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Gabe Brown on Ecosystem Stewardship

North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology, but that’s only one of his many contributions.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown stands among his crops

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck.

To his life work, Brown brings an inquisitive mind and an infectious love of the journey. He revels in trying new things and is not reluctant to fail at some of them, as experiments always yield food for thought and generate ideas for future exploration. As a pioneer, Brown has forged close relationships with fellow seekers and fostered a stimulating community for trailblazers. Generous with his knowledge, he’s a consummate educator who strives to open minds and is known for making a deep and sustained impression on his audiences.

As science begins to catch up with what Brown has been demonstrating on the ground, his sphere of influence has steadily expanded to include more mainstream researchers, policymakers, and even leaders in the conventional food industry.

Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck. By area standards, Brown’s Ranch is not that big. But what is astonishing is how much more this dryland farm is able to produce than comparable operations — both for market and deep within the soil.

For an 11-day trip I took to the Great Plains in June, I made a point to arrange a visit to Brown’s Ranch months in advance. I was able to sit down with Brown for a wide-ranging conversation and get a firsthand look at a small portion of his extensive operation. Seeing a couple of shovels’ full of his beautifully aggregated soil would have been sufficient to make the trip worthwhile.

Brown recently completed his first book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, and he will be speaking at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky.

You’ve made quite a big contribution to the regenerative agriculture. To sum up, what’s the essence of your philosophy?

I firmly believe that how we steward the whole ecosystem — the land and the crops and the animals — plays a bigger role than which crops you grow and the prices you get. We are currently quantifying the outcomes of our regenerative stewardship in collaboration with a company called Landstream. Dr. John Norman, the lead scientist on this project, told me he’s never seen soils as well aggregated as ours, down to 4 feet over most of the farm! Well-aggregated soil is a great way to measure the water cycle and the carbon cycle. Soil aggregates are the home for biology. Think of the soil aggregates as marbles in a jar. Now add water to the jar. Soil needs to have those pore spaces to hold water. Soil organisms live in and on those thin films of water between the marbles (aggregates). They’re subaquatic organisms; they need that water to live. We’re not sequestering carbon. Too many people think that we have to store carbon in the soil. We need to start thinking about it as a cycle. The issue is that there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the soil. The biology in the soil needs the carbon, but it’s part of a cycle. We can heal the carbon cycle and the water cycle with diversity, cover crops and grazing animals.

Say more about the project with Landstream documenting the progress you’ve made with soil health.

A closeup of cover crops utilized by Gabe Brown

Gabe Brown is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology.

We’re working with Landstream founders Abe Collins and Dr. John Norman, who invented a lot of the satellite equipment that NASA uses. In my opinion, both of these men are geniuses. They were out here in May, and we pulled around 180 soil samples. They’re starting to quantify what the soils look like and how much carbon is being pumped into the soil. It’s pretty dramatic. I have neighbors that have an A horizon, which is topsoil, that’s approximately 4 to 6 inches deep. They have samples of my soils that are 28 to 29 inches deep. We’ve been able to grow topsoil. The next step is to determine if can we equate soil health and more carbon in the soil to nutrient-dense food. We need to quantify this so we can prove that healthy soil can produce food of higher nutrient density. We’re really in the infancy, but this research will pay dividends down the road.

The speed that water soaks into soil is a telling indicator of soil health. How quickly does water infiltrate on your ranch?

In 1993 water infiltration on our land was a half an inch in an hour. Two years ago, we had a team of scientists record that the first inch took 9 seconds to infiltrate, and the second inch took 16 seconds. I used to have standing water with a half-inch rain.

You’ve been having some weather extremes in North Dakota. Has that affected you, and how has it affected other ranchers?

It rained a mere 5.6 inches on our ranch in 2017. Three of those inches fell in August. Then we had an extremely cold winter, without much snow, which usually accounts for a large part of our moisture. Last year most producers were selling off cattle and feeding a lot of hay, but we were able to run as many livestock and graze as long as we did in previous years. It was the second year in a row where less than 50 percent of the normal precipitation fell, yet it didn’t negatively affect us to any great extent.

