Passing the torch: Conservation easement helps transfer ag land to a new generation

Hattie Farrell took advantage of money from a conservation easement to sell her family’s ranch at a reduced cost to Dan Kerslake and his girlfriend, Sari Sundblom. Keeping the land in agricultural use was important to Farrell and the easement allowed her to do just that.

No one knows for certain when this house just off the Burnt Fork Road was built.

The early 1900s seems like anyone’s best guess.

Hattie Farrell will tell you the nails were square when she and her husband, George, tore into its walls for a remodeling project decades ago.

It was already old, but still solid, when the couple moved their three children into it back in 1963. They had fallen in love with Montana and George was ready to try his hand at being a dairyman.

For decades they toiled on the land that they grew to love.

“My kids knew how to work when they left here,” Farrell said, as she relaxed in the kitchen that she knew so well.

Leaning up against the sink, Dan Kerslake smiles as he listens to Farrell talk about the past and all the hard work that comes with a life lived close to the land.

A quick look at him is all it takes to know he understands exactly what she’s talking about. His Levis are covered with dirt, his boots well worn, and the baseball hat covering his head is bleached from the sun.

At the other end of the kitchen table, Kerslake’s girlfriend and partner, Sari Sundblom, sits still dressed in her nurse’s uniform.

“Did you see the geese on the pond?” Sundblom asks.

“There has always been two pair that comes to that pond in the spring,” Farrell replies with smile. “I looked forward to seeing them.”

“One day last week there were five tom turkeys just outside there,” Sundblom said, as she smiles back at Farrell. “And there were geese out there on the field. It was something.”

For a time, they just share: Dreams of what’s to come and memories of what’s gone by.

“There’s a wonderful lily out there if you just can keep the deer off it,” Farrell said.

“The daffodils are sure doing well,” Sundblom replies.

Last March, something unusual happened here on these 93 acres straight east of Stevensville.

A young couple’s dreams of a future living on the land came true entirely because of a woman’s desire to keep her family’s farm intact and working.

Kerslake grew up working on a large cattle ranch in Oregon. Years ago, he decided he wanted to make a go of it himself and so he picked up and moved to the Bitterroot Valley.

He found work doing whatever it was that would pay the bills. And he started his own herd of cattle. The young rancher leased whatever land he could find to graze his herd and grow hay to feed them in the winter and help meet expenses.

And that herd slowly grew.

Somewhere along the way, he met a kindred spirit in a nurse named Sari. With her working right alongside, they continued to move the irrigation pipes, care for the cows and harvest the crops.

All along, Kerslake knew that without a base property that he wouldn’t be able to last forever here in the Bitterroot.

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He faced the challenge that all young farmers and ranchers looking to get a start do. Land prices in the Bitterroot weren’t based on what they would produce in beef or hay.

“I really thought I might have to move somewhere else to make it work,” he said.

But then their path crossed Hattie Farrell’s.

As a young girl, she had grown up a rancher’s daughter on a place that was close to her heart. When her folks passed, the ranch ended up getting subdivided.

“They split it up into 40 acre lots,” Farrell remembered. “It was heart breaking. Once it’s gone, you’ll never get it back.”

Kerslake had leased Farrell’s ground for a time. After awhile, they started to talk about the future of the place.

“I thought it would be so wonderful to be able to turn it over to these nice kids,” she said.

It took a bit of creativity to make that happen.

They met with folks from the Bitter Root Land Trust and learned that by putting the place in a conservation easement, Farrell could get a cash payment for a portion of the development rights that would go away forever.

In turn, that would allow her to sell the land to Kerslake and Sundblom at a reduced cost. And then it took a local banker, Ross Rademacher of Farmers State Bank, to believe in them enough to come up with a loan package that would make it happen.

“Having a local banker was really important,” Kerslake said. “He knew how important a strong agricultural community is to this valley.”

“And he knew us,” Sundblom said. “Maybe the numbers didn’t match, but he knew these two kids would make it work.”

This was the first time that the Bitter Root Land Trust had found itself helping to transition one generation of families to the next.

The trust’s executive director, Gavin Ricklefs, hopes that it’s just the beginning.

In 2012, the average age of an agricultural producer in the United States was 58. Here in the Bitterroot, the average age was 61.

“There is a huge amount of transition coming in ownership of agricultural lands,” Ricklefs said. “In the next 20 years, it’s estimated that 25 percent of all ag operators will retire on a national level. About 70 percent of ag lands will change hands.”

The big question is who will take over that ownership and what will they do with that land.

Farrell doesn’t have to worry that her farm will end up like her parents’.

Around that kitchen table, she listens as the young couple shares their plans to plant new trees, fix up the house and grow their herd of cattle. She smiles when Sundblom talks about changing irrigation pipe on a moonlit night with only the light of a headlamp to guide her way.

“The moon is out. It’s incredibly quiet and peaceful,” Sundblom said. “I keep asking myself – ‘who gets to see this?’”

Farrell looks over at Kerslake and nods.

“Whatever you do, don’t you lose that girl,” she said.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.