Filmmakers Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell are trying to build a global movement from the ground up. Which is fitting because for them, it’s all about the soil.

In 1997, Rebecca was a 17-year-old actress (the holiday film Prancer) when she first caught a glimpse of her future husband on The Today Show. Josh was an environmental activist capturing global attention for driving his French fry oil-fueled Veggie Van across the country. A decade or so later, it was “love at first sight” when the two formally met at a self-help workshop. They eventually decided to get married, co-produce and co-direct films, and try to change the world in the process.

The couple’s latest film, Common Ground, is a follow-up to 2020’s Kiss the Ground and is the second in a planned trilogy of documentaries that feature regenerative farming, a method they believe is crucial for saving the planet by replenishing topsoil and mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration. Common Ground, narrated by Laura Dern, Jason Momoa, Woody Harrelson and Donald Glover, among others, won the Human/Nature Award at the Tribeca Festival in 2023 and, for the first time, will be screened nationwide on Monday, April 22 — Earth Day.

Common Ground Key Art scaled 1

For the past 12 years, the Tickells have been practicing what they preach. Operating from their 5-acre regenerative avocado ranch in Ojai, California, which also serves as a film studio, Rebecca focuses on the narratives and finances while Josh handles the crews and tries to infuse the films with as much “sciencey” material as necessary. The couple recently spoke with Capital & Main from their ranch, where they have made a dozen films, raised two children and continue to wage their campaign against the climate crisis.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Capital & Main: So, how did you first learn about regenerative farming?

Rebecca Harrell Tickell: Well, we made a bunch of movies about oil, and we figured the only thing harder and duller to make films about would be soil.

Josh Tickell: And we both also have our own individual stories with farming. I volunteered on a Rudolf Steiner farm in former East Germany where I saw them using techniques to sustainably grow fuel and use that fuel in their tractor. They increased soil matter over time, and their vegetables, cheese and meats were amazing. This was the ’90s. We didn’t even have the words “regenerative agriculture.” People didn’t even get sustainability. This is before [former Vice President] Al Gore screwed in an LED light bulb. And I was like, “Hello, this is big — this is a breakthrough. We can sustain our species.”

And so, that began a multiyear journey looking at agriculture and soil in an inclusive model, not an exclusive model where we go, “Oh, we’ve got to cut out humans; that’s the problem.” Or “We’ve got to cut out animals; that’s the problem.”


Rebecca: I come from a legacy farming family, and I’ve witnessed firsthand the real-life impacts of chronic chemical exposure. Like others, everybody in my family thought they were doing the right thing when they stopped tilling and picked up DDT and [the herbicide] 2,4-D, not realizing the health connection to that type of exposure for a prolonged period.

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And then, we’ve got the clock ticking, and everybody is talking about emissions, and there’s no agreement or solution in sight, and you have the world basically going into a state of paralysis. And the most simple, elegant biological answer is literally right beneath our feet. 

But what makes regenerative agriculture the answer in solving the climate crisis?

Josh: So, if we look at where the climate conversation has gone post [Gore’s 2006 documentary] An Inconvenient Truth, it’s almost entirely focused on emissions mitigation. We were at a very high-level, sophisticated event recently in L.A. with scientists and entertainers, and there was a speech in which the person said, “Carbon is public enemy No. 1.” That sentiment is the foundation for a misunderstanding of climate. Carbon is the basis of all life. Humans are carbon-based life-forms. So, no carbon, no life. So, if carbon is public enemy No. 1, this is somebody who is anti-life and literally mangling a fundamental understanding of biology and chemistry.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem because the concentration is too high. So, if you back off the rhetoric and look more at the fundamental science, the International Energy Agency predicts that we will be burning almost as much essentially carbon-based fuel in 2050 as we burn today. The mix of fuels will change. We will use far less coal as a planet. We will use far less oil as a planet, but we will burn more natural gas, and we will use a lot of resources to build batteries and solar and wind.

The misunderstanding of the movement is that within the next 20 to 25 years, solar and wind and all these things will get us to net zero. Using the best predictive models, we have to say no. We’ll be adding 1 to 2 billion human beings into a Western lifestyle. So, we’re going to radically increase the energy footprint of humanity.

