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Gabe Brown: Healing People Through Soil

By Cassidy Spencer

Listen to the full podcast here.

Gabe Brown is a powerhouse of soil health. But he feels that he can only have his voice today because he began with failure.

When he started out farming, with his wife, Shelly, he was the city boy on the farm with big ideas. At the outset, much to the skepticism of his neighbors and father-in-law, he sold all of his tillage equipment so as to give no-till an honest try and not be tempted to return to the practice. He added field peas to the rotation to bring more nitrogen into the soil. He was unorthodox from the start.

Gabe Brown
Gabe Brown

Then, the farm suffered two years of devastating hailstorms that wiped out their cash crops, and in the third year, a massive blizzard that claimed many of their calves. When things were at their bleakest, Gabe knelt in a pasture and prayed, “God if you help see me through this, I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping others.”

He jokes now that God picked the poorest farmer and rancher around, but the one who has the biggest mouth. In Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil, he explains, “Those four years of failure were hell to go through, but they turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us because they forced us to think outside the box, to not be afraid of failure, and to work with nature instead of against her.”

Healing Soil Heals All

Farmers are not always inclined to diverge from their known methods: their livelihood is on the line. Gabe believes that conventional farming methods and their degradation of the land have bred an inherited perspective of fear and secrecy. In this nuanced way, Gabe has noticed a change in disposition between conventional farmers and regenerative farmers. Under regenerative practices, Gabe finds that farmers are more open; and more inclined to share their experiences, failures, and tactics. Regenerative farmers do not need to guard their farming practices: as they understand there is not one formula or one approach that will work everywhere. Furthermore, diversity as a facet of regenerative agriculture also creates a much more financially resilient operation: if the market for one crop is not doing well, there is much more going on in the farm than just one or a few crops.

Suicide rates in farmers and ranchers have been high; it is difficult to make a living trying to control nature. Gabe believes that regenerative agriculture, how it “work(s) with nature instead of against her” offers a more holistic path– to heal the soil but also to heal the livelihoods of farmers. Gabe wants to heal the future and stop the inheritance of destructive, fearful farming.

“If your farm is exporting more carbon than it’s bringing in, the next generation is not going to be on that farm or ranch. If your farm is bringing more carbon in than it is exporting, the next generation has the opportunity to stay.”

Regenerative practices are the beginning of building a more sustainable life for all who come after you on the land.

Incentivize the consumer

To change producer behavior, there must be a change in the consumer demands.

Gabe is on a mission to inform more of the public of the enormous health benefits of food grown on a regenerative farm. “Consumers must become aware of the phytonutrient compounds: then they will be in a position to demand these qualities. Producers can’t just be pushing– consumers must also be pulling for the product.”

Recently, Makers Mark Bourbon put out a press release to announce that their farm has been certified as regenerative. In 5 hours, the press release hit 2.7 million views. There is interest and response to regenerative agriculture. Whole Foods began selling regeneratively farmed eggs; they are now bringing $2.00 per dozen higher than organic prices, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. Gabe recently spoke with a farmer who was being paid $22 per bushel for regeneratively grown spring wheat. Consumers are catching on.

It is no secret that the modern world has observed a tremendous decline in human health. Food that is grown in tandem with nature can heal people’s bodies; and can act as preventative medicine. Consumers in the past haven't often stopped to consider the origins of their food; just recently Gabe and Shelly found a pepper in a grocery store in Bismark, North Dakota that hailed all the way from Denmark. Gabe begs the questions: how much energy did it take to get that pepper here? How else could that energy have been used? The nutrient value of something transported so far, something clearly not fresh, cannot be high. Gabe urged consumers to notice how and where food is raised: the positive compounding effects, or the negative cascading effects.

How can we change the minds of homeowners and consumers?

Gabe expresses that everything you need to know about regenerative agriculture can be illustrated in a garden. Even on that small scale, awareness can be spread, better food can be distributed. Permaculturist Jeff Lawton has said that a garden can solve every problem in this world. Gabe is beginning to see what he meant.

