By Ben Pimstone

I remember the moment I received the shallow ping of the google meet calendar invite to speak with Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, I wondered what I might ask him.  I thought this over extensively, and as I brainstormed, I began to realize that I was so pressed for interview material because the words to describe the ideas that Regi spoke of were so absent from my vernacular.  Regi is a regenerative farmer, an author, an academic, an agricultural philosopher, and I, a college student (and serial intern), have seldom had a moment to figure out a dinner recipe not involving pasta, let alone evaluate my relationship with self and ecological reverence.  Thus, when the time came, I decided to embody my most eccentric sociology professor, scrap my interview questions, and enter the meeting ready to learn as we spoke.  We began broadly by discussing the necessity of a shift toward regenerative agriculture.  To this end, Regi spoke of a regenerative system, stating, “It is just the way we are…if left to the conventional system, we would have starved to death already.”

       With the state of regenerative agriculture in the US and the singularity with which we seek to hone new cultural movements into palatable bite sized morsels of marketable solutions, language this bold might come across as distressing and fatalistic. Regi is completely correct. It has been found that family farms account for 98% of worldwide cropland and produce at least 53 percent of the world’s food supply. This is to say that the infrastructure for a more communalized and indigenized style of food production already exists and has existed for thousands of years. Without food produced on this seemingly micro-scale, the world would quite literally be starving. Interestingly, in “developed” countries like the United States where we rely more heavily on commercialized agriculture, 35.2 million people live in food insecure households and most Americans’ diets are missing essential vitamins and nutrients. How has this happened? Discussing these phenomena with Regi necessitated a sense of urgency with regard to the questions of why commercialized food production exists, what is the alternative, and how do we get there?

       From Sanford Dole’s involvement in the US annexation of Hawaii, to Haciendas in Central and South America, and slavery throughout North
America and the Carribean, one need not look very hard to understand the inextricable link between agriculture and colonization.  To Regi, these connections could not be more obvious; explorers seeking wealth and prestige sail to a not-so-new world and set up political, social, and economic systems that center around extracting capital from the people and land around them.  The description of these colonized societal systems is often considered uncomfortable to speak about, as we look back on the horror underlying the founding of our own country.  Regi stresses the importance of this understanding however, as our current society is far from devoid of systems that center around extraction and exploitation.  One might come, then, to the upsetting conclusion that, at least from a structural standpoint, little has changed with regard to the way we approach agricultural subsistence.  Pesticides like roundup are used to increase profit while farm laborers and consumers suffer massive health consequences, factory farm waste wreaks havoc on aquatic ecosystems and necessitate antibiotic and hormone overuse.  I pause to gaze out my window at the lightning bugs blanketing nearby soy fields and restored grassland, and it dawns on me that our agricultural systems are not interested in food security at all.  Food security would allow communities a sense of agency and sureness in the health of its members.  When, the next day, I read that 90% of Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, it rings an ominous warning that human health and genuine food security is clearly not the prerogative of the commercial food industry.  In the words of Regi, our animal rearing and food production is a corporatized business, little separating our subsistence strategies from those of clothing or manufacturing industries.  “The right to a decent life is such a threat to a conventional system because those in power won’t give up access to cheap labor which is dependent on poverty and withholding access to land and food security.”

My body shuffles in my creaking plastic desk chair as Regi eloquently and unwaveringly tears into the subsistence systems that so many in our country rely on.  The maturing corn wavering in the distance, I ask Regi almost dejectedly what an alternative might be to the corporate catastrophe that is agriculture in the United States?

“We must set up systems where we are acting as though we are indigenous to the earth as opposed to colonizers of the earth”

       His answer is a structural one, his idea of regeneration beginning in the shifting not simply of the mindset with which we approach agriculture and environmentalism, but with how we approach politics, economy, and our own self conceptualization. All encompassing and even revolutionary in sentiment, Regi delivered this answer with a calmness that might come as surprising to any American thinking about how to overhaul every corporate and government system we have currently in place. But there was not one iota of doubt in Regi’s mind that this is the only way forward.  I mulled this over while Regi dove deeper into what it really means to abide by an indiginous agricultural system.  He spoke of a system deeply rooted in the idea that we as humans are constantly giving and taking, an integral cog in the complex ecosystems in which we are very much entrenched. An indigenized attitude toward food subsistence recognizes that reverence for the land in which we live leads to symbiosis; it leads to an agricultural system that is just as interested in preservation as it is food security.  My next question was of course, how can we as citizens and people facilitate this shift?  A society entrenched in a labor/capital mindset cannot suddenly understand how best to approach an indigenized mindset toward subsistence and food security.  To this, Regi clarifies that an indigenized approach to agriculture is,

“A way of being. Your mind, your body, and your spirit become central to how we move about this planet. Reverence for yourself is where it all starts. If you are not taking care of yourself, then you are very little use in the living system that is nature”

