I’d never really noticed all the different types of grass. Standing in a field of grassland with our cycling crew and Steve Charter, Steve is talking about the forage kochia. The air is cool and heavy with the threat of rain. I’m on an island of dirt, a prairie dog town, surrounded by cheatgrass, sage, and crested wheatgrass. The prairie dog mounds are partially covered in short, sprawling growths of the forage kochia grass, creating oases of deeper green within the dirt. Steve tells us how he tried to plant this grass species for years and it wouldn’t grow, until it finally sprang up among the prairie dog towns. Ultimately, the prairie dogs are the ones who spread it.
It was Day 5 of the Cycle the Rockies course. It was a layover day at the home of Steve Charter; a man who specializes in regenerative ranching and has made substantial efforts to live sustainably. We’d arrived, exhausted, from Billings the day prior, after pushing through gusting winds. We were excited to spend some time listening to what Steve had to say about the ranch and his life. While we were visiting, he let us use his kitchen, so after a light bicycle tourist’s breakfast we went off on a walk with Steve to see his ranch.
The prairie dogs don’t appear to eat the forage kochia. It works partly as cover near their holes, but it grows too long. They mow it down, leaving the strands of dead grass right on top of the small, bush-like growth.
This was fascinating to me. I started drawing pictures of these grass species, in part to keep track of what they were and in part because it looked cool.
Regenerative ranching (and farming) is an approach to agriculture where the rancher introduces cover crops to the land. These crops are not harvested, but are meant to enrich the soil. They cover dirt so it is not lost by erosion. They help keep and pack water avoiding water loss. They also add nutrients to the soil from growth and decomposition. Regenerative ranching has entered the conversation for climate change as a way to sequester carbon.
Steve has done a lot of experimenting with this over the years. He’s worked with a lot of grass species, both native and introduced, as well as mixing his own regenerative soil with the help of worms. This approach to ranching was very new to me and struck me as profound. Work the land as it was meant to grow, not enforce monocultures onto the land. This was the first I had heard of the issues of monoculture crops. I was left to reflect on my experiences growing up in Montana.
Why had I not heard of regenerative farming? The dangers of monoculture? I am no expert on agriculture, but I am also no stranger to it. In high school, I committed substantial time to FFA and even qualified for nationals. I learned to love and appreciate agriculture back then but never came across regenerative ranching.
With a very limited background in biology, it took less than a day to understand the importance of regenerative ranching. This is not new science either, so as a climate solution and special agriculture practice, why did it never come up in my high school agricultural education?
Our walk through the field was interrupted by heavy rains so we made our way back to the house. We had some downtime that day to take care of homework and personal matters before putting dinner together. It was Father’s Day so most of us made some calls.
Steve has two interns, Rex and Susan, who were hired through the Quivira Coalition. This program matches young people interested in regenerative farming with people like Steve who are working with it. These people may or may not already have a background in farming or ranching and it is a great way to bring in young, non-traditional farmers and ranchers into agriculture who are willing to really step outside the box to solve climate problems related to agriculture.
Over dinner, we met Susan and Rex. They’d been helping Steve with the regenerative soil project as well as odd jobs around the ranch as farmhands do. After dinner, I had the chance to talk to Susan.
I brought up my concern about why regenerative agriculture wasn’t talked about when I was learning about agriculture in high school. What agricultural education exists for this? How do people learn about and integrate this more into society?
Her own experience brought me hope. Susan is a woman from Kansas with an English degree and no prior background in agriculture. After college, she, like myself and many of my peers, was searching for something purposeful to do. With some good connections in order, she decided to take a leap of faith with the coalition and learn something entirely new. At no point in her life had she envisioned herself being a rancher, but life has a way of making new connections and changing paths. She enjoys life on the ranch and is doing great work making a healthy impact on our world.
I found hope in knowing that even I could do something like this. I get caught up thinking that I need to follow a particular path set by my choice of college degree, but the ingredient to finding purpose is not in what you know, but what you are willing to learn. Attitude will be the driving force that solves the climate crisis.
Regenerative ranching is non-traditional by capitalist American standards and seems counterintuitive to those accustomed to monoculture crops as the standard of efficiency. However, seeing these fields, I see the future of agriculture in a world free of carbon emission. It feels to me that this would be an excellent topic for those kids in FFA participating in Agricultural Issues or Parliamentary Procedure. It seems to me it would be a step in the right direction if we could normalize regenerative farming and promote more agricultural education as a way to work on climate solutions.
Silas Andrews is from Great Falls, MT and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physics at Montana State University.