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What the Inflation Reduction Act could mean for agriculture in Montana

Wheat field in Manhattan
Olivia Weitz
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
Walter Schweitzer, the president of the Montana Farmers’ Union says in the past, there’s not been enough funding for Montanans who want to participate in these programs.

The Inflation Reduction Act passed last month includes nearly $20 billion of funding for agricultural conservation.

More than half of Montana’s land is used for agriculture, and funding from thd bill will offer a boost to many existing programs that help farmers and ranchers implement sustainable agriculture practices that reduce carbon emissions and boost soil health.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s agriculture reporter Isabel Hicks has been looking into how agriculture funding from this massive legislation package will be used in Montana. She spoke with Yellowstone Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin to talk about her reporting.

Ellis Juhlin: So a large portion of funding from this act is going to be used to enhance existing programs that incentivize agricultural conservation and help farmers implement some of those principles. Can you tell me about these programs?

Isabel Hicks: So almost 20 billion will be spread across 4 different programs that are run by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS for short.

Walter Schweitzer, the president of the Montana Farmers’ Union, says in the past, there’s not been enough funding for Montanans who want to participate in these programs. The USDA has generally called these programs “over-subscribed,” so additional funding from the Inflation Reduction Act will allow more farmers to sign up for these programs.

The programs do everything from giving farmers financial assistance for projects that promote healthier water and soils, keeping productive land in agriculture, there are programs that expand conservation easements as well.

In fact, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust was able to use funding from one of these programs to conserve $25 million worth of land across Montana over the past few years.

There’s a lot of potential for increased conservation of land with these programs which is important for keeping productive land in use. And really, as we see more people moving to Montana, new development is often encroaching on some of the most productive soils in the state.

Speaking of challenges, I know that Montana agriculture is struggling with this prolonged drought that’s carried over from last summer. It’s led to dry soils this year and a challenging growing season. How will these programs help Montana farmers and ranchers dealing with drought?

That’s a great question Ellis. Healthy soils really are a key component of making land more resilient to drought. Not only do healthy soils hold in moisture better, they grow higher quality, more nutritious food and make sure that agricultural land remains productive.

In this bill we see a lot new funding directed to NRCS projects that incentivize farmers to improve their soil with projects that can look like cover cropping and crop rotation, rotational grazing to prevent the overgrazing of certain areas also soil testing so farmers can understand what nutrients are already in soil and prevent them from over-fertilizing

Overall, the goal of the programs is really just to keep agricultural land and soils as productive for as long as possible and to keep the agriculture industry in Montana strong.

So thinking about the ag industry, there’s also provisions in this bill supporting biofuel development. Can you talk a little bit about how that would affect Montana’s agriculture? 

There are a lot of producers in Montana that are growing crops that are used to make renewable biofuels, like oil seeds and safflower growers. And there is a refinery in Great Falls that’s converting half of its facility to refine renewable biofuels. So with that Montanans will have more opportunity to be involved in several steps of the biofuel production process.

This legislation also has several provisions to support renewable energy development, and to address the climate crisis overall.  Izzie, what role would you say agriculture has to play in this?

Oftentimes farmers and ranchers get a bad rap for their emissions, but I actually think agriculture has a huge role to play in addressing climate change. My mind goes to rotational grazing practices, which can actually pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. For example, I wrote a story recently about a program based in Livingston that actually pays Montana ranchers to sequester carbon by changing their grazing practices.

And definitely more research about making carbon sequestration more efficient is needed, and this bill does offer new funding for that research.

Whether you look at these projects through the lens of climate change or not, there really is a common goal of protecting the environment on both sides. You know, ranchers need healthy soil and enough water to keep their land productive and stay in business. They really have a vested interest in preserving those resources too.

A correction has been issued for this story, Hicks said Gallatin Valley Land Trust had conserved nearly 25 billion dollars of land, but it should have been 25 million.

Ellis Juhlin is YPR's Statehouse reporter based in Helena.