On the dining room table of her tidy farm house off Springhill Community Road north of Bozeman, Betty Biggs spread out her possessions.

Wet May snow piling up on the stables and fence posts visible through the window, Biggs picked through the documents. Out come several black and white photos of a short, overall-clad man standing beside his horses — Biggs’ grandfather-in-law. Next, a newspaper clipping from a 1976 issue of the Chronicle, profiling Biggs with the headline “‘Farm wife’ — it means a lot to her.”

Finally she pulled from the pile a small scrap of paper with a Bible verse printed on it. It’s from the Book of Isaiah:

“Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.”

Born in Bozeman, Biggs grew up helping her parents on their cattle ranch and farming outfit near what is now the airport. In 1955, when she was 18, Biggs married her husband Arnold and moved out to Springhill, where, in the shadow of the Bridger Mountains, the two farmed wheat, barley, oats and kept a herd of Holsteins for milking.

The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters, but they didn’t slow Biggs down.

“Every morning, she makes breakfast, turns the sheep and chickens out, puts in a load of washing, works in the garden, cleans the shed, does housework, washes the two milking machines — all by 10 a.m., when some city folk still find their eyes sticking together,” reads the faded Chronicle article.

The kids learned to do everything: dress chickens, milk the cows and run the tractor. The years slid by this way, the family and farm growing, making ends meet until the smooth passage of life was jarred by cancer. Arnold’s bones were infected. His once strong back bent onto itself, compressed by the weight of the disease. He lived on for 10 years, until 1997.

“It was really dreadful to watch,” Biggs said. “As I think is true for all farmers and ranchers that are still in the business, they have a passion for what they’re doing. They have the passion to stick it out, whether it hurts physically, mentally or emotionally.”

After her husband’s death, Biggs was forced to scale down her operation. She sold the Holsteins, slowly cutting the number of crops she harvested and animals she kept. Her egg deliveries — 60 dozen each week to houses around Bozeman — dwindled and then stopped altogether.

Her children grew up and moved off the farm, leaving Biggs to sort out the 1,500-acre property.

After a few falls, she had her hip replaced. An operation that would sideline most people seems to have only emboldened the 79-year-old. Biggs spends days with her three ponies (“pasture pets”), working in her garden and hanging around the students who rent her bunkhouse.

“It’s a little harder as years go by, but I manage,” she said.

The production side of the plot is handled, with her help, by Biggs' son, Rob.

“Rob likes technology, but he also likes his feet on the ground. He has the passion and the love for the land and for the animals and the passion of seeing and doing the process,” she said.

But even with Rob by her side, Biggs is concerned not only for the future of her farm, but also the future of the agriculture industry in the Gallatin Valley.

“It isn’t just the ages, it’s the wages. If you see your dad struggle forever making a living…you cannot justify it,” she said. “Eventually this valley will fill in.”

As of 2012, Gallatin County was home to more than 1,100 farmers and ranchers, a number that has remained stable in recent years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. However, the proportion of young farmers in the area has dropped significantly.

In 1997, farmers and ranchers under the age of 45 accounted for around 29 percent of the total in the county. In 2012, that number was down to around 15 percent (183 operators). Operators over the age of 55 now represent nearly 59 percent of the total population, and 250 are older than 70.

The aging farmer demographic is not just a local issue.

“We have an aging farming population. If left unchecked, this could threaten our ability to produce the food we need, and also result in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of working lands that we rely on to clean our air and water,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said at a forum last year.

The average agricultural operator in Gallatin County is almost 58 years old, up nearly five years since 1997.

“We are aware of it and it is a concern,” said John Youngberg, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

The biggest prohibiting factor is cost. The initial investment required to purchase land, equipment and livestock prevents many young people from entering the industry, officials and industry members agreed.

“The cost has gotten to the point where it’s hard. If I’m graduating college and I want to go into production agriculture, the cost of the land is huge, the cost of the equipment is really high and to try to find someone to bankroll that is a problem. You can’t start it on a shoestring anymore,” Youngberg said.

The cost of starting a farm varies wildly, but land prices alone often run into the six-figures.

“Money is the biggest obstacle, for sure,” added Taylor Brown, 21, president of Montana State University’s Collegiate Young Farmers and Ranchers program. “As a young person, you don’t have the funds.”

Brown grew up on a wheat farm in Richey, Montana, but decided to pursue a degree in agricultural education rather than return to work the operation full-time.

“I would like to become involved in production agriculture, the only barrier is the money,” she said.

The Young Farmers and Ranchers organization is one of several programs promoted by the Farm Bureau designed to attract a younger demographic to the industry.

“Obviously this is very important to our organization. We want to make sure agriculture continues to be viable and profitable for young people to go into,” said Sue Ann Streufert, the bureau’s young farmer and rancher coordinator. “A strong, healthy, secure agriculture industry is important to food security. That, to me, is why everyone should be concerned with this. It’s important to all of us who eat.”

