The following is an adapted excerpt from Solving the Climate Crisis: Frontline Reports from the Race to Save the Earth, by John J. Berger, which will be published October 17th, 2023 by Seven Stories Press.

What if there were a way to safely pull billions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere to substantially reduce or even eliminate global warming? 

What if this approach cost relatively little and could be used around the world? 

What if it also put billions of dollars in cash into the hands of countless working Americans and people worldwide? 

What if it even slashed fossil fuel consumption and made the world more resilient to climate stress? 

Well, it turns out there is a system that can do all that. It’s called carbon farming, and it just might be a key to restabilizing the climate. In the process, it can revitalize rural economies while also producing healthier, more nutritious crops. And, amazingly, it’s also low-cost, low-tech, and low-risk. 

The carbon farmer works with simple inputs: land, seed, compost, moisture, sometimes animals and manure, and sometimes specially selected microorganisms that speed a depleted soil’s return to health. Carbon farming doesn’t pull land out of production; nor does it disturb natural ecosystems. It’s a “down-to-earth” solution to global warming that employs nature’s omnipresent carbon cycle, which constantly shuttles molecules of carbon into and out of the atmosphere, soil, freshwater, and ocean. Yet carbon farming is still neither widely known nor widely practiced. 

A School of Hard Knocks

In well-worn jeans and a plaid shirt, Gabe Brown looks like the North Dakota farmer-rancher he is. But if you were to assume that Brown, fifty-seven, practices normal U.S. production agriculture, you would be totally wrong. Brown has an iron will, a deep religious faith, a tremendous capacity for hard work, and as “a calling” to bring hope to struggling farmers and ranchers while providing healthful food to consumers. Unlike most farmers, though, he’s not as concerned with yields per acre or dollars per pound as he is with soil health. 

How soil became “top of mind” for Gabe Brown—and how Brown himself became a rock star of regenerative agriculture—is a tale of good tidings for the climate, the planet, and American agriculture. 

Early in his farming career, Brown endured modern-day trials of Job. In 1995, he wasn’t much different from many farmers he knew: a young man with a new family, a struggling farm, and a large operating loan to service. That year, a hailstorm wiped out 1,200 acres of his spring wheat the day before he was to start harvesting it. Because hail had been uncommon and mild during the previous thirty-five years, Brown had no hail insurance and was financially devastated. The bank stuck with him, though, and loaned him more money—but, once again, the following year, hail destroyed his entire crop. At that point, the bank refused to provide a similar new loan. 

Carbon farming doesn’t pull land out of production; nor does it disturb natural ecosystems.

Brown now somehow had to figure out how to ranch and farm without all the expensive chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds on which neighboring farmers and ranchers depended and which he now had no money to purchase. 

In those days, no one bailed the grass in the roadside ditches into hay for cattle, because of the garbage and rocks found there. “It was a pain to do,” Brown recalls. But his ranch was relatively small, and he could no longer afford to buy forage for his cattle. So, he went from neighbor to neighbor and asked if he could put up the hay in their ditches. 

“They just laughed and said, ‘Sure.’ “I would mow it and rake it and bale it. Then I’d carry those small square bales out of that ditch [and] onto the road. At night, my wife would drive along with the kids in the car seats with a flatbed trailer behind, and I’d throw those bales onto that trailer one at a time. They probably averaged about seventy or seventy-five pounds, and I remember years we did seven thousand of them. . . . That’s a lot of steps up and down a road ditch.” 

The next year was extremely dry. Brown and his wife were just able to scrape enough feed together to keep the cattle, but once again, he had no crop income. “So, you just keep digging a bigger hole, because we had land payments to make,” he explained. 

The next June, another hailstorm cost Brown 80 percent of his crop. 

Those four years, Brown said, “were hell to go through. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but in the end, it was the best thing that could have happened, because it forced me to change my mind-set. . . . I realized, ‘I have to look at my whole operation . . . from the eyes of nature and how nature functions.’” 

During the years of hail and drought, Brown had often wondered how the two thousand acres of unplowed native prairie on his land could grow so much forage naturally every year, without synthetic inputs. It always had live roots in it, was always protected by vegetation that sealed in moisture, and was extraordinarily rich in species. To figure this out, Brown went to his local public library. There he read the journals Thomas Jefferson had kept about agricultural practices on his plantation at Monticello, Virginia, where Jefferson planted turnips and vetches to improve degraded soil. Brown also read the journals of Lewis and Clark, who had wintered at native Mandan villages in North Dakota—just north of Brown’s own ranch—in the early nineteenth century. The Mandans were planting “the three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash— along with tobacco. They were really focusing on the synergies of nature, said Brown. They got a legume, a grass, and the squash plant “all working in harmony to benefit each other.” He took note. 

He also noticed that when the third hailstorm pounded his crops onto the ground, it armored his thirsty soil, sealing in its moisture against drought. This was important, because his ranch has no irrigation and gets only ten to twelve inches of rainfall a year, plus another five inches of moisture from melted snow. (It snows there during every month except July.) 

Informed by his new knowledge of Mandan agriculture, Brown decided to try planting legumes and grass, cover crops that would thrive synergistically through the residue of the hail-killed crops. His intent was both to raise feed for his livestock and to add organic matter to the soil. Then, not even having money to buy the twine to bail hay, Brown simply let his livestock graze off the cover crops. The livestock got a free meal, and their manure enriched the soil. “That started the act of livestock integration on cropland.” 

