Farmer Claims Regenerative Ag Creates Healthier Soils

The Face of Regenerative Ag

Gabe Brown often carries a spade with him to check improvements to soil health from cover crops. (Des Keller)

Brown's Ranch, just east of Bismarck, North Dakota, may well be the beating heart of the regenerative agriculture movement in the U.S. But, in the soft light of early morning, its appearance is decidedly workaday. A modest ranch house sits at the end of a long gravel drive with a barn nearby and a second metal building where custom orders for beef, pork, lamb and eggs are packaged for delivery.

Meet Gabe Brown, whose book, "Dirt to Soil," numerous YouTube videos and the Netflix documentary "Kiss the Ground," have defined the 21st Century's effort to eschew tillage and chemical inputs while emphasizing the use of cover crops and livestock to increase soil health.

That's a big responsibility to carry for a man who can scarcely be found at the family farm. It took months to arrange a visit to the farm when Brown would be here.

"I was on the road 282 days last year," sighs Brown, a gregarious 62-year-old who unlocks a small log cabin 60 yards from his house. "I will average 200 to 400 emails and phone calls a day. It's kind of hectic." The cabin -- built in 2016 -- is a concession to his and the farm's celebrity, a place to meet with visitors and clients.

The 6,000-acre operation is now run by his son, Paul, and his fiancé, Jazmin Jordan. It was Paul who developed and runs Nourished by Nature, a business that allows customers to take delivery of or pick up pasture-raised meats.

Capable management at home has allowed Brown to, among other things, help run the consultancy, Understanding Ag (with four other partners), along with an educational nonprofit, the Soil Health Academy. Understanding Ag has consulted on more than 32 million acres in North America, and hundreds more farmers have taken its online classes.

General Mills has been a client of Understanding Ag for four years as it converts 1 million farm acres to regenerative agriculture. He's met twice with the board of directors of Syngenta regarding regenerative practices. And, Brown also has been hired as a consultant by four of the top 10 landowners in the U.S.


This journey began in 1991 when Gabe and his wife, Shelly, took over the farm from her parents. A conventional farmer then -- plowing, plenty of synthetic fertilizer and weed- and pest-control products, nary a cover crop -- Brown moved into no-till in 1994.

Then, as often happens in farming, weather changed the equation. Hail destroyed their crops in both 1995 and 1996. Drought baked their crops to death in 1997. "We didn't combine an acre in '97," Brown says.

Squeezed for money and unable to get a production loan in 1998, the Browns survived with off-farm jobs. Yet another hailstorm prevented them from planting a cash crop in time in 1998, so he opted to use the no-till drill to plant sudangrass and cowpeas.

"We didn't even have the money to buy twine to put it up as hay, so we grazed cattle on it instead," Brown explains. "That was the beginning of creating healthier soils and animal integration."

In subsequent years, Brown followed up with even more diversity in crops -- and cover crops. They had always raised cattle, but they began pasturing them as long as possible. Chickens, hogs and sheep became part of the mix.

Brown Ranch began seeing results. Earthworms proliferated in the soil, and their crop residue broke down quicker. Water infiltrated into the well-aggregated soil at a rapid rate.

Scientists believe that at one time (a few hundred years ago), the organic matter in the soils in this region of North Dakota was between 7 to 12%, Brown says. In 1991, the organic matter on his farm measured 1.7 to 1.9%

"Today, my organic matter is at 5.3 to 7.9%," he says, "but that's still not where scientists think it was. People talk about sustainability, but why would you want to sustain a degraded resource? That makes no sense. We must regenerate."

Brown will tell you that their farm may not have the highest yields in the region, but he'll compare profitability with anyone. Brown's Ranch, which consists of about 2,000 acres of crops and 4,000 acres of pasture, hasn't used commercial fertilizer since 2007, no insecticides since 1997 and no seed treatments on corn since 2010.

Additionally, the Browns don't receive any USDA crop program money, nor do they purchase federally subsidized crop insurance. That said, Brown knows there is no "one-size-fits-all" in farming, and what works for them may not for everyone. "For instance, I would never recommend that anyone not take crop insurance," he says.


