On her 20-acre ranch on the Flathead Indian Reservation near St. Ignatius, Montana, Stephanie Larsen grazes sheep and cows, raises chickens and tends a large garden with her husband. Steph employs an ecologically-based livestock system called Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG). Unlike conventional or “continuous” grazing — a one-pasture system in which livestock have unrestricted access to fodder — under MIRG, fields are divided into paddocks which animals graze one at a time. Resting each paddock after grazing allows plants to renew energy reserves, rebuild shoots and deepen root systems, increasing both the quality and quantity of forage produced.
In addition to providing nutritional and other health benefits to livestock, the permanent vegetation cover reduces soil erosion and surface runoff, creates wildlife habitat and riparian buffer. It also improves soil health by allowing water and nutrients from livestock manure to penetrate the soil as animals aerate with their hooves.
For small farmers like Steph, organic certification can be financially burdensome. Yet she is deeply committed to agroecological farming, and for now offers an open invitation for the public to visit the ranch and view her practices for themselves. “You’re welcome to be at my side, any day you want to come,” she says. “I do the best I can for my animals, from birth to death.”
Before moving to Montana, Steph was an organizer for Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs, where she worked to bring new voices to the national conversation about agricultural policies and “get rural people excited about democracy.” Now Steph works for the Sierra Club while tending her ranch, and is emphatic that the future of farming is organic: “Organic farming can feed the world — better, more completely and more sustainably than any pesticide-based agriculture could do.”
Photo: Stephanie Larsen