As Bozeman and its bedroom communities continue to grow, developers have started moving into prime farmland in Gallatin Valley. Farmers and ranchers there are struggling to uphold their way of life, and the valley's scenic views and wildlife corridors could disappear. Renewed funding for conservation easements aims to support the stewards of open land.
On a farm south of Belgrade, Gary Flikkema checks on the calves his grandkids want to raise for 4-H.
“My grandson Dalton, he’s going to buy it, but he wants a family discount," says Flikkema as he bends down to pet the big-eyed, brown and white calf. “He was born 6/24. So we feed them milk and the pellets.”
Flikkema and his two brothers used to run LF Dairy, which their dad started about 60 years ago. It went out of operation in July.
The brothers were ready to retire, but none of their kids wanted to take it on. Like many of the dairy farms around Churchill and Amsterdam, Flikkema says it’s been hard to make a profit. Milk prices have been low, and equipment costs keep going up.
The Flikkemas could easily have sold their 600 acre farm to a developer. The population of Gallatin County has grown 25 percent since 2010, and a lot of it is happening near this farm.
But they didn’t.
“Development is coming really fast from the Belgrade area, and we just thought this is fine agricultural land,” says Flikkema.
They wanted to make sure the land continued to be used for agriculture. So four years ago, the brothers started talking about a conservation easement. It’s a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits how the land is used. Landowners receive a portion of what they would have gotten if they had sold the land on the open market but can continue living on it and pass it onto heirs or rent it out.
The Flikkemas are the first to use recently renewed funding from the Gallatin County Open Lands Program. Last year 62 percent of voters approved a $20 million open space levy to fund the program, which has put around 50,000 acres from over 50 properties into conservation easements since 2000.
Gallatin Valley Land Trust, a non-profit organization based in Bozeman, helps farmers and ranchers with the application process and helped secure one-to-five match funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
GVLT’s Communications and Outreach Director EJ Porth says conservation easements benefit everyone in Gallatin County.
“Our corner of Montana is growing very rapidly, and our task at the Gallatin Valley Land Trust is to protect what makes living here so great. The quality of life that we have is largely due in part to the open landscape that we have,” says Porth.
She says preserving open land provides habitat and migration corridors for wildlife, protects soil and water quality, and supports the future of farming and ranching in Montana.
“This was an agricultural valley from the beginning. We have incredible soils here that we believe really should be growing food. And if we have these multi-generational families that want to keep farming, this is a good way to make sure there’s still land available for them to farm in the future,” Porth says.
Back at the Flikkema farm, Gary sits on a trailer and picks up some pieces of straw. He looks past the green alfalfa fields to the Spanish Peaks on the horizon.
Rachel Cramer: The average farmer is getting closer and closer to retirement, and do you worry about finding people who will be able to farm or ranch in the future?
Garry Flikkema: Yes, yes, I do. They can hardly afford to get into it, and it’s not really profitable right now. It’s difficult, but there are some that are interested. It’s a great family lifestyle for your kids.
The last agricultural census shows the number of farms in the U.S. continues to shrink as the average age of farmers continues to go up. The cost of land and equipment, razor-thin profit margins, and volatile markets all play a role.
But Flikkema hopes saving farmland from subdivisions can keep farming viable in this valley.