selected for publication by Debra Marquart
sponsored by I-Regen at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
by Guest Judge Debra Marquart
This meticulously-researched piece of reportage begins by sounding an ominous bell about the state of the northern farm- and ranch-lands west of the Missouri River as the planet heads into fluctuations of climate that will return the agricultures and economies of the western Great Plains to a state of collapse equal to or worse than those suffered during the Dust Bowl. The essay’s narrator has a heightened sense of urgency, because this place is also her home ground, the place of her childhood. On a visit home, the narrator observes: “What I see out the pickup window, and what is considered ‘prairie’ across much of the West, is a grassland ghost. An ecosystem broken not just by conventional grazing and farming, but also by a changing climate, racism, patriarchy, and a food system that demands artificial cheapness achieved through industrial practices.”
Along the way, as we go on this journey home with our narrator, we learn a great deal about the ancient prairie ecosystems that naturally evolved in this unique region, and we also learn about the settler colonialism that destroyed a people and a way of living on the land that allowed indigenous peoples to survive and flourish on this landscape through the ages. The great joy and hope of this essay is that it takes us on a journey into a renewed future as the narrator is allowed to follow Kelsey Scott, a fourth-generation rancher and member of the Lakota Sioux Nation, who helps manage a 7,000 acre cattle operation near and on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Traveling with Ms. Scott and our narrator, we learn ways that agriculture might be adapted to new and ancient ways of practicing regenerative agriculture.
by Stephanie Anderson
The word that lingers is “terror.”
Terror at the sight of dirt blowing off farm fields. Terror at the hip bones and ribs jutting out from under the cows’ black hides. The drought-fueled fires that began in March and still threaten now in the fall. The stunted wheat, the empty creeks, the look on my family’s faces as we survey the shriveled land in western South Dakota that we call home. The last years I lived on my parents’ ranch, drought ruled. I am no stranger to loss and lungs filled with dirt. Neither is the prairie itself, forged from cycles of wet and dry, plenty and little, activity and rest—a resilient land that gave life to Indigenous tribes and countless species for millennia.
But this is not the prairie ecosystem of old, and this is not the climate it once knew.
I am privileged that fear is never an emotion I feel upon visiting my childhood home. In late September 2021, though, fear takes my hand the moment I leave the Pierre airport and drive west on Highway 34. Some pastures look as if ranchers have cut them for hay, so short is the grass. I see hollow depressions where water should stand and bare ground where grass and forbs should grow. I see herds of cattle packed together, fighting flies and kicking up dust. Each scene seems a foreshadow of the future our scientists say is coming, a future that in many ways already exists. At sunset I cross into tribal lands at the Cheyenne River valley and think about my plans to return to this reservation in a few days to interview a young woman rancher of the Lakota Sioux Nation. These thoughts carry me up Highway 73 for a while, but when I am less than an hour from home and the world is dark, my rental car’s headlights illuminate a dead deer on the shoulder—a deer that turns out not to be dead after all, but injured from a car collision, and which heaves itself halfway up like some zombie right as I pass. At the end of the three-hour drive my teeth are clenched, shoulders stiff, eyes dry from watching for movement in the ditches.
The tension carries into the days with my family. It’s not a tension between us—my mother, father, brother, and I share meals, catch up after months apart, laugh together—but a tension emanating from land in distress. It’s also tension around finances. Ranchers across the Great Plains are dispersing cattle, seeing reduced livestock gains, running out of forage, and harvesting drastically less hay than usual, if any at all.1 My dad, a conventional farmer, put up a quarter of the hay he usually harvests over the summer. The wheat, oat, and corn crops are not great either. One afternoon, my mother, brother, and I drive to a pasture to make sure the cattle’s water tanks are full and functioning. The herd mopes around the water; a dead calf bloats nearby, a victim of dust pneumonia. The cows are skinnier than I have ever seen in our herd. The ash trees in the surrounding draws glow orange and yellow, absurdly beautiful in the otherwise bleak scene.
“This is a disaster,” I say, less a comment to my mother and brother and more an apology to the land.
That day, I long for the prairie that once was, a prairie I have never seen though I lived on a High Plains ranch for eighteen years. North America once had three types of prairies: tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass.2 The tallgrass prairie spanned the eastern edges of what is now the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas; most of Iowa and Illinois; and swaths of southwest Minnesota, northern Missouri, central Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Moving west, tallgrass fringed into mixed grass (a blend of tall and shortgrass species), which in turn gave way to shortgrass that stretched from western parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas across to the Rocky Mountains. All three prairies supported a complex array of animals, plants, and insects working together. Herbivores like buffalo, elk, pronghorn antelope, and white-tailed deer grazed the land, which encouraged plant diversity, removed dead growth, made space for species that preferred open ground (like the burrowing owl), fertilized and aerated soil, and supported predators like wolves and mountain lions.3 Prairie dogs constructed colonies of burrows, called towns, that sometimes stretched hundreds or thousands of square miles.4 They, too, foraged, mineralized, and created habitat and food sources for other species.
