Fighting with Friends about Carbon (and action item for people who pre-ordered!)

Hello Big Team Farm—

First of all, welcome to a bunch of new folx! We’re so happy to have you. Usually this email arrives in your inboxes promptly at 9:15 am ET on Fridays, but a special exception was made this week to give everyone who pre-ordered a few extra days to deal with this action item. >>

Alert for the OG Big Farm Teammates!

Farm (and Other F Words) is just days away from being sent to print, which means I’m doing final touches, including the Acknowledgements section, where I get to thank all of you beautiful humans who bought the book during the launch and made this whole thing (i.e. my lifelong dream) a reality. That being said, especially for people who pre-ordered the eBook, or for anyone who might have used multiple names while ordering. Please follow the link below and make sure the name(s) you would like to see included are listed. The paragraphs are organized alphabetically by first name. There are a lot of you, so I recommend using “control+F” to find the name you need quickly.

If your name is missing, spelled wrong, you want to add a hilarious nickname, etc. please shoot me an email response to this newsletter ASAP with the addition or spelling correction. I can only accept changes through March 1st.

*****Click Here to Make Sure Your Name is Correct in the Acknowledgements.*****

Now, on to new business.

Who We Talk to and Why It Matters

On the subject of acknowledgements, I want to talk a little bit about this last week. It was a bolder choice than I realized to put out an incendiary newsletter about carbon markets right before my big book deadline, but I did. 🤷‍♀️

This isn’t exactly my first controversy rodeo. Did I ever tell you all about the time I wrote a very straight forward history of broiler chickens, and a group demanded I apologize... to chickens? However many times I’ve coached myself through the, “people hating it means people are reading it and feeling something, which is good!” thought exercises, I still get occasional bouts of the shakes when reading through a particularly critical email or hateful social media message.

The best trick I’ve found for dealing is to remember who, exactly, I’m writing or speaking for. There’s a couple of ways that I tell who those people are.

Group 1) People I know or have met personally. My personal friends, colleagues, the people who I’ve met reporting, or my clients. I probably spend 75%+ of my interpersonal communication time with this group, by way of long phone calls, zoom happy hours, and back-and-forths on Slack and social.

Group 2) People who opt in. A lot of you fall into this category— the slightly wider group of people who have deliberately raised their hand to hear from me, and who I hopefully get to move into Group 1 some day! I spend about 20% of my time focusing on these lovely people; writing emails, setting up calls, answering questions, etc.

Group 3) Open-minded people who are willing to hear a stranger out. This is the biggest and toughest group to speak/write to, so frankly, I spend the least amount of time on it, less than 5%.

I say this to contextualize this thread you might have seen in the last few days:

I know I say right there in print that this was addressed to some no-name blowhard in my inbox, but in reality, the core of these ideas came from a great conversation I had over the weekend with a good friend (and fellow co-host of the End of Ag podcast, new episodes coming soon). I asked Connie Bowen if I could share a sample of our convo here, and she agreed.

BTF Behind the Scenes: Chill Weekend Texts with Connie

It begins, real casual and low key.

Connie: Yeah the issue here is actually around results. I’m pro paying people for carbon. I am born into the pretty fucking wealthy, actually, and they’re selfish as fuck, but guess what moves the needle? Money. I absolutely think there needs to be intentionality (reparations, actually, for African American and Indigenous people) and around how regen transition is financed

And I think you underestimate the existing model’s potential to incentivize strips and wetlands, etc

But yeah, is the carbon bank really something the US government should finance right now? Honestly, no. [In the context of soil carbon, and this is just because we just aren't good enough at measuring results, because we've got other fish to fry (hello, food insecurity, let's address that, first) and because the do-whatever-you-want-with-CCC thing is sketchy.]

But the thing is, once you price carbon, it goes two ways. It makes it easier to tax it.

And then I went berserk.

