Aging Farmers, Vanishing Farmland

As young people struggle to get their footing in Montana’s agriculture industry, development threatens the state’s farming future.

HUGH SPENCER began learning the ins and outs of his family’s poultry farm business in upstate New York while just a child. His father gave him some chicks as a present on his eighth birthday. For the most part, Spencer has been raising chickens ever since.

“I enjoyed the physical labor and the day in, day out aspect of continually doing the chores,” he said. “I loved it. It just fit my personality. I never minded going out to the barn every day to pick up eggs.”

Spencer later migrated out West. In 1981, toward the tail end of his 20s, he and his wife, Vicki, purchased an 80-acre plot of land outside Plains, Montana. Nestled near the state’s western border in Sanders County, the town of Plains — with a population just over a thousand people — hugs the Clark Fork River and is tucked between the Bitterroot Mountains to the south and the Cabinet Mountains to the north.

The husband-and-wife duo built three chicken barns on the property shortly after purchasing the plot, and initially ran a business producing “hackle” — chicken feathers for fly fishing — before shifting their operation into a full-time egg production farm with free ranging chickens. As members of an agricultural cooperative, they sell about 50 percent of their eggs locally, in Sanders County. The rest are distributed across Montana and Idaho.

Some two thirds of Montana’s agricultural workers are over the age of 55.

Throughout the years, business has been good, and farming has provided Spencer with an unparalleled quality of life. “It’s been wonderful,” he said. “I’d do it all over again. I enjoyed the lifestyle. I enjoyed being able to be outdoors a lot. I enjoyed being able to drop things and do things with my kids that were important to them.”

But more than six decades after his father gifted him those first birds, Spencer, now 69, has set his eyes on retirement. As an older farmer in Montana, he is not alone — some two thirds of the state’s agricultural workers are over the age of 55. Many, including Spencer, are trying to sell their farms to fund their golden years. In a booming real estate market, they are finding that young prospective farmers can rarely afford to pay market price for their land. That means that the highest bids often come from developers looking to convert farmland to housing, a reality that has local food and farm advocates worried for the state’s agricultural future.

“Ideally, I’d like to see it stay as a farm. But if somebody comes through with sufficient funds to buy it who has different ideas,” Spencer said, “so be it.”

AGRICULTURE HAS LONG shaped Montana’s identity and its landscape, especially since White settlers began moving into the region in the mid-nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, ranches and farms dotted much of the state’s expansive countryside. Many of these operations were ushered in through the Homestead Acts, which allowed thousands of settlers to lay claim to land stripped from Native American tribes so long as they “improved” it.

The state’s commitment to agriculture was further ingrained in its constitution, which requires cities and counties to not only protect agriculture but also develop and enhance it. To this day, communities rely heavily on grain production and cattle ranching, upholding agriculture as a cornerstone of Montana’s economy and way of life.

Montana lost over 1.6 million acres of farmland between 2012 and 2017.

This farming culture, however, is facing ever-pressing challenges. As an industry, agriculture is marked by uncertainty and unpredictability, its workforce forced to adapt to economic, political, social, and environmental forces outside of their control. Volatile prices and market changes can fracture any sense of economic security, and unforeseen events can quickly curtail routine and production. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, led to severe labor shortages, and climate change is expected to threaten thousands of American agricultural jobs in the coming decades as extreme weather events like drought, flooding, and wildfires become more common.

Ranches and farms have dotted much of Montana’s expansive countryside since the early twentieth century. Development threatens this agricultural heritage, as well as the state’s topsoil. Photo by Craig Dugas.

Since 2020, the number of people flocking to the state has mushroomed as people from around the country, who are now able to work remotely, have been seeking less congested areas, easy access to outdoors recreation. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.

These challenges are compounded by the high costs of doing business and the thin profit margins: Roughly half of America’s two million farms lose money every year, and total farm debt in 2021 was expected to be $443 billion, according to the USDA.

Given all this, perhaps it is no surprise that the number of farmers is declining across the United States. The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2017 Census of Agriculture found that the number of “primary producers” and farms dipped from 2,109,303 to 2,042,220 between 2012 and 2017. According to Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group based in Bozeman and Helena working to improve land management decisions, farm employment in Montana shrank by nearly 20 percent between 1970 and 2019.

