The Real Dirt: Regenerating Soil Quality To Sustain Life

September 11, 2013

Originally posted at

The current buzzword in production agriculture today is "sustainability." Every agricultural producer and every agricultural input supplier wants to be sustainable. But what does that really mean? The current production system is one based on high inputs of synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. All of these are detrimental to our soil resource and all life that relies on that resource. The current farming trends only "sustain" a degraded resourceundervalued soil lacking structure and organic matter.

But I know it doesn’t have to be this way. We farmers can regenerate the soil and reverse this risky trend.

The soil resource all over the world has become degraded. This is easily proven by comparing it to the soils from native prairie. In North Dakota, where I ranch, healthy native prairie has organic matter levels of 6 to 8 percent. But today, the vast majority of the cropland in the region has soil with less than half of the organic matter it once had. You can read more about the problem of degraded soil in the Soil Matters report released today by NRDC (which publishes OnEarth).

Degraded soil results in much less water stored in the soil profile. For every 1 percent increase in organic matter, the soil can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre! Just think of the flooding that can be alleviated if this water is stored in the soil profile versus running off into streams and rivers.

And as organic matter decreases, the nutrients in the soil also decrease. It is my belief that this has led to a dramatic decrease in the nutrient density of the foods produced by those soils. We have a human health crisis in this country due in large part to our degraded soils.

I learned about soil through first-hand experience and devastating extreme weather challenges. See how extreme weather is hurting farmers across the nation here.

Prior to our purchase of the ranch in 1991, our family’s native northern Great Plains rangeland was in poor health and in need of regeneration. It had minimal diversity and showed minimal signs of life. The cropland had been conventionally farmed with tillage and the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides for decades. We found we actually had to increase the use of these synthetic inputs just to maintain crop production. These common and unsustainable farm practices not only limit diversity but have a tremendous negative impact on soil quality.

We began to regenerate our soils by purchasing a no-till drill in 1993. Our soils have not been disturbed since then. We also started to diversify our crop rotation by adding crops such as corn, alfalfa, peas, clovers, vetches, sunflowers and many others. This started bringing life back to the soil. Our fortunes took a turn for the worse in 1995the day before we were to begin harvesting 1,200 acres of spring wheat, a hailstorm came and we lost 100 percent of our crop.

With no crop insurance this was devastating. The following year brought another hailstorm with the same results. Extreme weather struck again in 1997 when a severe drought claimed the crop. Our misfortune continued in 1998 when another hailstorm devastated our ranch. These hardships turned out to be a blessing in disguise as they taught us the importance of focusing on our precious soil resource.

In recent years, we have noticed a very positive change on our landthe drought impacts haven’t been nearly as severe. Our soils now have resiliency as they have the ability to store and hold large quantities of precious water. What were once soils made up of less than 2 percent organic matter have now regenerated into soils of 5 to 6 percent organic matter. In other words they have the capability to store up to 120,000 gallons of water per acre in just the top four feet! These soils are teeming with life. This soil life provides the nutrients needed to produce healthy, nutritious, nutrient-dense food.

We have achieved these benefits by unlocking the simple, time-tested secrets in the soileliminating tillage and going entirely no-till to avoid soil disturbance, growing cover crops in the off-season to put armor on soil and cultivate its health, diversifying our crop rotation, and integrating livestock (grass-fed beef, poultry, and sheep). We no longer use synthetic fertilizer, fungicides or pesticides. Our yields have improved, as has our quality of life.

Farmers and ranchers now have an incredible opportunity to reverse these risky conventional farming trends by focusing on regenerating our soil resource. We cannot afford not to. As soil scientist Dr. Charles Kome once said, "The quality of our lives depends on the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, and all of those things depends on the quality of our soil!"

Gabe Brown

Gabe Brown is a pioneer of the soil-health movement and has been named one of the twenty-five most influential agricultural leaders in the United States. Brown, his wife, Shelly, and son, Paul, own Brown’s Ranch, a holistic, diversified 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota. The Browns integrate their grazing and no-till cropping systems, which include cash crops and multi-species cover crops along with all-natural, grass-finished beef and lamb, pastured pork, and laying hens. The Brown family has received a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year Award.

Tags: soil quality, sustainable agriculture