Financial Assistance      Land Access       Succession Planning       Education and Community Building       Other Factors       Works Cited

I began this project by visiting Heather McKee and her heritage hens in Missoula on a bright, unseasonably warm day in March, and ended the project with a visit to Helmville and the Graveley Ranch in late October of 2010. As I drove home from Helmville toward Missoula the snow turned to grapple, to sleet, and finally to rain. The agricultural season was over. Montana’s summer, this year a wet one on both ends, passed, a flash in the pan. These new farmers and ranchers will slow down during the short days of winter and during that brief pause they will surely think and plan for next season. Some may choose to leave farming behind, some may reinvent an aspect of their business to make it more profitable, perhaps some will purchase land or equipment. Whatever they do, I very much doubt they will maintain the status quo.

I set out to do this project in order to highlight some members of the next generation of people growing food and raising animals in Montana. In addition to learning about their businesses, I also wanted to know why they chose this line of work. In every interview I asked, “Why do you do this, given the difficulties and the stress?” The farmers answered with lists of the rewards of farm life: spending time with their families, working for themselves, and working with animals and plants. But I sensed under those reasons another, more fundamental reason. Agriculture seemed to pull at them at a deep level, and several of them described this inclination this way: “It’s in my blood.”

Like many of us, people who choose an agricultural career are sometimes chasing an occupational dream. But for farmers the path to economic and social sustainability is often an uphill one influenced by forces largely beyond their control. When growing food ceases to be practical economically or socially, it is deeply problematic. We ask, who will grow our food? But really, who would want to? It is a low paying job full of hard work, and many farmers, new and experienced alike, often seem a hailstorm or dry season away from financial disaster. Most beginning farmers don’t make a living off the land the first few years they farm, and they often work off-farm jobs to make ends meet.iv After working so hard for little money, it is easy for farmers to feel burnt out and overwhelmed. Such aspects of farming—being overworked and underpaid—call into question the social and economic sustainability of agricultural occupations. All of us have a vested interest in seeing agriculture succeed, not only in terms of production, but also socially, culturally, and economically. So what will it take to see that new farmers and ranchers are successful?

The answer is neither simple nor singular. The people I interviewed for this project often pointed to common themes—such as start up costs, mastering the practical skills associated with farming, and learning to run a business—when they talked about their businesses and the struggles they face as they attempt to make their operations successful. New farmers in Montana face challenges similar to those in the rest of the country, but Montana is also unique: Montana is a large state with a widely dispersed population and thus many of the products grown here are necessarily exported to populations based in other places; the climate here is dry, particularly in the east; and the soils and terrain greatly vary, some appropriate for grazing, others appropriate for growing grains and other products. Nonetheless, for over a century Montanans have been working to make agriculture viable; in fact, in 2002 the market value of Montana’s agricultural products was 1.8 billion dollars.v But even given agriculture’s significant role in Montana, its future seems uncertain. “For Montana on the whole, more than 5,000 people over the age of 65 are farming as their primary occupation, compared to roughly 650 people under the age of 35 also farming as their main job (a ratio of almost 8:1). This suggests few aspiring farmers and ranchers are able to get started, while those in their later years continue to work the land.”vi

Addressing both the economic and social sustainability of farming begins with developing tools and programs aimed at helping new farmers run successful agricultural businesses. In my interviews for this project, the themes the farmers brought up concerning the challenges they face as new farmers, mirrored themes in the academic literature on the subject. Some specific areas that need attention and resources are financing and business training, land access, succession planning, and education and community building.

Financial Assistance
Without a doubt the biggest hurdles for new farmers and ranchers are the high start up costs associated with acquiring property and infrastructure.vii Programs like the one administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) that are committed to financing the needs of new farmers are of upmost importance. Montana also has a beginning farmer loan program to help farmers in this state buy property. Some states offer tax credits to new and beginning farmers and this may be another strategy that Montana could adopt to help small farmers. In addition, though not specifically targeted at new farmers, there are other grants available through governmental and private organizations, such as Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program grants and funding for conservation projects through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). A study from 2009 found that having a written business plan was essential for farm financial success, enabling farmers to more successfully apply for loans from banks and state and regional agencies.viii Thus, though providing financial resources is necessary, equally important are programs that teach farmers strategies for running an agricultural business and inform them of the financial tools available to them and how to use them.