You’re called upon to teach and advise many farmers. What are some of your messages to them about soil health?

I talk about focusing on the five principles of healthy soil ecosystem: First, do the least amount of chemical or mechanical disturbance possible; second, maintain the soil armor – the residue on the soil; third, enhance diversity of plants and animals, including insects; fourth, grow living roots in ground as long as possible throughout the year; and fifth, integrate animals into the system. Because I travel so much and get on hundreds of farms and ranches all over North America, I’ve seen what a grip industrial agriculture has on people. Right now most producers are in the conventional mind-set where all they’re doing is treating symptoms. We’re not solving a problem. Producers believe they can buy something in a jug that will take care of anything. It’s like one of these hamster wheels; they just run in circles.

How do they get off of this treadmill?

The key is you have to start. Moving along the regenerative path is like climbing a staircase. You start going, and you try one thing and then another and another. That’s the way it is for my family and I — the more we learn, the more we try. Every year we try to fail at something because if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. That makes farming more enjoyable. When my partners and I put on our Soil Health Academy schools, we try to teach people the power of observation. Yesterday I took a couple of interns out to show them what to look for on the cattle. Are they full? Are they content? How far are they eating down on the plant? You can’t be taught those things any way but through observation. I had a group from Tennessee here on Wednesday. I told them I farmed here for 9 years alongside my father-in-law, and he never once put a spade in the ground and looked at the soil. During the growing season there’s not a day that goes by that Gabe doesn’t look at his soil. What’s it trying to tell me? What does it need? You can learn these things through observation. We’ve totally lost that in production agriculture today. Is there a pest problem? If there’s a pest problem, where are the predator insects? Are we not providing a home for them?

What sorts of things do farmers want advice about?

I receive 100 to 400 phone calls and emails daily. Most of them say “I want to plant a cover crop. What should I plant?” I use Dwayne Beck’s adage. I say I didn’t pick your spouse; I’m not going to pick your cover crops. I talk about resource concerns. I ask them what they need on their land and what the ecosystem is trying to tell them. Then you design your cover crop mixes accordingly.

You often get asked about what makes your ranch so unique. How do you answer?

A group working with the Smithsonian Museum will be out here sometime in September. They want to do a display on regeneration. I think it’s great. We were talking about what makes this place different from others, and I said I just grow things and stand out of the way of nature. I let nature dictate a lot. That’s really not happening today. They asked me “What’s the number one thing impeding producers from grasping regenerative agriculture?” I said hands down, it’s the farm bill. The current farm bill is totally antagonistic to regenerative agriculture. It promotes monocultures and a commodity mindset with accompanying low prices.

Besides the farm bill, what else prevents farmers from paying more attention to their soil?

We have to realize that for those producing and marketing their crops and livestock as a commodity, there is not much profit to be had. Because of this, they look at practices such as cover crops, as an expense with little return. They need to be looking at cover crops as a way to cycle carbon and nutrients for future crops. That would allow them to significantly reduce their inputs while making their operations more resilient to wide swings in moisture and temperature. One of the things that helps us is we set our own prices. We’re not price-takers. We know what it costs to produce a pound of beef or a pound of honey so we just make sure to set the price above that.

You’ve been doing work to educate and advise big food companies about regenerative agriculture. How did that come about?

General Mills, Annie’s Organic, Dr. Bronner’s and Cascadian Farm have all been to our ranch. They realize that there’s a movement in this country for people to learn more about the food they’re consuming. If they can help their producers produce food that is more nutrient-dense, they can market that fact. That’s a good thing. Last winter I worked on that with Shauna Sadowski with Annie’s, which is a subsidiary of General Mills. I reviewed their plan to help move producers into regenerative agriculture. They are encouraging less tillage, more cover crops, more pollinator strips and many other stewardship practices that will lead to healthier soils and healthier ecosystems. I applaud them for their efforts. Jerry Lynch, who is head of sustainability for General Mills, came out here because he wanted to learn about regenerative agriculture. I showed him my soils and the soils of my neighbor who are long-time no-tillers. I tell people no-till is not the answer. It’s just a piece of the puzzle, like livestock, equipment, cover crops are all just tools to be used to enhance ecosystem function.