“The number of people that are actually able to make a living, and a good one, in direct production agriculture is a shrinking portion of the population,” said Zach Brown, who served three successful terms as a member of the Montana House of Representatives representing Gallatin County from 2014 to 2020 before being elected to the Gallatin County Commission. Brown, who has also worked for a nonprofit focused on the development of Montana’s rural communities. “And the margins are thinner and thinner, he said. “This ultimately means less people on the land and potentially less people in rural communities doing the work.” As aging farmers retire, the number of people farming could shrink even further.

According to the USDA’s 2017 census, more than a third of Montana’s ag producers are 65 or older, with another third closing in on retirement age — between 55 and 64. A similar proportion have hit retirement age across the nation: 40 percent of US farmland is owned by people 65 and older. Many farmers lack heirs interested in taking over the family business. That’s the case for Spencer, whose son sought out a social work degree, and whose daughter is a program coordinator for a children’s therapeutic group home. And even when children are interested in farming, handing down the family operation leaves farmers with nothing to live off in retirement — their assets are tied up in their land and farm.

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All of which means that in order to retire, many farmers must sell. Whom they sell to could make all the difference for Montana’s farming future.

HOUSE AFTER HOUSE juts up against farmland along the suburban fringe of west Kalispell, a city in northwest Montana’s Flathead County with a population just north of 24,000 people. The subdivision is one of many that have been constructed in Montana in recent years amid an ongoing real estate boom that has eaten into the state’s prime agricultural lands.

Montana lost over 1.6 million acres of farmland between 2012 and 2017. It had the third highest loss for any state in the country during that period, though the trend extends beyond its borders: The USDA’s 2017 census revealed a significant loss of farmland throughout the US. Much of this disappearing farmland and ranchland in Montana and elsewhere is paved over and converted to urban uses, lost forever to development. According to the American Farmland Trust, which works to preserve agricultural land and promote environmentally friendly farming, agricultural land in the US is being converted at a rate of 2,000 acres per day.

In places like Kalispell, Montana, rising demand for land for development is driving prices well past their agricultural market value and contributing to a loss of farmland. Across the US, agricultural land is being converted at a rate of 2,000 acres per day. Photo by Hunter D’Antuono, Flathead Beacon.

The impetus behind this rapid rate of land conversion comes down to economics. Land is expensive. Moreover, in Montana specifically, demand for land has grown substantially in recent years. “Almost all land in Montana has been priced higher than ag values for a while now,” said Andrew Rahn, the owner and creator of Montana Land Source, a website that tracks live market statistics of land prices in the state. “Land values have separated from production retention because Montana has kind of been discovered — quote, unquote — for a good while now.”

Data from Montana Land Source shows that Montana has seen a steady rise in the average price-per-acre of land for sale in the last several years. The median sale price in 2019 was $1,087 per acre. In 2021, that number has jumped to $1,640. However, these numbers can vary dramatically. In parts of Montana primed for development, an acre of land can be worth tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. “If it is a property that is easily hooked into city services, we’ve seen land at $100,000-plus an acre for prime-development land. That’s the extreme high,” Rahn said.

A recent influx of out-of-state buyers is exacerbating the situation. That includes those fleeing expensive housing markets in places like California, as well as urbanites looking for luxury homes and hobby ranches.

“All real estate in Montana is sought after by people from all over the country,” said Hermina Harold, the executive director of Trust Montana, a statewide community land trust committed to keeping urban and rural areas livable in the state. “That just creates a situation where a lot of local wage earners and local people are always competing to purchase property with people who may have higher wages and people who want to come here and have a second home or a ranch or another property.”

“There’s a history in Montana of people with outside money coming in and buying things up, and then it kind of dies off for a while, and then it happens again,” added Kristin King-Ries, a private practice attorney representing community land trusts around the Northwest. “So, it’s not new.” But, she noted, “We’re in the middle of it now. Big time. This is the most I’ve seen since I’ve been here, which is 20 years.”

“There’s pressure on some farmers, if they’re in a high development area, to resell their farm for the highest price possible.”

