Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture
By Gabe Brown
Chelsea Green Publishing
To say that Gabe Brown is larger than life is an understatement; it is hard to encapsulate the man and his message. My first read of Dirt to Soil was just for the easy, enjoyable story. I had attended numerous presentations of Gabe’s, so I could hear him speak with his endearing self-deprecating humor and humility. He “preaches” about the power of nature and lives and practices what he preaches. Even if farmers struggle to implement his message, they realize he is one of them. His catch phrase, “I like to sign the back of checks, not the front” is particularly engaging.
He and his family endured four years of traumatic weather that most would not have survived economically. Despite the fact that he had to “learn every lesson the hard way,” this is anything but a depressing read. He was so broke, “the banker knew every time they bought toilet paper.” Many of his successes were accidental— the result of desperate financial straits. Example: he did not have money for twine, so he had to leave the cover crop standing. He grazed it over the winter and, by golly, that worked! And he managed not to sign the check for twine.
The book is full of so many noteworthy quips that during my second read, I took fifteen pages of notes. My favorite: “People laugh at me because I am different, but I laugh at them because they are all the same.” He does not lament that only 14¢ of every dollar spent on food goes to farmers, nor does he ask the government for assistance. Instead, he actively pursues that 86¢. “To be successful you have to make money farming; conventional farming is all about spending money.” Also, “The successful farmer of today is the one who un-learns the quickest.”
Gabe quotes South Dakotan Jonathan Lundgren and his amazing research endeavor, the 1000 Farms Initiative. Lundgren posits that insects are nature’s insecticide. Everything regenerative agriculture promotes helps mitigate the pestilence of pests by allowing the pests’ predators to live. Who’d have thought! Dr. Lundgren’s graduate students do the counting, and their research has verified that there are ten times fewer pests in regenerative systems.
I would be remiss without listing the five principles of soil health:
- Limited disturbance (tillage), whether mechanical, chemical or physical;
- Armor on the soil (No black dirt—ever!);
- Diverse plants and animals on the soil to promote diverse bacterial and fungal life;
- Living roots in the soil at all times possible to feed the microorganisms (underground livestock);
- Animals on the land. . . again.
Tillage and its chemical cousins (herbicides and fungicides) “burn” organic matter needed in the soil. So does overgrazing. If animals remove 30 to 40 percent of a pasture’s forage, roots can produce more forage to graze again quickly, but if more than 60 percent is grazed, root growth is halved and it takes much longer for the forage to rebound. Organic matter is the magic material that structures the soil—the “house” for microorganisms. It helps the soil adhere to itself to form healthy soil’s coveted “chocolate cake” consistency. Beginning attempts to improve soil health can be measured by noting the increased number and activity of earthworms.
Armor is clothing for the soil. This protection prevents inevitable erosion from wind and rainfall events. Microorganisms and enzymes are killed with high temperatures, and black soil absorbs the sun’s rays and heats up quickly. When black soil heats to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, all the soil life is killed. Gabe got armor on his soil for four years in a row when the “Great White Combine” (damaging hailstorms) pummeled his crops and left them on top of the ground to feed the worms.
Diversity, the third principle, might be the hardest for conventional farmers to adopt. Attendees at Gabe’s presentations frequently present their problems to him. When he asks about their crop rotations, they might say “Canola – Snow – Canola.” Adding a second or third rotation instead of the usual “corn – beans – corn” seems to be a perceptual cliff from which only the daring can leap. Understandably so; every farmer’s foibles are fodder for their neighbors’ critiques. There is also the expense of needing additional equipment, while equipment already invested in sits idle. There are likely to be multiple unknowns and failures. However, failures—according to Gabe the farmer-turned-scientist—are not failures but learning opportunities. Cover crops that grow three inches and then die in a frost are not failures because the little roots that grew underground still performed their function. However, that coffee-shop ribbing can still sting.
The principle of having living roots in the soil as long as possible is more doable than most of us think. When cool season plants and warm season plants are growing in tandem, the roots are active over a longer period of time. Even in a harsh South Dakota December when the ground is brown or white with snow, we have green “stuff” growing. No one really likes the work and expense of dealing with snow on the prairie, but a nice blanket covering the microorganisms in the soil helps them survive.
Animal impact improves the soil in a myriad of ways. Their dung, of course, and their urine return nutrients to the soil and spread it over the land. Diversity in animals results in diversity of nutrients returned to the soil. If managed properly, animals’ foot traffic enhances seed-to-soil contact, which promotes more diversity in plant growth. Their foraging literally stimulates plant growth, which further stimulates the plant’s feeding of the microorganisms below ground.
Gabe speaks of soil that is addicted to synthetic fertilizers as if it were a drug addict. He thinks we starve the soil biology and then buy it junk food. Too much nitrogen can mess with plant communication, whereas not fertilizing with synthetics encourages natural plant-microbe interaction. Gabe cautions against a cold turkey approach, however, recommending the use of multiple species cover crops and grazing cattle to make the transition slowly. He has data from a four-year soil health experiment that compared cover crops—or “biological primers” as he prefers to call them—to synthetic fertilizer. For each year, production from the synthetic fertilizer fields trailed that from the regenerative fields.
Conventional soil testing has failed to give an accurate accounting of what it is supposed to be testing and has resulted in enormous overfertilizing. Would Dr. Tom Cowan refer to this as the electron-microscope version of soil analysis? Caustic chemicals force the soil to release nutrients in these tests. Fortunately, a field researcher developed the more useful Haney test; the test measures the living activity in the soil, which releases the nutrients that are already there.
The thumbs are up enthusiastically for this book. Buy it and enjoy it. Get one for a friend, especially if that friend is a farmer. Then go make your crops grasshopper-proof and, like Gabe, buy your own caps!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2023🖨️ Print post