Brian DeVore’s book, Wildly Successful Farming, is rich in the stuff of life. Its pages are full of people you’d like to meet, countryside you’d like to see, bees and bobolinks, beauty and soil. It feels like cheating to read it, knowing that you’re sharing in insights that others have gained through years of sweat and careful, loving observations of the land. The problems of the world are not all solved. But where things are moving in a good direction, these are some of the people who are likely behind it. Whether you’re a farmer or not, it engenders hope and inspires ideas. And DeVore will be the first one to tell you that ideas matter. He writes, “Maybe what we should be hanging onto, and promoting wherever possible, is the idea that with a little creativity and luck (and a lot of work), a wildly successful farm can rise within an industrialized landscape.”
This book offers example after example of exactly that.
What does it mean to be a wildly successful farm? DeVore credits the expression to Art “Tex” Hawkins, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service watershed biologist who went on to start a sustainability initiative at Winona State University in Minnesota, and whose father was one of Aldo Leopold’s first graduate students. In short, it’s about “the good that can come from refusing to separate the ecological from the agronomic.”
In choosing the phrase as the title for his book, says DeVore, he is referring to those farmers who “measure success based on how well their production systems interact with the land’s natural functions.” Wildly successful farms succeed “ecologically, financially, and from a quality of life point of view.”
At a more local scale, those measures of success play out differently for each of the many farmers profiled in the book, and evolve over time. For Dan Sprecht, whom we meet in the early chapters, and who sadly passed away before its publication, success was in part about being more efficient in nutrient cycling on his 500-acre hilltop farm in the Driftless Area of northeastern Iowa. Sprecht had been to the Gulf of Mexico, was well aware of the dead zone linked to nitrogen fertilizers, and took steps so that run-off from his own cropland to the nearby Mississippi River would not contribute to the problem. For Loretta and Martin Jaus on their west-central Minnesota organic dairy farm, success is measured in part by the hum of bird and insect life from the 11 acres of prairie and wetland they’ve preserved as part of their farm. “If those sounds weren’t there, we would consider ourselves a failure,” says Martin. But more, it’s about how they’ve integrated the same principles into decisions made elsewhere on this working farm, employing strategies like diverse crop rotation without the use of chemicals, planting of native warm-season grasses in their pastures, and building the soil to—in Loretta’s words— “manage subterranean wildlife.” For John and Maureen Allen in southwestern Wisconsin, who raise livestock to provide meat to customers as part of a CSA concept, success is when their farm is integral to the functioning of a restored oak savanna. To achieve the desired patchy canopy cover, sometimes that means getting out the chainsaw to open up a closed forest, while at the same time planting trees in an adjacent grassland. As DeVore notes, such actions could be seen as “a recipe for removing all doubt among your neighbors that you’ve gone around the bend.” But, for the Allens, it brings them closer to the goal, as does the strategic use of grazing animals to stand in for the bison and fire that once created the disturbance needed to maintain a savanna.
The book is not a how-to manual: at least not at the level of detail where one could apply the strategies it describes. But along the way, the reader learns about what has worked in some settings, what hasn’t worked, and why; and how the farmers adjusted, what they did next. We come to understand some of the challenges these farm families face: not only the expected, like hoping the fields dry out in time to plant or harvest, but court battles against large, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and government policies that seem to work at cross purposes with healthy living systems by promoting intensive chemical use. DeVore describes how these policies can mean a financial hit, in a passage related to Roundup Ready herbicide-resistant seeds. “At one time, biotech industry officials talked the U.S. Department of Agriculture into providing farmers a break on their federally subsidized crop insurance premiums if they utilized corn hybrids that were ‘stacked’ with traits like herbicide resistance.”
On the plus side, we are also introduced to some of the cost-share programs that help wildly successful farmers make a go of it, and regional initiatives reducing flooding and erosion by establishing more continuous living cover across the landscape.
It’s a credit to DeVore’s own knowledge, first-hand experience and research that soil health emerges as the surprise dark horse among the book’s themes: a subject that may seem dry but turns out to be engaging, even riveting. “Wildness,” he writes, “extends beneath the surface as well.” Readers learn about explorations of root depth using the same type of cameras used for colonoscopies; about the habitat engineering of microorganisms that make the soil less prone to erosion; about the discovery that farmers following innovative sustainable practices could build organic matter in their soils to a greater degree than was thought possible in a lifetime; about improving soil structure and its capacity to infiltrate water—in one instance, enabling a field to take in 13 inches of rain in a 24-hour period—rather than running off in a flash through drain tiles and into streams.
Nowhere in the book does DeVore adopt a “holier than thou” tone. His long association with the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project has given him an understanding of the varied reasons why people do what they do, and how change happens. He’s quick to admit how his own worldview has changed through the years, having grown up on a farm where, “I considered farming and the natural world to be two very different animals.” But reconciling the two is “more than a nice concept,” says DeVore, pointing out the percentage of land area devoted to farming in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa (respectively, 54, 45, and 89%). Clearly, anyone who cares about nature must also care about agriculture. Along with preservation of ecologically significant natural areas and wilderness, the concept of “conservation agriculture” is one we can all embrace.
