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Listen to “Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser on Healing our Soil, and Going Beyond Organic,” A Craftsmanship Artisan Interview

Narrated by Todd Oppenheimer

In this episode of our Artisan Interview audio series, Todd Oppenheimer sits down with Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, a husband-and-wife farming team who have been at the forefront of a promising approach to growing food called regenerative agriculture. Hear how the movement they helped start could slow climate change; some mind boggling results from recent testing on their soil and produce; and how they harness Mother Nature to make their land more productive than any human technology ever could.

photo by Michael Woolsey Photography

"Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser on Healing our Soil, and Going Beyond Organic," A Craftsmanship Artisan Interview

Chris: This is the Craftsmanship Quarterly podcast. I’m producer Chris Egusa.

We recently got a rare treat – a chance to sit down with Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser. They’re a husband-and-wife team who have been at the forefront of a promising new approach to growing food called regenerative agriculture. This is a follow up conversation to our groundbreaking 2015 story about Paul, called “The Drought Fighter.” But first, a little background.

In 2007, the Kaisers started Singing Frogs Farm. It’s an intensely productive operation that sits on a mere 8 acres in Sebastopol, just north of San Francisco. At that time, hardly anyone had heard of regenerative agriculture. Since then, regenerative farms have shown huge potential, not only to help fix our food system but to slow climate change as well. The movement has grown so rapidly that it has inspired hit shows like Netflix’s “The Biggest Little Farm,” and the Woody Harrelson narrated film “Kiss the Ground.”

Several years before all this media hype, our founding editor, Todd Oppenheimer, happened to meet Paul Kaiser at a small agricultural conference. An off-handed remark in Paul’s presentation instantly caught Todd’s attention: on just the 2 and a half acres Paul and Elizabeth cultivated acres, they were bringing in a stunning $100,000 an acre in revenue. That is 10 times the earnings of most California farms, even high-income vineyards. And that figure is now at $150,000 an acre.

The secret to their success was an obsessive focus on restoring soil health through methods that are so natural, they go way beyond the typical organic farm. Todd spent the following year studying Singing Frogs Farm, and its wide-ranging implications. He soon learned that the Kaisers’ system was controversial. Many organic farming experts considered their approach idealistic—nice for a little boutique, urban vegetable farm, but nothing that could feed the world. And some saw ecological dangers in the model they were promoting.

So, were the Kaisers helping to save the planet, or hurting it? That question fueled Todd’s months of reporting, torturing him as well as the dozens of experts he interviewed. In the end, Todd learned that the questions raised on the Kaisers’ farm, and by the regenerative agriculture movement in general, apply to our entire approach to growing food. These issues are particularly urgent in California – a state that essentially feeds the rest of America with its fruits and vegetables, and is now getting hotter and drier with each passing year.

Before we dive into Todd’s conversation with the Kaisers, we should define a few crucial terms you’re going to hear. The first is “soil organic matter.” This is the leftover tissues, alive or dead, from living organisms—plants, roots, worms, bugs, microorganisms, fungi, you name it. For any piece of land, its level of soil organic matter is a crucial indicator of its health—and of the land’s ability to absorb carbon, so those carbon molecules won’t evaporate into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

The second important term is “tilling.” This is simply the catch-all descriptor for plowing, disking, and other methods that farmers have developed over the centuries for turning over the soil in their fields. While tilling has boosted productivity in some areas, it has led to a steady loss of topsoil across the globe, and destroyed much of the complex ecosystem that lives in the earth’s upper layers. Only recently have agronomists begun to understand that the ecosystem in our soil is incredibly complex, minimally understood, and vital to our survival.

The last term is “compost.” While most of us know what compost is – leftover scraps of food, vegetation, manure, and other natural refuse – few of us realize how powerful compost can be, both for good and for ill. Most of the arguments provoked by the Kaisers’ operations revolved around the consequences of putting compost on farmland, which the Kaisers have done in unusually large quantities. Has that practice added crucial nutrients to their soil, and to the vegetables that grow in it? Or have some of compost’s primary ingredients – such as phosphorus and nitrogen – leached out, polluting nearby waterways, and the wildlife that live there?

