Regeneration of Our Lands: A Producerís Perspective | Gabe Brown | TEDxGrandForksJul 10, 2021
Transcriber: Rhonda Jacobs Reviewer: Ellen Maloney How fitting it is that this event, which is titled "Roots to Wings," is taking place here in North Dakota, since North Dakota's state motto is "Strength Through I usually". And that's what I'm going to talk about with you today, it's about our soil resource. Agriculture has been challenged. How do we feed nine billion people by the year 2050? With today's current production model, we can do that. It is a model with which the land is tilled. It is a model of monoculture production practices. No matter where you go in this great state, there are wheat fields, corn fields, soybean fields, and many other crops.
It is one of cattle that is now in confinement; be it poultry housed in chicken coops or beef cattle in a feedlot, for example. However, these practices have come at a cost. They have caused a loss of biodiversity. Healthy native grass
landshave hundreds of different species of plants, animals, and insects. Monocultures have very few. This lack of biodiversity has led to the destruction of our soil resource. And that's what I'm going to talk to you about today. I'll share some evidence with you, and these are statistics provided by North Dakota State University. In Walsh County, North Dakota, in 1960, the topsoil was 34 inches deep.
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In 2014, that topsoil was only 15 inches deep, an impressive 56 percent loss. The level of organic matter in that same soil had gone from more than 8 percent to less than 3 percent today. Look at the ramifications of that. The soil to his left was soil that had not been tilled and had not seen monoculture production practices. That is the same soil 17 years later on the right, after 17 years of the tillage and monoculture production model. It also destroys pore spaces in the soil. Those pore spaces are critical for life in the soil, they are critical for water infiltration, because if we don't have aggregates in the soil, we can't infiltrate water.
I took this photo in a field less than ten miles from where you are sitting today. That shows that half an inch of rain can no longer infiltrate the soil profile. If we can't infiltrate water, then what happens? We turn to things like tile drainage. And you're seeing this all over the central United States today. What happens when we lay tile drainage and don't have the soil aggregates to hold our floors in place? That soil ends up in the basin and, unfortunately, along with it, all the nutrients that may have been applied to those fields go.
That lack of biodiversity also leads to less nutrient cycling. If we don't have proper nutrient cycling, we're going to have to add more and more synthetic fertilizers. Those synthetic fertilizers come at a cost: the cost of using fossil fuels, and they also stimulate the decline of soil biology. We need to understand how the soil works. The functioning of the soil is due to that biology, because plants obtain their nutrients through biology. The high use of synthetic fertilizers also helps in the propagation of weeds. Most weeds love nitrogen. The more synthetic fertilizer we apply, the more weeds we get.
If we have increased weed pressure, what do we have to do? Spray herbicides. Now, unfortunately, many of those herbicides are chelates. What is a chelate? A chelate binds to metals. So any of the metals like magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, become unavailable to plants. If the plant cannot absorb these micronutrients, it is more prone to disease. Since plants cannot protect themselves from diseases on their own, we need to spray fungicides. Fungicides, then, are harmful for what? Soil biology. Because the plants are not healthy enough to protect themselves from pests, so what should we do? We spray pesticides on crops intended for human consumption.
Because we spray pesticides, we have a decrease in what? The same predatory insects that would take care of the pests we are spraying. We also have a decline in pollinators. You can hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine today without reading about the plight of our pollinators. These pollinators are critical in our crop production. The current production model is all about killing. Whether it's weeds, a fungus, a pest, our diversity or our profit. Take a look at these projections just released by North Dakota State University. They are 2016 projections for some of the main crops in our state.
Each of them projects a negative return. What impact does that have on the quality of life of those who grow that crop? But go one step further: What impact does it have on our schools? Drive through this state of ours and you will see many small towns that have fewer and fewer children attending schools. What effect does that have on our business? And then in our communities? What effect does the current production model have on our health? Look at this. The nutrient densities of the foods we produce have decreased by 15 to 65 percent in the last 50 years.
This has had many negative consequences. The United States spends more on health care than any other developed country in the world. Look at this though: we lead the world in the incidence of ADD, ADHD, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's, autoimmune diseases, and the list goes on and on. This is not acceptable. You can't continue. But the good news is that there is another way and I am going to share it with you. It is the way of nature. See how nature works. In nature, there is no mechanical tillage. However, in our production model, we are tilling the land.
In nature, there is always armor on the soil surface, protecting that soil from wind erosion, water erosion, evaporation. However, in our production model, the fields are empty. Nature recycles water very efficiently. It is able to infiltrate into the soil profile, then, due to the large amount of organic matter, it remains there, during which time it is necessary for plants. By destroying our soil resource, we can no longer infiltrate water and store it for when it is needed. Nature has living networks of plants and roots; there are things that grow at all times during the growing season.
