Agroecologist Nicole Masters consults with food producers in the US, Canada, and Australasia on building soil health as a means to providing better outcomes for both business profitability and the land these businesses depend on. Her work centers as much around human psychology as it does ecology. Ranchlands spoke with Nicole about everything from the threats to native birds in her home country of New Zealand, the origins of her interest in soil health, and why she believes how we care for land has everything to do with the future of our planet.
I thought maybe we could just start by talking about whether you can remember any specific point in your childhood or your youth where you can now pinpoint the fact that you would be where you are today?
Probably the thing that sticks out is Mount St Helens erupting. I was five, and my grandmother subscribed me to National Geographic. I was absolutely obsessed with how the land could have so much power and how entire landscapes could shift so quickly and that people could die. And then how that landscape recovered. I was five, and that was something that I remember so clearly.
Where did you grow up?
Were you in an urban setting or–?
No. My father was a pilot with the Royal Air Force, and we traveled a lot. A lot of New Zealand is quite rural, so Air Force bases are in the middle of the countryside. Even though we lived on Air Force bases, I felt very surrounded by agriculture.
Was that a part of your daily experience, being out and about?
Well, as New Zealanders, we spend a lot of time in the forests and in nature and fishing and at the beach. New Zealand lifestyles are very nature-orientated. That's what attracts people. We fished a lot. My dad loved to boat and sail. And so, just that sense of being surrounded by nature and birds. And I think that early memory of just the amount of bird life has stuck with me. Because when you go to New Zealand now, the forest is silent, and that's hard. I can't. I find going home and being in the forest really upsetting, because all the birds have gone.
What part of New Zealand is that?
Well, we lived in the North and South Island. My farm that I sold seven years ago was in the North Island in a place called Waipukurau, which means "the two rivers where the fungus grows," which I always liked.
To go back to the birds disappearing, do you attribute that just to climate change? Or are there other environmental things going on?
No, it's because New Zealand is the highest user of a pesticide called 1080, and they use it to control an invasive pest called a possum, which comes from Australia. They justify the killing of the possums with this pesticide, and that they say it doesn't hurt birds, but we all know, anyone that spends time in the bush knows that's not true.
New Zealand never had any mammals. We only had birds. When Europeans arrived, or even the Maori arrived, they brought in predators, rats, cats, things like that. So the cats there now, we have a feral cat problem, and the cats would be twice the size of a normal domestic cat. They've basically turned into lynxs or bobcats, and they are just terrorizing what little native birds are left.
Most of our birds were flightless, so those flightless ones are mainly extinct or seriously endangered. And so, most of the bird populations now live on the islands. They talk about when people first arrived in boats to New Zealand, the sound of the birds was so loud that you would get tinnitus in your ears from the ringing sounds, and now it's silent.
That must be really difficult.
Yeah. It sucks.
Well, as you're saying, New Zealand is such an interesting ecological case study, because it is an island. That must have been just a really interesting place to grow up and start getting involved in some of these things.
Yeah. I think, from an ecological perspective, it teaches you a lot about the disruption and what you, I guess you could frame as the “new natives.” Why I think America appeals to me so much is because there's so much wildness. There's definitely that sense of wild. We are walking right now, and there's signs of elk and deer and whitetail deer and mule deer and badges and foxes. It's just marvelous. The whole place is alive. I don't have that feeling in New Zealand. I did as a child.
Right. Well, not to dwell too much on this, but what positive measures are you seeing, if any, in New Zealand to reverse the trends that have been in place?
I don't think that you can. I think it's just an effect of human impacts on landscapes, and it's always been that way. That effect happened here ten and a half thousand years ago, and then wildlife–nature–finds another balance. New Zealand is the youngest colonized country in the world. It's the last place for Europeans to colonize as well. Maori only discovered it recently. It's a landscape that hasn't come into balance yet. We humans see things on our human lifespan, and it's hard to watch climate change and trees dying. All of that is devastating, but we're on such a short timeframe. It's like, okay well, what will it look like in another couple 100 years or 1,000 years or 10,000 years?
And so, I've stopped judging it in terms of thinking it's black or white or wrong or right. It's just, here's another equilibrium to be reached. You can't get rid of something, like the possum we’ll never be rid of. When you see these invasive weed species out in the West–they will never be eradicated. And so, it's just nature coming up with its own balances, and being okay with it. But it's still hard. It's still hard to be in places that are silent.
So if, like you're saying, it's not our goal–what's going to happen, what's realistic isn't to return to a way that something was 100 years ago or longer–then what role do you think people do play? What are we looking to do now?
Start, I guess, to stop being a reaction or being a... We're very reactive by nature. I think we go to extremes with some responses instead of looking at: how does this work in nature? Let's say it is an invasive weed or plant. Well, where's its predator? Where is that counter balance? Maybe it is introducing a disease. Maybe that's our role, as we could speed it up if we're talking about some of the invasive grasses or insects. But I don't know. I think we have to live in our morass, our own soup, for a while. To go, "Well, we are responsible for these things." And then maybe we need to be responsible as well for the controls.
