Monday, 15 August 2011

A Man with a Mission

Gabe Brown is an incredible guy. One of the reasons (but not the main reason) is found in his love and understanding of soil - or as he calls it the 'resource'. Gabe is focussed on improving the soil of his farm in North Dakota. He has a thorough understanding of what makes good soil and puts a lot of thought, time and energy into improving his 'resource'. Mob grazing is just one of the tools he uses. Cover crops are another. I will explain more in a later blog.

However, there is something else, something far greater, that makes Gabe a truly outstanding person. He advises farmers across the US on how to improve their own resource. He speaks at countless conferences; he answers emailed questions; his telephone is called twenty or thirty times a day by farmers wanting to pick his brains. And he does all this for free! He refuses to take payment, other than to cover his out of pocket expenses and is convinced that he was put on this earth to spread the message, to disseminate his knowledge to farmers and thus to improve the soil of the world.

The origins of his 'calling' lie in his experiences during his earlier years of farming. At the time, he was a conventional farmer, highly mechanised and reliant on high levels of artificial input. However, as many may remember, farming was in the doldrums and Gabe will freely admit that he was all but broke, exacerbated by losing four year's of cropping in a row as a consequence of extreme weather conditions (hail, drought etc). He reached the point where he didn't even have enough money to buy the fertiliser for the crops one year, and realised that shortly he would be out of business.

As a last throw of the dice, he planted some legumes to add natural fertility in lieu of the missing artificial fertiliser. To cut a long story short Gabe, being an observant and intelligent man, realised that the legumes not only improved fertility, but also had an impact on the soil health and consequently the water cycle. Thus began his long experiment which continues to this day.

Gabe's understanding of soil and its needs is amazing. He talks in terms of the carbon:nitrogen ratio (10:1 is optimum) and of the balance between bacteria and fungi in a soil (cultivated soils are predominantly bacterial with very little fungi - there is a strong correlation between high bacterial/low fungal levels and high incidence of crop disease; such soils also encourage annual weeds to grow, to the detriment of the crop. If we increase the soil fungi levels, the crops become cleaner and healthier). He now farms organically and is achieving yields only slightly less than conventional farmers, but with massively lower costs so his bottom line, as he openly tells anyone who asks, is (like his soils) in rude health.

This is testament to a good man doing a thoroughly good job.

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