Sarah: Okay but the thing is; it’s real easy to talk about what should be and what might happen. What *is* happening is ultra rich farmers are being paid for doing just about nothing. That is a non-starter, and I’ll fight it till the end. And I don’t see how anyone in favor of it [as] in favor of anything other than further entrenching old, rich white men in agriculture.

When I see a news story about a BIPOC landowner getting paid to restore wetlands and forests, maybe I'll think a little differently. But good luck even finding a BIPOC land owner. If this is how these markets were going to be used, companies would have started by figuring out how to get reservations compensated, not multi-millionaire farmers. 

We don't need carbon to change the way we tax the rich. We could just start peeling back ag land tax exemptions and create fees and fines for non-climate friendly practices now. I'd much rather pay for enforcement than incentives. 

I appreciate that a lot of these ideas do not comport well with your work. But yeah, that's where we're at. Sorry this issue has me keyed up.

Connie, to her credit, was a much more gentle and caring friend than I probably deserved in the moment.

Connie: Haha no sweat only haven't responded cause walking dog

1. 💯 Carbon markets do not solve for and even worsen the socioeconomic/racial gap. They CAN be leveraged as a means to give some BIPOC farmers an advantage [Redacted text about transitional financing project favoring Black farmers that is in early development stages] There's another question here about weighing good farm management practices (urgent for planet) over redistribution of resources (urgent for people, but not often for rich people.)

2. Carbon markets enable measurements enable effective taxes. If we all agree on what a ton of carbon is and what it's value is, then we will have a much easier time making the case that a farm as a system has to calculate the carbon costs of inputs (just like the do the dollar.) So lead with the carrot but the stick has to follow, I agree.

Sarah: I mean you know my take on this. Not one more carrot for farmers. They have enough carrots. I want to see the stick first. Because the "carrot, than stick" strategy is what every practice for the last 100 years has been. And the stick never comes. 

Exceptions are always made after the fact. And if people trust that farmers will accept the stick after they've evaded it every time before now, we're the idiots. 

Connie, again, modeling for me how to be a civil participant in this discussion. She is definitely on the high road while I’m… maybe in the rhetorical ditch?

Connie: What is the realistic alternative? The like ideal but could-really-happen solution?

A surprisingly measured take from me, all things considered.

Sarah: There's a world of alternatives. And we start accessing when we stop letting the people with all the resources set the terms of the negotiation… We remind everyone involved that we are not the powerless victims of the wealthy. We have power too, and convincing us that we are powerless is the real devils trick here. we have power to change policy, to raise taxes, to use imminent domain to seize land, to alter market incentives, to play wealthy land owners against each other, to make land a less attractive investment vehicle, to use public dollars to buy land rather than bribing owners to take care of it. There are so. Many. Other. Options. We as a society do not *have* to work with people who are working against our interest. We can harass them, punish them, and if needed, expel them instead. 

Connie, now matching my energy.

Connie: Those are all massively long time horizon changes, and none are mutually exclusive from carbon as a commodity. We need something to alter behavior, now. We also need (I think this is my way of trying to fold in your valid points/problems) to highlight the fact that it's not a final solution, it's just a step towards a world that accounts for externalities on some level. I get the collective land ownership (or that land ownership as a concept is faulty) concept, but in absence of full on government change (and the gov’t is controlled by the powerful rich white men anyways, so how would that go even if we could snap our fingers and make it happen instantaneously), I don't see a pathway to getting (back) to that. 

The planetary crisis is unfortunately pretty fucking urgent, and if we don't fix it, who gets hurt hardest, fastest? Poor people. So yeah, let's get rich people lobbying for carbon accounting and improving verification processes and drawdown tech not because it solves the problem directly, but because it forces more resources towards the problem and makes it a bipartisan issue and means more people pay attention and we can actually make progress on steering the ship away from this particular pile of rocks. Does the ship still have a million problems? Yes, for sure, but guess who isn't getting a safety raft if we do hit those rocks? For sure it's compromising, but it's a compromise I think we should  swallow, short term

Me, holding my ground. Embarrassingly strong, what is that, Braveheart(?) vibes.