These are the issues and questions that animate “The Drought Fighter.” We hope you’ll enjoy this followup conversation between Todd and the Kaisers, seven years later, as they discuss the success of the regenerative agriculture movement they helped start, some mind boggling results from recent testing on their soil and produce, and how they harness mother nature to make their land more productive than any human technology ever could.

Todd: So Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, I want to welcome you. It's been a long time since I've seen you. I think the last time I was here was 2015 when we first published our story about Singing Frogs Farm in Craftsmanship Quarterly. And I hugely appreciate all the time you spent with me back then. So welcome back. And we are now with our podcast, but go ahead first give us a brief bio on yourselves and a quick overview on the farm and then we'll get to sort of changes since then after that.

Elizabeth: Fantastic. Todd, thanks for having us.

Paul: Yeah, thank you very much.

Elizabeth: Yeah, no, it has been a long time and this has been a journey. Paul and I have been on the farm for 15 years, and we did not start out doing regenerative no-till it was something we really learned on our own through observation, but also along with the rest of the world. We've really come a long way with the excitement that is there around regenerative farming in the last few years.

Paul and I do not have a typical agricultural background. The two of us met in West Africa doing Peace Corps, and then came back to the United States to do master's degrees in public health and in natural resource management. And so when we moved onto the farm here, we had a very different take. On one side, we were doing the natural resource management of really planting perennial hedges, bushes, trees, and so forth.

Elizabeth: And then on the other side, we wanted to grow annual crops, primarily vegetables. And that was where we really had the challenge. Because we were doing it the way that we were told to do it, you know, by using a tractor by doing tillage and so forth. And so we very clearly saw that on one side we were killing life and on the other side, we were promoting life. And the dichotomy of that really drove us to look for changes and so forth.

Paul: I think a whole nother topic for you someday could be really our human desire to see technology as the solution. When in fact this no-till farm, which produces far more food than any other comparable farm out there, and does it in a way that promotes ecological health far more than most farms out there, is done without technology. It's done with thought and care and understanding of interrelationships and the science behind mother nature and how she functions and operates.

And so I think technology is often seen as a solution, I'm not a Luddite. I love technology. I've got my iPhone in my pocket and we use it to manage this farm at every single minute of the day, but we need to really be aware of the ecological underpinnings of life here and how to best promote the health of that life.

Elizabeth: And it's really photosynthesis that is the basis for all of that. I mean, photosynthesis where plants are photosynthesizing, they're taking CO2 out of the air, they're taking that carbon off. They're releasing oxygen back in the air for us. So photosynthesis is just the amazing action. I don't want to use the word technology cause you just use that, and it's not a human technology. It's mother nature's technology for capturing sunlight. You know, that energy coming in for capturing the carbon dioxide and creating life out of that. And if we really honor that and try to incorporate that and then not disrupt it, I mean, that's really where, you know, sort of the principles that are, you know, the backbone of regenerative farming, you know, disturb the soil as little as possible. You don't want to break it up. Those are ecosystems down there, you know, running a tiller through that is ecosystem destruction for all the soil life.

Paul: And of course, by having healthy living soil, you have the proper means to feed plants, to create nutrient dense plants for us to eat. You also have the proper means to have a functioning healthy soil that can interact with the atmosphere and with rain events and some of the more chaotic weather events that we're getting more frequently.

So that with healthy soil, we ameliorate or reduce the harmful effects of super-powered climate, chaos, weather extremes, and you're also making healthier vegetables in the meantime for us humans.

Todd: Can you run down some of the challenges or even, if, if a young farmer were listening to this saying, I'm doing that, I'm all over that. What are the challenges that they're going to have with either let's call it conventional organic farming. You know, if you don't have your plows helping you get rid of your gophers, what do you do about your gophers? What are the other kinds of challenges a young farmer should know about?

