RegeNErate Nebraska Workshops Inspire Farmers, Consumers to Go Regenerative

Nebraska and surrounding states have some of the richest soil in the world. Yet throughout the state, Nebraskans have little access to locally produced food.

RegeNErate Nebraska wants to change that. How? By reclaiming local control of the food system, and removing it from the grip of corporate agribusiness.

“Many people have been left behind as industrial agriculture has replaced cooperation with competition, separating us from our connection to the soil and to each other,” said RegeNErate Nebraska founder and local farmer Graham Christensen. “RegeNErate Nebraska is a community of Nebraskans who are bucking the system, in favor of the solution which lies in the soil. Regeneration is about going back to the way farming was.”

“The solution lies in the soil,” said Christensen. “Everything comes from the soil—all that feeds us, nourishes us, provides us with strength and community. It’s who we are. Nebraskans know that soil is soul.”

RegeNErate Nebraska held a series of workshops March 24 – March 27 focused on building regenerative alternatives to the state’s dominant industrial ag system. The workshops took place over a four-day period across four cities: Lincoln, Fremont and North Omaha, Nebraska; and Sloan, Iowa.

The events brought together local and national leaders and members of the community to discuss the benefits of transitioning from a conventional, degenerative agriculture system to a regenerative organic model that increases access to locally produced, nutrient-dense food, restores soil health, promotes biodiversity, treats animals humanely, revitalizes local economies and prioritizes farmworker fairness.

Nebraska’s soil is on life support

If there were a category for soil on the endangered species list, it would be number one—”our soil is on life support,” said regenerative rancher Del Ficke.

Ficke, aka the “Graze Master” of Ficke Cattle Company, based in Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, has practiced no-till farming since the late 1980s, when he transitioned from conventional agriculture to regenerative. That process included downgrading the amount of land he managed from 7,000 acres to less than 600 acres. He told attendees those 600 acres are 70 percent more profitable under regenerative practices than they were under conventional farming methods.

Ficke was one of several presenters who spoke about the human health and environmental benefits of regenerative food, farming and land use at a workshop

‘People have no idea’

RegeNErate Nebraska’s workshop series kicked off in Lincoln, Nebraska, with John Fagan, PhD, of Health Research Institute Labs,  based in Fairfield, Iowa. HRI Labs conducts scientific research and laboratory testing to identify and quantify environmental contaminants in food, water, soil and the human body.

Fagan’s presentation served as a wakeup call to the fact that most Americans have trace amounts of glyphosate, the key active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, in their bodies. “People have no idea,” said Fagan, that the primary route of exposure is through industrialized food.

HRI Labs offers human urine test kits for people concerned about glyphosate. The weedkiller has been found in human breast milk, urine,  drinking water and countless foods. A recent study found that glyphosate levels in humans increased 500 percent from 1993 to 2016.

Fagan also talked about how to get chemical contamination out of humans and the environment. The good news, he said, is that our food and farming system is currently undergoing a massive transformation, one that’s driven by two things: concern about soil degradation and the demand for pure, safe healthy food.

The growing demand for clean, healthy and chemical-free food grown from nutrient-rich soil was an underlying theme at the workshops, which attracted a diverse audience that included local, regenerative farmers and ranchers, agroforestry and urban gardening experts, food co-op leaders, refugee farmers, conservationists, prairie restorationists, tribal representatives and even conventional farmers in search of guidance on how to farm with nature, instead of against it.

Transforming vacant lots into food forests

Local afro-soul music group Wakanda One set the mood for the RegeNErate North Omaha workshop at the Metropolitan Community College, Institute of the Culinary Arts.

Urban Forester Graham Herbst of Omaha Permaculture kicked off the event by talking about urban food forests, a sustainable plant-based food production and agroforestry system based on woodland ecosystems that incorporate fruit and nut trees, shrubs, herbs, vine and perennial vegetables.

Omaha Permaculture specializes in transforming vacant city lots into beautiful, functional food gardens of edible plants, trees, art and flowers. The gardens serve as a food pipeline, providing lower-income residents access to affordable and locally grown health food.

Craig Howell of Alliance For A Better Omaha delivered a similar message. Howell stressed the importance of including local and nutritious fruits and vegetables in the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“When we grow food locally, we will end hunger,” said Howell.  “We can’t solve hunger without expanding community, and we can’t expand community without sustainable land stewardship.”

Through his organization’s SNAP outreach, Howell has helped put nearly 2 million meals on the tables of food insecure households across metropolitan Omaha.

‘We’re not making any money’

At the RegeNErate Fremont event I sat next to a couple who operate a conventional farm outside of Fremont, Nebraska. “We’re not making any money,” they said. They told me they want to move away from toxic crop chemicals and toward a regenerative agriculture system that builds soil health—but they also need their farm to be profitable, in addition to sustainable. They’ve already starting planting cover-crops, a step Christensen describes as the perfect segue into restoring soil health through regenerative agriculture.

One key revelation that emerged from RegeNErate Nebraska’s workshop series is the importance of thinking outside the box, while at the same time building strong community networks that support regenerative food, farming and land use.

Regenerative agriculture is a native concept

The final workshop took place at the WinneVegas Casino Resort, owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. RegeNErate Native, which emphasized native food sovereignty and the need to create opportunities among tribes and on native land, featured presentations from experts on a range of topics including the Native Farm Bill,  regenerative poultry and bison, sacred seed saving and pollinator protection.

The RegeNErate Native workshop focused on connections with native communities and how to facilitate the development of local food pipelines that ultimately establish food-sovereign communities. The event kicked off with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation leader, Ernest Weston, Jr., who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Weston, a local food activist, spoke about the importance of natives achieving food sovereignty. Up to 98 percent of the farmland in native communities is used to grow feed for livestock, the majority of which does not return to the reservation. Weston said that of the 2.7 million acres of farmland on the reservation, 95 percent is farmed by non-natives.

Weston told attendees that regenerative agriculture is good for communities, it essentially equates to being a good neighbor. View his presentation here.

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Watch videos of RegeNErate Nebraska workshop speakers

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association. She attended the RegeNErate Nebraska workshops. To keep up with news on regenerative agriculture subscribe to the Regeneration International newsletter.