Changing the System to Change the World

Gabe knows that it will take a lot to change farmers' behavior. That it takes change in infrastructure and incentive to change farmers. He also posits that the consequences of this change can have larger impacts than could have been predicted.

Gabe has had a hand in working on a film called Common Ground, which debuted in film festivals in June and Netflix in September 2023. The thesis of the film is: no matter where your interest lies-- soil, climate change, agriculture, water quantity and quality, revitalizing rural communities, human health– regenerative agriculture can help. Gabe believes agriculture has had a hand in the degradation of the world; but that it can be a greater part of the solution.

What drives producers toward regenerative agriculture?

As Gabe explains, ultimately profitability is the motivator. At this, he emphasizes how regenerative principles have the ability to significantly reduce input costs for producers.

“All producers want to do what’s right for the environment. You know, there’s no producer that likes to go out and spray a chemical. Nobody likes to do that job.”

NRCS has excelled in offering incentives for farms to go no-till, to plant buffers: but Gabe warns that when the incentive is removed, many farmers return to their original practices– that there is only about an 8-12% independent adoption rate. To make real change, farmers must not only be offered financial motivation but also education: they must understand, why is the change important. One example that Gabe provides is that upwards of 95% of producers would likely not be able to describe how a soil aggregate is formed.

Gabe explains that the firm he co-runs, Understanding Ag, is not so much a consulting firm as it is an education firm. This education is imperative for farmers to manage land effectively and holistically.

When visiting a farm: Gabe starts by visually showing farmers the difference between their field soil and the soil in the road ditch. Then he shows them the difference in water infiltration in their field and in the road ditch. Then he moves on to proper soil testing, explaining the difference between inorganic nutrients and organic nutrients and how the nutrient cycle works. He runs a Total Nutrient Digestion test to show them they already have plenty of nutrients in the soil. Then he runs a split trial on one of their fields: using the amount of nutrients they normally employ against the amount of nutrients Understanding Ag recommends. 99 out of 100 times, the latter plot will be more profitable, and then you have farmers' attention.

In time, the diversity on the land returns. Soil infiltration improves. Gabe says a big change he notices in farmers is they start to see that insects are not just pests posing threats to the crops; that the return of insects to the land can be a good sign. In Chapter 2 of Dirt to Soil, titled ‘Regenerating the Ecosystem,’ Gabe explains:

“The first clue that we were regenerating our ecosystem was the earthworms. It was as if a light turned on, and I began to realize what had happened. I had left all that biomass sitting on the soil surface, protecting it and feeding carbon to the microbes in the soil. I had also greatly reduced the amount of herbicide and synthetic fertilizer I used on the crops– because I couldn’t afford it. The results were easy to see. I knew the soil was improving because when I sank a shovel into the ground, in addition to earthworms, I saw darker, richer soil with better structure. This was a sign the organic matter levels were increasing. The soil held more water, too. Even in a drought year, we had produced enough feed for our livestock because the health of the soil was improving.”

He goes on to describe more of the diversity they began to see on the land: pheasants, deer, coyotes, and hawks.

The UK has rewritten its farming program; previously it was based on pounds per yield– now it is based on holistic outcomes: how clean is the water leaving your farm, how much carbon are you sequestering into your soils, how much biodiversity is on the farm? Improved systems of incentives like this can encourage the evolution of farming practices.

Regenerative community gardens and farms can revitalize rural communities. Less chemical input leads to less chemicals in the watershed, which improves water holding capacity of soil, which supports the water cycle and regulates climate. Diverse regenerative farms offer a respite for animals from urban centers. Regenerative crops give vital nutrients back to the human body. By changing our farming systems, Gabe reminds us of the incredible ripple effects of changing the world.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Gabe Brown, Buz Kloot, and Joe Dickie.


Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:

1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.

2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.

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