Elizabeth: I would actually say that I think this methodology has fewer challenges. They just might be a little bit different. And the solution, first we're going to actually look to mother nature and how can we help mother nature? So, we do have maybe some people say slightly more gophers, and also voles. Field mice, maybe not so much. And the first thing we'll look is the ecology. Do we have hedgerows in place and have we managed them in a way that snakes are going to love that? Because the gopher does not want to raise a family where there's a snake around. Let me tell you that. So encouraging our snakes, encouraging owls. We have Oaks around our property where we have great horned owls. So we, thankfully haven't had to do anything there. Having some higher trees, so a little bit of a food forest, so that you have perches for hawks. We have Hawks, you know, hunting gophers all the time in our fields.

So that is where we're going to actually start. Make sure we have Mother Nature working alongside with us first. And then take the pseudo Mother Nature route. We have barn cats that we have trained to hunt, and a couple of them will bring in a rodent today and we'll make sure it's a feed them a little bit, but not too much. You feed them too much, they're not hungry, so they go sport hunting for birds. Keep them a little hungry? They go food hunting for rodents. So that's sort of the next tier now, is that enough? That's still not quite enough. So we also will do some trapping. and, and we don't love that part, but we do have to do a little bit of trapping.

I mean, I have all this talk about working with Mother Nature, and yet we've created this ecosystem where we have an abundance of food. So yes, we are going to have an abundance of the rodents. And so we're just, we're doing what the badgers that are no longer here were doing .You know we have fewer Bobcat's and coyotes. We do have them, but we're filling in that niche by doing the trapping. So there are solutions.

Todd: That's that's fascinating. That's a, that's a great reminder. What do you feel like you've learned, that you didn't know when I was visiting you seven years ago. You say, "boy, this we have really in the last few years learned A, B, and C, and that's been a huge help and made 'X change' possible." Is there something that fits that.

Paul: I think a lot of your questioning in your first round for the original article, The Drought Fighter, did induce more extensive soil testing and water testing on our farm than we had done prior. And that not only helped us understand some aspects of how soil biology works better, it also inspired many scientific researchers in various university communities around us to take note and want to become involved. And I would say some major changes that have happened since the initial Drought Fighter article really revolve around having a half dozen of the biggest universities in California now studying and replicating our model at their own university campuses, or in their laboratories.

The results of the study here on the farm was, straight up, that it was the long-term stable carbon was being sequestered in our soils down to three feet. And it was being sequestered at a faster rate every year. The rate of increase was increasing itself, which is remarkable to say how much is going back into the soil. And it is far in excess of anything we've ever added in terms of compost or other plant life. It is really a matter of having healthy soil biology doing that work for us by taking care of it.

Elizabeth: And you know, just to give a framework here, soil carbon is much more easily measured as soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is 57% carbon, and globally, they believe that ag land right now has about one to two percentage of soil organic matter.

They believe in the United States pre industrialized agriculture, the average was more like 6 to 10%. And our farm, we started at 2.4%. And I mean, honestly, as of like six years ago, we've been pretty stable. And we are between 8 and 14%. So we're above what mother nature had, but not by a lot. And we're not going higher than that. We believe it's just sort of a steady state, and that's where we want to be.

Paul: It's also important to bring it back to tillage again, that it's been well-documented and studied by many different groups. And the meta-studies have sort of shown that across the globe, we've lost about 70% of soil carbon in our agricultural topsoils in the last 50 to 80 years. If we've lost 70% of the soil carbon in our agricultural soils since we had the beginning of mechanized tillage, we don't have another 50 to a hundred years of farmable soil left. We have dead dirt. And that requires more inputs to get any kind of harvest out of it, and the harvest is of poorer quality.

And that's what we've plowed ourselves into in the past 80 years of mechanized tillage. So I think that really goes back to the point of taking care of your soil biology and soil health, to actually regrow that soil carbon soil biology, to the point where we have 400 to 500%, or 600% more soil biology and carbon than we had 15 years ago at the beginning. And while doing that, we've also brought our profits up to eight or 10 times the state equivalent for farms per acre per year.

