Building on a successful peer-to-peer network of Texas ranchers who are implementing innovative grazing techniques to improve soil health and increase profitability, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is scaling up its Soil for Water project to support livestock producers and farmers across seven southern states and Montana.

The Soil for Water project grew out of persistent droughts, which put a strain on agricultural producers across the country. The effort is combining the use of appropriate technology, peer-to-peer learning, and on-farm monitoring to encourage regenerative agricultural practices across Montana, California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia.

“Livestock have the ability to improve soil health, and healthy soil holds more water,” said NCAT Regenerative Grazing Specialist and Montana project lead Linda Poole, who also raises sheep in Phillips County. “We know that as more producers adopt regenerative methods, significant economic, environmental and social benefits can be realized.”

Economically, regenerative agriculture has the potential to increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it has the potential to improve soil health and biodiversity. Climate trends across much of the U.S. indicate longer, hotter drought periods punctuated by storms that often are more severe, according to a 2021 USDA report. Regenerative farming practices improve drought resilience by helping the soil capture heavier rainfall that otherwise might disappear as storm runoff.

By late summer, the project will be available to ranchers and farmers across Montana. The effort aims to reach hundreds of family-owned farms and ranches, creating a network of producers who prosper by applying land management practices that improve soil health, catch more water in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life and filter out pollutants.

Dale and Janet Veseth run cattle on more than 40,000 acres of rangeland south of Malta. Their place borders the Missouri River Breaks and it has been in their family for a couple of generations. Dale grew up on this ranch and says as a kid cattle were rotated across seven pastures. Now, he’s using 80 pastures through an intensive grazing plan which has improved soil health and native grasses, allowing him to maintain a healthy herd even during severe drought.

“It’s a very long-term project,” Dale Veseth says. “Managed grazing makes you more drought-proof when you build your water resources and take care of your range. Our cattle still look good. We’re not over-impacting our range. If we’re going to survive in the beef business, we’re going to have to become more environmentally friendly.”

The high interest in nutrient dense, sustainably produced meat and locally grown products is not only an economic benefit to producers, but also a quality-of-life benefit to their communities when healthy, locally produced food is available.

The Soil for Water project launched in 2015 with support from the Dixon Water Foundation and the Meadows Foundation. Project investors include grants from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), $980,000; The Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, $50,000; the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, $1 million; and the Kathleen Hadley Innovation Fund, $20,000.

Column by Steve Thompson, NCAT Executive Director 

The soil that covers 93 million acres of sprawling Texas rangeland holds a remarkable story. It’s a tale of opportunity and ruin. At its best, the soil beneath our feet is the source of life, food, and economic security. At its worst, that same soil can crumble ranchers’ livelihoods and put at risk our local food systems and entire communities.

Much of the western United States is in the throes of a megadrought. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that nearly 60 million people now live in parts of the West plagued by drought. Farmers and ranchers are making hard choices about which herds to cull or land to leave fallow. But in the midst of this megadrought, an expanding network of farmers and ranchers is quietly taking steps to catch and keep more water in the soil that nourishes our food.

First-generation farmers Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank manage 2,000 acres in Texas Hill Country. They’re raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks on rugged land between San Antonio and Austin. It’s beautiful, tough land that Maggie Eubank says has been beat up on for a century. They’re working to change that. They’re using above-ground livestock to take care of the microscopic livestock living underground, which grows more grass and keeps more water in the soil. The Eubanks are turning overworked dirt into healthy soil.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Soil for Water Project is connecting the Eubanks with monitoring tools and a network of other ranchers who are doing what they can to use animals to keep more water in the ground. The USDA estimates that each 1 percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre – or more than an average swimming pool. When livestock are appropriately managed, those animals help build heathy soil that holds more water.

Regenerating farm and ranchland across the United States will have significant and lasting economic, environmental, and social benefits: Allowing vast swaths of the country to withstand drought conditions and bounce back faster after natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and decades of dryness. We know that regenerative agriculture can increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it can improve soil health and biodiversity.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is expanding beyond Texas this summer into Arkansas, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Mississippi, Montana and Virginia, supporting a nationwide movement of agricultural producers who are leaving the land better than they found it.

For the Eubanks in Texas, they got into ranching in-part because of its powerful mystique, an undeniable connection to the land they grew up on, and their desire to prove that large-scale regeneration can not only repair a century of misuse, but also provide for a profitable business.

Their grass-fed meat is sold at the local farmers market, and they’re selling subscription-style to consumers across Texas. At the same time, the ranch they manage is now sprouting native grasses and water seeps are opening in places that were once bone dry. It’s incremental progress that will take time to fully realize, but the Soil for Water project is ready to be a key player in regenerating and making more resilient farms and ranches across America.

Building on a successful peer-to-peer network of Texas ranchers who are implementing innovative grazing techniques to improve soil health and increase profitability, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is scaling up its Soil for Water project to support livestock producers and farmers across seven southern states.

The Soil for Water project grew out of recent droughts, which put a strain on agricultural producers across the country. The effort is combining the use of appropriate technology, peer-to-peer learning, and on-farm monitoring to encourage regenerative agricultural practices across the seven-state project region. For example, through managed grazing systems, livestock have the ability to improve soil health, and healthy soil holds more water.

“Increasing the adoption of regenerative methods could have significant economic, environmental, and social benefits,” said NCAT southwest regional director and project lead Mike Morris. “Economically, regenerative agriculture has the potential to increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it has the potential to improve soil health and biodiversity. Socially, it has the potential to facilitate decentralized local and regional food systems by enabling more producers to offer healthy, sustainably-produced products to local consumers.”

By late summer, the project will be available to ranchers and farmers in Texas, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Virginia. Project investors include grants from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), $980,000; The Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, $50,000; and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, $1 million. The Soil for Water project launched in 2015 with support from the Dixon Water Foundation and the Meadows Foundation.

NCAT will lead the expanded Soil for Water project with eight cooperating organizations, including the University of Arkansas, Virginia Tech University, and Mississippi State University.

The effort aims to reach hundreds of small to mid-sized family-owned farms and ranches encouraging them to try land management practices that improve soil health, catch more rainwater in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants.

First-generation farmers Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank manage 2,000 acres in Texas Hill Country. They’re raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks on land between San Antonio and Austin. It’s beautiful, tough land that Maggie Eubank says has been overgrazed for a century. They’re working to change that.

“The Soil for Water Project is connecting us with a network of other ranchers who are doing what they can to use animals to grow more grass and keep more water in the ground,” Eubank explains. “Regenerating this ranch is the focus of our job, but we can also show other ranchers and farmers it can be a viable business.”

The high interest in grass-fed, sustainably produced meat and locally grown products is not only an economic benefit to these producers like the Eubanks, but also a quality-of-life benefit to their communities when healthy, locally produced food is available in neighborhood markets.

In this episode of Voices from the Field, Kara Kroeger, a sustainable agriculture specialist with NCAT’s ATTRA sustainable agriculture program, talks with Nicole Masters, a New Zealand agroecologist and director of Integrity Soils.

Listen to the episode, here.