We have been working on soil focused regenerative farming agendas at the Sandy Arrow Ranch for a solid three years now. Despite the fact that we have not had any major breakthroughs to date, all the founding tenets of our work remain intact. At times it feels like we are getting close to a “eureka moment” and at times it feels like we are a million miles away. Nevertheless, we continue to grind because we are adding to the body of knowledge, even through our failures. The discoveries we have made to date may only be tiny drops of water, but we are not alone working on these issues and all these “drops” are starting to add up. We are confident that these drops will eventually form a river of knowledge that will change the world. The timeframe of this is uncertain, but every river begins with a drop and we remain committed. In the beginning, we vowed to provide unvarnished updates on our activities. We believe that mistakes can be instructive as “wins”, thus we will provide all in this update.
As I am writing this review, I have Bloomberg on as background noise. As surely you have all seen by now, the class action suits against Monsanto’s glyphosate chemical are ramping up. There is certain irony in hearing plaintiff attorneys advertising to find “glyphosate exposed” clients on Bloomberg while I am writing about how to grow food without chemicals. Maybe all of us will be “exposed” clients eventually, but the point is that the screams are getting louder, the work we are doing is important.
Spring 2019 Update
The cornerstone of our “fix the soil” agenda has been our ongoing effort to make and apply tons and tons of thermal compost to jump-start the biology in Sandy Arrow’s soil. The theory is that if you get the biology back in the soil, everything good will happen (e.g. organic matter in the soil will increase, weeds will not flourish as weeds prefer compromised soil, and crop yields will be healthy without chemical applications). We went “all in” on this premise and spent virtually two years of the SA’s resources focused on how to make thousands of tons of compost every season. The operational and logistic issues around making thousands of tons of anything are immense. Aside from the sheer volume of required materials, water and handling needed to produce this level of compost, navigating through the very high touch biological process (which is high temperature composting) has dominated our efforts on the ranch. With the help of a wide swath of very expensive equipment (compost turner alone was $350K), we eventually figured out how to make thousands of tons of compost, but there were three key issues.
First, the organic materials we used as compost ingredients were grown in sterile soil and therefore brought very little biology to the compost pile. As such, our organic material (manure, old hay, hailed-out wheat, etc.) required tremendous amounts of water to activate the high heat composting process. Unfortunately, the water in the area is “hard” and often laden with chemicals and it just did not work well. Finally, we had to transport the water and all the organic materials to the ranch which proved to be an expensive and time-consuming exercise. Producing huge batches of windrow compost was never an easy process and we eventually concluded that we were spending way more money making compost than any economic farming model would ever support. If we perfect a process that the world cannot adopt because it is too expensive, we have perfected nothing. The only way to make sustainable farming practices ubiquitous is to employ a model that capitalism can embrace – large batch composting in the Northern Plains is not the model.
The second issue was that we never achieved the microbial balance in our compost that scientists would point to and say “perfect”. The Northern Plain’s microbial community is dominated by bacteria. Unfortunately, in a bacteria-dominated ecosystem, fungi is the critical element needed and we were not able to unlock the fungi code in our massive compost piles, regardless of what we tried. Ultimately, we had to admit that our compost was super expensive and biologically sub-optimal.
While the first two issues are quantifiable, the third issue is more subjective. Despite approaching the problem in multiple ways, the application of compost onto our farmland was potentially ineffective. It was ineffective because when putting out a couple of tons of compost per acre on sterile dry fields (naturally, we also had drought years in our area during this process, including only 5” of rain in 2017) it resembles throwing out a handful of kibble on each square yard of land – it simply does not cover the ground. Our assessment was that much of the biology we created never got into the soil where it could eat and multiply. Rather, it is our view that much of it stayed on top and the microbes perished in the harsh Montana sun shortly after application.
At the Sandy Arrow, we subscribe to the concept of having living roots in the soil at all times. In our region, the conventional farming program is winter wheat followed by a summer fallow year, all with non-stop chemical treatments to control weeds and provide fertilizer. As we took Sandy Arrow farmland out of the conventional farming program, we planted cover crops to transition the fields. Some of our cover crops worked, and some did not. One experiment that did not work was when we planted a perennial cover crop of low plants (like clovers) in a number of our core grain fields. Our theory was that this perennial would take off with our compost applications and that it would dominate weeds. After a couple of years of happy cover crops and soil improvements, we hoped to be able to plant grain right into the perennial covers. The grain would grow high and be harvested. Once harvested, the perennial covers would keep growing, creating happy biology and improving the soil all year-long in a virtuous cycle of bio-mimicry.
