Beyond Regeneration: The Fight To Rewild the American Northeast

Beyond Regeneration: The Fight To Rewild the American Northeast

Small, organic and family-owned farms scattered throughout the Northeast are staging a quiet revolt against the American commercial farming industry by rewilding the landscape.

This July, Dina Brewster hosted a farm dinner at The Hickories where her family has lived on the surrounding property in Ridgefield, Connecticut, for 86 years. Before the guests sit, she walks them from the picturesque pond her grandmother dug decades ago, through a field scattered with wild mint left behind by the grazing sheep that moved through earlier in the month, and into the farm’s flower beds, their colors riotous with the abundance of late summer, from architectural dahlias and sunflowers to delicate Queen Anne’s lace. 

“This summer is the hottest, driest summer of my lifetime,” she declares to the crowd, almost as an apology. She can’t help but point out all of the ways her property seems to be failing her this year, both in beauty and crop yield, as she fights the historic drought the entire Northeast has been facing. She continued, “but I look at my two sons and I realize this may be the coolest, wettest summer they ever know.” 

Brewster’s family has stewarded this land since 1936, but her work is constantly looking toward the future. While she started with one acre of vegetable gardens 20 years ago, Brewster now oversees young farmers leading their own produce, livestock, flower, and even composting worm programs, while she focuses on her newest project, eco59, which produces seeds to “rewild” the Northeast with ecotypic pollinator plants that make up the regional landscape. 

Eco59, a collective of seven farms across Connecticut, is named after ecological region 59, as defined by the USDA, in which The Hickories is located. Practicing conservation agriculture, Brewster and a growing number of farmers throughout Connecticut and the Northeast in general are working to build a “pollinator pathway” of native plant species. By rebuilding the foundation on which the natural ecosystem is built, these farmers are offering a habitat in which migrating pollinator birds and insects can find shelter and food, and in turn ensure the health of all plants growing in the region that depend on those pollinators to survive, and the animals that depend on those plants. 

Essentially, these farmers are looking at the oncoming climate crisis and trying not to address it at the end point of lower crop yields or water levels, but going back to the source of anything we grow, and ensuring the ability of seeds to germinate through healthy pollination. By focusing on ecotypic pollinators in their immediate region, such as yarrow, butterfly weed, wild bergamot, and black-eyed Susan, Brewster and her peers are hoping to rebuild the native seed catalog within ecological region 59. The goal is that, eventually, these seeds will be sold. They want to encourage everyone from commercial farmers to backyard gardeners to plant ecotypic varieties and help the local insect and pollinator populations survive in order to ensure the next season of vegetables is able to grow. 

Brewster reflects on her career as a farmer-turned-conservationist. “I can’t believe my whole life has been leading me up to this point, to do this very specific and weird job,” she says. “Which is to bring ecotypic seeds back into production in the Northeast, restore landscape, and do conservation seed work. I would not have guessed when I was a poetry teacher in the Bronx that I would be doing this.” 

The Hickories is one of many small, organic, family-owned farms scattered throughout the Northeast staging a quiet, community-oriented revolt against the American commercial farming industry by working in concert with the land, going beyond organic practices, and trying to repair much of what has been lost by hundreds of years of extractive farming practices in this country. This means a combination of looking back to traditional conservation methods, while simultaneously pulling in groundbreaking new technologies, methodologies and scientific discoveries that bring them into a new relationship with their crops and their soil. 

Farmers are not historically conservationists. In fact, many would say the two industries are at odds by design, but this new school of agriculture braids conservation into the mission of land stewardship and cultivation. The practice of farmers working to “rewild” the landscape stems from a broader movement—and a newly popular buzzword for sustainably-minded food consumers—regenerative agriculture. 

The term “regenerative agriculture” was coined by the Rodale Institute in the late 1980s, and is generally used to apply to a set of farming practices and principles that go beyond simple organic methods to restore native ecosystems, prioritize soil health and biodiversity, and nurture communities and economies through fair pay and labor practices. Interestingly, there is currently no official certification, or even one standard definition of regenerative agriculture. A 2020 paper from Frontiers surveyed 229 journal articles and 25 practitioner websites to try to present a unified definition, and found many different (and sometimes conflicting) guidelines from various organizations. The major differences came from whether definitions were based on processes, outcomes or both. 

Regenerative processes include use of multi-species cover cropping to enhance the biodiversity of farmers’ soil, reduction or elimination of tillage, and livestock integration. Those looking primarily at outcomes tended to focus on soil health, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Many practitioners focus on literal regeneration of the land—maintaining fungal networks within plant root systems by reducing tillage or increasing microbial content in the soil for better plant nutrition. Others look at regeneration on a holistic level, taking into account the economic system in which the farm exists, labor practices and compensation, and animal welfare. 