Say more about growing nutrient-dense foods and about some of the things that hamper their production.

I explained to the people from Tennessee that one of the reasons I plant so much rye is its tremendous root mass. Rye [grain] as a crop has also been influenced less by the plant geneticists. They’re breeding for the market — for weight, not for nutrient density. I’ve been propagating the rye and the vetch you see here for 20 years so I practically have my own varieties. I know it’s acclimated to my environment and that it will grow a tremendous root mass. Many of the varieties we’re seeding we’ve propagated over the years. In our gardens we try to use old heirloom varieties. I really believe that those older varieties have a better root system and a better ability to seek out those nutrients. Almost all of the fruit trees you saw planted in the tree tubes are heirloom varieties. We sourced a lot of them from St. Lawrence Nurseries in New York. I think producers need to realize that the current production model is based on yield and not on what varieties can grow best in one’s soil. Wendy Taheri worked as a mycorrhizal fungi specialist at the Agricultural Research Service in Brookings, South Dakota. She has now started her own lab in Georgia. Her business is called Terra Nimbus. At ARS, she found that many of the new varieties of grain no longer have the ability to form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. Think about the compounding, cascading effects of that. If mycorrhizal fungi don’t propagate, you’re not going to have enough glomalin and you’re going to lose soil aggregates. With fewer soil aggregates, you’re going to decrease infiltration and the water-holding capacity of your soils. You’re not going to have the pore space, which is the home for biology. And you’re not going to transfer as many nutrients throughout the soil, which will lower the nutrient density of the plants that you are producing. I’m sure that plant breeders never intended for that to happen. But they start out in a sterile environment in a lab and then they propagate their plants in a high synthetic input situation on their experiment farms. In that environment plants don’t have the need to form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. It’s just mind-blowing, and it has ramifications all the way down to human health.

 Let’s turn from soil health considerations to production on Brown’s Ranch. You’ve been able to dramatically boost your stocking rate. How many animals do you produce on the ranch these days?

When they had this place, my in-laws ran 65 cow-calf pairs and about 20 yearlings. Today we’re running 300 cow-calf pairs, 400 to 800 yearlings and grass finishers, depending on the year. I’m running at about 2 and a quarter times as many beef animals as the average producer in this area but that’s only beef. We also have 150 ewes plus all their lambs. We run about 20 sows and finish around 300 pastured hogs. We have 1,400 laying hens, several hundred broilers and a bee enterprise, plus we do all the grains, cover crops and other forages. We’re on the same land base more or less as my in-laws had. By focusing on regenerating our resources, we have been able to significantly increase both production and profitability.

Trees are an important element on your farm that might not get enough attention.

My wife and I have planted over 20,000 trees since we bought the farm in 1991. We planted mostly pines and ash trees. I wish now that I had had the foresight to plant fruit and nut trees. They would be providing wind protection while providing us with a saleable product. On the northern plains you can go for miles without seeing trees. When we had 100 inches of snow by Christmas in 2016, big drifts formed by the trees.

Over the course of the year how do you manage your cattle?

Some of Gabe Brown's hundreds of cows graze in the field

Today Brown’s Ranch has 300 cow-calf pairs, 400 to 800 yearlings and grass finishers, depending on the year. “I’m running at about two and a quarter times as many beef animals as the average producer in this area,” says Gabe Brown.

We move the cattle every day during the growing season. Typically, they graze a paddock only once a year. Our rest period is 12 to 15 months because it takes that long for plants to recover in our limited moisture environment. In winter our cattle graze stockpiled forage or cover crops. We do bale grazing when the snow is too deep for them to graze. When bale grazing, we move the cattle to a new allotment of bales approximately once a week. They get most of their water from snow, although we do allow them access to heated waterers if they want to walk back to a farmstead.

