Tractor Time Episode 23: The 2018 Eco-Ag Preview Special

Hosted by Ryan Slabaugh

Good day and welcome to Tractor Time podcast brought to you by Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco-Agriculture. We are happy to be bringing you another episode, our 11th this year and 23rd overall, and I think we’re going to get in at least one more before the end of the year, so stay tuned.

It’s about that time. Starting Dec. 4, Acres U.S.A. is hitting the road — or getting on a plane, actually — and heading to Louisville, Kentucky, for our 43rd annual Eco-Ag Conference & Trade show. In the office, we’re at that hybrid stage of nervousness, confidence, anxiety and adrenaline, and our days are filled with all the little odd jobs – cutting badges, ordering bags, shipping off our bookstore – and we know a lot of our listeners who will be attending are doing the same. Getting ready for the week away.

So we thought it’d be appropriate to preview a few of our upcoming speakers on the show today, and include some of our sponsors. We don’t do a lot of advertising or sponsored stuff on this. Plus, these aren’t your normal sponsorship messages. These are folks just like you – passionate about eco-agriculture and making a difference. And paying the bills, of course.

To start, here’s a quick thank you list to the companies and organizations that make our conference, and Acres U.S.A., possible. We don’t thank them enough for their support, so here is a big, giant, thank you to our advertisers, sponsors who make this all possible. Including, those who sponsor this podcast, some of whom we interviewed especially for this episode on all things eco-agriculture:

  • The Savory Institute and their co-founder and CEO Daniela Ibarra-Howell. You can hear an entire interview with Daniela on episode 21. She’s fascinating and her story is inspiring of how we can all see a problem – overgrazing and unsustainable agriculture – and develop a solution that can be applied anywhere in the world.
  • Midwest BioSystems and Edwin Blosser & Company. Edwin is a master at explaining how to use compost on large-scale farms, and we’ll hear from him on that on this episode. He’ll be speaking next week as well, and is just an efficient, patient teacher.
  • Eden Blue Gold. They are passionate about what they do, and the time and effort they’ve put into researching their products. You’ll hear about their process for creating organic inputs for large-scale production.

We also want to thank the following folks:

  • Brandt. They have a whole line of sturdy, well-built farm equipment, and we are kind of in love with their slogan: Powerful Value, Delivered. Yep. That about says it all. They stand by their work. Search for Brandt agriculture tools and you’ll see what we’re talking about.
  • Verde Agritech. Verde’s products are derived from an ancient 570 million-years-old rock named “glauconitic siltstone”, rich in a mineral called glauconite. The production process is 100% natural.
  • Terreplenish is another great supporter of Acres U.S.A. If you are farming corn, or anything that you need help in retaining your nitrogen in your fields, then I’d encourage you to look up Terreplenish. This is what they do. They have a number of biological, sustainable solutions.

But we are going to lead off our show with a bit from Wil Spencer at Environotics, who will talk about a subject we don’t discuss often on this show – soil life and biodynamics. We talked in late October on the phone about what the licensed holistic naturopath has learned on the subject

Next up, we interviewed James Arpin in late October of 2019 about Eden Blue Gold. The interview may not be what you expect. James wanted to teach us about what he sees as the true differences between plants, animals and humans, and what our similarities, and differences, can teach us about how to interact. How we can heal each other.

Our third guest today is Edwin Blosser. His company, Midwest BioSystems, lives the word. When we talked about a year ago, he was looking out his office window at harvesters picking black beans that were going off to Chipotle. We talked about large-scale biological inputs, and what he’s learned from a lifetime of farming. If you’re attending our show, Edwin is a must-see, and find him at his booth, too. I started the conversation by asking him to tell us how he got into farming.

I couldn’t let this completely be finished though without a soundbite from one of our keynote speakers next week – Daniela with the Savory Institute and legendary grower and author Eliot Coleman are two of them, and our third is Joel Salatin with Polyface Farms. I asked him what he liked better, speaking or farming, and I included his answer. He’ll be leading our conference with a resounding presentation on Thursday night.

Now, that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into another episode of Tractor Time podcast, brought to you by Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco-Agriculture. Find us at, at, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Better yet, come find us in Louisville next week and say hello.

Thanks for listening, and have a great week.

Tractor Time Episode 22: On Assignment, the Tropical Agriculture Conference in Belize

Hosted by Ryan Slabaugh

This episode is a bit unique from the others, which are usually done in the comfort of my office back in Greeley, Colorado. For most recordings, it’s me, a microphone, an interview guest and my dog snoring in the corner. If you need the full picture, I even prop a sign up in my windowed door that says, “On Air.” But that’s really just for me – it makes me feel official.

But so does this scene where I am today. Today, we are broadcasting from Belize, specifically, Belmopan, Belize, at the inaugural Tropical Agriculture Conference. We first met one of the organizers, Beth Roberson, a Belizean farmer, in Columbus, Ohio, last year during our annual conference. Beth left inspired to start her own educational conference down here, picked our brains a bit, and recruited some of our speakers and former Tractor Time guests like regenerative poultry specialist Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin and Regeneration International’s André Leu, among others.

Christopher Nesbitt at the Tropical Agriculture Conference
Christopher Nesbitt

Let me set the stage a bit. Belize is a small country of about 350,000 people, just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala. It’s known for having the second largest reef in the world off its coast and for being an English colony until the early 1980s. The country, very proud of its freedom, is still finding its feet. The Guatemalan president threatens them with invasion, and England still has a small standing army there as a reminder to their neighbors.

Belmopan is a small town of a few thousand and wears a few scars. The main roads are paved, but most are not, though a fountain roundabout greets visitors on the Western Highway. A bar-restaurant called “Cheers” greets guests as they arrive into town before a roundabout — I met the owner, and she told me she also runs a “small” farm behind it that includes horses, sheep, cattle, goats and chickens, and yes, she composts from the restaurant. On the other side of the highway, the entrance to a national park. Inside the town, a large agriculture grounds with stages, test gardens and plenty of native trees. This is where the conference was held this week.

The event started with the national anthem, sung by an 8-year-old local schoolgirl. It’s clear from the anthem what the country does not want — tyrants and colonizers. And it’s clear that they want to be a free country, although they are still grappling with which economy will drive its future: The tourism economy, which favors hotels and airports and large ports, or a more local economy, where manufacturing, agriculture and other jobs will fill the gap.

Agriculture, though, will have some part. It has to. Or at least, it would be prudent, with its varieties of produce, including pineapples, mangoes, bananas, jackfruits, etc. From any of Belize’s cities, it doesn’t take long to be in the country, where anyone would be taken in by the variety of flora, fauna and wildlife, which range from toucans and jaguars to crocodiles. Our first hour in the country, as we pulled into our hotel, the sounds of howler monkeys greeted us. (You’ll have to listen to the podcast for the full effect.)

The next day, the conference began. We heard a resounding call to action from Ronnie Cummins, on the board with Regeneration International, which was followed by two days of educational speeches on five different stages, ranging from permaculture to seed saving to agritourism. All were rooted in how Belize can transform its agriculture into one of the world’s best. And no matter what, you have to give something to a country that starts its weekends on Thursday nights.

On the podcast

Here’s what clips you can find on the podcast. Also, you’ll hear some thumping in the background, and truck noise. I apologize for that recording issue – (I wasn’t counting on so much foot stomping on stage when I set up the microphone, nor could I do much about the nearby highway traffic.)

Ronnie Cummins, Board Member of Regeneration International

Here’s that talk from Ronnie that opened up the conference. It’s about 16 minutes, and full of fire and fury.

Taylor Walker, Biodiverse Systems Designer

Next, a highlight I recorded from Taylor Walker. A jack-of-all trades who designs gardens and permaculture environments, including Naples Botanical Gardens, Inland Ecology Research Group, Sanibel Sea School and others. In Belize, he is managing Tropical Agro-Forestry farms. I’ll play a few minutes of his talk, as he walks about 50-60 people in his class through specific plants that grow well in Belize, like breadfruit.

