work journal

Common Ground series

December 5, 2022

Over the course of 15 months spanning from 2021 into early 2022, I poured myself into an independent project focused on how organic and regenerative agriculture are revitalizing rural Montana economies.

Reported for Montana Free Press and with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, the project gave me the opportunity to travel to a number of small agricultural towns in central Montana including Ledger, Chester, Sunburst, Big Sandy, Havre and Stanford.

Between hot afternoons in a tractor cab, walks through farm fields under the haze of wildfire smoke, the fascinating Soil Health Symposium in Billings, and hundreds of hours on the phone, I spoke to more than 150 farmers, ranchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, business owners, nonprofit leaders, politicians and public officials.

I met many incredibly intelligent, forward-thinking people who are connected deeply to the land they inhabit and drove 3,500 miles, most of them with the phenomenal photographer and my good friend, Jason Thompson.

For background: Organic has been a USDA certification since 2002, while regenerative lacks a codified or even consensus definition but generally includes a suite of techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation, no-till and livestock integration that decrease erosion, improve biodiversity and capture carbon.

At first, it took some convincing to get my wonderful editor at MTFP, Brad Tyer, to go for a story about soil—or dirt, as he called it at first—but when readers began responding in large numbers to the first 5,000-word story and it then landed on the front page of Hacker News, where it created a vigorous conversation, we all sat up.

We were onto something vital, as felt in the introduction of the first story.

A slight haze hangs on the blue horizon above Ledger Road, 50 miles north of Great Falls in north-central Montana. Rectangles of spring crops and native grasses glow green alongside the dried straw of last year’s fallow. Forty miles north, the Sweetgrass Hills rise 3,700 feet above the high plains.
A mile down a side road, past another farm, the home place at Tiber Ridge Farm is an oasis of trees, farm buildings and birdsong. The farm sits in the geographic center of the Golden Triangle, a 4,000-square-mile area between Great Falls, Havre and Cut Bank best known for producing high-protein wheat.
An aerial photo of organic farmer John Wicks planting barley. Photo by Jason Thompson
In the driveway, John Wicks starts his semi, a Freightliner with 800,000 miles he bought used in 2007. That was right after his dad died and Wicks left Montana State University in Bozeman to help his mother on the farm where he grew up.

Through Wicks's moving story of transitioning his struggling family farm to organic, and the story of regenerative farmers and ranchers Wendy and Korey Fauque, Part 1, "Soil is our livelihood, and we better protect it or we're screwed," introduced the concepts behind these agricultural methods, and how producers are using them to build topsoil, drought resilience and profits.

Part 2, "Building on soil in Big Sandy," followed the career of pioneering organic farmer and entrepreneur Bob Quinn. Part deep dive into soil health, part love letter to Quinn's hometown of Big Sandy, it traces the changes in small agricultural communities since the early 20th century.

Part 3, "Rebuilding soil by building relationships," the series’ final installment, looked at the impact of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency born of the Dust Bowl. I drove twice to the Judith Basin, so I could tell the story of the Myllymaki family's transition from conventional to regenerative techniques. The story closed on the Blackfeet Nation, where an Indigenous-led nonprofit is researching and teaching cutting edge regenerative grazing practices.

More background on why this matters right now, also pulled from the series:

"Wind and water have eroded Montana soils since the first plow turned earth on the Northern Plains more than 150 years ago, taking with them one of the state’s most important resources. Since then, tillage, plus the fertilizer and pesticides common in industrial agriculture, have continued to degrade the soil that agriculture depends on. With climate change threatening almost 25,000 Montana agricultural jobs in the next 50 years, many farmers, ranchers and researchers believe the status quo is no longer adequate. And though conventional farming continues to account for the overwhelming majority of Montana’s $4.6 billion ag sector, things are shifting."

I wove many things into these stories, but one I left out was politics. The people I met ranged across the political spectrum, and yet they agreed on many things. In an age of polarization, soil is a nexus.

The series, supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, won third place for explanatory reporting in the prestigious Best of the West contest. Part 3 won first place for Technology and Science reporting in the 2022 Society of Professional Journalists Inland NW Excellence Awards. Through this project, I met so many phenomenal people I hope to continue working with in some capacity, even after this specific endeavor is complete.

At the end, my biggest takeaway is this:

Of all the principles of soil health, perhaps the most important is diversity. A polycultural cropping system surrounded by a biodiverse ecosystem is more resilient than its monocropping counterpart, as is diversity of thought and experience among the people who manage those ecosystems.

All photos by Jason Thompson

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