Nate Powell-Palm is currently a first-year student at Grinnell College in Iowa. When he went to Iowa for school, he left behind his mother, father, and younger brother in Belgrade, a small town near Bozeman. He also left behind 22 cows and calves, two bulls, and 20 chickens. At 17 Nate was the youngest certified organic farmer in the country, and as an organic farmer he operates a small grass-finished beef business that supplies a small contingent of customers in the Gallatin Valley.

Nate is a thoughtful and articulate young man who knows his way around raising cattle, food and agricultural issues, and local markets. He began raising cattle as part of a 4H project when he was 9 and since then his interest has grown into a business. He utilizes some property his family owns, but also leases land to graze his cattle. Nate does not come from a ranching family, so in order to successfully raise cattle he has had some help from a broad spectrum of ranchers in Montana. The organic community has helped answer any questions he has, particularly when it comes to organic issues, marketing ideas or ranching in general. “The organic community, they’ve been my complete foundation for my success this far,” he said. “Whenever I have a question on farming, which none of my family’s really done any of…they always were able to sit down for hours and hours and explain how you plough a field and things like that.” But the traditional ranching community, too, has been supportive. A neighbor, who Nate refers to as his “second mom,” taught him the important fundamentals of raising cattle such as breeding, sourcing bulls, and animal care. While Nate is in school in Iowa, the support of family and friends in Bozeman are indispensible; they care for the animals and some of the other aspects of the business while he is away. Nate, though, is still responsible for some of the marketing aspects of the business, which he can manage from afar.

Though Nate is raising cattle, a fairly common practice in Montana, he is doing it in a rather uncommon way; he uses organic methods to raise grass-finished beef. “I got started in the organic business through my family’s philosophy of how agriculture should be done, with no confinement operations and really no pesticide or herbicide use whatsoever on the land.” Choosing to create a grass-finished, local beef operation fits with his sustainability ideals and organic farming methods because it means his animals will not go into a feedlot system that is antithetical to his beliefs about animal husbandry. Producing grass fed beef for a local market also makes the most economic sense for the scale of his operation. “I was trying to sell calves and could only sell eight of them and barely cover hay costs. I needed to have some marketing niche where I could actually make money at this,” he explained. “Because I can’t compete with people who have 18,000 acres and 600 [cow/calf] pairs, I have to put a little bit more skin in the game and really go for it. That’s how I picked organic and the grass finished business.” Raising cattle near an urban area means there is a strong local market for his products, but this also means finding land to grow his operation is a challenge. He hopes to convince some of his neighbors to transition their property to organic management so he can lease their land for his operation.

Currently Nate’s beef herd consists of Gelbvieh cows and an Angus and Galloway bull. Gelbviehs and Anguses have been bred over the years to finish best on grain and in feedlots. Nate is looking at ways to use breeding to improve the performance of his cattle on pasture in Montana. He recently acquired a Galloway bull. Galloways are known for their thick curly hair that protects them from harsh winter weather. In addition, they are a better breed for Nate’s objectives because they eat a more diverse array of grasses than other cattle, have a moderately sized frame and therefore finish more quickly than other breeds, and finish well on grass rather than grain. Nate enjoys the breeding portion of running the business and sees it as essential to his success. He explained, “Right now the breeding is one of my greatest works in progress. Because I really need to figure out something that can finish in a competitive amount of time…There’s marketing and then there’s breeding, and they have to go hand in hand if you’re going to be successful.”

Nate has a clear affinity for his cattle. Nate has had his Angus bull, Bubba, for three years, and has trained him to pull a small plow to dig up the pasture. Nate demonstrated Bubba’s gentle nature by putting a lead on the two-ton animal and then taking him around the pasture for a short jaunt. At spring hill, the summer pasture where Nate keeps his cows and calves as well as the Galloway bull, Nate called each cow by name: Magpie, Willow, Mayday, and Honey, among others. He explained their personality characteristics as well as each cow’s strengths and weaknesses as mothers. To illustrate his bond with the animals he explained his method of moving them to new pasture. “I’ve got a pretty good system. I’m well known throughout the county,” he told me. “I walk in with a bag of grain and shake it and they all follow me in. Everyone always thinks that must be really stressful for the cows, but they know they’re going to really good pastures as soon as they step on there, so they’re pretty cooperative.”

Nate’s mind always seems to be thinking about the business. Where are new markets and customers? Which breeds of cattle will work best being raised solely on grass in this climate? Who are future partners in hay growing? Though he may be leaving the state to go to school, it seems like his mind, at least part of the time, will be in Montana with his business. “Actually every couple nights I’ll sit down and pencil out how I can cut costs and increase profits… It’s unlikely that it will ever be my sole source of income unless I’m able to land major breaks with land deals. But I would definitely like to see myself being able to have a big enough demand that I’m able to sell my entire calf crop before they are actually born…And make a little money at it too.”