AoR 27: Nicole Masters, For the Love of Soil

Regenerative agriculture has gained popularity in response to concerns about the long-term effects of various agrochemical inputs we use on a variety of landscapes as well as the growing recognition of the complexity and sheer volume of microbial life in the soil-plant interface and below. Nicole discusses the origins of her book For the Love of Soil and some possible conclusions for building up soil health on rangelands. 


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>> Welcome to The Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest today on The Art of Range is Nicole Masters. Nicole recently -- very recently published a book on soil health called "For The Love of Soil". I was introduced to Nicole through Jesse Bessard [assumed spelling], a mutual friend who does creative media and marketing, and actually runs a ranch in eastern Oregon. She recommended to me Nicole's book on soil health. I haven't finished it yet, but I've read enough to be hooked, and wanted to talk about it. Nicole, welcome to the show.

>> Great. Thanks for having me, Tip.

>> I know from having read the introduction to the book that you're not from around here originally. Who are you, and how did you get interested in soil health?

>> So as listeners might pick up, I don't speak with an American accent. I'm originally from New Zealand. I've been involved in what we're terming regenerative agriculture, I guess, for over 20 years. I actually went to university to study to be a great white shark researcher, and in that process, you know, you have to learn about cell biology. And I did an ecology degree, so we had to learn about plants. And I discovered soil through that process, and it just kind of lit a fire that's never really turned off. So yeah, I've been working throughout New Zealand, and Australia, and Canada, and the U.S., North America probably since 2013, and there's something about these landscapes and -- that just -- yeah, that just really sings to me.

>> Yeah. If I could jump in there, before you talk about how you got interested in soil health, one of the comments that Nathan Sayre made in his book, "Politics of Scale, A History of Range Science" was that rangelands are maybe more like oceans than anything else we could conceive of, in terms of drawing an analogy. You have these massive, massive landscapes with, you know, really complex essentially wild ecosystems, and we're trying to harvest, you know, just enough of that to make a living, you know, converting plant material into beef, or lamb, or whatever. So I think it's interesting that you were originally interested in things like ocean biology. And the other connection that I think is maybe not too far off -- I have a friend, Don Llewellyn, who's been on the podcast before, who is a ruminant nutritionist. And he has described the rumen ecosystem, they call it now, because there's so many organisms and different kinds of organisms in there, like the ocean. In fact, one of the -- he's got a scanning electron microscope photograph of what looks like, you know, kind of a whale-shaped microorganism, and it's got some other microorganism riding on its back, catching a ride. The big one, the whale, is -- looks like it's on the way to eating something else, but that, according to him, fairly accurately captures what's going on in the rumen. And many people have also likened the microbiological community in the rumen to what exists in the soil, in terms of the diversity, and the number of organisms. You know, Don would say that there are over a billion individual organisms in a single milliliter of rumen fluid, and I think something similar has been said about, you know, say a cubic centimeter of soil. So I think there are some connections there.

>> Yeah, and I often help people sort of think about those connections in soil, in terms of human nutrition, and gut function, and microbiome. And what's really interesting is just the connections that we're finding between human health, the gut microbiome, soil microbiology, and that plant gut microbiome. And what's exciting is just to see the breakthroughs that we're seeing, in terms of human health, because so many of the gut microbiome breakthroughs are reflected in what we're seeing in the soil. And what's really interesting is, some of these organisms that they're seeing are so important for human health are also essential soil microorganisms. So it's almost like there's no separation, really, between often how our cells function, and how soils function, or ruminant functions. And I think the more you delve into it, if, you know, you have a particular interest maybe in human health or soil health, you start to see these correlations and these connections, and go, "Oh, wow, the pattern's actually the same."

>> Right. How did you originally get interested in soil health?

>> I moved back to my father's property. So I majored in soil science, and I did that really intelligent thing where you leave university, and you get -- I -- well, not you, but women get pregnant. And so, I ended up being a single parent in a rural community, and found it really hard to find any work. It's not easy, you know, when you've got a young child to kind of find work. And my father actually helped me out, and we brought a worm farm -- it was called a deceased worm farm estate. We found this advert in a paper, and so, I started to make really top-quality worm extracts of vermicast that I was selling to orchardists, pastoral guys, and what I suspect were marijuana growers, but I can't say that for sure. So I was selling a lot of vermicast to hydroponic stores, because their particular growers understand the value of worm castings. And when you get down into the microbiology of it, and look what comes out of a worm's butt, I call it the elixir of life. So all the microbiology that a plant needs for health, hormones, different types of enzymes, just an absolute multitude of benefits that comes out of a worm. It's like it's perfectly designed for optimal plant health. So I learned a lot about how to create the optimal worm casting for whatever particular situation it might be. Like, that might be to grow strawberries, or for us, we were growing avocados. And yeah, so I learned a lot through that process, and it's just been an ongoing evolution of what is it that this particular soil needs. And what you'll find is from the people that I work with in North America -- pretty much all of them now have large-scale worm farms, because there's things that we can really harness through that process of quorum sensing -- I don't know if you've heard about quorum sensing, but there's this idea of switching biology on or off. And what we see in a lot of rangeland is a lot of these biological systems are basically gone to sleep. I call them constipated, like if we go back to that idea of the soil being like a stomach. Then constipation is what's happening out there. So a lot of nutrients that are just locked up. We have -- you know, you might have bare ground. We're not seeing optimal resilience and recovery, and a big part of that is because of this biological signaling.

