Gabe Brown: Lessons from 20 Years of Regenerative Farming

Gabe Brown | Understanding Ag

I just returned from a presentation by Gabe Brown. I was definitely excited to meet the man featured in one of my favorite documentaries, ‘Kiss the Ground’. I had also just began reading his book ‘Dirt to Soil’. Gabe came to tell his family’s story and experience of over 20 years in regenerative agriculture and to discuss the important work his company, Understanding Ag, is performing today.

Gabe’s family runs what may be the country’s largest regenerative ranch. The 5,000 acre Brown’s Ranch is located in Bismarck, ND and they have been using regenerative practices after many tough lessons from conventional methods. Gabe’s book, ‘Dirt to Soil’, was published just a couple of years ago and has become one of the top selling books in the agriculture category. Gabe’s company, Understanding Ag, consults with producers, governments, and large food companies to educate people about soil health and reconditioning ecosystems. He has a great story and had to take many lumps before changing the way he thought about farming.

Gabe told us the story of how he and his wife racked up $1.5 million in debt in the early years of running their farm. They were plagued by four unlikely hail storms, that had wiped out their cash crops and were beginning to wonder if some higher power was telling them to quit. Luckily, Gabe was the inquisitive type and took the message not as a sign to quit, but as a sign to do things differently. Not only was the hail difficult to counter, but a lack of moisture was common. Gabe sold-off all of the family’s tillage equipment early on in an effort to retain some of that moisture. Later he would learn about many more reasons to stop tilling the soil and today he says, “In my opinion, tillage should be outlawed. It’s just too destructive.”

The transformation the Brown’s made on their ranch continues to be studied as a prime example of how effective regenerative farming can be. Aside from dropping the tillage, the Brown’s began seeding cover crops and bringing in more livestock. The cover crops prevent the valuable top-soil from blowing or washing away while providing a home for the billions of organisms and mycorrhizal that want to live there. Should another hail storm arrive, the livestock can be put out to graze on the nutrient rich plants. 

On the Brown’s Ranch, water infiltration of the soil has been increased from 1/2 inch per hour to an incredible 30 inches per hour! The next time you drive by a corn or soybean field and see standing water, that’s a sign of poor soil health. Without year-around root structures permeating the soil and creating air pockets, the soil becomes hard and impenetrable. The soil can’t retain the moisture that the crops will so desperately need throughout the growing season. Impenetrable soils due to conventional farming practices are causing overland flooding all across the world. Where I live, The City of Fargo has formed a partnership to spend over $3 billion (yes, billion with a “B”) on a flood diversion project that could have easily been resolved with better field cover. What if that money had instead gone to the surrounding farmers to plant cover crops?

The average farm in the Bismarck area has 5 inches of top-soil in their fields while the Brown’s Ranch has 29 inches. That deep, healthy top-soil contains 92 tons of carbon per acre according to a university study completed on the land. That is the equivalent of 60,400 tons of thermal coal. Measurements that go deeper into the soil, will likely show the land is holding 3 to 5 times that amount. This is hands-down the most productive way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. With all of that healthy soil and high carbon content, the Brown’s Ranch gets 30 times the profit per acre as compared to a conventional cash crop acre.

It was very heartening to hear how Gabe has made spreading the word of regenerative agriculture his mission in life. He and thousands of others are beginning to make waves in the agriculture industry. Gabe shared with us that Understanding Ag is working closely with major companies like General Mills and Syngenta. Big companies are recognizing the shifting winds and beginning to seriously consider the increasing consumer demand for healthier food.  Major policy challenges still exist though. Federal and state carbon credit programs are so strict about the measurement processes and standardization that most farms can’t afford to do the testing. Even if they could afford the testing, we are learning that the tests only measure a fraction of the actual carbon that is being sequestered.

I am confident, with people like Gabe leading the charge, that we will overcome these challenges. The place to start is in education and voting with our pocketbooks. Before your next stop at the grocery store, perform a search for local producers. Remember, food is medicine, and what extra cost you might pay for your meat and vegetables today is an investment in your future health. Consider the Brown’s grass-fed cattle for instance. The nutrient content of the meat was analyzed and was found to contain more Omega 3’s than any store bought fish including both farm-raised and wild salmon.

We can all find healthier, more responsibly produced food, and feel good about making the world a better place. Gabe says we should all work on forming a better understanding of how our food is produced and where it comes from. By buying local, regeneratively produced food, you are forming a relationship with someone in your community and making a direct impact to your environment. Even a small garden in the back yard can help you learn volumes about nature and the role we each play in the larger system.

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