October 28, 2015
Preface: I am honored to share this insightful conversation I had with the co-founders of Kiss the Ground, Ryland Engelhart and Finian Makepeace. As a recent graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, I’m eager to make an impact on the world; constantly searching for the truth and actions I can share with the world in order to better our planet and remediate it from the damage we’ve done and are still doing. It’s extremely satisfying and inspiring to find a group as hard working and unique as Kiss the Ground, who understand the importance of storytelling and using media to impact culture – or as they like to call it “put culture back in agriculture.” Ryland and Finian have dedicated a portion of their lives to making a sustainable future a reality with a niche focus on soil health – something mainstream environmental slanted non-profits hardly mention. Here is a glimpse into the heart and soul of Kiss the Ground.
– Elizabeth Kahn, Recent Team Member/ Social Media Manager
Q: What was your relationship like growing up, because I know you guys were family-friends. Did you ever imagine working together?
Ryland: The beautiful thing is our parents were hippies and they connected with each other on a deep level. I love the way that generational things get translated and transformed. The fact that our parents were visioning how they could make the world better and now Finian and I are partnered in this, what I like to call, ‘a big foolish project’ – transforming the agricultural system. It’s really inspiring. I couldn’t have imagined it but I also could have imagined it. I didn’t expect it but it makes perfect sense.
Q: Did you grow up with the value of restoring soil?
Fin: Yeah, totally. I have all these hippie jokes and I was sharing them with Matthew (Ryland’s dad) and I think he came up with the one, ‘If weeding the beans with your mother was considered schooling, you might be a hippie child.’ Both of our parents composted and gardened. Our connection (to soil) was probably a step closer than most people’s. We grew up with our hands in the soil. We were both homeschooled when we were younger so we would spend days gardening with our moms – literally.
Ryland: We both grew up with a pretty deep understanding that us, as human beings, and the Earth are one in the same. How we treat ourselves and how we treat the Earth is all the same thing. We are all a part of one interconnected system and cycle. I can say for myself I lost that connection and then later in life reconnected with something that was fundamental with my childhood. It had become lost and almost doormat.
Q: You’re referring to importance of soil, yes?
Ryland: Yeah. Just having the ‘aha’ moment of soil health is nutritional health. Soil health is environmental health. Soil health is atmospheric health. Soil health is a solution to a problem that no one has a solution to.
Q: So what is the backstory to you two founding this organization?
Fin: It was that day, after the 4 hour speech that Graeme (Sait) gave. We were all sitting in the living room and confirmed that we have to do something. I felt more than called to dedicate a portion of my life to this by spreading the word. I was so inspired. My concept of the reality of climate change shifted. So that became the first day. We said, ‘We are in Los Angeles, the media capital of the world and with great power comes great responsibility. We have to help get this message out.’ That was the president that was set and the commitment was made between the two of us and a couple of other people as well including Graeme.
Q: Ryland do you want to add to that?
Ryland: This is the second time in my life where there was an ‘aha’ moment and a surge of internal commitment. For whatever reason, I could not get it out of my head. Internally, it felt like I was being communicated to – this started right after I saw Graeme speak in New Zealand. I was like, ‘Wow this is the most important story on the planet and I think people can understand it and follow it. What I am going to use my life to do is make this a household understanding.’ And I thought, how are we going to do that? And we thought we were going to create some type of video like The Story of Stuff mashed with Kony 2012 – to give people that ‘aha’ moment. All that made sense was to share this insight to others.
I started realizing no one knew this story. I could not believe how relevant and hopeful it was and the fact that no one had any clue. Graeme was the first messenger for me so knew I had to bring him to Los Angeles to share this with my community.
Q: How has it been working together?
Ryland: Finian and I have been great in partnership because we’re both courageous and we’re both good support for one another when the other person is feeling defeated or overwhelmed or like, ‘What are we doing?’ Many times along the way we have both kind of been a little deflated and we have been able to be that pick-me-up for one another and keep it moving and going.