I’ve read that manure breaks down very quickly in your pastures.

2009 was the last year we used any insecticides on our cattle. It took two years for the first dung beetles to show up. My son has now documented 17 species of dung beetles on our land, not to mention many other beneficial insects.

Are the pigs compatible with grazing ruminants and growing crops? Don’t they tear up the land?

Well, they do. Pigs will be pigs. Right now we have them in the trees, so they’re cleaning up that shelterbelt. We do run them on our perennial pastures. If they rut that up, it doesn’t bother me because it will heal very quickly. I tried grazing them on a cover crop but even though we were moving them twice a week, they still rutted it up more than I liked. It makes it rough when we come in to seed the next crop.

Is there anything unusual about the way you manage the hens?

Our laying hens are truly free-range. They can walk to Bismarck if they want to. They are acclimated to our “eggmobiles” so they stay close to them. They get a large part of their diet from foraging for insects and greens. This adds to the nutrient density of their eggs. During the coldest part of winter they make their home in a large hoop house. Being a hen on Brown’s ranch is a good life!

Having so many parcels of land, you must have a lot of infrastructure to get water to all the livestock out on pasture.

We have more than 100 permanent pastures with shallow water pipelines going to all of them. These pipelines deliver water to rubber tire tanks, which are set underneath a fence in order to water two paddocks. Because these pipelines are buried only 6 to 12 inches deep, they are only used during the growing season. We rely on snow to supply water for the cattle during the winter.

What kind of synergy have you created between your cash crops and non-ruminant livestock?

Some of the crops that we grow go to feed the hogs. These include; corn, peas, oats, barley, flax and lentils. I sell a lot of my crops for seed, like rye-vetch. We sell the seed as a blend. To sell seed, you clean out the weed seed and broken kernels. Those screenings go to feed the laying hens, along with a little bit of whole grain. We’ve started growing what I call polyculture cash crops. We grow and combine five species together — peas, lentils, flax, barley and oats. We sell some as seed and we have people who buy feed from us because they want non-GMO grain. We grind it up, and it makes a good ration we can use for hogs or poultry.

Is the stacked model something you recommend other farmers employ?

We enjoy the stacked model and all that entails, but too many people think that in order for them to be successful they have to do all these things. I tell them no, you shouldn’t do that at all. Every operation, and every family, is unique. Your wants and goals and desires and what you enjoy are unique. Everyone has to find what they want to do and go from there.

 As a very committed gardener myself, I’ve been wondering how you raise your vegetables and why you grow them, given all the other things you’re doing.

I had a bet with a few friends about who could do the craziest thing so I mixed 70 species together and planted them one year. We called it the chaos garden. It was fun once but was not practical to harvest so we are not doing that anymore. Instead, we have a 150 x 150-foot vegetable garden. We grow the garden to produce our own food; it simply tastes better and is more nutrient-dense than what we can purchase elsewhere. We feed four families and our interns. Last year we sold the excess and grossed $20,000. We sell the vegetables at the market when we’re marketing our meat products and honey. Hopefully we’ll soon do that with our fruit also. It takes a little time to grow fruit trees in North Dakota! We’re just getting our garden started now [in mid-June] because spring was so late this year. In our environment by the time the vegetables are done, there’s no time to plant a cover crop because we’re froze up already. We could put cover crops in during the growing season but it would take away some of the space in the garden. So in place of that, once the vegetables are harvested in the fall, we roll out second cutting alfalfa hay. Over the winter it breaks down and the worms cycle it through. In the spring we part the remaining hay and plant into it. As the hay is cycled by earthworms we put a layer of wood chips on to cover the soil and prevent weeds from germinating. By doing this, we are balancing the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. We make our own wood chips from dead trees on our farm.

