Wind and water have eroded Montana soils since the first plow turned earth on the Northern Plains more than 150 years ago, taking with them one of the state’s most important resources. Since then, tillage, plus the fertilizer and pesticides common in industrial agriculture, have continued to degrade the soil that agriculture depends on. With climate change threatening almost 25,000 Montana agricultural jobs in the next 50 years, many farmers, ranchers and researchers believe the status quo is no longer adequate. And though conventional farming continues to account for the overwhelming majority of Montana’s $4.6 billion ag sector, things are shifting.
Organic has been a USDA certification since 2002, while regenerative lacks a codified or even consensus definition but generally includes a suite of techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation, no-till and livestock integration that decrease erosion, improve biodiversity and capture carbon.
This series, supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, reports on how Montanans are using organic and regenerative agriculture to revitalize rural economies. Part 1 introduced producers using these methods to build topsoil, drought resilience and profits, while Part 2 explored how investing in soil health can reinvigorate farms and the rural communities that depend on them. Part 3, the series’ final installment, looks at the impact of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency born of the Dust Bowl.
PJ Myllymaki unhooks the thin electric wire from a temporary fiberglass fence post, and then jogs through oat stubble to the next post. The February morning air is warm, and she works barehanded. An inch of snow sparkles between the dried oat stalks.
Beyond her pickup, Square Butte cuts into the blue sky not 20 miles north, dark rock towers and white cliffs, both volcanic, flanking its 5,732-foot summit.
Behind her, PJ’s husband, Kurt, reels the wire onto a spool. He pauses at each post, pulling upward. Those that lift easily, he slots into a plastic quiver slung across his back. The rest he leaves for their 13-year-old son, Kameron, who drives a side-by-side behind them, stopping to twist the posts from the frozen ground with fencing pliers. Kameron’s sister, Kady, 11, is across the field in a flatbed truck, watching a hose fill a pair of 800-gallon troughs with her friend Emma Smith and the Myllymakis’ border collie puppy, Maggie. When the troughs are full, the girls climb out of the cab and turn off the pump.
The Myllymakis’ 8,600-acre operation is just outside of Stanford, population 403, an hour east of Great Falls and 40 minutes west of Lewistown in the Judith Basin. Mountain ranges including the Highwoods, Little Belts, Moccasins, Judiths and Big Snowies ring the rural valley, which was once home to the cowboy artist Charlie Russell. Breaks country tumbles northeast out of the basin, its rugged draws dropping nearly 2,000 feet toward the Missouri River, 40 miles north.
With Stanford’s four-day school schedule, the kids are home Fridays and often help Kurt in his daily check of their 250 cows. Today, they’re taking down a fence between the 160-acre pasture of oat stubble and cover crops the animals have been grazing the past two weeks, giving them access to an additional 70 acres of cover crops.
Once the fence is down, the cows flow into the new pasture. They nose into dried stalks of sorghum sudangrass, millet and turnips. There’s almost no wind. The only sounds are the cows’ quiet rustling and a pack of coyotes yipping to the west. One cow pulls up a turnip, slowly chewing the soil-covered bulb.
The Myllymakis plant 5,300 acres of cash and cover crops, and run cows on another 3,300 acres of range spread across a mix of deeded and leased parcels. Instead of plowing, they use a no-till drill to seed directly into old crop residue. Theirs is a “continuous cropping” operation, so there are plants growing year-round, which benefits microbial life in the soil and prevents erosion.
But that’s not how they always did it. Back when Kurt was a kid helping his dad, Bruce, on the farm during the summer, there were no cows. They mostly grew wheat, and like the majority of dryland farmers in Montana, they fallowed a portion of their fields every year to store groundwater for the following season and so they could fight weeds by spraying herbicide several times a summer.
When Kurt and PJ moved to the farm full-time in 2003, Bruce had just bought a few head of cattle but was still mainly growing wheat. In 2004, the couple added their own herd. As is usual on Montana ranches, they calved in February and March, grazed all summer, shipped the calves to a Midwestern feedlot in autumn, and fed the cows and bulls hay all winter.
