Written by Amanda Garant, originally published by Prairie Populist
Another day, another lengthy to-do list. That’s the reality for farmers and ranchers. There isn’t enough sunlight in a day to do the hayin’, move the cattle, spray the weeds, and mend the fence (again). And there certainly isn’t spare time to spend worrying about the future of our rural communities. Yet, that’s a topic that occupies the minds of a lot of folks across Montana. Rightfully so.
What has to happen to ensure farmers and ranchers remain on the land, growing and raising our food and stewarding our natural resources?
Answering that question isn’t as easy as changing a serpentine belt on the old Ford. But it needs fixing just the same.
DISCONNECTED FROM OUR HERITAGE
In Montana — where we often brag that there are more cattle than people — it’s hard to remember that farmers and ranchers make up less than two percent of the U.S. population and that the average American is at least three generations removed from agriculture.
“People have lost that connection to food production,” said Stacey Barta, the Rangeland Resources Program Coordinator for the Montana Department of Natural Resource & Conservation (DNRC).
Despite our state’s cowboy heritage and homesteading roots, that disconnect between consumer and producer exists here in Montana. As our farmers and ranchers age, the high price of land makes it tough for folks who weren’t born into ranching families to enter into the business. And as the number of farmers and ranchers dwindles, there’s a growing misunderstanding among the public about what farmers and ranchers do.
“There’s so much more to it than just cows,” said Barta. “Most people — at least in Montana — care about their animals deeply and care about their land even deeper.”
“I think they need support and recognition from groups other than their own ag groups that ranching and farming can be done sustainably,” Barta continued. “And I think they deserve some credit for a lot of the things that private ranchers provide for the state of Montana.”
BRINGING IT BACK TO THE LAND
This year, the DNRC addressed this disconnect through a new summer internship program. The agency modeled the program after one in Wyoming that began in 2012 as a way to give students interested in natural resources hands-on experience in agriculture. The DNRC adapted the program to Montana’s needs and targeted college students with an interest in either working in land management or owning their own ranch one day.
“Those students who don’t come from a ranch background, but will go into conservation, could potentially be decision makers in the future,” said Barta.
With financial support from the local Conservation Districts and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) in Montana, the DNRC gave two students the opportunity to spend 11 weeks on six different ranches across Montana. Megan Monson and Abigail Northrup, two undergraduate students, worked alongside seasoned landowners as they gained hands-on experience in day-to-day ranching operations. They dug into everything from fixing fences to baling hay as they learned what it takes to raise cattle and take care of the land.
The six ranchers who hosted the interns make up the governor-appointed Montana Rangeland Resource Committee, a group that advises the DNRC’s Rangeland Resource Program. The interns traveled from west to east, spending a couple weeks at each ranch.
“You couldn’t have picked a broader array of ranches to tour,” said Barta about the partnering ranches. “There’s nothing like what we just did.”
The interns spent May and June in Western and Central Montana, where they repaired fences damaged by winter storms and moved a lot of cows. They then traveled to old mining country in Deerlodge and Nye, where they monitored the soil and the rangeland, worked with local agency folks, and moved a lot more cows. Because this year was so wet, they didn’t begin haying until the fourth ranch. When they arrived in Eastern Montana toward the end of their internship, the girls discovered the ranches were already on their second and third cuttings. So Megan and Abigail tried their hand at moving bales, while learning to use a swather, baler, and HydraBed.
RANCHING UP CLOSE
Megan Monson, a 20-year-old junior at the University of North Dakota, grew up in a small town in Minnesota and now studies wildlife biology. She received multiple job offers this summer, but chose the new rangeland internship with the DNRC.
“I always wanted to try ranching, but I never had the opportunity,” Megan said. “[The internship] was so much more than what I expected and it was amazing. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Megan and her fellow intern Abigail learned what it’s like to spend every day working the land. They adapted to schedule changes and struggled through tasks that didn’t go as expected. Working alongside seasoned ranchers, they honed their skills to eventually complete tasks independently.
“We could take time off, but I didn’t take much,” Megan explained.
As to be expected, weeds were a common issue across the state, although the type of weed and the method for controlling them differed in each place.
“We did some kind of weed control in every area,” Megan said. “In every place there was thistle.”
Megan sprayed for a variety of weeds, released bugs for thistle and leafy spurge, and even spent two days hand-digging houndstongue.
“It wasn’t fun work, but it had to be done,” she said. “It felt very accomplishing to almost get it done before we left.”
Megan didn’t expect to work quite as much with soil and plants. She spent a lot of time alongside ranchers and local agency folks monitoring the grasses, taking stock of what’s growing, and testing the soil — all critical tasks for ensuring the land stays healthy now and in the future.
As someone who grew up around animals, Megan’s most memorable experiences were the cattle drives. She spoke admirably about a rancher in Nye who could move 100 head aided only by his two dogs. And she proudly told us about her seven-hour cattle drive to move the animals from private pasture up to the nearby public lands during the hottest, buggiest time of the year.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a cattle drive. I think that was one of the best things that I got to do,” said Megan, who noted that the internship changed the way she views the world. “[It] opened my eyes to the ranch world. Now, I look for pastures on the highway. I see fences and ask ‘What is it? Is it pasture? Is it cropland?’”
Stacey Barta and the six ranchers on the Montana Rangeland Resource Committee hope to offer this internship next year as they continue their efforts to connect folks to the agricultural world that is Montana’s past, present, and future. As with most things these days, the longevity of this program depends on their ability to develop partnerships and secure funding.
As for Megan, she’ll be taking her experience with her throughout the rest of college career and beyond. She’s unsure whether she’ll travel around the U.S. or abroad after college, or whether she’ll come back to Montana.
“I can’t be exact (about what I’ll do) because I don’t know where really I’m going to end up,” she said. “For my personal life, I actually might have my own ranch one day.”
No doubt, if and when that day comes, she’ll be ready.
Photos by Megan Monson