BY JILL HENDERSON
Among the many thinkers, educators and practitioners who have led the way towards the life-supporting practices of regenerative agriculture are an army of women whose nurturing nature has changed the way we think about food and our connection to the soil. With 20-plus years and millions of rejuvenated acres under her belt, agroecologist, systems thinker, educator and author Nicole Masters stands out as an increasingly influential woman in regenerative ag. Her talents are as deep as the roots of ryegrass and as diverse as the microbes in the living soil she helps create. Her personal and often humorous approach to reviving degraded land not only provokes a questioning of land management practices, but also leaves her followers believing that what she describes is not only possible, but much easier, cheaper and more profitable than they could ever have believed.
Born in the island nation of New Zealand, one of the most biologically diverse landmasses in the world, Masters seems to have been endowed with a special lens in her brain that allows her to view the nearly invisible world of soil microbiology in a way that makes it larger than life.
At the age of five, Masters followed National Geographic’s coverage of the Mt. St. Helens eruption on a continent 7,000 miles away. She remembers being struck by how nature was able to heal itself over time. Being fascinated by nature at an early age was just the tip of the landmass in Masters’ life journey. As a young adult she toyed with the idea of becoming New Zealand’s first fighter pilot, then a veterinarian and later a great white shark researcher. Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree in ecology from the University of Otago with a focus on soil science and plant physiology. And while she learned a considerable amount in school, Masters is quick to point out that no one ever once told her or her fellow students that soil was a living thing.
After finishing her first round in college, Masters helped her dad start a farm. They found a place with deep soil and planted an avocado orchard, strawberries and gardens. In a strange twist of fate, the father-daughter duo wound up buying an old run-down worm farm nearby, and it wasn’t long before Masters had taught herself about the subtleties of vermiculture and how to use the worms to make rich compost that would feed the avocado trees and strawberries on the farm.
In 2002, Masters founded Tigercast Worms while earning qualifications in adult education with postgraduate studies in ag extension and organizational learning at the Waikato Institute of Technology. She recalls that it was about halfway through her studies that she found herself delving through some scholarly papers on soil and began to wonder why everyone wasn’t a soil scientist. Her big aha moment came while watching Elaine Ingham talk about the soil food web. Masters’ early hunch that soil was alive was finally confirmed.
Masters was 27 when she was invited to be co-chair of the Soil & Health Association (SHA) in New Zealand, which is the oldest organic food and farming organization in the world. It was here that she found kinship and mentors such as fellow board member Marion Thompson and Arohanui Lawrence, who was recently awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for community building and sustainable food production. Masters recalls her mentor Thelma Williams, who she describes as a wonderful grandmother figure who taught her how to prevent frost damage with vermiculture. “Of course, it would take me another 15 years or so to figure out how it actually worked, but she was such an amazing source of inspiration for me.”
Learn about soil health in person with Nicole Masters
Nicole Masters is one of four expert speakers who will be presenting full-day Eco-Ag U workshops at the 2021 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show! This annual conference will be held in person, Dec. 6-9, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Focused on eco-agriculture education, this event features two days of Eco-Ag U workshops plus three days of sessions on all kinds of eco-farming topics.
When asked if she thinks more women are becoming involved in farming and regenerative agriculture Masters said: “I think that more women entering agriculture is a global phenomenon. What has changed is women’s willingness to take a stand and speak out and be acknowledged and respected. But if you think of some of the big leaders in the global ag space like Kris Nichols, Christine Jones or Elaine Ingham, who forged the way, they’ve always been there. And even more young women are coming through and leading us forward.”
For the Love of Soil
With her school days behind her and her future unfolding before her eyes, Masters began transitioning Tigercast Worms into Integrity Soils, a company centered on teaching and coaching farmers, gardeners, ranchers and landowners across the world how to use the principles of regenerative agriculture to renew their landscapes. Today, the company employs four additional coaches offering a wide array of services to producers as well as the organizations and suppliers that service them through international workshops, consulting and facilitating services, and online workshops throughout Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Masters says she approaches each new challenge with a “soils first” attitude. Their programs are, “based on observation, ecological principles and regenerative land management practices” and “covers a wide range of approaches, tools, and the thinking required to build soil and ecosystem health, food quality and profitability.”
“It is not enough to just study or understand the science behind regenerative agriculture,” she says. We must also “understand how we think about the soil that sustains and nourishes all life on earth.”
When asked how people should think about soil, her reply is succinct. “We should think of it as the source of everything. If we start to see soil as the source of well-being, health, profit, climate change, food quality — everything — we start to relate to it differently when we’re out there. Soil isn’t just a vessel to hold on to plants, which is kind of the way soil science thought of it for a long time. It’s really about seeing improvements and looking after soil health that offers so many other benefits to you and your animals and plants. We have to interact with soil at a deeper level.”
Last year, after 20-plus years in the business, Masters published her first book, For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems. I found that the book was much like her presentations: down to earth, inspirational, informative and altogether entertaining. When asked what her motivation was, she said that she decided to write it because people kept asking her if they could buy a soil book for dummies. “I have loads of books on my shelves that are very informative, but when I looked at some of my favorites, they were also really dry. Some of them are brilliantly written and make some of the soil biology more accessible to the farming audience than ever before, but they aren’t practical enough.”
