In a state with more cows than people, it will come as a shock to no one that agriculture is Montana’s leading industry. Agriculture brings an average of $5.2 billion to the economy annually, but more importantly, it supplies our state, country, and world, with one of our most valuable resources – food.
Several of Montana’s farm and ranch families have been working the land for generations. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 enticed many to the territory, drawing in people of various ethnicities and backgrounds hoping to make a living on 320 acres per homestead. Railroad companies played a role as well; westward expansion was good for business so the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul Railroad encouraged settlement with pamphlets that praised the Treasure State’s fertile soil and delightful summers.
More than 80,000 homesteaders moved into Montana between 1909 and the early 1920s; however, roughly three quarters were met with unsurmountable hardships or left to fight in World War I. By the late 1920s, around 20,000 homesteaders remained.
For those who persisted, the subsequent years weren’t any kinder. Between 1930 and 1940, the state lost 11,500 farms to drought and grasshopper infestations brought on by the drastic climate changes of the Dust Bowl. Rainfall was in short supply and when it did come it was usually too early or too late in the season, with 1936 being the worst year for drought since comparative records began in 1895. Farmers were selling what little wheat they could produce at low prices and had a hard time locating buyers. Ranchers were feeding thistles to their cattle. There were several cases of farm wives canning gophers just so their families could have meat on the table.
Although many farmers were forced off their land in the 1930s, the hardy 17% of the population that remained finally saw better days ahead. The agriculture industry began to rebound as rainfall returned, production increased, and prices for commodities went up. In 1940, Congress passed the Lend- Lease Act (a government financed export program) to send food and war materials to the Allies. (Between 1942 and 1945, the military purchased the equivalent of $282 million worth of Montana’s industrial and agricultural products.)
While World War II brought additional federal funding to the state, the downside was that farm laborers were leaving the agricultural sector in search of other opportunities. Montana lost 16% of its population between 1940 and 1943 as people sought higher paying jobs in city shipyards and factories. These developments, along with the technological advancements of the era, greatly affected agriculture across the country. Suddenly, production was increasing, but with fewer laborers and more machines.
This trend has since continued. Today, less than 2% of Americans feed the rest of us. Advances in technology and science continue to allow Montana’s more than 28,000 farms and ranches to operate more efficiently with a limited number of laborers. Because of this, the United States has some of the lowest food prices among developed countries. Yet, despite the best efforts of agriculturists, hunger is a reality for more than 48 million people in America. One out of every five kids in Montana will struggle with hunger during their childhood and some 795 million people in the world do not have
enough food to lead a healthy, active life. (That’s about one in nine people on earth.) This is why agriculture is constantly evolving to find more efficient ways to feed the maximum number of people. It’s never been an easy job, but it will always be an important one.