When I lived in Beijing, people would always ask me how the pollution was. I told them two things: the Communist Party planted trees to stop sandstorms from entering the capital. Second, they also moved factories away from the city, yet didn’t shut them down. Despite all this, the Chinese capital still experiences terrible air quality for periods of the year. This past summer I moved home to Minnesota and was amazed to watch everyone taking pictures of the smoky haze drifting east from California, Washington, and Oregon and south from Canada.  While this was new for them, I was reminded of Beijing. A picturesque lake, glazed over with a harsh bite of reality: the wildfire smoke had finally reached the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota. Little did I know that I would soon move to the largest EPA superfund site in the United States, Butte, Montana where they have been dealing with these environmental issues for decades. 

A hundred years ago, at the height of a copper mining boom, Butte was the largest city between Chicago and the West. After most of the mines shut down, Butte’s population plummeted to only a fraction. Now, the community is growing again after decades of environmental restoration.  

Butte’s future will be shaped by opportunities and challenges related to climate change. Butte is seen by private industry as a good location for clean energy development with recent proposals to develop solar, green hydrogen, and energy storage systems. However, the community faces climate challenges that threaten to undo much of the environmental work of recent years. Community leaders are eager to understand the challenges and achieve the opportunities by developing a climate adaptation and green energy plan. Thus, our project was born—Resilient Butte. 

Butte-Silver Bow County, Montana Technological University, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) are partnering to create a Butte Sustainability and Resilience Plan. Unlike us Minnesotans, Montana has been battling drought and wildfire risk for years—risks that are only getting worse.  

One priority is to protect the Basin Creek watershed, the main source of Butte’s drinking water. Vast areas of beetle-killed lodgepole pine in the watershed are at risk of burning in a wildfire, which could fill the reservoir with sediments and plug water treatment filters. Even further, many Butte residents live in old buildings without proper insulation and weatherization, which pose health risks from rising temperatures and wildfire smoke. Those are just a couple issues we want to tackle with this new plan. But our plan isn’t just about the negatives. 

Butte has a rich history. It is well-positioned and has the potential to become a fantastic renewable energy hub. Butte industrial products, including silicon gas and copper, are essential for solar energy. In recent years, Butte has been approached by large-array solar and green hydrogen energy developers, but county officials haven’t yet developed land-use plans to accommodate these new uses.  Meanwhile, the county is eyeing infrastructure investments through the U.S. Department of Energy to develop clean energy projects on former mine lands. The Resilient Butte project will provide an economic development guide for the city-county.  

With our first steps towards Resilient Butte, we’d like to invite the residents in Butte to participate in a survey that can be found at: ResilientButte.org. We would like to also invite you to connect with Resilient Butte on Facebook and Instagram and at our website Resilient Butte. Get involved and help shape Butte’s climate adaptation and green energy plan! 

The National Center for Appropriate Technology is partnering with Montana Campus Compact (MTCC) to create a MTCC VISTA “Resilience Cohort.” This cohort will consist of AmeriCorps VISTA members serving in rural communities around Montana, building capacity for anti-poverty and education initiatives through the lens of local resilience. NCAT will continue to host a VISTA in support of the Resilient Butte initiative, plus a second VISTA member who will coordinate the various programs and grow the Resilience Cohort project.

Resilience in this instance refers to the ability of a community at the city, county, tribal, or regional level, to withstand shocks and plan for the future, and adapt to and mitigate climate change. The climate crisis is most acutely felt at the local level, and among disadvantaged groups. Using the Montana Department of Commerce’s Montana Resilience Framework as a guide, Resilience Cohort members will meet communities where they are, holding community conversations around climate disruption, local challenges, and local solutions.

MTCC is currently recruiting for five positions to begin at the start of the next service term, August 15, 2022. Each position is based in a small, rural Montana community. Cities include Havre on the Canadian border, Livingston just north of Yellowstone National Park, Red Lodge located south of Billings Polson on Flathead Lake and the Flathead Indian Reservation near Glacier National Park, and Poplar, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in the northeast of the state.

Havre: Opportunity Link seeks systemic solutions to reduce poverty and help the communities of Northcentral Montana achieve and sustain independence, prosperity and a better way of life. As an AmeriCorps member you will collaborate with Aaniiih Nakoda College and Stone Child College, staff and community members on the Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations to research and develop materials to offer a series of trainings designed to increase the capacity of current and potential local food growers to create an economically successful business through their agricultural activities. Apply Today!