King-Ries was referring to Montana’s pandemic-spurred real estate boom. Since 2020, she said, the number of people flocking to the state has mushroomed as people from around the country, seeking less congested areas and now able to work remotely, have turned their sights on Montana. New arrivals can often afford to pay prices that, for the most part, can’t justify agricultural uses of the land. As a consequence, real estate and land prices in Montana are “skyrocketing,” according to Harold. In Gallatin County, for example, the median housing price rose from $450,000 in January 2020 to $560,000 in January 2021. The construction of new homes has also spiked in the last few decades, a phenomenon particularly noticeable in the western half of the state. Of all the homes in Montana, one quarter were built since 2000.

“In order to retire, there’s pressure on some farmers, if they’re in a high development area, to resell their farm for the highest price possible,” said Harold.

In this market, lack of access to capital can halt younger would-be farmers in their tracks. They simply can’t save enough for a down-payment or find a bank that will give them a loan.

“Development is threatening the future of agriculture,” said Brown. “Land prices and market values are such that agriculture has a very difficult future in these places that are urbanizing.” These trends and their consequences are easily seen in Montana’s more urban regions. But the state’s rural areas are also experiencing the ripple effects.

SPENCER’S SMALL FARM, home to roughly 6,000 chickens, is an anomaly these days. In comparison, one of Spencer’s good friends living in one of Montana’s Hutterite colonies — communal farms operated by German-speaking Anabaptists — recently put up a barn that holds about 75,000 birds.

After decades raising chickens for eggs, Hugh Spencer is eyeing retirement and looking for a buyer for his land. Photos courtesy of Hugh Spencer.

Spencers’s small farm, home to roughly 6,000 chickens, is an anomaly these days of industrial-scale egg farms that house up to 75,000 birds.

“Egg production right now, which is what I’m in, what my father was in, 90-something percent of the eggs [in the country] are produced by 60 company farms,” Spencer said.

This trend towards industrial operations, too, isn’t unique to Montana: At the same time that America is losing family farms to development, large corporate farms are increasingly dominating and consolidating the agricultural sector, making use of centralized processing facilities and producing inexpensive products to be shipped all over the country and abroad. According to data from the USDA, between 2012 and 2017, the number of corporate-owned agriculture operations increased by roughly 10 percent. The number of operations owned by an individual or family decreased by the about the same percent during that period.

Regarding this situation, Spencer is a realist. “I don’t know if it’s a problem. It’s reality,” he said. “Food is still going to be available. Is it going to be from family farms or corporate agriculture? It’s going to be more and more corporate agriculture. Large corporations are increasingly taking over more and more, have been for a long time.”

Still, the transformation of America’s agricultural system is not without consequence. Smaller farm and ranch operations contribute considerably 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 farming diminish.

“When you buy something at Walmart, none of that profit, none of that dollar, stays circulated in our economy, right? It goes to the corporate headquarters,” said Bonnie Buckingham, executive director of the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition (CFAC, a Missoula-based nonprofit working to create a viable local and regional food system in Western Montana. “There’s also community values and community connection. When people are connected to their community through food, through purchasing food from a farmer or taking part in a farmer’s market, those types of activities build stronger connections within the community.”

Smaller operations 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 percent vegetarian diet and raises his birds in a cage-free setting.

When farms like Spencer’s are lost entirely to development, that means an irreversible loss of soil as well. Only a small percentage of the topsoil in Montana is suitable for agriculture. CFAC estimates that just 8 percent of Missoula County’s land base, for example, contains soils that are agriculturally important. That soil was generated over thousands of years — to create a mere three centimeters of topsoil takes approximately a thousand years.

Much of that soil rests along Missoula’s valley floor — exactly the same place real estate developers are eying. If it is paved over, that soil can’t perform key ecological functions like growing food, holding water, and absorbing carbon, an increasingly critical ecosystem service as policy-makers scramble to curb global warming.

“If we don’t preserve what is currently there, then we just lose it. Viable, productive, or [potentially] productive soils, which could be a field that is grazed with horses or just left to grow grass, those soils are preserved in something like that for the future,” said Buckingham. “Whereas if there’s a house on it or industry — if it’s disturbed and subdivided — then we no longer have that ability to grow food on it.”

