Aging farmers, dying farmland


“Egg production right now is what I’m into, what my dad did, about 90% of eggs [in the country] are produced by the company’s 60 farms, ”Spencer said.

This trend towards industrial operations is not unique to Montana either: as America loses family farms to development, large corporate farms increasingly dominate and consolidate the agricultural sector, using centralized processing facilities and producing inexpensive products. to ship nationwide and overseas. According to USDA data, between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms owned by companies increased by about 10%. The number of farms owned by an individual or a family has declined by about the same percentage over this period.

Regarding this situation, Spencer is realistic. “I don’t know if this is a problem. This is the reality, ”he said. “Food will always be available. Will it come from family farms or corporate farming? It will increasingly be corporate agriculture. Big companies have been gaining more and more control for a long time.

Yet the transformation of the American agricultural system is not without consequences. Small farms and ranches contribute significantly to local economies by spending money in the immediate community, selling locally, and creating local jobs. Rural communities suffer as the viability of the agricultural sector weakens and employment opportunities through agriculture decline.

“When you buy something from Walmart, none of that profit, none of that dollar is flowing through our economy, right? He goes to the corporate headquarters, ”said Bonnie Buckingham, executive director of the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition (CFAC, a Missoula-based nonprofit that works to create a local and regional food system. viable in western Montana. “There are also community and community values ​​when people are connected to their community through food, by buying food from a farmer or by attending a market. producers, these types of activities strengthen ties within the community.

Small farms are also often more environmentally friendly – they are less likely to use high volumes of toxic pesticides and more likely to support both crop and ecological diversity. And they tend to perform better from an animal ethics standpoint. Spencer, for example, feeds his chickens a 100% vegetarian diet and raises his birds in a cage-free environment.

When farms like Spencer’s are lost entirely to development, it also means irreversible loss of soil. Only a small percentage of Montana’s topsoil is suitable for agriculture. CFAC estimates that only 8 percent of the land in Missoula County, for example, contains soils important for agriculture. This soil has been generated over thousands of years – to create just three centimeters of topsoil, it takes about a thousand years.

Much of that soil lies along the bottom of the Missoula Valley – exactly the same spot that real estate developers are eyeing. If paved, this soil cannot perform key ecological functions such as growing food, retaining water and absorbing carbon, an ecosystem service that is increasingly critical as policymakers scramble. to curb global warming.

“If we don’t preserve what currently exists, we simply lose it. Viable, productive or [potentially] productive soils, which could be a field grazed with horses or just left to grow grass, these soils are being preserved in something like this for the future, ”Buckingham said. “Whereas if there’s a house on it or an industry – if it’s disrupted and subdivided – then we no longer have the capacity to grow food on it. “

IN AN ATTEMPT to tackle some of the agricultural challenges facing the state, nonprofits and government officials have found innovative ways to scale up and take action.

“If we don’t preserve what currently exists, we simply lose it. “

Trust Montana, for example, works to permanently preserve Montana’s farmland. While the organization previously focused primarily on preserving affordable housing, in May 2020 it partnered with two other organizations – Agrarian Trust and Vilicus Training Institute – to create the Montana Agrarian Commons. Communes will acquire conservation easements that restrict non-agricultural land development, hold that land in trust for the community, and lease it to beginning farmers at affordable prices. An Agrarian Commons program will also create a unique selling option for retired farmers and ranchers who want their lands to be grown and managed responsibly.

“Agrarian commons are designed to hold land in perpetuity for farming purposes, and then farmers have long-term leases,” King-Ries said. “And we’re looking for ways for these farmers to create wealth, to build equity, the same way an owner or landowner would without the land being sold at market price, without the land. or itself a commodity. “

CFAC took another approach by creating a website, Farm Link Montana, to help connect new farmers with those retiring and selling their land. Mary Ellis, the new Farm Programs Coordinator for the Coalition’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program, described it as a “kind of matchmaking service.”

“The retired farmer might be able to work with them a bit to help them slowly move on to more acres or enter into some sort of one-time partnership or lease,” Ellis said. “So hopefully that makes it a bit more accessible to newbie farmers who are trying to start an operation. “

Ellis estimates that between two and five matches each year exceed a basic investigation phase. “It seems like a small number, but for our program we see it as quite a success considering all the other factors involved,” she said.

“Field tested. Farmer approved. The program provides grants of up to $ 5,000 per farm to support new farmers as they navigate the early stages of their careers. The coalition also offers small loans for farming operations in partnership with Kiva, a nonprofit organization that funds loans for people creating social impact in their communities.

Zach Brown of the Gallatin County Commission has also worked to help early career farmers facing financial barriers. In 2019, the Montana Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program bill he drafted was enacted. Through this program, the State Department of Agriculture repays up to 50 percent of student loans to young farmers and ranchers, a debt that can be a significant barrier to those who lead a life on the land.

“Basically what it does is just provide an application process where a young farmer or rancher can apply to the state for a student loan assistance program,” Brown said. “So they sort of help pay off their student loans as they get back to the farm and ranch. “

MORGAN ROSE was among the first group to receive loan repayment assistance under the Ministry of Agriculture program. A fourth generation Montana breeder, Rose was born and raised in Dillon, a small town in southwestern Montana with a population of around 5,000. “There was never a moment in my mind where I thought I would do anything other than production farming,” she said.


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