The Brown Revolution: Increasing Agricultural Productivity Naturally

A team of ranchers in South Dakota are using holistic management techniques to regenerate our ailing grasslands and fight climate change

Jim Howell,  Brandon Dalton and Zachary Jones, Horse Creek, SD.JPG

Dusk in Western South Dakota. A half-hour ago, at sunset, the world here made its last pulse for the day: birds hurried between fence posts, mosquitoes emerged from the shadows and feasted furiously, the sweet clover turned iridescent yellow in the late light. Now, the movement has ceased. Even by day it is a quiet landscape, inhabited primarily by meadowlarks and grasses. But as night draws its blue self over this place, the silence is profound.

On this particular 8,000-acre section of the Plains there is a single light in view, coming from inside a trailer. Bustling about camp are three men -- cowboys, you'd probably call them. They certainly look the part, dressed in boots and wide-brimmed hats, one of them splitting old fence posts with an axe to build a campfire, another working on some beef for dinner. They call this pasture Horse Creek for the water running down its center, and on it they have 1,100 yearling cattle.

The Green Report

And yet, for these men the bovines are only a means to a greater end. According to the unofficial ringleader, Jim Howell, their goal is nothing less than helping the world to avert a looming global catastrophe. What they're doing here is not just herding cattle; they are starting what they call "The Brown Revolution."

Howell is not revolutionary looking, being of medium height and middle age, with gray spun into his short, blond hair and a bit of John Denver in his face. Back home in southwest Colorado he runs cattle on land that his family has ranched since the 1880s, but over the years he has worked with cattle from New Mexico to New Zealand. He thinks about the world in a vast way, and articulates his globally-minded perspective with clarity and depth, even when sitting by a campfire.

He is the first to offer that the name the Brown Revolution has its drawbacks, foremost of which is that for many it calls to mind a movement based on dung. (Full of conviction, he wonders optimistically if that will spur people to seek more information.) The name is a modern spin on the Green Revolution of the mid-twentieth century. The Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural productivity in developing countries to meet the demands of a growing world population, then one of the world's great challenges; Howell and his group aim to increase agricultural productivity around the world as a way of addressing one of the great challenges of our time, climate change. But while the Green Revolution hinged on implementing new technology, the Brown Revolution relies on restoring natural systems.

The underlying technique is called holistic management, and was developed by biologist Allan Savory in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) beginning in the 1960s. He saw that the arid grasslands on which the region's people, livestock, and wildlife depended were succumbing to desertification. In looking for a solution, Savory recognized that the grasslands had evolved out of a symbiotic relationship with large, grazing herbivores. In time he saw that the same was true of similar ecosystems around the world, including that of western South Dakota and the rest of the Great Plains, with its once-great herds of bison.

In arid environments, plant matter doesn't degrade easily on its own -- it needs these large animals to break it down in their rumens and stamp it into the ground and generally work the land. This was accomplished naturally: As the herbivores traveled in large herds for safety against their predators, they would cause a great disturbance to the land; then, for their own sake, they would leave and not return until the plants had had enough rest to regenerate.

Now take away the Great Plains' bison, or the equivalent animals elsewhere, and replace them with cattle, property lines, and fences. The equation still includes large, grazing herbivores, but because they are relatively stationary within the landscape, the symbiosis is lost. Certain areas are overused, and elsewhere plants simply oxidize and die off from under-use; microorganisms decline, water cycles fall apart, and the land gradually collapses.

The basic premise of holistic management is to use livestock like wild animals. But whereas bison on the Great Plains moved through the landscape by instinct, now ranchers must supply that direction. Rather than simply turning cattle into a pasture, these ranchers conduct them like a herd, concentrating bodies to graze one area hard, then leaving it until the plants have regenerated. The effect can be tremendous, with benefits including increased organic matter in the soil, rejuvenation of microorganisms, and restoration of water cycles.

Butte County, SD copy.JPG

According to Howell and his colleagues, there can also be an exponential increase in the land's ability to sequester carbon. Savory explains in his paper "A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change" that there are already 12 million hectares (29.7 million acres) of rangeland managed holistically in Australia, Africa, and North America. Increasing those soils' organic matter by one percent would remove 3.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from the atmosphere. (For context, he offers that "the annual total emissions from all sources for the year 2000 was an estimated 44 gigatons.") Savory goes on to argue that increasing the organic matter by just 0.5 percent across all of the world's 4.9 billion hectares of rangeland would sequester 720 gigatons of CO2e; increasing it by two percent would sequester 2,880 gigatons. In a nutshell, the Brown Revolution consists of sequestering massive amounts of carbon by bringing holistic management to the world's arid grasslands.

"It has to be done on a freaking massive scale," Howell says, "so it's going to require huge flows of capital to make it work. We're not going to own the whole world, but hopefully we're going to be a significant player at the table and influence land management policy on a global scale."

Howell's goal is two-fold: to implement holistic management on enough land as to have an impact on climate change, but also to provide a model that becomes the standard for grasslands management around the world. And he and his team intend to go big, fast. More than once, Howell and his partners referred to the Gates Foundation as an example of the level of influence they hope to wield in coming years.

For now they have partnered with a handful of alternative-minded investors who are fronting the money to buy land that Howell and his crew then manage and transform; Horse Creek's 8,000 acres are less than one percent of what they hope to buy in the Western Plains over the next three years. In the long run, they imagine a publicly-traded entity with shares available to even $10-investors. Because Howell feels so confident in the power of holistic management, his predominant attitude is that more or less all that lies between here and there is just buying the land and making it happen.

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Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on agriculture and rural communities around the world.

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