Until, that is, a five-acre cover crop experiment convinced them to change everything.
It started when Pam Linker, then the soil conservationist at the Stanford field office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), invited them to join a four-year joint effort with the Judith Basin County Conservation District. Teresa Wilhelms, the longtime administrator for the conservation district, had secured a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources to cover the costs of seeding and research. Linker asked four area producers including the Myllymakis to plant small cover crop plots, and the nearby Montana State University Central Agriculture Research Station planted a fifth.
PJ, who’d recently become an associate supervisor on the conservation district board, was sold right away. She’d grown up in nearby Windham, where her mother taught business at Stanford High School and her father hauled grain for local farmers for most of her childhood.
“I almost feel like I have an advantage of not growing up on a farm, because you didn’t have to change me,” PJ said. “I wasn’t set in my old ways.”
But Kurt and Bruce were hesitant.
“My dad and I were like, ‘That’s gonna be a pain in the butt, but we’ll do it for them,” Kurt said.
The first year they planted a plot of warm- and cool-season grasses and legumes on leased land, with a fallow plot next door as the control. Linker tracked soil temperatures, moisture, organic matter, water infiltration and soil biology, aiming to determine which cover crop species would do well in their area.
Some of the results were obvious right away.
“If you go into a cover crop field, your soil temperature is going to be maybe 85 degrees on a hot day, versus you go into a chem fallow field, and you could be 110,” Linker said, explaining that heat causes moisture loss. Then there were the “tillage” turnips and radishes, which helped break up hardpan created by historic plowing.
“When you dig up a turnip or a radish and see a 90-degree [turn] in the root, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve hit the compaction layer,’” said Linker, who’s now Stanford’s district conservationist. “They’re kind of aha moments for farmers.”
For the sake of the experiment, the plot was supposed to stay in the same location, but the Myllymakis moved it to their own deeded land, in part because the landlord was requiring them to keep a third of their lease in fallow. Plus, they wanted to graze cows on the cover crop the next winter.
“We were sold on it enough that we wanted to do it on our own field,” Kurt said.
It was the first in a cascade of events that led the Myllymakis to switch their entire operation over to regenerative in 2016, meaning they use a suite of techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation and livestock integration that decrease erosion, improve biodiversity both above and below ground, and capture carbon.
That fall, PJ and Kurt visited Linker’s family farm, 30 miles away, where Pam and her husband, Dave, had started investing in their own soil health in 1996. Kurt checked out specialized equipment like a stripper header and a no-till disc drill, which Dave and their son Brock sell. Over the winter, Kurt attended a Ranching for Profit class where he learned about spring calving and rotational grazing. Another participant told him about the renowned North Dakota regenerative farmer and speaker Gabe Brown, and Kurt watched Brown’s videos on YouTube and began to realize how the whole system could work in concert.
“I showed it to Dad, and I was like, ‘This is how I want to farm,’” Kurt said. Bruce was on board, so they went all in.
“It’s a learning process, Bruce said. “I pay a lot more attention to things I never used to, because you’re learning all the time.”
During the transition, Kurt bounced ideas around with Brock, researched online and followed regenerative producers on Twitter. And he leaned on the NRCS. Three times, he drove the six hours to Baker to attend farm tours organized by Ann Fischer, a leader in regenerative agriculture and an NRCS district conservationist for 25 years. He and PJ went on NRCS-sponsored bus tours to regenerative farms in the Dakotas, and turned to NRCS staff for advice specific to their land. Along the way, they’ve implemented all of the agency’s five soil health principles: minimize disturbance, maximize diversity, maximize living roots, maximize cover and integrate livestock.
