Questions about the SA Ranch and our plans

Sustainable Agriculture is the future of farming. The SA Ranch currently has 2,500 acres of tilled agriculture land. We have approximately 20,000 acres of grazing land as well but for now we are focused on the agriculture land. Our goal is to go chemical free with agriculture practices that are climate friendly, retain water, reduce erosion while growing crops that maximize nutritional value at yield rates equivalent (or greater) to conventional agricultural methods.
Q. How did you decide to focus your case study efforts in Montana?

The Sandy Arrow Ranch (“SA Ranch”) is a 22,500 acre cattle ranch/dry land farm located in central Montana that borders the Missouri Breaks National monument.  This part of Montana is classic northern plains country.  Lewis and Clark came through this country in 1805, commenting that this area held more wildlife than any other part of their expedition.  What they witnessed was undisturbed, robust native prairie with millions of buffalo and other ungulates happily grazing.  The prairie was a perfectly balanced ecosystem that nature spent 100’s of millions of years to create.  In the last 100 years, man has upset this ecosystem through chemical focused conventional agriculture.  Instead of lush poly-cultures of native grasses, mono-cultures of wheat are grown in synthetic chemicals (e.g. nitrogen and potassium) which has compromised the soil and turned water tables toxic.

Eric is on a mission to prove that nature is still the best blueprint for the land.  Under the concept of “bio-mimicry”, the SA Ranch will be a giant Petrie dish to prove that there are agriculture practices which can heal the planet as well as improve the health of humans.  Beginning in early 2016, Eric retained scientists (Dr. Elaine Ingham and Molly Haviland) to help him create the “soils first” regenerative program that currently is being applied at the SA Ranch.

Q: Can changing the practices of one ranch in Montana really make a difference?

Yes, the problem at hand is larger than the SA Ranch.  However, we are committed to developing an economically viable model for regenerative farming which can serve as the optimal framework for agricultural practices across the world.  Central to this model is the thesis that carbon can be sequestered at a level that can be impactful to climate change through biologically based soil focused programs which meet other sustainable goals.  Most of the soil in the Northern Plains has been severely compromised by conventional, chemical-based farming.  Non-stop applications of RoundUp and other chemicals have destroyed the microbial community, turning the soil into dirt.  Additionally, many ranches have not employed holistic grazing practices which has compromised both pasture and native grazing land.  To turn this dirt back into healthy soil, we are working to jump start the biology through the use of compost.  Using local organic materials (old hay, straw, wood, and manure), the SA Ranch is making thousands of tons of biologically robust compost on an annual basis.  The resulting impact that this compost has will be tested across a broad range of application levels across both farmland and grazing areas.  We will test carbon levels as well as assess soil quality, compaction, and moisture retention both through soil samples and crop results.

We are not delusional about the task at hand.  No matter how compelling the “bio-pure organic” food produced on the SA Ranch is and even though the ranch is as big as Manhattan Island, it is a tiny chunk of land on the northern plains.  We will never be able to supply Costco or Whole Foods.  Getting to scale is critical for projects like this especially to attract the mind share of the consumers as well as to get the attention of the corporate participants in the global food complex.  For our approach to get to scale, it has to gain widespread acceptance.  The only way it gains widespread acceptance is if there is an economic model embedded in the sustainable benefits that is compelling to the typical northern plains family farmer.  Our model dramatically lowers input costs (no chemicals) and the products it produces receive premium pricing thanks to the consumer driven momentum for healthy, sustainable food.  If we can help establish proper carbon protocols, it may be the case that the carbon we sequester could be monetized.  Even at today’s pricing, that could be $30-$50 an acre of pure profit. This seems small, but it would be highly accretive to dryland farmers in the northern plains.  The bottom line is that we hope the Montana Carbon Project will help us find fellow travelers to get our concepts to scale.  The principles that the SA Ranch project is based upon are applicable across timber, agriculture, and range land.

Q: How much carbon do you believe you can sequester?