Christopher Nesbitt, Regenerative Agriculturist

Christopher Nesbitt, a regenerative agriculturist, has spent 30 years restoring a piece of damaged land in the Maya foothills. His land is now filled with more than 500 species of plants, all of which are harvestable. His talk was about his work. Here’s just a piece about that biodiversity.

Santiago Juan, Agritourism in Belize

Santiago Juan, born and raised in Cayo District Belize, owns and operates a resort farm in the country. He spoke about agritourism and how Belize can use its organic lands, pristine wilderness and local food production to create a unique, authentic experience. One sidenote: his talk was not without some controversy, as some Belizean farmers weren’t too sure they wanted hordes of camera-toting Westerners posing with their pigs. But alas, the discussion assuaged some fears, and again showed what is to be gained, or lost, in such a wonderful country, one that is still building itself into an autonomous, self-sustained citizen of the world. (And sorry for the popping on this audio. It was lunch time, and the nearby passing trucks’ jake brakes kept blowing out the microphone.)

That’s it — and a few rambles from me. Thanks for reading and listening.

Read the highlights from the conference Day 1 here, and Day 2 here.

Find the Tractor Time podcast in the iTunes store,  at, or right here. It’s also available in a bunch of other places too. Thanks for helping grow our food — have a great week.

Tropical Agriculture Conference Topics Range from Greenhouse Management to Soil Humus, on Day 2

By Ryan Slabaugh

BELMOPAN, Belize — Perhaps it was better when the power went out. The lack of microphones forced Ronnie Cummins with Regeneration International to start Wednesday’s Tropical Agricultural Conference shouting over the passing trucks.

The extra volume didn’t hurt the critical nature of his message.

“Thank you for what you do every day, and I’m going to thank you in advance for what you’re going to do in advance every day,” Cummins said. “The next 10 years, what you do, what I do, what we all do around the world, we either move in a regenerative direction, or it’s going to get very, very difficult for our children.”

When Cummins finished, the power had returned, and the sessions started around the national agriculture facility, with more than 300 attendees from mostly around the region — Belize, Guatemala, Columbia, Mexico — rotating between five active stages. A local market fed attendees with fried donuts, jerk chicken and local juices. The scene was appropriate for the theme of the conference — how to channel the vast amount of pristine natural resources into food, into a regenerative agriculture economy, and how that economy could set the world standard for using agriculture to reverse climate change.

Christopher Nesbitt took the yellow stage, a 100-yard walk from the entrance. Nesbitt, a farmer who emigrated from the United States to South America in the 1980s, taught his methods for permaculture farming and energy management. He’s tall, with a big beard, and refused to use the microphone, even though the power was working. He preferred to project his voice over the passing trucks.

Farmer Christopher Nesbitt speaks at the Tropical Agriculture Conference
Christopher Nesbitt teaches his class on permaculture growing techniques on Wednesday morning. He grows hundreds of species, including vanilla and cacao on his farm. “On my farm, if a market goes bad, I’ve got 499 other things to sell.”

“I can be louder than you,” he taunted them.

“I’m only 57-years-old, and I started doing this when I was 22,” Nesbitt told the crowd. “It is a question of time, but you can do it much faster than I did. There was no internet, no Google, no YouTube videos … you couldn’t order books about this. But I made tons of mistakes. I did this during a period of my life when I had zero money. I was destitute and penniless and off in the jungle waiting for Western Civilization to collapse.”

In the 30 years since, despite the remaining existence of Western Civilization, Nesbitt has developed a system of growing more than 500 species on his farm, dabbled in pigs (but doesn’t eat pork), and runs a permaculture school now on his farm. He teaches a three-stage method for regeneration that helped him build his farm today. His advice:

  • Start with a dominant, pioneer species. “What we’re doing is mimicking nature after a disaster. We’re using bananas. They don’t change the chemistry of the soil, but they do change the structure.”
  • After the dominant plants take hold, then plant high-yielding species. He suggested a variety of nut trees, annuals and perennials.
  • Finally, plant high-value crops. He focuses today mostly on cacao and vanilla, while also growing more turmeric now that its value is rising quickly around the world.

And what does all that look like? A bit of a mess to untrained eyes. He said the best, and most common, compliment he gets is when visitors arrive on his farm and tell him that it doesn’t look like one.

“It’s backhanded, but I like it when they tell me that,” Nesbitt said. “If you only have one crop, if you have 50 acres of citrus, if the market goes bad, I sure hope you like drinking orange juice. And if you’re in debt, you’re in real trouble.”

Taylor Walker speaks at the Tropical Agriculture Conference
Taylor Walker leads a class on edible gardening and trees. “Jack fruit is a breathtaking tree to see. I’ve heard of trees in India reaching 180 feet.”

The ultimate rules, he said, are succession and entropy. Succession tells us that when things die, others take over. Entropy tells us that when things die, they start to break down. The two systems working together build organic matter and soil life, and using those rules to build your system will eventually lead to a time when you can spend much less energy on the farm managing and more time harvesting.

Nesbitt showed a funny line graph that he admitted was “not scientific,” but got the point across. It showed how his “energy spent” line declined over time, while “energy harvested from the land” shot a line through the top of his chart.

He quickly brought it back to the theme of the conference.

“Why would we want to do this?” Nesbitt asked. “Right now everyone is talking about climate change. We’re seeing weather patterns that don’t behave like they are supposed to. Right now it’s drier than it should be. We want to sequester carbon, and build and retain tropical soil.”

He also noted one significant fact specific to Belize.

“We can do this,” he advocated. “After all, the motto of the country is ‘Under the Trees we Flourish.’”

The Tropical Agriculture Conference concludes on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

Read about Day 1 here.

Read highlights from Day 3 here, including an on-site Tractor Time podcast episode.

Ryan Slabaugh is the GM and publisher of Acres U.S.A. He’s on assignment this week in Belmopan, Belize.

Gabe Brown on Ecosystem Stewardship

Interview by Tracy Frisch
From the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology, but that’s only one of his many contributions.

To his life work, Brown brings an inquisitive mind and an infectious love of the journey. He revels in trying new things and is not reluctant to fail at some of them, as experiments always yield food for thought and generate ideas for future exploration. As a pioneer, Brown has forged close relationships with fellow seekers and fostered a stimulating community for trailblazers. Generous with his knowledge, he’s a consummate educator who strives to open minds and is known for making a deep and sustained impression on his audiences.

As science begins to catch up with what Brown has been demonstrating on the ground, his sphere of influence has steadily expanded to include more mainstream researchers, policymakers, and even leaders in the conventional food industry.

Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck. By area standards, Brown’s Ranch is not that big. But what is astonishing is how much more this dryland farm is able to produce than comparable operations — both for market and deep within the soil.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown stands among his crops
North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck.

For an 11-day trip I took to the Great Plains in June, I made a point to arrange a visit to Brown’s Ranch months in advance. I was able to sit down with Brown for a wide-ranging conversation and get a firsthand look at a small portion of his extensive operation. Seeing a couple of shovels’ full of his beautifully aggregated soil would have been sufficient to make the trip worthwhile.

Brown recently completed his first book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, and was a speaker at the 2018 Eco-Ag Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

You’ve made quite a big contribution to the regenerative agriculture. To sum up, what’s the essence of your philosophy?