But I don't think there's any simple answer, because these are complex issues that we are facing on every single level. And so, it takes a collaborative community response. They're talking about genetically engineering chlamydia to control this possum problem in New Zealand. But there's a, I guess, there's a responsibility of what would be the unintended consequences of, say if that chlamydia got out and got back to Australia, it would wipe out an endangered organism in Australia, because the possum's endangered in Aussie. And yeah, so I think part of it is: can we control these things? No, we probably can't, and we spend a fortune trying.
If there are grasses or insects that are invasive, nature will come to it eventually. So no, that's a really long rambling to: I don't think that there's a simple answer, and I don't think that we necessarily have to panic and have to intervene. We need to be thinking more about ecosystem restoration and whole systems. Don't just protect one species. Don't protect one bird or whatever, but looking at how do we get health and integrity back to an ecosystem? What does that look like? Maybe it's going to be done with an animal that's not native like cattle, for instance. Maybe they are the key now to ecosystem restoration–animals that are not native.
Well, overall your answer to that question is very hopeful and action-oriented rather than just despairing, about some of the problems we're facing, which I'm sure plays into the work that you do as well on a daily basis. Do you want to just describe a little bit about Integrity Soils and what the work that you do is?
Integrity Soils is a coaching and educational company around agroecology, so ecology through the lens of agriculture. I've been doing that for, well, I've been involved, I guess, in food production for 24 years and now teaching for 20 years. The coaching piece of this, it's the mindset that we need to shift. I think that comes into conservation. It comes into education. It comes into how we deal with climate change. To not be despairing and look at how we foster people that have the creative, critical thinking skills that can work collaboratively and can ask the question of: how does this work in nature? Because that's where the answers lie. And the more stressed and depressed and overwhelmed and reactionary we are, then actually, potentially those situations are going to worsen. Instead of going, "Actually, we're all on this planet together, this tiny, tiny little ball of blue and green. To do this, we all need to be working on solutions together."
What that takes is working on our personal journey and our trauma. All the reasons why we can be greedy, or we can be selfish, or we can be fearful, is because we are not doing that deep work. And so, a lot of what we're doing in Integrity Soils is not just the land management piece and thinking about animal performance and soil health and water quality, but predominantly, it's the coaching side to create these empowered thinkers who can make better decisions for themselves and better decisions for their communities. It's very rewarding work, I have to say.
So it has as much to do with human psychology as the ecology science?
Yes. And probably half of my formal studies has been in the human behavioral side, organizational learning, syntropic business. It's very much the behavior changing side of things, so working with people, and that's if you are interested in natural horsemanship or low stress animal handling or any of it. It all comes down to the people part. And so, I think this work translates to lots of other sectors as well.
How did you find your way to doing this from New Zealand as a kid surrounded by nature?
I think it was... It felt very unplanned. People say, "What should I study to do what you do?" I'm like, well, here's all the things I studied, and all of it seemed like it was an accident. There wasn't any great planning. I did soil science and ecology. Then I got pregnant when I left school, an immaculate conception, unfortunately. I ended up back in a rural community. My father bought a farm. None of us knew, we didn't know how to farm. We planted 700 avocado trees. We planted wetlands. We planted an orchard. We were running beef cattle, but there was no paid work for me. He was barely holding it together. And so to try and find work in rural communities when you're a single parent is not easy.
My dad found this advert that said, "deceased worm farmer sale," which he handed to me. I just thought, "Well, that sounds really weird." But we went and checked it out, and it was a worm business. The gentleman managing it had died. I think it was $6,000. My dad helped me set that up. And all of a sudden, I discovered this niche. You can take care of household waste. So I got a waste reduction contract for 10 years working in a local city, teaching people how to use worms and worm farms and household worm bins. And then I was selling vermicast to a range of different types of people and learning a lot about the microbiology of what the worms were making and how to make different types of worm products. I could do that all while having a very young child.
And so he got brought up ingesting vermicast, and we got into large scale composting as well. And there, it was just this really exciting frontier of: soils are alive. I discovered very early on that I had a passion for education, and I went and did adult education as a training. But it was just, it's just my thing, which was interesting, because I was terrified of public speaking, even in front of my classmates at university. I couldn't do a presentation. I can still remember the sweats. And so, it's so interesting that I started teaching in 2003 and just absolutely loved it. I think I was very grateful for the love and support of my father. I don't think I could have done it otherwise, but also just the synchronicity.
I didn't know there was this thing called “agroecology,” and here I was as an ecologist working in soil, in agriculture. I think in maybe 2010, I found that word, and I was like, "Oh, my God. That's what I do." Because I was learning on a really steep learning curve, spent a lot of time in the literature, a lot of time researching because my contract with the city didn't take much time, but it was paying my way. What I found was people wanted to know what I was learning. And so, I started consulting in 2006. It was really just being forced to, because people were like, "We need this information. I need to know how to reduce my herbicides and improve quality." I didn't know anything. My first client was a viticulture, so working in wine. I didn't know anything about grapes, and he's like, "You don't need to. You just need to know about the soil. I know about the grape part. Let's get the soil working."