What goes into the compost you make for the vegetable garden?

We get manure from a neighbor who does not have enough acres to spread all his livestock manure on. The first year we add cardboard boxes, newspaper, magazines and food scraps from our farm. We turn the pile several times that year. The second year we do a static pile, meaning we do not turn it. That’s when we bring a few buckets of soil from our native prairie. We place this soil in the pile. This “inoculates” the pile with fungi and other microbiology. It proliferates and spreads throughout the compost pile.

Has anything in particular stopped you from becoming certified organic?

Hands showing off dirt clods with multiple earthworms

The last time I tilled was 1993. I’ll never say never, but I don’t see myself tilling again. It is just too destructive.

I get criticized because I’m not certified organic. If someone wants to be certified organic — if it adds value to their operation — by all means do it. But to our knowledge, we have never lost a sale because we were not certified organic. We have an open door policy here so people can come at any time and look at anything. That builds trust with the consumer. All of our animals, with the exception of the chickens, are born on the ranch, and we grow all the feed here. Having a closed loop system also gives more confidence to consumers. If they trust you, they’re going to buy, obviously with certain price constraints.

What do you do in place of tillage for weed control?

If I have a certain weed pressure problem, I’m either going to use livestock, which is the number one thing that we do, to consume that ‘weed,’ or use a herbicide. I’m not going to take that herbicide out of my toolbox. The last time I tilled was 1993. I’ll never say never, but I don’t see myself tilling again. It is just too destructive. I was the first no-tiller in the county. No-till was adopted quickly. Seventy percent of cropland in the county is now no-till. People can condemn me for occasionally using an herbicide, but I can condemn them for tilling. Which is the lesser of two evils? That is for each person to decide.

I don’t see how condemnation helps anything.

Exactly. We try, if we use an herbicide, to choose those that have the shortest half-life and that can readily be consumed by biology. We don’t use glyphosate because it’s patented as an antibiotic and a chelator. Being an antibiotic it is very detrimental to soil biology. Also, from what I’ve learned, I believe that it’s negatively affecting human health. I don’t use atrazine as it, too, has many long-lasting negative ramifications. On our pastureland we have never used any herbicide. I have many crop fields that have not seen an herbicide for five years, so they could be certified organic if I wanted to, but why?

What do you find consumers care the most about?

When we go to farmers’ markets, you get one-on-one interactions. The first question people ask when they come up to our concession trailer is always where are you from. That’s because they want to know where their food comes from. The question we get the second most often is do you grow or feed any GMOs. Maybe 75 or 80 percent of the people ask us this question. When I speak to ‘industrial’ mind-set producers, I tell them you can argue all you want about whether GMOs are good or bad, but if my customers are telling me that don’t want it, why would I ever plant it? We haven’t grown GMOs in many years. It’s too easy for producers to turn a blind eye. They say, ‘our product’s sold at the elevator. What happens is not up to me.’ We’re being way too naïve if we think that what we do on our operations does not affect human health. True, not everything being produced is fed to humans, but if it’s fed to livestock, then humans consume it. So we have to stop thinking that our practices are not affecting human health. And that for me is one of the reasons that we don’t use the pesticides and fungicides and all the herbicides that most producers use.

How did you make a living on the farm before you started direct marketing to consumers?

We had a very successful registered cattle herd. We were selling bulls to other producers, and we fed them grain to make them look good to sell. At the same time we were raising a few grass-finished beef every year for our own consumption because I believed in the human health aspects of it. In 2010, the year Paul graduated from college and came back to the farm, I said we’re done. We’re not doing this anymore. We were selling bulls for good money, but after weaning we were feeding grain to those livestock and I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. And I was calving in February and March, which was ridiculous in North Dakota! Most producers do that. You put them in barns and live with them day and night. When Paul was coming back to the farm, I said I’m not going to have you kill yourself like I did for all these years. We switched to calving in May and June. We dropped all vaccines. We did that all at once and decided we were going to go down the grass-finished path. Paul got interested in direct marketing and started selling eggs. That’s something he really wanted to do, and he runs that end of the business. We have our own trademark, Nourished by Nature. Shelly, my wife, and I are silent partners but the business is Paul’s. How else are these young people going to learn about business? He’s grown the business from a $10,000 investment to one that’s worth quite a bit of money without borrowing a penny. But to sell our grass-fed beef, a group of us had to build a slaughter facility. It is state-inspected for retail sale.