I firmly believe that how we steward the whole ecosystem — the land and the crops and the animals — plays a bigger role than which crops you grow and the prices you get. We are currently quantifying the outcomes of our regenerative stewardship in collaboration with a company called Landstream. Dr. John Norman, the lead scientist on this project, told me he’s never seen soils as well aggregated as ours, down to 4 feet over most of the farm! Well-aggregated soil is a great way to measure the water cycle and the carbon cycle. Soil aggregates are the home for biology. Think of the soil aggregates as marbles in a jar. Now add water to the jar. Soil needs to have those pore spaces to hold water. Soil organisms live in and on those thin films of water between the marbles (aggregates). They’re subaquatic organisms; they need that water to live. We’re not sequestering carbon. Too many people think that we have to store carbon in the soil. We need to start thinking about it as a cycle. The issue is that there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the soil. The biology in the soil needs the carbon, but it’s part of a cycle. We can heal the carbon cycle and the water cycle with diversity, cover crops and grazing animals.

Say more about the project with Landstream documenting the progress you’ve made with soil health.

We’re working with Landstream founders Abe Collins and Dr. John Norman, who invented a lot of the satellite equipment that NASA uses. In my opinion, both of these men are geniuses. They were out here in May, and we pulled around 180 soil samples. They’re starting to quantify what the soils look like and how much carbon is being pumped into the soil. It’s pretty dramatic.

cover crops
Gabe Brown is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology.

I have neighbors that have an A horizon, which is topsoil, that’s approximately 4 to 6 inches deep. They have samples of my soils that are 28 to 29 inches deep. We’ve been able to grow topsoil. The next step is to determine if can we equate soil health and more carbon in the soil to nutrient-dense food. We need to quantify this so we can prove that healthy soil can produce food of higher nutrient density. We’re really in the infancy, but this research will pay dividends down the road.

The speed that water soaks into soil is a telling indicator of soil health. How quickly does water infiltrate on your ranch?

In 1993 water infiltration on our land was a half an inch in an hour. Two years ago, we had a team of scientists record that the first inch took 9 seconds to infiltrate, and the second inch took 16 seconds. I used to have standing water with a half-inch rain.

You’ve been having some weather extremes in North Dakota. Has that affected you, and how has it affected other ranchers?

It rained a mere 5.6 inches on our ranch in 2017. Three of those inches fell in August. Then we had an extremely cold winter, without much snow, which usually accounts for a large part of our moisture. Last year most producers were selling off cattle and feeding a lot of hay, but we were able to run as many livestock and graze as long as we did in previous years. It was the second year in a row where less than 50 percent of the normal precipitation fell, yet it didn’t negatively affect us to any great extent.

You’re called upon to teach and advise many farmers. What are some of your messages to them about soil health?

I talk about focusing on the five principles of healthy soil ecosystem: First, do the least amount of chemical or mechanical disturbance possible; second, maintain the soil armor – the residue on the soil; third, enhance diversity of plants and animals, including insects; fourth, grow living roots in ground as long as possible throughout the year; and fifth, integrate animals into the system. Because I travel so much and get on hundreds of farms and ranches all over North America, I’ve seen what a grip industrial agriculture has on people. Right now most producers are in the conventional mind-set where all they’re doing is treating symptoms. We’re not solving a problem. Producers believe they can buy something in a jug that will take care of anything. It’s like one of these hamster wheels; they just run in circles.

How do they get off of this treadmill?

The key is you have to start. Moving along the regenerative path is like climbing a staircase. You start going, and you try one thing and then another and another. That’s the way it is for my family and I — the more we learn, the more we try. Every year we try to fail at something because if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. That makes farming more enjoyable. When my partners and I put on our Soil Health Academy schools, we try to teach people the power of observation. Yesterday I took a couple of interns out to show them what to look for on the cattle. Are they full? Are they content? How far are they eating down on the plant? You can’t be taught those things any way but through observation. I had a group from Tennessee here on Wednesday. I told them I farmed here for 9 years alongside my father-in-law, and he never once put a spade in the ground and looked at the soil. During the growing season there’s not a day that goes by that Gabe doesn’t look at his soil. What’s it trying to tell me? What does it need? You can learn these things through observation. We’ve totally lost that in production agriculture today. Is there a pest problem? If there’s a pest problem, where are the predator insects? Are we not providing a home for them?

What sorts of things do farmers want advice about?

I receive 100 to 400 phone calls and emails daily. Most of them say “I want to plant a cover crop. What should I plant?” I use Dwayne Beck’s adage. I say I didn’t pick your spouse; I’m not going to pick your cover crops. I talk about resource concerns. I ask them what they need on their land and what the ecosystem is trying to tell them. Then you design your cover crop mixes accordingly.

You often get asked about what makes your ranch so unique. How do you answer?

A group working with the Smithsonian Museum will be out here sometime in September. They want to do a display on regeneration. I think it’s great. We were talking about what makes this place different from others, and I said I just grow things and stand out of the way of nature. I let nature dictate a lot. That’s really not happening today. They asked me “What’s the number one thing impeding producers from grasping regenerative agriculture?” I said hands down, it’s the farm bill. The current farm bill is totally antagonistic to regenerative agriculture. It promotes monocultures and a commodity mindset with accompanying low prices.

Besides the farm bill, what else prevents farmers from paying more attention to their soil?

We have to realize that for those producing and marketing their crops and livestock as a commodity, there is not much profit to be had. Because of this, they look at practices such as cover crops, as an expense with little return. They need to be looking at cover crops as a way to cycle carbon and nutrients for future crops. That would allow them to significantly reduce their inputs while making their operations more resilient to wide swings in moisture and temperature. One of the things that helps us is we set our own prices. We’re not price-takers. We know what it costs to produce a pound of beef or a pound of honey so we just make sure to set the price above that.

You’ve been doing work to educate and advise big food companies about regenerative agriculture. How did that come about?

General Mills, Annie’s Organic, Dr. Bronner’s and Cascadian Farm have all been to our ranch. They realize that there’s a movement in this country for people to learn more about the food they’re consuming. If they can help their producers produce food that is more nutrient-dense, they can market that fact. That’s a good thing. Last winter I worked on that with Shauna Sadowski with Annie’s, which is a subsidiary of General Mills. I reviewed their plan to help move producers into regenerative agriculture. They are encouraging less tillage, more cover crops, more pollinator strips and many other stewardship practices that will lead to healthier soils and healthier ecosystems. I applaud them for their efforts. Jerry Lynch, who is head of sustainability for General Mills, came out here because he wanted to learn about regenerative agriculture. I showed him my soils and the soils of my neighbor who are long-time no-tillers. I tell people no-till is not the answer. It’s just a piece of the puzzle, like livestock, equipment, cover crops are all just tools to be used to enhance ecosystem function.

Say more about growing nutrient-dense foods and about some of the things that hamper their production.

I explained to the people from Tennessee that one of the reasons I plant so much rye is its tremendous root mass. Rye [grain] as a crop has also been influenced less by the plant geneticists. They’re breeding for the market — for weight, not for nutrient density. I’ve been propagating the rye and the vetch you see here for 20 years so I practically have my own varieties. I know it’s acclimated to my environment and that it will grow a tremendous root mass. Many of the varieties we’re seeding we’ve propagated over the years. In our gardens we try to use old heirloom varieties. I really believe that those older varieties have a better root system and a better ability to seek out those nutrients. Almost all of the fruit trees you saw planted in the tree tubes are heirloom varieties. We sourced a lot of them from St. Lawrence Nurseries in New York. I think producers need to realize that the current production model is based on yield and not on what varieties can grow best in one’s soil. Wendy Taheri worked as a mycorrhizal fungi specialist at the Agricultural Research Service in Brookings, South Dakota. She has now started her own lab in Georgia. Her business is called Terra Nimbus. At ARS, she found that many of the new varieties of grain no longer have the ability to form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. Think about the compounding, cascading effects of that. If mycorrhizal fungi don’t propagate, you’re not going to have enough glomalin and you’re going to lose soil aggregates. With fewer soil aggregates, you’re going to decrease infiltration and the water-holding capacity of your soils. You’re not going to have the pore space, which is the home for biology. And you’re not going to transfer as many nutrients throughout the soil, which will lower the nutrient density of the plants that you are producing. I’m sure that plant breeders never intended for that to happen. But they start out in a sterile environment in a lab and then they propagate their plants in a high synthetic input situation on their experiment farms. In that environment plants don’t have the need to form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. It’s just mind-blowing, and it has ramifications all the way down to human health.

