Betsy Taylor is president of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions LLC. For over thirty years, Betsy Taylor has built a solid reputation as a philanthropic advisor, social change leader, motivational speaker and problem solver. Betsy has led several non-profit groups and campaigns, served as Executive Director of the Ottinger Foundation, Stern Family Fund, and Merck Family Fund and currently advises a small number of donors and foundations.
Author of three books and frequent public speaker, Betsy Taylor is known for challenging her clients to think big and to tackle the root causes of social and ecological problems. She specializes in bringing diverse stakeholders together to achieve a shared vision in support of bold action for a better world. For the past four years, Betsy has worked to build the field of regenerative agriculture through grant-making, network development, global convenings, and general cheerleading about the potential of our lands to sequester carbon pollution while boosting food security and habitat protection.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The movement towards regenerative agriculture and rebuilding soil health
- The increased resilience of healthy soil farms against climate change impacts
- The boost to food production and bio-diversity offered through regenerative agriculture practices. “It’s phenomenal what the land will do if you just give it a break.”
- The value in shifting to bio-regional production and supply chains
Connect with Betsy Taylor
Hi Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? Today I’m speaking with Betsy Taylor, as part of Post Carbon Institute’s June focus on healthy soils. Betsy is President of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, a small consulting firm. Betsy has over four decades of philanthropic and non-profit leadership experience. Since 2015, Betty’s consulting has focused primarily on building the field of regenerative agriculture. Her donor clients directed early funding to spark work at Project Drawdown, the Marine Carbon Project, and others. She organized and chaired a 2017 soil carbon conference in Chantilly, France with over 200 participants from 33 countries designed to map the field and explore opportunities.
Betsy graduated from Duke University and has an MPA from Harvard University. She is co-author of Sustainable Planet Solutions for the 21st century. She owns and helps to manage an organic hay farm and grew up in rural Maryland in a conservative farming community. She relocated to Vermont in 2021, and is living on a 20-acre homestead where she is sequestering carbon and restoring the land. I think you’ll enjoy my conversation with Betsy.
Welcome Betsy Taylor, to What Could Possibly Go Right? You and I met when you, as a philanthropic advisor, took an interest in consumerism as a driver of environmental decline and helped build a field including the Center for New American Dream, which we birthed together in 1995. Now since 2015, you’ve done the same for the field of regenerative agriculture. You are a lead author of the 2019 guide for philanthropic action and investment, Healthy Soils to Cool the Planet. You served on the steering committee of the Funders for Regenerative Agriculture, and are a board member of the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation.
So this June, Post Carbon Institute, the home of my podcast, is offering a special two part online series, where we’ll explore why soil health matters, how it’s related to our worsening climate crisis, and what individuals and communities can do to protect it. So there’s gonna be some great guests.
I wanted to talk with you to give us an overview of the regenerative agriculture field, where we are nationally and globally, in the shift from exploiting soils to regenerating soils. What breakthrough strategies are getting through the defence mechanisms of the industrial models’ grip on our politics and food production, et cetera. So Betsy, from where you sit, what is going right and what possibly could go righter?
Well, that’s a fabulous question. And it’s great to see you, Vicki. I jumped into this space before Regenerative Ag was even a term. Back to this little bit of background, in 2017 pulled together kind of a field that was just trying to emerge. So, pulled together 200 people, scientists, farmers, investors, just trying to say, can we build healthy soil to cool the planet? What do we know about that?
Since 2017, the field has exploded. What’s going well is that many countries have committed to changing their approach to soil. There’s much research underway in many universities, in the United States and globally, trying to understand what’s happening under the surface of the soil.
So much of our academic work, and actually the practice of agriculture since World War Two, has been based on chemistry is the nitrogen and phosphorus ratio. Right? Now the questions are, is the mycorrhizal fungi healthy? What’s the biome? What is the situation with your nematodes? Do you have lots of worms? How deep does the soil go? Are you feeding your soil? How are you feeding it? So the questions in the research and the practice is really shifting and it’s very exciting.
What could go right? There is a lot that’s going right and our own United States Department of Agriculture is stepping up funding, as well as attention, to regenerative ag. They’re creating more incentives for farmers and ranchers and Indigenous land stewards to adopt and sustain these practices. We are up against – in the European Union and in the United States and in Australia and in pretty much every every part of the world – an industrial agricultural lobby that is based on maximizing the use of inputs that are all fossil fuel based. So there’s a lot to take on. But there’s a lot going right.
So whether it’s clever, strategic, heartfelt; where do you see the narratives, that are sort of breaking through the harsh concrete of this industrial model? Sometimes somebody speaks a sentence that everybody recognizes is true, and hearts melt, and things start to move where. What are the narratives that are starting to move people enough to be able to make change?
