By Lochiel Edwards
If agriculture is defined as the cultivation of crops and the husbandry of livestock, then Montana has a relatively short Ag history. The first settlers of the Americas arrived several thousand years ago and, in many areas, grew maize and potatoes and kept livestock. In Montana, however, these early pre-Euro people stayed mostly with the hunter-gatherer model. The various tribes of these first settlers fought frequently over the hunting rights on these northern plains, but very little changed for centuries.
In the midst of our Civil War, gold was discovered in 1862 at Grasshopper Creek in Montana, and everything changed. The Oregon Territory had been mostly sorted out with Britain, Russia and Spain negotiated out of the picture, and Americans were headed west to the Willamette Valley. Gold, of course, has a feverish draw; many of these travelers to the west coast were tempted to jump off and head north into Montana. Jim Bridger, John Bozeman and John Mullan offered routes to
get to the Montana gold fields, and a rudimentary agriculture began. Miners wanted beef and bread, and the military wanted oats for their horses, so demand prompted some to plow a few acres and build a small herd.
Agriculture didn’t really take off in Montana until the Civil War was settled and scores of military officers were reassigned to the west to keep the peace (mostly to solve the Indian dilemma). These veterans of managing risk and men recognized the limitless opportunity spread out before them on the Montana grasslands, with free grazing for cattle and sheep as far as the eye could see and good disciplined labor at hand in their troops. Some of these officers began their epic ranches as a side-hustle while still serving the Army.
The beginning of the end of this free-wheeling open range came in the form of the severe winter of 1886-1887, when these big livestock operations lost more than half their herds. Learning that hay should be put up to carry livestock through tough winter weather, ranchers became more numerous and ran smaller herds. Still, our early ranchers had the cream of this land until railroads and government policies encouraged thousands of would-be farmers to homestead, beginning around 1910.
These came in droves, lured by the promise of 160 or 320 acres to farm and call their own. Good weather and wheat prices greeted them for the first decade, and these young homesteaders worked hard, played hard, and were filled with optimism. But once again, everything changed; two decades of drought, poor grain prices and the Great Depression marked the 1920s and ’30s. Two thirds of these farmers had left by 1939, moving on to the west coast or back east to their roots. Those who stayed were often awakened in the night by an exiting family, avoiding their creditors, begging to get a few dollars for a milk cow or other possessions to finance their journey.
World War II in the 1940s sparked an uptick in demand for grain, and the decades since have been marked by cyclical weather and volatile markets. We lost a great number of farmers and ranchers to the high interest rates of the 1980s and are currently losing more as the Boomer generation naturally runs out of time.
Through all of this, agriculture has learned to work together in promoting new technology, smart business practices and friendly public policy. Those who pay attention to these things are likely to support alliances like Montana Grain Growers Association and Montana Stockgrowers Association. Farm Bureau and Farmers Union round out this abundance mentality of pooling the resources of agriculture for the benefit of all.
The legacy of Montana agriculture is thus: expect volatility in our northern plains weather, expect cyclical demand for the fruits of these prairies, but count on the survivors to find ways to continually increase the productivity of Montana. Individual family legacies are important to this and have in common a culture of raising the next generation with a strong work ethic, resiliency, and optimism. Most of these families are descendants of Montana’s first farmers and ranchers, and they remember the lessons of the past. One of those lessons is to remember to look to the future and expect everything to change.
Lochiel Edwards is a freelance writer and farmer in northern Montana. He can be reached at Locwards@gmail.com.