 Let’s turn from soil health considerations to production on Brown’s Ranch. You’ve been able to dramatically boost your stocking rate. How many animals do you produce on the ranch these days?

When they had this place, my in-laws ran 65 cow-calf pairs and about 20 yearlings. Today we’re running 300 cow-calf pairs, 400 to 800 yearlings and grass finishers, depending on the year. I’m running at about 2 and a quarter times as many beef animals as the average producer in this area but that’s only beef. We also have 150 ewes plus all their lambs. We run about 20 sows and finish around 300 pastured hogs. We have 1,400 laying hens, several hundred broilers and a bee enterprise, plus we do all the grains, cover crops and other forages. We’re on the same land base more or less as my in-laws had. By focusing on regenerating our resources, we have been able to significantly increase both production and profitability.

Trees are an important element on your farm that might not get enough attention.

My wife and I have planted over 20,000 trees since we bought the farm in 1991. We planted mostly pines and ash trees. I wish now that I had had the foresight to plant fruit and nut trees. They would be providing wind protection while providing us with a saleable product. On the northern plains you can go for miles without seeing trees. When we had 100 inches of snow by Christmas in 2016, big drifts formed by the trees.

Over the course of the year how do you manage your cattle?

We move the cattle every day during the growing season. Typically, they graze a paddock only once a year. Our rest period is 12 to 15 months because it takes that long for plants to recover in our limited moisture environment. In winter our cattle graze stockpiled forage or cover crops. We do bale grazing when the snow is too deep for them to graze. When bale grazing, we move the cattle to a new allotment of bales approximately once a week. They get most of their water from snow, although we do allow them access to heated waterers if they want to walk back to a farmstead.

cows in pasture
Today Brown’s Ranch has 300 cow-calf pairs, 400 to 800 yearlings and grass finishers, depending on the year. “I’m running at about two and a quarter times as many beef animals as the average producer in this area,” says Gabe Brown.

I’ve read that manure breaks down very quickly in your pastures.

2009 was the last year we used any insecticides on our cattle. It took two years for the first dung beetles to show up. My son has now documented 17 species of dung beetles on our land, not to mention many other beneficial insects.

Are the pigs compatible with grazing ruminants and growing crops? Don’t they tear up the land?

Well, they do. Pigs will be pigs. Right now we have them in the trees, so they’re cleaning up that shelterbelt. We do run them on our perennial pastures. If they rut that up, it doesn’t bother me because it will heal very quickly. I tried grazing them on a cover crop but even though we were moving them twice a week, they still rutted it up more than I liked. It makes it rough when we come in to seed the next crop.

Is there anything unusual about the way you manage the hens?

Our laying hens are truly free-range. They can walk to Bismarck if they want to. They are acclimated to our “eggmobiles” so they stay close to them. They get a large part of their diet from foraging for insects and greens. This adds to the nutrient density of their eggs. During the coldest part of winter they make their home in a large hoop house. Being a hen on Brown’s ranch is a good life!

Having so many parcels of land, you must have a lot of infrastructure to get water to all the livestock out on pasture.

We have more than 100 permanent pastures with shallow water pipelines going to all of them. These pipelines deliver water to rubber tire tanks, which are set underneath a fence in order to water two paddocks. Because these pipelines are buried only 6 to 12 inches deep, they are only used during the growing season. We rely on snow to supply water for the cattle during the winter.

What kind of synergy have you created between your cash crops and non-ruminant livestock?

Some of the crops that we grow go to feed the hogs. These include; corn, peas, oats, barley, flax and lentils. I sell a lot of my crops for seed, like rye-vetch. We sell the seed as a blend. To sell seed, you clean out the weed seed and broken kernels. Those screenings go to feed the laying hens, along with a little bit of whole grain. We’ve started growing what I call polyculture cash crops. We grow and combine five species together — peas, lentils, flax, barley and oats. We sell some as seed and we have people who buy feed from us because they want non-GMO grain. We grind it up, and it makes a good ration we can use for hogs or poultry.

Is the stacked model something you recommend other farmers employ?

We enjoy the stacked model and all that entails, but too many people think that in order for them to be successful they have to do all these things. I tell them no, you shouldn’t do that at all. Every operation, and every family, is unique. Your wants and goals and desires and what you enjoy are unique. Everyone has to find what they want to do and go from there.

 As a very committed gardener myself, I’ve been wondering how you raise your vegetables and why you grow them, given all the other things you’re doing.

I had a bet with a few friends about who could do the craziest thing so I mixed 70 species together and planted them one year. We called it the chaos garden. It was fun once but was not practical to harvest so we are not doing that anymore. Instead, we have a 150 x 150-foot vegetable garden. We grow the garden to produce our own food; it simply tastes better and is more nutrient-dense than what we can purchase elsewhere. We feed four families and our interns. Last year we sold the excess and grossed $20,000. We sell the vegetables at the market when we’re marketing our meat products and honey. Hopefully we’ll soon do that with our fruit also. It takes a little time to grow fruit trees in North Dakota! We’re just getting our garden started now [in mid-June] because spring was so late this year. In our environment by the time the vegetables are done, there’s no time to plant a cover crop because we’re froze up already. We could put cover crops in during the growing season but it would take away some of the space in the garden. So in place of that, once the vegetables are harvested in the fall, we roll out second cutting alfalfa hay. Over the winter it breaks down and the worms cycle it through. In the spring we part the remaining hay and plant into it. As the hay is cycled by earthworms we put a layer of wood chips on to cover the soil and prevent weeds from germinating. By doing this, we are balancing the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. We make our own wood chips from dead trees on our farm.

What goes into the compost you make for the vegetable garden?

We get manure from a neighbor who does not have enough acres to spread all his livestock manure on. The first year we add cardboard boxes, newspaper, magazines and food scraps from our farm. We turn the pile several times that year. The second year we do a static pile, meaning we do not turn it. That’s when we bring a few buckets of soil from our native prairie. We place this soil in the pile. This “inoculates” the pile with fungi and other microbiology. It proliferates and spreads throughout the compost pile.

Has anything in particular stopped you from becoming certified organic?

I get criticized because I’m not certified organic. If someone wants to be certified organic — if it adds value to their operation — by all means do it. But to our knowledge, we have never lost a sale because we were not certified organic. We have an open door policy here so people can come at any time and look at anything. That builds trust with the consumer. All of our animals, with the exception of the chickens, are born on the ranch, and we grow all the feed here. Having a closed loop system also gives more confidence to consumers. If they trust you, they’re going to buy, obviously with certain price constraints.

earthworms in soil clumps held in hands
The last time I tilled was 1993. I’ll never say never, but I don’t see myself tilling again. It is just too destructive.

What do you do in place of tillage for weed control?

If I have a certain weed pressure problem, I’m either going to use livestock, which is the number one thing that we do, to consume that ‘weed,’ or use a herbicide. I’m not going to take that herbicide out of my toolbox. The last time I tilled was 1993. I’ll never say never, but I don’t see myself tilling again. It is just too destructive. I was the first no-tiller in the county. No-till was adopted quickly. Seventy percent of cropland in the county is now no-till. People can condemn me for occasionally using an herbicide, but I can condemn them for tilling. Which is the lesser of two evils? That is for each person to decide.

I don’t see how condemnation helps anything.

