#9 | Gabe Brown - Brown's Ranch: Champion of Regenerative Farming

Did you know due to modern agricultural practices you have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A as your grandparents would have gotten from just one?

 

In this episode of the Sustainability Matters Today podcast, I interview Gabe Brown, owner of Brown’s ranch and a champion of regenerative farming.

 

Gabe is a producer and winner of many state and national soil health awards, including a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resource Defense Council, and a Zero-Till Producer of the Year Award. In addition, he was named one of the 25 Most influential Agricultural Leaders in the United States.

 

Gabe recently published, “Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture”, where he shares the story of healing his farm’s soil and paves the road for other farmers to follow in his footsteps.

 

Please make sure to subscribe to the Sustainability Matters Today podcast to learn more about Gabe Brown and other champions of sustainability.

 

I hope you enjoy this episode! 

Resources:

Daniel Hartz: Thank you so much for joining me, Gabe.

 

Gabe Brown: Pleasure being with you.

 

Daniel Hartz: I really appreciate you signing a copy of your book “Dirt To Soil” for my Mom and me. I read it with great interest, took tons of notes and I learned a lot. I thought it was very interesting. 

Gabe Brown: Thank you!

Daniel Hartz: And before we kind of jump into the details of your work, I'd love to start with your background. So in your book “Dirt to Soil” you wrote that you became obsessed with all things related to farming and ranching after a vocational agriculture class you took in 9th grade. And during and after that class, you learned as much as you could about conventional farming. And as I understand it, based on what you wrote, all of that knowledge basically started to fall apart when you had four years of crop failure, which you say completely changed your life. 

 

So, first of all, is it unheard of to have four years of crop failure?

 

Gabe Brown: Four years in a row? Yes. That's rather unusual. The interesting thing about it is when we had those four years of crop failures, we were the only one in the local area that had four years of failure. There was one other farmer that had three years and several had two years. But we were the only one unfortunate or, as it turned out, to be fortunate enough to have four years.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah. Probably didn’t feel very fortunate at the time, I'm sure.

 

Gabe Brown: No, it didn't.

 

Daniel Hartz: So, you call those four years the disaster years. And what exactly did you learn during that time that really shaped your understanding of regenerative farming?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, it really took me down a path of teaching me the principles of a healthy ecosystem.

 

I tell people, you know, I had started no tilling just a year prior to that. So, that’s  one of the first principles. And then because we had the hail, obviously, knocked down all the crops that left a nice amount of residue or armor-skin, whatever you want to call it on the soil surface. 

 

And thus, it was protecting the soil from wind erosion and water erosion, evaporation. And then because we had the hailstorms after that, I had to figure out, "OK, I got to grow some feed for my livestock". So I started to plant different foreign species, such as Winter Triticale, Hairy Vetch, and Sorghum Sudangrass, and Cowpeas. So, that taught me the power of diversity. 

 

And along with that, because I was growing some of these crops at a different time than most people do, that taught me the importance of having a living root in the soil as long as possible throughout the year- that's the fourth principle. 

 

And then because we literally did not have enough money to be able to afford  to put up the hay we allowed our livestock to graze some of these forages just during the winter. And that taught me the fifth principle - that of animal integration. 

 

So, I tell people that although those were four very difficult years to live through, they were the best thing that could have happened to us because it really drove home those five principles of a healthy, functioning ecosystem.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I can certainly see how that sort of all worked. And were you aware of the five principles before or during those disaster years or you came upon them later on?

 

Gabe Brown: Yeah, No, actually, I had never heard of anybody talk about those. But it was shortly thereafter that two people in particular- Jay Fear who worked for the NRCS here in Bismarck, North Dakota, and John Stick who work for the NRCS in Dickinson, North Dakota - started to talk about these five principles.

 

And that's where I then put them together and learned about them and I realized, "Hey! that's what I was being shown through those four disaster years".

Daniel Hartz: So, it seems like the five principles which you just outlined - if you think about coming from a very general perspective - it's really about just getting out of the way and let nature do the work.

 

Gabe Brown: And a lot of respect that is, you know, so much of agriculture today is all about man trying to impose his or her will on nature. But if we look and observe - and I think we've lost that -  in agriculture we've lost the power of observation and we no longer observe how these ecosystems function. But if you observe how ecosystems function on land-based ecosystems, they always have these five principles.

 

And that's one of the reasons I tell producers from all over the world that these principles can be used anywhere in the world where there's dry-land production agriculture - because the principles are universal no matter where you go.

