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

Final report for WRGR21-001

Project Type: Local Ed & Demo (formerly RGR)
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
Caroline Canarios
Northern Plains Resource Council
Stephen Charter
Charter Beef
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Project Information


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.

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.


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Education & Outreach Initiatives

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

- 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.


A local rancher told the story of her land and shared the details of her cattle and sheep operation wtih over 25 participants. She detailed her bale grazing practices and management of saline seeps.

Outcomes and impacts:

This soil crawl took place when Montana was dealing with the most devastating 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.

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.


XX Bar Ranch producer and an NRCS representative spent the day with over 30 attendees 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.

Soil Crawl at Living Soil Farm near Big Timber, Montana

To bring together producers, community members, and representatives from invested agencies to share knowledge of different composting techniques and various soil health tools and principles.


This soil crawl was in mid-June 2022 at Living Soil Farm near Big Timber on the heels of the one in 500-year flooding of the Yellowstone River that affected the area. The 40 attendees learned about three composting techniques including bone char. The soil crawl covered many soil health tools and principles like rotational grazing, cover crops (to keep the soil covered), soil tests and amendments, invasive species management, how to set goals for soil health and productivity, and a look at four different pits across the farm, each with its own history, story and lesson.

Outcomes and impacts:

Each speaker provided a deeper look into regenerative agriculture principles and the possibilities for soil regeneration through various methods including composting and biochar. Participants walked away with a new understanding of the carbon cycle, steps to set intentions for their own operations given their unique context and an example of a beginning producer's journey  Participants learned new lessons and deepened connection to the community working to implement soil health practices in the state.

Soil Crawl at Quinn Farm in Big Sandy, Montana

To bring together local producers, community members, and representatives from invested agencies to share knowledge of farming in areas susceptible to drought with an emphasis on soil health and growing soil health practices.


This event occured in July 2022 at the Quinn Farm and future research center in Big Sandy, MT. We were happy to have this event because it had been postponed from last year due to the extreme drought conditions and from an increase in grasshopper damage. Thirty-two people come together to learn about farming in arid climates by touring through Bob Quinn’s experimental greenhouse, orchard and vegetable plots as well as Charley Overbay’s dryland vegetable operation.

Outcomes and impacts:

Presenters and participants alike left having gained lessons after hearing about the many successes, challenges and milestones when it comes to dryland farming and working to implement soil health practices in Montana all while further deepening the connections within this community dedicated to healthy soil practices and an appreciation for the geomorphology of the Golden Triangle region of Montana. Participants gained tangible takeaways on regenerative gardening and greenhouse use as well.

Virtual Zoom Event "Digging Deeper: Cultivating Lessons Learned and New Ideas in Soil Health"

To bring together past soil crawl hosts, speakers, educators, participants, producers, and community members, to examine the past seven years of soil crawls and dig into a conversation on the future of Montana’s soil health.


Northern Plains staff and event participants held an open dialogue that covered tools to promote soil health, the big picture of regenerating our working lands, and shared their stories, perspective, and experiences from past soil crawls.

Outcomes and impacts:

27 individuals attended the digging deeper event including soil scientists, land managers, farm land leasing agent, educators, outreach coordinators, and a diverse group of agricultural producers (12). This gathering resulted in many important reflections and nuggets of feedback that can be utilized to influence our future soil crawl events positively. We learned that there is still a need for basic regenerative agriculture education and specific teaching at each soil crawl should continue to be documented. A reflection was that context matters and a community approach to learning is integral, additionally we do not need to limit ourselves to who is included in that community. The most important thing to do is just to start somewhere, there are many introductory and affordable soil tests and although participants wished to highlight and not discount the gap in resources offered to folks interested in monitoring and improving their soil health, the participants also named the importance of reaching out to educational institutions and communities locally. Another effect of this “fireside chat” was to confirm and bolster the community and support for soil health in Montana and amongst Northern Plains members.

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 On-farm demonstrations
4 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities

Participation Summary:

1 Extension
5 Researchers
3 Nonprofit
3 Agency
5 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
40 Farmers/ranchers
57 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 7 NRCS representatives attend, with 3 at our event in Conrad and 2 in Helena, and 1 representative at our Big Timber and Big Sandy soil crawls. 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, our soil crawls garnered media coverage. WORC, the regional network to which Northern Plains belongs, covered our soil crawl in Conrad. The Big Timber Pioneer covered the soil crawl in Big Timber. The Public News Service covered the soil crawl in Big Sandy. The Sydney Herald reports on Northern Plains' soil crawls within the greater context of statewide action on soil health. Below are links to the articles they produced.


Northern Plains also created a Soil Health Resources page on our website, featuring information from all of our soil crawls and resources we captured during this research.  There are videos featuring soil health experts, farmers and ranchers, and Northern Plains soil health events.  We also have compiled a "Soil Health 101" page that can help interested producers connect with the tools they need to get started working with soil health.  Our "Soil Health Principles" section outlines the five universal principles of soil health, and how to put those principles into practice. This page will serve as a growing library of information on our past and future soil work.

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 already used some shared practices. 

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.


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 were able to make the best of that extension with our successful efforts in 2022. 

We tried to connect with other SARE projects that were related to ours to incorporate more SARE research into our presentations. Unfortunately, folks were unresponsive. One recommendation would be to have an indicator alongside past projects if people are available and willing to share their experience with others.

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.