Through his efforts to survive and keep his farm, Gabe Brown gained crucial insights into how ecosystems function and the importance of livestock to a healthy soil ecosystem. Surmounting the challenges he faced forced him to create a new, “carbon-friendly” agriculture that was as economical as it was creative and unconventional. At a time when many family farms were succumbing to competition from industrial agriculture, Brown was able to avert bankruptcy by throwing out the prevailing business model. Instead of the soil-depleting, additive-heavy, financially draining agricultural practices he had learned in vocational school, his current farming techniques mimic nature, heeding soil biology and integrating profitable enterprises in an agricultural ecosystem in which little is wasted; the by-products of one operation are cleverly used as the inputs or feedstock of another. As a result, the 137 different products Brown sells today include organic, grass-fed beef and lamb; pastured pork and pigs, poultry, honey, fruit, and heirloom vegetables in season, as well as border collies. “Don’t tell me there’s not money in production agriculture!” he says. “There’s a myriad of opportunities.” 

Today, instead of baling grass in ditches at night, Gabe Brown is on the road almost eight months a year to consult and to lead regenerative-agriculture workshops through the nonprofit Soil Health Academy, in which he is a partner.437 “I really believe that my purpose is to give people hope. . . . By that I mean farmers and ranchers and now, more so, consumers . . . . We’re trying to regenerate everything, including climate.” 

What Makes Soil Ecosystems “Tick”

To understand what Gabe Brown is up to, one has to understand how soil ecosystems operate: they run on carbon, the same way fuel powers an engine. Carbon-rich organic matter not only gives rich, fertile soils their dark color and clumpy texture, but also nourishes soil organisms and plants. Carbon-poor soil is less able to support life, producing lower crop yields, less forage, and less biodiversity. So, as it turns out, soil health is like a magic elixir for climate health. 

Brown’s new approach to farming was not originally aimed at mitigating climate change. He simply noticed that the cover crops he grew when his fields otherwise would have been fallow significantly raised the soil’s water-holding ability and put more live roots into it year-round, as on the native prairie; when those cover crops died, their roots decomposed and increased the soil’s organic matter content, nourishing other plants and soil organisms. So, the organic matter Brown added to nourish his crops and livestock also had the unsought benefit of boosting the soil’s carbon concentration. (Organic matter is more than 50 percent carbon.) Even in harsh, dry North Dakota—where it’s sometimes -40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter—Brown’s agricultural techniques have captured vast amounts of valuable carbon. And that carbon, removed from the air and packed away in the soil, provides climate benefits. 

Brown’s Ranch is the subject of a meticulous soil survey operation designed by Professor John Norman, an environmental biophysicist. Norman analyzed the carbon and nitrogen in the top four feet of soil on the ranch. Early results indicate that those horizons contain ninety-two (U.S.) tons of carbon per acre. “That’s a really, really big number,” Norman said. “The amount of carbon that he’s sequestered in this soil is staggering.” Even digging four feet below the surface wasn’t deep enough for Norman to record all the extra carbon. Moreover, he said, “The deeper you bury the carbon, the longer it’s going to be in there.” That’s important for climate stability, because if the carbon moves back into the air right away, it hasn’t been purged from the atmosphere for the long term. “[Gabe]’s built a remarkable soil in a couple of decades. . . . A wise farmer,” Norman concluded, “can grow soil a lot faster than Mother Nature.” 

Through his efforts to survive and keep his farm, Gabe Brown gained crucial insights into how ecosystems function and the importance of livestock to a healthy soil ecosystem.

To further increase his soil’s organic matter, Brown nowadays inoculates his seeds with mycorrhizal fungi, and he plants a diverse mix of cover crops to keep the soil from overheating in the summer as the plants capture carbon from the air. Mycorrhizal fungi form a relationship with the roots of vascular plants and are critically important to the development of soil structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity; they also aid plants in using soil nutrients and in resisting disease. By promoting plant growth and health, they help increase soil organic matter. “Nature is more collaborative than competitive,” Brown believes. 

Ultimately, Brown’s cover crops are incorporated into the soil after frost-kill and decomposition, or when Brown “mob-grazes” a pasture. That’s when cattle trample much of the forage into the soil, where it protects the soil against wind and water erosion and helps insulate the ground from temperature extremes, thereby also improving warm-weather water retention. “The hotter it gets, the less water is available for plant growth,” Brown says. “At seventy degrees, one hundred percent of the water is available for plant growth. At one hundred degrees, only fifteen percent is used for growth, and eighty-five percent is used for evaporation. At one hundred thirty degrees, one hundred percent of water evaporates; at one hundred forty degrees, soil bacteria die.” 

“[Soil] structure is built by a living system of microorganisms—little animals and the roots of the plants,” John Norman says. “They basically make a house for themselves and maintain that structure under a condition that’s high yield for the whole system.” 

Conventional farmers are addicted to fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. They see nature as more competitive than cooperative, so they try to remove or poison anything they see as competing with their crops—thereby killing beneficial insects and soil life, including the helpful fungi. In addition, conventional farmers often leave the ground bare in the spring, allowing the soil to erode under rushing snowmelt water and pounding rains that can seal its surface, increasing runoff and decreasing water storage. By contrast, in Brown’s regenerative agricultural system, by contrast, plant residues are left on the ground to decompose, and tiny organisms come up to the soil surface. “They increase the infiltration rate by a huge factor,” Norman said. This is important not only for allowing adequate moisture to soak in, to carry plants through dry spells, but also for farmers and ranchers as they try to adapt to climate change. As the climate gets warmer and the frequency and severity of flooding increase, permeable soil is more important than ever to absorb the heavier rainfall. “Gabe Brown’s soil can take a foot of water in an hour with no runoff,” Norman reports. “That’s unheard of in a conventionally tilled agricultural soil.” 

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