Buffalo were the prairie’s architects, though; in massive herds, they disturbed areas aggressively and then migrated on, usually not returning for a long time given their vast territory. This graze-hard-then-rest pattern allowed vegetation to grow back stronger, and also afforded habitat for species like the greater prairie chicken that require cover.5 Fire played a similar role and was especially crucial in controlling woody plants like eastern redcedar and sumac on tallgrass prairie that, given half a chance, reverted to forest.6 The dense, nutritious plant re-growth after fires attracted grazers. Knowing this, Indigenous tribes set fires to lure animals for hunting, and to regeneratively manage plant communities as needed.7 Natural and human-ignited fires reduced flammable material, known as the “fire load,” which prevented blazes from becoming overly large and hot.
But a more important benefit of disturbance occurred in the soil. So much aboveground pressure forced plants to create immense root systems to store energy, in the form of carbon, for recovery.8 That means the prairie was a “carbon sink,” or a landscape that stores more carbon than it emits. These roots also held the soil down, fed a lively biological community underground that enriched the earth, and helped the land absorb water during extreme weather events and hang on to it during droughts—resiliency embedded from the ground up.
Tallgrass prairie is functionally extinct, plowed up for agriculture and converted to cities. Just four percent of the original 170 million acres remain, mostly in small, scattered, and unprotected tracts, except for preserves in the Flint/Osage Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.9 About 30 percent of our mixed grass prairie 10 and 70 percent of our shortgrass prairie 11 are left, but in a degraded state. In a systemic genocidal campaign, white people massacred the Indigenous people who tended the land and forced survivors onto reservations.12 Whites exterminated the buffalo, wolves, and elk; almost eliminated many species like black-footed ferrets and mountain lions; and drove down countless other populations. They dammed rivers and creeks, limited animal movement with fences, and brought attitudes rooted in land domination, racism, and sexism.13 And they practiced conventional grazing, which now dominates the landscape. Conventional grazing typically means keeping livestock in large pastures for long durations. Unless encouraged to move, domestic livestock tend to repeatedly graze the same easy-to-reach areas, often near water. This clustering causes uneven fertilization, overgrazing in choice areas that weakens and eventually kills perennial plants and releases carbon, and too little grazing in other places so that dead growth accumulates and chokes out new growth, also killing plants.14 Such grazing shifts plant communities by reducing diversity and allowing introduced species like crested wheatgrass and smooth bromegrass to take over. The bottom line: our prairies are nowhere near the resilient carbon sinks they once were.
What I see out the pickup window, and what is considered “prairie” across much of the West, is a grassland ghost. An ecosystem broken not just by conventional grazing and farming, but also by a changing climate, racism, patriarchy, and a food system that demands artificial cheapness achieved through industrial practices. What I see is a society-wide failure. Imagine my excitement, then, when two days later I find myself driving and walking through pastures only two and a half hours away that are thick with forage and wildlife, managed by a female descendant of the prairie’s Native inhabitants.
This is a drought, I remind myself, running my fingers over green shoots poking through what is left of the summer’s trampled grass. I am on my hands and knees next to Kelsey Scott, fourth-generation rancher and member of the Lakota Sioux Nation, who explains the plants before us: their medicinal and ceremonial uses in Lakota culture, their value as livestock forage, their increasing health thanks to regenerative grazing. “This is plantain,” she says, fingering a cluster of green leaves (these are not the banana relative, by the way). Plantain leaves are edible in many preparations, but are especially useful for balms or salves, cough suppression, and digestion. “I believe I would have been one of the keepers of the plant nation if time was still of the teepee ages,” Kelsey says. “I really feel I would have been one of the observational scientists that existed across my tribal peoples, as we learned how to navigate the landscape and treat from the land and heal from the land and care for the land.”
