Land Stewardship Project soil health team member Doug Nopar had a challenge for Bret Hesla.
If Hesla — who had been commissioned by Land Stewardship Project to write a couple songs highlighting the growing farmer interest in building soil health — was able to work “mycorrhizal fungi” into the lyrics, there was an extra hundred bucks in it for him.
“I keep living roots, year round living in the soil, pulling carbon out of the sky,” Hesla sings in “Back to Soil.” “They pull it down underground, then it’s shot right out, to feed the little microbes, mycorrhizal fungi.”
The Land Stewardship Project recently released a pair of music videos highlighting key themes of the growing farmer interest in building soil health. The two songs, “Got Cover Crops” and “Back to Soil,” were commissioned from Hesla, a singer-songwriter and Austin, Minn., native, and performed with the band they decided to call Six Feet Deep. Video editing and production was done by Winona-area native Kobi Dansingburg.
“During this moment in time when everybody’s stressed and strapped in a lot of different ways and not able to gather, we’re hoping this is a way people can connect in a different way,” said Nopar, who recently left LSP after more than 25 years on the staff there. “It’s important to be creative and to be resilient, and this is a way to do that.”
Going into the songwriting project, Hesla already had some familiarity with Land Stewardship Project and their objectives.
Hesla worked for LSP in a small capacity about 30 years ago and has done some other cultural work with LSP, a sing-along program about taking care of the land and soil. Hesla has a background in biology and plant ecology, but didn’t grow up on a farm.
“We have dabbled in cultural work for much of our history,” Nopar said. “It’s a way to reach people on a different level.”
Work began on the songs about a year and a half ago, with Hesla meeting farmers, writing lyrics and getting the melody right.
Hesla visited the farms of soil health farmers and Land Stewardship Project members Tom and Alma Cotter of Austin and Kaleb and Angie Anderson of Goodhue, Minn.
“I was clear that I could do this, but I couldn’t speak with authority,” Hesla said. “I wanted to hear farmers talking about what they’re doing and try to use their experience and their language and reflect that in any song that I do.”
Hesla spent the day at Tom Cotter’s farm, taking notes and listening to Cotter and the other farmers in attendance at a field day at Cotter’s farm in Mower County, where his family has been farming for 140 years.
Cotter, who was one of the farmers featured in the videos, has worked with cover crops for about 20 years. To maximize his soil building efforts, Cotter grazes beef cattle on cover crops deep into the fall.
“I believe to get healthy crops and healthy food you need to start with healthy soils,” Cotter said before a 2018 field day on his farm. “That happens by giving food and shelter to soil life. Cover crops do that. We started putting no-till and strip-till together with cover crops and then we saw soil health benefits skyrocket. My cover crops have helped my reduced tillage practices work better.”
Kaleb Anderson spent time talking with Hesla about soil health and recommended the book “Dirt To Soil: One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture,” which Hesla read to get a deeper understanding of the subject matter he was writing about in his songs.
“Both farmers really talked about the importance of passing on their farm and their knowledge to the next generation,” Hesla said. “Just the excitement for what they’re doing and their enthusiasm and outreach, it was really eye-opening to me. I listened and took a bunch of notes.
“Regenerative agriculture has been fascinating to learn about and exciting. It certainly matches with my ethic of taking care of the land that we live on and all of us doing our part, not just farmers, and how that works together with climate change and supporting local growers and sustainable living.”
At about the time everything was coming together on Hesla’s end, the coronavirus pandemic hit, making it impossible to get into a studio to record with other musicians. After some equipment upgrades, Hesla got a group of musicians together to record their parts on their own. The songs came together with the help of the sound engineer Matthew Zimmerman, who mixed the different parts together.
“In March, I didn’t know what Zoom was,” Hesla said. “It took some time for me to wrap my head around the process, but it turned out great.
“I’m looking forward to playing these songs in person with the band I pulled together for the project.”
Nopar said the hope for LSP is that the videos can build the energy and community that’s been growing among farmers interested in improving soil health in the Upper Midwest.
“The songs have a good rhythm and the tune stays with you,” Nopar said. “One of our sister organizations in Illinois said they’ll be singing it when they have their annual gathering virtually in January.”
The music videos are available for public use and at no charge. The videos and the audio can be accessed through the Land Stewardship Project website, landstewardshipproject.org/soilmusic.
“Between the upbeat rhythm and the catchy lyrics, it’s hard to get these songs out of your head,” Nopar said. “Music can help keep us all connected to a larger goal — in this case, building the soil and the vitality of our farms, and these songs do just that. We’re hoping this music can help inject a bit of hope and levity and support for those that are doing the right thing out on the land.”