Starting a slaughterhouse sounds like a big deal, not a little detour!

Here was the problem. In North Dakota there were only three slaughter facilities approved for retail sale. Well, the waiting time to get an animal harvested was 13 months. You can’t run a business that way. (There are more slaughterhouses than that in the state, but you can’t sell the product processed in them.) It took almost four years to get enough money and build that plant. It’s a co-op and it’s for-profit. Paul has served on the board since its inception. It cost $2.2 million for the structure, and the operating budget was about three-quarters of a million. It’s starting to turn a small profit, but it’s a challenge.

Are there many farms behind the co-op?

There are over 70 investors. A lot of them have just a few animals, and there are investors that don’t even own animals. Some are retired people who put in a few thousand dollars. Bowdon, North Dakota, the small community where it’s located, donated land. They wanted to see it happen. Once we got that built, we could retail our own meat products. Now every two or three weeks, Paul will take two to 15 animals to the plant and bring back the product that was harvested the time before. We also now ship semi-loads for processing in Missouri, and we bring back the frozen product. We only deal in frozen product; there’s too many regulations on fresh product. The timing of slaughter is important because we want to keep the omega-3s high.

You’ve been quite influential in spreading ideas about soil health. Yesterday when I visited Menoken Farm, a soil conservation demonstration farm owned by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, I heard that you were instrumental in making that farm a reality. How did you get involved?

You know my story with my three years of hail and one year of drought. In 1998 in the last year of that disaster Jay Fuhrer approached me to ask if I’d consider running to be on the board of supervisors of the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District. In North Dakota, there are five people on these boards; three are elected, and they appoint the other two. Jay already had two people on the board who were fairly open-minded. He knew if he could get me on there, we would be able to appoint a couple others who could steer it in the direction of focusing on soil health. I was very fortunate that I had met Jay right when I started down the soil health path. At that time, nobody was talking soil health. I was doing rotational grazing, and I was starting to plant these cover crops. Jay took an interest in that, and we bounced ideas off each other. After I got on the board, we aggressively started promoting soil health.

Going back to those terrible four years when your crops were repeatedly destroyed by hail followed by a bad drought, how did you get by?

I worked a full-time job in town and farmed at night. That’s when I stopped sleeping much. I was a livestock nutritionist for a feed company. My degrees are in animal science and economics.

 What has enabled you to try so many things and integrate new practices into a workable system?

In my book, I write about many of the people who influenced me. I tell people, Gabe’s not very smart — I’m just good at stealing ideas from other people and applying what I can to this operation. That’s all I’m trying to do. You have to take bits and pieces from many places. You meet the right people at the right time and you learn from them. Jay and I are kindred spirits; we both have insatiable appetites to learn. In 2006 Jay and I were at the No-till on the Plains conference in Salina, Kansas. Dr. Adamir Calegari from Brazil was talking about multispecies cover crops. Up until then I had only been mixing two or three together. He was saying you need to mix seven or right. The minute I heard that I knew it made sense because that’s exactly how nature functions: native prairie has tremendous diversity. When Jay and I came back from Salina, I immediately started planting multispecies cover crops, and the soil district set up a plot near here. That brought a lot of attention. NRCS started bringing people on trainings to see our cover crop plots and what I was doing. At a tour with NRCS people from all over the United States, I remember this guy standing there with his head cocked. He was looking at me like what in the world are you talking about. Well, it was Ray Archuleta. He will tell you a light bulb was going off in his head. Now he’s “Ray, the soil guy,” and the rest is history. Ray retired after many years with NRCS. Now he and I are business partners with Soil Health Consultants. He’s 57, the same age as me. He used to phone me every week. Now he calls me multiple times a day. He’ll tell me, “Gabe, I saw this here. They were trying this. I think I might try that. It’s a lot of fun.”

