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Dirt to Soil: One Family's Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture

Gabe Brown is a pioneer in regenerative land management, a holistic strategy that helps restore soil health. Last year, I visited his 5,000-acre farm in Bismarck, North Dakota, on my 63rd birthday. We reviewed many of his techniques in "How to Use Regenerative Farming Principles to Grow Healthier Food in Your Own Garden."

Here, we discuss Brown's book, "Dirt to Soil: One Family's Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture," which expands on the information discussed in that interview.

Brown's farm, which he runs with his wife and son, was founded by his in-laws in 1956. They were conventional farmers, using tillage, monoculture and synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Brown and his wife purchased the farm in 1991.

"I grew up in town, so agriculture was new to me," Brown says. "I had a couple of degrees from North Dakota State University in animal science and agro-economics. I learned the industrialized, commoditized production model. My father-in-law, when we returned here, also taught me those principles.

Then what happened ... we'd be tilling the soil and watch the top soil blow away. I was always wanting. I couldn't learn enough. I studied and read Allan Savory's work on holistic planned grazing. I read about no-till. I went down the path of changing our grazing model. I bought a no-till drill.

What really changed our lives were four years — 1995 through 1998 — when we lost three crops to devastating hail storms and one crop to a drought. We had four years of basically no cash grain income or no crops to harvest. That put us in pretty dire financial straits. The bank won't loan us money anymore to buy all these expensive inputs.

I had to learn, 'How do I take that dirt that I had at that time and make it into productive soil?' That set me on a 25 plus-year journey — I'm still on that journey — of converting dirt to soil. That's how the book came about.

That got us to the point where we are today, where a group of us spend the majority of our time traveling around North America, trying to teach other producers to take their operations into their own hands and make a difference by producing truly nutrient-dense foods …

I really think God purposely led me down this path and said, 'OK. I'm showing you this to force you into a different type of production model.' That's the model of regenerative agriculture.

I tell people, 'Those four years were the hardest thing we ever could have gone through, but it was absolutely the best thing that could happen to me, because I never would have gone down this path if we had not been a subject to those natural disasters.'"

A Different Way of Seeing

In 1997, Brown met Don Campbell, a rancher from Alberta, Canada. "He said this to me and it stuck with me ever since: 'If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. But if you want to make major changes, change the way you see things.'"

That made Brown realize he needed to change the way he views soil. It's not just dirt. It's a living, functioning ecosystem. The problem is that most farmers do not treat it as such. He realized that by focusing on what the soil needs to thrive, nutrients are automatically made available to the plants, allowing him to produce nutrient-dense food.

In his book, "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," David Montgomery outlines historical disasters, noting that millions of tons of topsoil erode each year into the Mississippi basin. Globally, some 4 billion tons of this precious resource is lost annually.

The historical precedent is to farm the land until it's used up and then relocate. But we're now getting to the point where there's nowhere left to go. Brown is promoting the transition away from that, teaching ways of optimizing the soil we have.

"An interesting analogy that I like to give that puts it into perspective for people is if you hold up a sheet of paper, just a newspaper or a book, the thickness of that thin sheet of paper is the equivalent of 1 ton of topsoil per acre. If we have a windy day, if you have bare-tilled soil, you're going to lose a ton of topsoil on an acre of land. That's unacceptable …

What we're trying to enable people to see is the fact that we can stop it. It's just a matter of following nature's principles. Let's work with nature to cover the soil, to have green, growing plants, to cycle that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back in the soil in that cycle where it belongs. It will lead to the betterment of all society and all ecosystems," Brown says.

At present, less than 5 percent of farmers and ranchers worldwide have adopted these practices, but growth is exponential. Regenerative farming is now doubling every year. "Those of us who are out touting the benefits of regenerative agriculture are overwhelmed with producers who want to make a change," Brown says.

The Rural Crisis

According to Brown, there's a real crisis going on in rural America right now, with suicide rates being at an all-time high among farmers and ranchers. Most are struggling financially as a result of low commodity prices and overproduction of basic commodities, and this crisis is proof positive that the current production model is not working.

"We're in this production model where it's all about pounds and yield, and it's not about producing truly nutrient-dense foods in a way that can regenerate our ecosystem. We have to change this model," he says.

Aside from changing mindsets about how to produce food, Brown is also teaching farmers how to become true entrepreneurs; how to actually get their goods to consumers.

"One of the things we do on our operation is we have an open-door policy, meaning any person can drive on our ranch at any time and look at anything they want. To me, that's the best.

You can have all these labels and standards, but if people see it with their own eyes, if they get to know the farmer or rancher and see what we do, see how we care for our animals, see how we care for the soil, that builds trust.

Once they taste the product and their bodies will be satiated — their bodies will know, 'This is good. This is nutrient-dense. I want it,' and then they're a customer for life."

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