>> Right. I read somewhere recently that -- I don't know if this is exactly the same thing that you're talking about, in terms of epigenetics, genes that do certain things, switching on and off. This sounds more like in an entire ecosystem, things that get switched on and off, rather than genetically inside the organism. But something that I was reading said that epigenetics explains some of why certain elements of ancient Chinese medicine is -- can be effective, not because the thing itself is effective, but because it stimulates something to happen in the body genetically that wasn't happening before.

>> And they're actually using quorum sensing to explain some of that Chinese medicine, but if you're thinking about epigenetics, which is the expression of a gene, that is given by the protein sheath. And that protein sheath responds to signals. So these signaling proteins are part of what creates gene expression, and, you know, we've been very much focused on DNA. And, you know, you now can get tests done to see do you have the genetic -- let's say this kind of cancer, or these kind of issues. Does it run in your bloodlines? And what they're finding is that only .1% of things that we see expressed in our body actually come from the DNA. It's the 99.9% that comes from the proteins that actually switches on DNA expression or not. So that's the science of epigenetics, and that's certainly what we see through working with soil, and working with animal health, is that you can influence that epigenetic response in livestock. And we see that as we're lifting biological function, we're actually lifting the quality and health of animals. So some of the things we see might be an increase in the fine micron of wool, for instance. Animal behavioral traits, good mothering abilities -- some of these things that maybe have been bred out through that focus, maybe, on one aspect or another, that actually, through epigenetics, through that expression of the environment, you get, you know, an animal that's locally adapted for Montana. And someone brings an Angus up from Texas, and finds they just don't do well here, because of their ability to adapt to their environment. But the quorum sensing actually comes down to, you know, every single cell has 100,000 different receptors on the outside of those cells, and they are waiting for different types of signals. And so, those cells are the same in our body, or you think about bacteria, or protozoa, or soil organisms. They don't have eyes and ears. They just have these signaling receptors. So it's -- how do we enhance that signaling process to really enliven and waken soils up?

>> Yeah, I'd like to go back to a word you used earlier. You talked about regenerative agriculture. How would you say regenerative agriculture is different from sustainable agriculture? You know, sustainable is a word that's been around for a while, for long enough, and used widely enough that, you know, eventually it becomes a buzzword that has almost no meaning, or becomes almost a tautology. You know, that which persists is, by definition, sustainable, and I think my guess is that part of the need for a new word to describe what people probably originally meant by sustainable comes from, you know, kind of a rejection of that circular logic. How -- what -- how -- what would you say regenerative agriculture means?

>> Well, I think if you look at the root word for what sustainable means, it means literally to sustain, which means to maintain the same. And I think it was a pretty low benchmark, and I think particularly where people started out, there was this grand vision, I guess, to, you know, really get systems functional. But now, if you look at all the big ag chemical companies, and the big franchised food companies, even the meat companies, they all talk about, you know, sustainable beef, or sustainable agriculture. So it's been effectively green-washed, because it's lost any meaning. Whereas regenerate really calls forth -- are we enlivening? Are we bringing more life to? Are we restoring cycles -- so water cycles, carbon. Are we more -- are we bringing more profitability and wellness to any operation? So it's a very broad term. I mean, I think it goes much further than just agriculture, but it's a call for -- are the outcomes that you're producing on your piece of land -- are you improving those over time? And we were talking before we started to record, and just talking about how, you know, really improving function on rangeland -- we can be starting at a very, very low base. I mean, I'm working on quite a few ranches that were, you know, part of that 1930s dust storm, and they're still basically all blow dirt. And it's like, okay, even if we just get a few more plants, we're actually regenerating. We're actually starting to get that system functioning. So it's a process. It's a journey. There's no end to this journey. You know, I'm working on operations that are -- you know, they're very profitable. They are high production, and very low input, and just have a system that really starts to -- what we call create this process of syntropy, so that that system really starts to generate itself.