Land Access
Financing is only half the battle when it comes to acquiring land; farmers must also have access to good agricultural land, land suitable for growing crops and raising animals. One way to help new farmers access land is to connect landless farmers with retiring landowners and others with agricultural land they want to see farmed. Land Link Montana is an organization that helps bridge the gap between these two populations by matching beginning farmers and ranchers with landowners. When a successful match is found, the land is eventually transferred from one party to the next. The goal of Land Link Montana is the continued agricultural use of land, land that would otherwise most likely end up being utilized for development. Similar programs exist in other states, and such programs are linked together through the National Farm Transition Network.

As agricultural land is increasingly threatened by development, it is important to safeguard our remaining farm and ranch lands, particularly arable land near urban centers. Elsewhere in the country, urban centers have set aside land specifically for agricultural use rather than development; other localities have ordinances that demand that for every piece of land taken for development, other land must be set aside for agricultural purposes, thus helping to ensure the future food security of the community. Though Montana is a mostly rural state, agricultural lands near population centers face development pressure. A few recent statistics from Missoula County are indicative of this trend: roughly 80% of the lands in Missoula County with the best agricultural soils have been subdivided to parcels smaller than 40 acres; and since 1986, almost 29,000 acres of land have been converted from agricultural use to non-agricultural use, which works out to an average of 1,443 acres of land per year no longer in agricultural use.ix As the arable land near urban centers in Montana continues to be threatened, communities must critically consider land use planning strategies for agricultural purposes.

Land in rural areas faces threats as well, but these are the result of land consolidation rather than development. Farms have gotten bigger over the last few decades, partly because creating a bigger operation, or scaling up, is one of the ways to make an agricultural business profitable. As farmers retire or move away, other farmers, or sometimes agricultural companies, buy up property until one farm stands where many once stood. The number of American farms with sales of $500,000 or great (some of the country’s largest farms) grew by over 600% between 1974 and 1997. During this time the total number of farms declined from 2.3 to 1.9 million.x This consolidation, particularly when done by corporations, can make land scarce and present barriers to entry and growth for both landless farmers and those returning to family farms.

Succession Planning
Land access is an especially important factor for farmers who do not come from farming families, but those who are returning to family farms face other challenges. 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 the process of succession, the transitioning of a ranch or farm from one generation to the next. Though I only travelled to one site where the process of ranch succession was under way—the Graveley Ranch in Helmville—that family is probably not an anomaly in Montana. Many farms and ranches in Montana have been family operations for generations. In order to encourage the children of these farmers and ranchers to return to their home places and help them carry on economically successful businesses, it is essential to provide resources that will help these families negotiate the tricky process of succession. Successfully managing these transitions is crucial not only for the families involved, but also for the social fabric of Montana’s rural communities, communities which are often built upon agriculture and the bonds formed between the families who work the land.

Education and Community Building
New farmers need assistance in business planning, land and infrastructure acquisition, and succession management. In addition, farmer education and training, community support, and mentoring opportunities are vital to new farmer success. Montana’s Universities provide educational opportunities for students interested in agriculture, as well as resources for the state’s farmers. Montana State University’s (MSU) College of Agriculture is an obvious educational resource to college students with an interest in agriculture. MSU offers a wide variety of majors focused on agriculture, from Agricultural Economics to the newly created Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program. MSU also provides resources and expertise to the farmers of this state through the extension program and agricultural research. The University of Montana (UM) also offers coursework focused on sustainable food and farming through the Environmental Studies Program. At UM students from all majors have the opportunity to learn about small-scale vegetable production at the PEAS (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) Farm, a campus-community farm operated through a partnership between UM and Garden City Harvest. In fact, a number of the farmers I spoke with for Rooted had their first experience with agriculture at the PEAS Farm. It is unclear how many of the students who study agriculture at MSU and UM return to family farms or begin farming after they complete their degree, but continued funding of MSU’s and UM’s agricultural programs encourages students to study agriculture and culturally creates support for agricultural careers. People interested in starting a farm career can also find educational opportunities by apprenticing with working farmers, and these kinds of on-farm training opportunities are invaluable to new farmers. There are various online networks where beginning farmers can find such hands on opportunities; one of these is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service , which lists farm internship opportunities nationwide.

Currently in Montana a number of farmer resources and advocacy groups exist including Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO), Grow Montana, and the Montana Department of Agriculture. In addition, there are a variety of other organizations founded around specific farming interests, from organic production to raising cattle on short grass prairie. These organizations can provide important community support for new farmers and also present opportunities for mentorship relationships between experienced farmers and beginning farmers. Agricultural groups should work to facilitate the formation of these important mentor-mentee relationships.

