It sounds like a chicken-or-egg conundrum: how does an aspiring farmer cross from wannabe to working the land?
With the average age of America’s farmers steadily climbing and a growing public concern about food security, a new Missoula-based program wants to help keep the area’s agricultural land in agriculture, while bringing a new generation into farming.
Land Link Montana, an offshoot of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, was launched Monday with the goal of matching beginning and relocating farmers and ranchers with landowners who want to see fallow farmlands and vacant ranchlands returned to production through leasing or lease-to-own arrangements.
“Especially in Ravalli and Missoula counties, we’re seeing the rapid loss of our agricultural lands,” Paul Hubbard, Land Link Montana’s coordinator, said. “These lands are being converted into subdivisions and finding their way into the hands of people who don’t grow food.”
In farming, like real estate, timing is key. And, in a number of ways, the timing is right for service like Land Link, Hubbard said.
“We really saw the penny drop when diesel hit $4.50 a gallon,” Hubbard said, adding that, despite a recent lag in fuel costs, cheap oil isn’t something people have much faith in anymore. “When the price was so high, suddenly everybody got it: ‘we can’t continue to rely on other states to ship in our food.’”
As a result, Hubbard said, more people are taking an interest in having a local food economy and this is bringing new blood into the farming community.
“There are new people out there who are interested in getting into agriculture,” Hubbard said. “But beginners struggle because of the high costs of getting started.”
And since the agricultural roots in western Montana run deep, there are farmers out there who would prefer to see their land remain in agriculture, Hubbard said.
Dan Huls, who runs a dairy farm in Corvallis with his brothers, said he hoped the Land Link Montana matching service would help land owners see the financial benefits of keeping the land in farming and ranching instead of selling it for housing development.
Ravalli County’s Right to Farm and Ranch Board, which advises county commissioners on agricultural issues, has been mulling the idea of starting a local match-making plan to help new farmers find leases, Huls said. But once Hubbard made contact with Huls, it was decided that there was no need to have redundant services.
As the land use program coordinator with the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, Hubbard studied agricultural match services that are up and running in other states and then worked to model Land Link in the best way to suit western Montana’s agricultural communities.
Huls said he thought landowners would be interested because the land would continue to produce revenue and would retain its lower ag tax status.
“And in the process, hopefully we can help get some beginning farmers started,” Huls said.
Ethan Smith, who works cultivating and maintaining community farms with Garden City Harvest in Missoula, is one who hopes to make his start.
Smith has a plan to start a commercial blueberry farm. But since both he and his wife work to support their child and his wife’s job is in Missoula, Smith said his start-up needs are fairly specific. He needs farmable land fairly close to town that can support a commercial blueberry farm and a farmer’s market style vegetable plot.
Smith said he hopes the Land Link Montana concept would help him out by connecting him to the farmer who’d worked the land before and could offer helpful insights.
“That’s what’s so important with Land Link,” Smith said. “It takes so much of the guess work out of it.”
If he were able to find the right place this winter, Smith said he could be begin preparing the ground for blueberries come spring. Since it takes a couple of years to achieve a producing farm with a perennial crop, his job would remain important financially.
Hubbard said the program could also help alleviate some of the financial uncertainty from the start-up process by helping connect beginning farmers to the best information and agencies to get themselves off on the right foot.
Hubbard said the benefit to western Montana farmers would go beyond the financial.
“They would get the personal satisfaction that they found a new farmer or rancher and they helped them out to get off to a good start and keep that land in production,” Hubbard said.
LandLinkMontana.org has information for both perspective farmers and land owners.
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.