Regenerative agriculture is an alternative to conventional agriculture that focuses on improving soil health for better fertility and moisture retention. The benefit to farmers is increased crop yields at less cost, and the benefit to all of us is more carbon being sequestered in soil to mitigate climate change. To discuss how he discovered regenerative agriculture and how it changed his ranch, joining me on the podcast this week is rancher, regenerative agriculture advocate, and Kiss the Ground documentary star, Gabe Brown.
Gabe is a pioneer in the soil health movement and the author of “Dirt to Soil, One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture.” Gabe, how wife, Shelly, and son Paul own and operate Brown’s Ranch just east of Bismarck, North Dakota, with 5,000 acres of owned and leased land where they both farm and raise cattle. Gabe is also a partner in Understanding Ag, which provides regenerative agriculture consulting services to farms and ranches.
Gabe and his colleagues’ preferred definition of regenerative agriculture is farming and ranching in synchrony with nature to repair, rebuild, revitalize and restore ecosystem function, beginning with all life in the soil, and moving to all life above the soil.
“So it doesn’t matter if you’re on a small garden plot — those principles can apply,” he says. “Or if you’re on thousands of acres, those principles can apply. Doesn’t matter whether you’re in a city park or you’re out in a large Western landscape. Those apply. We think that’s a very simple definition that’s all encompassing.”
Gabe encourages consumers to seek out farmers and ranchers who grow food in a regenerative manner. This includes demanding schools serve regeneratively grown, nutrient-dense food to children.
Gabe Brown and ‘Kiss the Ground’
My first exposure to Gabe came the first time (of many) that I watched the documentary “Kiss the Ground,” which is about the detriments of tilling soil and the many benefits of promoting soil health.
Filming for “Kiss the Ground” began in 2014. Gabe says the filmmakers came across his friend Ray Archuleta, a soil health advocate and longtime USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service employee. Ray suggested the filmmakers visit Gabe at his ranch in North Dakota if they want to learn about soil health.
The filmmakers did, in fact, visit Gabe then and at least one additional time before the film was finally released in 2020. The follow-up film “Common Ground” recently premiered, winning the Human/Nature award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s coming to Netflix later this year.
“‘Common Ground’ is similar to ‘Kiss The Ground’ in that it calls out our current production model, but it expands on it,” Gabe says. “It gets very pointed, and there’s going to be some people who don’t like ‘Common Ground’ because it calls out certain facets of the production model. But then it also does a really good job of calling to action and informing consumers and the audience on what they can do to help move the regenerative needle, so to speak, in order to find common ground for common good.”
How Gabe Brown Became a Regenerative Farmer and Rancher
Gabe was born and raised in the city of Bismark, with no direct involvement in agriculture, but he took an interest at a young age. His older brother took a vocational agricultural course and got involved in the Future Farmers of America. Loving the outdoors himself, Gabe too joined a vocational agriculture course.
“From that first vo ag class that I took, I was just enthralled in all things agriculture,” he says. “I started working on some local farms after school.”
He went through high school thinking he would become a vocational agriculture instructor.
“As luck would have it, two years into college, I married my high school sweetheart, and she was from a farm,” Gabe says. “And then we went on to continue my college education, and it was during that time that my father-in-law called — and my wife has two sisters, no brothers — and my father-in-law asked if we’d be interested in taking over the farm. And of course, I was all excited about it. My wife, not so much. She always said she married a city kid to get away from the farm, and here I wanted her to go back to it.”
Once he graduated with a couple of degrees in agriculture, he spent the next eight years learning from his in-laws how to farm conventionally.
“All the while though, because I was new to agriculture, I wanted to learn everything,” Gabe says. “So I studied about Allan Savory and holistic management, and at that time they were calling it rotational grazing or planned holistic grazing, and I started implementing some of that on the ranch.”
In 1991 he and Shelly had the opportunity to buy part of the ranch from her parents, and shortly after they did that, he went 100 percent no-till.
“Tillage didn’t make a lot of sense to me in our semi-brittle environment,” he says. “My father-in-law thought it was crazy because he just really enjoyed tilling. And so then I had a very good crop first year of no-till, and I was all in. We sold all the tillage equipment.”
Gabe credits his friend Mark Bernstein from northern North Dakota with advising him to go no-till “to save time and moisture” and also telling him to sell his tilling equipment so he’s not tempted to go back to tilling.
The following year, 1995, did not go nearly as well. The day before he was set to harvest 1,200 acres of spring wheat, they lost 100 percent of the crop to hail — and they did not have hail insurance. In 1996, hail struck again, though he did have livestock, and he and Shelly took off-farm jobs so they could make the payments to keep the farm. 1997 was a severe drought year and no farmer in the area harvested anything, and in 1998 they lost 80 percent of their crop to hail.
In those four devastating years with no crop income, he was seeing the fields change. There were earthworms in the soil, wildlife was returning to the ranch and more water was infiltrating the soil.
