This is a project about the next generation of farmers and ranchers in Montana. Though the definition of new farmer is fairly straightforward—someone operating their own farm business for fewer than 10 years—when referring to those returning to their family places, that definition often blurs. Kyle Graveley’s family has been ranching in Montana for five generations. He grew up on his parent’s ranch in Helmville, Montana, where he now lives with his wife, Tressa and their two small children, Kadin and Natalie. As a high school freshman, Kyle knew he wanted to come back to his family’s property, and after leaving the ranch for two years to go to technical school in Helena, he returned in 2002 to help with the family business. At the ranch, Kyle has his own cows, as does his sister, Brooks, who is also raising a family on the property. Kyle works closely with his father, Steve, to make business decisions, yet he has a lot of freedom to make his own choices with certain aspects of the business. Though Kyle plays a significant role in the management of the business, this is very much still Steve’s business and Steve’s ranch.

Kyle and Steve work together to run the ranch from day to day, but on “shipping day”—a labor-intensive day in the fall when the calves are sorted, weighed, and shipped to a buyer—family, friends, and neighbors come to help out. Every ranch has its own method and organizational structure for how it manages its cows. This is how it happens at the Graveleys’ Helmville place. The Graveleys have about 500 cows that have been out in pastures with their calves since the calves were born in spring. On shipping day they are brought into the corral from a nearby pasture. From the corral, groups of cow/calf pairs are let into a straight chute, called the “alley,” where four men working together separate the mothers from their young. The cows are put into a corral where they bay and moo, calling for their calves, while the calves are moved onto trailers and taken to a neighbor’s scales down the road. At the scales the calves are weighed, counted, and eventually put on semi-trucks to take them to the buyer often in the Midwest. After the calves have been weighed and shipped off, the cows are given vaccinations, checked to see if they are pregnant (a process called preg-testing), and then put into a new corral. They will soon be turned out to pasture after all the cows have been examined and treated. All this happens in a day, a very full day.

This process sounds straightforward, and it is because the Graveleys, as experienced ranchers, have created an efficient system. On shipping day, Steve called the shots but Kyle was intimately involved, and together they coordinated all the people who turned out to help. Shipping cows is a community event. When there are that many cows and calves everyone comes out to work. Brothers, sisters, neighbors, nieces, nephews, friends, in-laws, they were all there carrying their white cow poking sticks, bundled in vests and carhart jackets, and working in the flecks of snow without complaint. On another ranch’s shipping day everyone goes out to work with them because this is how ranching is done, by a community. With mechanization it is possible to do much of ranch work with fewer people—a tractor and a man can work a hay field, a few guys on ATVs can herd cattle—but as Kyle’s mother-in-law said, “Working cows, it doesn’t matter what machinery you have.” People are the lifeblood of ranching.

There was a tangible feeling of familiarity and camaraderie among the group, and it was easy to see the value of working with family. But the reality of a new generation returning to a farm or ranch is sometimes difficult. There are a few factors that can make the process complicated: family, land, and money. As Kyle said, “People in the community have come back, but only a few. It gets hard with family dynamics, and there’s not enough space. You can’t expand. Maybe you could get a small piece and do vegetables, but not a piece large enough for cows.” Kyle’s mom, Sue, is happy to have her kids back at the ranch, but she lamented the economics of ranching. “It’s a hard sort of life,” Sue said. She went on to say that all the money they make from the sale of the cattle goes back into the ranch for equipment and paying other bills. For ranchers she said, “There are no great Caribbean vacations.”

Kyle and his family are in the slow, incremental process of succession, the transitioning of a ranch or farm from one generation to the next. This transition includes passing down the management of the business along with the assets. It’s an important issue in contemporary agriculture. Farming is one of the few professions in our culture that is largely an inherited occupation. As farmers and ranchers age, more and more agricultural businesses will be in this kind of transition. Agriculture is a fundamental piece of the identity of Montana. But the economic and social pressures that squeeze this industry make its future—and the future of the next generation hoping to carry on the businesses—uncertain.

Succession is a process that seemingly begins the day a son or daughter is born with a hope that that child will want to ranch. It ends when the ranch owner passes full control to the next generation. As the child grows, intangible assets—the fundamentals of ranch work—are imparted. As the child becomes an adult and then decides to stay on as part of the family business, this next generation will ascend what academics call a succession ladder. It starts with being responsible for technical decisions (the types and amounts of inputs), next comes strategic planning decisions (such as hiring employees), financial decisions, and finally successors are responsible for deciding when to pay bills. The end of succession is the transfer of tangible assets: the business, the equipment, the land.iii

The concept of a succession ladder makes a sometimes messy and complicated process seem more like a checklist. From afar most farm and ranch successions fit a few kinds of patterns and trends. Viewed up close, though, it is not a rigid process; there are trends but no rules. Succession is not science; it is behavior and decision making in a set of circumstances unique to the individual family, and there are often strong emotions involved as one generation relinquishes control to the next.

In 1992 Kyle’s parents bought additional acreage near their home to facilitate Kyle and Brooks’ return to the property. This purchase allows the business to support more than one family. “My dad is still the final decision maker,” Kyle said. “But more and more that responsibility is becoming mine.” One day the business will pass to Kyle; one day the business will pass to his son. The succession process will cycle on.

As shipping day wore on light snow drifted among the cows and ranchers. Two generations of fathers, sons, cousins, uncles, and nephews wrangled cows, preg tested cows, and vaccinated cows. Steve came out after the others had been working for awhile and joined his two brothers, Shane and Sandy, and his nephews Sloan and Ross in a small corral where they were preg-testing cows. There was little discussion between the men; “Hey cow, hey cow,” was the most that was heard. Otherwise in the corral the men moved as a unit, as did the cows. They would finish preg testing the cows, yell out a cow’s tag number to Kyle if it was not pregnant, and then send them down a long chute where Kyle, Tressa, and Tressa’s father, Chris would work together to vaccinate the cows. It moved with the kind of effort that has been practiced over generations, the effort of a choreographed endurance event.