You’ve become exceedingly busy. What have you let go of? Are there other benefits of letting go?

I was on the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District board for 14 years. We did a lot of things together. But it got to the point in my life where I was traveling a lot, going to conferences and speaking, and I needed to back off on a few things. I’ve come to believe that people spend too much time on individual boards. We need to let other people have the opportunity to experience that. Let the young guys do that. How are we going to grow the next generation of leaders if we don’t give them the opportunity? It’s the same way with farmers and ranchers. Many will not turn the operation over to the next generation, that’s ridiculous. Our son is 30, and he’s the manager. We’ve turned everything over to him. I tell people I’m retired, and he’s the boss of this place.

You’ve got me wondering how many people work at Brown Ranch.

My son, and my wife and I, and Shalini, an intern who came four years ago from California and hasn’t left (because she and my son hit it off) and Jasmine, our second-year intern. This year we hired a young man who has a wife and three little kids. A few years ago he drove from his home in Nebraska to Colorado to hear me speak. He took a fascination for what we’re doing. When he and his wife came on a tour here, he told me, I’m going to come and work for you. And I said we really don’t have any employees. We just hire interns. No, he said, you don’t understand. He insisted, so we hired Andrew full-time in April. His wife is self-employed. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska and he farmed, but very conventionally. His wife didn’t like how hard he worked on the farm, so he quit and was selling chemicals. He couldn’t do it anymore. Once he heard about what I was doing, he wanted to learn. So, in all there are six of us working on this ranch. We’ve run an internship program for well over 20 years, and we get applicants from all over the world. Most don’t have any farm experience, just an interest. I can teach everything else, but I can’t teach drive and desire. They either have it or they don’t. That’s one of the reasons Jasmine is here. She wasn’t born and raised on a farm. We invited her back because of her enthusiasm and work ethic.

 I’m surprised that only a few people work with you. How do you accomplish so much?

Some people think there’s too much work in what we’re doing, but they don’t realize all of the things that we don’t do. For instance, our cattle get no vaccinations. We don’t apply fungicides or pesticides [insecticides]. We don’t use fertilizer, and we no longer feed any mineral to our animals. They just don’t consume it because our soils are healthy. And the list goes on. By not having to take the time to do all of those things we have the time to stack more enterprises and to direct market what we produce.

You’re blessed with a large land base, but land is often a significant barrier for beginning farmers. How do you counsel new farmers to deal with the land question?

When these young people come here, they think they want to buy a farm. That’s exactly the wrong approach. You intern on a few different places. You find out where your passion is and then take your passion and you run with it. You make your operation portable. You start with something that’s easy to move, chickens or rabbits, vegetables. You find a small place to rent. As your operation grows and you build the customer base, you put the money back in and grow with it. Sooner or later the right opportunity will come along, and you’ll have the money to be able to purchase a land base if that’s what you desire. But it’s not necessary. Many people think they need a lot of land. I have a neighbor who farms 40,000 cropland acres. That’s just crazy! Our operation is 5,000 acres, owned and rented, down from 6,200 acres. We’re shrinking it by letting go of a lot of the rented land. We just don’t need it. We’re not addicted to work! I write about this in my book Dirt to Soil. The industrialized, commoditized model has sent us on a path of larger and larger operations. This has led to a mass exodus from rural America. The regenerative model gives us the opportunity to reverse this trend. We can bring both enjoyment and life back to our farms. We can revitalize our rural communities, all while improving both human health and our resources.

Find more information about Brown’s Ranch.

By Tracy Frisch

Tracy Frisch is a journalist, advocate and subsistence gardener in upstate New York who has been involved with the organic movement for more than 30 years. 

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