Reporters are curious creatures. It comes with the job. For one former Tri-State Neighbor reporter, questions that formed while she was on the job turned into a book.
Stephanie Anderson – or Stephanie Johnson, if you remember her from her time at the Neighbor before she was married – released her first book this year, called “One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture.” It explores the questions that bothered her while reporting on South Dakota agriculture for the Neighbor. It was a transformative time, she said, and she’s thankful for the experience.
I got the opportunity to sit down with Stephanie, who lives in Florida now, when she was in town last month promoting her book. We took a sunny afternoon to sit by the Big Sioux River and chat about the cattle farm she grew up on in northwestern South Dakota, her experience at the Neighbor and how those things shaped her book.
Joining the paper right out of college at Augustana University in 2009, Anderson wrote about the trends toward large confined animal feeding operations, genetically modified crops and the use of antibiotics, and she wondered if there was a better way to farm. They were questions she kept to herself, as not to offend the gracious producers who opened their doors to her as a reporter. But when she moved on from her job at the Neighbor, the questions stayed with her.
Anderson went on to work for Cross International, telling the organization’s story and documenting the humanitarian work it does in developing countries. Later, she moved to Boca Raton, Florida and earned her master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Florida Atlantic University, where she teaches English now.
Her book follows four farmers who are doing things differently and explores whether it’s feasible to make the switch to a more regenerative way of farming. She interviews small-scale organic farmers in Florida and New Mexico, the Phil and Jill Jerde family who raise bison in northwestern South Dakota and the well-known soil health advocate Gabe Brown of North Dakota.
It’s a diverse set of farms, but Anderson said any producer can learn from how they manage things. She wants farmers to understand the potential in letting the land work for them.
“The principles apply no matter the environment,” she said.
Anderson grew up not far from the Jerde ranch in Bison, South Dakota. Her dad raises cattle and crops on a conventional farm, and the two have had their disagreements about the best way to farm.
Today’s farming – with synthetic inputs, monocropping and large feeding operations – happened fairy quickly, she pointed out, and learning how to work with nature can take some patience. It’s a learning process, she said.
Farmers today are faced with unpredictable weather and challenging markets, but that’s not a reason to shy away from change, Anderson said. She learned from Gabe Brown that economic challenges can be a catalyst for change. It was for him. When he made the switch to regenerative farming it was because he couldn’t afford the treated seeds, the pesticides and the fuel it would take to pull the tiller. Doing without those things allowed him economic freedom, Anderson said.
Regenerative agriculture is working its way onto her family farm. Now that her brother is part of the operation, he’s using rotational grazing and cover cropping. And their dad is more open to new ideas.
Anderson is hoping more farmers embrace those sorts of ideas. She believes they’ll come out stronger and be better prepared to handle the droughts and floods that have become common today.
“It’s not too late to change,” she said.
Like reporters with their constant questions, farmers are always learning and innovating, and that points to a bright future.
“I’m hopeful for the future,” Anderson said. “The people in this book alone give me hope.”