 

Daniel Hartz: Makes a lot of sense. And I'd love to come back to that in a little bit. But the first sentence of your book starts with, "Our lives depend on soil" and the rest of the book describes why, as well as what farmers can do to heal the soil so that people can stay as healthy as possible, and the environment, as a result, is also as healthy as possible. Could you please provide some context on why healthy soils are so important?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, I tell people, you look at the ill’s that society sees today, whether too much carbon in the atmosphere, whether it's a lack of clean water, whether it's too much nitrates or phosphorus in the watersheds into our rivers, lakes, estuary, or look at the human health standpoint. And we have a human health crisis going on. What are some of the causes of that? Well, it's lack of a healthy, functioning soil ecosystem. 

 

If we have a healthy soil ecosystem, we're going to have more carbon in the soil. We're going to hold the nutrients in both biology and living plants so they don't end up into our watershed. And a healthy soil will have the ability to produce and cycle all of the nutrients that not only the plant need, but that animal and people need also. So, that can certainly positively affect human health as well.

 

Daniel Hartz: It makes a lot of sense to healthy soils are clearly very important so many different things -I mean - from human health to the environment, as you mentioned. But what is the current state of the soil on most farms?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, I tell people I've had the good fortune to be on hundreds of farms and ranches in many different countries. And I have never, ever been on a single farmer ranch, including my own, that's not degraded. Because if you look at, back from a historical context,  and you look at where these ecosystems were, we’re all farming and ranching degraded ecosystems. And even myself, even though I've been able to regenerate this quite a bit, we're still degraded. 

 

When we look back and look at what scientists tell us, the soils were like pre-European settlement. So we're all farming and ranching  degraded ecosystems.

 

Daniel Hartz: And why is that such a problem?

 

Gabe Brown: It's a problem because of the current production model. The current production model that's prevalent in agriculture today is one of heavy tillage, heavy use of a lot of these synthetics - whether it be fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc. 

 

One where it's all monocultures - there's not the diversity that there once was. And we've, in many cases, removed animals from the ecosystem and you just don't find that in healthy ecosystems. So it's coming about as a result of our stewardship or lack thereof for our ecosystems.

 

Daniel Hartz: Seems like a difficult situation to be in where we're trying to do - trying to get the most out of the land. But by doing so, we're almost, being counterproductive in many ways. 

 

One of the principles you mentioned, and you just mentioned it again, is the importance of animals in the ecosystem and the importance of grazing livestock. So, livestock, specifically meaning cows and other animals like hogs, sheep and chickens.  And in “Dirt to Soil” you bring up Jerry Brunetti, his book "The Farm as Ecosystem", to demonstrate the importance of managing one's farm as an ecosystem. And you've already mentioned that a couple of times. And like you said, ecosystems have animals. 

 

And then you also reference to Allan Savory, who's an ecologist who encourages introducing grazing animals to areas that have become deserts. And we do that as a way to bring back the greenery. And so basically, as such, you're recommending farmers to keep cows and other animals really because they enable soil to sequester and store carbon and bring life back into the soil. 

 

I guess, first of all, just to clarify, because on  Brown's ranch, you raise cows differently than the way most cows are raised in the US. So, what exactly is the difference here?

 

Gabe Brown: We have our cattle out on the landscape at all times. They're not confined into a lot like most animals in the northern hemisphere are during winter months - they're confined into a lot. Our cows are out on the landscape at all time. 

 

The other difference is we grass-finish our beef animals. In other words, they're never fed grain. They're not confined in a feedlot. They're out there grazing for use all the time. And the big difference is one - for the well-being and the health of the animal. You know that much more productive, healthier life for them when they're out doing what a cow evolved to do - grazing ford.

The other thing is it's much, much better for the ecosystem when ruminants - and I don't care if we're talking  beef cattle or bison, any type of ruminant - is grazing a plant. That plant then, because it was grazed, start sloughing off root-exudates, and roots because it needs to regrow and it's doing that in order to track biology, the cycle, the nutrients and provided for the plant. So the plant can regrow, then nobody can argue at all with the fact that grave foragers will have grasses, etc. will sequester much more carbon than ungrazed foragers. 

 

Then if you look back from a historical context on how the vast grasslands - then I don't care whether we're talking in the central plains of the United States or on the Serengeti of Africa or on some of the large grasslands throughout China - all of these grasslands were formed from large herds of grazing animals consuming and then being moved by predators and allowing that plant then the ability to recover before they had moved back and graze it again. 

 

And that's what we do on our farm, more or less, just mimicking what a natural ecosystem.

