During the spring of 2007, we were cleaning out ditches when Melvin Brown, a 91 year old neighbor
and native sheep farmer stopped to chat. It was mid April, and the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone was already on the rise.
During our discussion, Melvin related that when he was a young man and took the sheep out into the Silvertip Hills, the desert to our east,
on April 15 there was little green vegetation for grazing. Now, green-up is occurring much earlier. In fact, river flow data show that the snowpack
of the Central Rockies is melting nearly one month earlier than historically. The meteorological data show the same pattern that our old neighbor Melvin
sees in his memory and in his everyday life tied to the land.
As healthy summer water flows in the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River are the lifeblood of Coon's Age Farm, as well as all farming up and down this beautiful valley, we must work to make the most respectful and sensible use of these irrigation waters and adjust our land management practices to increase our sustainability.
To that end, we on Coon's Age Farm are taking a multiple faceted approach to adapting to climate change and reducing our climatological impacts through reducing Carbon emissions while increasing Carbon sequestering in our soils.
The long-term persistence of agriculture here is threatened by global climate change. Global climate change models predict
that Montana's average summer and winter temperatures may increase 1-8° and 2-10° during spring/summer and fall/winter respectively.
Additionally, precipitation amounts and annual patterns are likely to change with the northeastern portion of the GYE experiencing
winters of lower snowpack coupled with more summer precipitation. Such a pattern will likely result in lower water levels in
the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone during mid- late- summer, the time of highest irrigation water demand.
This change in water availability, along with upstream yet junior (in Wyoming) water demands points to the need to develop and implement agricultural practices that a) reduce late summer water use, b) reduce water, sediment, and chemical runoff back into the river, and c) increase water retention time within the soil. We believe that a move away from intense annual commodity crops such as sugar beets and malt barley toward a permaculture is a solution to adjusting to climate change scenarios as well as adjusting to changes in the food economy through development of local markets. In addition to permaculture with native and tame grasses, the introduction of shrubs and trees within and around fields can have significant economic and ecological benefits to small diversified farms in addition to the globe as a whole.
Therefore, we are instituting silvopastoral practices that will provide multiple benefits:
Benefit wildlife, including threatened and at-risk species.
Benefit pasture- and hay-based livestock farms.
Benefit soil health and sustainable agricultural systems both now and under climate change scenarios.
Benefit water quality through reduced farm runoff and reduced effluvial water temperatures.
Benefit the economies of small farms that adopt these practices and demonstrate this to others.
As we move our fields into permanent cover (permaculture) through a sylvipastural venue we
will also be increasing the capacity for our soils to sequester Carbon. Additionally, as our farm was historically a sugar beet and
barley growing farm, by not planting, tilling, and harvesting row crops on 139 tillable acres, Coon's Age Farm reduces
carbon dioxide emissions by over 16.3 metric tonnes (35,853 pounds) annually. And at this point, we have yet to calculate
the reduction in nitrous oxide (another greenhouse gas) emissions we've affected by not relying upon synthetic fertilizers.
We have estimated that with every acre we maintain in
permanent grass, legume, and tree cover 1.75 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (about 1000 pounds of carbon) can be sequestered annually
for at least 30-50 years.
Hence farm-wide, we have the capacity to grab onto nearly 290 tonnes per year! That's like taking 65 cars off the road and over the course of 50 years of soil
deposition this adds up to about
4000 tonnes of carbon. In the soil and not in the air.
Moreover, we have calculated that historically, this farm raising commodity-style beef (cow-calf operation with large-framed black white-faced cows), produced 35% more methane than our Galloway cattle do grazing on pasture and hay. This amounts to a net savings of 1760 pounds of methane/year!
If you would like to help us reach this goal by off-setting some of your carbon emissions directly and through on(in)-the-ground efforts
we gladly accept donations. Again, this is real and on-the-ground work. We are currently planting fields to mixed grass/legume leys while simultaneously
planting trees in the form of copses, open woodlands (i.e., a savanna or cottonwood gallery motif), and shelterbelts. This sylvipasture will have significant
benefits to wildlife, microclimate, and the carbon and water budgets and overall efficiency of Coon's Age Farm.
This is work done on a limited budget affecting change that will last for decades and keep on giving (or taking carbon, in this instance). Good work that will assist in the sustainability of a small family farm, increase carbon sequestering, wildlife habitat, and soil tilth thereby maintaining in-stream flows. We have estimated that to move and keep each acre of Coon's Age Farm into permanent cover with sylvipasture will take between $400-$600, initially. Long-term, that ends up costing about $25/metric tonne of carbon over 50 years.
We cherish your support of any amount.
We welcome farm tours and visitors can grab a shovel and help us irrigate the hayfields and pastures listening for the singing of chorus frogs and the winnowing of snipe. We also offer natural history tours of the farm and adjacent wild areas hoping to foster appreciation and knowledge of this oft-overlooked part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and how local cultures and economies can assist in its conservation.
Eric & Melonie
Katie, Callie & Aislee Atkinson
Coon's Age Farm
99 Lovers Lane
Belfry, MT 59008
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