Rewilding: A Glimpse Into Regenerative Agriculture in the US

Ecological farming and care for the Earth connects the souls of India and the US. And if our countries are to be friends in real time, our foreign relations must include our farmers.

As Air India One was entering US skies, my US road trip was ending. I had been lost to the tarmac for the past two months, covering hundreds of miles on rural roads (and some freeways) from Utah to upstate New York, hoping to uncover what really connects our people. Was it history, culture, movies, food, Wall Street or something more, beyond politics and stereotypes?

Being of an agricultural bent of heart, I got a gut feeling – that it is care for the Earth and ecological farming that connects the souls of our countries, and that rural America and its family farms may be part of the answer. So, my discovery of America began in the rural, low-income parts of Virginia.

After driving through the serene Blue Ridge Parkway from North Carolina, in two days I was in Buckingham County in Virginia, on the banks of the James River, at the Timshel Wildland farm: the home of farmer-writer Daniel Griffith, a 30-year-old with three beautiful children and a 400-acre farm co-managed by his wife Morgan.

Living on this land – apart from his family, which includes his parents – were hundreds of cows, some goats and pigs, a variety of other organisms (including mushrooms) and some really old trees.

Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh.

Daniel’s story is an interesting one. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Daniel discovered in high school that he had a health condition practically confining him to his home. Despite visits to many doctors and specialists, his health problems only grew.

It was about this time he figured out that his problem was food-related. Like many Americans from his generation, he too suffered from problems related to his dietary habits.

This is when Daniel and his mother decided to start farming. His personal health issue started his journey towards ecological farming, and although Daniel can’t eat most foods, he is content in eating his share, and is growing poison-free, natural foods for his children and his community. He has transformed his weakness into his strength and is emerging as a prominent voice in the animal-land management world.

The Griffiths are from the Allan Savoury school of land management. They use animals for land or pasture management. The metrics of their world are not carbon or organic processes that are used to certify organic produce, but biodiversity-based ecological outcomes. It was a new outlook to nature.

But what did it involve exactly? I was in a four-day ecological outcome verification (EOV) workshop to learn this new wave of land and soil regeneration that began in 2015. This is a new frontier even for the regenerative world, a new experiment to put nature before profits.

The classes would begin in a makeshift cold storage barn and end up in different regions of the farm – pastures, woodlands, replanted forest areas, etc. Before we headed out, we were dousing ourselves with tick repellents, and by afternoon, we were smelling cow dung and identifying native Virginian grasses. Sweet vernal, fescue and orchard grasses were my favourite.

It rained and stormed, yet our team was out on the field. The day would pass in looking for mushrooms or chasing orange newts.

I was being re-wilded.

Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh.

Daniel was more of a practical guy and preferred time outdoors. This 30-year-old man often turned into a child-like being each time we encountered a rare or regenerative species like Indian grass. Of course, most of the time we were all at grass level, lying down tasting the soil, counting the insects and doing short-term monitoring of various eco-regions within his farm.

We were looking for signs of fatigue and degeneration – like excessive grazing, soil compaction or the occurrence of poison ivy – and also for signs of regeneration. Each type of grass and vegetation indicated a certain ecological succession. After all, the aim of the farmers was to “manage time” and keep their land in a natural state of succession, so the farmers worked with nature.

Instead of other industry-led animal farms, Timshel doesn’t cage up their animals or separate them. They worked with the animals to re-wild them, too. Make their herd minds come alive. This was one of the most sustainable animal farms I had been to on my journey. Each animal was loved and cared for.

For each season, the Griffiths had an elaborate plan for pasturing them. Most of their grazing was planned. As for the market connection, they sold directly to consumers, hence cutting out the middle layer of the market. They even processed the animals themselves. The circle of life at their farm was complete from birth to death. Their farming was honest and wild.

Now, the EOV method has two kinds of assessment: first, the short-term kind, and second, the long term. For both these assessments, there is a set protocol to be followed. It is extremely scientific and yet super-subjective, as the uniqueness of the protocol aims to bring out the individual character of the farm relative to eco-region it is in.

At the same time, the assessment protocol curbs the bias of the auditor, making it almost dummy-proof. It tracks the trends on the farm, and simply put, it allows for objective auditors and subjective monitoring, taking into account micro-climates, sub-regional soil strata and geolocation, because one hat doesn’t fit even brothers sometimes.

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The monitoring is also rigorous, as at least one long-term site and ten short-term sites are required for this protocol. Instead of certification, the protocol is based on verification. I was surprised to see that the Pondicherry area had an EOV centre too.

This was a new system, but by the end of the course, I felt it had immense potential to be applied to countries like India. Not only could this model benefit organic farmers, it may help revolutionise the carbon markets too, and possibly create a system of real-time, regenerative carbon creation and auditing.

If adopted by farming communities, EOV-style verification can ensure that consumers get the best produce, and also that land and soil get better radically, because the verification method doesn’t believe in processes, but rather in ecology and real-time outcomes. If organic farmers use chemicals or pesticides on their land, their soil and water will degrade, directly impacting biodiversity.

Culturally speaking, I was the first Indian to walk into Daniel’s home, but I didn’t feel incongruous even once.

The author (L) and Daniel Griffith (R). Photo: Indra Shekhar Singh.

We had very similar world views, listened to common people and to podcasts, and had a deep commitment to the Earth. We would spend hours on his porch overlooking the Appalachian hills discussing agriculture, race and politics. Other times we silently looked at the grasses sing, while the brown and black cows played their trumpets and the musky, earthy soils occasionally released a sweet perfume each time it rained.

I was reminded of home and our farmers.

More than we would like to believe, Indian and American ecological farmers share a part of their souls and a vision for a sustainable Earth. We only have to try and connect the dots. And if our countries are to be friends in real-time, our foreign relations must include our farmers.

Indra Shekhar Singh is former director, policy and outreach, the National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @Indrassingh.