Not so with production agriculture. We often hear of the production model we have today as the "mainstream model". I would say that the way of nature is the conventional model, because it has been around for eons of time. Think of it this way: what was this earth like 400 years ago? You had a lot of diversity. There was a diversity of plant species: herbaceous, grasses, legumes, trees. And then you also had a diversity of animals and insects, and all of these worked together to build a healthy ecosystem. So there are five principles that we must follow to follow the model of nature.
They are, number one: the least amount of mechanical disturbance possible. On my own ranch, we've been 100 percent zero until 1994; we have not tilled the land at all. The second principle of soil health is protection of the soil surface; we always have the ground covered. That's a photo of one of our fields after planting. That field is no longer prone to wind or water erosion because we keep the armor on the surface. The third principle of soil health is diversity. My son teaches rangeland management at the local community college. He took his students to one of our paddocks.
They counted more than 140 different species of grasses, herbs, and legumes. Why don't we have that in production agriculture today? In our operation, we are trying to imitate it. These are just a few of the cash crops we grow at our operation. We don't just grow one cash crop, we grow many. On top of that, we do not grow cash crops as monocultures. On the top left are oats with three types of clover growing on them. At the top right is a very diverse mix of cool-season broadleafs. Bottom left, that's corn with hairy vetch growing on it.
Bottom right, are sunflowers with over 19 species of covers growing with it. A tremendous amount of diversity fueling the biology of the soil. We also have orchards at our operation. These orchards, in addition to giving us fruit, we can have cattle grazing under them, piling up companies. We have five hectares of vegetable production, but not as monocultures. Between each of those rows of corn are rows of peas, beans, squash, zucchini, carrots, squash, and a variety of other species so that we get the benefit of diversity. The fourth principle of soil health is to leave the roots in the soil as long as possible.
You don't have to drive very far through this state to see that there are monocultures that grow only for a short period of time, and then the land goes dormant. These are just a few of the cover crop species we planted at our operation last year. In fact, we plant more than 70 different species. From the time the snow melts in the spring, until the snow remains in early winter, we have a variety of species growing on our land to feed the health of the soil. We are optimizing the capture of solar energy. Because the way the system works is that we take in sunlight through photosynthesis; produces carbon; that carbon is transferred to the roots, where it filters out as root exudate, that's what all of biology feeds on.
We need that biology to bring nutrients to the plant to nourish animals and people. You see, if we have healthy soil, we're going to have clean air, clean water, healthy plants, healthy animals, and healthy people. We have to focus on the biology of food. Along with this, then, we are able to feed all the wildlife that is on our operation. We also feed a myriad of different insects. Insects tend to get a bad rap. We like a wide variety of insects, including all predatory insects that take care of pests. We want to address our problems through biological means, not through chemical means.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, one of the world's leading entomologists, told me this: For every species of insect that is a pest, there are 1,700 that are beneficial. Why in production agriculture is our goal to simply kill that pest, when we should be aiming to provide a habitat for all those beneficial organisms? The reason why growers have a pest problem is because of a lack of diversity. We have to think biologically. The fifth principle of a healthy ecosystem is animal impact. At our operation we manage a herd of 350 beef cows. We also grass-fed that meat because we know it's healthier, both for us and the animals.
We have a flock of sheep and raise finished lambs on pasture. We have pastured pig. We have broilers that are on the pasture. And we have a flock of 750 laying hens that are also grazing. We also have bees. These bees, in addition to pollinating our crops, provide us with honey. This is what we have done in our operation. When we started in 1993 on the left, we had a very shallow topsoil: 1.7 percent organic matter. We could only infiltrate half an inch of rain an hour. Then we went no-till. We began to diversify the rotation of commercial crops; we noticed an improvement in soil health.
From there, we started adding cover crops ‚Äď another improvement in soil health, our organic matter levels increased, our infiltration improved. We then began to integrate all of these livestock species on top, another marked increase in the health of our soil ecosystem. Now, in 2013, we have a parcel of land that is now over 11 percent organic matter. The same soils that in 1993 could only infiltrate half an inch of rain per hour can now infiltrate more than 15 inches of rain per hour. We've done it without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. We have done it following the principles of nature.
This has led to a ranch that is profitable every year, regardless of price. And we do this without participating in any kind of government subsidy, be it crop insurance, EQIP, CSP or any other form of government payment. Therefore, we are not a burden on society. The stacking of companies has allowed us to produce many more calories of nutrient-dense food at a lower cost compared to the current production model. Yes, we can feed the world, and we can do it in a way that regenerates our resources, thereby healing farms, families, and communities. Thanks.
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