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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.

Building on a successful peer-to-peer network of Texas ranchers who are implementing innovative grazing techniques to improve soil health and increase profitability, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is scaling up its Soil for Water project to support livestock producers and farmers across seven southern states and Montana.

The Soil for Water project grew out of persistent droughts, which put a strain on agricultural producers across the country. The effort is combining the use of appropriate technology, peer-to-peer learning, and on-farm monitoring to encourage regenerative agricultural practices across Montana, California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia.

“Livestock have the ability to improve soil health, and healthy soil holds more water,” said NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist and Montana project lead Linda Poole, who also raises sheep in Phillips County. “We know that as more producers adopt regenerative methods, significant economic, environmental and social benefits can be realized.”

Economically, regenerative agriculture has the potential to increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it has the potential to improve soil health and biodiversity. Climate trends across much of the U.S. indicate longer, hotter drought periods punctuated by storms that often are more severe, according to a 2021 USDA report. Regenerative farming practices improve drought resilience by helping the soil capture heavier rainfall that otherwise might disappear as storm runoff.

By late summer, the project will be available to ranchers and farmers across Montana. The effort aims to reach hundreds of family-owned farms and ranches, creating a network of producers who prosper by applying land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life and filter out pollutants.

Dale and Janet Veseth run cattle on more than 40,000 acres of rangeland south of Malta. Their place borders the Missouri River Breaks and it has been in their family for a couple of generations. Dale grew up on this ranch and says as a kid cattle were rotated across seven pastures. Now, he’s using 80 pastures through an intensive grazing plan which has improved soil health and native grasses, allowing him to maintain a healthy herd even during severe drought.

“It’s a very long-term project,” Dale Veseth says. “Managed grazing makes you more drought-proof when you build your water resources and take care of your range. Our cattle still look good. We’re not over-impacting our range. If we’re going to survive in the beef business, we’re going to have to become more environmentally friendly.”

The high interest in nutrient dense, sustainably produced meat and locally grown products is not only an economic benefit to producers, but also a quality-of-life benefit to their communities when healthy, locally produced food is available.

The Soil for Water project launched in 2015 with support from the Dixon Water Foundation and the Meadows Foundation. Project investors include grants from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), $980,000; The Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, $50,000; the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, $1 million; and the Kathleen Hadley Innovation Fund, $20,000.

To learn more about the Soil for Water project, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.