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Morgan Rose rode horses for as long as she wanted growing up. She woke up early in the morning and basked in life on her parents’ ranch in Dillon.

Rose knew what she wanted to do when she was older: live on a ranch, raise cattle and pursue a career in agriculture.

“You think this lifestyle is all that and a bag of chips,” Rose said.

She thought she understood the hardships of a life in agriculture as she watched her parents’ facial expression when they sold calves. Or when her mother said something wasn’t affordable because it was a bad year in the cattle market. Or when her parents worked long hours every day of the week.

The negatives never deterred Rose, 27, from trying to become a full-time rancher herself. But she needed to sort things out.

“It's definitely a whole different element when you're dealing with it firsthand and having to try and juggle, 'Well I love this lifestyle but how do I make it work?'” Rose said. “It has to be more than love. It's also a business.”

High land prices, looming student loans and an inherently turbulent industry makes up the plight of young farmers and ranchers. The combination of factors has challenged those entering the field. In the meantime, farmers and ranchers are growing older and the generation to replace them is fighting the obstacles in its way.

In 2017, the average age of producers in Montana was 58.2 years old, an increase from 57.0 in 2012, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. If young people don’t return to their family farm, consolidation and corporatization may occur, potentially disrupting local supply chains.

Organizations throughout the state have prioritized encouraging young people to enter the industry. They’ve helped create loan assistance programs, professional development opportunities and other inventive ways for younger people to chase a life in agriculture.

“As the population flows away from rural America, that's going to mean less services available,” said Ben Thomas, Montana Department of Agriculture director. That's with regards to health care, that's with regards to education, that's with regards to the food systems, the grocery stores that serve those rural communities.”

After graduating from Montana State in 2016, Rose returned to Dillon, hoping to make enough money to buy cattle and start a ranch with her husband, Ty.

But they couldn’t quite make ends meet as Morgan worked a combination of office jobs and odd ranch jobs while Ty worked on a ranch.

After two-and-a-half years, a cousin offered them the chance to live on a ranch in Terry, in eastern Montana. The couple is living and running cattle for free in exchange for labor while figuring out how to develop their own sustainable ranching operation.

This summer, Rose was was a recipient in the first round of funding for Montana’s Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program, which was signed into law in 2019. Zach Brown, who represents southwest Bozeman in the state House, wrote the bill.

“We talk about helping young entrepreneurs all the time in technology or in small business in cities,” Brown said, “but we don't put as much energy into thinking about supporting agricultural entrepreneurs. I think that's just as important.”

‘It’s impossible’

Norman Dykstra bought land between Four Corners and Belgrade in 1946. Three generations later, the Dykstras have navigated the land transition process to keep it within the family.

Curt Dykstra, 41, took ownership of the property along with his two siblings, Kristin and Ryan, in 2006. Even though Norman gifted them the land, all three have had to work full-time jobs in addition to running the ranch, mostly raising cattle. Curt, for example, is an electrician. On a typical day, he’ll spend 7 a.m. to around 4 p.m. doing that and then 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. taking care of the cattle.

To create a sustainable model and become more efficient, the family has ditched growing crops and dairy farming. The family also leases about 30% of its 420 acres to ease costs. A gravel pit has been put in on the leased land.

All around the ranch, development is happening. It makes members of the family nervous knowing they’re being surrounded by people without a farmer’s mindset. Regardless of the rich soil in the Bozeman area, it’s more profitable to sell land to developers intending to build houses or commercial space.

But the Dykstras are committed to agriculture because of their love for the way they grew up.

Curt’s advice to farmers and ranchers passing land to the next generation is to have a helpful tax attorney and accountant. That’s how the Dykstras managed to sort through potential financial issues related to the land transition.

“Even if we sold it, we'd never be able to buy what we have. It's impossible,” Curt’s mother Linda Dykstra said. “If we did sell it, we'd have to move out of the valley to even afford anything.”

The average price of an acre of farmland in Montana in 2017 was $916, according to the the USDA. In Gallatin County, it was $3,030, ranking fifth among the state’s 56 counties.

Considering the average size of farms in Gallatin County was 624 acres in 2017, that would cost nearly $2 million.

John Youngberg, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, worked at a John Deere dealership about 35 years ago. Combines then cost around $150,000, he said. Nowadays, they could cost around $500,000.

When asked how a young farmer would start from scratch despite the expensive barriers of entry, Youngberg said, “In this area, it’s impossible.”