Kelsey and I are at a pasture’s edge on the banks of Lake Oahe in South Dakota. The pasture is part of DX Ranch, a 7,000-acre cattle operation located mostly on tribal lands of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and managed by Kelsey in partnership with her husband and uncles. On this early afternoon, she wears a straw cowboy hat, geometric patterned blue button-down shirt, charcoal work pants designed for women with a cell phone pocket on the thigh, and worn, dust-colored cowboy boots. Her pecan-colored hair hangs in a low side braid. The lake glitters with sunlight, its azure hue almost matching the cloudless sky. Driving through the pasture to this spot, Kelsey pointed out a cluster of trees where tribal members perform the Sun Dance ceremony and a scaffold burial site on a hilltop. I feel humbled to be on this sacred land, aware of how white people figure into its history, cognizant of their brutal impact on Native people.15
Kelsey brought me to this lakeside pasture so I can see the results of regenerative rotational grazing. Before she and her family implemented rotational grazing, their cattle preferred the opposite side of this paddock, where the terrain is gentler. So the family divided the pasture into smaller sections, encouraging the cattle to graze evenly on all forage (like buck brush, a woody plant livestock can eat but avoid in favor of grass) rather than only what they enjoy most (like little bluestem, a nutritious native grass). The family uses a combination of permanent and semi-permanent electric fences to split pastures. The cattle evenly tramp down old growth, making way for the new grass Kelsey and I observe. “I’m so excited to see what the new growth looks like on this next spring, just because there’s finally clearance for new growth to come in,” Kelsey says, surveying the prairie. Regenerative ranchers call the whole process “disturbance,” or concentrated, short-term grazing similar to what the buffalo once did on North America’s grasslands, followed by long rest periods.
Kelsey, twenty-eight when I visit, is the mastermind behind many of the regenerative methods at DX Ranch. She returned home after graduating from South Dakota State University (where she was the first Native American student to deliver a commencement address) in 2015 with a BA in Range Science. She also holds a Master’s of Agriculture in Integrated Resource Management from Colorado State University and is continuing her education as a member of the first CREATE Coaching Cohort, an intensive regenerative agriculture coaching course offered by Integrity Soils. In addition to ranching, she works as Director of Programs for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, whose mission is to further the goal of improving Indian agriculture and promote the Indian use of Indian resources.
Kelsey’s holistic thinking stems not only from her education, but also from her Lakota heritage. What people call regenerative agriculture is really a collection of Indigenous and Afro-American practices and philosophies, a fact too often ignored—even by me in my first book on the subject. Native communities across North America, for instance, deployed agroforestry, permaculture, and intercropping to grow crops and livestock.16 Indigenous agriculture is a whole ecosystem approach that balances the needs of all life, Kelsey explains, with humans working in conjunction with nature rather than against or separate from it. “Humans are a part of this system and they always have been,” she said earlier that morning during a guest lecture to a group of law students that she delivered from her kitchen table as I listened in nearby. “We’ve been seed keepers, breeders, and pollinators as we’ve stewarded this land, as we’ve passed on Indigenous land management techniques and practices. We’ve been carbon and nutrient managers. We were herdsmen; we followed bison across the landscape. We managed fuel load, meaning we started intentional prescribed burns. There are Indigenous practices for brush management, for taking care in controlling burns that is now being re-explored as fire ecology in present day natural resource management. So these are practices that have existed on this landscape. This is innate knowledge that many of our native producers carry with them.”
Indigenous principles of reciprocity and working within the ecosystem inform Kelsey’s management, with a modern spin. She creates a series of life-giving disturbances.17 Buffalo-inspired rotational livestock grazing is only the beginning. The family uses no broad-spectrum pesticides or herbicides on the land, and no antibiotics, hormones, or insecticides on the livestock, all of which saves money and time and protects the environment. “We want to promote healthy dung beetle activity and expect our cattle to survive with a parasite load in this ecosystem, and not just mask inefficient animals,” Kelsey explains. If an animal becomes ill and cannot recover naturally, then the family treats it in a “sacrifice area,” a separate small pasture, so the medicine will not interfere with insects or soil biology on the rest of the ranch. DX Ranch cattle give birth in May rather than in blizzard-prone March or April as most conventional cattle do, which helps DX avoid livestock loss. The family strategically rotates mineral and salt across pastures to draw cattle to areas the herd might otherwise ignore, and they installed extra water tanks to enable more strategic grazing. They also practice sustainable hay harvesting by moving cattle across hayed ground in the coldest winter months when feeding bales is necessary (they graze on pasture most of the winter, though). The cattle replace soil nutrients lost to haying by fertilizing the ground and leaving some trampled hay behind, which acts as mulch and eventually decomposes into the soil. The family even “plants” native grass by mixing livestock-safe, non-biologically treated seeds into the cattle’s loose mineral. The animals excrete convenient fertilizer packets (i.e. cow patties) containing seeds that, when conditions are right, germinate and grow.
