The Sandy Arrow Ranch (“SA Ranch”) is a 22,500 acre 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) which has compromised the soil and turned water tables toxic. When the SA Ranch was purchased by Eric Dillon in the fall of 2013, the discovery of all the chemical abuse 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. Detailed under the time line below you can find our “Declaration of Independence” which is the very long version of this project and details on how agriculture land in the United States has ended up here. The short version of our “plan” is as follows.
“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. Many options to fix the land were considered. 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 ranch.
The SA Ranch execution team is convinced that the answer to the SA Ranch’s multiple missions (see “Our Mission” page) rests in having the proper biology in the 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). To jump start the SA Ranch’s soil biology, we will be applying thousands of tons of compost to the land. In addition, we will stop tilling and poisoning the ground with chemicals and will bring bio-diversity to all fields through perennial plantings of cover crops, even in the ranches core agricultural fields. Eventually the land will evolve into organic land but we believe our process will be “beyond organic” as it relates to nutrition and other sustainable goals.
This “Plan” is far from trivial. Making thousands of tons of compost to jump start the SA Ranch’s soil is a major undertaking and conducting all we do in a scientifically robust manner so others can follow and we can “prove” our thesis is labor intensive. We are not aware of any other effort similar to ours in the northern plains so we are blazing trail. Having said that, 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. As soon as we optimize the soil on the SA Ranch, it is our hope that our compost operation will deliver “biological gold” to neighboring ranches. Having other ranches embrace biologically pure food/cattle brings critical mass to the product. 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 and make positive impacts to climate change. If we have critical mass and prove out nutrition and other sustainable 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.