Todd: Have you ever found when you've gotten your, any of the soil organic matter fields up to, you know, 14, 12, whatever, that the result in the produce gets skewed? Like, are they overstuffed with nitrogen or some other zinc or something else? Have you found that any of your tests?

Elizabeth: Testing the produce is actually quite challenging and exceptionally expensive. So I think that's why it makes a lot of sense for us when we — not Paul and I — but we as a society say, "oh, well, there's healthier soil, therefore, you know, that's going to have healthy vegetables," or so forth. But there's not a lot of data behind it. And I think that's why we're very excited that, you know, finally the science is sort of catching up on that.

Paul: But even as a quick aside, nutrient density very well correlates to flavor as well. And so we can definitely say that as you have the higher organic matter and higher soil health scores, you can taste that difference. No question about it. And that's sort of one of the easiest indicators right there. Do things taste too good, ever? No, they just taste really, really good.

Elizabeth: And your best example of that would be a really good tomato that you're eating in August and September versus a grocery store tomato you're going to get in January that's going to taste like wet cardboard with no flavor. One of them there has nutrients and one of them doesn't.

But one of the studies that we've had the pleasure of working with recently, was working with David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, and they've written several books on the regenerative movement and they have one that's coming out this June called What Your Food Ate. And they were really interested in documenting, you know, taking care of the soil and having that be reflected in the nutrients that were coming out of it.

So one of the things that they tested were our spinach and carrots, which they found were 100 to 400% higher in nutrient density than those in a USDA study, I believe from New York. But also comparing us to our other organic farmer locally, who does a really good job despite being tillage — I mean we had 46% more vitamin K, 31% more vitamin E, 31% more vitamin B1, 60% more vitamin B3, and so forth through other B vitamins, calcium, and so forth. But we're it really shined was the polyphenols, where it was anywhere from 40 to over 100% higher than in the tillage space. And also looking at their soil, I mean, that was manifest in the soil also where ours had far higher soil carbon, far higher soil biology. And so it was wonderful that it showed there. And their book that's coming out is also, it's going to talk about us, but we're only one of many, many, many different farms.

Todd: So when I visited here in 2015, you were able to generate about a third of the compost that the farm needed. And so the remaining two thirds came from the county compost operation. Has that changed at all or about the same?

Paul: A little bit more of our own compost and a little less municipal. We're closer to 50 50 now. I think the important key point to bring out is the benefit of municipal compost. And while the quality is going to be all over the board, and we even don't guarantee its quality — we definitely want to enhance it ourselves with our own compost and other techniques before applying it in the fields.

But there is a benefit to municipal compost. And that benefit is really cycling carbon in our communities. As a farmer, our job is to export carbon and other nutrients off of our farm at the fastest pace we can, sustainably. If we're exporting all these carbon and nutrients into the community — and not all of it gets eaten, a lot of food goes to waste, whether it's the cutoff, peels and the ends, or if it's just spoiled and pitched out.

But all that waste is carbon and nitrogen and other nutrients that if they aren't properly composted, they end up in landfills or they end up in the oceans or in the atmosphere. And they end up as greenhouse gas emissions when they decompose out there. So it is far more valuable to our communities to take that leftover carbon and nitrogen that's plant-based, cycle it through a composting facility like municipal compost, turn it back into a raw soil product that can be used by the farms to recreate the next round of vegetables. And therefore you suddenly have carbon and nitrogen cycling through your community from farm to eater, to composter, to farm, to eater, to composter, rather than the carbon nitrogen going straight out from the farm to the eater, to the landfill, and then becoming a greenhouse gas emission. So it's really critical to close that loop and bring nutrients into cycling productively for us for eternity.

Todd: I think that's an interesting point and it counters one of the criticisms I've heard. Which is, "oh, this farm isn't completely self-sustainable it's not doing, it's not generating everything that it uses. It's bringing in from outside."

Well, of course it's springing from outside. It's bringing in from the community that is part of its system. So I think that's a really good point.