While there is no set definition of regenerative agriculture, there is a common desire to shift American agriculture from being focused purely on yields and extraction to a partnership with the land and its stakeholders, and a desire to protect, enhance and steward it for future generations. There is increasing urgency to take on these practices to protect the very future of American farming.

Like so much of our society, American farming is in a state of reckoning. Liberal use of synthetic fertilizers, vast industrial monocropping, dwindling water rights, the climate impact of livestock feedlots, and systematic disenfranchisement of Black and brown farmers are just a few of the issues currently under debate as farmers try to navigate their uncertain futures. Additionally, small family farms are fighting to survive in a landscape designed against them. 

Some argue the American tradition of independent farming is quickly becoming a piece of nostalgia, no longer a viable way of life. That is easy to say when 30% of American farmworker families live at or below the poverty line, almost double the national average. “The position that farmers are in is really thoughtless and careless right now, that farmers can’t make a living doing this anymore,” says Brewster. 

There is funding available for American farming, but very little of it is going toward small family-owned farms, and even less is earmarked for investigating regenerative practices. “Look at the amount of money that is being spent to prop up farms that are stuck using old practices. If that amount of resources was spent on figuring out the farm of the future,” Brewster argues that we cannot solve the crisis of American farming without putting what she calls a level of “expensive urgency” behind the problem. 

Despite her relative success as a farmer, with a popular CSA program and farm store within an affluent community, her position as a college-educated professional with access to inherited farmland, and support throughout her career from government programs designed for young and underrepresented farming groups, she is forced to consider tapping into her retirement saving to fund a necessary piece of seed cleaning equipment to allow eco59 to continue its conservation seed work. 

“The programs that support transition to organic and young farmers—those programs work, and if they were funded in the billions instead of in the millions, this would be a different country,” she says. To her, and many other small-scale farmers, the national prioritization of extractive commercial farming is not only detrimental to the industry, it is dangerous for the future of our global ecosystems. 

“We know a lot about the crisis that is coming. No one can hide behind saying this is an unknowable or undefined future,” Brewster explains. “There are some really smart people who are telling us exactly what’s coming, so if we aren’t prepared, then shame on us.” She has incorporated regenerative practices on her certified-organic farm, and taken on seed conservation work as the next step in her desire to support the land, and the many-layered ecosystem, that supports her and the community she serves. 

By planting and producing ecotypic flowers, she is providing much-needed support for migratory birds and insects, on whom she and many other farmers depend for the success of her crops year after year. While eco59 focuses specifically on the Connecticut region, there are a growing number of organizations working within their own regions to restore ecotypic and native plants. The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, the Wild Seed Project in Maine, and Northeast Wild Seed Collectors in New England and New York are all working within their specific regions to restore ecotypic plant populations and rebuild native pollinator habitats. 

“It isn’t about just not doing any harm anymore; it’s about understanding the gravity of how much harm has been done. Acknowledging that harm, and then trying on social, economic and cultural levels to unpack that and restore,” Brewster argues. “That means generating something that’s been lost—restoring something that’s been lost. It isn’t just about holding us in this moment that we’re in. It begins with an acknowledgement that we’ve really screwed up. We’ve gone very far off the path, and we are culturally, economically, socially as farmers a little bit lost.” For many, regenerative practices offer a step toward an answer, even if the whole solution remains difficult to picture. 

For Jim Lyons at Blue Moon Acres in Pennington, New Jersey, hope comes from new science and technology, which offer a deeper understanding of what support he can offer the land he stewards. In addition to microgreens popular amongst New York City’s top restaurants, Lyons grows five acres of rice with a focus on soil health and diversity. He talks about his compost piles proudly, showing off several different techniques he is trying and regularly testing the microbial content of each one. 

Lyons sees a different crisis on the horizon. “We have all been living like kings of old, because we’ve had thousands of fossil fuel slaves working for us, and providing us with this lifestyle and civilization and culture that is just extraordinary,” he says. 

For him, the urgency to change the way we farm comes from not a lack of water, labor or even funding. It comes from a lack of renewable energy. “We’re burning up all these fossil hydrocarbons,” Lyons explains. “Without them, we don’t have agriculture anymore—the stuff that fuels our tractors and allows us to cultivate and till and harvest.” He recently bought a new combine tractor without any motor attached in hopes of converting all of his farm equipment to electric, fueled by an array of solar panels lining the road to the hoop houses on his property. 