Exactly. We try, if we use an herbicide, to choose those that have the shortest half-life and that can readily be consumed by biology. We don’t use glyphosate because it’s patented as an antibiotic and a chelator. Being an antibiotic it is very detrimental to soil biology. Also, from what I’ve learned, I believe that it’s negatively affecting human health. I don’t use atrazine as it, too, has many long-lasting negative ramifications. On our pastureland we have never used any herbicide. I have many crop fields that have not seen an herbicide for five years, so they could be certified organic if I wanted to, but why?

What do you find consumers care the most about?

When we go to farmers’ markets, you get one-on-one interactions. The first question people ask when they come up to our concession trailer is always where are you from. That’s because they want to know where their food comes from. The question we get the second most often is do you grow or feed any GMOs. Maybe 75 or 80 percent of the people ask us this question. When I speak to ‘industrial’ mind-set producers, I tell them you can argue all you want about whether GMOs are good or bad, but if my customers are telling me that don’t want it, why would I ever plant it? We haven’t grown GMOs in many years. It’s too easy for producers to turn a blind eye. They say, ‘our product’s sold at the elevator. What happens is not up to me.’ We’re being way too naïve if we think that what we do on our operations does not affect human health. True, not everything being produced is fed to humans, but if it’s fed to livestock, then humans consume it. So we have to stop thinking that our practices are not affecting human health. And that for me is one of the reasons that we don’t use the pesticides and fungicides and all the herbicides that most producers use.

How did you make a living on the farm before you started direct marketing to consumers?

We had a very successful registered cattle herd. We were selling bulls to other producers, and we fed them grain to make them look good to sell. At the same time we were raising a few grass-finished beef every year for our own consumption because I believed in the human health aspects of it. In 2010, the year Paul graduated from college and came back to the farm, I said we’re done. We’re not doing this anymore. We were selling bulls for good money, but after weaning we were feeding grain to those livestock and I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. And I was calving in February and March, which was ridiculous in North Dakota! Most producers do that. You put them in barns and live with them day and night. When Paul was coming back to the farm, I said I’m not going to have you kill yourself like I did for all these years. We switched to calving in May and June. We dropped all vaccines. We did that all at once and decided we were going to go down the grass-finished path. Paul got interested in direct marketing and started selling eggs. That’s something he really wanted to do, and he runs that end of the business. We have our own trademark, Nourished by Nature. Shelly, my wife, and I are silent partners but the business is Paul’s. How else are these young people going to learn about business? He’s grown the business from a $10,000 investment to one that’s worth quite a bit of money without borrowing a penny. But to sell our grass-fed beef, a group of us had to build a slaughter facility. It is state-inspected for retail sale.

Starting a slaughterhouse sounds like a big deal, not a little detour!

Here was the problem. In North Dakota there were only three slaughter facilities approved for retail sale. Well, the waiting time to get an animal harvested was 13 months. You can’t run a business that way. (There are more slaughterhouses than that in the state, but you can’t sell the product processed in them.) It took almost four years to get enough money and build that plant. It’s a co-op and it’s for-profit. Paul has served on the board since its inception. It cost $2.2 million for the structure, and the operating budget was about three-quarters of a million. It’s starting to turn a small profit, but it’s a challenge.

Are there many farms behind the co-op?

There are over 70 investors. A lot of them have just a few animals, and there are investors that don’t even own animals. Some are retired people who put in a few thousand dollars. Bowdon, North Dakota, the small community where it’s located, donated land. They wanted to see it happen. Once we got that built, we could retail our own meat products. Now every two or three weeks, Paul will take two to 15 animals to the plant and bring back the product that was harvested the time before. We also now ship semi-loads for processing in Missouri, and we bring back the frozen product. We only deal in frozen product; there’s too many regulations on fresh product. The timing of slaughter is important because we want to keep the omega-3s high.

You’ve been quite influential in spreading ideas about soil health. Yesterday when I visited Menoken Farm, a soil conservation demonstration farm owned by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, I heard that you were instrumental in making that farm a reality. How did you get involved?

You know my story with my three years of hail and one year of drought. In 1998 in the last year of that disaster Jay Fuhrer approached me to ask if I’d consider running to be on the board of supervisors of the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District. In North Dakota, there are five people on these boards; three are elected, and they appoint the other two. Jay already had two people on the board who were fairly open-minded. He knew if he could get me on there, we would be able to appoint a couple others who could steer it in the direction of focusing on soil health. I was very fortunate that I had met Jay right when I started down the soil health path. At that time, nobody was talking soil health. I was doing rotational grazing, and I was starting to plant these cover crops. Jay took an interest in that, and we bounced ideas off each other. After I got on the board, we aggressively started promoting soil health.

Going back to those terrible four years when your crops were repeatedly destroyed by hail followed by a bad drought, how did you get by?

I worked a full-time job in town and farmed at night. That’s when I stopped sleeping much. I was a livestock nutritionist for a feed company. My degrees are in animal science and economics.

 What has enabled you to try so many things and integrate new practices into a workable system?

In my book, I write about many of the people who influenced me. I tell people, Gabe’s not very smart — I’m just good at stealing ideas from other people and applying what I can to this operation. That’s all I’m trying to do. You have to take bits and pieces from many places. You meet the right people at the right time and you learn from them. Jay and I are kindred spirits; we both have insatiable appetites to learn. In 2006 Jay and I were at the No-till on the Plains conference in Salina, Kansas. Dr. Adamir Calegari from Brazil was talking about multispecies cover crops. Up until then I had only been mixing two or three together. He was saying you need to mix seven or right. The minute I heard that I knew it made sense because that’s exactly how nature functions: native prairie has tremendous diversity. When Jay and I came back from Salina, I immediately started planting multispecies cover crops, and the soil district set up a plot near here. That brought a lot of attention. NRCS started bringing people on trainings to see our cover crop plots and what I was doing. At a tour with NRCS people from all over the United States, I remember this guy standing there with his head cocked. He was looking at me like what in the world are you talking about. Well, it was Ray Archuleta. He will tell you a light bulb was going off in his head. Now he’s “Ray, the soil guy,” and the rest is history. Ray retired after many years with NRCS. Now he and I are business partners with Soil Health Consultants. He’s 57, the same age as me. He used to phone me every week. Now he calls me multiple times a day. He’ll tell me, “Gabe, I saw this here. They were trying this. I think I might try that. It’s a lot of fun.”

You’ve become exceedingly busy. What have you let go of? Are there other benefits of letting go?

I was on the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District board for 14 years. We did a lot of things together. But it got to the point in my life where I was traveling a lot, going to conferences and speaking, and I needed to back off on a few things. I’ve come to believe that people spend too much time on individual boards. We need to let other people have the opportunity to experience that. Let the young guys do that. How are we going to grow the next generation of leaders if we don’t give them the opportunity? It’s the same way with farmers and ranchers. Many will not turn the operation over to the next generation, that’s ridiculous. Our son is 30, and he’s the manager. We’ve turned everything over to him. I tell people I’m retired, and he’s the boss of this place.

You’ve got me wondering how many people work at Brown Ranch.

My son, and my wife and I, and Shalini, an intern who came four years ago from California and hasn’t left (because she and my son hit it off) and Jasmine, our second-year intern. This year we hired a young man who has a wife and three little kids. A few years ago he drove from his home in Nebraska to Colorado to hear me speak. He took a fascination for what we’re doing. When he and his wife came on a tour here, he told me, I’m going to come and work for you. And I said we really don’t have any employees. We just hire interns. No, he said, you don’t understand. He insisted, so we hired Andrew full-time in April. His wife is self-employed. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska and he farmed, but very conventionally. His wife didn’t like how hard he worked on the farm, so he quit and was selling chemicals. He couldn’t do it anymore. Once he heard about what I was doing, he wanted to learn. So, in all there are six of us working on this ranch. We’ve run an internship program for well over 20 years, and we get applicants from all over the world. Most don’t have any farm experience, just an interest. I can teach everything else, but I can’t teach drive and desire. They either have it or they don’t. That’s one of the reasons Jasmine is here. She wasn’t born and raised on a farm. We invited her back because of her enthusiasm and work ethic.