Paul: Yeah. I mean, no farm is a self-sustaining and when you look at biodynamic — which we love and support — the philosophy behind biodynamic farms is that you create all your own on-farm inputs to grow your food. And original biodynamic farms were homesteads. They were intended to feed the family. So if your community is the eight people who live on the farm and the soil, that works. Our community includes the eaters within 15 miles and the municipal compost from 15 miles away. So you simply have to look at your farm's scale in terms of cycling nutrients as the whole community that's involved with it.

And if we look at a larger scale, we can still take that biodynamic philosophy and just incorporate every component and stakeholder that's really involved.

Todd: Water use. What you, what have you learned about water use and how has your water use trend been?

Elizabeth: I would say overall it's pretty much as it was when you were here seven years ago. It's again, not rocket science. We want soil biology. We want soil organic matter in the soil because it increases water infiltration. And we see that on our farm. It creates is water use efficiency, and we see that on our farm.

We have reduced water usage from when we started and had low organic matter. We don't have erosion at all. Our entire farm is on a slope and we've got seasonal ponds at the bottom. And we have a Mediterranean climate, so we get all of our rain in half the year. We can see the first rainstorms come in after six or eight months of dry period. And we can see them flushed down.

And what do we see? I have a video. You can look at it on our Instagram account of like me taking a — in flood water of bubbling. It's just like infiltrating like crazy. We can see how much has shown up in our pond, bottom ponds. And that used to fill up super fast. And in the last several years, it takes many, many more inches of rainfall for us to have before those start filling up.

What does that mean? It means it's not a roading it's infiltrating and so forth. We can see that when we very first started, we were doing 50 minutes of irrigation every other night in the middle of summer. The past, what? Eight years, Paul? It's been more like 20 to 30 minutes twice a week. That's a huge decrease.

So that hasn't changed because our soil organic matter has been high. And that's something that in a state like California and in the world with the climate chaos that we have, we need that resilience that. That soil, the healthy soil provides so much resilience, whether we have a heat bomb or a cyclone flood or whatever it is.

Todd: No, I think that's a superb point and I should point out the last eight years have been devastating heat wise and dry wise in California. So if you've been able to keep your water use down there, that's a, that's a big deal. Now I'm complimenting myself on the brilliance of the title of that story.

So I think one of the concerns people sometimes have is, "well, this is all fine and nice, you know, fertile valley that Paul and Elizabeth are in and in California with this nice high end community. But what if I'm, you know, in some dry corner of Eastern Washington, or on the edge of the desert, or other places where, you know, in some cases maybe some people have tried it and it's like, this isn't working for me. This is just what's going on?" I'm sure you're hearing from farmers, or about farmers, who've struggled trying to replicate. What do you find?

Elizabeth: I don't know how much I agree with that. I mean, Paul's first farm was in the Sahel, on the edge of the Sahara. So a lot of that thought process went into it.

We have a farmer who worked here for a year and a half and he starting up in Tucson, Arizona. Actually there two of them in Tucson, Arizona, and they seem to be doing pretty well. We've got people in Japan, we've got people in Melbourne, Australia. We've got, you know, people at-

Paul: 7,000 feet in Durango, Colorado.

Elizabeth: Right. So a lot of it is soil science and those principles of soil management, they work great for an intensive regenerative market garden like we have. But they also work for other farms also in, and one example is Gabe Brown, who's known as a regenerative rancher. We did a keynote talk with him once where we went over those principles. And it was, "here's this principle. And here's how we do this principle on three acres of veg in hippie Northern California." And he has the same principle that he does on 3000 acres of ranching in South Dakota.

So I hear what you're saying. Farming is hard. There's always challenges. I wouldn't necessarily say it's due to this type of farming. I would just say, you know, it's challenging to grow crops and you've got to get to that place where you've got good soil health. And you can do that in the desert. You can do that at 8,000 feet. You can do it in a wet valley bottom in Northern Cal.

Paul: And because soil is the absolute foundation of a farm, of all farms everywhere, by taking care of your soil first and foremost, it just makes you more resilient and more successful, no matter what conditions you're farming in.

Todd: What's the largest farm you've seen these principles used on and if you haven't, what would be the largest farm where you think they could.

