December 02, 2020
Eco-Ag, Day 2: Gabe Brown Receives Eco-Ag Achievement Award
The 45th annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference kicked Day 2 off with a revealing demographic breakdown.
It was little surprise that a large percentage of the conference-goers identified as certified organic (23%) or “organic in practice” (29%). The number that stood out, however, was the 20% of the attendees who said they are conventional farmers.
Gabe Brown, Wednesday’s keynote speaker, used to be one be one of them.
In 1991, Brown took over his in-laws’ farm near Bismarck, North Dakota. For the next several years, he practiced a farming model based on tillage, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. It nearly led him to ruin.
Since then, Brown, the author of Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, has been a tireless advocate for a farming philosophy that puts soil health at the center of its mission. And that is why Acres U.S.A. on Wednesday named Brown as the 2020 recipient of the Eco-Ag Achievement Award.
“This year’s award winner stood out both for the work he has done on his own farm and the voice he has provided for regenerative agriculture not only in the community of ecological farmers that already exists, but also beyond that into the mainstream,” said Acres U.S.A. events manager Sarah Day Levesque in the award presentation. “He is a pioneer of the soil-health movement and has even brought regenerative agriculture to the front of Wheaties cereal box.”
Brown joins a distinguished group of past winners including Neal Kinsey, Jerry Brunetti, Don Huber, Vandana Shiva, Jeff Moyer and Phil Callahan.
In addition to Brown, the roster of speakers on Wednesday included Paul Dorrance and Vail Dixon. Brown, Dorrance and Dixon all extended a helping hand to those farmers in attendance looking to make the leap into regenerative, ecological and soil-health based farming systems.
Wearing a black cowboy hat, and with mounted antlers on the wall behind him, Paul Dorrance started Day 2 of the conference with an overview of his approach to pasture-based livestock production. Before focusing on agricultural consulting work full-time, Dorrance and his family ran Pastured Providence Farmstead, a southern Ohio-based operation that specialized in grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pastured pork and poultry.
The former U.S. Air Force pilot emphasized that conventional farmers often act as price takers, not price makers. Dorrance called on farmers to take a stand and fight not just for a better living, but to adopt practices that nourish the soil and communities.
Worldwide, soil is eroding ten times faster than it is being replenished, Dorrance said. Because of that, it is essential that farmers become resilient stewards of the land, adopting key principles of soil health, including:
- Pursue diversity (Remember that nature abhors a monoculture);
- Keep living roots in the soil at all times, and
- Minimize soil disturbance.
Grass-fed and pastured livestock are an important tool for realizing healthy soil, Dorrance said. Yes, he admitted, grass-fed beef produce 20% more methane gas than conventional cattle, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
For example, the figure doesn’t take into account the amount of carbon sequestration rotational grazing can achieve, he explained. It also doesn’t factor in how regenerative grazing can restore ecosystems and reverse desertification. On a CAFO, manure is treated like toxic waste — on a regenerative pasture, it’s a key to fertility.
Dorrance also pointed to trends in the marketplace to prove the long-term economic viability of grass-fed and pastured meat. While demand for conventional beef is dropping, he said, the consumer’s call for grass-fed is growing exponentially, largely due to its environmental benefits and its superior nutritional profile. In 2012, grass-fed accounted for $17 million in sales in the U.S. In 2016, that number jumped to $272 million.
Additionally, Dorrance revealed what he called grass-fed’s “dirty little secret” — the inputs are next to nothing. That means higher profit margins for the farmer who is willing to spend her time intensely managing livestock.
Vail Dixon, a regenerative farmer and founder of Simple Soil Solutions, was next in the batting order. Where Paul Dorrance’s presentation was practical, Dixon began her talk in the world of metaphor and microbiology. The theme of her presentation was “The Upward Spiral of Soil Health.”
Like human health, soil health is not a destination, but a direction, she said. Either you are moving toward health or away from it. She explained that it’s crucial for farmers to be able to identify which stage their land is in. “What is your unique starting point?” she asked.
One might assume the starting point is always a soil sample. That may be, Dixon said, but test results won’t tell the full story, particularly when it comes to the biology present in the soil.
The lowest level of Dixon’s spiral of soil health is bare ground. The first step in soil ascendancy is to get the ground covered. Once plants start growing, the emergence of weeds can begin to tell the farmer about nutrient imbalances. Weeds, Dixon pointed out, are not nuisances to be dealt with, but healers and storytellers.
“I want my weeds to help me get to breakthrough,” she said.
Breakthrough is the phase in which increasing biological activity in the soil begins to set the stage for resilient health. The farmer can precipitate this stage through planting cover crops, using micronized minerals and microbial inoculants on seeds and mulching.
Dixon is currently building her farm in Nelson County, Virginia, into a regional training center for regenerative farming and living that integrates Holistic Management, permaculture, and biological farming.
Before receiving his achievement award, Brown presented to the conference on how to build resiliency in farming operations.
He started with a question: “Are you satisfied with your soil?”
The quality of your soil, he said, is a direct reflection of you as a farmer and your stewardship of the land. Like Dixon and Dorrance, Brown described a vision of farming that takes its lead from nature — no bare soil, no mechanical disturbance (i.e., no tillage), little chemical input (avoid pesticides and herbicides for the most part). And also remember not to overemphasize inorganic nutrients, he said. Ultimately, it’s about the life, or lack thereof, in the soil.
“We are not short of nutrients, we are short of biology to make those nutrients available. Biology is your silent partner, it is the interaction of life,” he said.
The farmer bolsters biology in the soil through cover cropping and maximizing solar energy collection. The root exudates from plants (carbon in the form of sugars, amino acids and organic acids) combine with water to form carbonic acid, which breaks down minerals into digestible forms. This happens with the symbiotic help of a fungal partner known as mycorrhizae.
“Observation is one of the things that I think is lacking in agriculture,” Brown said. “What do you really see in nature? What’s nature trying to tell you?”
That patch of dandelion, for example, might be saying the soil is compacted and low in calcium, he said.
Brown also touted the benefits of integrating crop systems with livestock. Strategic animal management is necessary to building soil through strategic disturbance and the spread of manure and urine. But it isn’t just about where and when cattle graze. It’s also about the how. Brown emphasized the importance of epigenetics. Put another way, let calves and mothers stay together. The mother will pass on nutritional wisdom about what to eat to her calves. This makes a herd more efficient grazers and more adapted to a specific environment, Brown explained.
The Browns combine grazing with no-till growing systems to produce cash crops, cover crops as well as grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork and eggs. And because of the abundance of wildflowers and pollinators in their pastures, they also produce honey.
“Make use of the resources you have available and the tools you have available to convert that sun energy into dollars,” he said.
Following Dorrance’s talk, conference attendees got to take a virtual tour of Kelsey Ducheneaux’s cattle operation on a Sioux reservation in Montana. Ducheneaux is building her company, DX Beef, from the soil up. She gives credit to her ancestors for establishing a thriving ecosystem she can now use to grow her own business, while maintaining the value system they build into the ecosystem.
— Ben Trollinger, Acres U.S.A. editor.
All Eco-Ag Conference Highlights
The 2020 Eco-Ag Conference ran from Dec. 1 to Dec. 4. Here are the highlights of each day below: