Gabe Brown on Building Resiliency through Soil Health

Farmer, Author Gabe Brown Discusses Soil Health & Diversity

Gabe Brown is one of the great bridge builders in farming. No matter which corner of agriculture you come from, or even if you don’t work in agriculture, Brown’s talks about how regenerative farming can restore our ravaged soils to vitality make sense. Moreover, he presents it with a plainspoken, pragmatic aplomb that captivates and never alienates, instead drawing listeners into the pleasure and excitement he gets from trying out new ideas. He explains techniques with a clarity that eludes many professional educators, and when the moment requires he can drive straight to the core of an issue with one stroke.

At an Acres U.S.A. conference some years ago, an audience member said it all sounded great, but asked why he should put in the extra work. Brown simply asked him if he cared about his grandchildren. People who come away from a Gabe Brown talk unsatisfied are rare as hen’s teeth.

Now, after many years of explaining his soil-building wizardry in person, Brown somehow found time to write a book, Dirt to Soil that tells his story and explains what he does and why it works. The book includes farming practices, a philosophy of nature and the story of how Brown and his family survived several years of natural disasters in the mid-1990s, an ordeal that proved pivotal. We last interviewed Brown in our October 2013 issue. We reached out to him for another talk five years later at his farm in North Dakota.

Interviewed by Chris Walters

Gabe Brown: From Dirt to Soil

ACRES U.S.A. How did people such as Ray Archuleta, Dr. Kris Nichols, Dr. Christine Jones and others impact your effort to reinvent your whole way of working?

GABE BROWN. In my book, Dirt to Soil, I tried to tell the story in chronological order as to the people I met along the way and how they influenced me. I learned bits and pieces from many individuals, organizations and Nature herself, and it was up to me to take that information and apply it on my ranch. I wanted to show other producers that you’re not alone. You can glean information from many places, and it’s up to you to take that information and apply it as best you can in the stewardship of your own operation.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you confident that as some of the original thinkers grow old and leave the scene, we have enough thinkers who can advise young farmers as you were advised? The personal touch seems to make all the difference.

BROWN. You’re exactly right, and that’s why I put that in the book. As the regenerative agriculture movement continues to grow, we are already seeing a new generation of leaders develop, spreading the word about what they are doing on their operation. I can go to all 50 states now and name younger producers who have really grasped regenerative agriculture and are moving these principles forward. That’s exciting to see. It’s time for us to allow these young leaders the opportunity to share their stories. I often tell people that what took me 25 years to learn and achieve on my operation is now being achieved in five years by some of these young regenerative agriculturalists.

ACRES U.S.A. Would it be right to say that you went from farming as a set of procedures to farming as a continuing experiment?

BROWN. Well, the way I look at it is, the current industrialized, commoditized production model is one of the recipe cards. You’re following a recipe card, whether you’re a livestock producer, a cash grain producer or a vegetable producer. We get these prescriptions more or less spelled out on a recipe card, and then it’s just a matter of doing those practices. Regenerative agriculture is one of observation. It’s one of real stewardship where you have to be adaptive; you see what’s going on in the ecosystem, and what the ecosystem is trying to tell you. And then you just use these tools, whether it be livestock, or cover crops, or no-till drills. You use those tools to massage the ecosystem, so to speak, and advance soil health and ecosystem function. That’s the way I look at it as a recipe card versus observation, experimentation and adaptation.

ACRES U.S.A. You write in the book that you had a running contest with a couple of fellow farmers to see who can come up with the most interesting way to advance soil health.

BROWN. They were David Brandt in Ohio and Gail Fuller down in Kansas. The three of us liked to challenge each other to see who could try the craziest things as far as cover crop mixes and different polyculture cash crops. One year I did the 70-plus species chaos garden as my entry into the challenge, so to speak.

ACRES U.S.A. How did that work out?

BROWN. Very well. One of the principles of a healthy soil ecosystem is diversity, so 70-plus species growing together — it was a jungle. Now, saying that, it’s not economically feasible to do that for vegetable production or flower production because it was too hard to harvest, but it was sure fun once.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you think a playful spirit is one of the things missing in a lot of farming education now? Would it be a good thing to encourage?

BROWN. Absolutely. When I tell people about my ranch, I tell them that we try to fail at something every year. If we don’t fail at something, we’re not trying enough new things. Failures are simply learning experiences. It’s what you do with that failure and how you change that dictates your path in life. We take these failures — make sure they are small, you don’t do an experiment on the whole operation, you just do it on a small percentage of it — but you learn from and you grow from it. It also makes it fun just to see what you can do.

ACRES U.S.A. There is a saying in politics that you never want to waste a good crisis, implying that a crisis always comes with opportunities for change. When you look around your community and your state, do you think the crisis of the mid-1990s — the disastrous drought — was exploited well?