 

Daniel Hartz: It makes a lot of sense. I mean, that's very similar to Allan Savory who always talks about in terms of cattle and other large ruminants being very close together to avoid predators and moving frequently and through that process, basically, eating the grasses there. 

 

And also there's that hoof action, plus the urine and manure from these ruminants. They really fertilize and sink all of that into the soil through there, through the whole faction. It's really interesting to hear that, you know, you're saying that it's so good for the environment. 

 

And yet we hear in the mainstream media frequently about climate change, how cows and the meat industry as well are considered to be some of the biggest culprits of Greenhouse gas emissions. And I'm sure you've heard multiple times from many different people how the methane that cows produce and the EPA quotes it as well, that methane is 25 times worse as a Greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide does. 

 

Grazing, cattle and grass finishing, and this process that you have on your farm does not really outweigh all the potential negatives that people normally associate with cattle in the meat industry?

 

Gabe Brown: And then there are several things that need to be brought up here. One is there is a lack of context - they're not putting it in context though. 

 

There is a difference between animals out grazing on a pasture and animals confined in the feedlot. I tell people that I do disagree with having animals confined in feedlots - it's not natural. It's not good for the health of the animal. And we're feeding the ruminant grain, which changes the nutrient quality of their meat -and so the meat that they, in turn,  provide for us. And it's not a good thing, so we need to separate that. 

 

Also, animals in confinement are fed a lot of processed forage. In other words, it takes fossil fuel to put up all the hay and silage and then haul that to the feedlot needed every day. Whereas in my situation, the animals - they're out there - they have four legs for a reason. They're harvesting it on their own. And that's more natural profit. 

 

Now, the other thing when we talk about math thing - that most science has totally overlooked - is that of Methanotrophs. Methanotrophs are bacteria that actually consume methane. And it is scientifically proven that in grazed . When animals are grazing, these Methanotrophs are near the soil surface in they’re actually living off, they're consuming the methane that these animals are putting out. But yet you never hear anybody talk about that. 

 

Now, obviously, the animals in a feedlot, they're correct--there's not enough Methanotrophs there to do it. But the animals out on the landscape and I don't care - I always use this as an analogy. Okay, if ruminants are the culprit for what we're seeing today, as far as too much carbon in the atmosphere, etc, why then wasn't this an issue when there was more bison grazing on the Great Plains than there are beef cattle on the Great Plains now? 

 

You know, you mean nobody ever bring that up. You know, they don't stop and think, "Oh! gee, maybe it isn't the livestock that's the problem. Maybe  man’s management of the livestock that's the problem".

 

Daniel Hartz: You know, you hear these stories about when people would move West for the first time and they would encounter literally millions of bison running and they would  be miles long you know, where does all the methane go?

 

Gabe Brown: Yeah. Because it's the Methanotrophs and other microorganisms that actually consume that. And so we need to put everything in context and look at it as a whole. Not yet vilifying the cattle - that would be wrong to do. If we would remove grazing animals from the landscape, our problems would be even further compounded. So we need more animals grazing in the landscape, not less.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, absolutely. And the Methanotrophs, is that something that occurs in healthy soils?

Gabe Brown: That's right. Methanotrophs are naturally-occurring microorganisms and their populations actually fluctuate according to the amount of grazing animals that are on a particular land.

 

So the more animals there are, the more Methanotrophs are sure of. That's nature. Nature is self-healing, self-organizing, self-regulating. So nature tends to take care of things.

 

Daniel Hartz: If we allow to do so and that comes back to really getting out of the way and basically, as you said, mimicking the way a natural ecosystem works, it all ties together. It seems so simple and like such an elegant solution to a very man-made, self-made issue, just trying to control nature and put our will on nature and trying to force it to do things that we wanted to do rather than working with it.

 

Gabe Brown: That's right. And that’s difficult, you know, human beings - they want to be in control of everything. Well, you know, we do not even begin to comprehend this called “complex nature is” with all the biology and everything working together in harmony now  in order to be self-healing, self-regulating, self-organizing. So if we would just step back and let nature function we would be much, much better off.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I think it all ties into as you said, people love to control things and it's a very much of an ego thing where if you're not able to control it, then you're not kind of as strong or as powerful and it comes down to kind of being sort of at peace with yourself and knowing that it's okay to let other things kind of do their thing. So, in this case, I'll let nature be itself and then you work with it. And that is where the power lies rather than trying to force it on. 

 

Switching gears, I'd love to know more about the financial side, because as you said, a farm cannot be sustainable, let alone regenerative, unless it's profitable. And yet, instead of focusing on profit, most farmers are actually concerned with yield meaning how much they're able to produce. So if farmers aren't profitable, what part I don't really get is, how do they earn a living? What do they live off?

