Montana's Soil Health Network: Deepening the Roots in Four Regions

Progress report for WRGR21-001

Project Type: Research to Grass Roots
Funds awarded in 2021: $51,223.00
Projected End Date: 12/01/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G356-21-W7906
Grant Recipient: Northern Plains Resource Council
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Maggie Gordon
Northern Plains Resource Council
Co-Investigators:
Caroline Canarios
Northern Plains Resource Council
Stephen Charter
Charter Beef
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Project Information

Abstract:

Northern Plains Resource Council will promote soil stewardship and profitable sustainable farming and ranching methods by hosting four site-specific workshops, or “soil crawls” in Montana. These soil crawls will be located in Conrad, Helena, Big Timber, and Forsyth.

Northern Plains’ team of farmers, ranchers, scientists, and consumers will seek feedback and input from local agricultural professionals (Conservation Districts, NRCS staff, and agriculture teachers) to develop and attend each soil crawl. This full team will then host a follow-up meeting with attendees of the soil crawl for discussions on progress among attendees and a presentation on SARE research relevant to the soil crawl topics. Ultimately, we want to develop WSARE proposals for producers in each region to try a SARE concept on their operation.

Soil crawls offer the participants a chance to examine soils from different regions, management styles, and land histories.  Participants will learn how different methods like composting, intensive grazing, or no-till seeding can benefit their operations. They will have the opportunity to talk soil health with professionals and other practitioners, have time to revisit what they learned a few months after the event, and possibly try an experiment of their own.

Project Objectives:
  1. Identify a solid baseline of soil knowledge in four regions of Montana. In order to achieve this objective, we plan to survey producers in four  regions of the state. We will survey attendees prior to each soil crawl to understand the local knowledge of soil health. This will allow us to understand where we are starting, and what we wish to pass on to our soil crawl participants.
  2. Expand the soil health knowledge of Montana producers through the soil crawls. The soil crawls will target farmers, ranchers, students, local agriculture professionals, and consumers. Participants will learn the five principles of soil health, ways to measure soil health, and how to improve the quality of their soil with tools they may already own. They will have access to experienced agriculture professionals, and other producers to answer any questions.
  3. Build a network based on the knowledge we have gained. By hosting at least one follow-up meeting for every soil crawl we host, we will be able to retain interested participants and evaluate whether they feel empowered to make practical changes to their soil. This will also help participants reinforce the connections they may have made with each other during the soil crawl events.
  4. Explore SARE experiments on Montana operations. Following each of the soil crawls we will present past SARE projects and find one producer or group of producers in each region who wants to try a SARE experiment on their operation. We will work as a team to help them pursue funding to complete this research.
  5. Build a repository of information so that no new contributions are lost. We will do this by building a library of information housed on Northern Plains’ website including an archive of videos, including recordings from Northern Plains’ soil events and any media from soil crawls.
Introduction:

In order to build more sustainable communities, we have to start looking under our feet, then to our neighbors. We know that healthy soil is the best way to store water, increase production, and save money on farms and ranches. We know that we must convince as many people as we can to use these practices in order to make a significant difference in our region and to prevent the further loss of family agriculture in Montana. Typically, farmers and ranchers neither volunteer their strategies nor like being told what to do. That doesn’t mean they aren’t curious about what they see over the fence.

In order to incentivize more soil-building practices, producers need access to education about soil health, funding, and technical support. They need to feel comfortable learning – not just competing – with each another. Our soil crawls and follow-up meetings take that first big step to break walls down and invite more people to the conversation about soil health, to ask questions, to see evidence of success, and to learn what doesn’t work. These soil crawls will build relationships among soil health enthusiasts and newcomers as well as technical experts in four different regions of the state.  

The final resource producers need is access to funding to try soil health on their operations. This is a new risk they need help with- so the follow-up meetings will be used to explore previous SARE research, and to develop a SARE experiment for one producer in each region. This experiential learning with financial support will expedite adoption of new practices. Some former SARE-funded experiments of potential interest are: King County District in Washington’s work on composting and soil health, targeted grazing on California’s Central Coast, and assessing hay litter during winter bale grazing.

Cooperators

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Education & Outreach Initiatives

"Saline Seeps, Bale Grazing and Cheatgrass.” Soil Crawl in Conrad, Montana.
Objective:

- To educate attendees, including producers and agency representatives, about successful bale grazing and saline seeps management.
- To bring together producers, community members, and representatives from invested agencies to share agricultural knowledge, build community around shared concerns related to agricultural sustainability and viability, and to grow interest in healthy soil practices.

Description:

A local rancher told the story of her land and shared information on her cattle and sheep operation. She detailed her bale grazing practices and management of saline seeps.

Outcomes and impacts:

This soil crawl took place during a time of year when Montana was dealing with the impacts of drought. Our host was able to talk about cheatgrass, especially as it relates to drought, making this a particularly timely conversation. This topic combined with the rest of the tour amounted to a much needed day of reflection and thought for those invested in Northwest Montana’s agricultural economy.

Soil Crawl at XX Bar Ranch in Helena, Montana.
Objective:

To bring together producers, community members, and representatives from invested agencies to share agricultural knowledge, build community around shared concerns related to agricultural sustainability and viability, and to grow interest in healthy soil practices.

Description:

XX Bar Ranch producer and an NRCS representative spent the day exploring the operation and the practices and principles in play at the ranch. Exact topics included conversations around planned or “mob” grazing and direct marketing.

Outcomes and impacts:

Our Helena event was especially useful to attendees, many of whom live in the relatively urban setting of Helena. These attendees were able to learn about local producers, how they operate, and they became more aware of their own regional/local food system. We also viewed this as a success, as it allowed us to bridge some of the urban/rural divide that exists between some agricultural operations and those who live in more populous areas.

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

1 Extension
5 NRCS
1 Nonprofit
3 Agency
13 Farmers/ranchers
2 Others
Education/outreach description:

Northern Plains was pleased to attract a diverse group of participants to each of our soil crawls. In the weeks leading up to these events, our members and organizing staff spent a significant amount of time preparing and conducting outreach to ensure our readiness for these events.

Each of our events brought in a number of producers and urban gardeners. Additionally, we had 5 NRCS representatives attend, with 3 at our event in Conrad and 2 in Helena. Conrad also attracted 3 representatives from the Montana Salinity Control Association, 1 extension agent, and 1 representative from the Montana Wildlife Federation. We had one Montana state legislator/producer in attendance at each event.

Additionally, WORC, the regional network to which Northern Plains belongs, covered our soil crawl in Conrad. Below is a link to the article they produced.

https://www.homegrownstories.org/ranching-innovations-during-a-drought-in-montanas-golden-triangle

Learning Outcomes

48 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Because our events are educational, it is difficult describe the potential long-term impacts to which our conversations may contribute. We are confident that even during a time of environmental stress that impacted our ability to host all of our planned events in 2021, that we engaged a variety of individuals at our soil crawls and even gained contact information and became acquainted with producers with whom we previously had no connection.

Because we were able to attract producers, agency representatives, and members of the public, we are confident that we grew overall interest and the type of connectivity needed to improve Montana’s soil health and long-term agricultural viability.

We were able to open the door to new relationships, as we saw participation from one non-profit organization and two conservation districts we have not worked with previously.

Northern Plains staff debriefed with producers who hosted these events, and they offered recommendations related to planning and timing. Weather, climate, and wildfire impacts posed a number of challenges to Montanans and the agricultural community, so their recommendations were meant to ensure our adaptability in 2022.

However, we were especially happy to have gained a great deal of insight from our producers about how to arrange future soil crawls in ways that would expand our reach.

Additionally, we learned that in-person options remain a priority for this type of educational event, given the technology barriers and routine technological challenges connected to the populations we strive to reach through soil crawls.

While we have yet to learn of any cases of replication at this point, we received favorable responses in our survey from individuals who expressed interest in considering the practices we shared. This same survey showed a few cases where individuals were already using some of the shared practices. This survey has been digitized, but we are not yet prepared to share results, as we have postponed two of our soil crawls. These crawls will be completed in the coming months.

Success stories:

At our soil crawl in Conrad, our host was able to make a personal connection with a state legislator and rancher who attended the event. Through this connection, she was able to share with him the impact of her sustainable practices.

Conversely, the opportunity to see her operation in person aided in his understanding and appreciation of her approach, and he was able to see the benefits of sustainable soil practices.

The value added dimension of her presentation was especially compelling, and we were happy that she was able to share how her sustainable ranching practices benefit her operation both environmentally and financially.

Recommendations:

We appreciated Western SARE’s flexibility throughout 2021 as we continued to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as those brought about by weather, climate, and wildfires. Montana farmers and ranchers were under a significant amount of stress in 2021, impacting producer attendance at our events. We were grateful that Western SARE was willing to grant us an extension into 2022, and we look forward to completing this project in full in the months to come.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.