The fresh plant growth Kelsey and I observe is normal for fall here in South Dakota—temperatures dip and rains revive the prairie—but this year, in late September 2021, the renewal is unusual. This season neither the lower temperatures nor the rains came. The drought in some areas of South Dakota is worse than the driest years of the Dust Bowl.18 The DX Ranch caught a few fall showers, but nothing drought-easing. When I check the drought monitor online, I see that this year the reservation has faced severe or extreme drought since March.19 Yet on DX Ranch I witness prairie abundant with grass and forbs, so unlike the land I observed driving between Pierre and my family’s ranch. Some pastures Kelsey shows me were already grazed, but they appear untouched to my eye. “Realistically speaking, our past season’s management has prepared us for this,” Kelsey says when I ask about the drought’s impact on DX Ranch. “We’re not going to have as much gain on the cattle naturally, we’re not going to have as much standing forage left, all those things. But we’re going to have just as much hay this year as we did last year thanks to the stockpile forage we maintained from years past. It’s unique because we don’t feel the need to make management decisions for animals or forage we sell this fall specifically based on the drought or if the market is hot or not.”
Those ranchers across the West selling off their herds—many could have avoided that outcome with regenerative management. I feel empathy for those families; destocking or, worst case scenario, giving up the ranch are financial and psychological gut punches. Extreme weather is one reason the farmer suicide rate in America is soaring.20 Our changing climate promises more numerous severe and unusual events, such as floods, droughts, freezes, fires (not the healthy, controlled kind), hurricanes, temperature swings, and storms. Of course these things happened before climate change, but not with the frequency, intensity, and unpredictability we see now. Our prairies are in no shape to withstand such shocks, as ranchers are learning the hard way. Regenerative practices, though, build ecosystem resiliency so the land can better absorb the blows and ranchers are more likely to stay in business. Regenerative grazing is no silver bullet ensuring success. Some people still fail, just like people do in other occupations even when they do everything right. But we know conventional production is not working for the land or producers. Regenerative grazing can and does work—and it sequesters carbon to help slow the warming that causes weather extremes in the first place.21 Leaving the prairie empty with no human or animal involvement also is not an option. America’s prairies need short duration, high intensity impact from herbivores to thrive and, as Kelsey and other Native scholars point out, stewardship from people that began with Indigenous tribes. Just as overgrazing weakens the land, so does neglect.
Kelsey and I return to her pickup to tour more pastures. Just as we climb in—and I do mean climb, it’s a huge Ford F-150 crew cab truck—she points to the sky over the opposite ridge. “That’s interesting,” she says. “It’s a golden eagle pair.” I see their nut-brown bodies tilting against the aqua backdrop. “I’ve never seen them down on this point necessarily. So I have to imagine that the grazing clipped off enough so that they can hunt for the mice and rodents.” Another benefit of regenerative grazing: symbiotic ecological relationships between wildlife, land, and livestock that mimic the buffalo/prairie relationship, visible today in real time. Paying attention to wildlife patterns is another part of Kelsey’s regenerative philosophy, helping her know whether and how her actions are in balance with the land, just as her Lakota ancestors did. She gathers or makes note of bird feathers, for instance, to understand what species call her pastures home. The feathers also serve a cultural purpose for naming or honoring ceremonies, or to recognize another person’s achievement through the gift of a feather. “I kind of keep track of them from a year-to-year basis to be like, how often did we have eagles around shedding feathers? It’s like a management deal. The more consistently they’re out there hunting, the more consistently they’re going to leave evidence of it.” Sometimes the balance goes awry, though. When it comes to undesirable plants or wildlife, Kelsey again turns to ecosystem thinking to try to determine why Mother Nature filled a void with an unwanted species and how she might adjust her management, instead of reaching for a chemical solution. “We try really hard to wrap our mind around the idea that there’s no such thing as a pest, that every animal, every species has a role, and we just need to be better at training ourselves to interpret what that role is,” she says.
Reciprocity. Respect. Disturbance that regenerates. These guiding philosophies rooted in Indigenous ecology give the land before me the resilience of historical prairie. But that strength is rooted in more than management. There is another Native agricultural principle at work here: the valued role of women in food production.