IN AN ATTEMPT to combat some of the agricultural challenges facing the state, nonprofit organizations and government officials have found innovative ways to step up and take action.

“If we don’t preserve what is currently there, we just lose it.”

Trust Montana, for example, is working to permanently preserve Montana’s farmland. While the organization previously focused primarily on preserving affordable housing, in May of 2020, it partnered with two other organizations — Agrarian Trust and Vilicus Training Institute — to establish the Montana Agrarian Commons. The Commons will acquire conservation easements that restrict non-agricultural development of land, 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 retiring farmers and ranchers who want their land kept in agriculture and stewarded responsibly.

“Agrarian commons are designed to hold land in perpetuity for the use of farming, and then the farmers have long-term leases,” said King-Ries. “And we’re looking for ways for those farmers to be able to build wealth, build equity, just the same way a homeowner or a landowner would without having the land be sold at market prices, without having the land be a commodity itself.”

CFAC has taken another approach, creating a website, Farm Link Montana, to help connect new farmers with retiring ones who are selling their land. Mary Ellis, the new farmer programs coordinator for the coalition’s Beginner Farmer and Rancher Program, described it as a “kind of matchmaking service.”

“The retiring farmer might be able to work with them a little bit on helping them slowly gain access to more acres or do some sort of unique partnership or lease agreement,” Ellis said. “So, it hopefully makes it just a little bit more accessible to those beginning farmers that are trying to start an operation.”

Ellis estimated between two and five matches move beyond a basic inquiry phase each year. “It seems like a small number, but for our program we see that as a pretty big success considering all the other factors in play,” she said.

CFAC’s “Field Tested. Farmer Approved.” program awards grants of up to $5,000 per farm to support new farmers as they navigate the early phases of their careers. The coalition also offers small loans for agricultural operations in partnership with Kiva, a nonprofit that crowdfunds loans for people creating social impact in their communities.

Zach Brown, of the Gallatin County Commission, has similarly worked to help early-career farmers confronted with financial barriers. In 2019, the Montana Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program bill he authored was signed into law. Through the program, the State Department of Agriculture pays off up to 50 percent of young farmers’ and ranchers’ student loans, debt which can be a large hinderance for those pursuing a life on the land.

“Basically, what it does is just provides an application process where a young farmer or rancher can apply to the state for a student loan assistance program,” Brown said. “So, kind of helping repay their student loans as part of their getting back to the farm and ranch process.”

MORGAN ROSE was part of the first group that received loan repayment assistance through the Department of Agriculture program. A fourth-generation Montana rancher, Rose was born and raised in Dillon, a small town in southwest Montana with a population around 5,000. “There’s never been a moment in my mind where I thought I would do anything else besides production agriculture,” she said.

Morgan Rose says student loan repayment assistance she received has been “life changing,” giving her and her husband financial breathing room to ranch. Photos by Kylie Martinell.

Rose and her husband Ty take care of a relative’s ranch in eastern Montana. In return for running the property, they run their own cattle there free of charge.

Rose knows her future — and the future of other small ranchers and farmers in Montana — is far from secure.

After graduating from Montana State University in Bozeman, Rose, along with her husband Ty, fought tooth and nail to make a living in agriculture. They caught a break when a cousin offered them the opportunity to live on a ranch in eastern Montana. In return for running the property, they could run their own cattle there free of charge.

Even with this stroke of good fortune, ranching would have proved financially challenging for Rose had she not received the student loan assistance — she simply wouldn’t have had enough money to begin paying off what she owed. “Life changing is not even an understatement of what that program has done,” she said. “I can’t even put into words what it means, what it does, how much it’s helped out [our] operation, because just having that little bit of financial breathing room is unquantifiable.”

Still, finding financial success has proven to be a difficult journey for Rose and her husband. She readily admitted her future — and the future of other small ranchers and farmers in Montana — is far from secure.

“There are days that I stand out in our cattle corral, and I just thank God every day that I get to do it. I think when you live this lifestyle, that’s all you can ask for, you just have to live it day by day,” Rose said. “When you look down the road, it does get very pessimistic and very scary and ridiculously overwhelming because there aren’t any ‘for-sures.’”

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