bills we’re tracking in the current Congress!
Become an advocate: Contact your government representative and encourage them to learn about the importance of improving soil health through regenerative agriculture. Take action with this interactive soil policy action tool.