Growing up in rural western South Dakota, I watched women like my mother work on farms and ranches. These women labored just as hard as their husbands. They put in a full day moving cattle or stacking bales, and then made dinner, cleaned the house, and put the kids to bed. They served as accountant, gardener, cook, errand-runner, and barnyard livestock tender. Although their work held the operation together, the dismissive term for these women was “farm wife.” In the white Western agricultural tradition, women have long done farm work, but only men claimed the title of “farmer” or “rancher,” and the farm typically belonged to men both on paper and in the minds of their peers. Land passed from father to son, often bypassing daughters. Women were understood as helpers or hobby farmers, not as real farmers or leaders.22
Other women worked in town to keep the farm’s finances afloat and secure health insurance, and then worked weekends and evenings with their husbands. Most of my farm friends’ moms lived this life back home. Willingly or unwillingly, they traded their on-farm hours for steady paychecks that covered seed, fuel, and livestock feed. They ended up in a double-bind: the women’s off-farm work further robbed them of the title “farmer” or “rancher,” but they could not fully dedicate themselves to their town careers (and thus earn complete legitimacy in the workplace) because they shared their energy with the farm. “Women have been invisible in this space for a long time, but they’ve been very much a part of the ag world,” says Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, Women for the Land Director at American Farmland Trust. “I still laugh when I talk to women who are like, ‘Oh, I’m not the farmer, that’s my husband, but I’ve been doing the farm books.’ In any other business if you did all of the accounting and finances, you would consider yourself a critical component of the business. But in agriculture, it’s different.”
Women managed to farm, but under social restrictions. Unmarried or queer female producers were rare, and those that were on the land often faced discrimination and outright hostility, unable to earn the title of “farmer” or “rancher.” Women and men alike who used organic or sustainable practices received even more scorn. Researchers have documented the social and institutional biases against female operators, especially as related to conservation.23 These social norms—the “farm wife” label, the unseen labor, the rejection for embracing sustainability—remain largely unchanged in industrial agriculture, a sector still controlled overwhelmingly by white men. After all, white men implemented settler colonialism, then built the post-colonial American agricultural system that became modern conventional production. They adapted European philosophies of control and extraction to the landscape, then applied industrial and capitalistic practices—economies of scale, mechanization, standardization, genetic engineering, chemical solutions. For most of this country’s history, men directed the federal and state agriculture programs and policies, the universities and private labs devoted to ag science, the countless businesses related to food, the land itself and the decision-making power over it.
Agriculture in its industrial form came to be about size, another distinctly male obsession. Bigger acreages, machines, yields, herds. Bigger loans to finance these must-haves. Agriculture also harnessed the familiar patriarchal concept of domination: of weeds, insects, and soil through chemicals, of farm workers through low wages and deportation threats, of larger producers over smaller ones, of uncontrollable weather and markets through industrialization. Capitalism drove the entire transformation—the profit-seeking, the exploitation, the zero-sum competition between farmers and their environments and between one another as producers. Industrial thinking is how we ended up with factory farmed animals, land consolidation and farm bankruptcy, hollowed out rural communities, agrochemical dependence, and widespread ecological devastation on and near agricultural lands. Meanwhile, widely documented systemic racism often pushed farmers of color, particularly Black farmers, out of agriculture or prevented them from entering altogether.24
Agriculture is not unique in its historic maleness or whiteness; most sectors of the American economy grew up without women or people of color, and now welcome them or try to. Given its deep patriarchal roots and notorious resistance to change, though, agriculture is one of the last frontiers of gender and race integration—but the tide is turning. Kelsey is part of a growing movement of women into regenerative agriculture, a life-giving disturbance within the industry. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, beginning farmers—people who’ve farmed ten years or fewer—accounted for 27 percent of the country’s 3.4 million producers.25 Of those beginning producers, 41 percent are women.26 That’s higher than the percentage of women farmers overall, 36 percent—a figure itself up from 30 percent in 2012.27 A new census format accounts for some of the female increase—respondents could list more people involved with farm decisions in 2017 than in 2012, which meant more women (and producers generally) were counted—but leaders in food and farming say the modified question only partially explains the rise. “The movement is much louder and broader than the data indicates,” says Lisa Kivirist, Director of the Soil Sisters project with Renewing the Countryside and author of Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers. “Climate change has really motivated women, I think, in ways that in reality are only going to increase, because none of this is going away.”
This “green wave” of female leaders is diverse in age, ethnicity, crop and business type, geographic region, sexual orientation, and personal background. “The next generation of farms, if you look at the demographics, those tend to be younger farmers, women farmers, and women who identify as BIPOC, who are leading that edge for the next generation,” Roesch-McNally says. “Women are leading in this space of regenerative agriculture, and not just from a land perspective but in thinking holistically, in that they’re thinking about community resilience and farmland resilience.” More women in regenerative ag does not mean men are not doing regenerative work—many are—but a diverse female presence distinguishes regenerative from industrial food, which is largely controlled by white men and has been for generations.