Well, the narratives that move farmers are the narratives from farmers. This field is not moving because of environmental books or talks. It’s moving because farmers are talking to other farmers. Most farmers and ranchers really do care about their land, and they want to pass it on to the next generation in good shape. Actually, climate change impacts. Every farmer in the world is dealing with climate impacts. Almost all of them are dealing with either drought or flood, and often both, within the same place.
So I don’t know if it’s the narrative as much as the life experience. Farmers are seeing something. They’re seeing that things are different, the weather is different, productivity is different. The cost of the inputs that they’re locked into are terribly expensive. Just look at the cost of oil. Fertilizers are oil-based, pesticides are oil-based. So they have an economic incentive to change.
When they see their neighbors… I’ll just give you one example. There were big floods in Nebraska and Iowa a couple years ago; really massive, these huge, intensive rainstorms. Many of the farms were wiped out. It was just ranches, too. There were a couple of farms and ranches that had been using the regenerative techniques, holistic grazing, cover crops, no till agriculture, feeding the soil with compost and waste. Those farms held up so much better. That was a narrative that was like, Well, what happened? The neighboring farmers wanted to know, why did your fields do so much better?
Stories from Ghana to Costa Rica from Finland to California. They want their lands to be productive, and they want them to be healthy. We’re learning a lot that if you feed the soil, if you care for the soil, they will give it back in such a huge way, and you don’t have to put in all these chemical inputs. In fact, those chemical inputs have depleted and degraded this soil.
So I think there’s a shift. I don’t want to overstate it. I mean, there’s been a long many decades approach to agriculture, which is industrial, which is monoculture, which is all commodity based. And that model was dominant in the United States, perhaps more than any other place. So there’s a lot of work to do.
Yeah. I hope I don’t say his name wrong. Olivier De Schutter, the report that he did for the United Nations that said, basically, if you want to feed the world, agro-ecology is really the way we’re going to feed the world. It’s not industrial agriculture, but the narrative of industrial agriculture is that we cannot unhook from that, because we are hooked on it.
So where do you see, are there countries where the idea of agro-ecology is on the ascendancy where the support, at a state or national level is strong? People are learning; it’s sort of like the new way things are being done. Do you see that?
Yep. Well, different words are used in different places. Agro-ecological practices really comes from Indigenous communities. That whole terminology came out of Latin America. But yes, there’s agro-ecological efforts in large parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America. It’s all rooted in the notion of smaller plots, which are highly diversified.
Alternate agro-ecology farming is happening in tropical countries where you can have multi-tiered farming, where you’re integrating fruit trees and nut trees with crops and with animals. You take the waste from your food and the waste from your animals; you plough that, put that back into the soil and it’s the most productive. It’s also one of the highest carbon sequestering systems in the world, and it’s where we need to shift.
So you can see within the United States a great movement towards smaller regional medium-sized farms, populated by young, often farmers of color, Indigenous farmers; in some ways, we’re going back to what we used to know how to do. There’s movements in Finland, which is one of the more affluent Scandinavian countries; a tremendous effort to do what they call carbon farming. In California, hundreds now of vineyards, ranchers, and farmers involved with carbon farming. Mad Agriculture in Colorado is doing some of the most innovative work working with farmers from about, I think, seven states in the Great Plains in the Rocky Mountain West.
It’s happening. Farmers are doing it, the soils are going much deeper, the roots of crops are going much deeper. This allows us to sequester and pull carbon pollution out of the atmosphere into the soil. Even the IPCC, very conservative, says we could sequester at least one to three giga tonnes a year.
Doing this kind of farming is not just about climate. It is about food production, increasing food production. It’s about biodiversity and supporting all the rest of life. I’m doing it in my own 20 acres here. We’ve got an incredible piece of land, we’re growing food. We can on a very small, postage stamp-sized garden, grow enough food probably to feed many of our neighbors. And we don’t put any chemical inputs in. We put in all of our food waste, we put in the neighbor’s horse and cow manure. It’s phenomenal what the land will do if you just give it a break.
Right? Yeah, in a way, what I’m hearing is that home gardening, a home gardener can consider him or herself as part of this regenerative movement. I’m doing a little bit of regenerative practices on my little postage stamp. Yeah, I’m working in my little village that I live in, 2000 people, sort of on a hillside down to a waterfront; it’s a tourist town in a way. I think of it as a landscape dotted with houses, not neighborhoods, with private property with lawns.
