The Brown Revolution: Increasing Agricultural Productivity Naturally

That may be the biggest challenge the Brown Revolution will face in South Dakota and elsewhere in the arid West: getting people to change their relationship with the land. The crew at Horse Creek can create a model of what's possible, and even, by buying enough land, have an impact on a larger scale. But the real revolution will come only when this change is made throughout the region by the individual owners who together hold more land than Howell and company ever will.

It comes back to holistic management's premise of emulating the natural ecology of a place. The larger the scale, the better the concept works; ideally it would entail enormous herds of animals moving across entire regions -- for instance, not just Newell but all of the western Dakotas, or the High Plains of Texas and New Mexico. At that magnitude, it would be possible to restore the entire water cycle and not just a section of creek. The obstacle is that it requires a fundamental shift: People must see the land not as a series of individual properties, but as one larger whole.

Grain elevator, Newell, SD.JPG

There is a movement in the Great Plains to reintegrate individual holdings into a single landscape. Called the Buffalo Commons, it would involve landowners selling their land to public ownership in order to create essentially a giant nature preserve. The idea is to establish some semblance of the open, bison-covered plains that existed before Americans cut the range into pieces. There's just one problem: it requires essentially dismantling the community and economy that now exists in the rural areas of the Plains, which, ragged as it may be, is composed of more than three million people.

As Howell and Jones see it, simply deleting people from the picture doesn't solve problems for the long run. "What is necessary is to have competent, rooted, native people who know how to live in these places," Howell says. "Without a skilled human element we can't bring about the ecological shift."

From Howell's perspective, the problems stem not from our presence in this particular landscape but from how we've chosen to act there. Ever since European settlers arrived in the 19th century, the core of the Plains identity has been independence and dig-in-your-boot-heels resilience. It has seemed necessary -- those needing outside help simply don't last in this ruthless environment.

I thought of this as I looked through the Butte County Post one morning. The "Rural Newell News" section told mostly of ladies' luncheons and visits from out-of-town guests, but the first two items read as follows:

Merle Vig of the Mud Butte area got rid of the neck brace. He and a horse had a difference of opinion and the horse won that round.

Don Stomprud had some of his buildings rearranged out at the ranch when the tornado went through his place. He felt that he was lucky that the damage was not worse.

As much as community matters deeply to people who live in places like Newell, their first response to the world's challenges is a sort of radical self-reliance. Therein lies the greatest challenge that Howell and company face in these parts: seeing the landscape as a larger whole requires that people see themselves as part of a larger whole.

I recall explaining the Brown Revolution to a local ranching couple, who seemed cautiously intrigued. But when I suggested that the concept might be accomplished through ranchers forming a cooperative, the wife looked at me askance.

"You mean they'd need to work it as a sort of coalition?" she said.


"That'll never happen."

That was the end of the conversation.

* * *

Second Street, Newell, SD.JPG

The Horse Creek crew is not yet ready to debate the core Plains identity with the crowd down at the diner in Newell, but privately Howell suggests that perhaps the foundation supporting this immutable independence is faulty. It's thinking made popular by Wallace Stegner, who believed that pioneers heading west over the hundredth meridian brought with them a relationship to the environment shaped by ample rainfall as exists in the Eastern United States and much of Western Europe.

"The history of the West," Stegner wrote, "has been a history of importation of humid-land habits (and carelessness) into a dry land that will not tolerate them; and of the indulgence of an unprecedented personal liberty, an atomic individualism, in a country that experience says can only be successfully tamed and lived in by a high degree of cooperation."

Seated in the trailer at Horse Creek, Howell argues that that misplaced identity is exactly why towns like Newell are collapsing throughout the western Plains. In his view, the entitlement to autonomy that is possible in lands with ample rainfall should be replaced here by a new pattern of settlement guided by what the land is capable of providing.