Many scientific trials embracing biological soil principles have reported exceptional results, restoring an average of 2.6 metric tons of carbon per acre annually.  As a goal, SA Ranch is targeting the restoration of 3.0 metric tons of carbon per acre annually over its agricultural fields and pasture land.  To give you a sense of what this means globally, there are 8.3 billion acres of grassland and 3.8 billion acres of cropland across the planet.  If all this land stored an incremental 2.6 tons per acre, over 20 gigatons of carbon would be sequestered annually and the 350ppm atmospheric goal would be met in 5 years.

Q. How do you plan on achieving your carbon sequestration goals?

The SA Ranch is convinced that although biology is the key ingredient to healthy soil, there are other components needed to build incremental carbon stock in soil for the long-term.  SA Ranch is dedicated to implementing the following practices in order to optimize carbon sequestration:

  • Perennial Plant Systems: As one witnesses in nature, it is optimal to have living roots in the soil at all times.  With perennial plants, the above ground foliage forms a barrier between the air and the soil which protects the soil.  One of the guiding principles in nature is that the more biodiversity in the system, the healthier and more resilient the system is.  On the SA Ranch, we will employ biodiverse cover crops and plant the cash crops directly into the cover crops’ root system.
  • No Till Practices: Conventional and organic tillage methods are generally detrimental to soil health and carbon restoration practices.  On the Sandy Arrow Ranch, “no till” practices will be utilized exclusively.
  • Chemical-Free Farming: It is abundantly clear that the use of synthetic agriculture chemicals is harmful to the environment and health, and they also reduce soil carbon.  The toxins in pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers can be fatal to soil organisms and without the microbial community sustainable benefits are lost.  No synthetic chemicals will be utilized on the Sandy Arrow Ranch and all crop land will eventually be certified organic.
  • Holistic Grazing Practices: Many people are concerned with ruminant animals due to the methane that they exhale which is a bad greenhouse gas. The methane is real but in a balanced, biologically active setting like what the Sandy Arrow’s “soil first” practices will create, methane is not a problem because thriving methanotrophic bacteria will quickly metabolize it.  SA Ranch will employ holistic grazing practices (especially mob grazing) which has been proven to provide incremental carbon sequestration benefits.
Q: What are “soil first” practices?

It was late 2015 when Eric hit the wall on conventional agriculture and decided that something had to be done.  After much research a path was chosen and the SA Ranch’s sustainable, but economically viable, agriculture project began in earnest in the spring of 2016. After hiring Dr. Elaine Ingham and Molly Haviland to focus on the science and Richard Leach to run on-site operations, we obtained initial soil samples. The samples proved definitively that the SA Ranch was basically empty dirt — not soil – and our mission became crystal clear: we had to fix the soil.

Even prior to getting the soil tested, our SA Ranch scientists were not confused about the task at hand.  They could just look at the soil and know that the microbial community had been decimated.  Healthy soil is full of microorganisms, up to 1 billon per teaspoon.  If one creates a robust and self-sustaining microbial community – one will have healthy soil.  The SA Ranch does not have healthy soil today.  To get a crop, synthetic fertilizers combined with herbicides and pesticides are the norm.  In contrast, if the soil was healthy (as we define it) there would be no chemicals needed to grow a crop.   Interestingly, chemicals are approximately 70% of the cost structure in growing wheat.  In our “fix the soil” program, if current wheat yields can be maintained (and they should be higher) the dramatically lower input costs would create a new paradigm in the economics of wheat production. The resultant chemical free and more nutritious crop would be embraced by producers and consumers.  To get the ball rolling, our first agenda was to stop killing the precious few microorganisms left in the SA Ranch’s dirt (meaning no chemicals) and we had to jump start and rebuild the biology.  Both Elaine and Molly give speeches all over the globe on this “health of the soil” topic with the punch line being that the most effective way to rebuild soil is by spiking the ground with microbial rich compost.  Unfortunately going to Home Depot and purchasing bags of compost was not an option; we just have too many acres to cover.  Thus, out of necessity, we began gearing up to go into the “commercial” compost manufacturing business.