Okay, so I’m not a farmer, nor do I have any real interest in soil biology or crop diversity. Mostly I write about green technology and other innovations that improve sustainable living. A friend recommended a YouTube video to me (embedded at the bottom of this article) that suddenly had me interested in agriculture…and how the whole industry may be in fact farming our land all wrong.
I know an article and video on soil might sound boring (and the video is a bit long) but it really touches on a subject that should be important to you…your food! If you have any interest in sustainability and healthy/organic food, give the below video a chance. You might be surprised how interested you’ll be. Some of his methods can even translate over into your personal garden in you backyard.
So, is the modern American agricultural industry really farming it’s land all wrong? Farmer Gabe Brown thinks so, and he says he can actually prove it. Through his methods of pesticide and tilling free farming, his production is up…and his profits are way up. Once you hear his methods, you will realize how obvious it is, and how easy it is to replicate.
Brown’s entire philosophy circles around creating a healthy ecosystem by looking at what the soil needs to be healthy, not what the plant needs. While other farmers are busting their asses in the field and writing checks to pesticide companies, Brown sits back and lets nature do most of the work for him.
“Three simple words: Create healthy soil.” – Gabe Brown
Brown’s 5 Step Process:
1. Eliminate (or greatly decrease) mechanical soil disturbance
Disturbing the soil with tilling will wipe out the native plant, insect and microbial species that occur naturally in healthy soil. The key to Brown’s method is to allow nature to continue to do the work it has perfected over millions of years, and for the farmer to simply harness the ecosystem for crop growth. Not tilling (or tilling very little) is more most efficient and sustainable way to create healthy soil.
During the 1930’s, parts of America experienced what is now known as the Dust Bowl Era (or the dirty thirties). Farmers naively over-tilled and over farmed their land, and failed to apply dryland farming methods (to prevent wind erosion). This was very poorly timed, as an epic drought was about to turn America’s farm land into big piles of dust. We are possibly heading down that road again as we continue to stretch the land to it’s limits as climate change brings longer droughts upon us. Brown believes that a second dust bowl era can be avoided if we just listen to him and follow his proven method. Simply put…his method works.
2. Growing a Cover Crop
You can’t grow healthy plants without creating healthy soil. The first step in creating a truly rich and plentiful soil is growing a cover crop and allowing it to decompose without any tilling. Just allow the crop to stay where it is after the season, and even allow livestock to graze and trample the crop. Keeping the soil covered all the times is key to it’s health…in Brown’s words, “keep armor on the soil.” This helps keep the soil moist and smothers weeds so you don’t need toxic herbicides.
The soil temperature of covered soil is also cooler than exposed soil, so the organisms beneath the surface will be healthier as well. This is extremely important because if the soil temperature is allowed to climb too high, most of the moisture is lost through evaporation instead of being used for growth, and soil bacteria begins to die. Their are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on planet earth, so if you create unfavorable soil conditions, you effect the accessibility of nutrients to your crops as they grow.
“Cover crops should be seeded as multi-specie cocktails” -Ademir Calegari.
Cover crops are meant to be seeded in multi specie combinations. Why not in crop land? Not only do the fungi provide for the needs of one plant, but the fungal/hyphae pipeline connect to multiple plants…this helps satisfy the nutritional and energy needs of microorganisms and the plants. So in other words, if you have diversity, they plants share nutrients and moisture beneath the soil. Monocultures are a detriment to soil health, that is why in nature you never see monoculture, but rather you find vast diversity.
Growing a multi species cover crop will break down and essentially leave a layer of compost over the soil which will be rich in nutrients and microorganisms.
4. Keep Living Roots in the Ground as Long as Possible
Before you plant a cover crop, you need to be conscious of the reason you are doing it. What is the poor soil symptom that you are trying to correct? Are you trying to provide an armor to smother weeds, improve your water cycle, build organic matter, or another reason? Farming takes planning and patience, so you need to be a few steps ahead of the problems and know what your soil needs. Selecting the right cover crop mixture for your area is essential to correcting the specific issues you are having with your land.
5. Animal Impact
“Soils were formed in conjunction with herbivores. Why not today?” – Gabe Brown
Why have we removed grazing herbivores from our agricultural ecosystem, and why do we expect our soil to stay healthy without them? Adding more livestock per acre facilitates the creation of a healthy and nutrient rich layer of top soil between growth cycles. Generally the livestock will eat about a third of the available growth, and leave the rest in a trampled blanket of carbon rich biomass on the surface. This is just more armor on the soil to circulate nutrients and maintain proper moisture and temperature levels. This allows the farmer to accelerate soil formation by just harnessing the principles of nature.
If you follow Brown’s methods, it is possible that your crops (or small personal garden…minus of course the grazing livestock) will greatly improve within a few seasons. It really might be the best option we have to eliminate harmful pesticides from our food while reducing the effort to produce large yields.