Common Ground film: converting to regenerative agriculture “is a matter of life or death”

By Ken Roseboro

Published: November 6, 2023

Category: Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is urgently needed to save the world’s soils, restore ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and produce more nutrient-dense foods—and it’s profitable for farmers. That is a key message of the new documentary, Common Ground, directed and produced by filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell and winner of the Tribeca Film Festival Human/Nature award. The film, which is a follow-up to the Tickell’s hit documentary Kiss the Ground, features U.S. Senator Cory Booker and actors Laura Dern, Jason Momoa, Woody Harrelson, Ian Somerhalder, Donald Glover, and Rosario Dawson.

Farmers play a significant role in Common Ground. North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, a leading pioneer of regenerative agriculture, shows the contrast between his regenerative farm and a neighbor’s farm whose soil is badly eroded.

“Regenerative agriculture is working within the context of nature to create a profit while enhancing the ecosystem for future generations,” Brown says.

Indiana farmer Rick Clark describes his journey from conventional agriculture to regenerative organic and no-till methods. Clark says he has eliminated the use of pesticides and seed treatments while saving $2 million per year.

Leah Penniman, author and co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, shows how regenerative agriculture on smaller scale farms can make a big difference.

Common Ground paints a bleak picture of our current industrial agriculture system, which is fueled by toxic pesticides, life-damaging genetically modified organisms, and water polluting fertilizers. The system is perpetuated by large agribusiness corporations that lobby Congress, which helps fund the system. Meanwhile universities beholden to ag chemical companies “educate” farmers to maintain industrial agriculture’s status quo. The system produces unhealthy processed foods that Americans consume, leading to illnesses like obesity, diabetes, and cancer. It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by billions of dollars of corporate and government money.

Ultimately, the film has a hopeful message describing the proven benefits of regenerative agriculture with its emphasis on not disturbing the soil through tillage, keeping the ground covered to prevent erosion, diversifying cropping systems to break pest and weed cycles, and integrating livestock to build soil health and organic matter.

The film shows the life-enhancing benefits of regenerative agriculture on farms—from Gabe Brown’s farm to Leah Penniman’s Soul Fire Farm in New York state to Alejandro Carrillo’s Las Damas Ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico, and others.

The film starts with Brown describing the urgent need for regenerative agriculture. Near the end, the film reveals that Brown was diagnosed with ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” which likely resulted from his years of using agricultural chemicals prior to converting to regenerative agriculture.

“Humanity has a choice to make,” Brown says. “We can go down the regenerative path, heal our soils, our rivers, our streams, heal communities, heal people, or we can continue down the path we are on, a path of degradation, more violent weather events, weather extremes, flooding, drought, food shortages, health issues. Which path do we want to go on?”

Josh and Rebecca Tickell recently announced a “100 Million Acres” initiative to build a coalition of farmers, ranchers, non-governmental organizations, and for-profit companies that have pledged to transform at least 10% of their crops, ranches, and supply chains to certified regenerative farming.

Ken Roseboro interviewed Josh and Rebecca about their vision for Common Ground.

What inspired you to make this film?

Rebecca: Everybody keeps asking us, “How come we’re not doing regenerative agriculture already?” Common Ground pulls back the curtain and shows how the cycle continues to repeat itself in the unsustainable food system. It’s completely degenerative for the food, for the soil, and for the farmers and hands that are touching that food. It equally shows how we can reverse that, help farmers, and create nutrient dense food, and with the added benefit of stabilizing the climate.

Josh: One point that’s important is that the film is less anti-Monsanto and more pro farmer, pro science, and pro profits. We’re trying to show in the film how people who farm and ranch can make more money per acre. One of the big reasons why we made Common Ground was to reverse the erosion of middle America. That’s what the movie shows.

How does the film differ from Kiss The Ground?

Josh: It goes deeper into the mechanics of regeneration as well and how to do it. We learned from not one, not two, but a group of different types of farmers. Some are farming grain or beans. We’ve also got ranchers and small-scale farmers. You see the principles being used across a wide variety of farm types.

What were some important things you learned while making the film?

Josh: To see regenerative agriculture being done at even bigger scale than we thought. Rick Clark, who’s featured in the film, is doing this on 7,000 acres. If you can do it on 7,000 acres in Indiana, you can do it on 50,000 acres in Iowa. We now know for certain that regenerative agriculture works at scale, and Rick is saving $2 million a year on input costs. That is a big takeaway we learned from this film: how to save money and how to do it at scale.

Gabe Brown is featured prominently in the film.

Rebecca: It’s a very personal story for him. Gabe Brown, in our opinion, really was worthy of the cape that he wears on the film’s cover. If his story could help just one other farmer it was worth it even though it was very hard for him. We are forever grateful to him, and the film is dedicated to him.

What is your vision of the film, what do you want it to accomplish?

Josh: The biggest goal would be securing 100 million acres in certified regenerative agriculture by 2025. That’s a tipping point of over 10% of total U.S. agriculture production. Which means it’s one out of every 10 farm implements sold, one out of every 10 loan documents signed by a farmer, and one out of every 10 calories on grocery store shelves.

Rebecca: This is the beginning of a huge revolution in farming that can’t be stopped. More farmers will realize why it’s called Common Ground, because it doesn’t matter if we agree on everything. The one thing we can all agree on is if we can heal our soil, that is better for everyone.

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