What has soil got to do with the brain? Cath Conlon, the CEO and Founder of Blackwood Educational Land Institute, sees a direct chain leading from soil health to brain health and advocates using regenerative practices in agriculture to achieve a positive impact on both physical and mental well-being. When you come to think about it, it is hard not to be disgusted when we dig into what comes into our food nowadays. Since the agricultural revolution many decades ago, the food production industry has been floating incrementally further from nature. Cath sees regenerative farming as a way to get closer to nature and reap its products’ benefits. At Blackwood, she strives to educate young people of humanity’s intrinsic bond with the land. In this very unhealthy era of human history, Cath’s insights can help us reclaim the health that we deserve if we open our minds to nature’s call. Join in as she talks about this and more in this conversation with your host, Carrie Miller.
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Regenerative Farming: Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy Brain With Cath Conlon
Hey, My Friends, I want to welcome you to The Healthy Brain Podcast…where we stand up and speak Truth about what’s healthy in this world……you won’t find any sugar-coatin’ in this space.
My guest is a Certified Permaculture Designer and Master Gardner. She’s the brains behind a nonprofit agricultural education center in Hempstead, Texas for Texas schools, teachers, children, corporations and volunteers since the ’90s, attracting thousands of students each year who come to learn where their food comes from. Why all this fuss about where your food comes from? To answer that question and more, welcome to the show, the CEO and Founder of Blackwood Educational Land Institute, Cath Conlon. Welcome. I’m excited to meet you, Cath, and discuss the importance of building community through regenerative practices and how it can make a positive impact on our mental health. Before we dive into this topic though, if you’d please share with us a little backstory of Blackwood. Was it a dream of yours to own a farm and teach others? Did the business organically grow on its own?
It organically grew on its own. When my son was born in ’83, I could not imagine how I was going to raise a young man that was ecologically sensitive, intelligent and a great sense of humor in a city of millions. This was family land, so I got permission or I asked him to please not raise cattle on it anymore. Let me see what we could do by coming out here. We started coming and it was for him that my focus was getting him outside, but he was a little tiny and I started inviting his elementary, nursery, and middle school groups to come out. Eventually, one school came on Friday and they were here every Friday the whole rest of the school year. I realized that it was not just for one person. It was for people that I had an interest in sharing what I knew and what I knew in my heart because of being raised on a farm.
Where did you get the name?
Blackwood? That was my grandmother, the most important woman in my life and an amazing person. She’s the one that introduced me to this natural world.
You must have had a close relationship with her?
A very close relationship, yes.
What would you say was most instrumental to you?
I was the eldest of five and she played with me because being the eldest of five children, I was the adult. As soon as my grandmother came on site, she and I were kids together so we played.
That’s good because all of us kids out here need attention. Cath, what is your definition of regenerative farming? That’s a little bit about what you all do out here, right?
Yes. I like to think of ourselves before we’re anything else, we’re soil farmers. We pay close attention to what we grow and what we put into the soil. One time we had a little diesel spill and we freaked out. It’s like, “We’ve got diesel in the soil. What are we going to do?” We called A&M and A&M said, “Don’t worry about it. Just make some compost tea and poured over the area. The microbes in the compost tea will eat up all of the diesel.” I was excited about that. When we make compost tea, if you look at it underneath the microscope, you get to see all the different varieties of microbes doing somersaults, cartwheels, spinning and twisting. They’re so alive. When you show that to a child, all of a sudden that dirt that’s underneath their feet becomes living soil.
How can it help in regenerating the soil as far as helping the planet and human health at the same time?
When we till soil constantly and leave it raw, we’re releasing CO2s into the atmosphere, which is not good for our climate, number one. Number two, every time we go in and fess with the soil, we’re breaking up the soil blocks that the microbes live in. Those microbes need to stay as a whole block so that they can do for us what they want to do. Every time we go in and till it, we’re breaking it all up and then they have to start all over every day and that’s not a good thing. Most of the foods that we’re familiar with and that we eat now are all annuals. As a farm, we are morphing from being primarily an annual farm to being primarily a perennial farm so that we can plant our legumes, sunflowers for oils, kerns of grains for breads, pastas and things like that and almost have a full diet in one field and it’s all perennial. We go and take care of it and we harvest it and then we separate out all of the seeds. We take care of it and we harvest it. We are not tilling the ground. We are in the midst of switching to be mostly a perennial.
The rotation of the crops.
The rotation comes in. In the back we’ve got 10 acres that were dedicated to strictly regenerative farming. That’s where we have cattle. We put our first cattle out there.Too often, when you are doing the right thing, you're going to be attacked by people who want things to go in a different direction. Click To Tweet
What did you get and how many cows did you get?