"When I say that the community needs to be healthy and stable and secure to realize the land's ecological potential, that doesn't necessarily mean salvaging all the little towns," he explains. "Ultimately, that's what's driving us: to create a new culture, a whole new approach to living out here on these landscapes, one that's appropriate to this place. And that's the hardest thing of all, for cultures which are based on habits to change and evolve over time."

Howell and company recognize that such change takes generations, and that they're unlikely to happen here in Newell in the immediate future. So for now they are focused on just implementing their model and growing it as big as they can. At least in terms of expediency, abandoning the immediate pursuit of major social transformation is actually a plus. Not saddled by the collaborative process, they can simply buy land and change its management overnight, bringing improved carbon sequestration that much more quickly.

The drawback is that this approach, too, relies on imported resources -- not mountain water from Wyoming but rather investment capital from New York City.

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

There's an old joke among cattlemen that the best way to make a small fortune in ranching is to start with a big one. And yet the Brown Revolution's lead investor, the Greenwich, Connecticut-based Capital Institute, is optimistic about their investment specifically because it seems secure in comparison to the current financial market. The strategy is not centered on real estate -- they don't intend to "flip" the land after improving it, the way some housing developers do. They aren't waiting to cash in on carbon credits, either, though that may provide additional income down the road. In time they'd like to expand into producing grass-fed beef for the specialty food market, but for now the model revolves around minimal capital investments and steady returns. Their medium is the humble industry of custom grazing, whereby contractors fatten yearlings on pasture then return them to their owners to sell.

It goes like this: The Brown Revolutionaries buy under-utilized land for cheap, implement holistic management as contractors using other people's cattle, and collect profits in the form of fees for the custom grazing service. As the land improves through their management, they'll be able to accommodate more yearlings and collect more profit.

"If you invest a hard number each year with no capital investments and you can double that over X amount of years, you have a much more stable investment than most," reasoned John Fullerton, the Capital Institute's founder and president. "It's not like buying Google when it was still a private company, but from my vantage point, on a risk-adjusted basis it's actually quite attractive."

There is a precedent for just this sort of profit-oriented speculation from afar, in the cattle barons of the Old West. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, massive herds grazed the open range of western South Dakota. (At the turn of the century, Belle Fourche, 25 miles west of Newell, was the world's premier livestock shipping point, with 2,500 railcar-loads of cattle leaving each day.) Those animals were herded by hired cowboys and owned by investors who mostly lived elsewhere -- often in more humid climes such as New York City and Great Britain. But as fencing and farming changed the circumstances of the West, it became clear that owning cattle was a risky business; savvy investors took their money out of raising meat and put it into processing.

What's to say that the Brown Revolution's funders won't pull out if their investment falters? How will they guard against the folly of humid-land thinking, expecting the land to produce at a desired rate rather than recognizing its ebb and flow? And what if drought returns? Would a few dry years prove the holistic approach, or would it disband the revolution?

It must be said that the investors are not driven solely by dollar signs. Fullerton, for one, believes that such socially responsible investment has meaning beyond money. "Our purpose," he says, "is to demonstrate that there is a way to deploy capital in a way that's aligned with the ecological crisis we're facing, but on the investment side of the line that separates investment and philanthropy. We're not doing this because it's the biggest way to get a return, but I think it's a pretty smart thing to do with my money as opposed to putting it in the stock market."

But is that enough to sustain a revolution? While local ranchers would have their roots to carry them through the ups and downs of a new system, it remains to be seen how long outsiders will hold on through hard times. In her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris captured the nature of this place and the beings that try to make it their own. "The Plains are not forgiving," she wrote. "Anything that is shallow -- the easy optimism of a homesteader; the false hope that denies geography, climate, history; the tree whose roots don't reach ground water -- will dry up and blow away." If this new vision for western rangelands is to succeed, the commitment of its visiting visionaries -- Fullerton and Howell alike -- must prove deep enough to last until the local community is ready to join the revolution.

Image: Lisa Hamilton.

This article was written with the support of the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

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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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