Livingston: The Park County Environmental Council works with the community to safeguard the land, water, wildlife, and people of Yellowstone’s Northern gateway through grassroots organizing and community advocacy. As an AmeriCorps member you will perform a needs assessment of the community and identify solutions for the most pressing threats posed by a changing climate (wildfires, droughts, agricultural impact, tourism impact, community mental health, etc.). Based on this assessment, you will develop a Park County Community Resilience Plan based upon the model of the Montana Resilience Framework. Apply Today!

Polson: Since 1958, the mission of Flathead Lakers has been to protect clean water, healthy ecosystems, and a lasting quality of life in the Flathead watershed. As an AmeriCorps member, you will assess the greatest needs in the region’s low-income communities related to climate resilience, such as the increased risk of wildfire and flooding posed by climate change. Based on this assessment, you will develop strategic outreach and communication plans to promote landscape and community resilience in the Flathead Watershed. Apply Today!

Poplar: The Office of Environmental Protection for the Fort Peck Tribes works to provide a better world for tomorrow by conserving the natural resources of the Fort Peck Reservation. As an AmeriCorps member, you will help to establish a climate resilience plan for the Tribes by community assessment activities and researching preparedness strategies. The resilience plan will enable communities to better respond to the impacts of climate change and to be better prepared for environmental disasters and environmental system shocks. Apply Today!

Red Lodge: The Planning and Zoning Division of the City of Red Lodge administers the city’s growth management program. As an AmeriCorps member you will serve at City Hall under the supervision of the city’s Planning Director in close partnership with the Red Lodge Area Community Foundation to perform an assessment of the Mountain Springs Villa low-income housing area. You will evaluate options to improve green infrastructure and engage in fundraising activities to implement identified infrastructure improvements. Apply Today!

For more information about AmeriCorps, the VISTA program, MTCC, or any of the service positions listed above please visit https://mtcompact.org/. Other service positions, in addition to those listed above, can be found here.

For more information about the Resilience Cohort, please write to andrewm@ncat.org.

In a new video series: Soil Health 101: Principles for Livestock Production, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist Nina Prater makes the case for modeling soil health strategies after nature’s blueprint that produced that situation in the first place.

We all know the basic story. Plants photosynthesize sunlight and make sugars. They use the sugars to build leaves and stems and roots and seeds – pretty much everything that makes a plant a plant.

But at the same time, they share the wealth by exuding sugars from the roots to feed a “community” of soil microbes and fungi that in turn help keep the soil healthy for the plant.

A classic win-win situation.

“This layer of productive soil on top of the bedrock that we all have to work with is this vibrant living thing that has a community of life within it,” Nina says. “You have to treat it like a living thing because it is.”

And just like any living thing, there are practices that can keep it healthy and practices that can cause it harm.

Nina and other NCAT staffers produced a three-part webinar series – Soil Health 101 – through the ATTRA sustainable agriculture program, along with support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (Southern SARE).

You can watch the webinars here:

The series has a particular focus on the role livestock can play in soil health, but its strategies for keeping soil healthy is good information for any producer.

Those strategies are often described as the principles of soil health. Nina breaks it down to five.

  • Minimize disturbance to the soil
  • Maximize biodiversity on the land
  • Keep the soil covered at all times
  • Keep living roots growing in the soil during as much of the year as possible
  • Incorporate animals and use regenerative grazing practices

Nature provides models for how to put those principles of soil health into place, Nina says, and the webinar is full of practical examples of just that.

“To build soil health on our farm, we have to look to nature to figure out how to do that. Nature built all of these soils in the first place,” she explains. “The planet wasn’t created with all these, you know, lush terrains and prairie and everything. All that evolved over time. And it evolved with these ecosystem that built soil.”

To learn even more about the importance of soil health, and to connect with farmers, ranchers, and land managers taking steps to regenerate their soils, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.

“Your soil health is going to keep you in business. If you take care of your soil, the land will give back to you.” Tina Weldon and her partner Orion are among a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to catch and hold more water in the soil.

Join the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) on Thursday, February 17 for the world premiere of its film Soil for Water, with a panel discussion to follow.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is working to capture and hold more water in the soil by building a growing network of farmers, ranchers, and land managers who are taking steps to regenerate the land and strengthen their businesses. This voluntary, free network is now available to farmers, ranchers, and land managers in all 50 states.

REGISTER HERE

Don’t miss the world premiere of Soil for Water on February 17 at 11:00 a.m. MST/1 p.m. EST and join us for a panel discussion with the nationwide team working to support regenerators, and two Texas ranchers who are already seeing success.

