The Brown Revolution: Increasing Agricultural Productivity Naturally

Linda Velder, an energetic history buff who runs the Newell Museum, explains that, with every drought, these on-farm losses have rippled out into the community. Less tax revenue from ranches has meant less money for schools, and so fewer extra-curricular activities, shortened classes, lower wages for teachers -- at times local schools have even struggled to pay their electric and water bills. With the ranching community spending less money, stores in town have reduced their inventory and hired fewer people. Some businesses have let their customers buy on credit, but in extended droughts that has led to the stores themselves closing down. Likewise, banks, unable to collect on loans, have shuttered their doors.

All this is to say that while the town is fortified by imported water, it is not invincible. Even the miracle oasis of the Belle Fourche Irrigation Project cannot fully protect Newell from the reality that it exists in a dry land, a place where survival is never guaranteed. In the introduction to his 1969 book, The Sound of Mountain Water, Wallace Stegner laid bare the Sisyphean reality behind projects like that in Newell and throughout the arid West. "Not all the irrigation works of the next century ... can affect the absolute amount of water that the mountains can produce," he wrote, "nor alter the climate sufficiently to take the dry clarity from the air or change the gray and tawny country to a green one."

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Hay field, Butte County, SD copy.JPG

The Brown Revolution's sexiest element is sequestering carbon on a global scale -- that is what gets people talking. But that is possible only when there are people who are able and willing to do the work of transforming the landscape. Therein lies the revolution's more humble, perhaps trickier goal: figuring out how to create stable, dynamic communities in these arid regions, where the capacity to support human life is limited.

For Jim Howell and company the solution lies in having more water. But rather than import it from elsewhere, their method is to make more of what's naturally available. The person who demonstrated to me how it works is Brandon Dalton, the youngest of the crew at Horse Creek. Blond, scruffy, and six-foot-four, he looks to have walked out of a Garth Brooks video. In truth, he's a wildlife biologist trained at the University of Washington who came to ranching through his wife's family. At Horse Creek he is respected as an expert on wildlife, but as the Brown Revolution's first employee, Dalton is known more practically as the guy who lives part-time in the trailer and is charged with moving cattle and fences from one place to another.

To explain the water cycle, Dalton took me to the creek itself, which by that day in mid-July was not a flowing stream but rather a chain of wet spots marking the vein of moisture that runs down the property's center. Within sight of one another were both the problem and one possible solution. The first was a shallow pothole filled with green grass and holding a couple of inches of murky water, the second a twisting line of water flowing deep in the ground between banks three-feet high. The latter looked more like a creek in the traditional sense, but it was in fact the issue that needed correcting.

Dalton jumped across the mini chasm between the banks and explained that in this formation, the water runs through fast. A heavy rain will bring heavy moisture for only as long as it takes to flow from one end of the property to the other; what's more, it will carve the creek deeper, so that the next rain will flow through even faster. The erosion also lowers the floor of the creek, which in turn lowers the elevation of the water running through it and thus the water table. He showed me how above, on the creek's banks, the soil had dried out and the plants were thin and sparse.

"You can basically see the land falling apart," Dalton said. He kicked the bank and a chunk of soil broke off into the water.

In the pothole, however, the moisture would spread out laterally and raise the water table in a swath beyond its discernible edges. Simply put, rather than running off the land, the water stays there, and the grasses and other plants in that area are sub-irrigated naturally. This matters in any year, but in times of drought it can be the difference between having grass for cattle to eat and having to rely on expensive feed from outside -- the difference between staying afloat and going out of business.

Dalton explained that the gully version of this creek results from too little of the animal impact that was inherent in the self-herding of bison: as the land is over-rested, root systems fail to hold the soil in place, allowing the great force of spring rains to turn naturally gentle depressions into sharp banks. He went on, explaining that this damage can be corrected by the bison-like herding of cattle: Heavy stepping of hooves smooth out steep banks, which allows grasses to germinate there, which in turn will hold soil and begin the process of turning the gully back into a pothole.

Already in that first year at Horse Creek they were stocking far more animals than the former owner -- 1,100 yearlings as opposed to the roughly 160 cows and calves of the previous year. The cattleman from whom they got the yearlings was skeptical that the land could support that many, but after visiting their operation he conceded that the pastures grazed early that spring looked as if they hadn't been touched all year; indeed, they were ready to be grazed again. Dalton explained that the land hadn't even been significantly improved yet; the increase was possible simply as a product of following the bison pattern of heavy grazing followed by sufficient rest. This year Howell and company more than doubled the herd to 2,250 head, and the land appeared to be improved even further: greener, and with a greater diversity of grasses and forbs proliferating.

In the long-term, Dalton envisions a water cycle so improved that beavers and other uncommon wildlife might populate this creek. This early in the game there's no telling what will happen, but throughout the holistic management community there are examples of great transformation that inspire fledgling projects like this. One renowned rancher in Wyoming rehabilitated the main creek on his ranch and expanded its riparian area from a width of 30 feet to a half-mile. In six years, he increased his land's productive capacity by 150 percent.

"To the extent that you can gradually make that happen more and more and more," Howell explains around the campfire, "the more biological wealth you have out there that is going to sustain life of all forms, as well as profitability for humans. So at the end of the day, that's totally what it all comes back to. That's why these landscapes have collapsed and people can't make a living off of them anymore and the towns have collapsed: it's because water is evaporating or running off as opposed to soaking into the soil."

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

The third partner on the ground at Horse Creek is Zachary Jones, a funny-guy type with wild dark hair and a goatee. He raises cattle on a ranch outside Harlowton, Montana, that has been in the family for more than a century, but like his Brown Revolution compatriots, he is noticeably unconventional: He drives a Subaru station wagon instead of a pick-up. He makes kombucha mushroom tea in a vat at home. In the trailer at Horse Creek, he is never far from his MacBook. In the group of three, Jones is the philosopher, the one to introduce a cosmic perspective that reframes a conversation.

As we discuss the practical strategy behind improving the water cycle, he interjects: "But before you get to managing the soil surface," he says, "you have to get to what manages the soil."

Howell picks up his lead. "Right! Which is human beings and their tools. So, at the end of the day, it comes back to that: a shift in what drives our decision-making. Ultimately it's about getting water to soak in, but there's so much that has to happen before that."

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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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