Not surprisingly, Brown's assertions and his results have drawn the attention of more than a few skeptics. Agronomist Andrew McGuire, at Washington State University, an expert on high-residue farming and cover crops, called out Brown on his website in 2018 for what he termed "extraordinary claims" not backed up by "extraordinary evidence."

In particular, McGuire was incredulous about Brown's statement in an online "TED Talks" that he had a measured organic matter of more than 11%. Brown responded that measurement was an outlier on one field. Still, McGuire questioned (among other things) whether achieving organic matter increases from less than 2% to nearly 8% in the time frame discussed was possible.

McGuire, who declined comment for this article, wrote at the time: "I have looked for the evidence to support the claims of regenerative agriculture. What I have found are lots of YouTube videos, testimonials, articles and interviews. None of these sources are extraordinary evidence."

Asked about that ongoing discussion, Brown says the math researchers such as McGuire use doesn't even consider root biomass as a contributor to carbon in the soil, they just consider surface biomass.

"He doesn't tell the whole story," Brown says of McGuire, "and quite honestly, I don't blame him. You don't know what you don't know. As a farmer, I once didn't either."


Two hours northwest of Brown Ranch, near Foxholm, North Dakota, is the 4,800-acre farm of Brandon and Jessie Bock. Last spring was so wet, they were unable to get in fields early to plant yellow peas -- but while distressing, the conditions weren't a disaster.

Instead, Bock simply let the cereal rye -- planted in the fall as a cover crop -- mature until harvest. "I have a crop in the ground already, and I don't have to force my way on that land in wet conditions with tillage," says Bock, who started farming in 2003.

His relative calm over the situation contrasts with what he would have tried a few years ago. The change can be traced to a call Bock made to Brown in 2018 after watching one of the Brown's YouTube videos.

"I was seeing several problems developing on our farm," he explains. "We had poor water infiltration, saline areas were growing larger, and we had more weed problems all the time even though we were constantly spraying."

At Brown's suggestion, the Bocks moved toward using multiple cash crops and cover crops in rotation. Everything is no-till.

"People told me we couldn't plant sunflowers using no-till into tall stripped wheat stubble," Bock says. "We did that in 2021, and it was one of the best sunflower crops I've ever had."

On Brown Ranch, Brown can't help but grab a shovel and take visitors into fields that are thick with cover crops. He pulls up a handful of plants along with the soil several inches deep so we can see the crumbly, dark, highly porous topsoil.

"I don't relish all the travel, all the meetings that I do," he says. "But, I've seen what a difference farming this way has made in my life. I don't have all the answers. I know what it took for me to make this change."


More than 20 years ago, Rick Haney, a soil scientist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, in Temple, Texas, was intrigued by the fact that even a field to which a farmer didn't apply a lick of nitrogen could grow a passable corn crop.

"Where did the nitrogen come from to grow 60-bushel-per-acre corn?" Haney asks. "So, we wanted to identify the pool of that nitrogen in the soil so we could reduce fertilizer inputs."

The result from years of research is what is known as the Haney Test, actually a suite of tests that mimic the chemistry of the plant and soil by using water and carbon as extractants to determine the nutrients available. The tests simulate the wetting and drying of the soil, and the resulting reactions that occur in nature.

The Haney Test is different from, but builds on, standard soil tests whose methods are 60 to 70 years old.

Haney and cohorts began finding that microbial populations in soil are a vital component in determining the nutrients available to the plant through nutrient cycling and carbon mineralization. To someone like North Dakota farmer Brandon Bock, these tests are key.

"Through the use of the Haney Test, we've been able to cut back on soil fertilizer applications by 50 to 80%, which has been tremendous in this high-priced input environment," Bock explains.

"Using this test, we are finding that you can put on 20 to 40 pounds less nitrogen and maintain yields," Haney adds. "That was eye-opening." He retired from USDA in 2021 and is now the chief scientific officer for Nebraska-based Regen Ag Lab.

"Biology is hard and variable," Haney says, "and in science, we want direct linear relationships; if you increase this so much it will increase something else so much. This is a dynamic system that doesn't fit the linear model. It isn't straightforward, and we have to get over that."


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