Book Review: Dirt to Soil by Gabe brown

This book was the second one I read on the subject of regenerative agriculture and was a lot more practical than the first one I read, Call of the Reed Warbler, which was more focused on the stories of the farmers themselves and the broad strokes concepts surrounding the field. Gabe Brown, on the other hand, seems to have written this book with a more practical purpose in mind. Gabe is a farmer in North Dakota and in this book tells his story of transitioning his farm to regenerative practices.

Gabe’s story is an interesting one, but one which I will leave you to discover in the book. Instead, as I do in most of these videos, I will discuss the concepts themselves. In this book, Gabe outlines five principles of regenerative agriculture which are among the simplest to understand. The five are limited disturbance, armour, diversity, living roots and animal integration.

The concept of limited disturbance is all about reducing the amount of tillage that occurs on your farm. When the soil is disturbed like this, which is a staple of traditional agriculture, the function is usually to let oxygen and water into the soil. This works to some extent, but when you are breaking up the soil you are also disturbing the microbes and fungi that live in the soil which, in the regenerative agriculture method, serve to allow oxygen and water into the soil – the same function as soil disturbance serves. The benefits of this method are manifold. First, if you have a healthy ecosystem of microbes and fungi, you will have more worms whose tracks will serve to let in more water and more oxygen. Second, the healthy ecosystem of microbes in your soil will unlock the nutrients required for growing your crops and your pastures, reducing the need for fertilisers. Third, this method allows for more carbon to be stored in the soil, as opposed to the traditional methods which often allow carbon to escape our soils, contributing to the carbon emissions of the agricultural sector.

The second principle is armour. This refers to coverage of the soil, which if let exposed can lead to all sorts of different problems. Gabe points out that bare soil is an anomaly in the natural world, and if it is found in the natural world, the place is not considered healthy – it is a desert. Having some kind of cover crop on your soil at all times reduces wind erosion and water erosion by keeping the soil stronger rather than blowing or washing away. Keeping the soil covered at all times also helps the ecosystem of microorganisms in the soil as described in explaining the first principle – if you have covered soil, it is less prone to heating up and killing these microorganisms which work to keep your soil healthy. Armouring the soil also works to prevent weed growth, reducing yet another cost in spraying damaging herbicides to maintain paddocks.

The third principle is diversity. Once again, Gabe points to the natural world – where in the world do you find monocultures (where only one crop is grown)? Only in farming areas. In terms of soil health, the diversity of plant life in the ground is incredibly beneficial. This means having shallow-rooted and deep-rooted plants, having legumes with grasses with shrubs, all working together to maintain soil health. Of course, this is far easier to create in a pasture and grazing situation, but there are also methods of growing crops in this way which prove beneficial to yields in the long run.

This is not only the case for soil management but also for farm business management. Gabe describes all of the different ways in which his farm makes money, and much like any decent financial advisor his advice is to diversify so that you are more insulated against events in different markets. For example, if you are making money on beef sales but you’re also making money from chickens on eggs and broilers, and on ecotourism by taking tours of your farm, you are reducing your risk. If one of these markets is to decline, such as how tourism has declined through COVID-19, you still have different ways of making money. If beef prices were to go down through a trade-war with our biggest trading partner in China, you would still have the chicken markets to keep you sustained. The more diversity you have in your farming “portfolio”, the less risk you are exposed to.

The fourth principle of soil health is living roots. This is fairly self-explanatory – try your best to always have living roots in the ground. In this principle, Gabe uses the analogy of trying to grow livestock without feeding them for large parts of the year: “A farmer would never leave their livestock unfed for months at a time. Why, then, do farmers not think to feed their ‘underground livestock’ through the winter?”. In order to feed your soil, you need living roots in the ground to produce carbon in the soil. One fact which I didn’t learn from this book but instead from a lecture on soil carbon, is that when plants suck in the carbon dioxide from the air, the majority of the carbon doesn’t go into their structure but is rather excreted through their roots into the soil. It’s a longer-term investment to build healthier soil, get more nutrients from that soil, and then grow larger. Thinking about it like this, the benefits of having living roots in your soil becomes obvious – the plants need to be feeding the soil so that the soil can get to work feeding the plants.

 The final principle of soil health is about animal integration. While there is a lot of discussion from vegans about the damage that animal agriculture does to the environment, as with most things there is a lot of detail missing from such a generalisation. It is correct that animal agriculture in the traditional farming setting is damaging to the environment, but there are ways to use animals to actually increase carbon sequestration in our soils. In the years to come, supermarkets will start selling more and more carbon-neutral beef. It is not simply a marketing ploy – it can quite easily be done. Using methods like strip grazing and holistic grazing, the animals can work to improve soils rather than damage them, allowing more carbon to be sequestered and carbon-neutral meats to be created. Using a diverse range of animals can also help with reducing parasite numbers and fly numbers. For example, if you put chickens into a paddock a few days after cows have been there, they will eat the fly larvae, and because chickens and cows act as dead ends for each other’s parasites, the animals will be healthier as a result.

And that is the meat of Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown. In this review, I have just covered the theoretical concepts, but in the actual book he is far more practical than this and really offers a different perspective to many regenerative farmers. Rather than focusing on the environmental aspect and the moral challenge of climate change, he focuses on the economic benefits for farmers themselves, which is a refreshing change on the moral arguments that often get made that our farmers must change their ways in order for the world to be saved.

Anyway, that was Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown. Would recommend reading it if you are into regenerative agriculture and the concepts surrounding it. Or even if you aren’t. It’s always good to understand the issues and to get a differing perspective on what generalisations we inevitably make.

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