After Montana Senate Bill 180 was narrowly voted down during the 2021 legislative session, a group of organizations and agencies
came together in support to conduct an assessment as part of the Montana Soil Outreach effort to identify soil management needs
and opportunities on Montana farms and ranches. The goal of the assessment was to understand the perspectives of producers and
agricultural professionals on key metrics of soil health in Montana, promising practices to maintain or improve those metrics, and
resources needed to implement those practices. The outcome of the assessment identifies common and unique challenges, needs and opportunities for soil management in Montana, and the implications for policy and programming. The full report written by Kristal Jones and Willow Grinnell of JG can be found here.
KEY FINDINGS FROM THE REPORT
• Producers in Montana are motivated to adopt and maintain soil management practices that improve soil health first and foremost by profit, as well as by a desire to improve their own quality of life and their connection to natural ecosystems.
• Producers see Montana-specific ways to apply the five principles of soil health that are promising in terms of their economic and ecological benefits.
• Producers identify changing environmental conditions, challenging financial pressures and institutional barriers, and the social ‘status quo’ as key barriers to expanding the footprint of soil management practices.
• Producers in Montana want increased and targeted institutional support (from universities, agencies, and the private sector), and expanded social networks and learning opportunities to support new adaptations in soil management practices.
KEY TAKEAWAYS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Takeaway: Producers want to learn from one another and want support for social learning
• Provide small amounts of seed funding and technical assistance to facilitate peer-learning
• Support opportunities for networking and mentorship across the state through funding and coordination
Takeaway: Research that includes complexity of the real world is needed and wanted
• More funding for long-term and systems-oriented research
• In-field trials and demonstration farms that reflect and better align with relevant questions and curiosities of producers
• Researchers and agency staff ‘getting out there’ and learning from and with producers
Takeaway: Education and outreach on topics and needs that are relevant to producers
• Communicate about soil health in ways that resonate with producers
• Use storytelling about producers’ own experiences to build networks and make it relevant
• Create example balance sheets, income statements, and profit/loss reports
Takeaway: Change requires taking risks and institutions can support trying something new
• Engage bankers in thinking about better management practices
• Provide financial and social support for taking small risks and experimenting with things like new tillage equipment or new crop species and varieties
Data collection for the assessment was comprised of a web-based survey and a series of in-person and virtual focus groups. Focus groups were held in-person in Great Falls, Miles City, Livingston, Dillon, and Kalispell in March and April 2022. A virtual focus group was also held in May 2022. In total the survey received 243 responses, and about 55 people participated in focus groups. The web survey included a few demographic questions and three core questions that reflect the goals outlined above (identifying key metrics, practices, and resources for soil health in Montana). The focus groups asked similar questions in more open-ended ways, and also included a presentation on soil management by a producer or agricultural professional as a way to jump start the conversation. Most notable from the focus group discussions were the positive impacts on the lives of farmers and ranchers and their families that came from addressing their soil health. These changes have added stability and diversity to people’s livelihoods, and impacted their happiness and quality of life, and the excitement to connect with peers and have meaningful conversations on these topics was apparent. There is a visible delight in the anonymity of sharing best practices in a safe space. “People are interested in what we do and how we do it,” said a producer in the Great Falls region. But the “how” gets lost in existing egos and neighbor-to-neighbor social patterns (or lack thereof).
The most prominent and overarching takeaway from the surveys and focus groups was that profit is the driving factor behind any ranching or farming operation. Making a profit (making a living) comes before anything else, and soil management and improved soil health is a mechanism to increase profit. The obvious foundational reasons for needing to prioritize economics in agriculture is to be able to stay on the land and do what you love. For many focus group participants, it also seemed like economic stability and viability is a way to ensure that their investments in the soil and the land are maintained: “if we’re not profitable, all our efforts would be just negated.” Luckily, the economic benefits associated with improving soil health and practicing regenerative agriculture are quite clear and were highlighted across the focus groups. “If we take care of our soil, we will be better in the long run, and make more money,” said a rancher from the Great Falls region. The economic benefits associated with better soil health practices include selling hay and hay baling equipment while cows graze year-round on grass, not buying chemicals and fertilizers, receiving higher prices for quality grass-fed beef, leasing land or leasing cows, and having more time as a farmer or rancher to engage in other forms of work.
It became clear during this research process that the people who are engaged in this conversation, are engaged in this conversation. The people who are not engaged are either not interested, and possibly will never be, or haven’t been engaged yet. How can we better get the word out to a broader range of producers than those currently making changes? How can we capitalize in a positive way on the educational experience of first-generation farmers and ranchers, as well as those who are building on innovations of older generations? Some of the messages that energized focus group participants, about improved economics and quality of life, could be more impactful metrics of impact than soil properties for bringing more producers into the conversation. The hope for this assessment and report is to help Montana to create a more robust soil health initiative and network for collaboration.
Funding for this report came from the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, the Montana Department of Agriculture, the Northern Plains Resource Council, and the Grow Montana Food Policy Council. The content of this report does not necessarily reflect the views, positions, or policies of any of these organizations.