“Back then there was nobody talking about soil health or anything like that,” he recalls. “And I wasn’t even thinking of it in those terms. I was just starting to observe and notice the changes.”
In 1998, the local soil conservation district asked him to run for the board of directors. The county’s district conservationist, Jay Fuhrer, had taken an interest in what was occurring on Gabe’s land. Gabe says they learned together and bounced ideas off each other.
“This is back before a time when internet was in wide use,” Gabe recalls. “And so I really had to learn just from word of mouth and visiting with other people, but there was nobody in my immediate area. So Jay started bringing people to our ranch, and I would visit with them and learn, and then I get asked to speak at different events and conferences around the country. And fast forward 25-plus years later, here we are.”
Looking to the Past
“I thought, ‘How did they do this pre-chemicals, pre-fertilizer?” Gabe says of his early exploration into alternatives to modern conventional agriculture.
He decided to dig into Thomas Jefferson’s farm journals. The president was a diligent note-taker and kept thorough records of what went on on his farm.
“In those journals, there’s actually an entry where he talks about planting after harvest,” Gabe says. “He planted clovers and turnips. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, I can do this.’”
Gabe went to the local agronomy center the next day and asked to buy 50 pounds of turnip seeds.
“They were trying to figure out how many of those little seed packets to take to make 50 pounds, because they had never had anybody ask for that,” he recalls.
He was able to source bulk turnip and clover seed from a garden store, and eventually cereal rye and hairy vetch.
He said he had been considering what he could grow that could be harvested before the severe weather that comes in July and August. He found that fall-seeded biannuals such as cereal rye, hairy vetch and winter triticale would be ready for harvest prior to inclement weather such as hail arriving. He also planted spring peas as early as he could because the peas could be harvested earlier.
He said that he was already starting to implement what would become known as the principles of soil health, even if he didn’t think that’s what he was doing.
Gabe says he is a risk taker, but an informed risk taker. He won’t jeopardize what he and his wife have spent their adult lives building. As he wrote in his book “Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture,” he and his son try hard to fail at something every year, but they make their failures small and make them learning opportunities.
No-Till Farming Catches On
Gabe says he could tell the conventional model was not working. He saw the wind erosion, and he saw that tilling was causing precious water to be lost to evaporation.
When Gabe started no-till farming in 1994, he was the first doing it full-time, our of 700,000 cropland acres in Burleigh County, North Dakota. Today, 75-80% of the county’s farmers are practicing no-till.
“That’s caught on in the upper Midwest, and I credit Dr. Dwayne Beck at Dakota Lakes Research Center in Pierre, South Dakota, as the driving force in that. No-till is very prevalent in the Northern Great Plains now.”
A few years ago the Nature Conservancy found that less than 5% of farms were managed for soil health and the nonprofit’s goal was to get that number up to 50% by 2025.
“The tide is turning,” Gabe says.
He says after 25 years of pushing the snowball uphill, it’s finally starting to roll downhill.
No-Till Is Not Enough
“No-till is a part of the solution, but it’s a small part. Just because you no-till does not necessarily mean you’re positively addressing soil health. You can over-apply synthetics, et cetera, and be every bit as detrimental.”
He’s a partner in Understanding Ag, which consults on farms and ranches all over North America and in the U.K. and Ireland and shares practices that promote soil health.
“We started six years ago — Ray Archuleta, David Brandt, myself, Dr. Allen Williams started it — and we went from zero acres to where I think by the end of September here, we’ll surpass 34 million acres that we’re actively consulting on,” he says. “And so there’s tremendous interest, not only in North America, but worldwide. So it’s coming, and documentaries such as ‘Kiss the Ground’ and ‘Common Ground’ will help move that needle even further.”
Gabe says the reason more farmers and ranchers are not adopting these practices is because they can’t implement what they don’t know. He has degrees in agriculture and so does his son, and neither of them was ever taught about soil health.
“How’s the soil aggregate form? What is the natural nutrient cycle? What is the water cycle? That’s not how we’re taught,” Gabe says.
And farmers and ranchers are exposed to the current production model, he says. It wasn’t until recently that the magazines that write about agriculture were publishing articles about soil health.
When Gabe speaks to farmers, he asks them to raise their hands if they know how soil aggregates are formed.
“Very few, if any raise their hands,” he says. “I tell them, do you understand that your profitability is directly related to your understanding of how a soil aggregate is formed? And that’s how I grab their attention.”
Soil aggregates are soil particles that stick together, resisting compaction erosion. Soil aggregates allow for better water infiltration but also drain well so the soil does not become water-logged.
Gabe recalls Jay Fuhrer did an infiltration test on his cropland in 1991 and found it could only infiltrate a half inch of water per hour. In North Dakota, where rain comes in thunderstorms, the clouds may dump an inch or two in a half hour. That meant Gabe was losing moisture that was running off the field.
Improving his soil health and refraining from tilling changed that.
“Today, scientifically, they’ve proven we can infiltrate over 30 inches per hour,” he says.
