BRUSETT, MONT. - It’s 9 a.m. and the vast Eastern Montana prairie in Casey Coulter’s windshield is giving way to piney hills and the snowcapped Little Rocky Mountains, which the former bank loan officer points to as evidence he’s not crazy.
“When I told friends I was moving they said ‘You’re going off to that country where if your dog runs off you can see him for a week,’ ” Coulter said. “Well, it’s not exactly like that.”
Banking hours are well beyond the reflection of this cowboy’s rear-view mirror. It’s a Saturday and Coulter, 32, has been racing daylight since sunrise. He wears a gray felt Stetson, thick sweater and a beige denim work vest. The banker’s neck tie has been replaced with a red kerchief.
There’s a 1-ton round hay bale spooled up for feeding in the back of his pickup and a sizable herd of Beefmaster cows waiting, pregnant and hungry, around the next bend. Southward, there are 2 inches of ice covering a stock tank that needs busting out so Coulter’s bulls can drink. Then, it’s off to spool more hay and back to the house to where his fiancé, Lacey Cleveland, is making lunch.
This is a story about life on one of the roads not only less traveled but so less traveled it’s literally a cow trail.
Increasingly, the Casey Coulters of the world, college educated and career-minded, are leaving the city to work the land, a move made possible by an improved farm economy and the realization that America desperately needs young farmers and ranchers. The nation’s ability to produce food in the future depends on it, as the average age of the American farmer creeps toward 60.
The average American farmer was 57 years old in 2007, closer to his first Social Security check than his first crop. That number, recorded in the five-year Ag Census by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, has been rising a year to 18 months every census since 1987. If the trend holds true through the 2012 census, which is still under way, the new average age will be nearly 59, this at a time when global demand for food has American farms producing more crops than ever before.
In Montana, one quarter of farmers are 65 or older and outnumber all farmers younger than 45, according to NASS. The trend has groups like the Montana Farm Bureau Federation worried. The Farm Bureau, along with groups like the Montana Stockgrowers Association, to which Coulter is a member, and Montana Grain Growers have for years promoted the farm business through young agriculture groups offering help to newcomers as the percentage of Montana farmers 44 and younger slipped to 18 percent. Only recently have those groups seen significant growth.
“The timing is great and has been for a couple years” said Jake Cummins, Montana Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president. “It’s the love of the land and love of the life that are bringing them back.”
There have always been children interested in returning to the farm. Most are just a few generations removed from sodbuster grandparents and great-grandparents who literally carved an existence from the earth. But the risks of becoming the next link in the legacy have sometimes been too great. Some of the best farm revenue years on record have occurred since 2007, which is renewing interest.
“I know in our area, for our beginning farmer workshop, we expected 35 producers at our last meeting and had 70 young producers show up,” said Lola Raska, MGGA executive vice president.
In Brusett, it’s been decades since the Casey Coulters of the world found their way home in significant number. Parents certainly couldn't blame them. In the 1990s, when Casey was making his post-high school plans, cattle were selling for 68 cents a pound, a price so low it would have made more sense to eat them than sell them, were there not so many.
Seeing stress in his dad’s life during those low market years was all Coulter needed before committing to the civil engineering program at Montana State University in Bozeman. But he kept enrolling in farm classes and finished with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture.
His first job after graduation was on a ranch near Silver Star in Jefferson Valley. Then he hired on at a bank where he worked for four years. The door had always been open for Coulter to return home, maybe work for his grandfather, Kenneth Coulter, but the terms weren’t favorable for a guy who wanted to put his agriculture degree to work.
“Granddad was here at the time and he was leaning on me to come back after college,” Coulter said. “I’d worked with him long enough to know he wanted somebody to come in, work and keep their trap shut.”
The ruts in his well-traveled path subtly guide Coulter’s pickup onward to the next task, as the cowboy wonders aloud about challenges as broad as the Eastern Montana landscape. This is the land of big gambles and even bigger failures. The coulees bear the names of battles, lynchings and failed business ventures. The hillsides are dotted with the sun-bleached cabins of settlers who arrived hopeful, but left poor.
The old timers who survived quickly learned to stick with whatever worked.
One of the biggest differences between producers over 65 and the youngsters coming on is their willingness to try new things. Older farmers are more likely to specialize in particular commodities. Beginning farmers are more likely try many things, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Coulter fits that mold.