Click here to register for this free, informative film screening and panel discussion.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is partnering with Holistic Management International (HMI) to bring its Armed to Farm training to the Southwest. Armed to Farm will take place March 28-April 1, 2022, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Participants will attend classroom sessions and travel to local farms for hands-on learning experiences.

Armed to Farm trainings include an engaging blend of farm tours, hands-on activities, and interactive classroom instruction. NCAT Sustainable Agriculture specialists will teach the training sessions. Staff from HMI, USDA agencies, and experienced crop and livestock producers will provide additional instruction.

This training is for military veterans in the Southwest, with preference given to those in New Mexico. The number of participants will be limited. Spouses or farm partners are welcome as well but must submit a separate application.

Click HERE to apply by February 11. NCAT will notify selected participants by February 18.

Sponsors

NCAT is organizing and hosting this Armed to Farm event in partnership with Holistic Management International. Funding is provided by USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.

Questions?

Please contact Margo Hale at margoh@ncat.org or 479-442-9824.

Mark your calendars for NCAT’s second Soil Health Innovations Conference: Soil for Water, set for Tuesday and Wednesday, March 15 and 16, 2022. This will be a virtual conference offering plenty of networking opportunities with presenters and fellow attendees.

Join us to hear from presenters such as David Montgomery of the University of Washington and Dig2Grow, Alejandro Carillo of UnderstandingAg, and agroforestry expert Dr. Hannah Hemmelgarn.

Watch our conference website, SOILINNOVATIONS.NCAT.ORG, for a complete agenda and registration information.

We look forward to seeing you in March for this important event.

There’s nothing like a summer of vicious heat, drought, and grasshoppers to focus minds on the vital importance of healthy soil. Soil scientist Wallace Fuller said in 1975, “A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the Earth’s hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness.”

Across Montana, the summer of 2021 proved again just how crucial — and how vulnerable — that thin cloak of soil can be. Soil health is foundational to the resilience of land, and thus also to food systems, human health, and ecosystem function. In light of current weather, financial and societal disruptions, what challenges do Montana ag producers face in building soil health and resilience?

Through July 2022, the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, Montana Watershed Coordination Council and partners, including the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) are reaching out across the state to ask: What more might be done to better support farmers and ranchers in managing soils in Montana?

We want to hear from you! Help us understand ag needs and opportunities by completing a confidential online survey. Complete one or both surveys there: a five-minute version to capture key thoughts plus a detailed version to provide more context and depth to your responses.

We know you’re busy, so we’re offering several options to better fit your time and level of interest. In addition to the surveys, we’ll also be reaching out via regional listening sessions, one-on-one contacts, and presentations at various conferences, including the Montana Organic Conference in Bozeman, December 2-4.

In August of 2022 we will produce and share a report on what was learned along with recommendations shaped by your responses.. Our purpose is to help increase the pace and scale at which land stewards implement voluntary practices and systems to maintain and improve soils, and to strengthen the economic and ecological vitality of agriculture in Montana.

If this topic is a big one for you, we welcome your participation in our periodic planning meetings. These discussions are held virtually and are facilitated by Cole Mannix. To sign up or for more information, you can reach Cole at exploringsoil@macdnet.org. We hope you’ll join us in this important effort.

By Robyn Metzger, Armed to Farm Coordinator

The National Center for Appropriate Technology has launched a new website for its farmer veteran training program, Armed to Farm. The site, ARMEDTOFARM.ORG, features program news, promotes upcoming training opportunities, and connects alumni with sustainable agriculture resources and other farmer veterans.  

NCAT developed the first Armed to Farm training in 2013 through a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Project with the University of Arkansas. The program has expanded over the past eight years with support from a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development. The program has helped more than 800 veterans, and their spouses or farm partners, from 45 states. 

Visitors to the new Armed to Farm website will find a calendar of events that highlights not only NCAT-sponsored events, but also veteran-focused educational opportunities offered by other organizations around the country.  

The Join Our Network section provides options for staying in touch with the Armed to Farm team and fellow farmer veterans, including sign-up forms for email news and the Veterans in Agriculture Listserv. Visit the News page to find details on upcoming training events, post-training recaps, and spotlights on Armed to Farm alumni. We love to hear and share alumni stories!  

Speaking of alumni stories, be sure to check out the About page to view a short video starring three alumni and their farms. They share their experiences with the program and how it helped them as they started out. While you’re on that page, you can meet the five NCAT staff members who make up the core Armed to Farm team.  