 

Gabe Brown: And unfortunately, in agriculture today,  with the current production model it's not very profitable  if you pull out all of the government's subsidies. You know, here in the United States, for example, most farmers have the ability to take out what's called Revenue Insurance, its a form of crop insurance that guarantees them a certain dollar amount for each acre of a specific crop or commodity that they produce. 

 

And that's what's keeping them going - is that their management decisions are tied to that crop insurance - their Revenue Insurance. And so that's why you see just tremendous overproduction of corn and soybeans, and wheat, and cotton for instance because those are the commodities -the grains - that have the highest revenue insurance. 

 

And so farmers lock that in knowing, “Well, if I keep my expenses below a certain point, I'm guaranteed this much income”. And I'm proud to say that on our ranch we did not accept any government subsidies of any kind. I think we fail as a business if we can't make it without those subsidies. So we refuse to take part in those programs.

 

Daniel Hartz: Well, I think that makes a lot of sense to not accept it, because as you say, farming really is a business. And you mentioned the book as well, that you know, what other business has that kind of quote-unquote luxury, so to speak, of being able to just get people's - you know, the citizens, U.S. citizens - tax dollars and let that equal their profit. And it doesn't really seem very fair audience for a sustainable business.

 

Gabe Brown: Exactly, it's not. And one of the issues is, you know, one of the five principles is diversity. Well, you go on to most farms and they have very little diversity. They're only growing two or three different cash crops and that's it. 

 

They don't have the diversity that they once did. And that has negative ramifications on not only their operation - not being resilient - but on the whole ecosystem.

Daniel Hartz: Yes. As you mentioned, one of the five principles is diversity. So this obsession with yield, which it seems that the yield comes from the fact that that's how they get their revenue or crop insurance. But that obsession with yield kind of just fuels the broken farming system in the ecosystem. 

 

One of the things that you say in terms of how farmers can be very profitable is actually selling directly to consumers, which is something that you do through your "Nourished by Nature" label. First of all, it's a really great and perfect name for the brand that I know you spent a lot of time perfecting it. Can you describe what exactly is "Nourished by Nature?

 

Gabe Brown: Sure. So "Nourished by Nature" is a business that my son actually developed. And what he does is he buys the grass-finished lamb and the pork, the pastured pork, and the grass-finished beef, and the honey,  and the eggs, and all of these products that Brown's ranch produces. And then he has them processed and fabricated and then sells them under the "Nourished by Nature" label. And that's his own private label that's trademarked with the United States, and so only he can use that label on his product. 

 

He sells these products to individuals throughout North Dakota and around the United States as well.

 

Daniel Hartz: Fantastic! You have over a thousand customers.

Gabe Brown: Yeah. Well, now I'd say we've actually expanded this since  the book came out. You know, once you finish writing the book, it's outdated already. He told me he has about fifteen hundred customers now that are buying it on a regular basis from it.

 

Daniel Hartz: Fantastic! That's really exciting. It just shows that people are really interested in and motivated to get very high quality produce. 

 

It seemed to me that you're recommending is really that farmers, in order to increase their profit and to not rely on subsidies, you know, farmers really should try and sell directly and market directly to the consumer. 

 

Did I understand that correctly? Do you believe that every farmer in the US should do that? Or  is it feasible that everyone could do that?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, what I I challenge other farmers and ranchers to do, if you look at the latest statistics I saw in the United States - that for every food dollar, the farmer receives about 14 cents out of that food dollar. Well, that means 86 percent goes for packaging and transportation and sales, you know, of these products. Well, if farmers and ranchers are unsatisfied with the profit that they have, they need to try and lay claim, so to speak, to a higher percentage of that food dollar. 

 

Now, I'm not saying everyone -every farmer and rancher out there - has the ability and would want to take on the challenge of direct marketing and all their products. But why not move higher up that chain - the food chain - so that you can pocket more of that food dollar? So perhaps a form of food hub and go in with other farmers and ranchers to market their product that would lay claim to a greater share of the food dollar. 

 

The benefit of that to the farmer, rancher, obviously is more dollars in their pocket. But to the consumer, the benefit is they get to know where their food comes from and they get to meet the farmers and ranchers and they then can feel confident that they are supporting a farmer, or a rancher, who is using these regenerative practices in order to heal the landscape.

 

Daniel Hartz: I think it's a great thing to strive for. It's interesting to think, as you're saying, as you were speaking of just thinking of all farmers - every single one in the U.S. and eventually the world - if they all went into a model where they're selling directly, or at least as you've said, you know, moving up the food chain a bit, it would really completely change the food landscape, you know, ranging from supermarkets all the way through to things like fast food chains as well. 

