Gabe Brown has a story to tell. It starts in the mid-1990s, when hail and drought wiped out his crops four years in a row. By the end of the decade, Brown was wondering how he would put a crop in the fields of his North Dakota farm when he couldn’t even borrow the money to buy fertilizer and the other inputs he needed.
“I started just observing nature,” Brown said in a telephone interview in February. “How did a native ecosystem work pre-European settlement?”
Then he set out to mimic what he saw. “Once you start learning how soil functions and start working with nature instead of against it, it becomes relatively easy,” he said.
Brown makes it sound easy, but he admits that perfecting his holistic farming approach has been a more than 20-year journey.
Brown will share his story and what he learned on that journey in a keynote speech at the 2016 Red Cedar Watershed Conference, Thursday, March 10 at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.
Considering his humble beginnings, the accomplishments Brown made on his 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck are impressive. By experimenting with no-till farming, diverse cash crops and off-season cover crops, Brown says he has increased the organic matter in his soil has from less than 2 percent to 6 percent or more.
“We’ve totally eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizer,” Brown said. “We don’t use any pesticide. We don’t use any fungicide.”
All that means a much lower cost of production. Brown said his 2012 crop of corn cost $1.44 per bushel to produce and market, compared to a statewide average of $4 or more. With corn selling in the mid-$3 range, that meant Brown was turning a tidy profit while most producers were losing money.
Brown is also a big believer in putting animals back onto the landscape. They play an important role in cycling nutrients in the soil and provide more revenue. Besides his cash crops of corn, peas, barley, sunflowers and oats, to name just a few, Brown’s farm produces another $220 per acre worth of beef, lamb, pork, honey, broilers and eggs.
On top of the financial benefits of Brown’s approach to farming, there’s a big environmental benefit. When Brown took over the farm 25 years ago, the soil could absorb about half an inch of rain an hour.
“When I started, if we would get a thunderstorm event, the water would just run off and go down the watershed,” Brown said. Now his cropland can infiltrate 15 inches of rain in an hour and hold it until his crops need it. In North Dakota’s dry climate, that conserves precious water. In a wetter climate, like Wisconsin, it means fewer nutrients polluting waterways.
Brown gives more than 100 presentations a year over the country. Tom Quinn, executive director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a member of the watershed conference’s planning committee, said the combination of Brown’s experience and his enthusiastic manner made him a great choice for a keynote speaker.
“The best way for farmers to learn about new ideas, to explore new ways of doing things, to challenge some of the existing ways of doing things, is if they can talk directly with their neighbors or with other farmers who are actually doing and practicing those things,” Quinn said. “So bringing Gabe in does all of that.”
Agriculture has been an important aspect of the Red Cedar Watershed Conference from the beginning. Phosphorous in fertilizer and manure runoff from farms plays a big part in promoting the blue-green algae growth that is not just a nuisance, but also a health problem for many who live or recreate on Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin. Quinn said that rather than assigning blame, the goal of the conference is to find ways to work together to solve the problem.
“We’ve really put a focus on bringing in farmers to be part of the discussion about how we can fix things,” Quinn said. “Rather than just pointing fingers at each other, we’re saying ‘how can we find solutions?’” Quinn adds that Brown’s talk will be of interest to more than just farmers. In past conferences, agriculture presentations have been among the most popular overall.
“I think for anybody out there who is concerned about rural communities, who is concerned about the rural environment and economy, I think he has a message that will provide some useful information,” Quinn said.
Anyone who has an interest in seeing no-till farming and cover crops in action need travel no farther than the Dunn County Demonstration Farm, on the outskirts of Menomonie along Stokke Parkway. Opened last year, the farm is a place for research and demonstration, according to Katie Wantoch, agriculture agent for the UW-Extension, Dunn County.
Run by Chippewa Valley Technical College agriculture students, the farm is experimenting with cover crops such as tillage radish, turnip, clover, and winter rye. Some cover crops are terminated in the spring to make way for cash crops. This year’s winter rye crop will be harvested and sold as a grain crop in the summer. Through research and education, the goal of the demonstration farm is to help farmers find efficient ways to transition to using no-till farming and cover crops.
“The different cover crops do provide different benefits for different reasons, whether they’re taking up different nutrients out of the soil that maybe would have been there from the previous crop, putting nutrients back into the soil that maybe the previous crop took out, retaining water,” Wantoch said. “The cover crops hopefully will help with some of the soil and water conservation efforts that we really want to start promoting and encouraging in Dunn County and the Red Cedar Watershed.”
Attendees of the conference will see a presentation about the demonstration farm. Anyone who is interested in seeing the farm in action can contact the UW-Extension office or attend a field day held in the fall.