They now have smaller-framed, heartier cows bred to calve in May and June, which means fewer complications and less stress on the animals, they said. Their fertilizer and pesticide application rates are down, meaning costs are too, said PJ, who does the farm’s books. And last year, when Judith Basin received just 10.4 inches of precipitation, the least since 1960, a local agronomist, Cory Hershberger, told Kurt they had some of the deepest roots and highest moisture he’d seen in the area. They also make higher margins on the beef they sell direct to market, compared to those they consign at the Lewistown Livestock Auction.
“We’re intensifying our management on things that not only are more beneficial for the soil, but then make us more money,” Kurt said.
The Myllymakis are on the leading edge of regenerative in their area, but they’re not the only ones trying these systems. Linker estimates that at least 30 producers in Judith Basin County have adopted some conservation practices involving soil health.
The National Association of Conservation Districts named the Myllymakis one of two Montana “soil health champions” in 2020, and PJ, now a supervisor on the conservation district board and its only woman, says she’s become vocal at the district meetings, especially when bare fields lead to blowing dust that closes highways. Kurt has spoken at NRCS events in Great Falls, Havre and Missoula, and the family features in an NRCS “Conservation for the Future” video. In 2019, then-NRCS chief Matt Lohr visited their place on a tour of the state, and the following year Kurt presented to a sold-out crowd of more than 400 at the first Montana Soil Health Symposium in Billings.
“It means more to other farmers and ranchers to hear from other farmers and ranchers that have done it, so they use us as an example,” Kurt said.
read Common ground, parts 1 and 2
With climate change threatening almost 25,000 Montana agricultural jobs in the next 50 years and a movement toward ecologically based agricultural practices gaining ground nationwide, an increasing number of Montana producers are building topsoil, drought resilience and profits by integrating practices like organic or regenerative systems.
In Big Sandy, farmers are adding value to their operations by investing in soil health, reinvigorating both their farms and the rural communities that depend on them.
While Bruce received NRCS funding three times between 2006 and 2012 to help pay for livestock water and the addition of pulse crops, among other things, Kurt and PJ haven’t received any funding from the agency’s cost-share programs.
These cost-share programs, however, are the main governmental means of encouraging producers to care for their soil.
Regenerative agriculture is one of the top ways the Biden administration aims to draw down atmospheric carbon. It rolled out a new $10 million NRCS program, Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, last June, $2.4 million of which went to tribal producers in Montana. Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which would have massively increased NRCS conservation spending, is currently stalled.
The NRCS’s work on regenerative agriculture has implications for the future of food production in the face of both climate change and global supply chain disruptions. But this one federal agency — which is tasked with helping private landowners voluntarily conserve natural resources — won’t get there alone.
Of all the principles of soil health, perhaps the most important is diversity. A polycultural cropping system surrounded by a biodiverse ecosystem is more resilient than its monocropping counterpart, as is diversity of thought and experience among the people who manage those ecosystems.
Now, as interest in regenerative ag grows — between 2015 and 2021, the Montana NRCS contracted with private landowners to grow 120,241 acres of cover crops, 30 times the 3,364 acres it contracted in the previous five-year period — the agency is seeking new, broader perspectives in Montana. A strategy led by the agency’s state conservationist, Tom Watson, has put local stakeholders in charge of setting their own priorities for conservation funding, and a new national NRCS grant will fund a tribal-led project aimed at helping local producers adopt soil health strategies and study innovative practices.
BORN OF THE DUST BOWL
In early May of 1934, a massive storm blew an estimated 350 tons of loose soil off the high plains of Montana and Wyoming, sweeping it eastward. This “black blizzard” blanketed cities from Chicago and Cleveland to New York and Atlanta. Three-mile-high dust clouds darkened skies, and cities ground to a stop. As dust piled up in the streets, people rushed indoors, coughing and choking.
Dust storms had pummeled the Great Plains since 1931, caused by the combination of drought and “The Great Plow-Up,” which turned 5.2 million acres of deep-rooted grasslands on the southern prairie into wheat fields.
