The countryside of the northern Plains would look much different if it were populated by more people like Gabe Brown.
Some might contend that the region’s land and water resources would be healthier, and the vitality, fertility, and resilience of soils would be improved. Some might even say that the quality of our food would be better.
Brown’s thoughtful, ecological land management practices were earned through turmoil and hardship, like many meaningful, lasting lessons are learned.
His profound revelations about stewardship and agricultural ethics were prompted in the aftermath of four straight years (1995–98) when hail or drought wiped out crops on his sprawling farm and ranch in Burleigh County, North Dakota. Nearly broke and lacking access to credit and capital, Brown desperately needed to figure out how to grow crops and generate income without resorting to expensive synthetic fertilizers and other conventional farm chemicals.
“That series of four years was hell to go through,” reported Brown, “but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It changed the way I farm, and it changed the way I look at agriculture and soils.”
Brown had abandoned tillage in 1993, so he was already inclined to seek out improved ways to manage his land. The next step was to gain a better and more intimate understanding of the natural resources on his property.
With the help of his county conservationist, Brown measured rainfall infiltration rates on soils. Because annual precipitation averages only fifteen inches in the area where he and his family operate their five thousand-acre enterprise, he wanted to know the capability of soils on the place to absorb precious moisture.
“We discovered,” said Brown, “that the infiltration rate was about half an inch per hour, and that’s not very good.” He realized that although he’d stopped tilling his land, there had been many decades before that when the land was subjected to intensive tillage. “The aggregate stability of the soil had been destroyed by tillage,” he explained, “and that’s why the land couldn’t effectively absorb moisture.”
Brown also measured organic levels of his croplands and discovered rates ranging from 1.7 to 1.9 percent. He and the county conservationist understood that this was unacceptable.
A voracious reader and hungry learner, Brown began researching traditional and nonconventional approaches to agriculture. “I read and studied Thomas Jefferson’s journal and many other books about soils and farming. I realized that long before industrial farming came to dominate agriculture, farmers operated differently, and they had been successful. I wanted to learn how they did that.”
Cover crops became a focus of his investigations, and he soon discovered that his land dramatically benefited by their use. Brown began using cover crops during all seasons on all his land. On some land he blended up to twenty-five species of cover crops. “We now grow cover crops on all our cropland every year. That might be before a cash crop, as a companion crop alongside or mixed in with a cash crop, or after a cash crop has been harvested.”
The strategy, he explained, is to protect the soil and maintain living roots in the soil at all times. “It’s the presence of living roots,” he explained, “that feeds soil biology and starts nutrient cycling.”
Today, after some fifteen years of careful and deliberate management practices, Brown has tripled organic levels in his soils, with some soils reaching 6.1 percent. He has also dramatically improved the moisture infiltration rates of his soils. Some of his lands can now absorb up to eight inches of rainfall in an hour. “It’s not likely we’ll ever see a rain event like that,” he acknowledged, “but an infiltration level that high gives a good indication of how far we’ve come with our stewardship objectives.”
Not only is Brown conserving his land, he is—remarkably—building new topsoil. “If we follow the principles of avoiding tillage, keeping the ground covered at all times with carefully selected and diverse plants, and keeping roots in the ground, we can add soil at a surprising pace. Scientists say that it takes five hundred years for nature to build an inch of topsoil. We can do that in a matter of a few years.”
Brown also avoids synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and describes their detrimental effects on soils. “The reality is that synthetic fertilizers destroy the health of the soil. Farmers are told to keep adding more and more of it, but it’s unnecessary.” Despite his aversion to synthetic fertilizers, Brown’s cornfields out-yield the county average by 20 percent. And those cornfields have not been treated with pesticides or fungicides for many years. “When you apply something to kill a pest, you also kill beneficial species,” he said. “We do use herbicides here and there but very rarely and at a much reduced rate. I treat my farm and ranch like an ecosystem, and it’s a low-stress approach for the land.”
Diversity is the overarching theme of Brown’s farm-ranch enterprise. He runs 350 cow-calf pairs and up to 800 yearlings on one hundred carefully tended pastures throughout his entire operation, including on cropped lands. There is no confinement feeding. He also has a flock of sheep, pastured hogs, and six hundred free-range laying hens. His crops grow mostly from organic seed, and he’s raising corn, oats, barley, sunflowers, spring and winter wheat, alfalfa, and others. Use of synthetic chemicals on all crops is kept to a bare minimum. Of his five thousand acres, two thousand are native prairie, two thousand are cropped, and one thousand exist as what he calls “tame prairie” or pasture. “We’re trending toward more grasslands,” he explained. “We’re continually seeding cropland back to perennial, native pasture.”
Combining zero till, diverse cover crops, and integrated livestock grazing throughout the operation creates a sustainable agricultural environment that Brown describes as “regenerative.” The business he has developed relies on those regenerative practices, and it revolves around “stacked enterprises” creating multiple income streams that handsomely reward him and his family. Brown’s grass-fed beef label, for example, is doing well, and nearly everything he sells is direct-marketed to consumers. He does not participate in the farm program, and he complains that the farm bill restricts progressive concepts like cover crop uses.
Word is spreading about his successes. Last summer more than two thousand people from all over the globe visited Brown’s operation. He travels regularly to conferences and gatherings to learn, network, and share. And on Friday, August 15, Brown spoke at length about modern farming and regenerating soils on National Public Radio’s nationally broadcast “Science Friday.” His message is gaining traction, too. Cover crop tactics and holistic management practices are gaining popularity.
“It’s not easy to admit that I farmed the wrong way for many years,” he candidly declared. “I’m now trying to prove that there’s another way, a better way, to farm.”
Judging from the condition of his soils and land, and from the commercial health of his farm and ranch business, the proving part has passed.
To listen to the NPR story, visit http://sciencefriday.com/segment/08/15/2014/is-healthy-soil-the-low-tech-solution-to-climate-change.html