>> Right. There's been a lot of interest in the last -- I'd probably say 20 years in soil health coming from, you know, all different angles. Most people are aware that 2015 was the UN's International Year of Soil, which was an attempt to bring attention to the importance of soil health, and some of the things that the UN identified as results of soil health, or reasons why soil health is important is food security, which seems fairly obvious. If you don't have soil, you can't produce food. The economies of agricultural communities that depend on soil and food, even climate stability -- you mention in the book that soils are a gigantic sink for carbon, maybe even bigger than we've given them credit for. And therefore are not just responsible for mitigating for global warming, but also for just general climate stability. Poverty alleviation and sustainable development are the other two things that the UN said were important. Why would you say soil health is important adding to those things, or elaborating on some of those?

>> Yeah, I guess this comes back to what got me hooked about soil in the first place, and I think it's -- everything comes back to soil, absolutely everything. And I think that's -- and it's not political, as well. You know, it comes back to -- what are you passionate about? Is it human health? Is it sedimentation in the waterways? Is it fishery beds? Is it greenhouse gases? And, you know, I think there's a different aspect to soil health that appeals to everybody on the planet, you know, and I think it's easy to maybe forget about it, living in the cities. But what they're seeing is that, actually, that disassociation from soil is actually having an impact on human health of people in the cities. Because they're not being exposed to this microbial community that actually is what builds resilience. You know, there was a new bacteria that's discovered that they're looking at developing as a vaccine for PTSD that comes out of the soil. You know, this disassociation is part of that contribution to the decline in human health. So I think there's so many different aspects for it, and if you look at what's happening in Australia, for instance, which is pretty horrible at the moment -- but, you know, there's banks that will actually lend money to farmers based on their soil carbon. You know, they see that, as we -- as you build soil health, it actually has a linear relationship with profitability. You know, and it's a big part of what we see in a lot of rangeland and croplands, is that decline in soil health now means that there's very small profit margins in what's happening globally.

>> I realize we're -- we didn't set out to do an interview on human health, but your comment about the connection to soil and humans made me think of some research that I was doing a while back actually in response to some allergy problems that one of my sons was having. And I ran across a report from a big longitudinal study, and I can't remember where it was published. But one of the objectives of the study was to determine, you know, what are some of the possible causes for the massive increase in these systemic, you know, diseases or syndromes in humans -- allergies, autism, you know, you name it, just seemingly a general decline in immune system effectiveness. And one of the conclusions of the study was that there are so many people who almost never have bodily contact with soil that their bodies aren't picking up the beneficial organisms that populate their gut, that allow them to have -- to mount a healthy immune response. And that it was -- one of the major contributing factors is children not ever contacting soil, you know. So we have this germophobe craze, where people are disinfecting everything under the sun, and doctors are starting to say, "Don't disinfect everything. You know, you need to be exposed to stuff that comes from other people, that comes from the soil in order for your body to generate any kind of immune response." And the other thing that the study mentioned was that the gut microbiome is now being considered almost like a second brain, because there's so many functions of the human body that are connected to the microorganisms that are in our gut, which you mentioned already. But this lack of connection to the soil, having, you know, a massive and massively expensive effect on human health, especially where people are concentrated in cities, seems like a pretty big deal.

>> Yeah. So they term it the farm effect, and so, that impact on being exposed to soil, and animals, and how that actually contributes to the type of microbiology that you have, and the diversity of microbiology that you have. They're actually saying that the gut now is the primary brain. So the -- everything gets processed through the gut first, and that actually signals to the brain second. And they've tracked this in the body, and looking at actually the primary signals coming from the gut. So that idea of listen to your gut -- you should do that, because it [laughter] -- that first instinctual primal response is actually more likely to be correct than when we start getting into our linear overthinking. But yeah, they're saying that over 80% of our health disorders are directly related to gut function, and the American gut is in some trouble [laughter]. And I think we can say that American soil is in trouble as well. So there's this whole inner and outer landscape, you know. Actually, we've -- you know, we feel like we're separated from nature, but, you know, we are nature. There is no separation, but we are physically separating ourselves from it. And then -- now we see this cascading of human health issues, and soil health issues from not considering, you know, holistic, whole systems, and healthy function.

>> Yeah. I'm going to indulge myself in a really speculative question that just came to mind. It seems like modern farming with an emphasis on frequent tillage, use of chemical fertilizers and chemicals to control every kind of pest on nearly any crop started sometime after World War II. And I'm wondering if -- I realize this is not how experimental science works, but Temple Grandin says that we should identify things that seem to be correlated, and then try to tease out causation. I'm wondering whether the increase in some of these, you know, body system-wide autoimmune failures started increasing about the same time that modern farming took off. I realize these are, you know -- people don't like to talk about controversial ideas, but how would you describe -- one, do you think that there's a correlation there, even if there's not causation? And then, how is modern farming hard on soil?