“Now, we have the evil with us on an enormous scale, and the nation may as well gird tightly its belt for a continuing battle against this process of land wasting, that is if we are to avoid the eventuality of becoming probably the world’s most outstanding nation of subsoil farming — which of course generally means bankrupt farming on bankrupt land,” federal Soil Erosion Service Director Hugh Hammond Bennett was quoted as saying in the May 14, 1934, edition of the New York Times.
A zealous crusader against soil erosion and its effects on rural America, Bennett was a soil scientist and adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as a prolific writer and public speaker.
The following March, another duster descended on Washington D.C. just as Bennett was testifying in front of Congress about the need for a permanent agency and funding to replace the temporary one he helmed. In April 1935, Congress created the Soil Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA, with Bennett as its first director. Under his leadership, the SCS worked to help farmers improve productivity while conserving their land, working closely with local county conservation districts, which were established not long after. Over the years, the agency’s scope grew to include flood control, water supply, habitat restoration and recreation, and in 1994 Congress renamed it the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS.
A product of the New Deal era, the Farm Bill funds the USDA and its agencies. Originally created to address food insecurity, support commodity prices and conserve natural resources, namely soil and water, the powerful omnibus legislation reauthorizes national food, agriculture, conservation and forestry policy every five to seven years. Of the estimated $428 billion the 2018 Farm Bill will cost taxpayers by 2023, 76% will go to food security programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; 16% to commodity agriculture through price supports including direct payments, crop insurance and research assistance; and 7% to conservation through the NRCS and the Farm Service Agency.
Farm Bill conservation funding is as large as it’s ever been, hovering between $5 billion and almost $6 billion annually over the last decade. Nationally, the NRCS helped encourage a 35% decline in soil erosion rates on cropland between 1982 and 2017, and today it works to conserve water quality, habitat and soil health on the Great Plains, especially through rangeland conservation. But some argue the agency is hamstrung, essentially tasked with cleaning up problems that other USDA programs perpetuate through subsidies like crop insurance and commodities payments, which can disincentivize conservation practices.
“We have a federal agency and massive millions and billions fighting against itself,” said Becky Weed, a Belgrade-based shepherd, organic farmer and local and organic food advocate, who called the USDA’s conservation budget “crumbs being swept off the table in the lobbying halls of Congress.”
Weed, who has received an NRCS grant for hoop houses, noted that NRCS money also enables big agribusiness, for example by funding methane digesters for industrial dairies and development of hog manure pools to help concentrated animal feeding operations meet emissions regulations and protect water quality. Those examples don’t show the full picture though, Weed said, explaining that cattle on rangeland produce much less methane, and the very concept of concentrated feedlots is an artifact of the trade-subsidy system.
“The entire reason why we have developed this practice of massive feedlot cattle and hogs and these giant warehouse chicken-growing methods is because the price of corn and soy has been subsidized for decades, and had those commodities not been so cheap, we never would have even built the industrial system,” Weed said.
However, even that system is beginning to lean toward increased investment in soil health. In 2021, the USDA’s crop insurance arm, the Risk Management Agency, began providing additional premium subsidies for producers who plant cover crops.
Closer to home, the agency’s challenges look more like limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles. Between 2017 and 2021, 40% of applicants to the Montana NRCS’s main programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), received funding, with $48.9 million going out to producers in 2021 between the two.
Red tape restricts which practices are eligible, and the programs are designed to bring producers up to speed on conservation, so they don’t typically help people like the Myllymakis.
“When you come across somebody like Kurt and PJ that are far out ahead of the average person … they were already doing what we had to offer, so there was nothing we could do,” said Tom Watson, who leads the agency in Montana. “That’s one of the frustrations I have … and certainly one of the frustrations I know producers have in the program.”
ON THE GROUND
Raised on a farm in western Nebraska, Watson studied range management at the University of Wyoming, and has worked for the NRCS in Wyoming, Oregon and Montana. He stands well over six feet tall, wears round-rimmed glasses, and goes to work most days in a plaid shirt and a ball cap.