Dr. Kathryn Brasier, Professor of Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, sees the rise as a confluence of better data-gathering, society-wide female empowerment, and a heightened interest in food and conservation. “One reason [for the increase] is, in general, women being more active in the workforce writ large. They’re increasingly doing work that historically has been seen as men’s work and increasingly claiming those titles,” Brasier says. “Even if they’re a partner on the farm, the act of saying ‘I’m a partner’ versus ‘I’m a farmer’ is a big step for a lot of women. So I think it’s both material and symbolic in the ways that those numbers are increasing.” Plus, the Census of Agriculture is not a perfect reflection of America’s farmers. The survey often fails to count the types of farms many women run. These under-counted farms tend to be non-traditional in size, crop type, and location, and also more focused on sustainability, operational traits particularly common among farmers of color. “[The Censuses of Agriculture] tend to miss urban and they tend to miss small, which African American and Latinx farmers are going to be more in that space,” Brasier added.
That’s another way Kelsey embodies America’s changing farmer: she’s a woman of color. Of the nation’s beginning farmers, just over 9 percent identify as Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, Black, Native Hawaiian, or more than one race, compared to 7.5 percent total representation for the same groups among total U.S. farmers.28 Admittedly, the race and ethnicity difference between beginning and total producers (9 percent versus 7.5) is not as pronounced as the gender difference (41 percent versus 36). America still has a long way to go in acknowledging and resolving agricultural racism, even within the regenerative community.29 Still, the changing demographics may foreshadow a return to the original diversity of land stewardship from the 1400s and earlier.
Women played a central role in Indigenous foodways and ecology. Native societies tended to be far more egalitarian generally, with women holding leadership positions and enjoying mutual respect with men.30 In this way, “new” is not entirely accurate to describe Kelsey, since in truth she is part of a long legacy of empowered Lakota women. “I like to claim to be of the 125th generation to steward the land on the Great Plains, being a tribal descendant of the Lakota Nation,” Kelsey says. “I come from a long line of land stewards on both sides of my family.” She cites inspirational women in her family, such as her aunt Collette, a talented horsewoman; her aunt Lisa, who tragically passed away in an ATV accident while checking cattle; her aunt Lori, whose love is in feeding people, the centerpiece for most of the ranch’s gatherings; and her late grandmother Regina, who Kelsey says was “the essence of the ranch” and “what bound the family together.”
“I feel like I learned a lot from watching Granny and my mom interact growing up on the ranch. I apply these teachings every single day in being a woman with responsibility on the ranch,” Kelsey reflected. “And they’re just the women I was exposed to. I know the farther back we go, the more amazing female leaders we find.” Like Kelsey’s great-grandmother Babe (Claymore) Ducheneaux, who spearheaded the campaign to incorporate the Lakota word “oahe,” meaning foundation or something to stand upon, into the name for the lake Kelsey and I overlook as we talk. “I wouldn’t be as effective at doing what I do had it not been for what these women have taught me. But most of them never once called themselves a rancher, not even Granny, who lived on the ranch until her late 70s. She would have definitely called herself a rancher’s wife.”
Even though Kelsey sees “rancher’s wife” as empowering terminology based on how her grandmother lived the role, she also calls herself “rancher,” and not just because she’s formally educated as one. Kelsey is an equal decision-making and financial partner with her husband and uncles who also operate DX Ranch. She’s a respected leader, sharing regenerative ag information with the community and connecting tribal producers with resources. Taken together, these traits make her very different from many women connected to industrial agriculture in the past and present. Kelsey is also finding opportunities to take land stewardship a step further: in 2017 she launched DX Beef, the ranch’s direct to consumer beef business, because “Quite frankly, I don’t feel like just managing the grass is good enough, because it’s not helping to heal the food system. [Ranching] is really, really gratifying work, but it can be very disheartening the day that you drop your cattle off at the sale barn to be sold to the industry; you don’t know who, you don’t know where, and you don’t know how they’ll be treated,” she says. “And then it’s even more discouraging to drive home from the sale barn on your first sale day as a cattle producer, and you just drive by home after home facing food insecurity. That’s where DX Beef started, was wanting to give my cattle the just life that I thought they deserved. They deserve to feed local people, and I wanted to be able to feel good about what I was raising cattle for. I wanted to know that I felt good eating the products that I was raising, and that my community members would be a little more connected with their food source.”
