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Nourished by Nature

Gabe Brown, left, with son, Paul, puts the emphasis on natural soil health in their farm and ranch operation, near Bismarck.

Gabe Brown, left, with son, Paul, puts the emphasis on natural soil health in their farm and ranch operation, near Bismarck.

By Raylene Frankhauser Nickel

Gabe Brown found a new way of farming when he began looking for opportunity in adversity.

The hard knocks came in the late 1990s. He and his wife, Shelly, were growing crops for the conventional commodity market on their farm near Bismarck. But two years in a row, their crops got hailed out. Drought took the crops the third year, and hail claimed them again the fourth year.

“Money was extremely tight,” Gabe says. “I started asking, ‘How can I farm without expensive inputs?’ Searching for the answer to that question sent me down a path of learning about how soil functions.”

Gabe began to practice what he learned about building soil health, and today the Brown Ranch is a far cry from what it was 20 years ago. By focusing first on soil, the Browns, along with their son, Paul, 29, have shaped a farming system where the matrix of soil, plants and livestock provides the needs of the farm’s ecosystem.

“We use no purchased fertilizer, no pesticides and no fungicides,” Gabe says. “On some fields, we might use a herbicide about every third year. By regenerating resources, we can be least-cost producers. This adds to our profitability.”

But saving on inputs is only part of the story. The Browns, members of Capital Electric Cooperative, add value to much of what they grow by feeding it to livestock right on the farm. They then add value to the livestock by marketing them directly to consumers looking for meat products from forage-fed and free-range animals.

“Thirty percent of our cash crops is consumed by our hogs and poultry, and 70 percent is sold as either seed or feed,” Gabe says.

Under their trademarked label, Nourished by Nature, the Browns direct market pastured hogs from 25 sows farrowing one-and-a-half times per year. They also direct market eggs from 1,000 free-range laying hens.

While the hogs and poultry eat a small amount of grain, other livestock is marketed to consumers as all-grass-finished. A flock of sheep produces grass-finished lambs, and from their herd of 300 beef cows comes some 250 head of young stock marketed directly to consumers as grass-fed beef.

The Browns take orders for their meat products on their website at

“We have drop-off sites for our products in six cities – Bismarck, Dickinson, Washburn, Minot, Jamestown and Fargo,” Gabe says. “We deliver to these sites once a month. We also sell our products to several restaurants and through the BisMan Community Food Co-op.

“We’re selling nutrition,” he adds. “We’re finding that people are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, and they’re concerned about its healthfulness. We focus on healthy soil, because food produced on healthy soil is more nutrient dense. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy people.”

The Browns’ stratagem for building healthy soil has reaped dividends. From a process unfolding over many years has come a big increase in soil organic matter, the foundation upon which healthy soil is built.

“When we bought the farm in 1991, the soil organic matter was 1.7 percent to 1.9 percent,” Gabe says. “Historically, soil scientists tell us that the soil organic matter of some Northern Plains regions like ours was as high as 7 percent in the pre-European-settlement period. So farms such as ours had lost 75 percent of their soil organic matter.

“But on our farm today, the organic matter on cropland is now 6.3 percent to 6.9 percent,” he says. “We’re getting close to restoring the soil to its historical condition.”

Hand-in-hand with high levels of organic matter and thus well-structured soil aggregates has come rapid water infiltration. Because water doesn’t’ run off, moisture is available to plants.

The robust soil consistently produces good yields grown at little economic cost. “While our county average for corn production is 100 bushels per acre, our corn typically averages 127 bushels per acre,” Gabe says. “And though many producers’ cost of production runs $3.50 to $4 a bushel, we can grow a bushel of corn for a production cost of less than $1.50 a bushel.”

The practices the Brown have used to build soil health on 2,200 acres of cropland include a no-till management system. “It’s well-documented that tillage destroys mycorrhizal fungi in the soil,” Gabe says. “These have to be present in order for soil aggregates to be built.”

Planting diverse cash crops is also part of the management system. The Browns grow corn, spring wheat, oats, barley, peas, rye, hairy vetch, winter triticale and sunflowers. Many of these crops are sold as seed.

Cover crops, too, are diverse and planted in mixes. These might include sorghum/sudangrass, cowpeas, mung beans, guar, annual ryegrass, phacelia, safflower, collards, millet, kale, clover, daikon radish, buckwheat, oats, lentils and peas.

Some cover crops are grown season long, planted in June. These, along with short-season cover crops, provide grazing for the grass-finishing of livestock. Hogs, too, graze the cover crops.

Three thousand acres of grassland provide rotational grazing for the Browns’ beef cows and 400 to 800 head of stocker cattle, some purchased from select producers whose management is similar to that of the Browns.

Providing the lion’s share of the labor for the diverse enterprises are Gabe, Shelly and Paul Brown, along with Paul’s girlfriend, Shalini Karra.

“We’ve found a lot of opportunity by being observant,” says Gabe, who frequently addresses farm audiences across North America. “Agriculture is all about symptoms caused by the problem of poor soil health. We’ve tried to figure out how to address that problem. While trying to solve this, we’ve found an enjoyable and profitable way of farming.”

Raylene Frankhauser Nickel writes and raises cattle on her farm near Kief.