Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press
BURLEY, Idaho — The soils supporting much of production agriculture are compacted, degraded, pale and lifeless. But the soil on Gabe Brown’s North Dakota dryland farm is crumbly, nutrient-rich, dark brown and teeming with earthworms and beneficial microbes.
It wasn’t that way when he took over his father-in-law’s operation.
For the last 25 years, he and his family have been on a journey to regenerate the soil on the 5,000 acres they farm and ranch near Bismarck.
More than 300 intrigued farmers showed up last week to hear about that journey during a soil health workshop sponsored by local soil and water conservation districts.
A pioneer in the soil-health movement, Brown said today’s production model misuses carbon, removing and releasing it through tillage, combining and residue removal.
Farming needs to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil to cycle and feed the soil biology, he said.
For photosynthesis to occur, there has to be a green, growing plant. The plant leaks carbon into the soil through its roots to attract soil biology, which feeds on liquid carbon. As it continues its life cycle, it supplies nutrients to plants, he said.
Those roots are a pathway for liquid carbon and the cornerstone of fertile topsoil.
“Soil is weathered rock materials that are or have been in contact with plant roots. Green plants capture sunlight and carbon dioxide and turn weathered rock into soil,” he said.
“We can grow topsoil pretty quickly, but you have to have growing plants to grow topsoil,” he said.
That means cover crops.
“I don’t want people to see bare ground on our operation. Bare ground is not just bad, it’s terrible, awful and every adjective in between,” he said.
Bare soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion and evaporation and has a negative impact on soil biology, he said.
“It’s antagonistic to everything a healthy ecosystem needs,” he said.
For healthy soils, farmers need to imitate a natural, healthy ecosystem — undisturbed prairie pasturelands with a wide diversity of plants.
Monoculture agriculture depletes and degrades soils, and a monoculture cover crop isn’t going to provide as many benefits as cover crop mixes, he said.
Different plants provide different benefits to the soil — whether its nutrients, porosity or reducing soil temperature. They also suppress weeds and insects and provide habitat for pollinators, beneficial predator insects and wildlife, he said.
“You can significantly reduce the amount of your inputs and put more money in your pocket” by regenerating soil, he said.
The beauty of regenerating soil is that it can occur anywhere in the world where there’s production agriculture, he said.
“I used to farm in a way that I’d wake up in the morning trying to decide ‘what am I going to kill today’ — weeds, insects. I was going to kill something. Now I wake up and decide how to get more life on the farm,” he said.
He advised farmers to start small but commit and experiment. Farmers he knows who have committed to a field for five years have never turned back.
“Don’t tell me the soils you have you’re stuck with. We can all change it. Too many people are afraid to fail that they miss the bigger picture,” he said.
Five principles to regenerate soils
1. Minimize mechanical and chemical disturbance.
2. Leave an “armor” on the soil surface.
3. Increase plant diversity.
4. Leave living roots in the ground as long as possible.
5. Integrate animals and insects into the system.