>> I don't think it's particularly controversial. I think the causal -- there are both indirect and direct responses to human health from how food is grown. And there's -- you know, you talk about tillage, or agrichemicals, or the drenches, or -- all of the things that really make up modern agriculture have worked to decline the nutrient density in food, and have worked to reduce the amount of food diversity that people are eating. And also, we now have a toxic loading in our food, and not just in our food, but also, we are -- like here in the U.S., you guys have herbicides in your water. You have it in the rainfall. You have it -- pretty much in everything that people are consuming has chemical soup attached to it. And it was interesting -- I was talking to some cropping guys that were up on the high-line of Montana, and we were talking about the smell of rain, and, you know, that I love that smell of rain. And it's really interesting. We can actually smell that smell, because it's called geosmin, or petrichor. We can smell that at, like, you know, five million times stronger than what a shark can smell a drop of blood in water. Like, we have this huge, amazing capacity to smell that, and nobody knows why. But those organisms that come up off that smell are actually really important for our own health and well-being. And so, I was talking to these guys about the smell of rain, and they said, "No, it doesn't smell like that up here. What it smells like is herbicides." So what's coming down -- it was terrifying, actually, and the fact that they even knew -- oh, that's what that smell is.

>> Right.

>> It's actually literally -- and so, organic producers up in Montana can't export to European markets because their produce is contaminated with herbicides.

>> Rain, right.

>> Right, in the rain, right. And so -- and dust, and things like that. So I think -- I think we're really reaching a point of crisis and awakening, because people are like, "You know what? That doesn't belong in the food, and, you know, I'm seeing these issues with my children. You know, and that might be autism, or, you know, cancers, or whatever," and going -- and asking those questions of why is this starting to happen. And, I mean, I really see this as a wonderful opportunity, because it's starting to make people question -- how are we growing food? And instead of having organic labeling that says "I don't have these things," what I'd like to see is a label that says "this product contains six fungicides, two neonicotinoids, and, you know, five herbicides," so that people could actually choose their food based on -- actually, was this grown considering that it was food, or was it grown because this is, you know, what the chemical treadmill is putting farmers on?

>> Mm-hmm.

>> That's controversy for you [laughter].

>> Well, what are the -- I want to drill down into some of the effects of modern farming practices on soil health in particular. You know, we hear that tillage is hard on soil microorganisms. One of the areas that I'm interested in is the tall grass prairie. There's not much of it left, but it was one of the most diverse, you know, grassland plant communities, ecosystems in the -- in North America, and much of it is gone. And I'm not even sure we could get it back exactly the way it was, because of what happens when you, you know, deep plow an ecosystem like that. What are the effects of tillage on soil microorganisms?

>> Yeah, so if you look specifically at tillage, which maybe for many ranches, that's not so high on their activity list -- but one of the things that it does is, it destroys aggregate stability. So that's talking about your crumb structure. So it collapses those, and what you're really collapsing is the homes, the schools, the hospital, and the bar, basically, of that whole microbial community. So you think about what happens in small towns when we lose the school, we lose the hospital, or, you know, gosh forbid that we lose the bar. Entire communities actually leave. You know, there's no buildings for them to be -- to sit in, and also, as we lose aggregate stability, we lose -- you know, your nitrogen cycle falls apart, because a big part of that nitrogen cycle is having those crumbs. You know, and if we're coming through and chopping things up, obviously that's hugely disturbing, and the main organism that we see leave very quickly in that situation is your fungi. And fungi are vital for yield, for resilience, for water holding capacity, for nutrients supplied to the plants, and fungi are actually what hold a soil together, to stop it blowing away. And so, what we see is, if you do anything to really disturb and harm those fungal populations, what we see is soil losses. So across the U.S. right now, you guys -- your biggest export in the U.S. is soil, continues to be soil, and you lose about 6.7 billion tons of topsoil per year. And a big part of that is because fungi are not active. Fungi have been disrupted, and they'll be disrupted by pretty much everything in our modern farming arsenal. So, you know, your herbicides, your fungicides, your -- the use of soluble phosphate fertilizers -- all of those. Overgrazing, for instance -- overgrazing will take them out, and so, we're just -- we're losing what actually holds soil, and holds the fabric of society together through those farming practices.

>> Yeah, that leads me to an application question. Maybe we'll just run some of those as we go here. There are some ranches that still periodically till or plow level soils that aren't too rocky to plant new grasses, you know, in a stand that they would say has gotten tired, and isn't producing as well. Or they do it to try to recover an area that, you know, has mostly weeds and annual grasses, to put something back in. How long would it take, do you think, to recover some kind of a healthy soil after it's been plowed, and how would -- is there a way that a person can go about that, besides just letting it go?

