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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.
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Column by Steve Thompson, NCAT Executive Director

The soil that covers 93 million acres of sprawling Texas rangeland holds a remarkable story. It’s a tale of opportunity and ruin. At its best, the soil beneath our feet is the source of life, food, and economic security. At its worst, that same soil can crumble ranchers’ livelihoods and put at risk our local food systems and entire communities.

Much of the western United States is in the throes of a megadrought. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that nearly 60 million people now live in parts of the West plagued by drought. Farmers and ranchers are making hard choices about which herds to cull or land to leave fallow. But in the midst of this megadrought, an expanding network of farmers and ranchers is quietly taking steps to catch and keep more water in the soil that nourishes our food.

First-generation farmers Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank manage 2,000 acres in Texas Hill Country. They’re raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks on rugged land between San Antonio and Austin. It’s beautiful, tough land that Maggie Eubank says has been beat up on for a century. They’re working to change that. They’re using above-ground livestock to take care of the microscopic livestock living underground, which grows more grass and keeps more water in the soil. The Eubanks are turning overworked dirt into healthy soil.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Soil for Water Project is connecting the Eubanks with monitoring tools and a network of other ranchers who are doing what they can to use animals to keep more water in the ground. The USDA estimates that each 1 percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre – or more than an average swimming pool. When livestock are appropriately managed, those animals help build heathy soil that holds more water.

Regenerating farm and ranchland across the United States will have significant and lasting economic, environmental, and social benefits: Allowing vast swaths of the country to withstand drought conditions and bounce back faster after natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and decades of dryness. We know that regenerative agriculture can increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it can improve soil health and biodiversity.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is expanding beyond Texas this summer into Arkansas, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Mississippi, Montana and Virginia, supporting a nationwide movement of agricultural producers who are leaving the land better than they found it.

For the Eubanks in Texas, they got into ranching in-part because of its powerful mystique, an undeniable connection to the land they grew up on, and their desire to prove that large-scale regeneration can not only repair a century of misuse, but also provide for a profitable business.

Their grass-fed meat is sold at the local farmers market, and they’re selling subscription-style to consumers across Texas. At the same time, the ranch they manage is now sprouting native grasses and water seeps are opening in places that were once bone dry. It’s incremental progress that will take time to fully realize, but the Soil for Water project is ready to be a key player in regenerating and making more resilient farms and ranches across America.

A Message From Steve Thompson, Executive Director

Layered upon the pandemic and a national economic freefall, the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans has sparked frustration, anger and sorrow across the country, not least here at NCAT. The convergence of crises has prompted us to examine our internal culture and the work we do in the world to help build resilient communities that can survive and thrive despite hard times.

We acknowledge that NCAT needs to do more to address the root causes of racial injustice. We stand with those who peacefully protest the continuing American legacy of racism and institutional violence. We pledge to do more to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in our offices across America.

We are proud that much of our work focuses on serving Black, Native, Latino and Hispanic, Asian-American and refugee communities as well as impoverished Americans of all races. And we will redouble our efforts to serve vulnerable communities so they can strengthen local self-reliance through sustainable food and energy solutions.

Our Gulf States staff is working with diverse partners through the Mississippi Food Justice Collaborative to bring systemic change to the state’s food system.

We recognize that people of color often are those most directly harmed by environmental degradation and by the accelerating disruptions of climate and weather extremes. We will intensify our efforts to build a clean energy economy while helping communities adapt to changes that are baked into the world’s future.

We see that Native and African Americans are especially devastated by COVID-19. We will expand our work to strengthen equitable public health solutions, especially within our areas of strength: Expanding access to healthy food, supporting farmers of color, providing low-income energy assistance, designing healthy and efficient homes, and restoring ecosystems.

Now is a time of social reckoning. We all must heed the call, led by an immense chorus of multi-racial voices, to wake up and adjust course.

The conversations will continue. They may often be tinged with raw emotion. It will not be easy to resist the path of recrimination, resentment and fury. To build a bridge to a better future, we each and together must invest ourselves in kindness and compassion.

Meantime, it’s time to act with a greater commitment to racial, environmental and economic justice. This we pledge to do at NCAT.

In response to the global pandemic, NCAT initiated a partnership with non-profits, local agencies, and businesses in Butte, Montana, to launch the Butte Mutual Aid Network to assist folks in need because of Covid-19. This is a neighbor-to-neighbor network connecting people who can help with people who need help.

Local residents can visit the website, https://buttemutualaid.org, to complete forms to ask for assistance, offer to volunteer, and provide donations to support needs in the community. A hotline for those more comfortable with the phone is also available: 406-494-8688.

The website also provides information about other resources that people can access if needed.

In the first two weeks, 40 volunteers registered on the network, and 29 people have received assistance. This includes families with young children, some led by single mothers.

The network is connecting volunteers with those in need to deliver groceries, deliver hot meals, and provide companionship and conversation. It is also coordinating with local schools to offer tutoring services for children while schools are closed.

Nearly $5,000 in donations have already been received to provide direct aid to those in need because of the coronavirus pandemic. Financial assistance includes providing Visa and local business gift cards to individuals and families that need help.

Mutual aid networks have been springing up around the country to provide hands-on local assistance and to help people stay connected and share ideas.

“It’s fascinating to me — and encouraging — to see the proliferation of these mutual aid networks across the country and across the world,” said Steve Thompson, Executive Director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). “It’s a nice antidote to the us versus them mentality that has seemed so dominant in recent years.”

“A lot of this is happening organically here in Butte,” Thompson said. “So many people are stepping up to do good things. We just hope to be able to add value to that, to help match needs with volunteers.”

NCAT has served as the facilitator and manager for the network. Energy Corps AmeriCorps member Maryssa Fenwick serves as coordinator, with other NCAT staff providing assistance in various capacities.

Local partners in the network include Butte Broadcasting, the Butte Chamber of Commerce, Butte-Silver Bow City-County, Butte Food Co-op Planning Committee, Butte Local Development Corporation, Headwaters Resource Development Council, the Montana Standard newspaper, Safeway groceries, the Salvation Army, Montana Tech University, and United Way of Butte and Anaconda.

For more information on the Butte network, visit the website or call the hotline. To learn more about mutual aid networks and find information about starting your own network, visit https://aarpcommunityconnections.org/.