The reader gets to stand in the boots of these farmers, looking out on their land, strategizing, reviewing the latest science, doing the hard work of making a living while at the same time living out their beliefs. We hear them in conversation with other farmers, debating, learning. As DeVore notes, wildly successful farmers are to some extent still outliers in a system where big agri-business is always seeking an ever-bigger share. But they are a powerful source of optimism: as individuals and as a community making real, tangible progress. Rooting for them is rooting for ourselves and the ecological values we share.
To convey everything that is great and affirming about this book would take a book. Fortunately, Brian DeVore has provided one for us. Somehow, reading it enables one to walk the line that Wendell Berry calls us to walk, which DeVore refers to in his acknowledgements: to “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Brian DeVore is Managing Editor and Media Coordinator for the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project, where he has been on the staff since 1994. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in southwestern Iowa and, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, operated a dairy cooperative in Lesotho. He has a degree in agricultural journalism from Iowa State University and has worked as a reporter for the Des Moines Register, the Winona Daily News, and Farm Futures. He contributed to the groundbreaking 2002 book, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems. His latest book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, was published in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
AGATE Extra: Checking in with Brian Devore
AGATE: One of the things that has come out in the news about the conflict in Ukraine has been Russia’s huge exports of fertilizer to India and elsewhere in the region, which has served to illuminate the reliance of many countries with depleted soils on fertilizer for food production. Are soils in the U.S. similarly depleted? Do you interpret this kind of news as a cautionary tale for farmers here in the U.S.?
DeVore: For the most part, soils in North America are not as depleted as they are in parts of the world where intense crop cultivation has a far longer history. However, we are starting to pay the price for decades of intense monocultural cultivation that robs the soil of its innate ability to generate fertility and remain resilient in the face of climate change. We are, in effect, mining the soil, and seeing the results: an increasing amount of purchased fertilizer is required to maintain yields. Recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences research shows that a third of the farmland in the Corn Belt — that’s 100 million acres — has lost its carbon-rich topsoil to erosion. And when you lose carbon, you lose natural fertility. In fact, soil that is depleted in carbon has less of an ability to make efficient use of artificial fertilizers, no matter how much is poured on.
Since 2020, the price of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer has more than tripled and the war in Ukraine has only worsened the supply situation. In addition, there is concern we will reach “peak phosphorus” in coming decades, which means it will simply become too expensive to extract this mineral for use as fertilizer.
As a result, an increasing number of farmers I’m talking to are showing an interest in adopting soil healthy practices. Besides all the other reasons building soil health is a good idea — less erosion, better weather resilience, more carbon sequestration — it has now become an economic issue. Farmers have long relied on relatively low fossil fuel prices to support their fertilizer habit, and that strategy is less and less viable. There has been some good university research coming out lately showing a direct correlation between healthier soil and lower fertilizer costs. That connection is a real selling point to larger “conventional” farmers who may not otherwise have an interest in regenerative practices.
I would add that more of the farmers I talk to see building soil health as a way to have more control over their own farming operation — they are not comfortable being so vulnerable to worldwide circumstances such as war, oil embargoes, or supply chain disruptions. Building their own homegrown soil puts them back in the driver’s seat.
AGATE: Since publication of your book, is there anything new and notable in Minnesota and neighboring states among the farmers you interviewed or in the farming community generally, that you see as a hopeful sign?
Devore: I guess again it all goes back to that “wildest” of ecosystems: the soil. In Minnesota and surrounding states, building soil health has become increasingly accepted as viable (and critical) by conventional agriculture, the environmental community, and society in general. At the workshops and field days we sponsor, the Land Stewardship Project is seeing an increasing number of the participants being what we consider “conventional” farmers. And we are seeing farmers being invited to conferences being put on by environmental groups to talk about the positive impacts techniques like cover crops, managed rotational grazing, and perennial production systems can have on our ecosystems.
Since the book came out, the Minnesota Office for Soil Health has been created, the state Legislature has provided millions of dollars in funding to help farmers adopt soil healthy practices, and the role regenerative agriculture can play in helping us deal with climate change has become part of the national debate.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic made it clear how vulnerable our multinational, concentrated food system is. In 2020 and 2021, farmers who were raising meat and produce for direct sale to consumers saw their demand skyrocket. This helped make the regenerative practices these farmers tend to use more economically lucrative, thus truly making them “wildly successful.” However, it remains to be seen if consumers’ interest in local/regional food produced using regenerative practices is a long-term trend, or simply a “COVID blip.”
Finally, one really exciting recent trend I’m seeing here in Minnesota is situations where beginning farmers are buying or renting land in areas that are considered less than optimal when it comes to crop or livestock production. Inflated land prices have simply made it impossible for them to get started in what we would consider the traditional Corn Belt. As a result, they are moving to areas like northeastern Minnesota, where land is more affordable, but far less fertile. They are then undertaking practices like managed rotational grazing and cover cropping to build that marginal land’s soil and help it punch above its weight as a good producer. In effect, they’re adding value to that sub-par land by boosting the soil’s biology. That has great implications not only for beginning, regenerative farming, but for providing healthy options in areas not normally known for being self-sufficient food-wise.
AGATE: Thanks, Brian, and thanks for all the good work of the Land Stewardship Project!