The USDA recently gave $225 million in federal funding to 88 environmental projects across the country, including a program in Oregon to help improve the soil health in Wallowa County, home to the Zumwalt Prairie, one of the last intact native grasslands of its kind in the United States.
The prairie consists of about 330,000 acres of native grassland that once covered 10 million acres stretching across the Pacific Northwest. Today, the prairie is mostly owned by area ranchers and farmers, along with The Nature Conservancy, which owns about 40,000 acres in Wallowa County.
The goal of the project is to create opportunities for private landowners to apply integrated crop and livestock production systems to improve soil health while reducing the use of chemical inputs, increase water efficiency, and prevent the further fragmenting of the native grasslands.
The Nature Conservancy, a charitable environmental organization headquartered in Virginia, is the project’s lead partner. They’re joined by local non-profits Wallowa Land Trust and Wallowa Resources, along with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
According to Jeff Fields, The Nature Conservancy Project Manager for the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, the approach involves finding the sweet spot between ecology and the local economy.
“We’ve been focusing on not just the ecology of a place but the economy as well and socioeconomic issues that surround management by private owners,” says Fields in a phone interview with Modern Farmer. “Wallowa County has an awful lot of innovative farmers and ranchers who are thinking about soil health, supply-chain diversification—including grass-finished beef products—and getting away from commodity markets.”