       Playing absentmindedly with the soil in my small reddish potted succulent, I think over my own existence.  Pausing to chuckle momentarily at the ridiculous self indulgence in thinking about myself in the scheme of the regenerative movement, I realize Regi is completely correct.  In order to assign some semblance of inherent value to our ecosystems, we must first recognize and appreciate the role we as humans play within that.  In Regi’s mind, this ecological reverence begins with establishing a newfound reverence for the self.  We work tirelessly to bolster the brand image of organizations that often take more from us than we have to give, we consume food that destroys our body more than strengthens it, and we isolate ourselves, losing our sense of connection to each other in lieu of online mimicry wherein we are bombarded with the grandeur of those more successful and seemingly put together than ourselves.  Even worse, the moment we stop to question why our society and our minds are so self destructive, we are told to blame ourselves: we are unhinged, we are ungrateful, we are not working hard enough.  This is the self reverence of which Regi speaks.  We must imagine ourselves as deserving of healthy bodies, minds, and communities.  We must rethink the ways that we allow ourselves to want better for ourselves and those around us.  This is the first step, the often overlooked link in the journey to a regenerative agricultural system.  All of a sudden it makes sense.  The ideas of ecological reverence and true food security seem so out of reach because we are so often told that we are undeserving of a world in which we live in symbiosis with each other in addition to our earth.  I think back to a radio show on air the prior evening, bashing John Lennon’s “Imagine” for asserting that humans are capable of loving each other and our world.  While John Lennon was decidedly an underwhelming person in many ways, I began to realize that these ideas of mental and communal well being are ones we often willfully deprive ourselves of.  How can we genuinely approach environmental wellness if we cannot first want for our own?

       I step off my proverbial soapbox, thinking of all the ways I have neglected my own health and wellness, and re-engage.  Regi and I speak back and forth on the subject and he tells me I am too interested in conceptualizing and should focus more on how this shift might actualize.  I agree and we move on to regenerative farming itself.  The concepts sound amazing, but can an overhaul of our agricultural system really work in practice?  The answer to this question is a resounding “absolutely.”  In addition to organizing a fast growing network of 10 regenerative farms with 20 more farms currently onboarding, Regi has facilitated the acquisition of a worker-managed poultry processing facility, and is currently organizing the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance nonprofit.  This, he states emphatically, is just the beginning.  In addition to his Tree-Range ® brand, Regi personally oversees the operation of a 75-acre permaculture “Tree Range” farm in Minnesota where it is becoming increasingly clear that the dream of a world supplied by regenerative meat and produce is very much a reality.  Under a flourishing interspersal of hazelnut bushes, chickens (or jungle fowls, as Regi refers to them) roam free, creating a demonstration farm and a flourishing mini ecosystem. This method of permaculture farming dates back thousands of years, and Regi hopes to bring this method to the Western farming sphere.  Though regarded with suspicion by some, this method of agriculture allows for healthy soil, healthy animals, healthy trees and fruits, and a healthy community.  The chickens roam and eat whatever bugs and weeds they please, supplanting the need for both pesticides and herbicides.  Additionally, their poop fertilizes the trees and shrubs, and the community is happy and fed with a near constant supply of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and poultry.  This, Regi states, is what a happy agricultural ecosystem looks like.  He is right, though my mind wanders to the next steps in implementing the indiginous approach to agriculture that has undoubtedly won me over in concept.

“If the beginning of a true regenerative movement consists of reforming our concept of self reverence, and we have the actual farming strategies on lock,  what structural shifts must come next?”

“We must reorganize our governance in indigenized ways...We are being swallowed into the storm called corporate America which controls government and capital and access to necessary goods. There is no Indigenous representation in a non collective effort.”

“If the beginning of a true regenerative movement consists of reforming our concept of self reverence, and we have the actual farming strategies on lock,  what structural shifts must come next?”

Regi thinks this over, though only momentarily.  There is no part of the indiginized movement that he has not thought through.  

       Regi speaks with unwavering confidence of enacting change in a governmental system that I have begun to view as inherently allergic to large scale change.  It is refreshing and hopeful.  It gives me a burst of energy to hear him speak in this way.  So too often, the environmental movement sucks in hopeful seekers of change and spits them out unbelievers.  Unbelievers of the idea that there is anything we can truly do to overhaul the systems that result in human and environmental neglect; unbelievers of the idea that those changes are even worth the effort.  Regi is unphased as he asserts that we must fight for systems wherein the stability and health of every community is advocated for.  He speaks of the importance of direct democracy as it is repeatedly challenged in the US and around the world.  He speaks of the misguided efforts of regenerative organizations in the US that focus more on monetizing on indigenous ideology than actually working to implement it.  He laments corporate power and shares hopeful plans to shift that balance of power to real people and community leaders of a diverse array of colors and backgrounds.  After years writing, speaking, working in the worldwide regenerative movement, he is as sure as the day he began that political and social change is not only necessary but possible. 

“I think we will succeed because people are ready for change.”

       I look at his face wavering slightly with the static borne of questionable wifi and a seldom cleaned computer screen.  He is calm but serious.  I close my eyes and I try to imagine a future where community gardens flourish, fruit trees dot city streets, and chickens run endlessly in permacultural heaven.  I look back to Regi and I am confident in this vision.  Regi is sure, and I think I am too.

Sources:

https://www.ashoka.org/en/fellow/reginaldo-haslett-marroqu%C3%ADn

https://vimeo.com/565085906

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/phc3.12479

https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/5/3/57/htm

https://ourworldindata.org/hunger-and-undernourishment

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X15001217

https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx

https://time.com/5029164/fruit-vegetable-diet