Feeding the community is not typically on most beef producers’ minds. Big Ag and even the federal government under certain administrations command ranchers to “feed the world,” not the neighbors. Just four massive companies control 82 percent of the U.S. beef market.31 These meatpackers—JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and National Beef Packing Company—usually don’t buy animals from ranchers at sale barns. Instead, the companies contract with private feedlots to buy slaughter-weight animals. The meatpackers use their monopoly to set low purchase prices. These private feedlots purchase cattle at sale barns or right off the ranch, but for prices at which they can still stay in business. Because the meatpackers contract to buy finished animals at such low prices, a feedlot buyer’s hands are tied when it comes to what they can pay ranchers. Similar monopolies and price-fixing occur with hogs and chickens. Because of the consolidation, ranchers have virtually no choice but to sell their livestock into this system. Slaughterhouses combine the meat and circulate it nationwide, which means ranchers cannot trace where their products end up or who buys them.
Not so at DX Beef. Kelsey markets her beef directly to consumers via farmers’ markets in Eagle Butte and Rapid City and through an online store. Customers can buy by the pound or in bulk. She knows many of her clients personally. Offering the Lakota community access to high-quality, affordable meat—a historic dietary staple for Plains tribes as she reminds me—is a key part of her regenerative outlook, as is her dedication to restoring the consumer-food relationship. “It’s not my goal for the whole world to be eating DX Beef; it’s my goal for the whole world to be knowledgeable about a connection with their food and knowledgeable about where their food comes from,” she says. Operating this way means DX Beef contributes to building an alternative, regenerative food system for the local and regional community.
The diversity and expertise that people like Kelsey bring to the table strengthen the food system as well, says Dr. Kathryn Brasier. How women and men deploy regenerative practices may not be radically different, but “how [women] learn [agriculture], how they take that and become creative with it, will be different based on the kinds of experiences they’ve had, the socialization they’ve grown up with, the networks and relationships which they are part of,” Brasier says. “All of that is a little bit different based on who you are, and that’s also by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality. The more creativity we can have, the more likely we are to come up with solutions to some of these tough problems.”
The stakes are incredibly high. Industrial food is untenable in a changed climate, and arguably was well before we understood how quickly our planet is warming. But we have a choice: we can create a genuinely regenerative food system instead, one that not only functions sustainably but also harnesses the perspectives, creativity, and talents of the whole population, of people like Kelsey. Disturbance, I am learning, may be the key. If we meet climate disturbance with disturbance to the agricultural status quo, then we stand a chance at feeding ourselves on a hotter, more erratic planet.
Stephanie Anderson holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University, where for six years she taught literature, creative writing, and composition. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Hotel Amerika, Terrain.org, The Chronicle Review, Sweet and others. Her second book on regenerative agriculture, From the Ground Up: The Women Revolutionizing Regenerative Agriculture, is forthcoming with The New Press in 2024. Stephanie is the 2020 winner of the Margolis Award for social justice journalism, and she serves as a series editor for University of Nebraska Press’ forthcoming Our Regenerative Future book series. Her debut nonfiction book, One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture, won a 2020 Nautilus Award and 2019 Midwest Book Award.
Guest Judge: Debra Marquart, a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University, teaches in ISU’s interdisciplinary MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment. The Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa, Marquart also teaches in the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. Marquart is the Senior Editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment. A memoirist, poet, and performing musician, Marquart is the author of eight books including an environmental memoir of place, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere and a collection of poems, Small Buried Things: Poems. Marquart’s most recent books are The Night We Landed on the Moon: Essays Between Exile & Belonging (2021) and Gratitude with Dogs Under Stars: New & Collected Poems (2023).
- Whipple, Tom, “‘The Worst Thing I Can Remember:’ How Drought is Crushing Ranchers,” The New York Times, Aug. 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/climate/drought-cattle.html. ↩︎
- World Rangeland Learning Experience (WRANGLE), “North American Short Grass Prairie,” https://wrangle.org/ecotype/north-american-short-grass-prairie. ↩︎
- Interview with John Blair, Director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, June 11, 2021. ↩︎
- Jonathan Proctor, Bill Haskins, and Steve C. Forrest, “Focal Areas for Conservation of Prairie Dogs and the Grassland Ecosystem,” in Conservation of the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, 236. ↩︎
- Interview with Kelsey Scott, Director of Programs for Intertribal Agriculture Council, September 28, 2021. ↩︎
- Interview with John Blair, Director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, June 11, 2021. ↩︎
