By Dr. Mercola
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.
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.
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.
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.
Five Principles of a Healthy Soil Ecosystem
One of the benefits of the regenerative methods Brown teaches is the retention of moisture. Last year, they got just 5.6 inches of rainfall. But if you focus on the symbiosis between plants and soil, dry spells can be tolerated. To have healthy plants, you need healthy soil, and by viewing the soil as an ecosystem, you can tremendously increase the water holding capacity of the soil.
The key is to concentrate on what the soil needs first, and this is true whether you're working a small backyard garden or a large farm. As explained by Brown, there are five principles of a healthy soil ecosystem. The type of livestock, the equipment and varieties of crops may vary, but the principles remain the same:
The more you till, the faster the soil degrades and is destroyed, as it destroys soil aggregates and mycorrhizal fungi, which houses the microorganisms needed for nutrient transfer. Similarly, by adding synthetic nitrogen to the soil, the biology is radically altered - it starts consuming carbon in the soil aggregate, which destroys the soil structure.
And without soil structure water cannot infiltrate, move throughout the soil profile and be stored via organic matter. The soil aggregates also provide the home for soil biology which is critical to producing nutrient dense food.
2. Armor the soil surface with living plants - Forest and prairie land is completely covered with vegetation, and this is the environment farmers need to emulate. That vegetation protects the soil not only from wind and water erosion, but also from excessive heating and cooling. These living plants are what end up actually "growing" topsoil.
3. Have living roots in the soil as long as possible - This is an extension of armoring with cover crops. Soil is formed from growing plants that take in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and release it as "liquid carbon" through the roots, depositing it back into the soil, where it attracts microorganisms that ultimately end up providing the plant with all the nutrients it needs to grow.
So, to grow topsoil, you need living roots in the soil for as long as possible throughout the year to keep the carbon cycle going, and to feed the biology in the soil.
4. Diversify - Having a diverse array of plant life is essential, and cover crops fulfill this requirement as well. Home gardens will also benefit from cover crops, helping to improve the soil, attract beneficial insects and capture more sunlight (energy). Brown explains:
5. Integrate livestock and other animals, including insects - Flowering plants that attract pollinators and predator insects will naturally help ward off pests that might otherwise decimate your main crop.
While many believe livestock are contributing to the climate change problem, it's important to realize this is only true for animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Allowing animals to graze freely is actually part of the solution.
Centuries ago, large herds of bison and elk moved across the landscape, foraging, depositing manure and trampling vegetation into the ground. All of this is part of the natural cycle that is missing when animals are kept in CAFOs.
As noted by Brown, "If we remove the animals from the ecosystem, we can grow a plant and we can pump some carbon into the soil, but not nearly as much as if we have animals grazing. So that's the two keys: living plants, and then we have to integrate animals again."
CAFO cattle produce methane, which is destructive to ozone, but the reason they produce methane is because they're raised on an unnatural diet of grains, which they're not designed to eat. This unnatural diet alters the gut microbiome in the animals. So, it's the model by which they're being raised that is causing the problem. Brown explains:
Yes, It Is Possible for Animals to Graze Through Winters
Most people think it's impossible to raise a grass fed animal in the winter, especially in North Dakota, but that's not true. Cattle can be raised on grass anywhere, year-round. Brown explains:
Repopulating the Ecosystem
Soil is not the only thing that benefits from regenerative land management. Wildlife also diversifies and is augmented. When Brown and his family took over the farm, they never saw deer or pheasants. Sightings of songbirds and grouse were minimal.
Today, he can sit on his porch any evening of the week and count up to 100 deer on his land. Pheasants, hawks, owls, grouse, partridge and myriad songbirds have moved in. Last year, the Audubon Society did bird surveys on his land and found nesting piping plover, an endangered species of shorebird. They figured that should be impossible, as these birds nest near rivers and beaches, yet the nearest river is 10 miles away.
How the USDA Farm Program Blocks Progress
As mentioned, regenerative farming is growing exponentially. It could grow even faster, were it not for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the current farm program, which subsidizes junk food ingredients. The farm program also offers revenue insurance or crop insurance to farmers, but there are strings attached.
If you want crop insurance and subsidies, you have to use the current production model, meaning you have to grow single crops (monocultures), and production is completely focused on yield. No attention is paid to the impact on the soil or the ecosystem at large.
What's worse, farmers may find it difficult to get a loan unless they take part in this program, and if they do, the program dictates which crops will give them the greatest revenue insurance, meaning guarantee them a certain price.
Needless to say, farmers will grow whatever crop is going to give them the greatest financial return, be it corn, soybeans, cotton or spring wheat. As a result, price is driven down due to overproduction, while simultaneously degrading our soil resources.
Twofold Change Needed
As noted by Brown, the change we need is twofold. First, farmers and ranchers must decide to make a change. To help them do that, Brown and his partners at Soil Health Consultants formed the Soil Health Academy.
They travel around the world teaching farmers how to take control of their own destiny. Second, consumers must demand change. You must demand nutrient-dense foods rather than empty calories.
If you're a farmer, you can contact Brown's group, Soil Health Consultants. They recently launched a new website where you can find a lot of information on regenerative agriculture. Also be sure to pick up a copy of Brown's book, "Dirt to Soil: One Family's Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture," in which you'll learn more about the core principles.
Annex Naturopathic Clinic is a clinic in downtown Toronto that offers integrative healthcare solutions. Toronto naturopathic practitioners Dr. Marnie Luck, ND and Dr. Tanya Lee, ND offer a variety of treatment plans using a range of modalities individualized to each patient which can complement conventional health care.
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