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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.

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.