Sarah: We don't have time to capitulate to the wealthy. We've been doing that forever and it's failed every time. I’d rather die on the hill of "no more money to the rich" than "compromise" by paying them to be moral. I want them to face the fact that they are choosing greed over human lives and earths viability.  I'd rather die fighting carbon markets than roll over and allow it to be a "short term solution." The time for compromises is over. We are at the end. If we don't Stand and fight now we're all done for, because we literally don't have the money to buy our own country back from them. If we don't stand who will. 

Also not sure what makes you think standing up carbon markets from nothing goes any faster than these other solutions. We live in a democracy where some amount of power shifts every two years. Things could happen fast if we want them too. 

Connie, with a gentle but firm hand.

Connie: Walk me through that transition though. I hear you, and I want to stretch my imagination to figure out a productive peaceful [transition] to a world without ultra rich, but I literally don't understand how we can get there. Carbon markets have been building for decades now, they started with Kyoto.

An interlude where I laid it on pretty thick… skippable. Connie here for the win, reminding me that she’s not a stranger, we can debate all day (which we did) and she’s still going to be my friend at the end.

Connie: I get what you're saying but what I don't get it how to get where you wanna go. Also I feel like we're getting outside of carbon markets, and maybe your critiquing market based solutions more broadly? And also, I'm having fun thinking over here and deeply appreciate your opinion and if we should be talking instead of texting to convey that, then let's put a pin in it and do that.

Sarah: The transition is unpredictable! It requires an engaged but knowledgeable public that has access to the truth that's not exclusively one that's complimentary to existing wealth. It recognizes racial and gender inequity. It recognizes the fact that, global pandemic or no, the vast majority of people are utterly fucked because they live in a country where the economy is rigged in favor of the already rich. Over and over again in history, these conditions have led to disruptive change. And this time, there's no west to "conquer," no gold rush, no world war or Cold War to fight. There's nothing to distract the people from what's actually happening and reassign or angst externally. Things are never going to be the same after the ultra-rich got richer on the pandemic. 

Me, coming back to Earth for one brief moment.

Sarah: I'm also enjoying this :) I'm sorry I'm getting so emotional, I just feel like this really gets to the heart of things you know? Like why I'm killing myself to write this book. Because I think people are ripe to motivate change, and feel empowered right now to do stuff differently. 18 months ago, maybe not, but today, after surviving a pandemic, fueling mutual aid, defeating trump and an insurrection, and coming together (sort of) to open a lot of eyes about racial injustice, I think people are ready to hear about how we can do things different right now. 

Connie, Unyielding. (Also a great title for your future memoire @Connie).

Connie: K when I read that I read a prediction of civil unrest (that is super in line with Andrew Yang's theories in Normal People, btw...)

Is that what you're saying?

A touch of hyperbole from me, and also not.

Sarah: First of all, we've been living in civil unrest in DC for 9 months, so that's my lived experience. Second of all, unrest doesn't have to be war, it can manifest in a lot of different ways. But yeah, there's 50 million hungry Americans right now, people 6 months overdue on rent, whose financial lives are in tatters. [500k people are dead.] That sounds like a society on the brink of civil unrest to me. One where the average person would be livid to hear millionaires are getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing basic shit. 

Connie, with much grace.

Connie: Yeah, ok that's fair on DC and brink of something serious. I guess I've never seen civil unrest (such limited experience, just Stockley murder of Anthony Lamar Smith protests and then repeat this summer, and a heck of a lot of Ferguson research, but people always die. And it's always poor people and minorities. Violence escalates and shit happens so quickly.) I don't want that because it's scary. Civil unrest does seem to generally manifest itself in violence, especially in a nation that so values its military. I want to find common ground that we can all work on. I don't think rich (or any) people are evil - they literally don't get it and they don't want to lose their comforts. But if you can make them uncomfortable being comfortable, then maybe something is actually possible. 

But seriously, to bring it back, are you critiquing carbon markets or markets and carbon is the last straw?

