March 7, 2022
“Anytime you want to talk about enthusiasm on soils, talk to Rosie,” affirmed Representative Jim Costa (D-CA), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture. At the February 3rd hearing “Sustainability in the Livestock Sector: Environmental Gain and Economic Viability” regenerative agriculture took center stage through the eyes and voice of Rosie Burroughs, matriarch of Burroughs Family Farms in the San Joaquin Valley of California. A family-focused collaboration and celebration of organic, regenerative practice, the Burroughs operate three farms that grow and raise a stunningly diversified variety of products utilizing an equally diverse set of regenerative practices. From cattle to almonds to olive oil, a holistic ethos of sustainable, regenerative, and nourishing relationships with the land guides the entirety of Rosie Burroughs’ advocacy.
Sustainable practices in livestock production are receiving heightened attention as we look towards strengthening the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) and programs like the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI), a new grassroots campaign priority for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Farmers and ranchers are at the heart of advocacy and solution-making in the face of climate change. As they implement sustainable initiatives and diversify their production with an eye towards mitigating environmental harms, farmers and ranchers across the country take action daily to confront the climate crisis. “Without regenerative agriculture practices and grazing, we can look to no future … we need to take action and agriculture is the answer to the problem,” Rosie explicated in her testimony.
The House Subcommittee’s hearing brought critical attention to the barriers to and incentives for the adoption of agricultural production and growing methods that increase farmers and ranchers’ capacities to improve deteriorating environmental conditions. Barriers to accessing USDA funding still disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and other socially disadvantaged farmers. For example, only 1% of farmers of color are enrolled in the largest conservation programs in the country and greater support for these farmers at the federal level is increasingly necessary as the climate crisis persists. It is also necessary, however, to acknowledge the community-building and environmental advocacy happening on farms by farmers. “I believe that regenerative agriculture is the way to keep farmers and ranchers on their land and provide them with the tools they need to protect the environment,” expounded Rosie in response to a question on the potential for these practices to become scalable solutions from Representative Sanford Bishop (D-GA).
“Last night we were up late to watch our grandson’s basketball team make it to the playoffs and woke up at four this morning to check on frost conditions,” she shared in a conversation following the hearing. Not quite unlike her grandson’s nail biting two free-throws that put the team over the edge and landed them a win in a clutch game, the Burroughs have faced an uphill battle as they confront a food system where the cost-burden is placed on farmers who cannot set their pay price. Rosie’s family has been practicing regenerative agriculture since our current conception of the term found footing. The definition of regenerative agriculture evolves with time and research, but at its core the term encompasses a series of practices farmers and ranchers adopt in an effort to build soil health, protect water, and ensure the resilience of local ecosystems. “All life starts in the soil and all health starts in the soil. When we use regenerative practices, we are creating the most nutrient dense food, doing the most for sequestering carbon, and for protecting the environment,” Rosie stated at the hearing.
Regenerative farming practices utilize a holistic lens, centering an integrated systems approach in the production process. The Burroughs employ practices including management intensive grazing with their livestock, no or minimum till soil care in their orchards, and flowering hedgerows brimming with over sixty varieties of native flora and trees. These are just a few of the regenerative practices the Burroughs and farmers across the movement are utilizing, many of which often go unattributed as the growing practices Indigenous communities have always used. These sustainable practices are becoming widely popularized as the regenerative agriculture movement gains traction across the world.
Farmers and ranchers laude this approach to cultivation particularly because they are observing positive financial outcomes for their operations, allowing these farms to stay in the game both while restoring degraded landscapes. “On December 31, 2020 we milked for the last time at our California Cloverleaf Farms Dairy,” Rosie writes in her written testimony to the Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture. The dairy closed because it was no longer financially viable and the family’s Full Circle Dairy seems to be on a similar path.
