Gabe Brown, the author of Dirt to Soil, farms near Bismarck in the US state of North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border. Unusual weather events often spell bad news for farmers, but anyone hit by hailstorms and a severe blizzard in four consecutive years might be excused for being done with farming, once and for all. Brown didn’t give up, despite the “disaster years” as he calls the period from 1995 to 1998. “Today, I tell people that those four years of crop failure were hell to go through, but they turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us, because they forced us to think outside the box, to not be afraid of failure and to work with nature instead of against it.”
There is little that Brown’s Ranch doesn’t produce: grains, beef, pork, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts – and the list is not comprehensive. To Brown, it’s not about increasing the yield, it is about maximising the profit per acre. One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, is the subtitle to his book which summarises his insight that everything on the farm hinges on the health of its soils.
His farming success has turned Gabe Brown into something of a celebrity in regenerative farming circles, and by now he spends several months a year, off the farm giving talks and running seminars and workshops. Dirt to Soil, his first book, is in part a handbook that teaches farmers and gardeners how to heal the soil; but it also explains a lot of the soil science and explains why good soil is an integral part of a healthy ecosystem. Take the water infiltration rate, the amount of rainwater the soil can absorb: when Brown bought the farm in 1991, the infiltration rate was ½ inch per hour, in 2009 it was 10 inches, he says.
This kind of living soil is like an insurance policy against flooding and drought and that’s why soil health matters not just to farmers but to everyone. And it’s not complicated, says Gabe Brown. “I follow five principles that were developed by nature, over eons of time. They are the same any place in the world where the sun shines and plants grow.” The principles are: limit disturbance of the soil; keep soil covered with plants at all times; strive for diversity; maintain a living root system because it feeds the soil biology; and integrate animals – nature does not function without animals.”
I had a chance to speak with Gabe Brown in early September, just before the publication of Dirt to Soil.
Do you think sticking to the principles of regenerative agriculture makes a visible difference on your farm?
We are currently in our third year in a row with less than 50% of normal rainfall and during the growing season you do definitely notice that the crops on my land are greener and we tend to have more total biomass growth compared to neighbouring lands, especially on our pasture land. That is all due to the resilience we’ve built over time in our soils – the fact that we have been able to increase both water infiltration rates and water holding capacity. So, I contend that farmers and ranchers tend, to some extent, to create their own weather extremes and by that, I mean droughts are more pronounced if their soils aren’t healthy enough. Also, if you are in an area that is prone to excess moisture, you are going to notice the ramifications of that because water is not able to infiltrate and move throughout the soil profile; it pounds on the surface of the soil and [the farmer] ends up potentially losing crops and production [capacity] because of that also.
Farmers don’t just produce food, by practicing regenerative agriculture they are providing many other benefits to society. Should we pay farmers for that?
There is no doubt that farmers provide greater ecological services than almost anyone else. There is no doubt in my mind that farming and ranching is key to reversing the trends we are seeing [occur] in our ecosystems. Should they be paid for those services? Yes, absolutely if it provides a societal benefit, which of course it would. One of the things which I am involved in, and that I describe in my book, is a company called Landstream, that is quantifying these ecological services, [such as] the amount of carbon that we are pulling out of the atmosphere and pumping into the soils. It’s quantifying the amount of rainfall that can infiltrate into our soils and then [is held] there via the organic matter levels in our soils. I think this is critical. One of the reasons why I became involved with Landstream, is because we just don’t have that data available. There is no real good data out there showing that if we use these regenerative practices it will amount to ‘x’ – so many tons of carbon per hectare or so many more inches of available moisture. All of this is critical to society as a whole. Not to mention the fact that we can grow [more] nutrient dense foods which also benefits society.
You market your produce mostly within North Dakota which has about the population of the city of Leeds, in the UK. That means a lot of time on the road for farmers like you. Don’t we need a better infrastructure to get farm products to consumers?
I honestly believe we need to change the structure of agriculture. We need to get down to a more localised structure. With today’s technology and transportation, we have the capability to ship longer distances. In saying that, we market our products within a 200 mile radius of our ranch. We would like to shrink that and actually get that down to within 25 miles of our ranch.
What would that mean for producers all over the world? Well, they’d market more locally and the benefits of that are [that] societies are supporting the local economies, we as farmers are supporting the local economy. If we go to a more localised production model, you build this transparency and this trust, and that’s a good thing for all involved. It also would help the consuming public realise all the benefits that we are providing for society, through carbon cycling, through cleaner water, cleaner air, etcetera.
Do farmers need a more local infrastructure as well? You tell the story in the book that you got together with a group of farmers in your area to form a co-operative that now runs its own slaughter facility.
You are absolutely correct, we need to get that kind of infrastructure back [in] a more localised economy. You look at, say, beef slaughter facilities: the top five businesses that are involved in beef slaughter, actually slaughter well over 80% of beef in the country. And that’s one of the problems with this whole production model; we are way too monoculture-based and we have the majority [of production], the size, the capability in the hands of very, very few.
And my whole point of it is, that in the United States, according to the last figures I’m aware of, only 12.6 cents out of every food dollar actually ends up in the farmer’s or rancher’s pocket. The only way we are going to change that is by taking these matters into our own hands and bringing it back to a more localised level. You look at our small slaughter facility: we have located it in a small town of 180 people, and we provide seven full time jobs in that small town. That is a lot. It means a lot to that community, [that] we bring traffic in and out of that community, you know, [that] we bring business to that community.
Has dealing with the soil, the way you farm now, changed your outlook on life in general?
That’s a very good question. Yes, it has. You know, I honestly believe I was taken down this path by God. How many people would be exposed to four years of natural disasters and then given the opportunity to learn and to grow and to make a profitable business and then be able to go out and share that? I think what I tend to do is to give other farmers, ranchers and consumers, hope. Hope that we can change that degradation. I tell people that, you know, I’ve been on thousands of [agricultural] operations all over the world, and I’ve never ever been on a single operation – including my own – that’s not degraded. But the fact of the matter is that it gives us hope that we can regenerate these soils! And it’s changed my outlook in life, in that it’s now one of hope. I tell people I used to wake up every morning trying to decide what I was going to kill that day. Was it going to be a weed? Was it going to be a pest? Was it going to be a fungal disease? I was going to kill something. Now I wake up every day thinking, how do I get more life onto my operation? How do I share what we do on our operation with the world, in order to give others hope and to advance all of agriculture with this type of regenerative production model?
It is also a change in thinking, in regards to the community, because we as farmers and ranchers need to realise that every single thing we do has compounding and cascading effects. These effects may be either positive or they may be negative. So often in production agriculture a producer is in this very narrow mind-set, where they only look at what are the ramifications of this one thing that I’m doing on my operation today, is to my operation. But we need to realise that there are much, much bigger and broader implications in every single thing we do. We have to realise this as producers, and this journey I’ve been on has really made me realise that we’re all in this together and everything that I do as a producer affects multiple individuals not only in my lifetime, but for future generations to come.
The text of this interview is not a word-for-word transcription, we have made some small changes to ease the passage from the spoken word onto the page.
Photograph: Harry Rose
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