Destination Regeneration: Film shares South Dakota ranchers’ story
Roy Thompson, who ranches with his family near Akaska, South Dakota, was just 20 years old when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Doctors also noticed that he had high liver enzymes, which they thought were related to the fact that he was fighting Epstein Barr virus at the time, but five years later, he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a severe inflammation of his liver and bile ducts. Destination Regeneration tells Thompson’s story of learning to heal his body using healthy foods, and then learning to produce healthy, nutrient dense food for his family and others on their ranch
Producers Joe Dickie, Forrest Fox and Ron Nichols believe that there’s a story to tell in the regenerative agriculture movement, and Nichols says it’s a story full of hope. The documentary focuses on the human aspect of regenerative ag as well as the science behind it, the agronomic impact and how all of these factors impact bringing new generations back to the farm.
“Regenerative agriculture offers hope for farm families, the environment, and the climate; it offers better food, more sources for local food, and hope for struggling rural communities,” Nichols said. “It offers hope for cities and suburban communities, where people don’t have good access to pasture raised proteins and don’t understand the link between food and nutrition.”
“If you had told me when I was in high school that I would be passionate about nutrition, human health and soil health, I would have laughed at you,” Thompson said. “I used to think that Mountain Dew was good for you, because high fructose corn syrup comes from a plant, and brominated vegetable oil is obviously from a ‘vegetable!'”
Regenerative ag has been a learning journey for Thompson and his family.
“I realized at one point that we weren’t growing anything that we could eat,” he said.
At his lowest point, when the medication he was taking for Crones disease quit working and he had severe liver disease, he remembers how distinctly he could feel the difference when he ate something healthy versus something unhealthy.
“I realized that food matters,” he said. “When I ate something like a slice of whole grain bread, I would immediately feel an uptick in my brain, my eyes, my overall wellbeing. If I ate something that wasn’t good for me, I would feel so pulled down and tense, and obviously would have to make several trips to the bathroom immediately if I ate something I shouldn’t. I noticed the same thing with stress. I felt everything in my body, and realized that unhealthy stress was not good, and that food really did make a difference in my overall health.”
At the same time that his health was failing, Thompson said, their ranch was struggling financially.
“Our banker said that there was a hole in the bucket and we needed to figure out how to plug the hole,” he said. “We were doing everything we knew conventionally to be profitable, and we were still losing money. When we had a good crop we’d have low markets; when the market was good we’d be hit by hail or have some other disaster. It was just hard.”
Thompson wondered if he should quit farming and ranching, but then learned that just like his body was able to get back to health, the land can do the same.
“We signed up to plant a season long diverse mix cover crop for the NRCS bee program,” he said. “Every two weeks I would go out to monitor the honeybees, and I was absolutely blown away by how the plants were thriving with no synthetic inputs. I learned that it was not only about the honeybees. There was so much life that came back, not only honeybees but beetles, dragonflies, ladybugs, all kinds of beneficial insects; they were crawling all over. And it wasn’t just the insects; I saw pheasants, deer, coyotes and other wildlife returning to those acres, to that ecosystem.”
“I also knew that there was feed value in the cover crop field, that we got to graze it after the frost in the fall, and there would be a thick bed of residue for fertilizing next year’s crop,” he said. “I started noticing all the diversity in the prairie as well.”
Thompson became a certified health coach to educate himself on food, nutrition, and how what he ate contributed to his health. He’s currently recording the first season of his new podcast called ‘Outta the Cage’ in a grain bin turned recording studio on the ranch. He plans to share the story of his health journey, from drinking Mountain Dew to drinking bone broth made from their own home raised, grass fed beef.
“We as people want to know why we should do something, like eating real food that’s not stripped of nutrients,” he said. “Once we realize that it’s because it makes you feel better, and we start doing things that we can change because we can feel a difference, that’s when change really sticks.”
The changes didn’t happen overnight, and Thompson said that he’s still learning new things in his health journey and in the regenerative practices they implement on the ranch.
Forrest Fox says the mission driving the documentary is to tell the story about the revolution in regenerative agriculture.
“It’s all real, there’s nothing contrived or scripted about this. We’re strictly here to tell the truth in a way that’s beautifully and cinematically compelling, but that is honest, first and foremost. We’re hoping that generating interest in regenerative ag through this film will drive consumers to demand more nutrient dense food products, which will in turn drive demand for the producers.”
