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Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture

review by Jack Kittredge

As many readers of The Natural Farmer know, Gabe Brown is the conventional North Dakota diversified farmer who learned the hard way how to transform a degraded, failing farm into a healthy, profitable one using the power of nature. This book is the “tell all” story of his journey.

Gabe learned farming by working eight years with his father-in-law on a 1760 acre grain and beef ranch which was heavily tilled and herbicided, with the cattle subject to multiple vaccinations and pour-on insecticides. By the time Gabe and his wife Shelly purchased the home farm, Gabe was seriously concerned about these practices and particularly the condition of the soil. Their organic matter ranged from 1.7 to 1.9 percent, in an area of the upper Great Plains that had once boasted 7 to 8 percent. Water infiltrated at the rate of half an inch per hour, not fast enough to retain much of the only 16 inches of precipitation that fell there each year.

For the first few years after taking over the farm, not knowing what else he could do, Gabe continued the tillage, fertilizers and herbicides his in-laws had used. But then a farming friend suggested that no-till was saving him time and moisture and that Gabe should try it. But he cautioned Gabe: “If you do go no-till, sell all of your tillage equipment so you are not tempted to go back.”

Gabe couldn’t afford a no-till drill without doing that so he sold all his tillage stuff and bought the drill. The first year of no-till was fantastic, Gabe recalls. Not only did yields go up, but he was able to reduce nitrogen fertilizer costs by adding field peas to the crop rotation. The next year Brown’s spring wheat crop was devastated by a hail storm. The calves were unharmed, but with an operating loan and a mortgage, finances were very tight. Two years later another hail storm and a major medical diagnosis for their daughter forced both Gabe and Shelly to take off-farm jobs.

The “disaster years” continued for the Browns a couple more years, but like Job, he persevered and never lost faith. He kept learning, deciding to adopt a Savory grazing system, moving the cows to a winter foraging system because he couldn’t afford the twine to bale his hay, and suddenly noticed a large number of earthworms in the soil where previously he couldn’t find any. He knew he was on the right track. In the 20 years since the disasters Gabe has become a major spokesperson for what he calls regenerative agriculture.

More than half the book is devoted to the Brown Ranch story, disasters, changes, and all. The rest talks about applying what Gabe has learned to other situations. He in convinced that these lessons will work anywhere because they are the way nature works.

The five principles of soil health, according to Brown, are:
• limit disturbance – mechanical, chemical, physical
• armor – keep soil covered at all times
• diversity – strive for a diverse mix of plants, animals, and microbes
• living roots – keep plants alive in the soil as long as possible throughout the year
• integrate animals – they are necessary for a healthy, natural ecosystem

There is far more information in this book than I can describe, but I think any farmer will find it fascinating. Toward the end of the book Gabe discusses other farms which are also adapting regenerative agriculture – in Australia, Kansas, North Carolina, Alberta, Texas, Saskatchewan, and Montana – and succeeding. There is no simple formula, and these folks are also looking to creative marketing and diverse products to protect against downturns. But the key, he repeats, is first seeing the power of nature and understanding the farmer has to learn how to work with it.