 I’m surprised that only a few people work with you. How do you accomplish so much?

Some people think there’s too much work in what we’re doing, but they don’t realize all of the things that we don’t do. For instance, our cattle get no vaccinations. We don’t apply fungicides or pesticides [insecticides]. We don’t use fertilizer, and we no longer feed any mineral to our animals. They just don’t consume it because our soils are healthy. And the list goes on. By not having to take the time to do all of those things we have the time to stack more enterprises and to direct market what we produce.

You’re blessed with a large land base, but land is often a significant barrier for beginning farmers. How do you counsel new farmers to deal with the land question?

When these young people come here, they think they want to buy a farm. That’s exactly the wrong approach. You intern on a few different places. You find out where your passion is and then take your passion and you run with it. You make your operation portable. You start with something that’s easy to move, chickens or rabbits, vegetables. You find a small place to rent. As your operation grows and you build the customer base, you put the money back in and grow with it. Sooner or later the right opportunity will come along, and you’ll have the money to be able to purchase a land base if that’s what you desire. But it’s not necessary. Many people think they need a lot of land. I have a neighbor who farms 40,000 cropland acres. That’s just crazy! Our operation is 5,000 acres, owned and rented, down from 6,200 acres. We’re shrinking it by letting go of a lot of the rented land. We just don’t need it. We’re not addicted to work! I write about this in my book Dirt to Soil. The industrialized, commoditized model has sent us on a path of larger and larger operations. This has led to a mass exodus from rural America. The regenerative model gives us the opportunity to reverse this trend. We can bring both enjoyment and life back to our farms. We can revitalize our rural communities, all while improving both human health and our resources.

Find more information about Brown’s Ranch.

Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Tracy Frisch is a journalist, advocate and subsistence gardener in upstate New York who has been involved with the organic movement for more than 30 years. 

First Ever Tropical Agriculture Conference Brings Regenerative Agriculture Experts to Belize

By Ryan Slabaugh

BELMOPAN, Belize — Belize Ag Report Publisher Beth Roberson sat in the second row, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Belizean Senator Godwin Hulse. The country’s minister of everything from agriculture to environment to immigration was held up in traffic, but would be arriving soon.

The crowd was patiently waiting. It’s summer in Belize, the temperatures are in the 80s, and around us a city surrounded by hundreds of miles of jungle. Roberson, also a farmer, had attended the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show last year, and with the help of Belize officials and Regeneration International, returned to her country inspired to start a movement.

Now, less than a year later, she was watching the first day of the inaugural Tropical Agriculture Conference in the nation’s capital. Moments earlier, speakers like André Leu, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin and Alvaro Zapada Cadavid had introduced the audience to silvopasture and pastured poultry techniques.

Soon enough, the awaited delegation rolled in. Senator Hulse exited his SUV, walked on stage and gave the country a 16-minute speech acknowledging the opportunity in Belize to build a world-best agriculture system, but do it better than the industrialized countries.

“Humanity has to come first and replace profits as the first priority for success,” Hulse said. “That’s the opportunity, and the end result is preserving healthy lives.”

Not surprisingly, that statement triggered a round of cheers from the crowd.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin gives a TV interview at the Tropical Agriculture Conference in Belize
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin gives an interview to a TV crew at the inaugural Tropical Agriculture Conference in Belize

He’s not wrong. The opportunity in Belize is fairly rare in a world where so much land has already been developed. As Marroquin, a native Guatemalan who now runs the Main Street Project in Minnesota, put it, “Seventy percent of your landscape is still its original forest. Guatemala has 2 percent of its original forest. So much of your soil is untouched.“

Yet, the opportunity is more a series of questions at this point. Can Belize transform to become a major exporter of agricultural goods and feed its people? Can Belize use regenerative agriculture techniques to avoid mass deforestation that plagues other countries, converting their jungles to pasture? Can Belize organize to make sustainable agriculture more than just a novelty? Can Belize avoid turning all of its economy over to service and tourism?

Leu, former president of IFOAM and now international director for Regeneration International, said “No” is not a proper answer to those questions.

“We’re looking at 1 billion climate change refugees by 2020,” said Leu. “We are leaving a dreadful legacy for our grandchildren. We have to reverse that legacy. And we have numerous ways we can do that.”

Belize, specifically, would lose up to 50 percent of its land in the next 100 years if scientists’ predictions are accurate about sea levels rising, Leu said.

Scenery in Belmopan, Belize
Belmopan, Belize

So, the opportunity is urgent, but it also needs focus. It’s pretty clear that Belizean farmers can grow almost anything. Conference attendees spoke of growing melons, fruits, vegetables, and local-specific crops like inga trees and chaya plants. Roadside stands are filled with mangos, watermelons and jackfruit. Hemp is also becoming a major interest in the country, despite the high humidity that often keeps farmers at similar latitudes around the world from growing dense crops (like corn).

In the end, Hulse’s message was of smart farming and good ecology.

“There’s a myriad of issues affecting how we make our food,” said Hulse. “Saving seeds. Climate change. Soil degradation. Marketing and selling our goods. We support anything that is going to help us sustain and grow agriculture, which is why we are happy to have you here this week.”

The event continues Wednesday and Thursday (Nov. 14-15, 2018). Read highlights from Day 2 here. Learn about Day 3 here, including an on-site Tractor Time podcast episode.

Ryan Slabaugh is the General Manager and Publisher of Acres U.S.A. He’s on assignment all week in Belmopan, Belize.

Daniela Ibarra-Howell on Bringing Eco-Farmers Together

Savory Institute Co-Founder, CEO Daniela Ibarra-Howell Shares Insights into How the Organization is Bringing Like-Minded Farmers and Ranchers Together

It is not often that someone who is not a billionaire decides to take decisive steps toward solving a global problem. It is even less common for anyone, even and perhaps especially billionaires, to have ideas about how to do it that not only work but point the way for others of like mind. Daniela Ibarra-Howell is one of these rare people. She is a co-founder and the current CEO of the Savory Institute, the nonprofit wing of the Savory operation based in Boulder, Colorado, (her husband, Jim, heads the for-profit wing). Beginning in 2009 and now boasting over 8 million hectares (19,768,430 acres) under holistic management in every continent except Antarctica, the Savory Institute is becoming a force to be reckoned with. As scientific evidence accumulates, adding to an enormous fund of narrative accounts, holistic management’s value becomes ever more undeniable.

As Ibarra-Howell recounts here, she declined to follow the well-worn paths offered to her as a girl in Argentina. She wanted to make a difference. Between meeting Allan Savory in 1994 and the beginning of the Institute, she and her husband devoted a number of years to consulting and running a notably successful ranch near Boulder. Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, in December.

Interviewed by Chris Walters

Developing Savory Hubs

ACRES U.S.A. How did a city girl from Buenos Aires get into working with soil, cattle and the like?

DANIELA IBARRA-HOWELL. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, a beautiful city, but I always dreamed of going to the countryside. Three of my grandparents were farmers from Europe — we would visit their estancias in the pampas, and I just loved riding horses and being in the countryside. When the time came to choose a career, I chose agronomy at the University of Buenos Aires. At the time the world of agriculture was a very male-dominated one. By the time I left five or six years later, the percentage of women had increased, but still women were not supposed to be in the countryside. I started working for the Ministry of Agriculture in the areas of desertification and land degradation. I always had a love for Patagonia and worked there not only for the ministry but for the United Nations, and there was a lot of effort being done on land degradation in Patagonia. I realized there were no answers for what was going on and how to change it. The solutions being proposed all the way from Rome, and even from Argentina, in terms of how we do this were ecologically not working, and socially were really not viable. Things like moving people off the land. Economically, the proposals were not viable either. I didn’t want to become just another bureaucrat, I wanted to really do something, so I set out to learn more about it.

