The new diverse polyculture is more nutritious, pest-resistant and drought-tolerant.
Farmer and rancher Gabe Brown of North Dakota transformed nearly 2000 acres of dead, dry, eroding dirt into moist, black living soil largely by leaving it alone.
After almost losing his family farm 20 years ago, he stopped tilling, stopped applying synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, stopped giving his cows growth hormones, and stopped growing GMO corn and soy for them to eat.
Instead, he started doing a whole lot of nothing… Well, not really… At first, he began conducting all kinds of experiments in the hopes of one day having to work a lot less for a much larger harvest.
Two of the most important lessons Brown learned from his experiments were one, plant as many diverse crops as you can, and two, let the animals do the rest of the work for you.
In one early experiment, he planted six 1-acre plots with mono-culture cover crops – such as radishes, turnips and lupine – and then a seventh 1-acre plot with all six of the crops mixed together, into what he calls a “biodiverse polyculture cocktail.”
After two months of drought, production was three times greater on the polyculture plot.
The biodiverse plant selection led to more diverse microorganisms in the soil, which made the soil better able to absorb and retain water and make nutrients bioavailable for the plants.
Thrilled, Brown started planting all his fields this way.
Today, he grows and even more diverse mix of crops. And his soil now absorbs and stores tons more water and carbon, as he details in his book Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture
The following are what he calls his “cash crops”: spring wheat, winter triticale, oats, corn, sunflowers, peas, hairy vetch and alfalfa.
Along with those, he grows cover and companion crops of pearl millet, sorghum/sudangrass, proso millet, buckwheat, sunn hemp, radishes, turnips, pasja, ryegrass, canola, phacelia, cowpeas, soybeans, sugarbeets, red clover, sweetclover, kale, rape, lentils, mung beans and subclover.
And, strange as it may sound, he invites his cattle, sheep and chickens right into his crop fields between October and January, to feast on and trample the cover crops, and fertilize the soil, before he plants his cash crops.
“The cattle are healthier because they are getting plenty of exercise and are not locked in a corral,” Brown writes on his website.
“They are depositing dung and urine on the cropland where it will be consumed by macro and micro-organisms which, in turn will supply the nutrients needed for subsequent crops. We don’t have to haul manure out of corrals and onto the fields. It is a win-win-win situation.”