We’ve got four and they’re Brangus cattle.
Who did you learn? Did you call someone specifically?
We borrowed the cows because we don’t know. We’re learning about how many cattle go back there and what grasses they’re going to like to eat. As soon as we let the cattle out, we had a seed mix that was put together specifically for us because we are right on the cusp of where the Blackland Prairie, the Savannah Post Oak, and the Piney Woods ecosystems or biomes meet. There’s a special group of grasses and things that will like to grow back there. We let the cattle out and then myself, another farmer neighbor and his son River, we all went out and spreading all the seeds. We’re doing that because the seed, the cattle will then punch all the seed. It’s like a Seadrill will punch all the seeds down into the ground. They will poop and they’ll do their thing and fertilize it, and all those seeds will start growing up. All the grasses are perennials. When they first come up, we will watch the cattle and we’ll let them nibble on it a little bit and then we’ll take them off so that the grasses can establish themselves over the next year. We’ll have them come in and go out.
It’s healthy for the soil, which in turn is healthy for us. We’re going to eat the cows.
People think they don’t want to eat worms or crickets, but chickens eat worms, crickets and grasshoppers. We, in turn, eat the chickens. They’re digesting a lot of the food for us. Eventually, once we get the cattle on there and we learn what their habits are, we’ll bring in sheep and red wattle pigs. There will be a coming and going constantly.
Where are you going to put the pigs?
We’re going to let them roam in that ten acres in the back.
What will they be fed?
We’re going to do mob grazing. They will be in a close-quarter. They’re not going to roam free out there. There’ll be in a pen. They’ll stay there for two days and then we’ll move the pen. The reason that we’re doing that is because we’re putting in asparagus patches. We’re putting in all perennial foods. We’re protecting our American beautyberries. We’re protecting the ground cherries that grow naturally back there.
I’m assuming you don’t use glyphosate in the battle with the weeds here.
What’s your take on glyphosate and the impact it’s made on our lands, which impacts our health? Where do you start? Thank you, Monsanto.
It seems evil. One of the sad pieces about it for me is that’s what Monsanto creates is glyphosate. Monsanto is a huge supporter of many of these universities around here. When we call to partner with them or bring professors over here to talk, sometimes they feel like they have a script that they don’t want to interact with us. I feel sad about that because there are many young farmers out there and farmer wannabes that they’re not being exposed to all that they could be exposed to.You can talk about nature all day long and never talk about food, but you cannot talk about food without talking about nature. Click To Tweet
The truth needs to be told. It’s the right thing to do.
Oftentimes, when you are doing the right thing, you’re going to be attacked by people that disagree and want things to go in a different direction. It’s hard. I wish I had armor on my back, but I don’t. Those things hurt.
Knowing that you’re doing the right thing and that they don’t see it or they don’t want to be open mind to it. Cath, we were brought up in a world where we didn’t have electronics. We played outside and barefoot. Our mom called us in when it was time to eat. We wouldn’t even think of spending the majority of our time indoors. We thrived outdoors. It’s the way it is to connect with the land. You’re a believer in taking the education to the young people. You’ve got something called Farm School here at Blackwood. I’d love for you to tell our audience a little bit about it and why you feel that it’s vital to educate the children in this world?
When I was little, one of the things that said safety to me was when I would hear the wooden blinds beating against each other because the breeze was blowing through the window. I would feel the breeze coming through the window and I knew that my mom put me to bed to take a nap in the afternoon. I would hear and later on, I realized that those were crop duster planes. It’s in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and it broke families apart. It meant that families had to stop being outside, move into town so that everybody could go to work instead of children being able to be outside, playing, being wild Indians, running through the woods and forgetting that the sun is going to set a little bit.
It’s not just the children. It’s the whole family because when the Industrial Revolution came in, it broke the family apart. It was no longer a safe place for grandparents, women, and children to work or to go out and enjoy. It was the man that was out there doing the work. I want to show that farms are beautiful, safe and a good place to raise a family and children. Being a farmer is you’ve got to wear a lot of hats. You’ve got to be smart, a chemist, a chef, a horticulturist, a teacher and all of those things. You have to be strong, an Olympian. You’ve got to work on your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual strength in order to be a successful farmer. You’ve got to have as many streams of revenue coming in as you possibly can.
You’ve done a great job of that here setting an example.
Part of that is exposing that to children. We have a couple of compost tea brewers here. When I think about a woman at home in her kitchen, making tea, it’s clean. Her teapot is clean. All the brewers here, they get washed, slushed and scrubbed, so that they’re clean. We want a mother to be able to come out here and want to put her hand in that. If it’s not clean, why would anybody want to put their hand in there? It’s all hard. We’ve taken on an enormous task and it’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s also one of the most rewarding. It’s easy to be criticized. You have to look beyond that and know that you’re doing the absolute best that you can.
