Living Soil and the Learning That’s Needed

I’ve just come from co-hosting Regeneration Canada’s Living Soils Symposium. As tired as I feel right now at the end of the four-day gathering, there’s nowhere else I would have chosen to be. Regenerative approaches to agriculture and land management offer the most promising – and perhaps least known – solution to climate change, activating healthy soil’s ability to sequester billions of tons of carbon each year. These practices also have the potential to address food security, water pollution and scarcity, biodiversity loss, desertification, public health, and more. Unlike conventional methods of agriculture that actively degenerate soil, regenerative approaches focus on creating the conditions for the living microorganisms in the soil to thrive. It’s about working with life instead of against it. For all these reasons, the Symposium attracted 500 farmers, ranchers, food processors, retailers, scientists, journalists, funders, policymakers and others, each with a sense of urgency and cautious hope.

Over the four days, there were many separate sessions covering a range of topics and practices. But in conversations between sessions, I heard one frequent refrain: we understand the importance and value of regenerative approaches to soil; but how do we convince the others? How do we get them – consumers, politicians, retailers, but most of all farmers – to change their thinking and behaviors?

It’s very tempting to go there – to want to change other people. But as I shared with participants during the closing circle of the Symposium, this sounds an awful lot like the conventional approach to agriculture that has gotten us into so much trouble. “How do we make the plants grow the way we want them to? How do we force soils to offer up their bounty?”

Here’s what I proposed: what if we didn’t try to change farmers – or anyone, for that matter? What if, instead, we invited them? Instead of trying to push farmers into new behaviors, what if we gathered around them in shared learning, celebration and reverence for the living soil?

My key takeaway from the Symposium is that – perhaps more than any other profession – it takes a village to “raise” a regenerative farmer, as I wrote elsewhere about all types of entrepreneurs. The entire ecosystem of stakeholders needs to shift priorities and practices if regenerative farming is to be viable.

So, what if we focused on gathering the village, with faith that the village will also nourish us – and the land? What if we grew the regenerative movement not by “scaling up” but by “spreading out” – propagating core patterns of community at local levels?

To call together the village wherever we are, we might converge around a collective direction or intention: a compelling question that invites us into shared inquiry, or a story that we want to figure out how to live into. The question I shared at the end of the Symposium was this:

What if healing the soil and healing our relationship with soil is essential to healing ourselves, our society and our world?

What could that look like?

What would that involve?

This might be too esoteric for some. Each community, each “village,” will need to identify their own point of convergence. But if we are to gather in shared learning across disciplines and roles, if we are to enact meaningful and lasting systemic change – as we must – then our purpose together will have to transcend the merely tactical and practical. It will have to touch on what matters most to all of us. The tactics will come, not only for farmers and land managers but for everyone involved. The call to regeneration – to working with life instead of against it –  extends to every one of us and to every aspect of our lives.

Ultimately, the regenerative movement calls us together in a spirit of stewardship, listening for what is needed and aligning with life. This is the deeper practice of our work. And living soils may be our best and most universal teacher of that practice.


“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

– Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

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