A Hard Row to Hoe
As houses replace hayfields, farming the Flathead’s remaining agricultural land becomes increasingly difficult.
Chris Fritz pulls his maroon pickup onto the rutted path next to the old barn. The October morning holds the promise of later warmth, but for now, fog skims the valley as he heads to check on the cows. He and his wife Heidi sent 55 calves to market last week; some of the remaining cows and calves are now pastured out behind the Fritz Corn Maze, which Heidi manages each fall. This morning, Chris throws the cows some cake—as the protein pellets are commonly known—then heads back toward the house to take apart the cart on his air drill and figure out where the seed is gumming up the works, hopefully fairly quickly, because he’s got hay to haul and fields to spray before winter hits. Just like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, Chris is making his living from the land of the Flathead Valley.
For 12,000 years, give or take a millennium, the Flathead Valley has fed its people. The Native Americans hunted, fished, and foraged, then incorporated livestock and crops alongside their traditional ways as the white settlers arrived with seeds and machinery. Along with logging and the railroad, ranching and farming built the valley’s early 20th century economy. But with the recent explosion of growth, our local farmers are facing a slew of challenges.
The first and most obvious is the loss of land to development. Most full-time farmers lease the majority of their land; the Fritzes, for example, own less than 20 percent of the acreage they farm. Farmers build their businesses on the assumption that their leases will continue, but have no actual control over that.
Most full-time farmers lease the majority of their land; the Fritzes, for example, own less than 20 percent of the acreage they farm.
The numbers from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every 5 years, show that farmland in Flathead County decreased 34 percent between 1992 and 2017, from 277,050 acres to 181,882 acres. (Not all of this acreage makes significant contributions to agriculture; these numbers include agricultural plots as small as one acre, often referred to as hobby farms.) Unfortunately, data from the 2022 census, covering the recent spike in development, won’t be available until sometime in 2023. But we’ve all seen the “for sale” signs in fields, indications that unprecedented land prices are tempting some owners to cash in on their holdings, turning a wheat field into houses and eliminating it from a farmer’s acreage.
Development also makes farming more difficult on the remaining land in ways that would never occur to most of us. To start with, logistics. The Fritzes farm fields up to 10 miles north, south, and west of their main acreage on Birch Grove Road, but it’s getting increasingly complicated to move their machinery from one plot of land to another.
“We used to go all the way to Lower Valley,” Chris says. “We had a big chunk down there, it was all irrigated so it [the distance] was worthwhile, but it got too complicated to go through town. There’s a whole bunch of stoplights and now roundabouts. A 100-foot machine that’s 18 feet wide just doesn’t work too well on that sort of stuff.”
He points out that there really aren’t any back roads anymore, no way for him to move that big seeding setup—a tractor pulling an air drill—without interfering with car traffic. On top of that, the increase in rural development makes for more physical neighbors but fewer people who see farmers as a familiar face instead of an impediment to their commute. It’s not uncommon for drivers to pass slow-moving farm machinery on the right, driving almost completely in the ditch, which is dangerous for everyone.
Chris says he’ll travel a little farther than most to farm and use bigger machinery than some, but that there’s good reason for it: the more acreage and diversification they have, the better they’re positioned for the unexpected.
“We’re doing beef, hay, multiple grains, the corn maze,” he explains. “We’ve just got a lot of irons in the fire, trying to optimize each component, but we’re sitting well in case one of them fails. And that tends to happen, in the market or a drought or hail or bugs. And this year it seems like we’ve seen it all,” he laughs drily.
Heidi points out another major advantage of bigger machinery: fewer hours in the field. “Now that he’s running bigger machines, he actually has more family time,” she says. “He’s able to fill the truck [with the harvested crop from the combine] faster, so he’s able to come home and actually have time with his family. I think that’s huge for a farm family, and for any family.”
The downside of machinery upgrades is, of course, the cost. The Fritzes say machinery, whether new or used, has gotten substantially more expensive in the past few years and repair costs have increased right along with it.
“It’s nothing to drop $10,000 per machine for a few minor repairs,” Chris says. “You try to do as much as you can on your own, but if you’re already busy with three other projects…you kind of have to take a machine in to get a look-over every once in a while. Especially if you depend on it that much.”
“The land is so much more productive here, consistently productive, and we’re just putting foundations on it. You can never use that ground again.”