I go to the grocery store.

Sarah: I'm actually (and widely criticized for [being]) pro-free and fair markets and capitalism. The problem is, there are no free and fair markets in US agriculture. 

And I'm done pretending that if we just give the land owners who stole their land in the first place just a little more free money, we’ll bring them around. They're never going to come around. 

We’ve entered the End Game.

Connie: So then why can't carbon markets exist and be beneficial in the revolutionary context that you're suggesting is necessary? (And I agree [not with ALL of it! but the general spirit, yes], I think we have maybe different roles in it, sorta, but I definitely agree that significant change needs to happen.)

Just because it's one more thing that gives a tiny bit more money to the already rich?

Sarah: How could any market built to serve a group of people who accumulated their resources in a captured market ever be a source or driver of revolutionary change? Markets are servants, not masters. The carbon marketplace is never going to rise up and disadvantage the wealthy. It will always serve [them], and we'll end civilization. And maybe all life on earth. 

In short-- carbon markets effect almost none of the existing incentives around farming, farmland ownership, commodity grain and livestock production, etc. until the underlying maladaptions are addressed, nothing you build on top will turn out any different. It will just twist and erode until it fits into the current world. 

Connie: Because it's a driver not of socioeconomic change, but of environmental change. So [it] doesn't change who makes money, but it changes what has value

Sarah: It doesn't change what has value fundamentally. Still, the thing that drives the most value is commodity grain production. 

We need [to] discourage the extreme over production of grains *first*

Connie: Ok I buy that last bit. Not the rest, necessarily. But yes on overproduction of corn and beans. But I think carbon helps with that.

And who knows because we get into conjectures, not hard science (gets into interesting and valid point that I struggle mentally with around measuring variables/scientific method vs. holistic systems thinking a la Indigenous systems). But generally, trees, perennials… those make it easier to pull and retain more carbon. Helps us think about moving away from grain. And I think carbon also shifts thinking around livestock on some level

Though that gets super tricky because at the root of all this is land ownership…

Because I personally really do believe that my career is a choice that reflects my values and I struggle hugely with this… Because at the end of the day, I think land is actually the most valuable asset there is.

Where the Best Ideas are Made

That wasn’t “the end” of the conversation (it remains ongoing), but you get the gist. For me, this was in part an exercise in challenging my own echo chamber, not by giving merit to trolls or “hearing out” extremists, but by learning how to get comfortable with (and love) people who have different priorities and points of view but similar goals.

I share this too because, as I come to the last few days I have with the book, I realize more and more that it is not really my book at all, and I want that to be known.

There’s a trope of the lone writer (not unlike that of the independent farmer, TBH) who toils in isolation and obscurity to create and cultivate something new, something fresh that resonates, that drips with emotion and identity that translates in a compelling and unapologetic way to the people who eventually take it in.

This whole idyll is obviously

For one, it’s nonsense that writing, or idea-making in general, happens in isolation. Good storytelling is always a conversation— whether between two friends who both care passionately about a wonky farm topic, between strangers craving connections, or between the different parts of ourselves. I like to remember that the word “essay” comes from the French word “to try,” and that’s all most writing ever is, an attempt at capturing something ephemeral, not to claim it for yourself, but to try and share it with others.

In ag, tech, and entrepreneurship, I hear a lot of people be motivated by rejection, by the idea that, “I did it because someone told me I couldn’t.” Lucky for those who find wholesale negative feedback from strangers inspiring, I guess, because spite, anger, and desire to prove someone wrong have never been great creative motivators for me. I don’t write my best stuff for the trolls in Group 3. I write my best stuff, think my best thoughts, forge my most convincing and authentic arguments amongst the other two groups, in conversation with the people I love, when there’s enough trust between us that we can take our knives out and wield them, and in doing so, both become sharper wits.

A Love Letter to My True Haters

This is a very roundabout explanation of what this newsletter, this book, and all my writing, really, is for. It’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s intended to resonate with, to convince, to seek understanding from an incredibly small group of people, and in some cases, exactly one person. I carve out time every week to write this letter, and have carved out a ridiculous amount of time to write this book, not to appeal to the masses (because it won’t) or to sell a gillion books (because I won’t).