- Christopher I. Roosa, María Nieves Zedeñob , Kacy L. Hollenbacka , and Mary M. H. Erlick, “Indigenous impacts on North American Great Plains fire regimes of the past millennium,” PNAS, Vol. 115, No. 32, July 23, 2018, https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1805259115. ↩︎
- Liz Carlisle, Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming, Island Press, 2022, 20-21. ↩︎
- National Park Service, “Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie,” https://www.nps.gov/tapr/index.htm. ↩︎
- World Rangeland Learning Experience (WRANGLE), “North American Mixed Grass Prairie,” https://wrangle.org/ecotype/north-american-mixed-grass-prairie. ↩︎
- World Rangeland Learning Experience (WRANGLE), “North American Short Grass Prairie,” https://wrangle.org/ecotype/north-american-short-grass-prairie. ↩︎
- Gary Clayton Anderson, Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America, University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. ↩︎
- Carolyn E. Sachs, Mary E. Barbercheck, Kathryn J. Brasier, Nancy Ellen Kiernan, and Anna Rachel Terman, The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, University of Iowa Press, 2016. ↩︎
- National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska, “How Can Overgrazing Leave Grass Vulnerable to Drought?”, https://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan/DroughtBasics/GrazingandDrought/OvergrazingandDrought.aspx. ↩︎
- This is not to say I, as a white woman, can fully understand the Indigenous experience or the full history of settler colonialism. Or to suggest white people are not still complicit in oppression of Native people. I mean to convey humility in being allowed to the reservation and the chance to learn from people like Kelsey. ↩︎
- Tracy Heim, “The Indigenous Origins of Regenerative Agriculture,” National Farmers Union, October 12, 2020, https://nfu.org/2020/10/12/the-indigenous-origins-of-regenerative-agriculture/. ↩︎
- For more thoughts on the Indigenous philosophy of reciprocity, read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. ↩︎
- South Dakota State University, “Drought Worse Than Dust Bowl Years for Some in S.D.,” https://www.farmprogress.com/story-drought-worse-dust-bowl-years-sd-9-63200. ↩︎
- U.S. Drought Monitor, https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/. ↩︎
- Katie Wedell, Lucille Sherman, and Sky Chadde, “Seeds of Despair,” USA Today, March 9, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2020/03/09/climate-tariffs-debt-and-isolation-drive-somefarmers- suicide/4955865002/. ↩︎
- Ronnie Cummins and Andre Leu, “Regenerative Grazing–Increased Production, Biodiversity Resilience, Profits and a Climate Change Solution,” Regeneration International, March 29, 2021, https://regenerationinternational.org/2021/03/29/regenerative-grazing-increased-production-biodiversity-resilienceprofits- and-a-climate-change-solution/. ↩︎
- Sachs, Carolyn, et. al, The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, University of Iowa Press, 2016. ↩︎
- Angie Carter, “‘We Don’t Equal Even Just One Man’: Gender and Social Control in Conservation Adoption,” Society and Natural Resources, Volume 32, Issue 8, April 3, 2019, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08941920.2019.1584657?journalCode=usnr20. ↩︎
- Megan Horst and Amy Marion, “Racial, ethnic and gender inequities in farmland ownership and farming in the U.S.,” Agriculture and Human Values, Volume 36, October 28, 2018, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10460-018-9883-3. See also “How USDA Distorted Data to Conceal Decades of Discrimination Against Black Farmers” by Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki in The Counter, June 26, 2019, https://thecounter.org/usda-black-farmers-discrimination-tom-vilsack-reparations-civil-rights/. ↩︎
- USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, “New and Beginning Producers,” https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2020/census-beginning%20-farmers.pdf. ↩︎
- USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, “Farm Producers,” https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2019/2017Census_Farm_Producers.pdf ↩︎
- USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, “Female Producers,” https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2019/2017Census_Female_Producers.pdf ↩︎
- USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, “New and Beginning Producers,” https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2020/census-beginning%20-farmers.pdf. ↩︎
- Gosia Wozniacka, “Does Regenerative Agriculture Have a Race Problem?”, Civil Eats, January 5, 2021, https://civileats.com/2021/01/05/does-regenerative-agriculture-have-a-race-problem/. ↩︎
- Interview with A-dae Romero-Briones, Director of Programs – Native Agriculture and Food Systems for First Nations, May 24, 2021. See also Native Land Information System’s “Women’s Representation in Agriculture Greater Among Native Americans,” https://nativeland.info/blog/uncategorized/women-representation-inagriculture/. ↩︎
- Brian Deese, Sameera Fazili, and Bharat Ramamurti, “Addressing Concentration in the Meat-Processing Industry to Lower Prices for American Families,” September 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefingroom/ blog/2021/09/08/addressing-concentration-in-the-meat-processing-industry-to-lower-food-prices-foramerican-families/. ↩︎
The Regeneration Literary Contest is sponsored by I-Regen. I Regen fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture. Originally called the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and sponsored in 2020 by Fresh Taste, the Initiative was renewed and renamed in 2023 with funding by the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund (MRAF). I-Regen is a partnership between the Department of Crop Sciences, the College of ACES, U of I Extension, and iSEE.