BROWN. I certainly do not think people learned from it. Last year was a good example. Here in North Dakota we had a major drought, and the answer to that drought by the government was simply, let’s give financial assistance, rather than one of education. I tell people that last year we didn’t have a drought on our farm. It didn’t rain any more than it did anywhere around here, but we have built resiliency into our operation. By advancing soil health, increasing infiltration rates and increasing the water-holding capacity of our soils we more or less drought-proof our operation. Now don’t get me wrong, if we have an extended drought, we’re going to feel that too. But the fact of the matter is we did not have to sell a single animal because of the drought. And we had enough forage to weather it. That’s because we’ve built resiliency into our ecosystem. I think that we do a travesty to producers when we give them this financial assistance because there is no incentive for them to change their management. What we should be doing is educating producers on how to build resiliency into their operations.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you think the crop insurance idea, borne of good intentions way back when, went in the wrong direction?

BROWN. You look at federal crop insurance. First of all, it’s heavily subsidized. It’s also geared toward certain commodity crops. With revenue insurance, 95 percent-plus of planting decisions in the United States are based on which crop is going to guarantee the most income. What this does is guarantee the over-production of those crops. The crop insurance program really makes sure we are in this over-production mode of certain crops. My family and I haven’t taken part in crop insurance or any government program now for many years. This allows us a great deal of flexibility. We can change our cropping plans based on weather conditions, moisture conditions, etc. We can change based on prices if we so desire — now, we’re trying to direct-market most everything we grow, but it allows us a lot of flexibility, and that’s a good feeling. We’re not bound in any way to that program. The other thing is, I really don’t think the citizens of the United States should be subsidizing the insurance of producers. I say it this way — we’re not subsidizing or allowing revenue insurance for Ma & Pa’s Restaurant on Main Street, are we? Then why are we doing that for farmers? That to me is just not good business. Plus, I tell my fellow producers, “If you can’t make it in this business without that subsidized insurance, perhaps you need to be in a different business.” I catch a lot of flak for that, but it doesn’t bother me.

ACRES U.S.A. The over-production of commodities never ceases to amaze.

BROWN. You have to look at another thing that’s happening. Last year there was enough food produced in this world to feed about 10.2 billion people. There are less than 8 billion people in the world, so we’re already over-producing. Plus, you take into account that 70 percent of the food in the world is being produced by peasant farmers. So this mantra that’s touted all the time, that we have to feed the world — we’re not feeding the world now. What we’re producing is mainly going for things like ethanol or grain to feed livestock — ruminants — that shouldn’t be fed grain. We have to change the whole mind-set of production agriculture.

ACRES U.S.A. We try to demolish that feed-the-world canard every day, and it’s a never-ending job. It keeps coming back like the villain in a horror movie.

BROWN. More people are producing soybeans outside of “normal” soybean-producing areas. Because of federal crop insurance, we are now seeing an expansion in the acreage of these crops that are guaranteed the most income due to revenue insurance.

ACRES U.S.A. Going back to the crisis period that began in 1995, when you were farming conventionally, how did this period that changed everything about how you approach your work change your feelings about farming as a way of life?

BROWN. I tell people that those four years of natural disasters were hell to go through, but in the end they were the best thing that could have happened to myself and my family. Those years really made us realize what is important, and that is faith and family. If we got through that we can get through anything. It also made us realize that we can be profitable in a way that is not degrading our natural resources and in a way that is leaving our resources better for future generations. We’re also producing food higher in nutrient density. To us, that’s what it is all about. It’s about faith and family, being good stewards of our natural resources and producing healthy, nutrient-dense food. So, the crisis totally changed our mind-set from a bushel-yield-pound mentality to one of stewardship, faith and doing what’s right for the resource.

ACRES U.S.A. Did the crisis give you a whole new definition of what constitutes a rough time?

BROWN. We realized that we’re pretty resilient, and we also learned to enjoy the simple things. I tell people, when you’re dead broke — we were so broke the bank knew when we bought toilet paper — it makes you realize that you can enjoy life without these materialistic things.

ACRES U.S.A. North America is having a brutal summer as we speak here in early August. How are water conditions in North Dakota and southern Canada?

BROWN. Large parts of North Dakota and southern Canada have been receiving timely rains. There is a portion in the middle part of the state that is a bit dry right now, but most of the area is having an average growing season.

ACRES U.S.A. How did learning that the fungal component of soil is the most important in a plant’s early life change your approach to soil health?

BROWN. When I saw the results of Dr. David Johnson’s work, which showed that early in most plant’s life cycles, their association, or lack thereof, was critical to their development, I knew I had been on the right track. I had paid close attention to mycorrhizal fungi for years, proliferating it on my ranch. Dr. Johnson’s work validated my work.

ACRES U.S.A. You mention your Australian colleague Colin Seis’ idea of pasture cropping in your book. How is this practice significant, and does it work well outside the antipodes?

