“Rare Conversations” with Ryland Engelhart
Seeding Change: Growing the movement toward regenerative agriculture
Ryland Engalhart is an unapologetic optimist.
Instead of giving into climate anxiety, the food entrepreneur and soil health advocate sees his work as a pathway towards a better future for the planet and humanity.
“Love and regeneration are perennial truths,” he says. “Nature inherently is regenerative, and at the core of all human beings, we are love. And so, if we can connect to those essential truths, we’re going to be alright.”
Engelhart is the founder of Kiss the Ground. This California-based nonprofit advocates for regenerative agriculture as the optimal solution to combat climate, water, and health crises. On July 19, Engelhart joined Rare Lands for Life Vice President Monica Varela to chat about soil health, biodiversity, and the benefits of regenerative agriculture.
Their conversation opened by discussing the moment Engelhart first realized soil’s importance. While on a trip to New Zealand, Engelhart attended a panel called “Can Human Beings Sustain Life on Planet Earth?” But the overwhelming consensus was grim.
“Five out of the six experts said no,” he recalls.
Then, Graeme Sait, a well-known soil expert, and the sixth panel expert, spoke.
“It was something that I’d never heard before,” says Engelhart of the moment he first heard Sait speak. “That plants, microorganisms, and soil could be this mechanism to balancing the climate. That we could take excess atmospheric carbon that’s been released, bring that back down, and put it underground through trees, grasses, plants, and through our agricultural system.
“That idea was the biggest idea that I had ever come to in my life.”
The idea would come to inspire Kiss the Ground and its core belief – that the way we farm could be a solution for regenerating human and planetary health.
Engelhart and Varela share and advocate for this belief in their work.. In Colombia, Varela and Rare’s regenerative farming program, Lands for Life, help smallholder farmers understand the importance of soil health for increased production.
“It doesn’t matter how much fertilizer you put into the soil if there’s not enough organic matter,” says Varela. “[Lands for Life] supports farmers to produce more and more compost so that they can…put more organic matter in the soil, and then they will start seeing productivity.”
Since its founding in 2013, Kiss the Ground has worked to promote its work in three foundational ways: through storytelling, advocacy, and education. But the storytelling aspect of Kiss the Ground makes the organization so unique. In 2020, Kiss the Ground produced a Netflix documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson. The film explores regenerative agriculture as an innovative approach to farming that combines indigenous knowledge, holistic management, and modern science and has the potential to heal the planet, create food security, and mitigate climate change. The film has over 10 million views.
“Anyone who makes that heroic change is absolutely a hero,” says Engelhart of the farmers that have learned and adopted the practice of regenerative agriculture. “How can I give voice to these heroic human beings who are making this different choice that adds so much value to our lives, to the nourishment of communities through food, but also the nourishment of soil and landscape and ecology?” The answer is through stories.
Varela couldn’t agree more. Storytelling is also fundamental to Rare’s work and a crucial strategy its regenerative agriculture program uses to illustrate the benefits of regenerative agricultural practices. Rare’s team of behavioral scientists has found that farmers make decisions based on social proof and social pressure. Farmers tend to adopt new farming practices if they can observe other farmers successfully adopting the same practices – or, interestingly, if they believe that using such practices is expected of them. By sharing community success stories, more farmers are likely to adopt more regenerative agricultural practices.
Finally, Engelhart left listeners believing that change is possible and that individuals can turn their energy and attention toward finding solutions in what often feels like an unpredictable world.
“I’m choosing for my life to be a voice and a promoter and an advocate and a catalyst for the belief that this is possible,” he says.
Click on the video above to watch the Rare Conversations recording with Monica Varela and Ryland Engelhart.