If you have any questions about Armed to Farm or other farmer veteran resources, feel free to contact any of the team members. We are here to help!  

We have at least 20 Armed to Farm events lined up for the next three to four years, and planning is already underway for Spring 2022 events in California, New Mexico, and Texas. Visit ARMEDTOFARM.ORG today to sign up to receive email alerts when the event application periods open! 

By Steve Thompson, NCAT Executive Director

Dave Atkins, a forest landowner in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, peers through the smoke-filled gloom of another hot and dry August, and he sees hope on the horizon. He’s part of a collaborative project with other small landowners, federal land agencies, conservation and watershed groups that thinks that an important solution can be found in a porous black shred of carbon called biochar.
Read more

By Nina Prater, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

Getting nutrients right in farming is a balancing act. When planning to apply fertilizers and soil amendments, farmers must consider their soil type, climate, the time of year, the crops they are raising, water availability, soil health, water quality concerns, and the nuances of the many different macro- and micronutrients that plants require. The way nutrients are applied is also an important consideration. A series of research projects have been conducted at the Dale Bumpers Small Farm Research Center in Booneville, AR, to assess a new way of applying poultry litter (the manure and bedding removed from commercial poultry houses) by inserting it into the soil.  

Poultry litter is a National Organic Program (NOP) approved fertilizer and is readily available in many parts of the U.S. The litter is often surface applied, but this can lead to nutrient loss through nitrogen volatilization or surface runoff. A novel technology has been developed to reduce nutrient loss from poultry litter. Named the “Subsurfer,” it is an implement pulled behind a tractor that inserts poultry litter into the soil in bands and reduces nutrient losses to the air, soil, and water by over 70%. The Subsurfer was initially developed for use in pastures, but researchers have been conducting studies to determine best practices for its use in organic cropping systems. While not yet commercially available, the results of the studies suggest that it is a promising technology that can help solve nutrient-loss issues while maintaining productivity and improving both crop quality and soil health.  

Dr. Amanda Ashworth, Research Soil Scientist with USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS) Poultry Production and Product Safety Research Unit, has conducted research to determine the optimal crop row distance from the poultry litter bands for the greatest crop yield and quality. Planting directly into the litter would damage the plants, so the litter has to be inserted to the side of the plant row. But what distance is best for different crops? 

How Litter is Applied 

The ARS Subsurfer is pulled behind a tractor, inserting the litter approximately 4 inches beneath the soil surface, with wheels that close the soil up over the litter after it is inserted. The litter must have a moisture content of 35% or less. A seeder can be attached to the Subsurfer so that the fertilizing and seeding can be done in one pass. In these research plots, a GPS was used to ensure accurate spacing of seeds and litter bands.  

An additional finding of the research was that the crop quality was improved with the use of the Subsurfer, even as compared to plots that were fertilized with urea. Dr. Ashworth found the additional nutrients contained in poultry litter led to this improved quality. The liming properties of the poultry litter, as well as additional macro- and micronutrients it contains, provide a more complete “diet” to the crop in ways that urea, which only supplies N, could not.

There is potential for the Subsurfer to help with nutrient management on small to medium-sized farms, organic and conventional alike. The equipment can only cover approximately 20 to 30 acres in one day, so it is not likely to work well on farms in the thousands of acres, but for smaller-scale operations, it could provide a way to fertilize efficiently.

Citations

A tractor pulling the subsurfer attachment across a field.

Ashworth, A.J., D.H. Pote, T.R. Way, and D.B. Watts. Effect of seeding distance from subsurface banded poultry litter on corn yield and leaf greenness. Agronomy Journal. 2020; 112:1679–1689.

Ashworth, A.J., C. Nieman, T.C. Adams, J. Franco, and P.R. Owens. Subsurface banded poultry litter distance influence on the multifunctionally of edamame (Glycine max Edamame’) yield and leaf greenness. Pending Publication.

Photos courtesy USDA ARS.

Related ATTRA Resources

Meet The Subsurfer: ATTRA Blog
Meet The Subsurfer: ATTRA Podcast
Arsenic In Poultry Litter: Organic Regulations
Sweet Corn: Organic Production
Edamame: Vegetable Soybean
Nutrient Management Plan (590) for Organic Systems
Soil Management: National Organic Program Regulations

The information contained in this blog is also available as a downloadable fact sheet here. This factsheet is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This factsheet was also made possible in part by funding from the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, Specialty Crop Grant AM180100XXXXG157.