AUSTIN, Minn. ― If you study history, then you'll know | The empire falls when the topsoil goes
Those are the opening lines to the song "Back to Soil," which is one of two tracks that The Land Stewardship Project recently commissioned a musician to write and perform. Each song (the other song is called "Got Cover Crops") has a music video shot on location at several farms in southeastern Minnesota.
Doug Nopar, a member of LSP's soil health team, said LSP has a history of integrating cultural activity into its work, whether it be theater or music.
"It's a way to reach people on a deeper level than just farmers sharing their stories, fact sheets, videos and workshops," Nopar said. "Which can reach people in the head, and (music) is a way to reach people at a heart level."
Nopar said the organization picked Bret Hesla, a Minnesota musician, to do the songs because he had experience with LSP and was willing to learn from farmers before taking on the task of writing the songs.
"He understood what we were about organizationally," Nopar said. "And he also wanted to visit a couple of the farms that were actively building the soil."
The first video garnered a few hundred views online before LSP even started to promote it, said Nopar.
"You listen to both these songs a few times and you can't get them out of your head," Nopar said. "I think that's a good sign."Cover crops was selected as the topic for Hesla's first song because "cover crops is the No. 1 go-to first step" for farmers interested in building soil health, said Nopar.
"So we wanted one that really focused on (cover crops)," Nopar said.
Nopar said the music video release coincided with farmers in the area planting "way more cover crops" than ever before.
"There's a lot of energy for building soil out in the farming community," Nopar said. "And this is building on that."
Hesla has roots in Austin, Minn., and now lives with his family in Minneapolis. The main genre of music he plays is folk, but he said the songs he made for LSP are more swing and rockabilly styles.
He said he first got involved with LSP in the late '80s, working an office job to pay the bills while he was doing other kinds of musical endeavors. While there, Hesla said he created a program of songs focused around caring for the land.
"It ended up being kind of a singalong program that we traveled around Minnesota with, at schools, churches and community groups," Hesla said. "Let's get together and sing these songs about the land that we were connected to."
It was early 2019 when Hesla was approached by LSP to do the songs, and immediately he thought it would be a "fun challenge" to take on.
Hesla traveled to Tom Cotter's farm near Austin for an LSP field day, where Cotter talked to other farmers about cover crops and other kinds of soil conservation techniques.
"It was just all peers of (Cotter's) who are doing it or want to hear about it, which is the way LSP works," Hesla said. "Don't take it from me, talk to each other, and share ideas."
At the field day, Hesla set up camp in back with his notebook, jotting down words and phrases he could use for a song.
"What's the story here, and who is this person and how is he talking about his work, and what are his feelings and emotions," he said. "Knowing my goal is to write a song to connect to and sort of speak to other farmers about what they're doing."
The second research stop that Hesla made was at Kaleb Anderson's farm in Cannon Falls, Minn., which ended up lasting about three hours as the two got into deep conversation. Anderson suggested he read "Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture" by Gabe Brown, of Bismarck, N.D., which he said described the movement perfectly.
"Capturing all that in little snippets of information, then you put it all in the big compost pile of your brain," Hesla said of the research for the songs.
Nopar told Hesla if he could work in mycorrhizal fungi to the lyrics, he would get a $100 bonus (he did).
Once the long writing process wrapped up, the pandemic had hit and Hesla found that the recording process would not be a normal one. He called his friend Matthew Zimmerman, a longtime recording engineer in Northfield, Minn., who told him the recording could be done via Zoom.
"Everyone recorded in their own living room," Hesla said. "I created the basics, and sent that around to people to listen to it and play along with their part."
Hesla said the recordings didn't turn out the way they would have if everyone was together, but because of Zimmerman's work on engineering and the musicians' work on the other parts, he's proud of the way it turned out.
"All these people were just really great musicians who were totally into it," Hesla said. "It was kind of a close your eyes and make some chili, and it tasted pretty good."