As a senior at Montana State in the fall of 2018, Cody Shick helped Brown advocate for the Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program. He attended the Montana Farm Bureau’s annual convention in Billings that November.

Shick sketched out notes breaking down his budget, hoping to refute anyone who said kids made it work back in their day. He explained to people at the convention the cost of tuition, rent, groceries and everything else.

Despite working 15-20 hours a week throughout college and full time in summers, he still graduated with more than $15,000 of student loan debt.

Now 23, the former president of MSU’s Collegiate Young Farmers and Ranchers group is a brewing materials agronomist for Molson Coors. He contracts barley growers in northern Montana and southern Alberta. He may one day return to his family’s operation in eastern Montana, but for now his job is more stable as he pays off loans.

“It's just another ball and chain around your ankle,” Brown said of loans, “as you're trying to enter into this already complicated succession planning conversation on your farm or ranch.”

Since agriculture naturally lends itself to uncertainty from year to year, many aging farmers and ranchers need to create plans to set up their retirement savings. The phrase “Land rich and cash poor” often applies.

Given the financial burdens on younger people, buying land could become daunting.

“Unless you get really, really stinkin' creative,” Brown said.

‘Keeping Montana Montana’

Jake TeSelle used to watch his father grow barley, wheat and alfalfa. He watched how much effort it took to oversee 400 acres. And he was turned off by others dictating the price of those crops.

“I was like, 'Man this sucks. A farm is hard work. I want to go see the world. I want to make good money. I want these other things,'” TeSelle said. “But that's become way less important to me as time's gone on.”

After graduating from Montana State in 2016 with a degree in mechanical engineering and some time spent living the “cubicle life,” TeSelle wanted to return to the family farm south of Bozeman. But the 26-year-old and fifth-generation farmer wanted to come up with a way to be more cost-effective on less acreage.

TeSelle turned to growing hops, partnering with local breweries to create a more streamlined supply chain and pursue a more niche area. He farms on 17 acres focusing on what he called “a high-value specialty crop.”

“I wanted to find something that was profitable,” TeSelle said. “But I didn't want to just hop on the bandwagon and do these big field crops. It's just getting harder and harder to make any money doing that. That's a real issue.”

TeSelle said it doesn’t make much sense to him how someone would start up a farm like his father’s without inheritance. Even then, the generational passing down of land isn’t a guarantee. Consolidation is becoming more frequent. TeSelle said when his father retires, land will likely be leased to neighbors.

While he understands why young people might abandon the farms they grew up on, TeSelle still called it strange to see.

That’s why Brown said he’s committed to “keeping Montana Montana and keeping open lands open.”

His loan assistance program split $100,000 among 12 recipients earlier this summer. Recipients like Rose said it made a significant difference. The state is set to dole out another round of money next spring.

Montana’s Department of Agriculture also offers a bond program to help first-time producers acquire property at lower interest rates. The state offers up to $50,000 in tax deductions associated with the sale of land to a beginning farmer or rancher. Young farmers and ranchers have also leaned on the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for help with loans.

Thomas, the department's director, said these programs are “absolutely essential.”

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Montana Stockgrowers Association have smaller groups dedicated to younger people. They offer professional development opportunities, like training on how to discuss land succession plans with parents.

Jay Bodner, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the increasing age of ranchers is a concern. He added that he doesn’t think the situation is as dire as it may seem since young people may be saving money working jobs in other fields to return to the ranch.

But encouraging young people to go into ranching is a high priority for his organization.

“It's really important to retain these lands as ranch lands. It's a strong part of our economy,” Bodner said. “We have to look at what alternatives do we have out there.”

For the future

As soon as Rose took her last final at MSU, she packed up her 2004 Nissan Xterra with her saddle, skis and corgi named Freno.

She headed home to Dillon to try and eventually launch a ranch on her own. But the journey to running one full time has taken a bit longer than the two-hour drive.

In her application for the Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program, Rose emphasized that she and her husband are building something — something for themselves and their family’s future generations.

The sentiment led to more than $8,000 from the state, freeing Rose and Ty up to buy more cattle or upgrade equipment.

“We're not selfish in thinking this is all for us or this land is only ours,” Rose said. “It's a gift that we want to have the ability to share.”

Now she and her husband are grinding to make that happen, hoping their children don’t run into the same issues they did.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

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