Book Review - Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown

I always leave the Groundswell conference inspired by the farmers that I meet and energised to learn more.

I also always leave with an extensive reading list.

The first book I decided that I must read was Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture by Gabe Brown. In truth, this was long overdue - many farmers have recommended this book to me.

The internet is full of excellent reviews of this book so I will not try to replicate any of those here, other than to say that if you have any interest in the future of food production and you have not yet had the chance to read this book, please do make the time. 

It is a truly inspirational in many ways.

The first thing that jumped out at me was Gabe Brown’s mindset. Gabe did not grow up as a farmer and he therefore had no preconceived notions of what was right or wrong. He had an acceptance that he was not an expert and he therefore always maintained a willingness to learn from others. He retains what Jeff Bezos would call a “day one” mentality. When we start new projects, we have an energy and enthusiasm which can wane as a project develops if we do not carefully nurture it.

On Day One, we also have an open mindedness about what the right way to complete the project might be and this is what Gabe Brown maintains throughout.

The second inspirational aspect of the book, in my eyes; was the courage to take a farm from a conventional system which was reliant on synthetic fertiliser and other inputs to a system which was much more in tune with nature. The focus shifted from growing crops which were reliant on what the farmer added to them to a system in which the focus was about enabling the crops to find their own nutrients, which are abundantly available in the ecosystem if we manage it the right way. This is a problem that we have created on our own farm and I am excited about trying to implement the regenerative approach explored in this book in the coming years.

The third inspiration was Gabe’s focus on his own goals. He took the time to get really clear in his own mind what it was that he wanted to achieve for his own farm and for his family and once these had crystallised in his mind, a process which takes several years; he refused to be discouraged by the conventional wisdom of his neighbours.

As long as you are clear on the “why” for your own farm, it does not matter what other farmers think - because your goals are not their goals.

However, the main recurring thought as I read this brilliant book was how new technologies can help Gabe’s vision for the future of farming to be replicated at scale.

How can technology enable regenerative farming practices to move from a niche practice into the most widely accepted form of farm management in the world?

The key area is in using artificial intelligence (AI) to change the way we think about soil management.

A key point which the book returns to continually is that all progress on a farm starts with a focus on soil health. However, as Gabe points out, this is hard to do:

“There is no magic number [when measuring soil health]. There is no single indicator or test that will give a farmer the one number he or she needs to know to determine whether a soil is healthy.”

Soil health is complicated, and this is where AI comes in.

Soil health measurement is based on layers and layers of data, all of which interact with each other constantly in ways that we only understand in a limited way.

Robotics, like the Tom robots being developed by Small Robot Company, can help build better decision making tools by collecting data in a much more detailed and accurate way. AI can do something which no human being can do, which is to analyse and understand every layer and its relevance in contributing towards the end goal. It can then rapidly accelerate best practice at scale.

On Brown’s ranch they use a set of holistic management questions to challenge and inform their decision making. For example, what is the impact of the decision you are about to take on sustainability?

If you take this action will it bring you closer to or farther from the future resource base you require? 

This is such a difficult question for a human being to answer and one that only time and experience can really make us better at. What if AI could capture all of the experience of Brown and other super practitioners and embed that intelligence in the decision making processes on your farm?

As thinking machines become more commonplace on farms, they will create a learning network where the cause and effect of every decision is accurately measured and then informs the future decision making of all of the machines and human beings in the network.

AI will not replace human intelligence, but it can augment it. 

Gabe Brown’s book and his subsequent speaking engagements have already had a huge impact on agriculture. As a result, there are pockets of brilliant farm management happening all over the world.

There is another level of impact that I believe is possible.

What Small Robot Company is striving to achieve; is enable these leading edge forms of soil health management to be replicated and developed at scale, to make Regenerative Agriculture the most widely adopted form of farm management in the world and to increase the profitability of farming through a renewed focus on soil health.

Which other books should I be reading?

If you have any recommendations; we would love to hear from you - please do get in touch!