Farmers eager to adopt environmentally restorative farming practices are finding support among grassroots soil health advocates who started out as ordinary consumers but became increasingly concerned about how food is produced and whether it is healthy for their families and the planet.
Jessica Gnad, a backyard gardener from Pratt, Kan., falls into that category.
"I'm just a mom," Gnad said by way of introduction earlier this winter before launching into how she has made it her mission to "go back to my local community and find ways to improve it."
For her, that has meant helping to start a local farmers market and putting together a series of community lectures on healthy food and farming.
Married to a professional agronomist and raising three young kids, she's done op-eds, media interviews and public appearances advocating for state and national policies that support rebuilding local food systems.
Part of what lit her fire to get involved was taking a seven-week online class in soil health advocacy offered by a nonprofit organization called Kiss the Ground. The group's next online course is scheduled to begin January 15. Enrollment is $175.
Gnad describes Kiss the Ground as "a book, a social network, a class and a film," all of which revolve around the restoration of healthy soil and its relationship to human and environmental health. The organization was founded by a diverse mix of innovative people from the fields of entertainment, health, business and finance. Its namesake promotional film was made by Josh Tickell, who specializes in media with a social message. He and his wife Rebecca also made the documentary Pump, which advocates for domestically produced renewable fuels.
Concerned consumers like Gnad are increasingly part of a network that also includes farmers in the region who belong to groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, No Till on the Plains and the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, which push adoption of practices that restore the land.
The term "no-till" used to be shorthand for reducing time, money and equipment expense by farming conventional crops in less input-intensive ways. But over the years the no-till message has mushroomed beyond the mechanics of "ditching the plow" to include the importance of enhancing rural economies, boosting personal wellbeing, improving human health and satisfying consumer concerns.
Related conferences continue to draw sizeable crowds. Some of the region's biggest offerings include Cover Your Acres in Oberlin, Kansas, coming up January 15-16; No Till on the Plains in Wichita, January 29-30; the High Plains No-Till Conference in Burlington, Colorado, February 5-6 and the Farming Evolution Conference in Holyoke, February 20-21.
These farmer-driven efforts dovetail with the work of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which was created to support responsible resource management in rural areas, and the National Association of Conservation Districts, which in 2015 started what it calls the "Soil Health Champions Network" made up of more than 200 landowners and farm operators willing to promote the benefits of soil health in their local communities. These soil health champions are encouraged to reach out to the public through farm tours, field demonstrations, public speaking, media interviews and educational booths at community events.
Gnad believes there might still be room in Kansas for yet another initiative, possibly modeled on Regeneration International and its offshoots.
Regeneration Midwest, which includes representation across 12 states, and Regenerate Nebraska are examples of regional groups that host their own educational activities, training and networking.
"What would that look like for Kansas? I'm still trying to figure that out," Gnad said.
Ronnie Cummins, the international director of the Organic Consumers Association and a member of Regeneration International, urges those who want to get involved in the soil health movement to educate themselves on regenerative production methods, network with other local "regenerators," start Facebook groups and set up local and regional educational meetings.
That's roughly the script that Gnad has been following.
"I'm passionate about us sharing our stories," she said. "What I've learned is that getting a big audience isn't as important as just getting a few key people together who care deeply about this issue."
As a result of her outreach efforts, for example, she connected with Trisha Jackson, another soil health advocate in her community.
Jackson is a science instructor at Pratt Community College, with an academic specialization in soil science. Initially Jackson attended the University of Kansas and later wrote her graduate dissertation at South Dakota State University on how healthy soils contribute to healthy food.
"I studied societies that improved their soil, and I learned that they did it by decentralizing," she said. "It is important to produce the food where we live."
That is in contrast to modern Western society, which has evolved to a model where urban areas "import nutrients" out of rural areas and then never replace them, she said.
"We need to find a way to close that circle," she said.
One of the things she has started working on is a regional biochar initiative. She believes there's an opportunity to transform dying shelterbelts around rural Kansas into the same carbon-rich soil amendment that bolstered Amazonian soils going back centuries.
She'd also like to see biochar eventually approved as a feed additive, because when it passes through livestock and is spread in their manure, it makes an ideal natural fertilizer.
So far Jackson said she works more with moms and master gardeners than with local farmers. But she has noticed that interacting with farmers' wives is often a gateway to reaching the agricultural community with information about improving soil fertility and how that can translate to food nutrition and human health.
"It's incremental, but I do see change happening," she said.