From their picturesque five-acre avocado ranch in Ojai, California, Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell have become darlings of the environmental movement via the award-winning documentaries and feature films they have written and directed with their production company Big Picture Ranch. These titles include Good Fortune, Pump, The Big Fix, and Fuel; for the latter, they drove across the country in a car powered by algae gasoline.
Now the husband-and-wife team are set to debut their latest film, Kiss the Ground, a documentary about the movement to reverse climate change by pulling carbon out of the air and putting it back into the soil. (The film’s world premiere had been scheduled for April 22—the 50th anniversary of Earth Day—at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, but the festival is currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.) Narrated by Woody Harrelson, Kiss the Ground spotlights the environmentalists and farmers who are leading the movement across the globe and features such eco-minded celebrities as Gisele Bündchen, Tom Brady, and Patricia Arquette. (Rebecca Tickell is herself a former actress—she starred in the Christmas movie Prancer when she was just nine years old.)
We asked the Tickells about the new documentary and why they think carbon farming can be a powerful tool for reversing climate change.
ELLE Decor: Your new film, Kiss the Ground, is all about soil. Give me the dirt.
Rebecca Harrell Tickell: In very general terms, the film is about how to reverse global warming. That is the big challenge we face as a species, and we now have a clear, definitive, actionable solution to that problem. Simply put, our soil is the largest carbon “sink,” or rather “sponge,” that we have on Planet Earth. So if we can put the carbon that’s in the atmosphere into the world’s soils, we will begin to solve the climate crisis. What’s exciting about this solution is that it is also the basis for alleviating the global freshwater crisis, as well as the global desertification crisis (which is causing mass human migration), and it will stabilize many of the endangered ecosystems across our planet. It can be done in a matter of decades, for a pittance of what governments are already spending on these symptoms today.
ED: What is “regenerative” farming and gardening, in layman’s terms?
Josh Tickell: “Regenerate” means to rebuild or to repair the damage that’s been done. Just like the human liver and certain other organic systems, ecosystems are self-regenerating. Sometimes organic systems need a “jumpstart” or a catalyst. That’s where regenerative gardening, farming, and ranching come into play. These are ways of caring for the earth using soil-building practices, which actually increase the carbon- and water-holding capacity of soil and grow more plants (including crops and even lawn grass). Regenerative care generally involves not tilling soil, using organic and/or completely nontoxic pesticides, and growing crops and plants in all places where soil would otherwise be bare.
ED: How big is the regenerative movement? What is the potential?
JT: There are more than 100 NGOs and brands actively engaged in making sure their supply chains are regenerative. Globally we have an estimated several million acres under regenerative care now, but the growth is exponential. We should expect to see no less than 1 billion acres under regenerative care in the next several years, and then it will likely double and double again in a short period of time thereafter. The bottom line is that it is more profitable per acre to farm, ranch, or garden this way, so even though this has many ecological benefits, the ultimate driver will be positive economics.
ED: Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady, the singer Jason Mraz, and others are featured in the film, and Woody Harrelson narrates. How did you get such high-profile personalities involved?
RHT: Along with Ian Somerhalder and Patricia and David Arquette, they are all advocates for the Kiss the Ground movement. If we want to live on this beautiful planet as a caretaker species and hand a bountiful ecological legacy to our children, regeneration is the key. That’s why this movement has such varied voices and is growing so quickly. It just makes sense on every level.
ED: Give me three ways we can all make our homes Kiss the Ground–friendly.
JT: Composting is something almost everyone can do—even if you live in an apartment. There are compost kits that fit almost every type of kitchen, so that’s a great place to start. Beyond compost, every lawn in America can become regenerative by first removing toxic sprays like Roundup, which is a known carcinogen. Using different types of seed (instead of just one type of grass) can make a lawn healthier and more robust. Another big way to regenerate the Earth is to eat food that comes from regenerative agriculture. The best way to know if your food is regenerative is to ask your local farmer at a farmers’ market. Organic is just the baseline; ask if they till their farm. Since so much of the organic food out there today grown is in a monocrop system that is denuded of life, regenerative food has much more nutrient density and is grown in healthy soil that is generally not tilled or sprayed with toxic chemicals. We vote with our dollars every time we buy food.
ED: You live on an avocado ranch in Ojai, where you make environmental films. How did you develop that focus? Are you sequestering carbon on your ranch?
RHT: We bought a monocrop avocado orchard that has taken us eight years to restore. It had been so heavily sprayed that it took several years to even see our first weeds. Now it’s a lush food forest with a variety of perennials and good weeds that regenerate the soil and help our pollinators. But it’s still a work in progress. We moved here from Los Angeles to raise our family: our five-year-old is Athena, and our three-year-old is Jedi. They both think of themselves as “protectors of Mama Earth,” and they love nature and eating food that we grow.
ED: Josh, your book Kiss the Ground is about the food we eat. Is there a Kiss the Ground diet? What would it consist of?
JT: A regenerative diet is a mostly vegan diet; it reduces the consumption of meat to about one-third of what we are consuming today. But most important, if we do choose to eat meat, it needs to come from a regenerative source that improves the quality of the soil and is humanely killed. Animal integration back onto our farms is a critical step that we must take, the way that nature intended.
ED: Rebecca, you are a former actress. How has that background helped in your work as an environmental activist?
RHT: Starring in Prancer at an early age taught me that films have the power to deeply move people, and even to change the world. I have always been committed to making films that stir consciousness and connect people to our beautiful planet.
ED: In 2009, you drove across America in your car, the Algaeus, the first vehicle to be powered by algae gasoline. Do you still drive it?
JT: Driving that car was incredible! But now we have great electric vehicle options that don’t burn any fuel. We have two electric cars and a big solar array that powers them.
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