>> Yeah, so that's a little bit of a piece of "how long is the piece of string" question. So it depends on how degraded an environment is, but, you know, the process for regenerative thinking is to really ask those "why" questions. Like, why is it tired, or why are we seeing weeds? And why are we seeing annual grasses, or poor persistence? And actually addressing the issue at those root causes. So there's, in my mind, no need to come in and be cultivating, because we need to actually address the root cause. Otherwise, you're just going to end up with more of the same problem, and so, by cultivating, we actually create the conditions for more annual grasses, and more weeds, and poorer persistence. And so, what we see is people kind of jump for those, you know, quick kind of fixes, but those quick-fixes often create more issues in the long term. And so, we get interested in that, and then, how long does it take -- I mean, I think to restore a fully intact tall-grass prairie, it's going to take a while. Obviously, perennials are going to be later in that process than your annual grasses, but we're certainly seeing some really interesting phenomenon in terms of seed bank germination, and seeing what were considered locally-extinct grasses coming back into ecosystems. And that process is happening within one or two years. So that's been incredibly exciting for me, and one of these processes that's an outcome of this quorum signaling is how do we switch soils on. Because that seed bank is still there.

>> Right. My family has a ranch in northern Arkansas, and my brother found that after maybe two or three years of grazing in a different way than they had done before, we had a little bluestem moving back into places where it had not been seen in probably 30 or 40 years.

>> Yeah.

>> And I don't know whether that's a -- you know, just allowing it to be expressed. I think we see something similar on old field succession on rangelands. There's a number of places in central Washington, you know, in the 10 to 14-inch rainfall zone that got plowed under and planted to wheat back in the 1950s, and they got taken back here -- they were either abandoned or planted to something else, say, in the '70s. And it was between 20 and 30 years, depending on the site, before those fields that got planted back to improved -- you know, so-called improved perennial grasses began to show any kind of diversity, where you begin to have some lupines and other forms moving in, and then eventually some shrubs. But that, on its own -- that successional process took about 20 years, and I'm curious whether that was a change in the quality of the soil that allowed those new plants to move in. Because the seed source is fairly ubiquitous. It was not for lack of seed that those plants weren't taking off.

>> Mm-hmm, yeah. So there's a whole lot of different dynamics involved in the successional process. So we have a microbial succession, as well as a mineral processes, and that aggregate formation. But, yeah, we can really rapidly speed up that successional process, and, you know, obviously grazing is your number one tool. And what I find is, a lot of ranches are not grazing for perennial tall-grass systems. They are overgrazing, and what that creates is your annual dominance. And then we start to see issues -- I don't know what's happening in your particular area, but, you know, things like your cheatgrasses, ventenat [phonetic] -- what's it called?

>> Ventenata, yeah.

>> Yeah, ventenata grass. And what those species do was, they actually change the microbial community, and they keep it in an annual state. They actually change it to feed very primitive bacteria and archaea. So they're exuding substances out their roots to keep or halt that successional process, and that's when your grazing is so important. So actually coming in and really hammering those areas, and then leaving it for a long time to recover, to allow those perennials to set seed, to get that signal to start to germinate.

>> Yeah, while we're on that rabbit trail, how would you define overgrazing? If you talked to 10 range scientists, you'd get 17 different answers.

>> I define it as the inadequate recovery of a plant, not allowing a plant to reach its full genetic potential. So it's the repeat bite. So it's not the taking it down to the ground, but it's that you took it to the ground, and then it -- then it re-sprouted, and you grazed it again. Now that's -- now you've overgrazed it. So you could have one horse in a 100-acre field and be overgrazing.

>> Right.

>> Because that horse is going to go, oh, that's where the candy is, and it's going to keep taking, you know, the good stuff.

>> Right. And then, how would you define recovery? If overgrazing is re-grazing before the plant has fully recovered, define full recovery.

>> That's going to be dependent on the species that you're dealing with. So for some grasses, you know, getting to that three-leaf stage. For some of them, it's the five-leaf stage. For forbs, you know, they've all got different recovery periods. So I guess shaking up their recovery periods -- so not sitting there and go, okay, I'm going to graze every 18 months, or, you know, I'm going to graze every six months, or whatever you're doing, but actually mixing it up. Because different species have different recoveries, and so, you want to select for different species each time and go, "Okay, now, you know, this forb has recovered adequately. Now's the time to graze." So yeah, there's got to be a lot of adaptation, and flexibility, and observation in good grazing.

>> Sure, and some diversity in the duration of grazing periods, and the duration of recovery periods.

>> Yeah.

>> Going back to some of the modern farming practices and effects on soil health, while tillage is not very common on rangelands, with the exception of some, you know, lower-elevation, deeper, flatter soil that oftentimes does get planted, herbicides are quite common on rangelands. Especially on degraded rangelands where you have a significant weed population, you know, chemical companies will say that there's research showing that if you use the herbicide, that you get an increase in grass production. That may be true. What are the effects of herbicide on soil microbes?