– Chris Fritz, Flathead Valley farmer
Unpredictability factors into every part of farming. Farmers have to develop a gambler’s resilience to all the factors out of their control—betting your annual income on the weather is not a relaxing way to make a living, especially when so many other crucial factors, from fertilizer costs to the price of a bushel of wheat, fluctuate without warning. It’s important to maximize the income on each acre, a task that gets much harder when a field shrinks.
Say, for example, a landowner sells 20 acres out of a 160-acre field, continuing a farmer’s lease on the other 140 acres. Those lost 20 acres aren’t just a 12.5 percent reduction in the potential crop. They also make the remaining acreage more expensive and time-consuming to farm because the farmer now has to maneuver around the more complex boundary lines, also using more chemicals per acre.
“Every time you shrink a field, you’re going to end up double spraying because things don’t line up perfectly,” Chris explains, drawing an L-shaped field on a yellow Post-it note and illustrating the path the tractor now has to follow. “The closer the fences get relative to the amount of field, the more overlap.”
When a large field becomes a smaller field, it can also completely change what a farmer can do with it. For one piece of leased ground, the Fritzes invested in a huge pivot sprinkler, the kind of irrigation machinery that creates the giant circles of green you can see from an airplane. It’s very effective without much labor—Chris just turns it on and programs its path, in contrast to wheel line sprinklers which have to be rolled across a field to the next water valve every 12 hours. Chris initially ran the pivot in a three-quarter circle on this particular field, until the owners put buildings on a small section of the ground. They don’t take up a lot of acreage, but they’re positioned in such a way that he had to reduce the sprinkler to a half circle to keep from also watering the buildings.
“And if they keep building, it’s going to be a quarter circle. A $50,000 investment isn’t worth a quarter circle,” he says, explaining that he’d bought the machinery after he’d farmed that field for more than a decade and, at the time, had a five-year lease on the land. When the owners decided to build, they exercised their right to eliminate the lease and shortened the terms to a year at a time. Irrigation triples the amount of hay this land will grow. Every time he reduces the sprinkler’s path, more of his crop becomes dependent on rain for its moisture, known for good reason as dry land farming.
So what? Some might shrug their shoulders and liken the plight of the farmers to other formerly-dominant industries in the valley, like logging or the Columbia Falls aluminum plant. Fortunes change, industries shift, and while it’s sad and hard for the people caught in the transition, it’s also the way of the world.
The thing is, there’s quite a bit of prime agricultural land in the valley. In 2020, Flathead County produced 72 bushels per acre of winter wheat, compared to an average of 51 bushels per acre for the state as a whole. Thanks to the abundant water resources, farming here is a much better bet, year in and year out, than farming in many other parts of the state. Heidi grew up in the fourth generation of her family’s cattle ranch in central Montana, where farms and ranches run for thousands of acres, but the soil can be marginal and moisture is unpredictable—there isn’t enough water to irrigate, so if the rain doesn’t fall, the wheat doesn’t grow.
“The land is so much more productive here, consistently productive, and we’re just putting foundations on it. You can never use that ground again,” Chris says.
Unbeknownst to many of us who just see dirt as dirt, a plot of land isn’t necessarily uniform-quality soil.
“Flathead County is so unbelievably diverse. The topsoil in the Creston bench area is noted as some of the most productive soil in North America, it’s exceptional,” explains Andy Lybeck, the agronomy manager at CHS in Kalispell. “You get a little closer to the mountains at the east end of the valley, we get sandy, we get acidic, and very quickly move from some of the most productive soil to some of the least productive soils in a matter of a couple miles.”
“Flathead County is so unbelievably diverse. The topsoil in the Creston bench area is noted as some of the most productive soil in North America, it’s exceptional.”
– Andy Lybeck, agronomy manager at CHS in Kalispell
So the north end of a given 20-acre parcel might be thick, rich topsoil while the south is hard-packed clay. It all depends on where the valley’s rivers ebbed and flowed over the millennia, depositing nutrient-rich soil in one place and stripping it away in another. In some places, the water table is also just feet below the surface, perfect for crops but terrible for foundations.
But development happens without much regard to these factors. More than 75% of Flathead County is state or federal land, but the remaining private land has very little land use regulation—less than 30% of the zonable land actually has any zoning regulations on it. Kaitlin Messerly, a planning technician for Flathead County, says that our high percentage of unzoned land is consistent with the rest of Montana. Property rights are the focus; what the best use of the land might be doesn’t figure into the discussion.
