Organic farmers benefit communities in a whole host of ways. Through their use of organic agricultural methods and materials like composting, crop rotation, and cover cropping, they enrich the soil, help to keep water sources clean, and help to reduce the impacts of global warming.
Residents of Sweet Grass County, Montana benefit from organic farming in yet another noteworthy way. Thanks to the work of Wes Henthorne, ranch manager at B Bar Land and Livestock-Big Timber, and his colleagues, 18 miles of the county’s roads are kept clear of weeds. Perhaps more importantly, the weeds along these roads are managed organically, using a combination of hand-pulling, mowing, and a vinegar spray solution. As a result, the roadways alongside this organic ranch are kept free of the harmful chemical treatments that have been used to keep them neat in the past.
The history behind this organic success story dates back to 1989, when ranch owner Maryanne Mott decided that she wanted to have her operation certified organic. Having been actively involved in the national environmental movement, she felt it was important to shift away from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and employ more sustainable materials and practices on her ranch. She thus began the transition to organic, which culminated in 2004 with the certification of the ranch’s cattle.
In the years leading up to 2004, fences surrounded the now 6,500-acre ranch. These fences, which ran alongside several miles of the county’s roads, constituted an effective barrier between the ranch’s organically managed grounds and the land overseen and managed by the county. In 2004, however, when the operation’s herd was certified organic and in need of ample organic pasture on which to graze, the fences no longer provided a sufficient buffer zone.
To remedy this problem, Henthorne approached Stacy Barta, Sweet Grass County’s Noxious Weed Program Coordinator, about the possibility of managing the adjoining roadsides using organic practices. Described by Henthorne as “a forward-thinker,” Barta welcomed the idea of alternative approaches to land management and encouraged Henthorne to experiment with organic forms of weed control.
“The results have been excellent,” says Henthorne, who notes that the 18 miles of county land for which it is responsible is inspected two-to-three times per summer to ensure that it is meeting county standards for weed control. “Generally speaking, we’re able to keep the most noxious weeds at bay. And if we happen to come up short, the county brings the problem to our attention and we come up with a mutually satisfying solution.”
Although it has not gained much attention from area residents, Henthorne’s work with Sweet Grass County has earned the recognition of both Montana’s organic and weed control communities. As Henthorne observes, “We are the poster-children for how organic farmers and local governments can work together to yield a positive and wide-reaching result.”
The positive impacts of Henthorne’s work do not stop there. He and his colleagues have also helped to reinvigorate the population of the once-rare ancient white park cows. In 1989, only 20 of these animals existed in North America. “There was real concern at that time that if something wasn’t done, we might lose this breed altogether,” Henthorne notes. He and his fellow ranchers thus set out to reverse the population decline by breeding the animals and promoting their consumption.
“It wasn’t easy,” Henthorne says, reflecting on the early days of his work with the ancient white park cows. “There weren’t many takers. People just weren’t as interested in organic and grass-fed beef at that time.” As the demand for such specialty meats grew, however, so did the cows’ population. Today, nearly 600 ancient white parks roam the lands of North America. “This is a perfect example of how organic can and does respond to issues of biodiversity,” Henthorne adds.
As such successes make clear, organic ranchers like Wes Henthorne are committed to going the extra mile to ensure that everything from the roadways to the animals roaming alongside them enjoy the organic benefit.
Photo courtesy of Wes Henthorne.