Elizabeth: I don't like the big question. I have to be honest. I mean, as long as you follow the principles, you can do it and there's people doing it on thousands of acres. I'll just say that much. I will also say though, the opposite. Something that we in the United States don't think of often is that 70% of the world's food is actually grown by small farmers.

And what they mean by that is two hectors or less, which is four acres or less. We don't see that. And you know, sometimes people look at us and they're like, "Oh, you know, two and a quarter acres. Like, that's nothing. How do you scale it up? How do you scale it up? How big can we get it?"

And I don't think that's the answer. I really think it's about getting land to the people, having them grow it. And you know what? When you have, you know, people growing on smaller land, they're going to take better care of it because they're going to care about it. One of my favorite sayings is "the farmer's footstep is the best fertilizer," and they're going to be in that way, fertilizing it, whereas if they have 7,000 acres, they're not.

And then I could go on and say, there's going to be more women farmers. There's going to be more farmers of color. They're going to be using a greater diversity of seed. And many, many, many other things.

Todd: So for an average listener who is inspired by this idea, this approach, what are the things that they can do, first to support the movement, to invest in it, to learn about them, to buy from those kinds of farms? What can I do if I live in, you know, San Francisco or Miami or Duluth.

Elizabeth: First of all excited, you know, whenever anybody is interested in that. And there are regenerative farmers around. There are not that many. So, you know, trying to find if there are any regenerative farmers in your area first and foremost. Chatting with your farmers, going to your farmer's markets. Secondly, if you can find some and say meat, but not in veggies, still support your local farmer and as small and as local as you can.

And that might even mean growing your own food. But supporting local is still going to be better, even if somebody is doing tillage, and you can have conversations. So I know it sounds cliche, but know your farmer. And if that can be a regenerative farmer? Ideal.

Todd: And if I've got a garden? Maybe it's even a small urban one, or I live on a suburban area and I've got maybe a quarter acre or something. Even if I've got a window sill, can I do something with this?

Paul: Absolutely. And that's actually how we started, honestly. All the principles of truly regenerative agriculture, especially when you look at maintaining soil health and promoting soil health, are absolutely applicable to any backyard or front yard gardener, and we highly recommend doing such. The benefits are tremendous for you, for your soil, for your ecology. You get more nutrients out of it. It's actually easier work. You're not lifting and digging and turning soil. So it's all around a win-win-win scenario and absolutely applicable. Yes.

Todd: Well, I think that takes care of all the questions I can think of now. And it's, it's such a treat to be here again and see the fertility 360 degrees around me and hear the animals and see you guys doing so well. And having struggled through all these questions for almost a year when we visited before, it's interesting to see where you come with all of them. And we thank you very much for taking your time.

Paul: Thank you, definitely a joy to reconnect and share again what we're doing. And I think it's really important to keep getting the message out there to really help this next generation of people understand the deep necessity we have for healthy soil. And that we need to change a lot of our human modes of production to accommodate for truly healthy soil, and the increase in healthy soil.

Elizabeth: Todd, thank you so much for having us. We love sharing and you know, people can do this on so many different levels. So, if anybody has more questions, I do actually recommend people look at our website. We try and put a ton of information out there. Yes on how to find us, but also just, "How do you transition a bed?" And you know, "What are the principles of soil management?"

And we'll try to put if there's any new resources, both there, and then also occasionally on social media, when we have the time like Facebook and Instagram. Thank you so much for having us.

Chris: This has been a conversation between Craftsmanship Quarterly’s Founding Editor, Todd Oppenheimer, and Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser. You can visit the Kaisers’ website at SingingFrogsFarm.com.

This interview is a followup to our 2015 article, “The Drought Fighter.” You can find a link to that story in the notes for this episode.

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Written by Craftsmanship Editors

Introduction by CHRIS EGUSA

Narrated by TODD OPPENHEIMER with PAUL & ELIZABETH KAISER

Produced by CHRIS EGUSA

Music by MIKE SNOWDEN / BLUE DOT SESSIONS

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