“When we lose small farmers and ranchers because of consolidation they will not come back,” Rosie responded when asked about the impacts of corporate consolidation on the adoption of regenerative practices. “Ranchers and farmers and graziers need to be able to utilize their land to work for the environment,” she says, including work that focuses on soil health and infiltration systems that replenish aquifers. She placed particular emphasis on her family’s struggle with the National Organic Program (NOP) and cited its failure to enforce the origin of livestock and pasture policy rules for the organic dairy industry. “We are losing or have lost the very pioneers of the organic dairy movement. We’ve lost those who were models of pasture-based organic production, working with the land, the environment, and Mother Nature to provide the organic milk consumers were looking for,” Rosie contends in her written testimony.
Rosie’s call to action here was to urge support for policies that level the playing field so farmers adopting sustainable methods have the tools to be successful in their businesses and in addressing climate change. During the hearing, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) uplifted Rosie’s work in mentoring other farmers, uplifting the fact that two women farmers served as witnesses at the hearing. She then asked for Rosie’s guidance when thinking about how to better provide education and technical assistance as legislators look towards the Farm Bill. Rosie responded that funding towards research, education, outreach, and technical assistance for the implementation of regenerative and sustainable practices is key. Opportunities such as the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program have proven vital to uplifting farmers’ voices, funding a multitude of projects that not only create healthy soils or carbon sequestration but also facilitate collaboration across the whole of the sustainable agriculture movement.
Collaborating “farmer to farmer is the best way to educate and have a paradigm shift towards regenerative practices,” she says. As much as Burroughs Family Farms centers the family’s relationship with the land, it is also a hub for research. Working closely with the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at Cal State Chico, the Ecdysis Foundation, and Cal State East Bay, the Burroughs seek to demonstrate and document the viability of regenerative practices while simultaneously calling farmers into the movement. “The research on our orchards has shown that we have improved organic matter, increased water holding capacity and infiltration rates, significantly increased our carbon sequestration, increased our insect biomass, increased soil microbial activity, used less water, and our yields have increased,” her written testimony states.
“Most importantly, our greatest resource is our farmland and our farmers. We need to protect that resource and ensure that economic viability is in place so that they can succeed in their vital work,” Rosie says. Across the spectrum of her work, Rosie seeks to validate and uplift the role regenerative agriculture plays in mitigating climate change and keeping small, family and socially disadvantaged farmers on the land.
Burroughs Family Farms serves as a model for the large-scale and community focused implementation of regenerative agriculture while empowering future leaders in the movement for sustainable agriculture. Rosie also reminds us that growing trees and raising livestock is a beautiful and fulfilling set of relationships. She describes regenerative agriculture as a “symphony” orchestrated through the sun, soil, water, farmers, plants, and livestock that allows for the health and nutrition for all living beings.
The almond trees were in full blossom on a recent field day the Burroughs family hosted. Researchers, community members, folks from local university extension, and NSAC member, the California Climate and Agriculture Network, gathered on the farm around home-cooked meals, solidifying the unique importance of community in this work. In the words of one attendee, the day represented “an inflection point for acceptance of regenerative agriculture in the almond industry.” The day after the community came together to celebrate the demonstrated successes of regenerative and sustainable practices, however, the California almond industry met one of the biggest challenges it has ever faced. “All the way from Bakersville to Chico,” Rosie says, “we had the record lowest temperatures for the longest period of time as far as farmers can remember, something we have never seen when the trees are in bloom.” At a peak in their climate advocacy, the Burroughs and their community face potentially devastating impacts of climate change. “There has been significant damage and this will substantially impact our almond production,” she tells us. “We are yet to find out the total damage.” Still, producers are cultivating resilience through intentionally crafting community within the movement.
“Don’t let anyone close the door on you,” Rosie advises young, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. “Don’t let anyone tell you can’t. Even if the odds are against you, follow your passion. There are more and more ways to find partnerships and collaborators and I do believe there are all sorts of ways to succeed.”
Do you know a farmer, rancher, or advocate working to change the food system? We’d love to hear their stories! Reach out to Madeline Turner at email@example.com to connect.