Fox said that he got interested in food sources long before his involvement in this project. On a trip to Paris, he discovered that the butcher shop had portraits of local farmers on the walls. The chicken he purchased there had a tag so he knew which farmer raised it.
“I thought that was so cool, and it all tasted so much better,” he said. “We’re trying to encourage people to get back to old, traditional, pre-dustbowl ag practices, taking care of the land with minimal inputs. It is still the minority but it is growing; about five percent of farms nationwide are now using regenerative practices.”
Joe Dickie has been filming for the South Dakota Grassland Coalition for nearly a decade. Through this collaborative process, he’s gotten to meet many farmers and ranchers, and he enjoys the time spent visiting around farmhouse dinner tables over meals.
“We’ve seen so many amazing grasslands, gotten to meet amazing people and get glimpse into their lives,” he said. “We all sit at the table for a meal and pray together; we see family values that have been lost for decades; it really feels like stepping back in time. We’ve heard the best stories after we finish filming.”
Dickie hopes that sharing the stories of these down to earth folks, their land, their livestock and their families, will inspire people to be more aware of where their food comes from.
“The average person has heard so much about climate change that they tune it out,” he said. “We want to help people understand why it’s important to source your food from farmers and ranchers who care for the land, and are growing food in a way that’s healthy for the soil, water and land, as well as the people and the livestock.”
Dickie has a personal reason for his journey, his mother died of cancer when she was only 53. He’s had the idea for this documentary series in the back of his mind for a while, but said it kept getting put to the back burner until he mentioned it to Ron Nichols about a year and a half ago.
“Ron got really excited, and it turned out he had been thinking about doing a similar project,” Dickie said. “He wrote up the proposal and did all the leg work to get grant funding in place. That finally got the ball rolling.”
Now, they are hoping that having their film featured at several film festivals this fall will be the catalyst for bringing in funding to produce nine more episodes. The first public showing will be at the South Dakota Film Festival in Aberdeen, South Dakota, at 5:30 pm on Saturday, September 16. The film is also scheduled to be shown at the Ag and Art film festival in Vacaville, California on September 17, and at the Breckenridge, Colorado film festival on September 24.
“This first episode will give people a good taste of what we want to do,” Dickie said. “There are so many amazing people out there with amazing stories. Roy’s story is amazing, how he focused on eating right and ranching right and turned things around with his health. We’re always mindful of the fact that everyone is on their own journey. Maybe they don’t feel like they’re doing everything ‘right’ but they are still making small moves in the right direction. A lot of little steps make a big difference.”
Ron Nichols started working for the Soil Health Academy after retiring from his career as a public affairs officer at the national level of the NRCS. He helped to launch and run the Unlocking Secrets in the Soil campaign through NRCS, but when he retired, he thought he wanted to move on to some other topic.
“I became so impressed by the courage and the potential of farmers and ranchers in regenerative agriculture that it became more than just work for me, it became a passion,” he said. “I had had this vision for a film series for a while and had put it on paper; when I met Joe through Understanding Ag, the for profit consulting business connected to the Soil Health Academy, that’s when it came to life. Through the series, we hope to follow the journey of farmers and ranchers through their transitions from conventional agricultural practices to regenerative practices. It’s not easy, and many of the farmers I have interviewed only took their regenerative journeys when their backs were against the wall.”
“Joe is a fantastic visual story teller, and we have a good team,” Nichols said. “We’re really anxious to tell more of these stories.”
Funding for this pilot episode came through the Wells Fargo Foundation, which gave the producers a grant through the Soil Health Academy. Dickie, Fox and Nichols are hoping that exposure from these upcoming film festivals will help them find sponsors for their upcoming episodes.
“First and foremost, we want to be honest storytellers,” Nichols said. “We want to be respectful and genuine. We love these families, respect their stories and admire them deeply. Their stories are so compelling.”
“We all know how stressful farming and ranching is; suicide rates among farmers and ranchers are frighteningly high,” he said. “That is likely attributed to a lot of the stress, which is often financially based. This film gives us the opportunity to expose a broader audience to the hope in healthy soil. Producers choosing regenerative practices are becoming more profitable, happier, and more successful. That’s the legacy we want to leave behind.”
The Thompson family is very grateful to be a part of this film and they are excited to see what the Lord does with it.
“We all have a unique place and unique opportunities to share our stories,” Roy Thompson said. “We know we’re not going to create a utopia by what we’re doing here, we’re not going to save anything: Jesus is the savior. We need to steward what God has given to the best of our ability; whether it’s our family, our health, our soil, we need to steward it to His glory.”