In February 2022 issue of No-Till Farmer’s Conservation Tillage Guide, retired ag engineer Randall Reeder of Ohio State University and retired USDA soil scientist Don Reicosky shared the outcomes of a survey they conducted to identify the most significant works in no-till research and literature. The list of 30 books, articles and academic papers included 15 identified by North American scholars and 15 chosen by a global contingent. In this and other upcoming issues, we will be sharing summaries and highlights from some of these works. 

We take a look this month at a book that’s not on the list, though it is widely read in agricultural circles, the regenerative ag scripture “Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture,” by Gabe Brown.

Reeder and Reicosky’s list, as well as links to many of the individual works, are available at www.No-TillFarmer.com/TopResearchWorks.

Dirt to Soil By Gabe Brown, 2018

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine.

I learned he did in grade school, but it’s wrong. Watt actually created something to make existing steam engines more efficient.

Watt’s truly novel invention was a hand-cranked version of the copy machine. Why? Everyone was suing him all the time for everything because of his marvelous invention. He was the only person in the world of the 1770s who needed to rapidly make copies to keep up with lawsuits. Everyone else in those pre-steam engine days got sued only once or twice.

The world economy at the time needed an efficient steam engine. It had no use for a photocopier.

That tidbit — from the British historian, TV presenter and (ironically enough) plow fan James Burke — is something to keep in mind if you read “Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture.”

Gabe Brown’s account of how regenerative agriculture saved the family farm is frequently cited in regenerative ag circles. His five principles of soil health are often treated as a new foundation for agriculture. 

They are: limited soil disturbance; armor (covering soil with both crop residue and cover crops); diversity (planting multiple species in the same field); living roots (keeping living roots in the soil as long as possible); and integrating livestock.

Brown’s first principle is something no-tillers can hopefully mostly agree on. However, Brown includes chemical interventions, like fertilizer and herbicide, as a form of soil disturbance. Most long-time no-tillers would balk at that. 

The other principles have been slower to spread. Cover crops are the majority practice among no-tillers, but still an infrequent sight on American farms more generally. Most farmers have turned away from livestock entirely, citing shrinking profit margins.

Brown’s sway in regenerative agriculture nevertheless appears equal to the heft of Edward H. Faulkner’s “Plowman’s Folly.”

Unlike Faulkner’s dry, academic approach to the subject, Brown’s account aims for and hits the heart strings. It’s easy to get a sense of Brown as he white knuckles through successive years of disaster, almost freezes to death in a snowstorm or gripes good-naturedly about the follies of interns.

“I often think interns are God’s way of teaching me patience,” he jokes at one point. 

Brown’s principles have appeal in part because he’s an interesting and engaging person, with a self-deprecating charm. He’s also spent less on inputs than I have on shoes in the last year.

The more vital lesson than those principles is probably Brown’s use of the holistic method propagated by the Savory Institute. The method uses six questions to evaluate the impact of any given decision.

“They make decision-making much easier, and we are much more confident in our decisions and the chance of success in the actions taken,” Brown writes.

The other key takeaway is good old-fashioned Midwestern toughness.

“Was God trying to tell us something?” he writes, of the years 1995-1998, when hailstorms destroyed uninsured crops. “Maybe we were too young, or dumb, or scared — probably some of each — to even realize the trouble we were in, but I can honestly say that I never gave much serious thought to quitting.”

What does all of this have to do with Watt’s copy machine?

Faulkner published his book in 1943. No-till is narrowly the predominant American agricultural practice of today.

I know all this because I’ve read photocopied articles about it.

Every useful innovation needs fertile economic soil to grow.

As input prices explode and weeds adapt, it’s hard not to predict an inflection point.

But are farmers crying out to put up new fence posts and add veterinary bills to their overhead? The answer is no.

It probably helped Brown that he was already livestock breeding, justifying the use of livestock in other aspects of his operation.

However, the final answers to these questions for readers are more likely to be similarly economic, even if the conclusion is different.

Fence posts will go back in when the ability to make profits returns via meat industry restructuring or the cost of nitrogen rises and stays higher than the cost of animals.

Some, like Brown, argue the tillage years have already made a sharp change necessary.

“Everyone wants to be sustainable,” he writes. “My question is: why in the world would we want to sustain a degraded resource?”