 

The places where all of these big food purveyors would be getting their product all a sudden would kind of vanish because farmers would be either working together to pool together or maybe create some sort of CSAs or is going just direct. So, I mean, it's a very interesting world to think about. Is that something to have you kind of considered what that kind of world would look like?

Gabe Brown: Oh yeah, many, many times. I think one thing, we would have a much more diverse diet. And so I think that's a good thing from a human health standpoint. We would eat more "seasonal" - in other words, what's available at that time of the year. All of those things, I think, would help advance human health in that, you know, we'd be getting a much more diverse diet and array of all these micro nutrients, and plant secondary metabolites, and all these key elements that drive human health. So I think that's a positive. 

 

The other thing is the farmer or rancher would have a lot more diversity on their individual farms and ranches. And so, that helps the farmer and rancher in many ways. It certainly helps the ecosystem, but it also helps build resiliency in the form of - if you have multiple or many different crops growing and livestock on your operation, you're going to be resilient to a disaster in terms of, you know, production-wise. If a hailstorm came out,  like what happened in my case, you know, if you're growing many more crops at different times of the year it could make you more resilient economically to those natural disasters.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I think it's interesting that this idea of diversity keeps coming up over and over, whether it's for the business side, whether it's for the ecosystem, whether it's for human health. And also, I mean, if you even if you look at what the cattle eat, you don't want to just feed them one thing because - you mentioned this in the book -  that cows just know what nutrients they need and where to get them. So if they're lacking in something, they’ll go eat that specific type of grass. 

 

Yeah, that diversity is such an important theme, an element in the success of a lot of different things. To look at the other side of the coin, so not just in terms of ways that you can make more money, but profitability also requires cutting unnecessary expenditures. And you know, if you can both make more money and reduce how much you're spending, then you really increase your profit. 

 

One way that you can reduce the expenditures is by taking the waste from one enterprise to fuel the profit of another. When I first heard you say that, actually in a YouTube video, I kind of had this “AHA!” moment and it was just so logical and I think it's very profound in a very straightforward way. But what exactly does a farmer need to do to take full advantage of all the waste streams on their farm?

 

Gabe Brown: I'll use as an example of that of a grain farmer who is producing grains, whether it be corn or wheat or barley or oats. Typically that farmer would load up that grain and haul it to a grain terminal and sell it. Well, that grain terminal and that farmer delivers that grain there. They're going to take a sample and determine how much wheat seed is in there and how much cracked and broken grain is in there. And then, they're not going to pay the farmer, obviously, for that. They're only going to pay them for the clean portion of the grain. 

 

Well, what we do on our farm is we actually take our grain and run it through what's called a "grain cleaner". And that "grain cleaner" sifts out all the wheat seeds and the cracked and broken kernels. So we have that - we're hauling clean grain then to the grain terminal or selling it as seed. 

 

But we have what's called “grain screenings” - it's the waste product. Well, that waste product -those cracked and broken kernels - that's the perfect feed for our laying hands, for our broiler, for turkeys and for our hogs. So we're taking what would be waste - that we would not get money for and we're adding value - where we're producing high quality edible proteins from that. And the amount of money to be made by doing that is significant to us, and to me it's just good business. Why? Why wouldn't everyone want to take advantage of things like that?

 

Daniel Hartz: Exactly. It's free. And I'm sure if you look at kind of conventional, you know, chicken farmers or any sort of poultry, they're probably buying grains in order to.

 

Gabe Brown: Yeah, most all of them are! And not only that, they're there. They're paying a lot of money for it, but it doesn't offer the animals a really diverse diet either. 

 

And I  often use this analogy -  okay, if you have a duck or use, for instance, out in the wild foraging - they're going to eat all different kinds of grain seed and are going to eat plants and, you know, a very wide array of different foods  that they would consume. Yet here we are with our chickens in confinement. We're feeding them the same thing over and over and over again. Now, that leads to consistent gains, but does it lead to health of the animal? And then in turn, is the meat that animal is providing us - is that healthy? Does it have a wide array of nutrients in it? And the answer, of course, is “No!”. 

 

And that's why we need to get back to these types of production models that really allow the animals to express their individuality and let them be able to forage for what they want and have that diverse diet. In turn, that'll make their bodies much more complete and nutrient dense thus providing us with a wider array of nutrients.

Daniel Hartz: And again, it's the whole diversity element coming back. That's amazing, because not only are you reducing the amount that you're spending on things, but you also end up having a new stream of income. So it's very much a win-win. 