ACRES U.S.A. What was the nature of the threat?

IBARRA-HOWELL. You have two issues. At the time I was there, agriculture was mainly focused in the humid pampas, which were always productive. All of Patagonia in the time when the Spanish came into Argentina was grasslands, and they brought the sheep with them. They were quite severely stocked, and over time the land degraded. Most of the native people there were killed by diseases the Europeans brought or were actually killed by the Europeans. The whole of Argentina from a cultural and social point of view is very European. Close to the Andes, the west of Argentina in the foothills, there is more moisture and more fine foods. That is where the Germans and the Welsh and the English went with their cattle operations. But all the rest of Patagonia is harsh country. During the late ’80s and early ’90s they recognized that we had 20 years left of Patagonia as we knew it. It’s not the Patagonia that people dream of, that moist and beautiful type of ranching. This is really rough, windy, cold, hard-to-live-in Patagonia, with low precipitation and very prone to degradation when it’s not managed properly. A lot of places are abandoned, no one wants to go live there, not many people and not much infrastructure. But we have a hub working there now, and it is just fantastic, the things we are seeing just managing animals, mainly sheep, holistically. We are seeing plant species that haven’t been seen in 25 or 30 years coming back. So we know the potential is there. Now, of course you can overstock a place, and ask from a piece of land more than it can give you. But most of the issues come with management of time, timing and frequency of recovery periods. So even if you’re not fully stocked or overstocked, you can also damage the land. Even after sheep had been removed years ago and the carrying capacity lowered and lowered, the core management had never been addressed, which is that whole biological sizing of the plans, feeding the soil and then moving away to allow the plants to grow again. That process was never allowed to happen because of the way animals were run for so long.

As You Read: Listen to the Tractor Time Interview with Daniela Ibarra-Howell from 2018

ACRES U.S.A. Was Patagonia one of the first places the hub idea was successfully deployed?

IBARRA-HOWELL. Yes, one of our first hubs, in 2013, was in Patagonia. It was around 10 years ago that we were first there, perhaps a little longer. My husband, Jim, who manages the for-profit arm of the Savory Institute called Grasslands, visited Pablo Borelli and his group of producers in Patagonia who were very well known for fine Merino wool genetics they’d brought from Australia. They said, “We’ve gone about as far as we can go with genetics. If we are going to improve the quality of our production, we need to look at the health of the land. That is our limitation, that is our logjam. We cannot move further with our ability to produce more and further.” Jim and I had met Allan Savory in 1994. We worked with him in New Mexico, so we knew the potential of holistic management. We introduced holistic management to Pablo Borelli who is now at the helm of the Argentine hub, the other producers, and officials from the government. They liked it, so we started a program to train the ranchers, and we said, “Let’s learn by doing.” I think they started with six or seven estancias, big ranches, and they went through all the aspects of holistic management, from setting the holistic context to decision-making to the financial planning to the land planning — all the aspects of really looking at the land holistically to see what could be done. They engaged Brian Marshall, who is an amazing educator from Australia who is part of our network, and they worked for five or six years. They started to see all the metrics of productivity, amount of perennial species — all the metrics of ecosystem health, how to get trends going in the right direction. They were challenged in the first years by animals adjusting to the new management, and so performance dipped, but they pulled out of it and they haven’t stopped yet. When the opportunity arose to become a hub, they said yes.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the central characteristics of a Savory hub?

IBARRA-HOWELL. A hub is basically a partner of Savory, a locally led, locally owned, locally managed initiative with leaders who want to influence their region. They want to support the farmers and ranchers in their region to do things better with the knowledge that holistic management can offer. It’s really like an accelerator and a support mechanism for those understanding the context and the challenges and the opportunities — as well as the uniqueness — of any one region. Now they have close to 60 estancias working with them. All of them have been measuring and monitoring the biological and ecological metrics, and all of the holistic management folks are improving their land base. Using all that data, a paper is about to come out authored by Pablo and Jason Rowntree at Michigan State. They have worked together at understanding all of the correlations and understanding if the data is truly pointing to holistic management folks doing much better than conventional folks. The paper that Pablo and Jason have been working on will begin to put some relevant science behind the claims we make about holistic management — because we know it works! We’ve been doing it forever, and we know how much potential is released when you plan. This paper will give our experience the backing of science. It’s one more paper in the right direction, with relevant science — real people doing it in real conditions, not just trying to evaluate a variable, say, stocking conditions or animal density or soil density. It’s about holistic management of a specific piece of land in a specific year in a specific social situation.

ACRES U.S.A. By now there are millions of acres or hectares under holistic management in many countries. How do you reconcile the need to maintain consistency with the core principles while accounting for the dizzying variation in regional conditions, local cultures and economies?

IBARRA-HOWELL. One of the beauties of holistic management is that it is not a practice, it’s not telling someone what to do top-down. It’s really acquiring the deep understanding of your own context and then making the decisions that are socially, ecologically and financially sound. The framework of holistic management allows you to do that. Anybody working in a specific context has that deep understanding. Based on that, we plan for specific things, for profit for example. We ask ourselves really basic questions. Are there adverse factors? Are there logjams? Are there weak links? Where is the weak link in my production, all the way from sunshine to dollar? Is it in the resources; is it in the product; is it in the market? We ask these questions to know where to allocate money and put the money into removing those adverse factors, in removing the logjams, in strengthening the weak links so we can be more profitable. We plan for profit rather than seeing what our income is and seeing how we end up the year. We’re planning, we’re saying, “This is the revenue left, let’s get creative about it. What is socially appropriate? What are the enterprises that we want to launch here?” Then you start implementing, and after you implement, you monitor very closely to make sure you are all the time adjusting. You don’t wait to see if things have worked or didn’t work.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the key factors for success for implementation of the plan?

IBARRA-HOWELL. There is a lot of observation and monitoring. If one of your enterprises is livestock, the beauty of holistic planned grazing is that it allows you to look at where are you operating, which eco-region, what are the species on your ranch, plant or animal, that you need to take care of? You really get to understand deeply the place where you are working. Based on that, you follow a process that is of aggressive complexity, but is very orderly. You go step-by-step, asking questions and addressing questions and bringing the answers into a plan. Then that plan is something that is used to guide management, but you are all the time monitoring and adjusting it. Not just something that you put to work and forget about it. When it comes to grazing, the biggest factor that we talk about is recovery of plants, but in the context of a lot of complexity. For example, we work with the Nature Conservancy in Colorado at the Fox Ranch. They were concerned about the prairie chickens, concerned that too many animals or too many bunched together might endanger the prairie chickens, step on the eggs and so on. So the question was, let’s learn all we can about the prairie chickens: Where do they live; where do they hatch their eggs; what is the perfect height for different types on the ranch? We took all that information and included it in the plan. It’s a chart that we use that has all the dimensions of space and time. You can look at it and tell what time of the year they need to be left alone, what time of the year we need to graze to create less cover — all the conditions those birds need. There are so many considerations you need to take into account when you manage animals, and all that goes in the plan. Knowing recovery times for specific plants at different times of the year, given the growth rates of the plants, allows you to then start to plan backward, plan how much time and space with each animal do you have? It’s almost like art — you put all this complexity, including your birthday, when you want to go on vacation, etc. so the animals will be somewhere they don’t require so much oversight. All that information goes into the plan, and then it is an intelligent plan that allows you to create all the outcomes for all the aspects of management, not just for your livestock. No one better than a local farmer understands that context and how to support farmers in their regions as they deal with those specifics of complexity.