Our attempt at creating this utopia has not been successful….yet. The first perennial cover crop mixes we tried failed. In their failure, we opened the door to weeds, specifically the scourge of the American West – cheatgrass. We are really paying the price for this move right now. Joe Barta and our operating team on the ground are in a full-scale battle with the “cheat” which has forced us to utilize tillage and, in some cases, chemicals. We are also trying to bring in sheep (who eat anything) just to get our soil back to the point where we can continue our experiment. As one would expect, weeds are masters at propagation and love sterile soil. This is an ongoing problem for any conventional farmer trying to do the right thing and take the chemicals off his farm. Our experience is not unique and merely highlights the issues associated with the cost and path to converting into organic ground. We are going to continue experimenting like crazy on this front because we would love to figure out some good answers on how to convert to organic in a planet-friendly way.
Frankly, we had been hoping that compost would be the “magic bullet” for the SA Ranch, but it wasn’t. Had we been able to make the compost economically at scale and it was teaming with broad-based biology that makes it optimal, it may have worked. Certainly, we made mistakes on the production side, but we persevered and, at least on the “tons produced” standard, we succeeded. However, with this experience now behind us, I would say that producing and applying thousands of tons of compost in a manner that soil scientists would consider “optimal” is a colossally expensive exercise of chasing one’s tail. In the sterile soil of the Northern Plains, I would question the ability to ever catch one’s tail. In light of these revelations, we evolved and made the decision that large batch window compost was not the magic bullet for us. In fact, a big part of our evolution is recognizing that there is no magic bullet. We have learned that success will involve patiently employing a series of agendas. This mindset brought us right back to one of the best examples of sustainable practices in the world today, Gabe Brown of North Dakota. Gabe is a grassroots regenerative farmer that we have highlighted on our website since we went live. He is not an academic, but he has succeeded through trial and error with his own two hands on his own land. His land was as sterile and compromised as the SA Ranch is today when he started his efforts some 25 years ago. He has dramatically improved the soil through his efforts. In fact, his farm/ranch has increased its soil organic matter (or “SOM”) from approximately 2% to 8% over the last 25 years. His soil is exactly what the world should be optimizing around and he achieved these results through practices that all farmers can employ. Specifically, the cornerstones of Gabe’s sustainable efforts include: (1) living roots in the soil at all times (cover crops in between cash crops); (2) active deployment of animals in his farming ecosystem; (3) diversity of plant life, bug life, and wildlife; and, (4) minimum tillage & chemicals.
As we lay out the current agendas and joint partnerships that the SA Ranch is working on, you will find a high correlation to the same practices employed on the Brown ranch. We are working on a number of things that are not prominent on Gabe’s radar (e.g. carbon sequestration or perennial wheat), but soil health is the first principle. The six specific agendas for the SA Ranch as we roll into the summer of 2019 are outlined below.
Agenda #1: Go-forward biological amendments
Molly Haviland, SA Ranch’s head Soil Scientist, leads the effort to pursue go-forward biological amendments to our farming model. Although we are not making large scale windrow compost anymore, we still believe that supplementing our land and seeds with high-end biological amendments, produced on the SA Ranch in accordance with our standards, will add value. Towards that end, we continue to make “small batch” compost via BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agriculture Management) reactors and we are vermicomposting where we have millions of red wriggler worms working tirelessly. As SA Ranch’s chief scientist, Molly Haviland has proven out the biological superiority of both these composts in comparison to our windrow compost, particularly as it relates to fungi levels which are critical in our bacteria dominated soil. Going forward, the compost we make will be brewed into teas and we will apply the tea to the soil. Brewing compost tea has always been part of our process and the SA Ranch has built out robust infrastructure to produce tea in 10,000 gallon batches.
Additionally, we believe that the efficacy of applying teas to our soil is much higher than solid compost applications. We have also figured out how to apply a highly concentrated compost extract directly on seeds as we plant crops by retrofitting our John Deere no-till air drill seeder. We are hopeful that planting microbes with the seeds will really fuel biological benefits and solve the application issue we had with our windrow compost.
Brewing compost tea has always been part of our process and the SA Ranch has built out robust infrastructure to produce tea in 10,000 gallon batches.
Agenda #2: Incorporating animals into our soil work & rangeland health
In early 2019, the SA Ranch retained Zachary Jones as an advisor to create a sustainable cattle grazing program on the SA Ranch. This program will cover the ranch’s native rangeland as well as our agricultural land and it is based primarily on the research conducted by the Savory Institute relating to intensive or “mob” grazing. The SA Ranch currently runs a 500 head cow/calf operation and will be considering sheep and goats in the future. Before humans showed up in central Montana, 50 million buffalo would cruise through the area, followed by all sorts of predators (including big packs of wolves) that kept the herd moving at an “optimal for the ecosystem” pace. This predator/prey migration can be seen in the Serengeti and in all large natural ranges. Basically, it is how nature optimizes native rangeland. In these systems, intensive and disruptive grazing is followed by long periods of rest. This pattern both disrupts and stimulates the ecosystem and we are convinced that moving animals more frequently and “grazing all” will be accretive to the plants and soils on the SA. Zach has worked on a number of sustainable ranches around the globe and on his family’s Montana ranch. His practices have dramatically increased the health of his rangeland and doubled the carrying capacity of the land. Information on Zach and the Savory Institute can be found in the links below.