 

What's amazing and perhaps this has changed since the book was written, but there's really only four of you on the farm that are working, as far as I understand. Sometimes you have interns for several months out of the year, but really the primary kind of people working in the farm, it’s just there's only four of you.

Gabe Brown: Yeah, it’s changed a little bit now. We have hired a full-time hired man. And so it's  my wife and I, our son Paul, his girlfriend, Shalini, works full time for us. And we have one full time hired man, Andrew. So there's five of us. 

 

But it's changed a little bit in the fact that that I really - the past several years now -  I'm able to spend very little time on the farm and ranch. My life is occupied with traveling around the world, promoting regenerative agriculture. So pretty much still only four. 

 

Unfortunately, we had to stop doing the internship program simply because, you know, we loved having the endurance but it is a huge demand of time to educate and train the interns. And because I'm not home as much, we had to drop that here recently.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah. And I'm sure the kind of the challenge with interns is it's not like you're training them once and then you get to enjoy the fruit of that effort for years to come. You have to do it every single year.

 

Gabe Brown: Right! And we sure enjoyed it. But it's just for the time being right now. I felt that I need to be out promoting this. I think that the world's in dire need of regenerative agriculture.

 

Daniel Hartz: I certainly agree! And that's one of the reasons why I was just so fascinated with the book and with what you're promoting. Just coming back to the fact that there's only four of you on the farm, how many, I mean, in the book, I think you mentioned about 17 different enterprises that you were running. 

 

Sounds like there's probably more now. I'm sure you're still adding and experimenting with various different ones. But how do only four people, or let's say five, manage so many different things? I mean, isn't that really stressful?

Gabe Brown: You know, and people look at that, they throw up their hands and say, “Well! That's just crazy! You don't want to do that”. But what they don't realize is they're looking at it from the mindset of conventional, quote-unquote, agriculture. They're not looking at it from the mindset of regenerative agriculture. 

 

And by that I mean, okay, our livestock are out grazing pretty much year round. You know, they're out there foraging for themselves. So we're not doing all the things that other people in conventional agriculture would do. 

 

For instance, we're not hauling feed out to our cattle every day. And then, you know, you have to put up the feed, you have to haul it out there and feed them andnd then you have the manure to get rid of and dispose of. We're not going to town to buy fertilizers for our crops and apply those fertilizers. We're not out there buying pesticides and fungicides and applying them. And we're not giving our cattle and other animals all these vaccinations, you know. 

 

And so you need to look at all the things we're not doing. And then you'll realize, oh, well, maybe they really don't spend very much time with them. We can do more enterprises because we allow the enterprise to take care of itself so that they're not all of the unnecessary.

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, and that it sounds like it just comes back to the idea of letting nature be nature and kind of getting out of the way. And by doing so, you actually end up saving tons of time and getting healthier and better result in the end anyway.

 

Moving over to the health side, I know you've mentioned this a couple of times already, but there was a very interesting study that you highlighted in the book which said that people today would have to eat eight oranges to get the equivalent amount of vitamins that our grandparents would have gotten from a single orange when they were young. 

 

The same thing goes for meat where we'd have to eat twice as much beef, chicken or pork to get the same levels of certain nutrients that were available to generations ago. So, to clarify those eight oranges and that double meat is applicable to conventionally grown food.

 

Gabe Brown: Well, unfortunately, it's probably applicable to 99 percent of the food that's grown today. And I'll use this as an example even -  look in one's own garden, okay, if you look at how most gardens are manage their tilled usually with a road of tiller or some type of an implement. There's not a lot of diversity. There's not much added to this soil as far as plant biomass. So we're not cycling that carbon out of the atmosphere and bumping into the soil to feed all the biology. 

 

And unfortunately, even in our organic agriculture production, organic is good in the sense that we don't have the unwanted chemical aspect of it - the pesticides and herbicides, etc. But much of organic agriculture is based off of excess of tillage. And when we do the excess of tillage, we're destroying mycorrhizal fungi - we're destroying the biology and the soil. We're not able to cycle the nutrients and transfer those nutrients to the plants. 

 

So I tell people organic is a step in the right direction, but it certainly does not mean that that food is nutrient dense. And so one of the goals of regenerative agriculture is to look at ecosystem function as a whole, and how do we get all these nutrient cycling so that we can have food that which is much higher in nutrient density.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I think it's important to really make that distinction between organic and regenerative, because Brown's Ranch, as far as I understand, is not organic, but it's very much regenerative.