>> Well, if you consider the soil food web, you know, your -- like, that trophic triangle -- so at the bottom of that triangle, if you think about the sea, the bottom of that triangle is your plankton. The bottom of the triangle for the food web in soil is algae. So effectively, when we use the herbicide, we take out the plankton in the sea. We take out the algae. We remove that bottom of that trophic level, which then has impacts on microbiology throughout that system. A lot of the herbicides that we're using have incredibly long residual on it. You know, I think Monsanto has just been successfully sued for lying about the persistence of glyphosate, or Round-Up. So Round-Up's sitting there for at least 22 years. That's its half-life. Things like 24D, you're talking about 250 years of half-life. So these chemicals are sitting around in the soil for a really long time, and what's interesting is, we see, as we start to open up and flocculate soil, that actually those chemicals can be released again maybe, you know, six years after you've applied them. It comes back to that question again of what are those weeds, and what are they trying to tell you, and how do you address it at the root cause. You know, I think a lot of these areas probably have a sheep and goat deficiency [laughter]. You know, like, there's something that'll actually eat that, or training livestock to eat things, or starting to ask the question of why is this particular plant growing. You know, there's a lot of trace element issues on rangelands. There's a lot of biological issues. So either a lack of animal impact -- so we're not getting animal trampling, and manure, and urine, and you start to get these soils that fall asleep, like I think of a lot of rangeland, like where we're seeing a lot of sagebrush and woody shrubs. Those soils are the comatose soils. You know, there's not a lot of biological activity in there. They're -- often got a lot of fungi, and not a lot of bacteria, and that really comes down to how do we get animal impact in those areas. So some things like leafy spurge are actually fungal-dominated soils, or soils that have gone to sleep. So it comes to how do we actually impact on those areas, and maybe, yeah, bring in some goats, or sheep, or whatever. But all of your weeds are trying to tell you something, and that -- it's actually really valuable information. And if you can figure out what it is that they're trying to tell you -- and I talk about it -- I've got a whole chapter in my -- in the book, to go into what are they trying to tell you, and then how do you address it. Because if you herbicide it, no one has ever eradicated a weed with herbicide, no one. Right? You're going to be applying them again somewhere down the track, instead of going, actually, how do we get off that particular treadmill?

>> Mm-hmm. On the topic of herbicides, and going back and forth between human effects and soil effects, I don't know whether you would want to talk about your own experience with paraquat, which is one of the more dangerous chemicals, but it's still around.

>> Yeah, yeah. It's -- and it's interesting to see where paraquat is still allowed and not allowed. So yeah, it's -- they're still using it in New Zealand, but, you know, I had a poisoning episode when I was 15 with paraquat. And paraquat is a long-term residual herbicide. It's actually the leading cause of suicide in third-world countries, because there's no antidote for it. I walked on a herbicide strip, and I had cuts on my feet. And the herbicide entered into my body, and it passes -- it can pass the blood-brain barrier, and basically, it sat in my spinal fluid for, like, 15 years. And I had a lot of, like, headaches, and just feeling really foggy all the time, like everything was just in a mist. And I was told I had fused vertebrae of the C1 and C2, so very limited neck mobility. And we really didn't know what it was, or what had caused the problem, so I was hospitalized. They thought I had meningitis, and it wasn't until I met a chemical detox specialist 15 years later that he diagnosed it as paraquat. And we went through a pretty intensive health regime. So we used hyperbaric chambers and intravenous vitamin C, and what that vitamin C does is -- and especially under pressure, is it actually will flush toxins out of the body. So it's becoming a more commonly-used method for cancer, for instance. So the vitamin C will actually enter healthy cells, and be broken down, but if your cells are dysfunctional, and they don't have an enzyme in it, then the vitamin C will actually cause a chemical reaction and produce hydrogen peroxide. So it will effectively kill some types of cancers. So they are using this now in different parts of the world. So what was, I think, most interesting for me around that whole chemical poisoning was that I didn't realize that I'd been chemically poisoned, and yet my whole career, and what I'd been doing had been focusing on how is it we can get some of these -- how can we get the chemicals out of the food? How do we get the chemicals out of the environment, and still be profitable and productive?

>> Yeah, just another quick question -- what was paraquat being used for specifically in New Zealand?

>> Herbicides.

>> Just a generic, broadly herbicide?

>> Yeah. Yeah. So herbicide resistance is taking off all over the world, and so, we're seeing chemicals that used to be banned now coming back onto the market, which just makes no sense to me. I'm sorry. You know, it's like we need a bigger and bigger hammer to deal with issues that are actually telling you the hammer's the problem [laughter]. So in New Zealand, you know, typically, some of the vineyards we were working on -- they might've been using, you know, five herbicides a season, and still not able to control some of their weeds, like herbicide-resistant rye, and mallow, and things. And so, they're now reintroducing paraquat into vineyards. So, you know, we can get paraquat terroir-flavored wines out of New Zealand. It's marvelous [laughter].

