Soil Health's Blackfish Problem

The End of Soil Health: Part 1

Hello Big Team—

Ahhh! I did a book signing! In DC! In a very, very cool bar called The Pug and I got to meet some of you there! It was A*M*A*Z*I*NG, even if we did have to mask. I can’t thank everyone enough for coming and making it so special.

And I can’t thank Reana enough for doing all the planning and coordinating and truly making it come together in an amazing way. Y’all make my life so special. I treasure you.

I’ll also have you know that I did in fact limp over my pair of ill-timed deadlines earlier this week, and I’m now sitting down to write this newsletter at 6pm on my 11th consecutive work day. Sometimes I think about those people who tell me “so freelancing, that means you like, never *really* have to work, right?” and I just laugh and laugh and laugh.

But listen, I got to go to the pool today so what do I really have to complain about? Anyway, the book is still a book, so that’s the update there, and I’m still shaping my time in the Bay Area (Aug. 24-25) and in LA (Aug. 26-28) so if there are things I should do or people I should see re: book 2 (or anything else), lemme know!

The Blackfish Problem

You know Tilikum, right? That’s the blackfish.

First of all, I’ll be the first to say, I love Blackfish. It’s a murder mystery where super-smart, charismatic sea mammals are both the perpetrators and the victims.

I first watched it in a student theater in South Africa approximately 1 million years ago, and I can still remember the goose bumps I got when I first heard the line, “when you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home.” What a subtle indictment of both the trainer-killing whales, and of ourselves, for keeping these creatures “of great spiritual power,” who are not something, but someone, in torturous captivity.

If you haven’t watched Blackfish but are interested in killer whales, marine animal parks, human relations with ocean mammals, or the extent to which workers are not valued in the modern workplace, you should definitely check it out. It is truly, as Variety’s movie critic wrote, “a mesmerizing psychological thriller.”

Blackfish is more than a juicy one-off documentary. It was, for nearly 8 years, the most watched nature documentary on Netflix, with millions tuning in to watch it monthly. Rare is the documentary that can find that kind of traction, in part, I think, because rare is the non-fiction issue that achieves wide relevancy without tremendous backlash.

Arguably, however, Blackfish achieved its wide viewership not because it was widely relevant, or even because it wasn’t. It’s watched and rewatched and talked about and shared for three simple reasons; its plot is familiar, its perpetrators and victims are distant and abstract, and its call to action is easy.

The plot point is the most obvious, even the trailer above. Blackfish is, in truth, a true crime documentary, where a file slowly fills up with evidence that for a time seems to implicate the obvious killer (the whale), but in the end, reveals that though the whale did the deed, the fault lies with the greedy fat cats at these animal parks and their slippery, seedy lawyers. We know this plot; we know its pacing, its twists and turns, and though we’re thrilled by the unique and unusual characters, we are pleased too by the predictability.

Those characters were exciting. Even those who have never been to a SeaWorld were probably touched at one point or another (remember these old commercials?) by the face and form of Shamu. Paired with a dose of collective nostalgia for Willy, we were primed to see in Tilikum that kid that our mom always told us to be nicer to when we were kids because their home life was hard. Since then, the existence of captive killer whales had, frankly, slipped our collective minds, but we’d always hoped, at least vaguely, that things turned out okay for them after all. On the other side stood SeaWorld, a corporation that hit its stride at a time when people thought corporations could be trusted with kids and animals and education, but who’s ability to move us has slowly eroded, leaving it (ironically) a bit washed up. Unlike, for example, a documentary like Fed Up, who’s characters are often proxies for us or people like us and which indict companies who we spend money with often and governments who fail us daily, the vast majority of us are not marine mammal trainers, nor whale researchers, nor do we frequent marine parks. It’s a lot more fun, in short, to talk and think about the crimes and dysfunctions of distant acquaintances that don’t really affect us.

The call to action, in effect, is also very simple. Surely a few people will come out of Blackfish fired up to protest and to fight for policy changes to eliminate the confinement of orcas. But really, what the documentary seems to expect most of us to do is simply to not visit these abusive marine parks. This is a phenomenal call to action for us, because, re: the last paragraph, we already do not go to SeaWorld. That would be like watching a documentary about the food system where the number one takeaway was somehow “don’t eat lime jello everyday.” Boom. Done. Excellent. Love this documentary, I’m already passing the lime jello test with flying colors, can’t wait to brag to all my friends about it when I tell them to watch Greengoo, the documentary.

…Soil Health?

So we’ve identified what it means to have a Blackfish Problem.

Funnily enough, for Blackfish, these features weren’t really problems. Especially if we consider that uncomfortable capitalistic fact that the goal of Blackfish was probably not to Free Tilikum, it was to put butts in seats and eyes on screens. Then these three factors are actually the selling points that took it viral.

When I look at our current agricultural obsession with Soil Health, it seems to have a Blackfish Problem. It has a familiar plot, distant and abstract perpetrators and victims, and for most people, an easy call to action.

The Soil Health story is that of the prodigal son. The soil is the source of human life, it supports our food, ungirds our houses, and hides our trash. It cared for us long before we knew that’s what was happening, and even now, while it continues to support human life, humans use it and abuse it with reckless abandon. But, the prodigal son-ness of the soil health story assures us that all is not lost. We can come back to the soil, we can seek forgiveness for our sins through investments in soil health, and all will be well. It’s got that freshness of new characters with the pleasant glow of familiarity.

Even more than in Blackfish, I’d argue, the perpetrators and victims and perpetrators of the Soil Health story are opaque. Modern corporations, “industrial” or “factory” farms, those are the perpetrators, right? Or maybe it’s previous generations of farmers who did the deed? And family farms are the victims? Or are all humans the victims? Or are all humans the perpetrators? Is the Earth itself the victim? All to say, few of us regularly participate in destroying and depleting soils, not do many of us have a bunch of personal soil ourselves that someone else is destroying or depleting. The vast majority of us then are able to experience this story in a distant and abstract (read: safe and dispassionate) way.

The Soil Health call to action is, to follow the trend, even simpler than that of Blackfish. All that the Soil Health story asks of most people is to believe in Soil Health. And Soil Health as an end has, at this point, developed a real Rorschach test vibe. I’ve talked to soil health enthusiasts who express their belief by; shopping at the farmers market, buying only organic, supporting GMOs, avoiding meat, fighting for family farms, eschewing plant-based protein, pushing for dairy-free school lunches, installing a biogas system, installing wind turbines, getting paid to practice regenerative agriculture, building carbon markets, fighting environmental regulations, and planting cover crops. Some of these activities, of course, are in direct conflict with one another, let alone with what people would call actual support of soil health. But for the average America right now, very few of whom (dear god, I hope) would take the stance of being against soil health, the ask is way simpler than any of that. The call to action on Soil Health is very simply, “when you see the words, ‘this will improve soil health,’ believe it, love it, get behind it.”

What does this mean for Soil Health as a movement/goal? Well, if Blackfish is any indication, it means that the current Soil Health-mania will be great for getting people paying attention. We should expect broad-based support and that the essential messaging will reach high levels of penetration.

And then what? Nothing, probably. What the Blackfish story did best was spread the Blackfish story. It was an end in itself. This is the problem, because advocates both inside and outside the agricultural industry are hanging their hats on soil health as the future— the thing that’s going to bring necessary, carbon-offsetting change.

The change that we should expect the Soil Health story to make is likely not what we think. If anything, it seems likely to become primarily a marketing tool, a familiar story for consumers to latch on to, in order to help sell snacks, clothes, and consulting services.

That’s never what the story was meant to be. Soil Health was suppose to be the tip of the spear, the visceral, nature-based, universally familiar thing that we could all relate to and love, and our mutual craving to be figuratively grounded was suppose to motivate us all to pay more attention to agriculture, to weigh in, to demand change, and to feel like we’re a part of the distant and abstract farming system.

It’s not working. Soil Health may have given would-be farm and food system reformers the biggest possible tent in which to recruit, but at this point, the tent is so big and so vague that conventional agriculture is moving under it, pushing everyone else off the podium, and it’s well on its way to being their story now.

How do we Un-Blackfish Farm System Change?

There are probably a million ways to do this, and many folx smarter than me will probably have dozens of ideas in mind already. But the one that comes to mind for me comes on the heels of a question that I always ask myself when we’re talking about soil health— “why the hell are we talking about soil and not people?”

Regular readers will have read this rant before, but soil health is not an end in itself. This next take might come off a bit specie-ist, but bare with me. We’ve got to figure out how to take care of one another before we try and take care of anything else. Not because we’re more important or because nature or other species don’t matter, but because I believe that when we figure out how to take care of one another, it will naturally require taking care of other species and other systems.

