By Stacy Bronec, photos by LeRita McKeever
“You think you know what it will be like, but you never know what’s in store for you,” says LeRita McKeever, recalling the early years of marrying a farmer.
LeRita grew up in Bozeman and, after high school, attended college at Montana VoTech in Helena. It was here she met and fell in love with a farmer from Loma. “He was finishing his degree in Ag Mechanics, and he went back and forth a lot on the weekends to farm.” Terry and LeRita met at church in 1980. “He came back for another year to do the Machine Shop & Welding program, but it was mostly to keep dating me.”
Terry planned to return to the farm, and LeRita knew that. “I loved his values. He was different from any other guy I met.”
The couple married in the fall of 1982, and she began her new life on his family’s farm. The couple is the fourth generation – the farm goes back to 1913. Terry and LeRita raised the fifth generation, a son, Kendrick, and a daughter, Angela. Their son attended Montana State University-Billings and earned two degrees in the automotive field. He is back just down the road from the family farm on his own land. Their daughter is an RN in Butte, and her husband is also involved in farming. They have one son.
The first few years they were married, they farmed with Terry’s parents, Lyle and Mary McKeever. Over time, they each created their own corporations, farming separately – but always helping one another when possible.
LeRita and Terry raise mainly wheat, but like many farmers in this area, they have struggled the last few years with drought and grasshoppers. “It’s hard to see your husband so disappointed when he’s done all he can – but it just won’t rain,” she says. Many farmers and ranchers in Chouteau County are hoping and praying for a better season this year – more rain and fewer grasshoppers.
Terry’s family raised commercial seed for years but currently only grows seed under contract for local seed dealers. Lyle always gave out a package of “Incredible” seed corn as a thank- you to his seed customers. People still come to him for the ‘Incredible’ seed corn.
The McKeever family has provided land for research plots for many years. Northern Ag Research Center uses this land for variety trials when developing a new wheat variety. The wheat is tested for baking quality, drought, pest, and disease resistance.
“I learned quickly that farmers wear many hats,” recalls LeRita. “They can fix just about anything.” When many people picture a farmer, they think of someone driving a tractor. But farmers are also mechanics, business owners, truck drivers, and more.
LeRita has also learned to wear many hats over the years, from chauffeur to cook to a parts runner or to drive a piece of equipment. “One time, I ended up in town with my slippers on; I went to get parts and didn’t have time to change.”
The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last fall but have no plans of slowing down. Terry’s father is still farming as well, although at 94, that looks much different today than it did in the past. He loves to garden, which he passed along to his son, Terry.
“Terry loves to put in a big garden. But then, he’ll be gone for most of the summer (farming), and it’s left to me to take care of it,” LeRita laughs. “I love to raise flowers because they’re so beautiful. Gardening is rewarding – but it’s a lot of work. I love to share what we raise.”
A garden wasn’t always possible for them, though. For the first 141⁄2 years of marriage, they hauled water 12 miles from town. “When you turn on the faucet, and nothing comes out – you’ve got to go and get more water,” says LeRita. “We hauled 1,000 gallons at a time. It makes you appreciate what you have.” Eventually, they got on the waterline, making gardening more feasible. LeRita’s favorite thing to grow, besides flowers, is her father-in-law’s “Incredible” seed corn and carrots.
She spends many hours freezing and canning what they don’t eat or share, allowing them to enjoy their spoils through the long winter months. She’s passed those skills to her daughter, who also gardens and cans.
Something LeRita has learned over the years is to be flexible. “You can plan for things, but they don’t always go as you planned,” she says. Many years ago, when she was first adjusting to farm life from the city, she learned to plan as best as she could. “You can’t just run to the store on the way home from work. You need to have the basics on hand when you can’t just pick something up quick from the convenience store.”
Despite the challenges of a rural lifestyle, there are many beautiful things too. LeRita and Terry are one of many farming families in Chouteau County. According to the 2017 census, there were 633 farms in this county, 93% of which were family farms. “It’s a partnership with your husband. You get to work together on many things,” says LeRita.
Farmers also take a lot of pride in their work. For many farmers, their work is right out their window. They go to bed on the farm and wake up on the farm. “There’s pride when you go out and see the amber waves of grain in your fields. And knowing you’re feeding families. There’s great satisfaction in what you raise,” says LeRita.
Agriculture remains the number one industry in Montana. Farmers raise products that feed people worldwide, and many are putting their money back into their communities. “Farmers go into their communities to buy groceries, gas, tires, and supplies,” LeRita says.
In addition to staying busy on their farm, the McKeevers are heavily involved in their community. LeRita has volunteered with the Chouteau County Cancer Support group for eight years. She’s also been a 4-H Fair Judge for sixteen years – judging sewing and textiles. They are both active in their church – Terry is on the Parish Council, and LeRita helps with music each week. For thirty-eight years, Terry’s served on the Loma Memorial Community Hall Board and is also a member of the Chouteau County Extension Advisory Council.
“If I still lived in town, I don’t think my eyes would have been opened to all that goes on in the community – and how important it is to be involved,” she says.
Although farm work and volunteering keep LeRita busy, she also has several jobs. For the last seven years, LeRita’s worked for Treasures State Lifestyles magazine as a sales representative. She enjoys meeting new people and seeing different parts of the state. “I’ve met people I would never have met otherwise,” she says.
For the last six years, she’s also helped harvest honey with Montana Honey in Fort Benton, despite her fear of bees. She also goes to Bozeman to do her brother’s books for his camera business.
She loves music and sewing, two things that got her through the early years of being a farmer’s wife, when she began an unknown life. Now she quilts with a group of women weekly. “Sewing with friends is kind of my therapy,” she says. “It’s the best therapy there is.”
Their kids were involved in 4-H and FFA when they were in school. “I loved that time,” she recalls. Growing up, LeRita wasn’t involved with either of these programs but loved getting to help her kids when they were growing up. Terry and LeRita once chaperoned a group of school kids to the Science Olympiad Trials in Ohio.
One thing LeRita especially appreciates about being in a farming family is “the freedom to choose what’s important to you,” she says. “Time is a big deal. I can help my husband at the drop of a hat.” In addition, she appreciates not having set hours and the time she gets to be with her family, things she wouldn’t be able to do if she worked full-time in town. Or when her kids were growing up, the ability to chaperone them on trips. “The best part of being on the farm is being your own boss. We get to decide what the priorities for the day will be,” she says. “Also, there’s no office drama.”