He’s raising cattle, but also raising wheat and hay and he has planted “cover crops,” a mix of radishes, turnips and peas that restore the soil while keeping weeds out. He readily admits to coming up with a farm plan and speaking of it with absolute conviction, only to re-think it in a couple of days.
“Young people are more diverse because they’re less scared to think outside the box,” Coulter said. “At some point in your life you hit that state when you don’t want to go outside the lines. I’m not there yet.”
Coulter made his way back to Brusett at the beginning of the recession. His grandfather was fighting cancer and unable to farm. Coulter and his grandmother, Ruth, agreed that if he managed his grandparent’s cattle and kept Ruth in income, he would be able to lease the land and use his grandparents’ machinery on favorable terms.
The cattle Coulter feeds today are still the Beefmaster breed his grandfather favored. It’s a rarely seen breed comprised of Herford, shorthorn and Brahman bloodlines crossed by a Texas rancher in the early 1930s. Ranchers switched to Beefmaster cattle 80 years ago because they were tougher than prickly pear.
Most young farmers couldn’t make it without help from family. The costs of the machinery and land leases leave profit margins dangerously thin. Average profit margins for a Montana farm are 12 percent, according to USDA. Lease and rent costs quickly trim those returns.
In years past, families carried enough farm debt that they didn’t have much to offer children trying to get started. But after five straight years of historically high farm prices, the debt to asset ratio for American farms now is 10.2 percent, the lowest it’s been since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service began collecting the number a half century ago. Such favorable conditions have made it easier for families to consider passing on farms and ranches to their children without saddling the next generation with a legacy of debt.
“In recent years, agriculture has done pretty well. I would surmise that a lot of producers would say debt is not a big part of their operation,” said Vince Smith, Montana State University economist.
Banks are also offering favorable terms for young farmers, namely because they see the need for newcomers, not just young farmers abut minority farmers, as well. Northwest Farm Credit Service launched its “AgVision” loan program specifically for beginning, young and minority producers. The program offers less restrictive underwriting standards, competitive interest rates and waived fees, and then teams borrowers with knowledgeable staff and educational programs. Borrowers get $400 a year for computers, and training.
AgVision has been successful, said Jim Lee a relationship manager at Northwest Farm Credit Services in Billings. The number of loans issued has steadily risen and earlier borrowers are transitioning out.
“On February 28, we had $219 million in loan volume and 1,435 loans,” Lee said. “When people are in the program for six years then they can move out of the AgVision program to a regular portfolio.”
Since the beginning of 2012, roughly $48 million in loan volume attached to 300 loans has graduated out of the program, Lee said. The loans were issued to borrowers in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
At the same time Casey Coulter was making his third feed run of the day, Jennifer Bergin was preparing lunch for the ranch hands on the Melstone ranch she runs with her husband, Bill. Jennifer Bergin, 34, was previously an English teacher before marrying her husband, Bill. Their operation is spread over family trust land established by Bill’s mother, along with acres the Bergins have purchased and acres they lease.
“I know many new producers can’t get started without family. Bill did a lot of hard work when he came back here. His parents helped him to lease the place, but he had to prove himself,” Bergin said. “His mom passed away in 2008. He’s got her portion of the land in a trust, plus his portion, and we own a feedlot.”
The Bergins run 4,500 cattle through their feedlot for customers. They also manage 1,000 pairs of cows and calves and grow corn, sorghum, hay and feed grain on 2,000 irrigated acres. The crops the Bergins grow feed the animals in the feedlot. Bill Bergin's roots to the ranch go back four generations. His father, Bill Sr., is also involved.
The couple has found a niche raising crops on land leased from neighbors from out of the area who don’t farm. Whatever they do, the Bergins watch their expenses closely.
“We kind of do it all,” Bergin said. “One of the things is, Bill is a balance sheet guy. Everything is done by the balance sheet. We look at what we go through in fertilizer, the equipment. We literally keep track of how many hours are on our tractor and bailer.”
Jennifer Bergin said she’s become aware of how many people depend on their operation. Their employees, consumers in the supermarket, their business partners.
“So many people rely on you. There are neighbors we provide with hay. There are neighbors who rely on us to custom feed their cattle. There are the employees that rely on us to pay them for the work they do,” Bergin said. “And you know you don’t want to let your family down, or the generation that came before you.”