Photo by Claire Harbage (NPR)

Production agriculture is akin to a dance. A farmer or rancher must be in tune with their land. They move in step with the changing of seasons, maintaining the rhythm with their tools and techniques. When they stumble, they adapt and recover. The dance is never flawless, but with practice, the partners come ever closer to reaching harmony.

“There’s a balance down there in the soil. We have no idea how complex the biology is, but we’re doing our best to understand it,” says Malta’s Craig French, who owns and operates C Lazy J Livestock with his wife, Conni.

In their efforts to be better stewards of the land, the Frenches have implemented a holistic management plan that not only benefits their livestock, but also the soil, wildlife, and Beaver Creek (which runs through their property). C Lazy J’s operation is unconventional by Montana standards, but the Frenches believe it to be the most sustainable.

“Ranchers are beginning to focus on more than just cattle,” Craig explains. “Part of how we’re operating is by moving away from pesticides, machinery, and manmade fertilizer. It’s more environmentally friendly. And it’s working.”

With lower input costs and more sustainable practices,
C Lazy J Livestock has seen financial success in addition to its ecological victory.

In 2019, the Frenches were finalists for the Leopold Conservation Award (which recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to a land ethic), and they were the recipients of the Conservationist of the Year Award by the Phillips Conservation District (for their outstanding contributions to the conservation of local resources).

As Phillips County grapples with the idea of “conservation” and what that should look like in Montana, Craig remarks that the expertise of local ag producers should not be discounted.

“We all agree that this land is worth taking care of, but there’s a lot of conflict surrounding how,” he says. “The best thing we can do for the area as a whole is to keep working lands in the private hands of land stewards who have been here for generations. These are people who understand the soil and the climate. They haven’t always made the right decisions in the past, but their expertise may hold the answers for the future.”