In addition to new technologies, regenerative agriculture is increasingly focused on cutting-edge science illuminating the relationship between plants and their soil. Cover cropping, the practice of growing crops not intended for harvest between commercial plantings to enrich and protect soil from erosion, is a simple but important way many regenerative farmers work with their land to offer it a richer future, and an intermediate step between traditional farming methods and ecotypic rewilding of the landscape. Many farmers are experimenting with multi-species cover crops, with the intention that many different types of plants will contribute different nutrients and microbes into the soil, making it better prepared to support the cash crop through a variety of weather events throughout the season. 

Lyons looks to Wes Jackson and The Land Institute as a model of regenerative grain growing. The Land Institute is working to create a truly regenerative model of “perennial polycultures,” a diverse mixture of grain crops grown together without the need for plowing up the soil or reseeding annually in order to yield a marketable crop. Instead, they simply need tending and harvest, without the regular inputs and environmental disruptions we currently take for granted as part of industrial farming. These perennial polycultures essentially take cover cropping to the ultimate extreme—making a diverse cover crop and the marketable crop one and the same, with no need for replanting between harvest.

Additionally, many regenerative practices are informed by burgeoning understanding of the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi. “We’re at a moment, botanically, where there is this emerging field of how plants can respond and correspond with the world around them,” explains Brewster. Mycorrhizal fungi are organisms that coexist in symbiotic relationships with plants by colonizing their root systems, then aiding in water and nutrient absorption. There is significant emerging research about the depth and power of these relationships, and how important the microscopic ecosystem below ground is to the success of what we see above it. 

This has led to a new movement of reducing or eliminating tillage, or the practice of plowing fields before seeding a new crop. Lyons explains, “every time we do that, we’re destroying an ecosystem. It’s like a slash and burn—you’re destroying a whole ecosystem every time you cultivate to any significant degree.” So, many farmers are choosing to reduce or forgo mechanized tillage in order to spare these beneficial networks, help soil hold moisture, and reduce erosion and run off. Often, however, this means using herbicides to prepare soil for a new crop, which many organic farmers avoid. 

With each new discovery, each deeper layer of understanding of their responsibilities to their land, many farmers’ choices get ever-more complicated. “We’re just kind of stumbling,” Brewster admits. “Having this be not just an effort of me in my barn scratching my head by myself, but to have this feel like it was something that mattered to us as a nation—or as a planet, as a globe—would feel better and give me more of a sense that I was doing the right thing. Because I do think farms like this one hold the keys to the kingdom.” 

Farming is slow and often lonely work. It takes years to foster certain crops, and certainly seasons to go from idea to product on the market. It exists on a scale as small as one seed in the soil and as large as the weather systems moving through the next county. Farmers are used to operating in a few different gears at once, which may be why they can better engage with the enormity of climate change, and the many insidious ways it affects our lives every day. Or, maybe that is because we are at a point now where they see the issue illustrated in mere seasons instead of across decades, in the fields they know like members of their families. 

This is small work—but that is a bit by design. These farmers are working on a local, regional level because that focus is a necessary part of the solution. Big work, large scales, growing markets—that all contributed to the problems we’re facing today. We need to remember that the vast, varied and beautiful landscape of this country cannot be stewarded consistently, but needs to be treated as a collection of unique ecosystems working together to create a successful and varied American foodshed. In the same way these farmers cultivate their soil and plants and the complicated, mysterious connections between them, our communities need to cultivate our own connection to the food they grow, and build an ecosystem able to support them. 

It is no accident that regeneratively-grown produce and meat are most often found at the local farmers market or picked up during weekly CSA distribution. These farmers are intentionally working within their communities, because the best support comes from the ground up. Without policy support, consumer advocacy and funding, this pursuit could easily become an intellectual exercise rather than a revolution. The reality is small farmers are struggling to survive, and we are asking them to carry the health of the nation on their already overloaded backs. 

There is a huge responsibility in this type of farming, a stewardship not only of this season’s crop through to market, but of a legacy much longer lasting. For Lyons, that is what keeps him growing his rice, turning compost, and constantly experimenting in how he can do it better. “At this stage of the game, what’s happening in the world, and looking at my responsibilities here on this particular farm—I think, how could I stop?” he asks. “I have a responsibility to keep doing this. I feel like it’s the one thing I can do that might have somewhat of an impact on things.” 

He explains that impact may be large or small, but either way, it matters. “That may be my only legacy, and that might be enough.” 

Comments are for members only.

Our comments section is for members only.
Join today to gain exclusive access.

This story is on the house.

Life & Thyme is a different kind of food publication: we're reader-first and member-funded. That means we can focus on quality food journalism that matters instead of content that serves better ads. By becoming a member, you'll gain full uninterrupted access to our food journalism and be a part of a growing community that celebrates thought-provoking food stories.

The Editor's Note

Sign up for The Editor's Note to receive the latest updates from Life & Thyme and exclusive letters from our editors. Delivered every weekend.