>> Yeah, I found on a toxicology website that paraquat poisoning is a leading cause of fatal poisoning in Asia, the Pacific Islands, and parts of South and Central America, and that more than 70% of paraquat poisonings result in death. So I guess you're lucky.

>> Yep. It was very lucky, yeah, and like I said, it is the leading cause. And I've heard stories of farmers actually having paraquat accidentally spilled on them. One instance, he died on the way to the house. So he was dead in the driveway, and his wife drove up the driveway, and beside his body were two dogs that were also dead, because they licked him. So it can be a very rapid way to die. If it's not rapid, then I think it's incredibly painful, and then you're going to die, because there's no antidote. Yeah. So no, I was very lucky, and what's interesting is, I meet producers that say, "Well, we spray paraquat our whole lives, and we're fine." And that's when I'll say to them, "Well, tell me about your kids." And they'll say, "Well, you know, so-and-so's got autism. This one's died when she was eight from childhood leukemia." And so, that comes back to the epigenetics stuff again, is you find there are -- in New Zealand, anyway, there's a lot of chemical applicators that are now involved in regenerative agriculture because they've directly seen the impact on their families. And it's really got them thinking, well, what have I been doing? What have I been, you know, responsible for? And that's a really, really heart-wrenching thing to face, that actually your actions may have led to what's happening with your kids. And a lot of the research is showing -- and it's really difficult research to do, but things like fungicides and pesticides are changing their epigenetic expression. So maybe not for you, and maybe not even for your children, but for your grandchildren -- and that's terrifying, because it's really hard stuff to, one, research, two, prove, when you talk about causal factors, and then, three, do anything about it when it's now your grandchild that's born this way. So that's why I really feel a sense of urgency, I guess, in having these conversations around -- okay, how do we get this stuff out of the food chain? And producers that I'm working have managed to do that across, you know, the entire operation, if that's vineyards, or if it's cropping, or if it's in ranching. How do we get the chemicals out of the food?

>> Well, I was going to shift in the conversation toward solutions instead of problems, and I -- you just did it.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> What are some of your recommendations, both in -- you know, in crop farming, and in -- on rangelands, to improve soil health?

>> Yeah, well, I think with cropping, you go to look at what actions have already been happening, and often, the base -- the biggest place to start is just stop killing stuff, right? Let's stop harming our underground workforce, and then look at what are the actual limiting factors to production. So we have a five-step kind of process, where we look at -- is it your -- we call them the five M's. Is it your minerals, your microbes, your management? Is it organic matter, or is it mindset that's causing the limitation on any property? And what you generally find is mindset is often the biggest issue that we've got to deal with [laughter], which is, you know, what is possible, and how do we do these things. And what's exciting about cropping is they're often spending quite a lot of money, and so, we can come in and save them just, you know, extraordinary amounts of money just to get started, you know. Because so much of what's being put on is either inefficient or wasteful. You think about nitrogen. You know, globally, only 5% of nitrogen that's used as fertilizer's actually used by the plant. Even if you're really, really, really good producer, you might have a 35% efficiency, which means most of the nitrogen that we put on is effectively either flushed out the waterways or up into the atmosphere. So we look at how do we use biology, or feed microbes, or balance your carbon to nitrogen ratio to mop up those inefficiencies. So, yeah -- so you really look at what is it that's causing the harm. You know, is it things like pesticides, or fungicides, or is it overgrazing? Is it not getting adequate grazing management? You know, your pasture size is huge, and you've got no water. You know, like, really looking at what is it that's creating these issues that any producer might be seeing, yeah, and then what might be required as a catalyst. So I do work with a lot of guys that have been doing holistic grazing, or holistic management for a long time, and they've plateaued. And they can't figure out why their systems are plateauing, or their soil health is not improving. And then we'll have a look, and it might be that they're just missing some kind of catalyst, and it could be just a little bit of a trace element, or a little bit of sodium, you know, which sounds quite weird. But sometimes, it's just putting something small into a system, and, you know, typically, the rangeland guys I'm working with -- I guess they average around 10,000 acres, but, I mean, I've got some massive operations that I work with as well. And it's like, how do we put a catalyst out? And so, we are using worm castings. We are using trace elements. We do use a bit of Redmond Salt on land. That's not alkali, obviously, and what we're seeing is those soils respond. And so, on a big operation, we might go, "Okay, we've got to address the irrigated areas first, and get that to pay forward. So if we're -- if we're working with hay ground, or irrigated ground, can we increase the quality of what we're producing? Can we increase the volume of what we're producing, and then put those -- put those additional value into treating in the rangeland? Okay, and then we might do 1000 acres of rangeland this year, and do 1000 acres the next year. So not trying to eat the whole elephant at once, but, you know, trying to just -- just to get through what we can. And typically, as we're seeing these benefits, ranchers that I'm working with are probably treating about two-and-a-half thousand acres a year as they see the benefits in plant germination, diversity, quality, animal performance, and carrying capacities.