Would you perhaps have a story to tell if a young person or someone who has visited the farm here in Blackwood whose life has been transformed in one way or another maybe through one of your camps or one of your events, or you hear a lot of stories?
We have a camp going on, Blackwood Nature Camp. When we started off, our original point was nature. Many people’s eyes would glaze over when we would talk about nature. At some point, not too long ago, we put food in front of nature because you can talk about nature all day long and never talk about food, but you cannot talk about food without talking about nature. That was a huge game-changer for us when we put food out front. We have Nature Camp going on. The young man that is our camp director started off here many years ago as a camper. He’s the camp director this summer. His name is Cyrus Shafiei, and he’s a fabulous young man. There’s another young man here who’s been coming to camp since he was seven.
How old is he now?
He’s 14. He says, “This is where I want to work. This is where I want to go to camp as many weeks as my parents in Blackwood will let me be here. This is where I want to have my bar mitzvah,” which he did. “This is where I want to get married.” This is where his life is. This is where he feels alive, valued and appreciated.
That connectedness, which is important.
There have been several times when I’ve stopped to call parents and asked them if they would please share the name and what we do with their friends and their family. Many times, they have said, “I would love to, but my son doesn’t want me to because that’s his special place. My daughter doesn’t want to because it’s where they get to go and be the person that they see themselves being because somebody is going to treat him a certain way.”
People are still searching for that magic pill to prolong their life or protect themselves from heart attacks, dementia. We have an epidemic of chronic disease here in the United States, but ultimately we are responsible for ourselves and teaching our children the path to a healthy mind and body. For those who don’t have access to this wonderful habitat out here in Blackwood, what would be your message to all the moms, dads, maybe grandparents raising children with the mindset of eating clean, nutritious foods? What would be your top three strategies to educate them at home? What can parents and grandparents do?Now more than ever, it is important for us to take responsibility for where our nutrition comes from. Click To Tweet
I would raise as much food at home as you can. You may not be able to have your whole garden. We used to do edible garden tours in Houston and then we stopped, but I fully expect that we’ll go back and do that again. There are people that had turned their whole backyard into grapefruit orchards. Bob Randall with Urban Harvest, his whole yard is a huge giant food forest. It’s wonderful. There are lots of people that have done that. Some people, it’s not a place that a child would go at and would be able to do somersaults in. They need both of those places, where can they roam and go wild and where can they roam and pick food? They’re two different worlds. I would grow as much of it as I can. I would focus on soil. You’ve got to be a scientist. It’s not a place that to just go play around in. We’ve got to pay close attention to what’s in our soil because that is what will be in your food that is what will be in your body and that is what affects your brain.
Cath, you are full of knowledge, but I’ve got one more question for you. It’s a simple question. We’re sitting here and we are in the midst of a series of unprecedented events here in our nation. How important is it to create your own garden these days?
It’s ever more important. Whenever I speak to groups, I usually start off saying, “This is what I believe.” With our population growing exponentially, every time there’s a new batch of germs that come on hand, we have new germ colonies that are created constantly. That means that our foundation of knowledge is also changing constantly. This is what I believe now. It may change tomorrow because of that, but it’s ever more important for people to begin to take responsibility for where their nutrition comes from.
If someone is living on some land or even a little neighborhood, they can create a garden.
Raise it in pots.
If you’re in an apartment, a few pots.
Grow it because it takes you outside. We need the sunshine. One of the greatest remedies to fighting this pandemic is getting vitamin D and that comes from the sun. We need to be outside, breathe the fresh air and generate our fresh air. You’re going to do that by having a garden.
Cath, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share with our readers your stance on healthy living and community through regenerative practices and everything that’s going on here at Blackwood. What an example you have said for many people around the world, honestly. You’re giving back to the next generations, teaching them the importance of not only caring for this planet but sharing the knowledge of community and what healthy looks like, especially when it comes to mental health. Cath, your heart is good. I see that and it’s through your hard work out here. You have mindfully created such a beautiful oasis for others and we appreciate you. Please tell our audience where we can find you, your website, social media platforms and all that so we can learn more about you.
Cath, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an honor to be a part of the Blackwood Educational Institute. Thank you again for being a guest on the show. God bless you.
It’s been an honor as well. God bless you. Thanks.
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About Cath Conlon
Cath Conlon is a certified permaculture designer and master gardener. She is the CEO and founder of the non-profit agricultural education center, Blackwood Educational Land Institute in Hempstead, Texas for Texas schools, teachers, children, corporations, and volunteers since the 90’s attracting thousands of students each year.