We spent yesterday afternoon in a sterile hotel meeting hall with probably 200 other farmers and ranchers of all ages and styles brought together by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. We were greeted in the lobby by hotel staff who recognized what we must be there for and pointed down the hall with a smile "The dirt people are that way." We were attending a Soil Health Workshop, which sound dry at first but included such great presenters and insipiring information that we sometimes found ourselves engaged in almost a religious call-and-response fervor. Here are just a few of the highlights from the presentations:
This is the "underground herd" responsible for 90% of the functions we expect out of soil. Jon Sitka started his talk by holding up a small fist-sized aggregate (clump) of soil, and pointing out that it housed at least 7.5 billion microorganisms--a population in that handful of soil equal to the number of people on earth. These micro-livestock need careful tending, feeding, and care in order for the soil to function at its best. Just as ranchers who doesn't feed or shelter their aboveground cattle will lose profits and potential, anyone trying to grow crops from the soil will lose out if they don't properly care for that underground herd.
By repeatedly taking too much plant material from aboveground, and not giving plants time to recover fully and regrow root systems, the water holding capacity of the soil is reduced, compounding problems from low rainfall years. Healthy soils can buffer those times of low rainfall by holding on to the water for longer.
The second presentation, from Doug Peterson, was about how to use high-intensity, short-duration grazing methods, such as "mob grazing" to manage pasture or range specifically to build soils. Local producers from Western Montana spoke to the audience about their successes and soil improvements from following these methods on parcels ranging from 30 or 40 to 300 acres, but it can apply at many scales. Noah is working with and documenting practices of ranchers who are applying these same tools and principles to restore soil over 50,000 acre spreads in Eastern Montana. We're excited to see how, with some work and creativity, we might do the same on a humble ten or so acres.