That first client was such a success. We went from six herbicides a year to none in a year. We went from a lot of trace elements and a lot of inputs to none, to just a biological soil and then foliar applications. So his costs dramatically went down. I was very lucky to have had that instant out of the gate success. It gave me some confidence, and it gave me a springboard as well. And I like working in viticulture. That was fun. I think I've just been very, very fortunate. I have dealt with mental health issues in my youth, but I think there's a big part of me that's unwilling to let the situations crush me. I think I've always just had an inner strength and an inner stubbornness. I think it's very helpful when... I've always run my own businesses. I'm a woman working in consulting in agriculture. I'm out here working with ranchers all the time, and I don't let it shape who I am or stop me doing what I'm passionate about.
What is the issue with soils if you had to try to sum it up in a few minutes?
I think the issue with soils is people treating it like it's an inert resource, something to be used and not valued and actually down on our knees worshiping the fact that this is what gives us life on the planet. This is what enables us to grow food. This is what enables us to make money. I think part of the colonial mindset of the past--of just coming in and extracting and extracting--that's all coming to an end. We can't continue this pathway of extraction. The costs come out somewhere.
Soils continue to be the largest export from the US or from the world. We are seeing similar patterns as what was happening in the 1930s with dust bowls, sedimentation, collapses of ecosystems in the ocean that are because of what we're doing on the land. From that lack of care, there are so many downstream effects. Even if we think about climate change, the biggest driver for climate change is the water cycle. What drives the water cycle on the land? Well, it's soil. It's ground cover. It's trees and grasses. I think hopefully, more and more people are waking up to the fact that we can mitigate these climate extremes through how we manage landscapes and how we manage soil. I think it's our most valuable resource and most people have no idea, including the ranchers.
I work with some of the best holistic managers in the world. But they’ve never dug a hole. They've never looked underneath to see what's going on with roots and stuff. I guess that's part of my role, is just getting people inspired by what's happening under there. What does that mean? What do those roots look like? What does that structure look like? All that. So I think no matter what you care about, if you track it, it all comes back to soil. All of it.
One of the things that needs to happen, it sounds like, is for people to start paying attention to whether their soil is healthy or not.
In the instances when it's not, what are some of the solutions you implement?
Often, it's just stopping what you're doing that's being destructive, which might be overgrazing. It might be the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides. We mitigate some of those chemicals that people are using so they can use less of them, because it's not necessarily that we all have to be organic. If you’re an animal producer, then what are you doing with grazing timing? What's happening with the size of your pastures? Are you giving plants adequate recovery? Management is people's number one tool and often the hardest piece. Unfortunately, some people find it easier to spray something or fertilize something than actually take good care from the animal grazing side. It's always a systems approach. What is this particular operation dealing with? Why is their soil degraded? And let's start taking those actions, different actions.
If people want to, a producer, for example, or someone who does manage land, wants to start paying attention to their soil health, what's the best place for them to start?
They could get my book. Read my book, For the Love of Soil. We also have a series of online structured courses. There's so many podcasts and webinars. There's so much information out there right now. Sometimes people aren't even aware, but there's all this information out there. There's some really good podcasts like the Working Cow podcast, the Advancing Eco Agriculture podcast with John Kempf. I just think there's a lot of stuff out there that's very practical that people can listen to while they're driving in the tractor, or they're in their truck. People do spend a lot of time in vehicles. So starting just to tune into some of these amazing resources and get inspired to take some different options.
Those are two great recommendations. That brings up another point though. A lot of this thinking has become a lot more mainstream, it seems probably, in comparison to when you first started. How have you seen that change take place?
Yeah, it's absolutely massive. It was definitely fringe. In 2003, people had never heard of microbiology. You're doing workshops and saying something like mycorrhizal fungi. I can say that in Australia now, and everyone knows what you're talking about. That was not the case in 2003. There was this sense that this was fringe, that you were going to lose production, that it wasn't profitable. I think probably some of those myths still exist, but that's not what the experience now is of many, many people. And because of the internet and podcasts and webinars, people can share that information much more readily. There's someone that you trust who might be an intensive cropping or viticulture, and they are profitably reducing their inputs and proving the quality of what they're producing. It gets people excited.
I think conventional industrial agriculture became very prescriptive. This is when you do this, and this is when you do that. This is the chemical you use to control that. And then those chemicals really have stopped working. It also has trained people out of that creative joy side, so kids don't want to come back. All the pieces that we're seeing right now are the end of the industrial era, as far as I'm concerned. And so what we're seeing is young people coming in and just being so inspired and excited by soil health and plant health and animals and seeing all that creativeness that I think industrial agriculture just made really boring and dull. I'm not just making that up. I've had a lot of hardcore conventional producers say that. "There's so much debt. There's so much stress. Why would any kids want to come back to this?" I think that's why we are seeing what appears to be a fad, because everyone's so excited about it, but it's like, you don't get excited about soil and then find something else. The light never turns off for anybody that comes across soil health, truly. I'm not worried that people think it's a fad.