In addition to educating students and advocating for the importance of the industry, the bureau works toward legislative changes that would make farming and ranching financially appealing.

Recent changes in real estate tax law have helped ease the burden on those wishing to pass on their land. The USDA also offers loans earmarked for beginning farmers and ranchers.

The state has other supportive organizations like 4-H and Farm Link Montana’s Land Link Program, which connects both beginning and expanding farmers with retiring landowners who want to keep their land in agriculture.

But many agree that the help is not enough.

“The taxes and estate taxes, it just kills you; it’s prohibitive,” said Patti Davis, 63, a lifetime rancher who now manages several operations in the valley. “(Kids) can’t afford to come back. A lot of them would like to come back but I don’t think they can afford to come back. You don’t make a lot of money ranching.”

Davis’ 37-year-old son now runs her Angus cattle in Wyoming. Her two daughters work as a doctor and a teacher.

“It’s a hard life. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, and you have to love it or it will eat you alive,” she said. “But if we run out of farms and ranches, we’re going to run out of food.”

In lieu of legislative assistance, many farmers have turned innovators in order to buoy their operations out of debt.

After meeting her husband at MSU, Jacquie Nelson, 31, helped turn his family ranch — Nelson’s Spring Creek Ranch in Paradise Valley — from a strict livestock operation into a multi-dimensional business entity.

In addition to running cattle, Nelson and her husband, Tucker, own a fly fishing outfitter and shop. The family also operates a B&B-style lodge on its property and stocks its creek with rainbow trout, which it sells to restaurants around the state for extra cash.

The additions were necessary to counterbalance increased cost of living and to support a growing family, which now includes two children, Nelson said.

“I’m not saying it's not profitable, but the land the farmers and ranchers own is worth more than (its) production value,” she said. “For those reasons it’s making it harder for young generations not to just cash in.”

Nelson’s children Morgan, 4, and Ander, 2, are already learning to help out around the ranch. But their mother is unsure about the future of the industry they are set to inherit.

“The price of the land is increasing and the pressure is increasing on farmers and ranchers,” she said. “I don’t see it being a very positive outcome here. There won’t be a lot of farmers and ranchers left.”

So what’s the answer?

“To educate (children) about where their food comes from and how important it is to have land in production. The ideas will keep growing in their head and then maybe someday they will want to be a farmer or rancher,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

On his ranch northwest of Belgrade, Ed Brainard watched as throngs of 9-year-olds learned the finer points of farming and ranching, things like how to recycle water, the importance of bees and ATV safety.

The children, 1,100 fourth-grade students from around the valley, came to the ranch in May as part of the annual Gallatin Farm Fair. In its 12th year, the three-day fair aims to educate and expose young kids to the agriculture industry.

“They might not all grow up to be farmers and ranchers, but there are plenty of other agriculture-related fields,” Brainard said. “A few of them had that dream (to be farmers or ranchers), most of them get a feeling for where their food comes from. A lot of this sticks with them a long time.”

Framing farming and ranching as a valuable profession for children to aspire to is critical, even if most don’t end up in the industry, added Belgrade Chamber of Commerce Director Debe Youngberg, an organizer for the event.

“The valley has become so urbanized that we want kids to get a firsthand experience with a working ranch because they’re so far removed from it,” Debe Youngberg said. “Because they’re not exposed to it, sometimes they only hear bad things about farmers and ranchers.”

Those connected to the industry like Debe Youngberg, Brown and Streufert who work with young farmers and ranchers tend to have a more positive outlook. But even they admit that the future is uncertain at best.

“I’m optimistic, because why not be optimistic,” Streufert said. “I am optimistic that there is a way for people to stay in production agriculture. There’s always going to be a place for agriculture in the Gallatin Valley, it just won’t always look the same.”

Back at her dining room table, Biggs picked up one more sheet of paper. On it, she has written, in flowing cursive, “Which side do you see? The good, bad, the ugly? Or the awesome, the magnificent, the lovely?”

One of the good parts of the industry in which she has spent a lifetime, Biggs said, is the income. The bad is when that income dries up, and the ugly comes when the tractor breaks down, the weather doesn't cooperate or the bank won’t approve a loan.

The awesome, the magnificent and the lovely are all the things that make the work worth it. The family, the connection to the land, the reward of turning hard labor into something beautifully tangible. Despite the hardships, that is what keeps farmers and ranchers coming back, Biggs said.

“I don’t ever want to miss out on the highlight of the harvest. I don’t ever want to stop growing in my mind,” she said. “I’ve told my kids, ‘If you have to sell something when I’m gone, don’t sell this place.’ You have to have a passion and it has to be in your heart. It really has to be in your heart if you’re going to stick it out.”

Kendall can be reached at lkendall@dailychronicle.com. Kendall is on Twitter at @lewdak

Lewis Kendall covers business and the economy for the Chronicle.