BROWN. Colin is from New South Wales, Australia. He and a friend, Daryl Cluff, developed what they call pasture cropping. Over there they have perennial pastures comprised of predominantly warm-season species. Colin and Daryl came up with the idea that when the warm-season perennials go dormant, they would seed a cool-season cash crop such as oats, canola or barley into it. That annual cash crop will then grow, and as the weather starts to warm up and the warm-season perennial understory starts to grow, the cash crop is combined off, leaving the perennials to grow. Where I farm, on the northern plains, we only have about 120 frost-free days; there just isn’t the growing season to allow us to pasture crop, but I know there is time in the southern United States, and I know people who are starting to move down that path. You need a long growing season, and you need predominantly warm-season perennials so you can seed a cool-season cash crop into them. I think there is real potential in the southern United States to do just that. Now, interestingly enough, a spinoff we are seeing and using on our operation is what we call polyculture cash crops. That’s where you seed a mix of cash crops together, combine them together, and if you like you could separate the seed. An example of that would be canola, peas and barley — grow those three together. Their growing seasons match, you combine them together and separate the seed. I know in southern Canada they’re doing a lot of work with this, and they are seeing 20 to 60 percent higher net returns per acre from that type of management scenario. I really think we’ll see a lot more of that in the future.

ACRES U.S.A. Why do you recommend avoiding conventional soil testing?

BROWN. The vast majority of soil tests being performed today do not give a true indication of the fertility levels of the soil being tested. Nearly all soil tests today only measure the inorganic fraction of the nutrients in a sample. These tests do not tell you the organic fraction of those nutrients in the sample and how much of that will be cycled to plant-available forms via biology. Biology is key and critical to nutrient cycling. I recommend the Haney soil test. It is, in my opinion, the best test available to help producers begin to understand the level of biology in their soil and how that biology will cycle nutrients.

ACRES U.S.A. You have a section in the book called “Planning For The Long Haul,” and since we hear a lot of grim predictions about the future these days, I wonder if you could turn that around and imagine a better future for the upper Midwest as the regenerative model gains adherents.

BROWN. I think one of the things we need to look at is more of a perennial type of system. Let’s face it, much of the land in the upper Midwest is marginal land as far as rainfall and soil type are concerned. Let’s put it into a perennial-type system with stacked enterprises of livestock, grazing on perennial pastures. We can integrate many species on those pastures. Stacking enterprises adds a lot more potential income per acre, and also reduces the risk because you have more income streams. I see a world of potential for that type of production model.

ACRES U.S.A. What do you mean by stacking enterprises?

BROWN. I’ll just explain what we do on our operation. We grow not only cash grain crops and cover crops on some of those acres, but we raise grass-finished beef, grass-finished lamb and pastured pork. Some of the grain we grow feeds our pastured hogs. We have 1,400 laying hens out on pasture, and those hens are fed grain screenings from the cash grain operation. We have bees, we have a vegetable garden, we have orchards — we have all these different enterprises and income streams. It makes us very resilient to fluctuations in commodity prices.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you build your direct marketing business? Does not living near a huge population center, like an upstate New York farmer for instance, pose a challenge?

BROWN. One of the things people need to realize is that we’re in the 21st century. Let’s look at the fact that it’s very easy with the internet and social media to sell your wares to a broader market. We market the majority of our products over the internet. We sell them in North Dakota, but even in North Dakota there is a delivery service that will drop products right to people’s doors for a very low price. We can take a product and ship it a hundred miles away for $15-$20. That makes buying very easy for our customers because they can order online; they pay with a credit card online; we pack up the product and take it to the delivery service; and there it is. It’s delivered to somebody’s door the very next day at a very reasonable price. I don’t think producers should use their location as an excuse, not in this day and age.

ACRES U.S.A. What is an example of a successful deliverable product for you?

BROWN. We offer over 120 different cuts of beef, lamb and pork — anything from ground to steaks to roasts, to jerky to hot dogs — they’re all frozen so we’re able to ship them anywhere in the state. All you do is put them in a cooler bag, put it in a box and the next day it’s on somebody’s doorstep.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you regard livestock diversity as a critical or crucial component of regenerative agriculture?

BROWN. I tell people this: “You have to do what you enjoy doing. Otherwise it’s going to be a chore, and it’s not going to be something you will want to do every day.” I know there are people out there who only want to cash-grain farm. That’s fine, you can do that, but realize the more enterprises you stack, the more profitable it becomes, the further you can advance soil health, the more resilient your operation becomes. Now, if you don’t want to run livestock on your operation, maybe there is a young person who does. Why not allow them to bring livestock onto your operation? It’s going to advance the health of your soil, and it will give a young person a chance. Now, are livestock critical? We can advance soil health without livestock. We cannot advance soil health without soil biology and without insects. Grazing animals add another dimension. I tell people it’s just like climbing up a set of stairs. Every one of the practices you do — whether it’s no-till, cover crops, diverse cash crops, animal integration — they all take you farther up the stairs. How high you go is up to you.

Gabe Brown’s new book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, is available from Acres U.S.A.

Gabe Brown will be speaking at the 2018 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in December. For more information call 800-355-5313.

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