In his 32-year career with the agency, Watson has seen states deliver programming in various ways. Most, he says, take a top-down approach, with the person in his role determining statewide priorities. That’s what Montana did before he became state conservationist in 2018.
“I sit here in Bozeman, and I’m supposed to decide one or two or three priorities for everything happening in the state?” he said via video call from his home office. “What that did not allow for was creativity and innovation at that local level. And who in the hell knows more about conservation needs than local people? Certainly, not me.”
Watson adopted that mindset while working as the assistant state conservationist in Oregon, which has a conservation strategy designed to empower local stakeholders.
Watson and his team are obligated to administer CSP and national EQIP initiatives, but they do have flexibility with part of their EQIP funding, and have tailored the Oregon framework to Montana through a five-year-old strategy called Montana Focused Conservation. The strategy administers funding according to locally set priorities, and last year allocated $11.6 million to producers. Through the program, working groups in each county create long-term Targeted Implementation Plans, or TIPs. The groups have already written more than 100 of these detailed, time-intensive documents focused on resource issues ranging from soil health and water quality to forest resiliency, wildfire fuels reduction, wildlife migration, invasive weeds and pollinators.
“Relationships, to me, are the key to everything,” Watson said. “They drive everything that I do, and I try to make them drive what my people do, meaning there’s no way that the agency can do it all.”’
The framework centers groups like the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, a rancher-led group based in Malta that partners with landowners, the NRCS, state agencies, the National Wildlife Foundation and others to encourage regenerative practices. Last year RSA worked with partners to put $2.1 million into locally led conservation projects in Phillips, Blaine and Valley counties. The group has worked closely with the local NRCS field office and conservation districts to write six TIPs addressing resource issues including wildlife migration, bird habitat and soil health through grazing management. It’s now writing one focused on transitioning marginally productive farmland back to native prairie, a key lever in slowing climate change.
While the NRCS has helped fund some of RSA’s projects, there are regenerative ranching tools like portable water, temporary fencing and wildlife-friendly border fencing that it can’t fund, as well as even more experimental tools like virtual fences. In these cases, RSA leverages relationships with other partners to bring in funding from other sources.
With these limitations, it’s key to prioritize, said Marni Thompson, who last year became Montana’s first state soil health specialist.
“When you can’t fund everybody, it’s better to target rather than to do just random acts of conservation,” Thompson said. “When you’re targeting a certain resource concern or a certain watershed, you want to address that issue in that watershed before you move on to the next one,” she said.
Well-respected in Montana soil health circles, the straight-talking Thompson grew up in Townsend in a farming family, and now lives in Fort Benton. In her previous position as an area resource conservationist, she consulted many producers around Great Falls, including the Myllymakis. Her current position was created as part of a new Montana soil health strategic action plan, which has a stated purpose of creating “healthy, functioning soil as the foundation for all working lands in Montana.”
Among Thompson’s responsibilities are training the 250-plus NRCS staffers in 56 offices around the state. And 55 of those employees were new last year, many replacing retiring career employees hired under the 1985 Farm Bill, which included the bill’s first provision dedicated entirely to conservation. These new staff are having to learn the ropes quickly with producer involvement in NRCS programs on the rise. She also helps facilitate outreach and education, including an annual soil health symposium co-hosted with the Montana Association of Conservation Districts.
This year, starting on Tuesday, Feb. 8, full-size pickups, some pulling empty stock trailers, filled the parking lot at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center for the three-day event. More than 300 people, a mix of older farmers and ranchers and young families, listened as agricultural consultant and regenerative grazing pioneer Allen Williams spoke on day two about a sixth regenerative principle to augment the NRCS’s list: context. Context, Williams said in a keynote address, means considering the climate, the producer’s life and the history of the land.
“Even your beliefs, your philosophy, your goals and objectives, your family dynamics, your employee dynamics — all of those things make up context and are critical for us to know.”