I’m trying to promote that sort of systems shift view, that we live in a landscape. We all care about how the water moves through a landscape. We all care about how the fertility moves through our landscape. It’s not just the legal restrictions about what you can and can’t do. Anyway, I’m just hoping that we can increase food production on our island.
Yeah, I think you absolutely can. I would say, given how quickly we’re facing that climate change is so non-linear now, and so many other things are interacting with it, I think it’s a really prudent and good idea for everyone to be part of, or be connected into. If you don’t want to do your own garden, to be part of a community supported agricultural system, and to think of it as a bio-region. We can still have imports and exports. There are certain things you might not be able to grow up there like coffee, and you might still want to drink it. But we need to shift very much towards bio-regional production, bio-regional supply chains, and we can do it pretty quickly.
We need to capture our food waste. Cities like San Francisco and LA are showing the way they’re capturing their food waste, turning it into compost, having that be sold at a very small price to vineyards and farmers and ranchers. It’s greatly boosting their production and improving the nutritional value of the food. This is another thing when you take care of your soil, you increase the nutritional value of what comes out of it. If you simply throw chemicals on it, you deplete those nutrients. It’s not hard. I know from my own experience, we get no pests as long as you’re doing the practices which are all about diversification and feeding the soil covering the soil.
I’ll just say one other thing here. When you think about the soil, it is restorative to us in other ways. So being out there, you’re in an urban setting, even if it’s just growing a pumpkin seed on your windowsill, or if you’re going to be part of a community garden, which I was for 20 years, the biggest community garden in Washington DC; it’s so restorative to be out and watch the miracle of seeds producing plants, that then produce food, that then produce waste that can go back to the seeds the next year, and how you don’t have to buy the seeds, you can just collect them.
We are living in a world of massive abundance. Yes, the rules are structured to make us always feel scarcity. So the good news is there are many, many people trying to move the regenerative ag and agro-ecology fields forward. It’s like a political battle, it’s not always so easy. And there are biological barriers, the soils are warming from climate change, and with the warm soils, things shift. But from the point of view of food security, there’s absolutely no regrets here. We should all be getting involved with local farms and gardens. I’ll just say there’s 100 cities in the United States, they’re working to improve local community gardens, local urban farms to help with this whole movement.
Right. I’m going to just pile on that gorgeous image of all these gardens and ask the question, because this what we deal with here, is that we are hampered; our little local farmers are hampered by regulations designed to keep the food supply from an industrial system safe. So you can go to the supermarket, you buy a carton of milk, and it can have milk from 1000 cows from 1000 different places, and you can drink it. But it disallows buying milk from your neighbor’s cow.
So we’re really bumping into that. What I noticed is that in my community, it’s sort of like the idealistic young farmers and it’s the libertarian farmers. We have a really great guy, who’s doing the Joel Salatin method, and he is as libertarian as they come. I think it’s a bridge issue. So where do you see food and farming as a bridge issue that sort of transcends or goes underneath this polarization that seems to stymie us?
I do think that farming is, regenerative agriculture is a bridge issue. There are many conservative and Republican farmers and ranchers who have become interested in regenerative agriculture. There have been many kitchen table conversations among farmers and ranchers about, how do you do this? How do you actually make the transition?
I think the more that those who are not farming can build support consumer support, through your consumer choices, choose to buy from local farmers, choose to buy from regenerative farms; and whether they be from a conservative farmer, conservative for whatever reasons, when they see a whole group of consumers pledging their dollars in support of these restorative practices, that builds a bridge, that builds a community.
I think it’s really important to listen because the farmers and producers and ranchers, it’s not easy. Right now I’m working with a rancher in New Mexico. They have fires everywhere. One of the ranchers has had to take all of her animals to another ranch for fear that they’re gonna get killed by the fire. There’s so many crises for these land stores. So I think, as people who are neighbors, as people who visit farms, as people who try to support farmers; try to honor these people, regardless of their political persuasion, because they are really working hard, including a lot of the conventional farmers who haven’t made the transition yet and want to.
I live next to some pretty conventional dairy farmers here in Vermont. They work so hard and they’re trapped. They’re trapped inside of rules and regulations and subsidies, and they would like to change. So part of it, I think, it’s a bridge builder, especially if we show respect and appreciate just how hard it is to figure it out, to change your mindset from pouring on fertiliser to capturing waste, making compost and feeding the soil that way.
Yeah, I feel like you’ve just offered for anybody who’s listening a lot of places that we can work to be part of the regenerative agriculture, restoring soils movement, if you will. It’s not a movement necessarily organized. It’s a movement of hearts and practices of real people in real places trying to figure things out. So I really appreciate this as just a conversation and also as a setup for the Post Carbon inquiry into healthy soils. So thank you, Betsy.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you.