When Gabe Brown first got into regenerative agriculture more than 25 years ago, he wasn’t trying to solve climate change.
“I was just trying to keep the banker at bay and feed my family,” Brown told CNBC.
Brown grew up in Bismarck, N.D., and went to college to be an agriculture professor. Then he married his high school sweetheart, whose family had a farm. The young couple moved home to help on the farm, which used conventional farming practices for the time. After eight years, Brown bought a section of the farm from his in-laws.
From 1995 through 1998, Brown’s farm in North Dakota faced recurrent natural disasters: Three years of hail and a year of drought. Brown needed to figure out how to make his land profitable. Also, he didn’t have money to spend on fertilizer and chemicals.
“It took me on a learning path. And I really became a student of nature and of ecosystems and how to natural ecosystems function,” Brown told CNBC.
Today, Brown runs his 6,000-acre ranch near Bismarck with regenerative practices and helps run a consulting company, Understanding Ag, which consults with farmers managing 32 million acres across North America.
While Brown didn’t set out to combat climate change, regenerative cattle grazing is a way of sequestering carbon dioxide, a critical component of limiting global warming. Cattle who graze on the land eat plants that have absorbed carbon dioxide from the air. After grazing, the cows don’t graze the land for a long time, giving the roots a chance to grow another layer of leaves, capturing more carbon.
Dan Probert, a rancher in Oregon and the marketing director for ranching collective Country Natural Beef, explains that regenerative cattle ranching involves herding cattle from one paddock to another on a regular, almost daily basis. The cattle eat the grass in the pasture where they are grazing, cutting it down low, then move on. Each paddock they cut down has a significant portion of time to rest and restore so it can grow back.
“Those cattle are bunched, they’re kept pretty densely herded, and then they’re moved sometimes twice in one day. And then that land is left to rest and recover for a full year before the animals are back,” Probert told CNBC.
This process sequesters more carbon than feeding cows from typical monocultural crops like corn because those crops are annual and grow fairly slowly, and don’t perform photosynthesis when they’re lying fallow.
The amount of carbon sequestered with regenerative grazing practices varies significantly, depending on how well a farmer is grazing the cattle and how diverse the plant species are in the land being grazed. But the range is from between 2.5 and 7.5 metric tons of carbon per acre per year, according to Understanding Ag founding partner Allen Williams.
By comparison, southern pine forests, which have gotten some attention as a carbon sink, will sequester 1.4 to two tons of carbon per acre per year.
The collective Probert works for, Country Natural Beef, is working with non-profit Sustainable Northwest and a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to quantify the carbon impact of regenerative ranching more precisely by taking soil samples now and comparing the carbon content with samples that will be taken in three to five years.
A philosophy of land management, not a prescription
Regenerative agriculture is a philosophy about farming and raising cattle more than a specific prescription, explains Bobby Gill from the Savory Institute, a non-profit in the space. The practice is based on the work of Allan Savory, a leader in the field who started his work in the 1960’s in Zimbabwe.
“He’s been banging on this drum, developing these methods for decades now. And often times, he was the lone individual out there banging on this drum,” Gill told CNBC.
Savory’s revolutionary message was that farmers needed to prioritize soil health and graze livestock in ways that mimic natural patterns.
The group does not emphasize the environmental aspects raising of cattle, which activists have frequently criticized.
“Someone who’s a fifth-generation farmer…it sucks to be called a flyover state or to have people pointing the finger at them saying, ‘Climate change is because of you: it’s your fault’,” Gill said. “It’s important to engage in these conversations with empathy and understanding.”
Instead, Savory Institute talks to farmers about regenerative agriculture as a way to run a profitable farm, provide for their family, and be proud of their land.
Savory is no longer seen as a kook. The Savory Institute launched in 2009 and currently has 54 centers around the world which have trained 14,000 people and influenced the management of over 42 million acres of land.
When Will Harris got into regenerative farming in Georgia, he was not trying to solve climate change either. He didn’t even know the climate was changing.
Harris is in the fourth generation of his family to manage his 2,300-acre Georgia farm, White Oak Pastures, and has some perspective on the recent history of agriculture.
In the years after World War II, farming became highly industrialized, Harris told CNBC.
“Europe was starving. There was a tremendous demand for cheap, abundant, safe food,” Harris said. “The industrialization, commoditization, centralization, really did that … it made food obscenely cheap and wastefully abundant, and very boring, very, very consistent.”
Factory farming brought monoculture farming, where only one product is grown on a piece of land. It also brought the use of chemical fertilizers, tillage, pesticides, hormone implants in animals, sub-therapeutic antibiotics in animals, and large equipment.
Harris didn’t like any of that. Financially, he was doing just fine, he said, but he did not like the practices that had become standard in the industry.
“I had just become disenchanted with the excesses of that farming system. I just started moving away from it. I did this simply by ceasing to use the technological ‘products’ that I didn’t like, and doing the things that I didn’t like to do. I was not intentionally moving my farm towards anything. I was just moving away from whatever was displeasing to me.”
The change wasn’t free. It takes Harris two years to raise an 1,100-pound cow, where with industrial practices, a farmer can grow a 1,400-pound animal in 18 months, Harris said. But the quality of his meat is better, and he can charge more to discerning customers.
His margins have shrunk as international farmers get in on the “grass-fed” game and slide in to markets as “American” by doing even one small step of the production process in the U.S., Harris said, but the value of his land is not accounted for in the price of a steak.
“You don’t measure the degradation of that non-depreciating asset on your balance sheet,” Harris said.
“As a practitioner of 25 years of regenerative land management, I can tell you with authority that you can not regenerate degraded, desertified land without animal impact.”
In addition, his two daughters and their spouses have come back to the farm, a stark contrast with many other farming families whose children leave for other professions.
“I can pretty well assure you, if I had kept farming industrially, my daughters would not have chosen to come back.”
Good for business
Although it might take longer to bring cows to maturity using regenerative ranching, the practice can help ranchers use land more efficiently.
“My ranch maybe five years ago ran 1,000 head and now we’re running 1,200 head on the same land base,” Probert told CNBC.
There aren’t many up-front costs to shift a farm to a regenerative grazing paradigm, other than the education, which Williams notes, is tax-deductible for farmers.
But farmers tend not to know that.
“They have a false perception that this is going to be costly and that they’re going to take a big financial hit in the first few years. But that is totally not true,” Williams said. Once farmers start to implement regenerative grazing, they don’t need to buy synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, so their input costs drop, Williams said.
Educating other farmers about the benefits of regenerative grazing and agriculture has become a business on its own.
Williams, a sixth-generation family farmer with farms in both Mississippi and Alabama, spent 15 years in academia teaching at both both Louisiana Tech University and Mississippi State University before he pivoted to teaching the practices of regenerative grazing and agriculture to farmers in the field — literally.
“You cannot implement what you do not know. So somebody has to be there to teach you and train you,” Williams told CNBC.
Spreading the world about regenerative grazing means putting a spotlight on yourself, a place that makes some farmers uncomfortable, Probert said.
Probert takes the lead for the farming collective he is part of because he knows it’s critical for the survival of his industry.
“We can’t live out here on an island. We are 100 ranches on six and a half million acres. And we depend heavily on Portland and San Francisco and Seattle and Los Angeles to market our products,” Probert said.
“So we we just continually work to bridge this urban-rural divide. And we know we can’t hide out here. We’ve got to find a way to tell our story and make people feel good about the food they eat.”