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True Soil Health: Create the Capacity to Function Without Intervention

My philosophy is that whatever you do on your farm should improve soil health. But how do you know what that is? The USDA defines soil health as, “The continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” I would add to that definition and say that soil health isn’t just the capacity to function, it’s the capacity of soils to function without intervention.

The same field pictured below, three months later. This is the result of managing the field to promote healthy soil life and maximize biological nutrient cycling: a beautiful organic seed corn crop, just after detasseling.

What counts as “intervention?” Does intervention mean biotechnology, insecticides, fungicides and tillage? Is fertilizer an intervention? Do these interventions make your farm better for future years? I believe money spent on interventions needs to be shifted to inputs that yield soil health.

Appropriate intervention when absolutely needed is wise, but the goal is minimum intervention — in other words do everything you can to get the soils healthy and mineralized. Mineralize your soils using exchangeable nutrient sources that come from the carbon biological system. You have to create an ideal home for soil life and feed them in order to build soil health.

Remove the negatives, which include monoculture crops and excessive tillage. Reduce the use of other possible negatives added through harsh soluble fertilizers and excessive nitrogen, not to mention chemicals and biotechnology.

Farming for soil health means treating your farm like a system. For years we have been promoting the “rules” of biological farming (Six Principles of Biological Farming). Following these rules will lead to healthy soils that produce good yields. The soil health guidelines you now see published in many places focus on minimum disturbance with an emphasis on no-till. In my opinion not all soils are capable of being farmed no-till. Continue Reading →

Gabe Brown on Building Resiliency through Soil Health

Farmer, Author Gabe Brown Discusses Soil Health & Diversity

Gabe Brown is one of the great bridge builders in farming. No matter which corner of agriculture you come from, or even if you don’t work in agriculture, Brown’s talks about how regenerative farming can restore our ravaged soils to vitality make sense. Moreover, he presents it with a plainspoken, pragmatic aplomb that captivates and never alienates, instead drawing listeners into the pleasure and excitement he gets from trying out new ideas. He explains techniques with a clarity that eludes many professional educators, and when the moment requires he can drive straight to the core of an issue with one stroke.

At an Acres U.S.A. conference some years ago, an audience member said it all sounded great, but asked why he should put in the extra work. Brown simply asked him if he cared about his grandchildren. People who come away from a Gabe Brown talk unsatisfied are rare as hen’s teeth.

Now, after many years of explaining his soil-building wizardry in person, Brown somehow found time to write a book, Dirt to Soil that tells his story and explains what he does and why it works. The book includes farming practices, a philosophy of nature and the story of how Brown and his family survived several years of natural disasters in the mid-1990s, an ordeal that proved pivotal. We last interviewed Brown in our October 2013 issue. We reached out to him for another talk five years later at his farm in North Dakota.

Interviewed by Chris Walters

Gabe Brown: From Dirt to Soil

ACRES U.S.A. How did people such as Ray Archuleta, Dr. Kris Nichols, Dr. Christine Jones and others impact your effort to reinvent your whole way of working?

GABE BROWN. In my book, Dirt to Soil, I tried to tell the story in chronological order as to the people I met along the way and how they influenced me. I learned bits and pieces from many individuals, organizations and Nature herself, and it was up to me to take that information and apply it on my ranch. I wanted to show other producers that you’re not alone. You can glean information from many places, and it’s up to you to take that information and apply it as best you can in the stewardship of your own operation. Continue Reading →

From Grass to Glass: Organic Dairy Farming

Maybe it’s a chance remark heard from a fellow farmer or an epiphany that comes while attending a farming conference. It lands on fertile ground and a way of looking at things, a way of being in the world, shifts. For Evan Showalter a book his father picked up — Gary Zimmer’s The Biological Farmer — launched him down the path he’s on, which includes providing milk for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk brand.

Evan Showalter produces Grassmilk for Organic Valley on his Virginia farm. Photo by Russell French for Organic Valley.

He came to the book in 2007. At the time, Showalter, of Port Republic, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, had returned from working in construction and landscaping to the dairy farm where he grew up. There, he had managed a renting farmer’s conventional dairy herd of 80 to 100 cows. As he and his father considered the prospects for dairy, Showalter decided not to buy that herd and to focus instead on produce and corn for silage and grain; he also continued haymaking. He took over renting from his father in spring 2008.

Showalter, who had planted genetically modified crops and sprayed glyphosate because that was what he knew, was interested in biological farming, so Zimmer’s book came to him at the right time. When he returned to the farm he began to phase out synthetics and by 2009 began to apply for certification for some areas of the farm.

Between 2009 and 2011, Showalter began routinely testing soils and working with consultants. He saw a rapid shift in soil balance as he sold crops and had no animals on the farm to cycle nutrients. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Dirt Hog

By Kelly Klober

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. book, Dirt Hog, written by Kelly Klober. Copyright 2007, softcover, 320 pages. Regular price: $25.00.

Hogs are actually very social animals and are quite safe and easy to handle, as long as you avoid situations that are too forced or overly rushed. Most farmers, for example, will feed the animals over a fence not because of any perceived ferociousness, but because hogs have a tendency to function as a group and curiously crowd around any source of activity near them.

Dirt Hog by Kelly Klober

Dirt Hog, by Kelly Klober

Make the animals in a lot or pasture aware of your approach by whistling, humming, or talking to them softly. One of my first jobs on the farm was as the officially designated hog caller. I thought it was a sign I was growing up, but my high, youthful voice uttering “whoa, sow” simply carried farther. I was a bipedal “hog whistle” of sorts.

The hog on the range in many ways functions as a free agent. It isn’t a wild or uncontrolled animal, but in some respects the hogs do get closer to nature and their animal origins.

Continue Reading →

Sunn Hemp: Soil-Building Superhero with Forage Potential

Sunn hemp, a tropical plant primarily grown as a cover crop or green manure, has increased dramatically in popularity over the last decade. Originally from India, it’s easy to understand what makes it so popular among vegetable and row crop farmers in the United States.

Grazing must be timed appropriately or sunn hemp will grow beyond the reach of foraging livestock.

Sunn hemp possesses many soil-building traits, including high rates of biomass production — over 20 percent greater than crimson clover and hairy vetch in research trials. It is not only resistant to plant root nematodes but actively suppresses them. In as little as 60 to 90 days it can produce 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre and can suppress weeds up to 90 percent.

Sunn Hemp is adapted to a wide variety of soil and environmental conditions, thriving through hot, dry summers and continuing to grow until the first frost. But sunn hemp isn’t just a soil builder — it also offers benefits as a forage producer. Recent on-farm grazing trials have yielded an abundance of information on using this crop for grazing. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Foundations of Natural Farming

By Harold Willis

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A book, Foundations of Natural Farming, by Harold L. Willis. Copyright 2008, softcover, 367 pages. Regular price: $30.00.

Foundations of Natural Farming by Harold Willis

My, it’s dark down here in the soil. No wonder most people know so little about it. But that’s why we’re here, so let’s learn. Soil is the absolute basis of agriculture, and thus of all human existence, for as we have seen, we either eat plants grown in soil, or animals which eat plants grown in soil. Our soil has been called our most important national resource. Wise use and management of the relatively thin upper layer, the topsoil, is vital for maintaining good health and a high standard of living.

But through misuse, about 7–10 tons of topsoil per acre are being lost to erosion each year in the Midwest (the figure can be much higher in the worst areas). It may take several hundred years for 1 inch of soil to form. Obviously, we can’t keep on sending our topsoil down the river much longer.

Continue Reading →