 

Gabe Brown: Well, it would be very easy for me to certify our ranch organic if I chose, because we don't use any of those type of amendments in saying that there really is not an incentive for me to certify our organic. 

 

Our clients - these fifteen hundred people - who buy from us, they do so knowing full good and well what we do and the practices we do. And they're very happy with that. We're not going to get more money for our product by certified organic. Now, I'm not telling people not to certify organic, and I'm certainly not telling people  don't buy organic - that's not what I'm saying. 

 

What I'm saying is find the farmers and ranchers who are growing these plants and these raising these animals in a regenerative model and then use your buying dollar and purchase from them.

 

Daniel Hartz: Absolutely. I think voting with your dollars is probably the most powerful thing you can do. There's no misunderstanding in that context - no money goes here. 

 

So people will do more of that in order to capture that dollar. So, if we just compare it out of curiosity now, any standard organic farm versus Brown's ranch, and all of the various methods that you use that are very much in the regenerative kind of sphere, what would the food quality be like if you were to compare the two?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, and, you know, obviously there'd be a bit biased, but I can only go off of what people have told me is when they eat products from the Brown's ranch, they're tasting the land. 

 

One’s body knows when you eat something that's truly nutrient-dense, your body is satiated - it tells you, "That's good! I want more of it!". And because it's tasting those nutrients, those nutrients are satisfying what one's body needs. And so I think the big difference that one would find is just (a) would be the taste and  (b) would the satisfaction that one's body signals itself after you've consumed some of the Nourished by Nature products.

Daniel Hartz: Kind of switching gears again, but really tying into this idea of organic farming, and you mentioned this at the beginning as well, that really any farmer that has soil and sunshine and land, I guess, could really take advantage of the farming practices that you've outlined in these five principles of soil health. 

 

But as far as I understand, I think there's only around 1 percent of farmers currently in the US that are certified organic, which is, as you said, a step in the right direction based on what you've seen - and you've been traveling a lot and you've been talking to a lot of different people - how many farmers do you think are regenerative in the same way that you are?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, regenerative is a broad term. And it's you know, people are at different stages in their journey down this regenerative path.

 

So the good news is, it's kind of like a snowball that's starting to roll downhill now. In that we're seeing a lot of the farmers, like in my immediate area here in North Dakota, over 70 percent of the farmers are practicing no till. In other words, they don't till with soil. 

 

And we're getting more and more farmers that are using covered crops and integrating cover crops into their cropping system. We're seeing more and more farmers that are integrating livestock unto the crop land. So it's becoming a much larger percent. 

 

And the good news is we have a lot of large multinational companies that are looking at regenerative agriculture and how they can help their suppliers, being the farmers and ranchers, move down the regenerative path and I think that's a good thing. 

 

Anytime we can move any farmer or rancher forward into this type of production model,  it's positive not only for the farmer or rancher, but for society as well.

 

Daniel Hartz: Absolutely. I wasn't aware that big multinational companies are moving in that direction or at least investigating it. I don't think that that's getting that much attention currently.

 

Gabe Brown: Well, my business partners and I - we own - we have two businesses. One is called Soil Health Academy and that's our nonprofit business where we go educate farmers, ranchers, consumers, businesses as to regenerative agriculture. And then our other business is called "Understanding AG" and "Understanding AG" is the consulting business for us, and we consult on farms and ranches and we also consult for major businesses. 

 

We have an agreement in place with General Mills and we're working with them to educate some of their own producers and suppliers as to regenerative agriculture because of client privilege. I'm not going to mention some of the other large multinationals that we're involved with, but there's several of them right now that have hired us to help educate them as to regenerative agriculture and take their producers down the same path.

 

Daniel Hartz: That's fantastic news! So, things are really progressing in the right direction.

 

Gabe Brown: They are. It's a little overwhelming at the moment for us, but it's a good thing.

 

Daniel Hartz: Sounds like a good challenge to have. You mentioned that one of the biggest issues in terms of having people really commit to converting to regenerative agriculture is this peer pressure of, I'm guessing, really sticking with the conventional model because that's what's been known - that's what many neighbors are doing. 

 

You know if 70 percent of farmers in North Dakota are moving to no till and cover crops are being implemented, I'm guessing that that's kind of changing now. But for people who are listening to this podcast and want to help even more, what can what can they do to encourage farmers to give up the conventional ways and move over to a regenerative form of agriculture?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, the number one thing they can do, of course, is to vote with their buying dollar. I don't think that most consumers really realize how important that is, and it's important in a number of ways. 

