Organic Broadcaster

Gabe Brown details his groundbreaking soil-building practices in new book

By John Mesko, MOSES

Dirt to Soil
By Gabe Brown
2018 | Chelsea Green
240 Pages
$19.95 Paperback
Get your copy at the 2019 MOSES Conference where your purchase supports farmer education!

Necessity is the mother of invention. Nowhere is that truer than in the life of Brown’s Ranch near Bismarck, N.D., where Gabe Brown and his family are literally reshaping the future of agriculture.

Gabe Brown is not the first, or the only farmer to use cover crops and livestock to repair and build his soil; but, he may be the most famous. Organic farmers have used cover crops for years to build soil, provide “green manure” for subsequent crops, and to reduce erosion. But Gabe Brown has taken the practice to the extreme, and in the process ignited a soil health movement which is sweeping the globe.

In Dirt to Soil, Brown describes the impetus, the process, and the results of shifting the focus of a large-scale, Midwestern crop and livestock farm from maximizing gross productivity to regenerating soil, and maximizing long-term sustainability. After convincing his wife to return to her family’s farm in the early 1990s, Brown and his family suffered three major weather-related crop failures, leaving them with little income, and a banker with no confidence. Out of a combination of self-described stubbornness and desperation, Brown set about to farm without an operating loan, cutting costs to the bone, and risking his reputation as a “good” farmer. Brown’s reckless abandonment of the local status quo is refreshing and inspires the individual in all of us.

Dirt to Soil casts a vision for how improving soil health should be the work of all of agriculture and describes in sufficient detail the principles, practices, and metrics to encourage farmers to begin deliberately building soil. Brown’s personal reflections on the impact of his journey on his family and community make this technical subject readable and inspiring.

I first met Gabe Brown in 2012 when he was speaking at a conference about the integration of cover crops, row crops, and livestock grazing at Brown’s Ranch. Gabe’s humility, passion, and willingness to share financial information greatly enhanced his credibility and effectiveness. I made a personal connection with him right away. Already a seasoned conference speaker, Gabe was gaining popularity in news media both in the U.S. and internationally as the numbers of guests touring his Bismarck ranch each summer was in the thousands. Despite the great first impression, I wondered if the results at Brown’s Ranch were significantly different than other efforts I’d seen in this area.

Seeing is believing; and in 2013, I had the opportunity to tour Brown’s Ranch on what happened to be the hottest day on record with a high temperature over 100 degrees. As I walked out into a 40-acre field of cover crops taller than I am, 30 head of cattle entered from another gate and began devouring the forage present. The soil was cool, the cattle were gaining weight and incorporating spent forage and waste; the underground “livestock” — the microbes whose work is critical for creating soil—were feasting as well. Veteran farmers’ feet can tell the difference between healthy and dead soil, and the walk across this pasture screamed health and vitality. The other 500 people with me that day could feel it, too.

At Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota, cattle graze a field planted with ~30 cover crop varieties in 100 degree heat with only a half-inch of rain in 2 months.                                        Photo by Gabe Brown

Since then, Gabe has thrown his influence behind the advancement of the term “regenerative agriculture” to describe the overall impact of the work of building soil. While some may see this as a challenge to terms such as “sustainable” or “organic,” it has inspired a healthy debate about the impact the words we use to describe our work has on our mindset and focus.

Specifically, in Dirt to Soil, Gabe challenges the notion of “sustainable agriculture” and argues convincingly that simply sustaining our current degraded soils is unacceptable, and in fact, regenerating soils should be the approach taken by conservation and environmentally minded agriculturalists.

Terminology aside, Gabe Brown is demonstrating sustainability in a very important way as he has handed off day-to-day farming duties to his son, Paul, who is now adding his own ideas and experimentation to this very real-world, cutting-edge laboratory called Brown’s Ranch. This transition, too, is inspiring to readers of Dirt to Soil, as most would agree that whatever form a farming operation takes, a core value should be its ability to inspire the next generation to step in and carry on—a new generation learning from the mistakes and building upon the successes of its predecessor.

Whether coming from an organic or non-organic perspective, anyone who is sincere about making improvements on their farm or the farms they work with should read Dirt to Soil. You’ll come away with something you can use right away, as well as a thirst for more information.

John Mesko is the executive director of MOSES.



From the September | October 2018 Issue

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