Major advances in science and technology are constantly changing the way American farmers carry out their operations. Yet, very few have gone corporate. Despite centuries of change, over 90 percent of farms in the United States remain family- owned, indicating that there is an overwhelming desire for independence in American farming. By no means is it an easy lifestyle to maintain, but many families willing to put in the effort find life on the farm to be incredibly rewarding.
The Sibleys of Nashua are one such family. Operating on 600 irrigated acres, they have diversified their crops in a way that they can live comfortably on their land. “We’ve never got rich farming but it’s a wonderful way to live,” says matriarch Linda Sibley. She and her husband, Duane, were the second generation of Sibleys to run the farm. They took it over from Duane’s father when they married in 1974 and later turned it over to their son, Cole, who currently owns it, keeping the farm in the family for 70 years.
At its start, the Sibley farm was a hay operation. Duane’s father mostly farmed alfalfa hay with wheat as a rotational crop, and he tended a small herd of cattle as well. When Duane and Linda took over, they sold the cattle and focused on hay, even doing custom swathing and baling for neighbors. The entire operation was run by just the two of them until Cole was old enough to help. At ten- years-old, Cole had his own self-propelled baler and would help Linda bale hay while Duane stacked.
Growing up with an appreciation for farming, Cole hoped to have his own farm someday. “After I got out of high school I went to college for computer science but I always knew I wanted to be a farmer,” says Cole. Unfortunately, at that time, it was a pretty hard line of work to get into. Cole continued to help his parents with their operation and picked up a job working for another farmer. Cole’s hope was that the farmer would sell him the farm when he retired, but instead, he sold it to someone else.
Fortunately for Cole, his parents were able to make his dream of owning a farm a reality. “Dad said, ‘If you’re serious about this, we’ll sell you the farm,’” says Cole. Completely dedicated in the endeavor, Cole took over the Sibley farm, becoming the third generation to run it. By then he was married and his wife, Traci, was able to help him bale hay. Duane and Linda “retired,” although they were more than willing to help Cole when needed.
Cole had a good run of the hay operation for many years, but the bad winter of 2007 killed his alfalfa crop and forced him in an interesting new direction. “After the alfalfa crop died it was too late to plant anything else but corn, so I gave that a try,” says Cole. At the time there were only a few people in the area growing corn for silage but none for crop and Cole was unsure how things would pan out. As it so happened, the death of his alfalfa was a blessing in disguise; in 2008 the price of corn boomed. Cole has been growing corn crops ever since, with a number of farmers in the area following suit.
Besides corn and alfalfa, Cole also grows barley and soy beans. He contracts the barley for Anheuser-Busch, the brewing company that produces beers such as Bud Light and Budweiser. The soy beans were an idea he got from his cousin, who began growing them around the time he started growing corn. Cole has found them to be a great rotational crop and he has more- or-less replaced alfalfa with them.
Corn, barley, and soy beans are not very conventional crops for a Montana farmer and Cole says a lot of what makes his farming operation possible is advances in science. “My crops are genetically modified to grow in shorter seasons,” says Cole. With Montana’s erratic weather, growing crops in a shorter amount of time lessens the chances that they’ll be lost to environmental conditions. It may not be ideal to some people, but Cole believes that using science to increase food production is necessary to keeping the world fed. “A lot of people get upset about GMOs and science interfering with farming but there is a lot of misinformation about it,” says Cole. “The way I look at it is if it opens up more opportunities for people to have affordable food, it’s worth pursuing.”
From the biology of his land to the mechanics of his equipment to the economics of crop sales, Cole must have a wide understanding of his farm. Because there is so much knowledge required to understand farming, the occupation can be as mentally demanding as it is physically. Still, the Sibleys feel blessed to have all had a hand in it.
Three houses rest on the land as a testament to the farm’s prosperity. Duane has passed on but Linda still lives in the cottonwood cabin that the two of them built and she continues to help Cole with his responsibilities. Closer to the Missouri River, Cole has his own two-story cabin where he and Traci raise their two daughters – the next generation.
“Raising a family, being your own boss, having a good work ethic, feeding the world – farming is a wonderful lifestyle,” says Linda Sibley, “Everybody should be so lucky.”