 

For one thing, that helps support family farms if they're spending their mind or buying fruits or vegetables or pasture proteins from farmers and ranchers who are using these regenerative practices but it also really improves their health as well. 

 

And right now, we're working on a number of studies that are comparing food grown in different production models. And we're doing the nutrient testing of that food to determine is it really healthier, higher in nutrients, if it's grown on these regenerative soils. And so far, the preliminary data looks very, very encouraging. And so I think there's several benefits to the consumers going down that path.

 

Daniel Hartz: I think one of the biggest arguments that I hear is, you know, it's all well and good to talk about how important eating organic food is, but it's just so expensive. Is that something that you've encountered in the past?

 

Gabe Brown: Well, you know, one of the things that I often people often say to me, "Well, Gabe, you know, you're "Nourished by Nature” products are priced a lot higher in the supermarket". And I tell them, “Yes, they are” and that's for a number of reasons. 

 

Number one, because the demand is there. And so if the demand is there, you know, supply meets demand then. And that determines the price. You know, we have strong demand for our products and so we price them accordingly. 

 

Number two, though, that people really need to be aware of. Those people who are buying our products are doing so for a number of reasons. But one of those is they want truly nutrient dense products. Their bodies are telling them, “Hey, we want more of that product”. 

 

Now, what would that mean to consumers if you're much healthier.  And I use this as an example, you know, I'm 58 years old. I've been to a doctor once in the last thirty five years. So, you know, but I consume mainly products that we grow and raise on our operation. So, what would that do to people's medical bills if they were healthy and not having to, you know, use all these prescriptions and and things like that? Now, I don't want to get static from people saying, "Oh! You know, you need to go to a doctor for a regular checkup". 

 

Yes, please do. I'm not saying that, but I'm saying - okay, I'll use another example- I have now been on two hundred and four flight, you know, since October. Okay, if somebody is going to get sick, wouldn't it be someone who spends that much time cooped up in an airplane in airports? And yet I just don't get sick because my body is getting the nutrients it needs. 

 

So, I think consumers need to look at it from that perspective also. What's your health worth to you? You know, and if you could cut back on prescriptions and, you know, cold medications and all these other things because you don't get sick, what's that worth to you also?

 

Daniel Hartz: Absolutely. In a previous episode, I interviewed a farmer named Luke Peterson. And he when I asked him this question, he said, you can either pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later.

 

Gabe Brown: That's a good one.

 

Daniel Hartz: I think that sums it up very neatly!

 

Gabe Brown: Yeah. I might have to steal that one from Luke.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, I'm sure he'd appreciate that. He's a fan of yours as well. And as we start to wrap up in the last couple of minutes here, I always like to ask for a book recommendation, but I think the answer in this case is very obvious here, "Dirt to Soil" is really the place to start if you haven't read it. I've read it and I highly recommend it. 

 

But for people who haven't had a chance to get their hands on it yet, where can people get a copy?

 

Gabe Brown: "Dirt to Soil" is available through most major bookstores or from Chelsea Green Publishing.

 

Daniel Hartz: Yeah, Chelsea Green Publishing! As I was reading their little intro about who they are, and I think that's a fantastic company as well - very much focused on sustainability and the environment because books are made of paper and paper comes from trees. 

 

It's important to keep in mind - and for people who are interested in learning more about what you do and all your work - you've mentioned that you have the Soil Health Academy, the "Understanding AG", where can people find all those things and learn more about all of that?

Gabe Brown: Thank you! So we have a website, Soil Health Academy dot org or Understanding AG dot com, or they can go on Nourished by Nature dot US Web site.

 

Daniel Hartz: Great. And speaking of Nourished by Nature, can anyone buy those products or what's the best way that people can taste some of these? Some of your nutritious produce?

 

Gabe Brown: Yes. Anyone in the United States. Unfortunately, we do not have the capability to ship overseas at this point. But anyone in the United States can go on nourished by nature that us and order our products through that website.

 

Daniel Hartz: Excellent! I'll have to give it a try the next time I'm back in California.

 

Gabe Brown: Please do!

 

Daniel Hartz: Oh, Gabe, thank you so much for your time. This has been an absolutely fascinating and very enlightening discussion. And yeah, good luck with all of the many, many projects that you're doing. Good to know that nature is on your side in terms of all the enterprises on your farm. Yeah, really looking forward to hearing about all the progress you make in terms of spreading the good word on regenerative agriculture.

 

Gabe Brown: Well, thank you. It's been a real pleasure visiting with you today.

 

Daniel Hartz: All right, Gabe, thank you.


Thank you so much for listening to Episode 3 of Season 2! 

 

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