>> And what do you see as the most common problems in grazing management, where that's a limiting factor? Are there any commonalities that you think are particularly relevant for western ranchers?

>> I think the biggest issue really is not being able to manage pastures effectively because of the size of pastures. And so -- and it's interesting, looking at some of the studies that are happening over range riding and herding, and some of the soil changes. Glenn Elzinga, who's at Alderspring Ranch up in Idaho -- they're using in-herding, and they've take -- in the last 10 years, they've taken the soil organic matter from 2-1/2% to 6-1/2% just through controlling animal movement. And what they're seeing is, they -- you know, their carrying capacity's increased. The amount of diversity's gone through the roof. They've gone from, I think, three dominant species to over 60. And so, being able to manage our grazing more -- like, to try and replicate what was it that the bison were doing. You know, can we concentrate movement, and get animals to continue to move across a landscape, so they're not just, you know, dispersed out there. And economically, it does actually stack up, and this is what's interesting, to see the work coming out of western sustainability exchanges. Can you pay the wages of somebody who's living and shepherding with cattle or sheep? And yes, actually, here are the -- you know, here are the benefits that we can see from doing that. I guess the problem often is getting started, because yeah, it take -- you know, that might be another two-year or three-year, where you see those financial benefits. But, you know, I think that's the biggest thing, and then infrastructure, and things like water. So the Native Energy Project that's running in Montana at the moment -- they're actually paying ranchers up front for -- what -- they're talking about a carbon project, but what they're really doing is looking at behavior management, or behavior change. So that you can afford to put in water, or put in more fencing, so that you can actually control grazing a lot more effectively, and knowing that you can graze -- you can graze more effectively, your carbon levels are going to increase.

>> Yeah, the argument that I suspect typically comes against that is that it takes a fair bit of money to pay for that infrastructure, and, you know, do you get a corresponding increase in yield and/or profitability sufficient to pay for the infrastructure with any kind of a reasonable, you know, time frame.

>> Well, I think that's why -- that's why this Native Energy Project's actually been paying the ranchers. So they get a lump sum for a modeled predicted increase in carbon over a five-year period. They actually get that as a lump sum, so that they can pay for water. The other thing that we're still waiting on, and it hasn't come into the States yet, is virtual grazing, or virtual fencing -- so using satellites and collars, electric collars basically to control livestock movement. Which, on some of these really big, expansive operations, you couldn't afford to get the fencing in, and you couldn't afford to control livestock unless you had a herder. You know, and I just find a lot of people these days don't want to herd. You know, they don't want to live with livestock anymore. Like, that time is, like, gone, but we're seeing young people coming through that actually are excited by the romance of that idea, of actually, you know, living in a sheep wagon, and living with cattle.

>> Mm-hmm. Well, I'll give you the final word on any further recommendations on where people could go to learn more about what you do, or about improving soil health on rangelands.

>> Well, my book's out, but the audiobook should hopefully be out before Christmas. At least, that's what we're aiming for, and I find a lot of people these days -- audiobooks for busy lives, especially if you're shepherding, and you're sitting in that sheep wagon [laughter]. You can listen to an audiobook. But it just seems like there's an incredible amount of resources now online to learn and expand from. Yeah, and I'm sure you've had some of those speakers on before.

>> Where's the best place for folks to buy your book?

>> They can get it off Amazon, yeah, in the U.S., and then the audiobook would be available through all audio-type channels.

>> And maybe one final question. Are there some ranches that you've worked with, that you think are a mature example of doing this well, that folks might look to if they were interested in seeing something on the ground?

>> Good question. You know, I think everybody's at different stages of whatever they're addressing. You know, I'm really enjoying -- right now, I'm staying on Injulin [assumed spelling] Ranch. They are in Big Timber, and it's been extraordinary to work with them, and just sort of watch the changes in terms of lifting quality of what they're producing, and actually really addressing rangeland. They're doing some really innovative, out-of-the-box kind of stuff. I think Alderspring Ranch would be really worthwhile, people going and having a look at.

>> Well, Nicole, I have really appreciated your time and our conversation. We'll let you get back to the ranch today.

>> Yeah, no worries. Thank you. That was really fun, speaking with you.

>> Thank you for listening to The Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an e-mail to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Humans, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona, and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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