The Sandy Arrow Ranch (“SA Ranch”) is a cattle ranch/dry land farm located in central Montana. The ranch borders the Missouri Breaks National monument and Lewis & Clark came through this country in 1805. In their journals, they commented that this area held more wildlife than any other part of their expedition. What they witnessed was undisturbed, robust, bio-diverse native prairie that supported millions of buffalo and other ungulates. 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 practices. Instead of lush poly-cultures of native grasses, mono-cultures of wheat are grown in synthetic chemicals (e.g. nitrogen and potassium). This practice has compromised the soil and turned water tables toxic. When Eric Dillon purchased the SA Ranch in the fall of 2013, the discovery of all the chemical and soil manipulation abuse (tilling) was eye-opening. This discovery led to the realization that there had to be a “better way” and that realization is the catalyst for this project. You can find our “Declaration of Independence” below which was written in 2014 and is the initial treatise detailing what we thought the path ahead would be. The plan has evolved over the years. To be sure, we attempted some audacious projects and some of them failed (e.g. large scale composting) but failures are most instructive. We continue working on the SA Ranch with high levels of optimism for we have been able to assemble the regenerative “dream team” and the SA Ranch enters 2020 with a clear and focused agenda.
The headline update is that the SA Ranch is refining its mission. Going forward, our focus will be to employ “tried and true” regenerative agricultural practices that are designed to increase soil organic matter and sequester carbon. The SA Ranch is effectively now a carbon farm. Being a carbon farmer is completely consistent with the goal of improving soil health. Healthy soil providing climate benefits and grows nutritionally dense food while creating many other environmental wins with clean water, wildlife, erosion etc. To accomplish this carbon farming goal, the SA Ranch has hired Zach Jones as General Manager (see Zach’s bio here) and has entered into an operating agreement with Gabe Brown, whereby the SA Ranch will become a model ranch/farm to prove out Gabe’s regenerative land management practices as it relates to carbon retention. Gabe recently visited the SA Ranch and his program will be in full force by the Spring of 2020.
If you Google “Gabe Brown farmer” you will get over 1,000,000 links. Gabe’s approach and farm was discussed at a recent Democratic Presidential candidate debate as an example of a real world climate change solution. Without question, he is one of the leading authorities on regenerative agriculture in America. What we really like about Gabe is that he is a farmer at his core but he also clearly understands that to invoke broad scale change, regenerative practices have to make economic sense. Nothing he proposes is academic or theoretical for his advice is based on real experiences from managing his 6,000-acre ranch in North Dakota.
Gabe’s six principles of regenerative agriculture are:
1. Limited to zero tillage
2. Armor the soil surface
3. Increase biodiversity in all pasture & cropland
4. Living roots should be in the soil at all times
5. Integrate livestock animals
6. Context matters
Gabe has achieved remarkable results as it relates to carbon farming on his land, the Brown Farm. Twenty years ago, Gabe’s farm had soil organic matter of approximately 1.6% which held roughly 20 tons of carbon per acre. Gabe’s land now has approximately 8% soil organic matter and holds 95 tons of carbon per acre. Over the last ten years, the rate at which he has been able to sequester carbon has accelerated and his farming practices are responsible for sequestering 4-6 tons of carbon per acre, per year. These are “solve climate change” sort of numbers and they are actual numbers. Importantly, Gabe’s now carbon-rich land is extremely productive (crops yield 20% higher than county averages) and he has not used synthetic fertilizers since 2010 (healthy soil does not need chemicals) which increases profitability. We are confident that having Gabe as an advisor will lead to success on the SA Ranch. We currently define success as sequestering a minimum of 2 tons of carbon per acre annually over the next 5 years.
We are very excited to have Zach Jones join the SA Ranch team. Eric (the owner of the SA Ranch) has lots of big ideas but he is short on experience, horrible on execution, and is easily distracted. Zach is fifth generation Montana rancher and has a wealth of experience both in conventional and regenerative farming/ranching. Importantly, Zach is philosophically synched up with the SA Ranch’s global agendas and Zach’s knowledge of how to incorporate holistic grazing practices into soil health agendas is world-class. Zach helped to found Grasslands LLC, the land management arm of the Savory Institute which brought the regenerative practices of Allan Savory (another regenerative pioneer to Google) to America. He has worked on large, regenerative ranches in the U.S. and abroad. One of the key principles of Gabe’s land management practices is utilizing intensive grazing practices on managed pastures and cropland. With Zach running the show, we are highly confident that we will be able to execute on all practices required to optimize regenerative carbon farming.
“The Plan” is to use the SA Ranch’s productive land to prove that nature is still the best blueprint for life by returning the land to a balanced healthy ecosystem and then growing cash crops and cattle in that healthy ecosystem. Under the concept of “bio-mimicry”, the SA Arrow 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. The key is healthy, carbon rich soil. Healthy soil is full of living things: bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, etc. This teaming microbial community requires constant supplies of organic matter to survive. Plants supply the organic matter and, like most systems in nature, plants enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the microbial community. Get the soil right and plants will grow without chemicals, will produce more nutritious food and the organic matter will both retain and cleanse water. Additionally, and importantly, nature’s natural bio-diversity and permanent root systems store multiples of CO2 (carbon) compared to conventional mono-culture farming (see “The Montana Carbon Project” tab).
This is a multi-year project and we are resolute on seeing this through. We will be posting regular progress reports on our web site. Our hope is to inspire others to carbon farm. Having other farms/ranches embrace carbon farming and the products healthy soil produces. Long-term, we hope to prove that the food grown in healthy soil is far healthier nutritionally and supports the human biome while our sustainable farming practices cleanse water tables while having positive impacts on climate change. If we prove out nutrition and other regenerative goals, consumer demand could materialize in a huge way. That would be the game changer.
These are lofty goals to be sure. However, the status quo is a disaster. If something is not done, America will continue to lose its productive land, food will continue to make people sick, and the climate will continue to warm.