Gabe tells farmers and ranchers that it doesn’t matter if they have sandy soil or clay — they can still build soil aggregates.
The 6 Principles of Soil Health
Gabe shares the 6 Principles of Soil Health that he abides by and promotes.
Context: You have to farm and ranch within your context. Consider historical, ecological context. What environment are you in? What’s your financial context?
Least Amount of Disturbance Possible: In natural ecosystems, there are some burrowing animals, but there is no plowing. If we want to restore soil health, we need to stop plowing and tilling fields.
Even in a garden on a much smaller scale than a farm, roto-tilling is too much disturbance. “If you truly want to produce nutrient-dense food, that’s one of the worst mistakes you can make because you’re destroying the home for microbiology,” Gabe says. “You’re destroying the ability of water to infiltrate into that soil.”
In addition to physical disturbance, Gabe encourages growers to give up chemical disturbance — synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. “We need to minimize those or eliminate them,” he says.
The last year Gabe used any synthetic inputs on his 6,000-acre ranch was in 2007. He points out that 97% of any plant is carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen — four elements that are found in the atmosphere. He questions why farmers would want to write checks for chemical fertilizers when the same nutrients can be found for free.
“We just have to be smart enough as farmers and ranchers to understand how that energy cycle drives the nutrient cycle and how we need green growing plants collecting that solar energy feeding microbiology. And then it’s the microbiology that bring the nutrients to the plants.”
Besides the manure that comes from his grazing animals, he doesn’t apply any organic fertilizer either. He averages 25% higher production than other farmers in the area, so he is in no need of additional fertilizer to chase profit.
The problem with synthetic fertilizers, Gabe explains, is we’re outproducing our environment at the cost of the ecosystem. Because as we add more and more of these synthetic amendments, nutrients, et cetera, it’s degrading our soil ecosystem, and so it’s coming at a significant cost.”
Armor on the Soil Surface: In natural forests and prairies, there is no bare soil. Bare soil exists where humans have intervened. Nature is always trying to cover soil to protect it from wind and water erosion and evaporation and to provide habitat for soil biology. Keeping a field armored with cover crops while it is not in production protects soil the way nature would.
Diversity: Monocultures — such as a turf lawn or a field of 100% corn — do not exist in nature. On his own native prairies, he has counted 140 different plant species, but even that seemingly high number demonstrates degradation because when Lewis and Clark traveled the northern stretch of the Missouri River, they documented over 300 different plant species.
Gabe diversifies his crop rotation to feed the microbiology in the soil a wide array of root exudates from a variety of crops.
Living Roots in the Soil as Long as Possible: Throughout the year, there should be living roots in the soil whenever possible. This keeps the energy cycle going, attracting biology to the soil. Gabe explains that leaves capture solar energy, photosynthesis occurs, a plant uses part of the carbon compounds it generates for growth and the rest it translocates to its roots, where it exudes those carbon compounds into the soil. The soil biology contributes to forming soil aggregates and makes nutrients in the soil available to plants.
“In most gardens, things are in tidy rows,” Gabe says. “There are spaces between the rows. There’s a lot of bare soil. We’re not capturing as much solar energy as possible.”
But in Gabe’s garden, with more than 30 years of no-till, there is a diverse array of plant species growing to capture solar energy as close to year-round as can be achieved.
Animal and Insect Integration: In any land-based ecosystem, animals, including insects, are found. Land-based ecosystems just don’t function properly without animals and insects, Gabe says. “Yet what do we try and do in agriculture? What do we try and do in our garden? We try and kill everything.
Gabe recalls a 2011 conference in Kansas where Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, an agroecologist and entomologist, explained to the audience that for every pest insect species, there are 1,700 species that are beneficial. “So why do we spend all our time trying to kill that one pest?” Gabe wonders.
Gabe doesn’t use pesticides because he relies on beneficial insects to control pests. “Never in the past 20-plus years have insects reached an economically damaging threshold on our ranch,” he says. “Because nature is always self-organizing, self-regulating, self-healing.”
Suzanne Wainwright Evans, another highly respected entomologist friend of mine, told me something similar to what Dr. Lundgren said. She said, “The number one way to increase your pest problem is to spray with pesticide.” That’s because pests develop chemical resistance, and they recover faster than the beneficial insects can — leaving them unfettered access to your plants with no predators to take them out.
Gabe says he’ll never forget a quote from Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote in his book, “The One-Straw Revolution” “The fertility of the land is directly related to the number of footsteps on that land.”
Gabe says that means we as caretakers of the Earth have to have the ability to be able to observe and then adapt accordingly to what we observe.
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Gabe Brown on regenerative agriculture, you can listen to this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you put the principles of soil health into practice? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“Dirt to Soil, One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture” by Gabe Brown
Guide to Regenerative Agriculture From buying guides to regenerative learning tools for children, Kiss the Ground has a multitude of information on regenerative practices.
“The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming” by Masanobu Fukuoka
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.