Concerns about growing new farmers are relatively new and programs that offer various forms of assistance to new farmers are only slowly being developed and implemented. In the fall of 2009 the U.S. Department of Agriculture dispersed $19 million in grant money through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. This money is available to groups initiating programs aimed at new farmers. From Vermont to Washington, Iowa to North Carolina, new farmer education and outreach programs are growing. Often these site-specific programs offer multiple resources to new farmers such as business planning and management courses, hands-on training in cultivation, and community building and networking.xi Montana lacks an umbrella organization dedicated to new farmers. Such a group could network new farmers, advocacy, policy and community building organizations, and mentors together to share information about the kinds of resources and education available to new farmers. Such initiatives exist in others states already: Next Generation in Iowa; Center for Rural Affairs’ Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunities in Nebraska; and Beginning Farmer Land Access Program in Vermont.xii Montana could look to these organizations as it begins developing a new farmer organization.

Other Factors
To better understand new farmers it is necessary for more research to be done. Much of the existing work focusing on new farmers often groups all farmers together, regardless of farm size, the product being raised, and regional differences. Research that is more targeted at sub-groups of new farmers could help identify the specific needs of each group. For instance understanding the challenges as well as strategies for the success of small, direct market farmers and organic growers will help guide the creation of educational and financing programs aimed at this expanding portion of the agricultural community. In addition, further research could make distinctions between the different challenges and factors for success relative to the livestock and crop growers that make up the majority of the growers in Montana.

Finally, many of the farmers I talked with also pointed out their role in educating customers about the value of food. New farmers may have difficulties accessing land, poor return for their products, and few business training opportunities, but the challenges associated with starting a farm will only truly be addressed through a sea change in the way consumers view food, farming, and agricultural economics. Our dependence on and acceptance of cheap food is surely at the heart of the issue. Only 9.8% of an Americans’ income goes to food purchases, and in general farmers receive only 19% of the market price of their goods, a downward trend. In 1982 farmers received 33% of market price.xiii Though the aforementioned resources and programs can help new farmers, until we begin to value agriculture and the role it plays not only in feeding us but also in the social fabric of rural and urban life, the barriers to successfully starting a new farm enterprise will not diminish.

Montana has a burgeoning group of new farmers, both those starting from scratch as well as those returning to family operations. To make growing food an economically and socially sustainable occupation—one that can generate enough income to support families and one that doesn’t exhaust farmers—and to assist farmers with the start-up costs associated with farming, it is essential that government and other organizations address the special needs of this group. In order to support these farmers Montana will need to further develop financing programs, educational curriculum, and outreach methods. Now Montanans have the opportunity to evaluate what other states and organizations are doing to support their new farmers and build on those ideas to form programs that will work in our unique climate, terrain, and communities.

Works Cited

iUnited States Department of Agriculture. (2007). Table 63. Summary by Age and Primary Occupation of Principal Operator: 2007. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from,_Chapter_1_State_Level/Montana/st30_1_063_063.pdf

iiMayday 23: World Population Becomes more Urban than Rural. 2007. Science Daily. Retrieved November 19, 2010, from

iiiLobley, M., Baker, J., & Whitehead, I. (2010). Farm succession and retirement: Some international comparisons. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, August 2010, 49-64.

ivAhearn, M.C. and Newton, D. J. (2009). Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, EIB-53, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

v United States Department of Agriculture. (2003). 2002 Census of Agriculture, State Profile, Montana. Retrieved January 10, 2011, from

vi Hassanein, N. & Hubbard, P. (2010, April). Losing Ground: The future of farms and food in Missoula County. Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. Retrieved November 28, 2010, from

viiAhearn, M.C. and Newton, D. J. (2009). Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, EIB-53, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved October 29, 2010, from

viiiMishra, A., Wilson, C., & Williams, R. (2009). Factors affecting financial performance of new and beginning farmers. Agricultural Finance Review, vol. 69, 2, 160-179.

ixHassanein, N. & Hubbard, P. (2010, April). Losing Ground: The future of farms and food in Missoula County. Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. Retrieved November 28, 2010, from

xLyson, T. (2004). Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food and Community. Medford, MA: Tufts University Press.

xiNiewolny, K. and Lillard, P. (2010). Expanding the boundaries of beginning farmer training and program development: a review of contemporary initiatives to cultivate a new generation of American farmers. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, August 2010, 65-88.

xiiIbid., p. 78-86.

xiiiUnited States Department of Agriculture. (2006, August). How Low has the Farm Share of Retail Food Prices Really Fallen? Retrieved October 29, 2010, from