Masters says that the hardest place to start is at your own front door. Sometimes issues with crops, livestock or land are obvious. Erosion on a hillside, invasive weeds in the rows, or fertility issues in livestock are all things we can see with our own eyes. But not all problems manifest in ways that are obvious to those who are accustomed to seeing them over and over. I asked her to describe some of the not-so-obvious signs of a degraded landscape and her answer was surprising.
“It’s how you feel.” she said. “If you go out onto your land and feel alive and joy-filled as opposed to feeling heavy and negative and like nothing is working — this is often one of the key indicators that something is wrong. It’s actually one of the things I look for when I’m working with people. I watch them and a lot of the time they aren’t even aware of how that land is having an impact on them and how they are having an impact on their land, as well.” she said. “That’s probably a little out there for some people, but it’s something I’m very keenly aware of.”
Fairy Dust & Unicorns
You might expect an agro-ecologist who specializes in soil to talk about dry matter. But when Masters does it, she’s often making you laugh at the same time. She also challenges you to take your soil very, very seriously. She wants you to touch it, love it and even look at it through a microscope. “When you look at soil through a microscope it brings what may seem like fairy dust and unicorns to something that is very tangible.” she said. “To see all this life coming from your own soil, things like nematodes and tardigrades, is such a rush.”
“So much of this stuff can feel theoretical, and farmers, on the whole, are aesthetic learners — hands-on,” she said. “But we’re talking about hands-on for something we can’t see. And so it’s bringing the unseen into the seen. That’s why I like to play a lot of games during my presentations, like the microbe game where we make these long string lines of mycorrhizae throughout the conference room and just fill it up. People are like, ‘Whoa, we get it now!’ So we use microscopes and some of these games to help people envision living soil a bit better.”
Masters often compares the volume of microbial life in the soil to the bulk of Angus bulls. “I talk a lot about underground livestock. We know that there’s life above ground that we need to manage, but there’s livestock underneath the ground that have similar needs in terms of good airflow, water, food and comfort — just the same as livestock. So, envisioning every acre as having two Angus bulls in biomass and biology underground puts in in perspective. When you go out to your fields just ask yourself, ‘How do I manage these guys? How do I feed them and ensure that they are as comfortable as possible?’ because that’s what gives you the return you’re looking for.”
For Masters, it’s all about the soil. And if she ever comes to your farm or ranch, she’ll almost surely want you to dig some holes. “I’m always looking for something that is going to impact someone emotionally, because there’s always that ‘aha’ or ‘Oh-my-God, what have I been doing my whole life?’ thing that happens,” she said. “Those moments are what triggers the energy to create a shift. So, a microscope might be able to do it, but digging holes definitely will.”
She recalls one particular ranch where digging holes produced the desired effect. “I was on a property with 30 years of holistic grazing on it and we could not get the shovel in the ground. And the guys is like, ‘Well it’s been a hot dry summer.” and I’m like, ‘Yep, that makes sense. The ground is really hard and there is no ground cover.’ And then we dug underneath the fence and the shovel went in like a knife through butter. We dug again and again and again in multiple fields and it was the same everywhere,” she said. “Then he turned to me and said, ‘Have I done this?’ and I said, ‘Yes, this was you.’ But it’s that aha moment, whatever it is or however it looks, that can be enough for people to start looking at things differently.”
Many Parts Make a Whole
In the end, anyone who has taken the time to educate themselves on the various aspects of regenerative agriculture knows there is no such thing as a single magic bullet. Regenerative ag is a system made up of many parts that, when put together correctly, make the whole a cohesive functioning unit. “For me, regenerative agriculture is a mindset where you shift from that reductionist control and separate mentality to something of interconnectedness and a being of observation and how this would work in nature.”
“There is so much about this work that is so amazing and inspiring. And as ecologists, we’re trying to think in systems, which means that sometimes I feel like I don’t know enough – that I’m just a generalist because it’s nearly impossible to know enough about all these different fields. I need to know how to read livestock just like I need to know how to read a plant, or the soil, or the person I’m working with.” Masters explains. “These are all very deep topics in themselves, but it’s when you start to see that it’s all interconnected…that’s when I start to feel like Sherlock Holmes.”
In the end, Masters points out that everything we’re dealing with goes back to the unseen. “I think everything we’re dealing with, even things like COVID, probably comes back to gut health and function. And the quicker we wake up to that the better off we’re going to be. This is why it’s so important to find ways to communicate with people about something that’s invisible, because that’s what it’s all coming back to is that invisible life and how we see it.”
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz (showmeoz.wordpress.com), a weekly blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.
Nicole Masters at Eco-Ag Conference
Join us in celebrating 50 years of Acres U.S.A. at the in-person 2021 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show! Running from Dec. 6-9, in Cincinnati, Ohio, this will be the most useful agriculture conference you attend all year. Nicole Masters will present a full-day Eco-Ag U workshop on “Successful Soil Health Management, Diagnostics & Triage.” Space at Eco-Ag U workshops is limited, so be sure to save your place today! Register here. Learn more about Eco-Ag U workshops here, and more about the overall Eco-Ag Conference here.