Friday, February 03, 2023

Book Review: Dirt To Soil

 In an earlier blog post last year, were discussing Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution and the practicality of organic farming.  Friend of the blog Leigh Tate from Five Acres and A Dream suggested a number of authors to review along with Fukoka.

Another book on agriculture by a new author.  I was up to the challenge (to be fair, I am up to any challenge involving buying a new book).

Gabe Brown is a rancher and farmer in North Dakota.  He and his family manage 5,000 acres of land near Bismark, North Dakota.  In his book Dirt to Soil:  One Family's Journey into Regenerative Agriculture he (with the very able assistance of a writer from Chelsea Green, Courtney White) chronicles their almost accidental stumbling into regenerative agriculture, the evolution of their farming business as a result of this journey, and the principles of regenerative agriculture and their application.

The background is that Brown and his wife, Shelly, entered farming by purchasing land from her parents and entering the traditional farming practices of his background and his in-laws.
Then, disaster struck.  A back to back to back run of bad luck - hail damage, hail damage, a blizzard - reduced him to almost quitting but also forced him almost accidentally to begin the process of regenerative agriculture simply because he did not have any other option.  It was during this time that he continued his study into soil and range management (Allen Savory's method).  At one point he heard a rancher from Canada, Don Campbell, speak at a conference and one line from that speech comes up several times in the book (and is actually a rather life changing statement):

"If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things.  If you want to make big changes, change the way you see things".

From this point, the first half of the book then relates his journey as they continued to modify their practices away from traditional agricultural and livestock management to regenerative agriculture and livestock management that more reflects how the American plains once looked with the great Bison migrations.  It also follows their journey as they modified and expanded their business practices to extract more income from the products they produced (in a comment elsewhere, I noted that Brown states that the average American farmer only receives around $0.14 of every dollar that their final product nets).

The second half of the book discusses the five steps that Brown calls "The Five Principles of Soil Health":

1)  Limit Disturbance
2)  Armor the Soil Surface
3)  Build Diversity
4)  Keep Living Roots In the Soil
5) Integrate Animals

He discuss each of this principles in depth, including data backing up the claims made by him and others on the practical, demonstrable improvements of their soil and their operations.

I have to confess, I really like this book.

In the preface to the book, Courtney White writes that Chelsea Green Publishers had approached Brown about writing a book, but time was always an issue - thus White's involvement.  And to that extent, it is somewhat hard to judge how much of the voice we hear is Brown's and how much is White's - it sounds like how I would imagine he would speak and if so, more kudos to White for her light touch. 

The style is engaging and has the sort of easy discussion that I find in other author's I like, such as Gene Logsdon or Joel Salatin.  Brown discusses his practices openly and gives examples.  It is clear that he is excited about the discoveries he has made and wants to share them with everyone he can because he believes in them and has seen their transformative power.

If his five principles sound a bit like Fukuoka, it is because they are similar to them - but adapted in some ways to the American plains.  And, Brown thinks a great deal of Fukuoka.

It is clear from the book as well that Brown is a man of continual learning, even if he may not have the philosophical insight of a Logsdon or Wendell Berry.  He is constantly discussing reaching out to government bodies dealing with soils, university professors, other individuals in the fields, and conferences to gain more knowledge.  And he encourages the reader to do the same.

The last chapter of the book is simply entitled "Do Something", and relates the guideposts that he and his family have lived by:

- Trust God
- Keep an open mind
- Do not be afraid to fail
- Understand your context
- Do something

It is really not a bad list not just for regenerative agriculture, but for life in general.  

I highly recommend this book.  It is not only practical, it is inspirational.  Almost makes me want to take a trip to North Dakota to visit his farm.


  1. Nylon123:55 AM

    Dang, now this post is starting to cost me $$, it was bad enough when Sarge posted book titles now this........ :) If you haven't, I suggest trying Millennial Farmer on YouTube, his family has a farm in the west central part of my state. His videos really illustrate a modern farmers life and I have found them quite interesting. Yah, I know, more time drain for you.

    1. Nylon12, I am mostly a victim of circumstance here as Leigh is really the one that suggested it. I am merely held fast by the chains of information gathering - a prisoner, as it were.

      Thanks for the recommendation. I am working on finding ways that I can listen to such videos while walking or working out.

  2. I'm pretty sure this post is costing me money as well! But thanks for the review TB!

    1. Ed, it has been pointed out that I am easily swayed for book suggestions. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. My husband, having degrees that specialize in soils, has over the years created an appreciation and some interest in me on the topic. Enough, at least, that I drew a diagram of my garden last summer and plan to rotate my "crops". :) I see I can get the audio book free on Hoopla through my library. Going to check it out!

    1. Becki, I can see how that would create an "interest" in doing so.

      I would be very curious who does the reading of the book. It would be great if Mr. Brown did.

    2. TB, I just checked out the book on Hoopla and it is indeed read by Gabe Brown. Not far enough in to have an opinion, but I wanted to let you know that much.

    3. Thanks for letting me know Becki! I always love it when authors read their works.

  4. Great review, TB. I've watched a lot of Gabe Brown videos and think the book was an excellent move. One of those must-haves (print copy!) for every homestead library. That his concepts are echoed by other voices in the natural soil building arena is truly significant, I think, because it validates them. Here are the answers! The puzzlement is why more people aren't asking the right questions.

    1. Thank you Leigh.

      I always feel validated now when I go to look at author's books to review or list of works cited and find a number of books I have read or own. Not sure that indicates anything other than I am reading the right things.

      Why are people not asking the right questions? That is probably worth a deeper dive, but I suspect it has to do with either 1) We are not bad off enough yet; or 2) We have not rediscovered the ability to think for ourselves and ask the right questions. Both are coming, I suspect.

    2. I think one reason people aren't asking the right questions is because of something that has previously been discussed, i.e. they are more enamored with technology than with nature. Hence, they put great stock in the human ability to fix everything. The spiritual side of this is that Fallen Man wants to recreate everything in his own image. To acknowledge nature (God's creation) as the solution is to acknowledge God is the solution. I reckon this is why The Book ends the way it does.

    3. Leigh - I think this is due to a combination of The Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution (neither of which I am expert on), which suggested that 1) Man, not God, was the source of all answers; 2) That technology, not Nature, was the solution to problems of Nature; and 3) That all progress is good progress. None of these have been shown to be true.

      To acknowledge God is to acknowledge there is something larger than us, something that may have authority over us. This, we cannot stand as a species. We would, as C.S. Lewis says, make mud pies when God offers us the delights of Heaven.


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