Courtesy of Montana Grain Growers Association

Ask Montana grain farmers what the phrase “going green” means, and their first thought will be whether their recently planted fields have been blessed with enough rain for a healthy and growing crop. But, further reflection will affirm that this term generally refers to implementation of environmentally friendly practices.

Farmers are often frustrated by allusions that they should be shifting to “green” farming, as this has been their intent all along. Farming bloomed in Montana in the opening years of the 20th century, with the implementation of the Homestead Act. They soon discovered that farming the arid plains of Montana was far different from tending crops in the Midwest, where most of these homesteaders had come from. Lacking resources and experience, mistakes were made, not only in Montana, but throughout the West. This led not only to economic failures, but also environmental disasters like the Dust Bowl of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Throughout those hard times, farmers departed Montana in droves, and those who remained learned the lessons of environmental stewardship. That education continues today, using science and experience together to fine-tune the health of soils, crops and the food produced from them.

If you spend any time on the prairies of our state, you know the most common weather forecast is “dry and windy.” One of the greatest leaps forward was Montana’s embrace of no-till farming 30 years ago. Our worst environmental problem to that point had been wind erosion of our soils, which not only damages growing crops, but also does long-term harm to soil structure and fertility. No-till ended widespread erosion in our state. Today, there will be an occasional mistake with a crop which doesn’t produce enough protective residue, or overuse of a plow. Overall, the landscape has dramatically changed for the better.

Which brings us to the latest focus of the environmental community—carbon emissions and carbon sequestration. This carbon is measured in tonnes, and many believe our world has the ability to achieve a net balance between carbon emitted and carbon locked away. Activities which cannot achieve net-zero emissions will, in this vision, buy “credits” from those activities that can store more carbon than they emit.

Some of this is already taking place in heavy industry. We have the ability to measure carbon exhausting from a factory smokestack or a car’s tailpipe. Much of our human activity has yet to be measured, however, and agriculture is one of these. We are on the verge of a serious attempt to quantify the carbon footprint of farming, and the carbon balance sheet will require measurements and standards coming from a recognized source,
either a government agency or qualified institution. Then, a stable marketplace for the buying and selling of credits must be created.

Montana Grain Growers Association is intimately involved in the conversations surrounding these issues. Farmers believe their natural practices sequester huge amounts of carbon in their fields, but reliable measurement has not yet been established. This should not be particularly difficult, but the impetus is relatively new and standards are not yet defined. Add to this the reality that politics seem to enter everything, and Montana Grain Growers finds itself engaged in an issue made for its hard-earned skillset. Our farmers and scientists are constantly seeking and finding new ways to protect and enhance the environment. Given the tools and resources, farmers have for centuries preferred to leave the earth better than they found it, for the sons and daughters who follow.

Farmers have proven themselves to be astute students of the Montana prairie. She can be a stern teacher, but embraces you with love if you diligently seek the correct answers.