Farming and Ranching
Bad years still follow good in Montana agriculture. A series of good years in the 1960s and early 1970s brought prosperity and high land prices. The family ranch and farm began to modernize after borrowing against the inflated real estate values of the land. Then drought hit again, and land values fell. Farmers and ranchers found themselves with unsecured loans. The drought, bad markets, and financial breakdown of the 1970s and 1980s became known as the Farm-Ranch Crisis, an echo of earlier times and of an ongoing cycle.
Government programs in the 1970s and 1980s were designed to help the family farm and ranch but were too easily manipulated by unscrupulous investors. Huge tracts of cheap drought-stricken grazing land were bought up solely for the government payments available for plowing it. The broken land, plowed but not planted, simply drifted on the wind across the prairies while the investment “farmers” pocketed the payments.
Farms and ranches are large and far between in Montana. Those that remain have long histories and many experiences of lean times. Most are still operated as family businesses, with the work and pleasures shared by several generations living together on one farm or ranch site. While during much of the 20th century agriculture became more specialized and reliant on production of only one commodity (usually cattle or wheat), rural Montana is taking on the future with its eyes cast backward. A ranch that raises cattle, sheep, hay, and wheat and keeps chickens and a milk cow not only has diversified products to sell but also goes a long way toward being self-sufficient. The repeated cycle of boom and bust, rain and drought will continue, but after surviving four generations in eastern Montana, farmers and ranchers don’t pretend to be in it for the money.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition