2022-09-30 15:48:21


On the morning of Sunday, April 14, 1935, residents of the Great Plains woke up to an unexpectedly beautiful, mild spring day.

It had been a difficult couple of years in the area around southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. As if the economic hardship of the Great Depression wasn’t enough, record-setting droughts in 1934 had driven local temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time, parching the heavily plowed soil and turning it to fine, black dust. 

But on that April Sunday, the sun was out, the air was calm, and the temperature was just right. People came outside to do long-delayed work, enjoy each other’s company, and go to church. Neighbors smiled at one another. For the first time in a long time, it felt like things were going to be ok.

And then the sky turned black.

Pushed southward by a massive cold front, a thick, black cloud of dust hundreds of miles wide and thousands of feet high swept down over the plains, completely blocking out the sun. Temperatures dropped more than 30 degrees in just a few hours, as high winds screamed around hastily barricaded doors and windows. Huddled together in pitch-black cars, basements, and public buildings, people held each other close, and wondered whether the world was coming to an end.

On this day, which came to be known as “Black Sunday,” more than 300,000 tons of topsoil were whipped into the air by the raging wind. The dust settled in drifts that buried cars and houses. Some of it drifted as far as Washington, D.C., frightening politicians who until that point hadn’t understood the impact of the growing “Dust Bowl” crisis on the Great Plains. The storm started a refugee crisis that carried thousands of Great Plains residents away from their homes to seek new lives on the West Coast; prompted massive changes in federal policies around agriculture; and revealed to a shocked nation how unstable the ground beneath our feet can be.

I’m Myles McDonough, and you’re listening to The Free Ranger.

[intro music]

Welcome to The Free Ranger, a podcast about telling the stories that matter. On this podcast, we’ll be learning about storytelling from the people who turn important issues into stories: the writers, filmmakers, marketers, and other professionals who weave together the facts to create compelling narratives that make a difference.

In this, our inaugural season, we’ll be looking at Stories of Stewardship–how people create powerful stories about our planet and its natural resources.Today’s episode focuses on telling the story of how to care for our soil.

Today, we’re happy to welcome Ryland Engelhart, co-founder and executive director of Kiss the Ground, an an education and advocacy nonprofit teaching people about the possibilities of regenerative agriculture. He is the producer of a documentary film of the same name, which explores how responsible use of our soil could reverse the rise in global temperatures, improve our health, and bring us back into a balanced relationship with the land we live on. We spoke with Ryland about why the story of regenerative agriculture has received relatively little attention, the challenges of telling a story through film, and the future of the Kiss the Ground story…

Myles: [...] So your latest project, Kiss the Ground, we'll be talking about that in a moment. Before we do though, just to set the scene a little bit--the phrase kiss the ground if I'm drawing these lines correctly comes from a Rumi poem that you've quoted in a number of places, is that correct?

Ryland: That's correct. My son is named Rumi and definitely the poetry that speaks most to my heart is Rumi, and that is part of--kiss the ground is part of a longer Rumi quote but most people including me usually just caption the small frame that's a piece of the poem, which says: let the beauty we love be all that we do. There's hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Myles: What is it about Rumi that speaks to you? What draws you to him and his poetry?

Ryland: Yeah, the miracle of communication that speaks to the human experience from 700 years ago. Still is so relevant, and so, like, it's so alive and connected to the human experience of sort of the insanity, the mystery, the beauty, the majesty, the, you know. Humans' continual inquiry and continual exploration into where we come from, who we belong to, what does it all mean to be here.

And so, I was grateful to use that line and that term as the arrowhead for the organization that was about having people fall back in love with the earth and our soil. And that by doing so that we could heal our selves, our planet, our food, our relationships. And so that was my big foolish project was--

Myles: Yeah.

Ryland: There's another Rumi poem--start some big foolish project, like Noah. Noah's arc. Kiss the Ground is our big foolish project.

Myles: Yeah, tell me about your big foolish project. Tell me about Kiss the Ground the org, and tell me about Kiss the Ground the movie. Tell me about that, what's it all about?

Ryland: [...] Kiss the Ground really is four main programs that we deliver on, is that we provide educational scholarships and grants to farmers that are wanting to go to regenerative ag. We have education courses that allow sort of the activist or the homeowner or the regular everyday person to participate in the regenerative movement. So those are courses whether its soil advocacy or regenerative gardening courses. And then we create media content that [...] kind of excites and awakens stories that make a difference and have impact. And then the fourth and kind of what I spoke about is just how do we work and use our tools of education and communication to build political will and to change policy so that regenerative agriculture can become more of a mainstream practice here in America and beyond?

It's about, it's about reminding, it's about reminding us that we come and that we are for and from the earth, and our inherent existence depends on a web of interconnected life, starting, you know, with the biology of soil and the alchemy of plants and sun and water.

Stemming from, for me, from a big realization around how carbon, water, cycles between the you know the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the soilsphere. And that there's this cycle of life, this interconnection between photosynthesis really is the driving process of. And that all of life owes its--homage to that, that we're a part of that life, and a part of that process, and cycle.

And so, Kiss the Ground is an organization and we're an education and advocacy nonprofit to awaken people to the possibilities of regeneration. We got turned on by the single idea, the notion that human beings could be beneficial organisms on the planet, and actually heal and regenerate the damage that we've done, not just to sustain life but to actually rebuild and regenerate biodiversity and resilience and health, through the web of life based on our care-stewardship. On a big, sort of primary focus, the way we manage the land and do agriculture.

Because that's the biggest impact that we have on the earth, the soil, the crust of mother earth, is the way we manage land through agriculture. Obviously you can see this very clearly if you drive or if you fly over the country, and the majority of the country is just chopped up into little green squares. Most of which are green squares growing, you know, corn and soy, mostly in the middle of the country. But that, yeah, agriculture is arguably the most destructive, one of the most destructive systems on the planet, and could be the one system that has the ability to rebuild, regenerate, and heal. Because it's about managing living systems. And can we manage them in a way where they become healthy over time, vs unhealthy, you know, less healthy over time.

That was a long way to say we are an education, advocacy nonprofit designed to awaken people the possibilities of regeneration through storytelling, through workshops, through content creation, through infographics, through classes, curriculums, and through movies and short forms of content.

Similar to the Story of Stuff, which is paying homage tribute back to the original creation of Kiss the Ground, inspired by Story of Stuff! Which was produced by Free Range media, which is sort of a predecessor to this, re-launching of this podcast. So, grateful to be part of the succession of your legacy.

Myles: Well we're really glad to hear that it played a part in it. Because it really--it's a very good film, that you guys have put together. And it does a very good job of clearly and in a very compelling way telling the story around the carbon cycle, carbon sequestration, this idea that we could trap enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses in the soil in a perfectly natural and healthy way, also known as drawdown.

The film also touches on the fact that that entire story, really big and beneficial as it seems, is very overshadowed by the story of carbon emissions. Everybody knows that our cars put greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, large herds of cattle in feedlots do the same. Not as many people know about the fact that we could potentially reverse the global increase in temperature if enough of the earth's surface is put under regenerative agriculture.

Why do you think that that is the case? Why is the one story so much more well-known than the other?

Ryland: I think the complexity of managing soil and ecology and its, it's a much more difficult task. Because it's not just a on and an off switch. You know we can reduce emissions, or we can you know come up with alternative energies, which are all essential. But to manage behavior and management over millions of millions of plots of land in a cohesive way is very difficult. So that's one thing. Another thing is that the science, you know. Money pays for scientific research. So when there's a big something to gain from you know a scientific study being conducted, it gets paid for and conducted quickly, because there's a lot of money to be gained. So.

And so it's the same if there's not a lot of, it's like, Hey, let's you know, create an agricultural system that doesn't depend on you know the agribusiness, which is one of the bigger conglomerate industries. You know, our food, relevant to everyone. And so to try to get that whole system excited about a system that doesn't rely on chemical and synthetic and manufactured inputs, that are mostly fossil-fuel driven, you know, it's just--it doesn't have a great economic---you know, the economic opportunity is not driving the tests and the studies that would give the confidence for people to go in this direction.

Myles: [...] What was the biggest challenge that you faced in putting together the Kiss the Ground movie, and how did you overcome it?

Ryland: Biggest challenge...let's see. You know, it took about 3 million dollars to make over 7 years. So I would say one of the big challenges was how to keep motivated and energized and sort of feeling that there's progress, when we kind of would--you know, again, Josh and Rebecca, Big Picture Ranch, as the filmmakers, and Kiss the Ground being kind of a supporting guide and kind of input of ideas, content, direction, you know, some of the characters to film. But the, yeah. The difficulty of staying motivated, energized, and inspired after so many different renditions of the film, so many sort of attempts at getting it into a festival and getting turned down and you know having so many people...you know, it was really truly a community effort of hundreds of people participating and even financing. You know, putting small chunks of money in here and there to get people to support, and giving people roles of executive producers. And then trying to get everyone's alignment on the direction, what it was missing, what it needed.

And you know there were times when it felt like the project was dead in the water. And so just how to get reenergized enough to bring in you know more capital to get us over the next hump of a re-edit, or, you know, multiple different people doing voiceovers, and was that the right choice? Did that work? Now that the film has changed, we need a new voiceover. So, just the seven years of pushing something forward and yeah, staying motivated and connected to the why, and connected to the filmmakers. And you know, energetically you know getting back on the horse again and again to bring it to fruition.

And you know it was definitely a pretty big, a big lift. And many times felt like it was maybe not gonna happen. But again, I'd say community and the, the, we had engaged and enrolled so many people in the possibility of what it could be that when we or me, I'll speak for myself, would kind of be apathetic about you know where it was and if it was gonna turn into something that was meaningful, and you know make a difference--you know, hearing from someone, and kind of them reminding. Yeah, being reminded in community. When you're sort of depressed, apathetic, and you're kind of over it, and then you know someone kind of drawing that possibility back to the surface that ignites that next kind of step and next opportunity that leads to you know the progression of where it emerged.

But it was, you know, we had gotten into, we had tried for Sundance a couple years, didn't get in there, and then got into Tribecca and then COVID happened and that got cancelled. And then you know we were still looking for distribution. And finally we through all different kind of miraculous--going through many doors, knocking on many doors to you know end up having that happen. Yeah. It really felt like a real--at the end, divine orchestration of you know it was, there was many times we were thinking Aw, this is, this isn't, you know, is this ever gonna come out?

In turn, it came out it came out at the perfect time, and really had a you know, I'd say a lightning in a bottle success of a documentary. Documentaries just seem to have such a challenging time to get traction and actually get a lot of views. And be seen by a lot of people that are you know connected to the industry or the topic that the film is touching on. And it felt like this film really cascaded through the consciousness of many worlds, but specifically food and agriculture. So it felt really like an amazing experience to see it come to fruition.

Myles: [...] So just a fun one here: you've become a film producer in the last couple of decades but your roots are in the restaurant world, in the food world. How do you use your experience and skills as a restauranteur to tell stories, in particular the story of regenerative agriculture?

Ryland: Yeah, I think my greatest skill is probably in human emotional intelligence and human connection, and sharing and emoting stories and ideas in ways where people feel connected and included and a part of that story. And are inspired by that story. And I think you know within my role at Cafe Gratitude, which was really about inspiring and educating people on human health and you know the importance of good clean food and nutrient dense, plant based food, and understanding where food comes from and that's important, and you know, all the different medicinal qualities of food.

I became somewhat of a tableside minister, orator, or you know. My joy was exciting people with new ideas and new possibilities of food and wellness and, and even sort of the philosophy of gratitude. And being grateful. And acknowledging people and seeing people and having people feel loved and connected to, in ways, and served in ways that are uncommon in your sort of ordinary you know service or dining experience.

And so it really has been my excitement around communication, transformation through sharing love and information that excites people to participate and to embody and to you know, shift their views and the trajectory of their lives, and what they value, based on being able to infuse a moment with love and presence and information that excites and delights. And hopefully transforms a micro, a micro-moment that ultimately, that becomes a seed in the consciousness that turns into a shift in their lives for the better. And getting to be able to participate in the sowing of seeds in consciousness around good food, and gratitude, and regeneration, has always been and continues to be the thing that I love to do.

Myles: [...] So what's next for the Kiss the Ground movement? What upcoming project are you most excited about?

Ryland: So, you know, I'll just speak on you know starting with--Josh and Rebecca, the filmmakers, they've been, they're working on two new films. One called Common, Common Ground, hope they're ok with me saying that. And Groundswell, are two kind of sequel and trilogy kind of coming off of Kiss the Ground. And then, and so those are like, well, you know one is well on its way but they're like in full production, probably due to be out the film end of this year early 2023.

And then Kiss the Ground the organization has really honed our focus in on a big audacious campaign and coalition called Regenerate America: Soil Is Our Common Ground. And so we're building a coalition of organizations, farming groups, NGOs, you know food brands, influencers, thought leaders, to really bring under one big broad tent the awareness and education of soil health, regenerative agriculture as it relates to you know, how, you know it cascades into our human health coming out of a pandemic. You know we're a sick country and we need to get healthier, and you know health starts in the soil, and on our farms, and in our food. And so that kind of you know bringing the awareness of that and then also you know connecting to a resilient and healthy environment and healthy climate. And the importance of the solution of regenerative agriculture in relationship to that.

So we're looking at building a series of content, a big coalition, a big grassroots effort to have the general public really engaged and inspired about that the Farm Bill is a moment of transformation that we could all rally behind. And that there's a real beautiful future that we could see through the lens of possibility of regenerative agriculture, and how the Farm Bill really does dictate a lot of how our food system is shaped and set up, and that you know that its you know billions, $480 billion of taxpayers' money that gets allocated into 80% are nutrition supplemental programs, SNAP, food stamp programs, feeding those that are most food insecure in America. And about 20% to ag-related policies. And seeing if we can yeah, shift some of the policies that are in the 12 titles of the Farm Bill that support soil health and the scale and growth of regenerative agriculture. And really, can we make this--can we tell this message and tell this story in a bipartisan way, in a way that has people being able to see a unified opportunity to work together and you know a healthy, you know.

There's a FDR quote that says The Nation that destroys their soil destroys themselves. And we've said that A nation that rebuilds its soil rebuilds themselves. And you know can we have a uniting around this common ground issue of soil and food and human health and environmental health? It's very easier said than done, but we're in the earlier, early stages, but also have some great momentum around this campaign, and are looking to launch it publicly in, somewhere between either late March and early May, going all the way from there to the rewriting and the updating of the 2023 Farm Bill.

Myles: Excellent. And another big one to end on here. You talk about "love" a lot in your interviews and articles. How do you define love, and what role does it play in your storytelling?

Ryland: Hm. Yeah. I would say that it's, it's, it really is the story that I'm most passionate about. And love feels like the essence of the human spirit. And it is the soul's purpose to express love and there's lots of things in the way of that expressing. But I think the most beautiful, courageous, and inspiring stories and, is, is human beings in service to love beyond even their own self. Even their own, you know, self-preservation. You know, love includes sacrifice, and giving something up for a greater good, a greater service.

I think everyone's had experiences, glimmers of moments where they were expressing love in a way that was unconditional and was, was the joy of giving and being that presence of love was the reward. And there was nothing, there was nothing else that they wanted. And in that, there was nothing else that they, there was nothing else needed. There was nothing lacking. There was a complete experience. There was a moment of fulfillment.

And so I think Rumi's poetry, back to the beginning, oftentimes spoke to the mystery of this presence of Love. And yeah. Kiss the Ground has been created to awaken and remind us of that love and to express that love to each other and to our earth, as the place that we come from and gives us life. And so, yeah. Love, love is I think the thing that makes life worth living.

Myles: That is superb. Alright. Ryland, thank you so much for joining us on the Free Ranger here today. I've loved learning about your projects, and I'm excited to see where everything's going.

Ryland: Awesome. Right on, Myles.

[outro music]

In the aftermath of Black Sunday, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, establishing education programs and incentives to help Great Plains farmers rescue their soil from decades of over-tilling. These efforts healed much of the harm done by intensive agriculture in the early 20th century.

But with temperatures rising around the globe, and much of our food system still dependent on industrialized growing techniques, soil erosion remains an under-discussed–but still present–threat. As Ryland pointed out, the story of our soil is big and complex. But finding compelling ways to tell that story is the first step toward a truly sustainable food system–one that could wind up saving our planet.

This has been The Free Ranger. Thanks for listening.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please be sure to subscribe and share it with someone else who’d like it too.

The Free Ranger is a production of Free Range Studios, a storytelling and innovation agency helping mission-driven organizations promote social good. If you’d like to learn more, please visit us at freerange.com.