Zach Jones: https://www.sandyarrowranch.com/our-ranch/team/
Savory Institute: https://www.savory.global/
Agenda #3: Salish Blue Perennial Wheat…the game changer
In late 2018, we started working with The Bread Lab (a Washington State University research affiliate) to develop a strain of wheat for our soils that was optimized around nutrition (conventional wheat is optimized around yield) and to further Steve Jones’ (founder of The Bread Lab) work on Salish Blue, a perennial wheat he has been developing for decades. In the fall of 2018, The Bread Lab planted over 100 test plots of various strains of wheat on the SA Ranch. We will harvest and test these strains in the fall of 2019. We also planted a large test plot of Salish Blue and we will be supporting the Bread Lab’s work on this crop in every way we can. Having a commercially viable perennial wheat would be an environmental game changer on multiple levels. We have linked a story below about Kernza, which is a noble effort, but produces seeds that we do not think will ever gain broad commerciality because they are undersized (e.g. like grass seed). Whether we are right or wrong on that point, the world appears to be infatuated with Kernza. In contrast, the seeds produced by Steve’s Salish Blue wheat are normal sized. Lots of wood to chop here but suffice it to say that the environmental and nutritional power of this plant will be staggering if we can prove it out at scale.
Agenda #4: Montana State University Research
I am pleased to announce that SA Ranch will soon be working with Montana State University’s Tony Hartshorn, PhD. To date, there have been few publications in the U.S. exploring the efficacy of compost and compost derivatives in dryland wheat production. Furthermore, the published research exploring the uses of these products that contain data regarding the microbial communities in the product and how it impacts the plant or soil ecology should be expanded upon. Beginning in spring 2019, the SA Ranch will team up with Montana State University’s Land Rehabilitation Graduate Program, with the goal of developing a valuable body of information for the agricultural and scientific community regarding the transformation of waste into a resource and its effectiveness for growing winter wheat and pulses in Montana’s dryland farming systems.
Agenda #5: Yale University Quick Carbon Tool
In the summer of 2018, the SA Ranch was one of the test sites for a carbon testing project run by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Yale is developing a new carbon monitoring protocol (“Quick Carbon”) with the following mission:
Quick Carbon’s research mission is to create an accessible measurement system that empowers individuals to generate reliable soil carbon data for ecological understanding, decision making, and markets.
Quick Carbon utilizes a field reflectometer device to measure carbon in the soil. If it proves to be effective, we believe that it would be an invaluable tool in opening up carbon markets to sustainable farmers. Yale had 6 researchers on the SA Ranch for a week last summer, gathering soil samples to test for carbon. We are happy to support this effort and you can find more information on the Quick Carbon website at https://www.quickcarbon.org/what-we-do
Agenda #6: Food can be medicine
The linkages between health, nutrition, soil, food, and humans have historically been spurious at best. There has not even been conclusive evidence supporting the nutritional value of organic food over conventional and no one even knows if we are even measuring the right things. As readers of this website know, the SA Ranch has a close relationship with the author and University of Washington professor, David Montgomery. David has written five books on soil and his latest book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life” highlights many of the practices employed by the SA Ranch. David has participated in the SA Ranch’s scientific efforts and events.
We are pleased to announce that the SA Ranch is supporting the development of David Montgomery’s newest book. The book (which is currently untitled) will explore the linkages between soil, nutrition, and human health. A critical component of this book will be the “across the fencerow” testing that David is doing around the nation relating to food grown on sustainable farms (e.g. like Gabe Brown’s farm) versus conventional farms where tilling and chemicals rule the day. Stay tuned – we are optimistic that David’s work here will be fruitful. We believe David’s findings will help to shape farming practices not only on the SA Ranch but across the world and will help drive future consumer demand.
Multiple families homesteaded Sandy Arrow Ranch early in the 20th century and humans have been depleting the land ever since. Conventional agriculture, with its chemicals and tilling practices have been the worst culprit, but haphazard grazing has also contributed negatively to soil health. Consequently, many of the best grazing areas are abused annually, which creates an expanding problem where the SA Ranch’s prime grasslands never recover. It is our goal to reverse these trends by bringing effective regenerative farming and ranching practices onto the SA. If we are successful, we will improve the soil, reduce erosion, cleanse the water system, and produce more nutritious food. Importantly, everything we are working on has positive implications on the environmental state of the planet, especially as it relates to global warming. Adopting agriculture and grazing practices that increase SOM may be the most effective defense to reduce atmospheric carbon.
All these things are easy to say but hard to do, and even harder to document in a scientifically rigorous manner. At the SA Ranch, we have surrounded ourselves with world-class scientists, we are documenting all our work, and hopefully, we have “successes” worthy of review in future updates.
Thank you for your interest in our work.