So, in a way, this is so incredibly depressing — we’re going to miss the target. And so, that then begs the question of what do we do? There’s three simple places you can put carbon: the oceans, the atmosphere or the land. We’ve put as much in the atmosphere as is plausible or safe. The oceans are at max capacity. So, just by process of elimination, we’re down to one location where we can put it: the land. So, the fastest, most scalable, most replicable, cheapest tech we have for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has existed for over a million years, and it’s the microbial photosynthetic relationship of the carbon cycle of the soil. There is no technology that we have that can scale to 10 billion acres other than regenerative agriculture. It’s not that it’s the best solution. It’s the only solution.

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Rebecca: Simultaneously, we’re degenerating the planet. We’ve lost two-thirds of the topsoil through our conventional agriculture, and a good portion of that carbon was released through those agricultural practices.

Corporations are currently making huge profits through mainstream farming practices, so they will battle any attempts to change the status quo. How do you overcome that?

Josh: Well, here’s the difficult thing about a true climate-crisis mitigation strategy. It involves virtually all sectors of the economy and government, including the people we don’t like, meaning liberals on the coasts are going to need to work with people who are in red states in the center of the country and vice versa.

There is going to be greenwashing. There are going to be companies that attempt to use this toward their own advantage with abandon. And then, there’s going to be carbon credit trading, which the environmental movement will detest. Because to make the system work, the heroes of sequestration are going to be farmers and ranchers, the vast majority of whom are small landowners in developing countries. And for them to have an extra $10 to $20 to a hundred dollars a month in income is the difference between poverty and not poverty. And so, as the markets develop, they’re going to pay farmers to put carbon into the soil, and inevitably, because humans always trade stuff — they trade seashells, money, Bitcoin — they’re going to trade carbon. What it’s going to mean is that polluting companies can buy carbon credits. 

And that is an unfortunate hard reality of the system because if we don’t incentivize the close to a billion people who are subsistence farming on the planet, we’re not going to sequester this carbon in time. So, there’s going to be unintended consequences in terms of polluters getting away with polluting. We have to know that the system is going to be imperfect. 

Author and professor Scott Galloway says the No. 1 existential crisis that we’re facing isn’t climate change, but it’s division because unless you get people to work together, you can’t solve the climate crisis. So, what gives you hope that any approach, including yours, is feasible in a world ravaged by divisions?

Josh: That is the power of a decentralized movement like this. This is not a charismatic movement. This is not a cult. You do not have an elected official as a leader. It doesn’t rely on a science body. It doesn’t rely on somebody signing a piece of legislation. It relies on real people who have their hands in the earth every day, and we can count on them to want to produce food in better ways.

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When we premiered Kiss the Ground in 2020, there were approximately 250,000 acres of regenerative agriculture in the United States. We’re now in the third year of distribution of that film, and it remains the main catalyst for putting 35 million acres of land into certified regenerative agriculture.

The commitment for this film is to transform 100 million acres through regenerative agriculture. That’s 10% of U.S. agriculture, which means 10% of farmers are actually making money producing healthy food and producing, overall, more calories per acre. According to social scientists, 10% is a tipping point. Once you’ve got that 10% beachhead, it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. The goal with the third film, Groundswell, is a billion acres globally. That’s 10% of global agriculture. If we achieve it, it will be the largest single climate effort ever achieved.

Rebecca: We have to look at what we have in common versus what our differences are so that we can continue to move forward in this very short period of time that we have to course-correct as a movement, as a whole. And I think we’re going to look back on this time as the critical moment where we either decided to band together and find that common ground or that this was the moment where we just accepted that we had 50 harvests left.

You’ve been criticized by some people who say that your focus on holistic grazing in your films is not scientifically backed and that it is a flawed strategy.

Josh: The way we raise cattle today is a huge carbon and methane problem, and the way we deal with forests, especially in the developing world, is a massive carbon problem. One does not cause the other. So, it’s conflating problems and causality.

The regenerative model of holistic-managed grazing is to restore what the ecosystem used to do. The only way to sequester the amount of carbon that we need to sequester is to create deep roots. You can’t grow crops on three-quarters of the world’s landmass, so the only way to sequester that carbon on what is essentially deserted land is to grow tall grasses. And the only way to get tall grasses to grow across those lands is to use grazing animals. You pack them together, and you move them all the time. That way, they don’t eat the grass down to the roots, which is what almost all grazing does today. That’s lazy, and it’s destroying the soil. If they’re not packed together and they’re not moving, they’re not regenerating the soil.

So yeah, we get criticized, for sure. I mean, it’s like even having to address this, I understand it, but it is the movement itself that tears itself down.