North Dakota farmer and speaker Gabe Brown has earned the reputation as a champion of regenerative agriculture, but there was a time when he was simply another struggling farmer in a sea of struggling farmers.
In the 1990s, he and his wife purchased a large plot of land from her parents and began farming it conventionally, with the typical pesticides and chemical fertilizers, when they were almost immediately met with a series of crippling disasters that almost sank the operation. Multiple years of hailstorms just before harvest time, among other disasters, left the farm on the brink of financial collapse.
Anyone with common sense, Brown jests, would have quit.
Four years and four disasters later, however, something profound happened that would dramatically change Brown’s view of farming. With no tilling or harvesting in four years, his soil had come back to life. Earthworms and microbiology had returned to feast on all the carbon left by the hail-beaten crop failures. Pheasants had returned, presumably to feast on the earthworms. Brown realized he was on to something big. He wasn’t limited to simply sustaining his soil; rather, he could regenerate it.
Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture tells this story. The first half recounts the history of the farm, Brown’s Ranch, and how Brown arrived at his current practices, which integrate cover crops and animals with no-till methods. Once the reader is hooked by the story, Brown turns to the formulas of how and why his system works.
There is a genius to this structure. Many farmers will recognize themselves and their own farms in Brown’s history through the first half of the book, and then they can dig into the details of how turn it all around—to create better, more profitable farms.
Whether consciously or not, this book represents a succinct and persuasive apolitical argument for carbon farming: that working on soil health does not necessarily have to be a sacrifice in order to save the planet, but instead it can simply be about improving quality of life and profitability as well as rescuing the family farm. In this telling, improving the planet is a byproduct. At a time when many children of farmers are leaving agriculture behind, Brown’s son has chosen to stay in the family business because he wants to be a part of it. Brown no longer needs nor accepts government assistance or crop insurance. He no longer needs to. To Brown, his carbon farming practices sustain his farm because they regenerate his soil. They are inseparable activities.
You do not have to be a large-scale farmer to love this book. I do not farm on the same scale as Brown, with the same crops or even with some of the same livestock, and I was riveted. There is a lot of science, but it’s smooth, digestible and well-researched—tied together with anecdotes about labor, family, soil and animals.
Ultimately, this book feels important. It feels like the type of book we all need on our shelves to pick up regularly, perhaps especially in the disaster years, and get a refreshing perspective. In this sense, it’s something, indeed, that can regenerate us.
Here’s a TED talk that Brown gave on the topic in 2016.