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Brown’s Ranch finds success in being different, focusing on soil health

BISMARCK, N.D. — Not many North Dakota ranches have 1,000 chickens roaming free. Not many North Dakota ranches have cattle, sheep and pigs, all on pasture. And not many North Dakota ranches have added vegetables, fruits and nuts to their offerings, along with livestock and grain.

But Brown's Ranch has never claimed to be conventional.

"Other farmers and ranchers laugh at us because we look different," Gabe Brown says as he pilots a Polaris Ranger around a grove of recently planted fruit trees. "We laugh at them because they all look the same."

Gabe and his son Paul run Brown's Ranch outside Bismarck. It's been a quarter century since Gabe decided to go no-till at the advice of a friend. The decision has helped form the identity of the ranch and has provided ways to stay profitable even in tough times.

Gabe, 57, has mostly retired from farming. He still helps out and provides assistance and advice. But he's mostly handed the keys of the operation to Paul. Under the younger Brown's direction, Brown's Ranch has moved more into livestock and direct marketing to consumers, setting a course for the future they hope can continue even if North Dakota's capital city continues to grow around them.

A move toward soil health

Paul Brown now spends much of his time speaking and advising on soil health.Gabe and his wife, Shelly, started farming with Shelly's parents in 1983, then bought the farm in 1991. They farmed conventionally and paid high input costs. The Natural Resource Conservation Service did a water infiltration study and found that the land could take in only half an inch of rain per hour. The rest would run off.

A friend of Gabe's suggested he go to no-till farming. Sell your tillage equipment so you're not tempted to use it, the friend said.

"I actually had to do it in order to afford the no-till drill," Gabe says.

The Browns saw improvement in the soil structure, and with lower input costs, they were able to hold onto more profits. Now the NRCS has found that the land can take in an inch of water in 9 seconds, and a second inch 16 seconds after that, for 2 inches in 25 seconds. In arid central North Dakota, that helps keep Brown's Ranch resistant to drought. The soil also has gone from less than 2 percent organic matter to more than 5 percent.

"Every drop of rain that falls on our operation, it will infiltrate into the soil, and then because our organic matter levels have increased, it's able to be stored there," Gabe explains.

The fields haven't been tilled since 1993, haven't had fungicide or pesticide since before 2000 and haven't had synthetic fertilizer since '07. Herbicide is used sparingly but as needed.

Gabe lists close to a dozen crops in the rotation. An apiary provides bees. They grow and sell vegetables, and a few years ago planted fruit and nut trees. They run cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens.

"So we're a little bit diverse," Gabe says.

Gabe Brown demonstrates what he looks for when evaluating soil health.The Browns run every decision they make through the five principles of a healthy soil ecosystem:

• Has the land been disturbed through mechanical or chemical means?

• Is there "armor" or residue on the soil surface to protect from erosion or evaporation?

• Is there a diversity of species?

• Is there a living root as long as possible throughout the year?

• Have animals been integrated onto the land?

Gabe, who wears a baseball cap embroidered with the words "In Soil We Trust," doesn't just use the five principles on his farm; he spends much of his time traveling the country and teaching them to other farmers and ranchers. He, along with soil health experts Ray Archuleta, David Brandt and Allen Williams, have formed Soil Health Consultants LLC. The enterprise puts on three-day seminars where they discuss soil health and advise producers.

Gabe advises producers to keep an open mind, a lesson that has come in handy as he passes the reins to Paul, 31.

A move toward livestock integration

Nourished by Nature is the business of Paul Brown. He has moved Brown's Ranch more into livestock and direct marketing.Gabe and Shelly knew for years that Paul wanted to come back to Brown's Ranch. They placed the 1,400 acres they own into an income-earning living trust. Paul is the beneficiary of the trust, and Gabe and Shelly generate income from it.

Leaving the farm to Paul isn't just a move for the future; Gabe says Paul has free rein to do what he wants on the operation now.

That got its first test when Paul still was in college. Paul called Gabe and pointed out that while his father preached diversity, Brown's Ranch only had cattle. Paul said he wanted to branch out, with chicken, sheep and pigs.

"What could I say?" Gabe shrugs. "It only made sense."

Paul came back from North Dakota State University with a "head full of new ideas," he says. "Thankfully he allowed me to try almost all of them."

Paul Brown has added chickens, pigs and sheep to the cattle his family raises.In 2010, Paul bought 100 laying hens and sold eggs in the parking lot of a local vegetable community-supported agriculture venture. He bought sheep a year later and pigs a year after that. In 2013, he started Nourished by Nature, a business that directly markets the products from Brown's Ranch to consumers.

"I realized we were raising a product on our place that I felt was needed in this area and people were seeking out," he says.

Nourished by Nature markets eggs, meat and other products directly to consumers.Nourished by Nature is sold at the Bis-Man Community Food Cooperative in Bismarck and Prairie Roots Food Co-op in Fargo, and also is sold directly to customers at https://nourishedbynature.us. Paul says their customers tend toward health-conscious people who want to know where their food comes from. Many are young mothers concerned about what their children eat.

"One thing that we like to do is have an open-door policy where anyone can come out," Paul says. "They just need to give me a call, and if they want to come and see how their food is raised, then we'll gladly show them around."

The direct marketing hasn't just provided a wanted product to the community but also has given another way to make money.

"It's allowed us to bring another family onto the operation," Gabe says.

He points out that farmers usually only get about 14 cents for every dollar spent on food. Direct marketing allows them to bring in a little more.

"Call me greedy if you want, but I want more of that dollar," he says.

The Browns have planted fruit and nut trees to further diversify the offerings of their operation.The Browns feel some constraints from the ever-growing city next door. The ranch falls within the extraterritorial zone of Bismarck, which means that while it's not in city limits, the city has some say in its future. Paul says he jokes that "we're going to have the coolest city park." But he isn't bitter about the changes, considering it instead a way to find more customers.

The Browns farm about 5,000 acres in all. Paul says they haven't lost any rented land to development yet, but they know it could happen. He wants to make the operation viable, even if all that is left someday is the owned acres.

Paul wants to continue in his father's footsteps, managing the various enterprises of the ranch synergistically. He does some speaking on soil health, like his father, but prefers to stay on the ranch.

Gabe is supportive of whatever direction Paul takes the land. With Paul's enjoyment of livestock, they've reduced their acres in crop rotation and increased the acres planted to perennials for grazing.

"This will be in production ag for as long as Paul wants it to be," Gabe says. "He's going to take it much further than I ever could."

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