What does this look like in effect? Stop talking about things, objects, ideas like soil and its health, and start talking about people and communities. De-center Soil Health. Recenter Farmworkers. De-center “regenerative ag.” Re-center Indigenous agriculture practitioners. When we’re able to put the people back at the center of our work, when we really focus on the basics of taking care of one another, and forget about arrogantly trying to “fix” or “optimize” or “regenerate” incomprehensibly complex natural systems, we can find our way back to a relationship with the world that does not put humans in the primary position of control, but instead puts us in our rightful place. That of caretaker, of one another, of our planet, and of our own meaning.

This is a much harder story to tell— the call to action requires reflection, intention, and empathy, the victims are real, vulnerable people that we can meet and know, whose very existence has been erased from our agricultural story, and the list of perpetrators, extending from the grocery store all the way down to farmers, and all the way up to our the very top of our political system. And the plot does not have a tidy arc with a victorious hero, but is instead the story of going slowly together, celebrating progress, surviving setbacks, but all the while learning, growing, and caring.

This story will not make for nearly so big a tent, many in and outside of agriculture will not subscribe to such a “controversial” stance. It will make people uncomfortable to talk about the intersection of issues— that hundreds of humans died to keep meat in grocery stores during the pandemic, that babies die in America from nitrogen poisoning from runoff from family farms, that rural farm communities are collapsing under the weight of neglect and poverty while all around them, farmland makes millions for absentee landlords.

Our obsession with soil health will not spare these lives or protect these communities. Only caring about people can do that.

Big Teammate Spotlight: Claire Cushing

Welcome to the first official Big Team Farm spotlight, where I talk to members of this awesome community and share how they’re using our shared interests (by the broadest definition) in their life/work.

First up, Claire Cushing! Claire is an Oregon-based energy efficiency professional (that you might recognize from her contribution of the job posting last week).

Claire is doing some really cool stuff in the Pacific Northwest energy space, namely helping businesses and organizations implement efficiency plans and technology in order to use less energy. Of course, Claire has recognized that this is an imperfect system, especially in and around food and agriculture. One key problem— what happens when energy savings/incentives actually lead to increased energy use?

Consider this hypothetical situation: I have a 1000ft cannabis grow house. If I switch from my conventional lighting over to all LED bulbs, I can cut my energy usage in half. Plus, the utility company, foundations, or state grant-makers are going to pay me to do it. Amazing. That’ll be enough revenue and savings to fund my 1500ft expansion!

This is an extreme example, but you can understand the limitation of this kind of incentive system (not unlike incentives elsewhere in ag… carbon markets). The secret worst part of the above situation is not even the hypothetical expansion, it's that other little hiccup that growing things inside is *always* less efficient than growing them outside (where the sun is available as a power source). That means we have, again, a problem that looks familiar elsewhere in ag— that this policy does a great job optimizing a bad system, but doesn’t actually provide any incentives to switch to the better system.

Do you have any ideas of how Claire could influence energy efficiency incentive programs to make them better for all? I think we’d both/love to hear your thoughts. 

Last F(ew) Thing

  • Did you hate the main story in this week’s newsletter? Don’t worry, next week, I’ll offer the opposite perspective.

  • My “Invites” tray remains open if you’d like me to say a few words at your tractor pull or rodeo, or back by popular demand, I’m still willing to fist fight the town tough guy. I may not win, but that will not phase me. Shoot me an email.

  • 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.

  • Do you have announcements that would be relevant to the 1,400 or so members of the Big Team? Feel free to shoot me messages about projects, resources, job posting, etc. And to everyone who’s done that already, or who has asked questions that I haven’t yet responded to, look out for those in the next couple of newsletters.

  • One more episode of Ted Lasso in— still good. I finished Atypical essentially in like 12 hours in between writing my two stories last weekend, so that wasn’t great. This week we’re trying to knock things off of our movie list, we watched Hidden Figures on Tuesday (excellent, of course) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Wednesday. Plus, I’ve been listening to old episodes of My Favorite Murder which are the best ones. I’m also listening to a book called How Fiction Works on my Sagan walks (super interesting if a bit academic!) and reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children at the pool (and supplementing my diet with 2007’s Best of Science and Nature Writing here and there).

  • Don’t forget to share this email!

Stay safe out there friends. Don’t forget, if you have funny gifs, thoughts, comments, stories, questions, feedback, catchy song lyrics, good podcast recommendations, or anything else to tell me, I’m right on the other end of this email.

Rock on,

Sarah