“There’s a portion of subdivisions that have to have an open area, but there’s nothing about prime farmland,” she says, referring to the county’s development regulations. “We don’t even take into consideration if it’s prime farmland because it’s someone’s private property and, to a large degree, they’re allowed to do what they want with a piece of prime property.”
“A lot of people are like, ‘We have to protect the farmland!’” Messerly continues. “Well, then you have to go buy the farmland. And you have to choose to swallow that millions and millions of dollars.”
Sunrise over the corn field where the Friz Corn Maze takes place each fall.
A handsome black Angus waits for breakfast.
A setup like this tractor and air drill makes farming faster and more efficient, but is less effective once houses make a big, rectangular field into a smaller, irregularly shaped one.
SCOT CHISOLM LOOKS OUT THE UPSTAIRS WINDOWS OF HIS NEW business venture, Haskill Creek Farms, an upscale mercantile and dispensary. His view is a picturesque hayfield with the slopes of Big Mountain rising in the background. Chisholm and his wife Carrie did exactly what Messerly outlined: they paid $2 million for those 40 acres on Voerman Road, just minutes from downtown Whitefish, originally with the simple intention of preventing it from becoming a subdivision.
“We knew from day one that we weren’t going to develop it,” Chisholm says. “So it was originally in the spirit of conservation.”
The Chisholms quickly realized that while loss of farmland and open spaces were a serious concern in the community, the deeper issue that resonated with them was the weakening of Montana’s local food system. In 1950, the state grew 75% of the food that Montanans ate; today it’s a paltry 3%. Obviously, Montanans of the 1950s didn’t enjoy as much coffee or as many banana-mango smoothies as we do now, but the difference is still staggering.
The result of those conversations is the Save Farmland Fund, Chisholm’s new nonprofit that is working on both agricultural land conservation and farmer development. Jump-started with that 40-acre hayfield, they’re now fleshing out ways to help existing small organic farmers, which could include anything from storage and production facilities to sales and marketing assistance. They also want to set new farmers up for success, by helping them both learn the business of farming and acquire enough land to support a family, which Chisholm says could be as little as 5 acres for a well-run organic farm with good marketing and distribution.
The plans are still very much in development, but Chisholm envisions a “farm hub” on the current acreage with small incubator plots for new farmers and a facility to connect the community with the food, possibly with cooking classes, a community garden, farmer demonstrations, and/or food trucks cooking up the harvest.
He pictures farmers progressing from the incubator plots to larger pieces of land that Save Farmland will strategically purchase, which the farmers can then buy outright over time. He plans to fund those land purchases with donations and private grants, as well as the memberships at Haskill Creek Farms and revenue from the farm hub’s offerings.
Organic vegetable farmers on small plots of land and farmers raising cows and canola on several thousand acres are very different business models, but the valley can support them both, if we choose to make the individual and collective decisions necessary for farming to have a viable future.
Though very few of us could afford to eat entirely local organic produce—and what’s seasonally possible would drastically change our diets—demand for locally grown food is high, and current trends encouraging transparency in our food systems will likely only increase that interest. Every trip to the farmer’s market, CSA (community-supported agriculture) share purchased, and dinner at a restaurant using local produce is an important financial vote for local organic produce.
At the other end of the spectrum, ranching and commodity farming operate on economies of scale that contribute to feeding both the nation and the world. Lybeck explains that advances in seed development and farming techniques, combined with the valley’s water resources, have so far enabled farmers to maintain their production numbers even as farmable acreage in the Flathead has decreased. A bushel of wheat makes 90 loaves of whole-wheat bread or 42 pounds of pasta, and in 2017, Flathead County produced over 1.4 million bushels. That’s enough to make almost 300 million spaghetti dinners.
Not every acre of the valley is prime farmland. But we aren’t going to be able to grow anything at all on an asphalt driveway. Yes, we could get our cucumbers from Mexico and our wheat from Canada, at least right now. But do we really want to continue to consume instead of produce? Preserving farmland so that all local farmers can thrive means making choices other than the “make more, spend less” mindset that our culture pushes. It means paying a little more for local food when we can. It means landowners choosing conservation easements or secure long-term leases for their farmers. It means patience on the roads, understanding that the guy driving that slow-moving tractor wishes even more than you do that he was already in his field, tackling the next step between the kernels of wheat seed and the package of spaghetti noodles.
Photos by: Lauren Lipscomb
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