On day three, it was 62 degrees outside the convention center, and just west of town, 40 mile-an-hour gusts blew dust from bare, tilled fields across I-90. In standing-room-only breakout sessions, producers learned about measuring biological activity in soil from Nick Ward of Ward Labs in Nebraska, and heard from a panel of Montana producers who’d switched their operations to regenerative. In another breakout, keynote speaker Dan Kittredge, an organic vegetable farmer in Massachusetts and founder of the Bionutrient Food Association, answered questions in dynamic metaphors, drawing on ecology, chemistry, quantum physics, economics and culture. Repeatedly, he spoke to the importance of listening to Indigenous and traditional knowledge.
“If you’ve got the wisdom of humans who lived in close proximity to land in various parts of the world at various points in time — if they’re all doing the same thing — then that maybe is a good guidepost for us,” Kittredge said.
THE DIVERSITY PRINCIPLE
In Montana, members of the Blackfeet Nation have led efforts to increase access to NRCS programming by underserved communities, starting with Blackfeet rancher Ross Racine’s work with the Intertribal Agriculture Council in the 1990s. Now, an emerging NRCS-funded program is laying groundwork to support local Blackfeet producers, research cutting-edge regenerative and Indigenous practices, and create a framework for how the agency can better work with tribes.
Grazing for Soil Health is a five-year pilot project of the Piikani Lodge Health Institute, a Blackfeet-led nonprofit founded in 2018 that works to connect community well-being, conservation and food systems. With a $2.6 million national NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, the project will fund on-farm trials conducted by Piikani Lodge in partnership with Blackfeet Community College, Montana State University, Western Sustainability Exchange and the National Center for Appropriate Technology.
The Blackfeet, or Amskapi Piikani, have stewarded bison and grassland ecosystems for millennia, said Latrice Tatsey, a Blackfeet tribal member whose graduate research at MSU focused on how bison reintroduction affects soil. Tatsey explained that modern regenerative grazing practices mimic the natural behavior of bison.
“How do we take this knowledge base that the ancestors knew when working with these animals, [and] make that applicable in ways to work with ranchers?” Tatsey said via Zoom from her home in Badger Creek.
The project, she said, aims to answer that question by studying techniques not currently included under existing NRCS cost-share programs, like compost applications, temporary fences and portable water.
Piikani Lodge first established its regenerative grazing initiative in 2020. Over the past two summers, Tatsey has managed 14 interns, all from Montana tribes, to collect baseline soil samples for the initiative. She’s had support from MSU soil scientist Tony Hartshorn and MSU agroecologist Bruce Maxwell, as well as the Grassland Soil Health Restoration Lab at Cornell University.
Having grown up in a ranching family within the Blackfeet Nation, Tatsey is pivotal to another element of the project: building trust among local ranchers. With the new funding, the plan is to work with 10 to 15 producers a year to conduct on-farm trials and reach another 200 through educational workshops and technical support. Tatsey believes that by weaving together tribal culture and ecological health, Piikani Lodge will be able to increase adoption of the practices, helping producers improve their soil, profits and well-being.
Those three threads are intricately entwined for all farmers and ranchers, but too many have lost that connection, said Kim Paul, a Blackfeet tribal member and Piikani Lodge’s founder and executive director.
“There’s been this huge disconnect between us and the land,” said Paul, who has an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in biochemistry, biomedical science, and community and public health from the University of Montana.
Paul co-authored the Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan and the tribe’s Agricultural Resource Management Plan, and her organization fights on the front lines against the incredible hardships many tribal members face. Implementing regenerative land management is part of the fight, she said. For Paul, caring for the land is one way to help protect her people.
“We’re reconnecting,” she said. “We’re rebuilding that relationship to the land, rebuilding that relationship to the biosystems — Sspomitapi, Ksahkomitapi, Sooyiitapi, the ones that live in the air, the ones that live on the land, the ones that live in the water, the water, the land, the air, itself. … We’re reclaiming identity. We’re reclaiming hope and focus, and it’s just such a huge movement towards positive.”
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