ACRES U.S.A. Who makes up a hub?

IBARRA-HOWELL. The hub strategy is a partnership, with leaders and entrepreneurs and people who want to be the movers and shakers in different parts of the world. Some of them are farmers or ranchers, some of them are not farmers or ranchers. Some of them are teachers or people in finance or agronomists or marketing folks. We have micro-investment in Pakistan with a gentleman who was running a micro-investing initiative. He thought that since most of their investments were going to people involved in agriculture, smallholders, these people needed to know how to craft their future and manage accordingly. He approached the Savory Institute and went through the training. When we began the Institute, we decided that to move fast in terms of regenerating land and empowering farmers, the way to do that was to do it simultaneously all over the world. We couldn’t do it from Boulder, obviously, or even from the United States. We needed leaders in those particular regions. They came to us, actually. They came to us and said, “We want to teach Savory holistic management in Turkey — I just came back from Turkey — or in France, Kenya, Patagonia or Australia.”

ACRES U.S.A. How do you identify leaders from far-flung parts of the world?

IBARRA-HOWELL. They come to us. We have criteria to decide the likelihood of an individual succeeding. We select a handful every year, and then we go through around 18 months of on-boarding process. Here is where the quality assurance comes in. Two leaders from every hub come together — usually we have from five to 10 hubs at one time — so we have from 10 to 20 people coming together, and they go through a training process starting with intensive training in holistic management. Some of our sessions happen in Zimbabwe, and some of our sessions happen in Colorado where we have our headquarters or in other hub regions. Most hubs have these requirements: you have to have a demonstration site — that means a ranch or a farm that is contextually relevant to the region. In Patagonia that would be a large estancia. In the northeast United States it will be a smaller farm, like a 500-acre farm. It all depends where you’re operating. You need to have a plan that is representative of the farmers and ranchers in your region, and you need to have management control over that land. Here is where we are going to push the limits and manage holistically and be a place of learning and research and demonstration. The other requirement is that they go through the holistic management training, beginning with what we call boot camp. Boot camp is 10 days of training in which hub leaders come together and go through their business models, their plans, how they are going to reach out to the farmers and ranchers in their regions and describe the market situations that can help create incentives for the type of management they will be teaching. In some cases we are talking about pastoralists, where they don’t have a market, like the Masai or districts in South Africa where they work at subsistence. So how are we going to work with them? Who is going to pay for their training, whether it is government money, grants, other NGOs or philanthropy from donors? In some cases there is a market component and there is a commercial infrastructure, so maybe a brand will pay for the training of a farmer. Each hub identifies the unique situation they will be working with. Then, once they meet all the requirements and are accredited, they become part of the network and they start doing their work — offering workshops, offering training — they become part of the family, so now they are connected not only with Savory but all the other hubs.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you maintain these connections?

IBARRA-HOWELL. We come together in different ways. We connect through a digital platform, which is very cool, almost a social platform like Facebook but which is professional, on which we share resources and ideas — the Savory Institute shares all the tools they will use in their own contexts. We share the curriculum. If there are translations, we share the translations. We share pictures from around the world. Everybody puts their resources into that platform so we can use them for all the people on the network and then customize them for the region in which these hubs are operating. We are in constant communication with them. Then, once a quarter, we have continuing education, so that anything new that we’ve learned, challenges that farmers are facing, we work together to remove those challenges. It’s really like a big think tank, and everybody brings their insights from all over the place. Then once a year we come together in person.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the advantages of decentralization, as opposed to a lot of organizations, even global organizations, where people report up the chain and decisions come down? How did you come to embrace the idea of widely dispersed, distributed knowledge as it’s often known?

IBARRA-HOWELL. We were part of the holistic management movement since 1994, when I moved to the United States and had the honor to meet Allan Savory and work with him. At that time the model was more like what you mentioned, more the hub-and-spoke model in which the organization was a nonprofit that Allan founded for training individuals. So we all became educators, and as educators you would then go and do what you had to do. What happened then is that you had a bunch of people around the world. Some of them came all the way from Australia; the great movement of holistic management in Australia happened because of two people, Brian Marshall and Bruce Ward, who studied with me back in 1994. They were fantastic in creating awareness, and I think Australia is one of the biggest expressions of the power of holistic management, with many thousands of farmers that practice it, as well as many, many educators. But overall we had a lot of people distributed around the world, and they were sort of atomized, like points in space. We didn’t have much traction as a movement because we were not relating to each other, not talking to each other. We trained farmers but then they disappeared, and we didn’t know what happened to these people. There was a lack of local support mechanisms for these farmers who had been exposed to holistic management.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you overcome these challenges?

IBARRA-HOWELL. We needed several things: the local solutionary, the local support mechanism, someone who could be there to hold the hand of a farmer, someone who had also learned something about holistic management. The typical thing that happened was that a farmer would go back home, put in a fence and start rotating animals. It would be a disaster, and they would leave it behind. That was because they were so alone in trying to move it forward. Then we experimented with management class. A few farmers would get together and support each other through the challenges. Then we talked about how wonderful it would be if each area would be like a node in which there would always be a support mechanism — these ongoing relationships that would continue to train, continue to support, especially in those two or three years of transition into doing things differently. We believe the sweet spot is around two to three years of doing it with someone helping you through the tough times, so you don’t go back to old habits and you stay with the planning. We thought it would be great to have many, many nodes of support around the world. The second thing was, it would be great if all these nodes were connected to each other, so we are all unified as we try to change the way agriculture is going and address its impact on soil and degradation of natural resources. Instead of having many points in space, we decided to have a net so the message would get more traction. Then we thought, well, how do we make sure everybody is connected, talking to each other and supported through the whole process so that they are recognized in the marketplace for the good things they are doing? We had been monitoring for a long time the outcomes of our work, so let’s take it to the next level of scientific validity. Let’s show that we have something different in different regions of the world, so we know that it’s not that it works in one place but not in another. But let’s have that conversation happen. We always look at nature, and we saw in nature the way things are always distributed, and the more that model is refined then there is more resiliency. That way, we believed the Savory Institute would never be a bottleneck. We will be a node in the network with a specific function, and the function is the curriculum, and the support and the formation of new hubs. So we thought, let’s give it a try. And if we are going to influence a large amount of land in a short time, we are going to do it with almost a super-franchise approach — many Savory Institutes around the world, all talking to each other, all with the same DNA that is passed on to our producer network. We then see what we learned from implementing in different places, and as all that feeds back into the clearinghouse at headquarters we can send it back to the whole network. We thought that could work, and we set a goal of a billion hectares, which is one-fifth of the grasslands of the world, including savannas and shrublands. Then how do we do it? We’re not going to do it from Boulder, Colorado. So let’s have 100 partners around the world with the same mission, the same vision, the same tools, equipped to influence their region, so each one could influence 1 million hectares. Knowing, of course, that in some cases that would be feasible and in some cases it would not. At 10 hubs a year, we would have 100 by 2025. So that was the idea — a big, audacious goal. With each year and each iteration, we did it better. We are now at 35 hubs, and on-boarding new ones. We are very excited. I just came back from Turkey where we met with hub leaders from Turkey, Pakistan, the U.K., Sweden and Spain.

ACRES U.S.A. That is a disparate group, to put it mildly. What clues did the meeting give you about the future?

IBARRA-HOWELL. It was just fascinating because at the end of the day, as different as they are culturally, economically and ecologically, the challenges we face are so similar, so common, and so we explored what’s next, how do we do it better? What are things that can be put in place? It’s like a big community thinking around the same challenges and bringing solutions that can be deployed around the network — so we are not reinventing the wheel in each node. The learning goes on and lifts us all to the next level.

Daniela Ibarra-Howell will be keynoting at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky in December. For more information about the Savory Institute, call 303-327- 9760.