TOWANDA, PA — When North Dakota’s soil health evangelist Gabe Brown speaks: Farmers listen. They also fill fire halls and fields to visit with him about the finer points of regenerating soil, improving profit and actually having fun on the farm again.
The candid rancher spoke in front of over 150 farmers from three states at the Wysox Volunteer Fire Company as part of a 3-day soil health roadshow in Pennsylvania with Dr. Bernard Sweeney, Director of the Stroud Water Research Center and Norm Conrad from the Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).
Gabe was no wallflower in describing former farming practices on his family’s 5,000 acre ranch. “I was under the illusion that the more we worked the soil, the better it would be. I would also wake up in the morning and decide what (bug, weed) I was going to kill. I thought, there must be a better way. The greatest roadblock in solving a problem is the human mind,” he proclaimed.
He looked closer at Mother Nature’s model of diversity for answers with the help of Burleigh County’s Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist, Jay Fuhrer, “Soil” Ray Archuleta and Soil Microbiologist, Kristine Nichols. “When I started, my soil organic matter was only 1.7 percent on my monoculture acres and my water infiltration rate was only 1/2 inch per hour. I was writing on the front of too many checks and not on the back, that’s not very sustainable. I had come to the realization that I had a degraded resource and needed to change and regenerate our landscape,” he said.
To achieve his soil goal of “black cottage cheese”, he chronicled his five keys to improving soil health: Minimize soil disturbance because “carbon drives profit”, armor the soil surface with plants or litter, diversify planting and add grazing species, plant cocktail cover crops to maintain living roots for as long as possible and use animal impact and manures to invigorate the microbes.
By using these methods, the soil rock-star has improved his organic matter to 6 percent, is holding 8 inches of precipitation per hour and making significantly more money with his son, Paul and wife, Shelly. “By building a healthy, resilient soil honoring the mycorrhizae fungi, earthworms and countless microbes, I don’t worry about crop failure anymore. That’s true insurance,” Brown emphasized.
Bradford County’s, Dean Jackson from Mt. Glen Dairy Farm brought a local perspective of soil health practices by lauding his no-till neighbors and the “Park the Plow Program” for improving his bottom line. He discussed his extensive use of bedding, feed grade lime and liquid manure for stimulating soil function on his wet clay acres.
“I agree with Gabe, 100 percent, you don’t change unless you see it work on your own land. The challenge in our climate is getting covers in at the proper time. It’s why we’ve gone to a shorter variety corn and plant rye right behind the corn chopping operation. You’ve got to be committed to the system, a day or two can make a huge difference to your success. We’ve had a ball watching our soil grow.”
Dr. Sweeney complemented the soil health sentiment by inspiring farmers to appreciate their streams and water quality for downstream neighbors. “Small streams are big business,” he said. Much like Gabe praised the soil microbes, Bern made a compelling case for protecting stream corridors with buffers and feeding his aquatic bugs. “Streams can be free filters with the right habitat which include trees and a diversity of cover. With leaves falling into the water and making a watershed tea, these microscopic organisms can process stuff for free like earthworms improve soil.”
He showed how the width and speed of a stream can help build beneficial biological ecosystems. “We need to create a little space between the danger of what we are doing; and what we are trying to protect.” He described his peer reviewed research on how forested buffer widths helped with water quality in addition to installing conservation practices on the land.
His findings suggested a buffer width of a hundred feet or more trapped sediment and nutrients adequately but he is frustrated by landowners frequently asking: What can we really get away with? “We need a change of mindset that includes a holistic approach to land and water management and get away from “The Tragedy of the Commons” idea where everyone owns the water but no one takes responsibility.”
Organic dairy farmer, Arlene Allen of Granville Summit, PA came inspired to learn after a long, hard winter. “We wanted to learn more about no-till cocktail mixes and planting sorghum to fill in our summer grazing gaps. And learning ways to increase organic matter levels from other farmers is always good.” Rod Porter from Kings Agri-Seeds in Ronks, PA commented, “The interest in cover crops and soil health being promoted by Gabe Brown and others have increased the demand for seed by 10 to 15 percent.”
The meetings were supported by the Pennsylvania Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Bradford County Conservation District and staff. For more information on this and other upcoming conservation initiatives: Contact Emily Dekar or Kevin Brown at the Bradford County Conservation District, 570-265-5539.