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We Have to Change the Whole Mindset

An Interview with Gabe Brown

The following is an excerpt from the book, Voices from the Soil, and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Gabe Brown is one of the great bridge builders in farming. No matter what corner of agriculture you come from, or even if you don’t work in agriculture at all, Brown explains how regenerative farming can restore our ravaged soils to vitality. Moreover, he does it with a plainspoken, pragmatic aplomb that always 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 clean stroke. At an AcresUSA 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. 

After many years of explaining his soil-building wizardry in person, Brown somehow found time to write a book, Dirt to Soil, which 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 first interviewed Brown in our October 2013 issue. We reached him for another in-depth talk a little more than five years later at his farm in North Dakota. 

AcresUSA: 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 form 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.

AcresUSA: 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.

AcresUSA: Would it be right to say that you went from farming as as 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 fo 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.

AcresUSA: 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 Fulller 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.

AcresUSA: 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.

AcresUSA: Do you think a playful spirit is one of the things missing in a lot of farming education now? Would it be good 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, 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.

AcresUSA: 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.

AcresUSA: 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.

AcresUSA: 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 fee livestock–ruminants–that shouldn’t be fed grain. We have to change the whole mind-set of production agriculture.

AcresUSA: 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.

AcresUSA: 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…

To keep learning from Gabe Brown and other soil-health visionaries, find Voices From the Soil at the AcresUSA Bookstore.

About the Author

Gabe Brown is a pioneer of the soil-health movement and has been named one of the twenty-five most influential agricultural leaders in the United States. Brown, his wife, Shelly, and son, Paul, own Brown’s Ranch, a holistic, diversified 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota. The Browns integrate their grazing and no-till cropping systems, which include cash crops and multi-species cover crops along with all-natural, grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured pork, and laying hens. The Brown family has received a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year Award.