I do this work because I care about the ever-evolving people in my little corner of the world (you, specifically), and I want to reach them and be reached by them. Not to win praise, but to find and offer what Connie gave me. The kind of interaction that pushes a person, their ideas, their thinking in general, to another level, a level we can only reach together. Because it’s only in conversation that ideas grow strong, and dear god, we need strong ideas, now more than ever.

So this book, to be clear, is not my work alone. The ideas and characters it contains have been through their paces, both in real life and in written form. Every one of them has been challenged again and again, and will continue to be. Some, I know, will be found wanting, but isn’t that the whole point? Writing them down is still work worth doing because, in the same way that the above thread is a distillation of Connie’s ideas and my own, so is Farm (and Other F Words) not just an expression for my own thinking. It’s a crowded party of thinkers and doers, bursting at the seams with the scrappiest, most unconventional, surprising, and true ideas I’ve ever heard.

The rugged individualism in writing (as in farming) is folly. No one does either both alone and well. I’m little more than the historian of this community, capturing a snapshot of our idea-diversity at this particular moment; bringing in a rich harvest of thought-provoking stories and mind-expanding arguments even while leaving tremendous abundance in the field to fertilize future debates.

If I manage to succeed at doing that in a way that nourishes you, ruffles you, and inspires you to write me thoughtful texts, DMs, and emails, or to schedule calls or zoom meetings to tell me how I didn’t quite get it right, that I could have done it better, or how you think there’s another way forward that I might have missed, I’ll be thrilled.

In short— none of this was, is now, or ever will be, for the dudes in my inbox writing long reductions of my work or the guys on Twitter provoking me with stupidity.

It was always a love letter to my truest and most passionate doubters, detractors, critics, skeptics, devil’s advocates, and friends.

It’s all for you. xoxo

#FarmArt

Nancey Price, a collagist and farmer from Georgia (whom you should immediately follow because she is incredible), on a piece that left me breathless; Celestial Harvest.

“I was encouraged to channel my own experiences as a farmer’s daughter and descendent of generations of farming to create a piece that speaks to the Black experience in a rural landscape.

Black people in America have a complicated relationship with fieldwork. Rightfully so, given the painful history of slavery and its continued effects on the Black psyche to this day. But it’s important to note that our people have worked the land for millennia, long before the first ship harboring enslaved West Africans made landfall in Virginia in 1619.”

“It is for this reason that I chose to look beyond slavery as my inspiration for this piece, electing instead to center the ancestral and celestial meanings to farming and field work. Whether I’m helping my dad in the field, or harvesting veggies from my parent’s garden, I experience an innate connection with my ancestors—those still living and those who have transitioned to the other side.”

“Farming isn’t just physical labor, though that makes up a huge part of the work. For me, it’s also a spiritual practice—a means to connect with my family, the Earth, and the ancestral realm. My people are magicians. Cultivators of the universe. Harvesters of all things natural and supernatural. If that’s not Black history to be proud of, then I don’t know what is.”

Last F(ew) Things

  • I know this week was heavy on feelings and lighter on light-em-up rhetoric about our agricultural future, etc. Thanks for giving me space to write about both.

  • On funny things and public name displays; have I ever mentioned that Stephen Colbert basically single-handedly got me through high school? My all-time, hands-down, very favorite clip from The Colbert Report is here. Please feel free to be inspired about the name you submit to appear in the Acknowledgements.

  • I just discovered Bridgerton, so RIP me.

  • If you’re new to Big Team Farms and want some explanation for what the F you just read, check out The Intro Newsletter and more recent additions by visiting Big Team Farms online.

Stay safe and well out there, friends. And remember, if you have questions, comments, concerns, or high quality gifs (especially farm-related) you’d like to share, I’m right on the other end of this email.

Rock on,

Sarah