Fin: Definitely. One of the empowering things for both of us is that support but it’s also the courage. I haven’t met many people that have the courage that Ryland does to approach a group of people. We both have a similar tenacity of whoever, wherever, this is important and we’re going to communicate it. Were kind of both dreamers. We could go as far as possible. We could go for the biggest thing.
Ryland: An example is Al Gore was at Café Gratitude and I just bombarded his table with him and his daughters. And said, ‘Hey Al! I don’t want to interrupt your family time but I got this really amazing story I want to make sure you know about.’ And he listened to me for a little bit but literally that became the seed. Two years later, it had me sitting at a table with him and David Hunter, our Executive Director, for an hour and half meeting talking about the soil story. And I could have been very, ‘Oh Al Gore knows way more than me – I should just shut up.’ Same thing with Paul Hawken, but I got on the phone with him and said this is what I know and talked on the phone with him for 20 minutes. And he was like, ‘Yep. You’re right that is the most important, relevant, environmental conversation on the planet.’
Q: I think that’s really important because I feel like my peers in college, my former classmates and even my friends would start to feel guilty or ashamed that they didn’t know what fracking was or the details of climate change. And I think there was a big underlying fear of looking stupid which would stop them from engaging with me on these topics and asking questions. I think that both of your courage and limitless mindsets are really important to share, because people will not act in fear of looking dumb.
Fin: But that’s a real feeling. I don’t want to discount that. I know for myself when I started taking this message to people in policy where the potential is ridiculously big. Immediately I was really afraid that I had been doped. So once we got started I hit the books, because I needed to feel comfortable and confident in the science. People can feel comfortable for different reasons but I was definitely afraid in the beginning that I was going to have the rug pulled out that actually this isn’t true at all. So it was amazing to go through that process and actually learn more and to be ready to face the demon if it came out that this wasn’t true. There was a lot of preparation and humbleness of, ‘If this isn’t true – we’re going to have to eat some of our words’. And there were a couple of moments when that was true, when we were pushing numbers that weren’t necessarily accurate, but generally the interesting thing is that when we went deeper into this topic it became more of an amazing story and even more monumental. There is that initial feeling that that was there and I think that’s what Ryland and I both felt.
The logic is too simple to have it not be true. And of course, I did a lot of work to be able to tell these things so that once you hear it you can share even if you don’t know all the details.
Q: From this conversation we just had – where do you see Kiss the Ground in 3 years from now? What is your vision?
Fin: I see a major shift in our agriculture. What’s keeping me really hopeful right now is that we are in the beginning phases of a potential shift to regenerative agriculture. Way greater than the shift to organic was. Farmers are looking for answers now more than ever. They’re steering away from the old conventional, chemical driven stuff and looking back at nature’s system. I firmly believe that with enough ground swell and support from people, which is what our media can do and consumer awareness can do, and policy initiatives to support the transitions. I think 3 years form now it’s a very big likelihood that there will be a monumental change in how farming is happening. It’s not that big of a learning curve for the farmers if we get that support.
Q: Okay let’s shoot it back at Ryland. What accomplishments do you see under Kiss the Ground’s belt in three years from now?
Ryland: One, I see Kiss the Ground being a term almost like ‘tree hugger’ but not as cheeky. That Kiss the Ground becomes a saying for having an ethical relationship to our earth. On a practical level, that the impact that I know we can have and already having is again that original insight that I had which, was people understand that plants and soil and our relationship to nature and how we steward the land can actually be the most effective tool for negating climate change.
Fin: You know how [Bill] Clinton used to talked about ‘The economy is stupid’ but he’s basically talking about that’s the thing voters are talking about. I want it to come to a point that people get ‘It’s the soil stupid.’ Our economy is the soil. Everything is the soil. And so that people go, ‘Oh my gosh. Duh.’