In 2012, I had the great fortune to get a tip about a group of farmers, scientists and government soil conservationists who had teamed up in south-central North Dakota to take a holistic approach to making the land more resilient. By focusing intensively on building soil health utilizing a combination of practices—no-till, managed rotational grazing, cover-cropping, diverse cropping rotations—they had gotten a whole lot of farmers and ranchers excited about the world beneath our feet. As a result, they were building organic matter at rates scientists long thought weren’t possible and churning out soil that was less erosive, better able to manage water and just plain more profitable to farm.
I spent a few days hanging out with members of this team, and came away with a deep sense that they were onto something. It had been a long time since I had seen a collaborative effort generate so much of a buzz in a community and beyond. The farmers and ranchers who were involved with this effort felt they had control of their own futures, and that’s a powerful thing.
As I made the long drive back to Minnesota, I thought a lot about why the Burleigh County Soil Health Team was so effective. There were plenty of factors, including good leadership on the part of local natural resource agency personnel and a willingness on the part of top-notch scientists to listen to and learn from farmers. But one critical reason this team was successful locally, and eventually became the template for similar soil health teams around the world, was because of a man who knew how to talk about the importance of soil health to just about anyone he met: Gabe Brown.
He’s not just an innovative farmer with lots of good advice to impart. As anyone who picks up his new book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, will soon learn, Brown has an irresistible “rags-to-regeneration” back story, and he’s very good at sharing it. This gem of a book combines Brown’s personal tale with practical advice on how to build soil—yes, the “Five Principles of Soil Health” are covered. For good measure, numerous entertaining anecdotes are sprinkled in to keep the reading fun.
After reading this book, I realized how lucky I was back in 2012 when Brown spent half-a-day giving me a personal tour of his operation. Would he have been so generous with his time today? Perhaps he’d want to be, but the fact is the farmer’s time has become quite valuable in recent years. He is a YouTube star who is frequently interviewed by both the agricultural and environmental media; I’ve even heard him on National Public Radio. And then there’s the speaking engagements—Brown himself concedes that he is such a popular speaker both here and abroad that he’s had to adjust his farm management to accommodate all of the absences from the land. To be fair, Brown makes it clear he is more than willing to talk one-on-one with anyone who wants to learn how to bring soil to life. But let’s face it, there are only so many hours in the day.
So, for anyone interested in learning what makes the soil health revolution tick and perhaps how they can jump in themselves, the timing of this book is optimal.
Part of Brown’s appeal is he’s not afraid to talk about the mistakes. He begins the book by describing how multiple years of crop failures, which almost put him and his wife Shelly out of business, forced them to look deeper into the way the soil was being treated. Brown is a city kid from Bismarck, which means he didn’t have as many preconceived notions of how farming should be done. That opened him up to successful alternatives like planting multiple species of cover crops and mob grazing in a way that leaves lots of forage uneaten. A farm kid might have thought twice about going against the grain. Still, it didn’t come easy.
“I often say that I had to fail at everything twice, usually the hard way,” quips Brown.
But he learned from those failures, and wasn’t afraid to reach out to anyone he thought could help him bounce back and move forward. Some chapters read like a who’s-who in soil health/regenerative agriculture. Brown has interacted with them all: from Ray Archuleta and Dr. Kris Nichols to Dave Brandt and Gail Fuller. A particularly touching section tells the story of how Brown learned grazing innovations from Canadian Neil Dennis, who died soon after the book was published. One gets a sense that even after becoming a “rock star” in regenerative agriculture in his own right, Brown has been using all this hobnobbing to learn more and tweak the way he does things. He is a lifelong learner.
One minor criticism of Dirt to Soil is the chapter describing how Gabe and Shelly Brown, along with their son Paul, have developed a successful direct-to-consumer marketing venture as a way to get rewarded financially for building soil health. It’s exciting to read about how customers can’t get enough of their pasture-raised meat and eggs. But considering how much the local food movement is struggling, this chapter could have used more context. There’s no doubt the Browns have worked hard to make their “Nourished by Nature” marketing venture successful, but I suspect there are a certain set of unique circumstances helping them out, such as the fact that their region simply does not have a lot of farmers supplying locally produced foods.
But that’s a small quibble—the rest of the book leaves the reader with the feeling that regenerative farming is possible just about anywhere. In fact, before I left his farm in 2012, Brown told me, “There are people all over doing this. They just don’t have the mouth I have.”
To prove his point, he includes a chapter in the book called, “Will It Work on Your Farm?” It consists of eight mini-profiles of farmers and ranchers who, as Brown puts it, “…changed the way they saw the world after becoming inspired by the possibilities of regenerative agriculture.” The profiles were done by Grass, Soil, Hope author Courtney White, and they include innovators from Canada, Kansas, North Carolina, Texas and Montana. A glaring absence is anyone from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin or even Illinois. Does that mean these states lack anyone of Brown’s caliber? No, I’ve interviewed plenty of regenerative pioneers in those and other states who are extremely innovative. Let’s just say they don’t have the “mouth” that Gabe Brown does.
Land Stewardship Letter editor Brian DeVore is the author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.